A useful range of significant updates, particularly the changed graphics engine and arrival of Santa Rosa
Improved graphics card
Takes RAM up to 4GB
Santa Rosa chipset
Longer battery life
No antiglare screen option
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Apple has updated its hot selling MacBook range. Externally, the new MacBooks are identical to the mid-2007 models, except for minor changes to the keyboard. It’s under the surface, though, where the real changes have taken place.
As before, three configurations of MacBook are available. All models have 1GB of RAM as standard, which comes as one stick of 512MB in each available slot. All the MacBooks have 13.3-inch glossy displays with a 1,280x800 resolution and widescreen formats. There is no antiglare option as on the Pro range and the MacBooks have not adopted the energy saving but expensive LED-backlighting now available in the MacBook Pros.
The main hardware specs are the same across the three price points. You get the built-in iSight camera in the lid, one FireWire 400 and two USB ports, a mini-DVI port, 802.11n-enabled AirPort Extreme, Bluetooth, Gigabit Ethernet, built-in speakers, internal mic and Apple Remote. All Macs ship with Leopard and iLife ‘08. Prices remain unchanged: the one reviewed here was the mid-range 2.2GHz white model.
The keyboard has changed slightly. New keys that we first saw on the recent Apple Keyboard, namely the Dashboard and widget shortcut keys, have arrived ([F3] and [F4] respectively). You now get 12 function keys in all, including media browsing buttons ([F7] – [F9]). The layout is identical to the wireless version of the Apple Keyboard.
One excellent blink-and-you’d-miss-it improvement, and an example of the kind of attention you only get from Apple, is a change in sensitivity for the [Caps Lock] button. This button sometimes gets nudged when you type, causing a spray of uppercase letters to appear on screen. It now has to be pressed for a fraction of a second longer than a nudge to be activated.
The prices start to differentiate specifications when you look at the processors and drive types. The low-end entry-level white MacBook, priced at £699, has a Combo drive not a SuperDrive, so no DVD burning, and a 2GHz processor and 80GB hard drive. The mid-priced white MacBook has a 2.2GHz processor, a SuperDrive and a 120GB hard drive.
The top-priced black 2.2GHz MacBook (£949) also has a 2.2GHz processor and SuperDrive but a larger 160GB hard drive. All hard drives are 5,400rpm Serial ATA spec. Optional extras include expanding the drive size on any model to 250GB and extending the RAM to 4GB, up from a possible 3GB on the preceding MacBooks.
Enabling the performance changes is the inclusion of Intel’s Santa Rosa architecture, with faster, better-powered circuitry that can support a heftier graphics card and an expanded amount of RAM. We’ve reviewed and worked with the Santa Rosa platform in other 2007 Macs and commented on the intelligent way it supplies both power and commands between the two cores of the main processor and its fatter bus system (the pipe that traffics data between the processor and other components).
Its arrival in the MacBooks is an expected upgrade and makes for faster, more agile power management and, of course, keeps the MacBooks competitive with changes afoot on non-Apple laptops. It also allows for a graphic card upgrade.
The MacBook’s new graphics cards are Intel’s GMA X3100 cards. These are integrated, meaning they share their RAM with the computer’s main memory. They more than double the amount of RAM used for graphics, up from 64MB to 144MB.
The obvious question, considering how easy it is to run Windows on a Mac, is whether this makes the MacBook a good gaming computer. Well, you can play games on a Mac, but not to the degree that serious gamers demand. People who play top-title computer games look for graphics cards with dedicated rather than shared RAM. Our colleagues on PC Plus tested the card with 3DMark06, the industry benchmark for sizing up graphics engines in general, and returned a score of 416. To put that figure into perspective, top-end cards score around 8,000.
But while the cards won’t supply the frames-per-second rate gamers look for, they do bring immediate improvements to video playback thanks to a few clever additions. Intel Clear VideoTechnology, support for hardware Transform and Lighting (T&L) and programmable shader units are now all inside the MacBooks on these GMA X3100 cards.
Video playback is less processor intensive as a result and actually does look better. The improved quality and performance makes MacBooks a more tempting option for watching HD content, too, especially as the chipset supports HDMI (complete with HDCP).
Performance-wise, the new MacBooks outperformed the ones they replaced by roughly 4% on average during our usual iTunes, Photoshop and duplication tests. This is in line with our experience of the Santa Rosa board and the slim increase in the main processor’s clock speed.
You pay a design premium to buy the black model MacBook over and above the cost of the marginally better components, but generally, if you compare a MacBook to a decent non-Apple competitor, such as an equivalent spec Sony VAIO SZ, Apple’s prices seem very competitive considering what you’re getting in return.
These are very able little machines. Just about everyone here at MacFormat owns one and uses them for everything from running web projects to music editing and graphics work in grown-up commercial applications such as Logic and Photoshop. As a mobile platform for the Mac OS with enough oomph to get most jobs done, they’re thoroughly viable, capable machines. If you need a mobile Mac for 3D work, though, we suggest you buy a MacBook Pro and don’t scrimp on RAM.
Time to upgrade?
Many readers look at new Macs and wonder if it’s time to upgrade. If you recently bought a MacBook and are considering a quick sale on eBay and a subsequent upgrade, our advice is not to bother. The changes are tangible but not startling.
If you want the Mac OS and a graphics card good enough for gaming or 3D graphics editors, you’d be better off buying a second-hand MacBook Pro. But if you’re still tapping away on a PowerBook or iBook, a new MacBook will be a fabulous improvement for your work.
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