If you can afford it, then it's in a class of its own.
Beautiful aluminum unibody
Improved 3D graphics performance
No overall system speed boost
No FireWire port
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At first glance the new Apple MacBook looks like a cross between its iMac and MacBook Air. It's got the aluminum body and black keyboard reminiscent of the MacBook Air, but it's chunkier and its 13.3-inch (viewable) glossy screen comes complete with an iMac-style black border.
It's available in two product SKUs - a 2.0GHz Intel Core II Duo with 2GB of RAM, and a 160GB hard drive for £949, and a 2.4GHz Intel Core II Duo, also with 2GB of RAM, but with a 250GB hard drive for £1,149. For this review we've got our hands on the 2.4GHz MacBook.
Apple was never known for being generous with its notebook ports, and the new MacBook is no exception. Along with the 8x SuperDrive you get just two USB ports, a Gigabit Ethernet port, Mini DisplayPort (a new industry standard for connecting external monitors), and audio line in and out, but no Firewire ports at all.
That's it. In the cold light of day, it looks stingy, especially compared to cheaper PC laptops, which have many more features. Of course, nobody judges an Apple laptop by comparing its specs to a PC notebook.
Macs offer something more - namely the OS X 10.5 Leopard operating system and the bundled iLife apps, which give Windows Vista a pants down thrashing in terms of features, and then that legendary design flair they're famous for. We don't want to spend this review talking about the benefits of OS X over Windows, so instead let's look at that legendary design flair....
The big design breakthrough this time is the new aluminum unibody. Apple has completely changed the way it manufactures laptops, hewing the main body of the MacBook out of a single piece of aluminum, instead of constructing it from multiple parts. The advantage of Apple's new design process is increased rigidity in the frame at the same time as reducing its weight.
The result is a surprisingly robust and streamlined notebook. It's a thing of beauty: The lines are clean, sharp and crisp. It's slightly lighter than its predecessor, but still fairly hefty at 2.04 kg. The new case design also facilitates easier access to the hard drive than in the previous MacBook.
One simple catch and the back panel is removed giving you access to the battery and hard drive. To get at the RAM slots (which can take up to 4GB of RAM) you need to unscrew the back panel completely, but this is easy enough, and simply requires a small cross-head screwdriver and the removal of eight screws.
The MacBook also seems to emit less heat than previous models. While the underside certainly gets warm, it doesn't reach the soaring temperatures that Apple notebooks have traditionally been known for. We did manage to get the MacBook to overheat once during our testing by resting it on top of another, already warm, notebook to use. This simply resulted in the MacBook going to sleep when it overheated, and was quickly resolved by changing its location.
The chicklet keyboard feels great. There's a decent amount of space surrounding each key and it feels punchy too. In a surprise move, the 2.4GHz MacBook now comes with the backlit ambient light sensing keyboard that was previously only a feature of the MacBook's bigger, more grown up brother, the MacBook Pro.
Once light levels fall by a certain amount the keys light up, so you can type in the dark and see what keys you're pressing. It's not new, but it's still a real 'wow' feature, and a welcome addition to the MacBook range. The real innovation here however has been reserved for the trackpad. Apple has got rid of the button entirely, turning the whole of the trackpad area into one big button, which depresses when you click it.
You can also 'click' by tapping the pad once. To right-click you simply tap the pad using two fingers, or designate the bottom right or left area as a right-click zone. If you've never used this system before it can take a moment or two to familiarise yourself with it, but you become proficient very quickly. We found it totally natural to use, our only criticism being that the very top area of the trackpad can't be depressed.
The new trackpad's surface is made of glass, which feels silky smooth to the touch, and it supports a whole host of mult-touch gestures, so you can rotate pictures, zoom in and out of them with a pinch, scroll up and down with two finger and more. These aren't just gimmicks, either - they're genuinely useful features that make using a notebook easier.
You might have noticed that the processor speeds on the new MacBooks are pretty much the same as the speeds of the old models, and our benchmarks (*) show that nothing has really changed in terms of overall system performance.
But instead of piling on the pounds in the gigahertz arena, Apple has decided to up the anty in the MacBook's much maligned 3D graphics capabilities instead. The MacBook now has an NVIDIA GeForce 9400M graphics processor with 16 parallel processing cores, which Apple claims gives it up to a 4x boost over the previous MacBook in Doom 3 and 5x in Quake 4 over the old Intel GMA X3100.
In real world tests Doom 3 certainly felt more playable on the new MacBook (as opposed to hardly playable at all), although, inexplicably, we couldn't get the sound to work in the game, but we'll just mark that down as a strange anomaly. It clocked up a very healthy 39.7 frames per second in High Quality video mode and a screen resolution of 1024 x768.
When it comes to battery life Apple are quoting 5 hours of "wireless productivity", which, based on our actual usage of the MacBook seems reasonably accurate to us.
Talking of Wi-Fi, we did find that we unexpectedly lost our Airport connection on occasion when using the MacBook, only to have it reconnect after a couple of minutes. This could, potentially, be something to do with the new aluminum case, but the jury is still out on that one. At least the problem certainly didn't affect an older white MacBook connected to the same network.
Finally, let's talk about the backlit LED glass screen. The advantage of LED is that its instant on - there's no warm up time, so as soon as you lift the lid your screen appears.
The matte display is now gone from the MacBook range altogether, and your only option is the glossy screen that has angered certain quarters of the design community because it reflects whatever is behind you, which can be a problem if you're sitting with your back to a window, or have an electric light behind you. Some designers find this distracting, but in our opinion the benefits of the more vibrant screen outweigh any negatives.
A big ask
Before the covers finally came off new aluminum MacBook the rumor mill was in a frenzy over an $800 cut-down portable Mac that would bring Apple's unique ease-of-use and cutting edge design flair to a whole new (and presumably less affluent) audience.
Judging by the breathless comments on just about every web forum known to mankind, that was absolutely what everybody wanted. What it's done instead is almost the exact opposite - a MacBook that's £250 (I)more(/I) expensive than its predecessor, but also a major step up in terms of quality in almost every way, turning a consumer, entry level laptop into something a professional would be more than happy with, barring a few odd little quirks, such as the lack of a FireWire port.
Let's be honest, £949 for a consumer-level laptop is a big ask in these days of the credit crunch and general economic gloom. Apple, as always, is treading its own path, but it has still left the old, white, polycarbonate MacBook hidden away on the back shelf of the Apple Store at £719 as a back-up option, just in case everybody is as cash-strapped as the media says they are.
We think that was a wise decision. The new aluminium MacBook is superior in design and features to the old one, and addresses the 3D graphics problems well, but its not any faster if you don't want to play 3D games, and the price jump is just such a big ask in the days of the £300 notebook that we think that for once Apple might just have misjudged the market.
Time will tell, of course, and in a way we'd love to be proved wrong because its impossible not to love the new MacBook. If you can afford it, then it's in a class of its own.
New Aluminum MacBook 2.4GHz Intel Core 2 Duo, 2GB RAM.
Cinibench (single CPU): 2653
Cinibench (multi CPU): 5155
CPU Test (Xbench): 142
Old white MacBook 2.4GHz Intel Core 2 Duo, 2GB RAM.
Cinibench (single CPU): 2745
Cinibench (multi CPU): 5154
CPU Test (Xbench): 141
3D Graphics benchmark: Doom 3
New Aluminum MacBook 2.4GHz Intel Core 2 Duo, 2GB RAM
Video quality: High quality
Screen size: 1024 x 768
Frames per second: 39.7
Video quality: Medium quality
Screen size: 1024 x 768
Frames per second: 41.4