A complete overhaul only improves this neat notebook
Review It was no secret that Apple was planning to update its laptop range this month, but the early betting was on a new, budget-priced MacBook to win over even more consumers to the platform.
Macs have been selling extremely well over the last year or so, edging towards ten per of the market in the US, compared to Apple’s traditional niche of three to five per cent. Much of that increase has been due to the success of the MacBook. So it seemed to make sense when Wall Street analysts – who often get advance warning of new products from Apple – started to predict the arrival of a low-cost model that would help Apple grab even more market share.
Apple's MacBook: the junior MacBook Pro in all but name
True to form, Wall Street got it wrong, and Apple ended up giving the MacBook a major overhaul that actually resulted in a price increase - although it has craftily left itself with one low (ish) cost option still remaining.
The new MacBooks now start at £949, compared to £699 for the previous entry-level model. The £949 MacBook has a 2.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor, with 2GB of 1066MHz DDR 3 memory and a 160GB hard disk. There’s also a second model – the one we tested – that costs £1149 and increases the processor speed to 2.4GHz and the hard disk capacity to 250GB. Both models have the same 13.3in, 1280 x 800 glossy widescreen display.
Those specifications aren’t drastically different from those of the last generation of MacBooks, which raises a question mark over the price increase.
The white plastic is out, in its place a gleaming metal makeover
Apple explains this by saying that the two main requests they have received from MacBook users were for a metal casing and improved graphics performance. In other words, they wanted the MacBook to be more like its big brother, the more powerful and expensive MacBook Pro.
And that’s pretty much what they got - the new MacBook is, in essence, a slightly smaller version of the MacBook Pro. Think of it as the 13in MacBook Pro that sits alongside the new 15.4in MacBook Pro  and the upcoming revamped 17in model. The cheap-and-cheerful white and black plastic shells of the original MacBook have been replaced with a far more tasteful – but expensive – matte-finish aluminium chassis that's virtually identical to that of the new MacBook Pro models also released this is month - although its curved edges also owe something to the design of the ultra-portable MacBook Air.
Unlike the Air, you can easily remove the battery from the MacBook - there's a flip-up catch on the base. Under the hatch, you'll find the battery and the hard drive, which is likewise straightforward to swap for a higher-capcity model or an SSD, should you fancy one. The memory's harder to upgrade - it's under the baseplate, which is held down by half-a-dozen or so screws.
From an aesthetic point of view, the aluminium design is certainly more attractive, and it also allows Apple to streamline the MacBook a bit too. Both size and weight have been trimmed by about ten per cent, with this new model measuring just 2.4cm thick when shut, and weighing a fraction over 2kg. The entire keyboard area is made out of a single piece of aluminium - again, just like the Air - which Apple refers to as a "unibody".
New design, new port array
This helps to keep the weight down, while the rigidity of the single sheet of metal also ensures that the unit is more robust than the light plastic of the previous model. As is so often the case with Apple products, the sheer quality of the design - and you really have to get in your hands to appreciate it - goes a long way to overcoming doubts about the price.
Even so, if the new MacBook is more expensive than its predecessor then it needs to provide more than just good looks. The basic processor speeds haven’t improved much, although increasing the frontside bus speed for both processor and memory to 1GHz does boost performance somewhat. So does the the use of DDR 3, in improvement on the old models' slower DDR 2.
But the real kick in the pants comes from the use of Nvidia’s GeForce 9400M chipset.
The most recent MacBooks used Intel’s integrated GMA X3100 graphics core, part of the chip giant's 965GM chipset. It wasn't bad for general work and decoding DVDs and digital video, but it wasn’t up to the task of playing the latest generation of 3D games. This meant that the MacBook was, frankly, absolutely rubbish as a games machine. We can still remember the time we tried to run Quake Wars on our old white MacBook and managed to get something in the region of one frame per fortnight.
Apple claims that the graphics core integrated into the 9400M is five times faster than the one built into earlier MacBooks – although to some extent the numbers here are almost irrelevant as our white MacBook simply falls flat on its face when we try to load recent games such as Call of Duty 4. So the mere fact that the new MacBook can run games such as this at all is an improvement.
Our Xbench benchmark tests confirm Apple’s claims for the 9400M, indicating that OpenGL 3D graphics performance is indeed several times faster than the integrated graphics of previous models.
Longer bars are better
The good news for users on the move is that the improved performance hasn’t affected battery life too badly. Apple claims a maximum of five hours' use, even with the 802.11n Wi-Fi turned on. As always, that ‘maximum’ rating is a little optimistic, but our own tests didn’t fall far short of this number. We got three full hours playing H.264 movies with the Wi-Fi turned on and the screen brightness turned up full, and performing less demanding tasks such as word processing or surfing the net gave us close to four-and-a-half hours.
The metal casing and improved graphics are the key changes in the new MacBook, but a quick look around the unit reveals a few other differences too. The MacBook’s trackpad has increased in size, swallowing up the button that used to run along the lower edge of the pad. Instead, the entire surface of the trackpad now acts as a button, allowing you to press down on it in order to ‘left-click’ items on the screen.
Made out of glass for an appreciably smoother finish, the new trackpad also allows you to make more extensive use of multi-fingered ‘gestures’, such as pushing upwards with four fingers to activate Mac OS X's Exposé feature, which instantly hides or recalls windows on the Mac desktop. Trying to make gestures using three or four fingers at a time can seem a bit odd at first, but they do speed up many routine tasks for which laptop users might often buy a separate USB mouse. We also like the ability to customise some of these gestures, such as being able to specify one corner of the trackpad that acts as the ‘right-click’ button.
The keyboard has been updated too, with the same low-rise, lozenge-style keys found on the MacBook Air, as well as a backlight that makes the keys glow in the dark. An ambient light sensor can detect when you’re working in a darkened lecture theatre or airline cabin, and will automatically illuminate the keyboard so that you can keep on typing.
A point to note, though: the cheaper of the two new MacBooks lacks the keyboard backlight. Did it really add to much to the machine's bill of materials, Apple?
The standard pair of USB 2.0 ports are still there on the left-hand edge of the unit, along with digital audio inputs and outputs, and a "SuperDrive" multi-format CD/DVD burner. However, Apple’s traditional Firewire port has disappeared. That’s not surprising – the writing has been on the wall for Firewire for some time, although it’s very disappointing for those of us that use Firewire hard disks, or have camcorders with Firewire connectors.
The new trackpad allows the use of multi-finger ‘gestures’
Gone too is the mini DVI monitor port. In its place, there’s a new mini DisplayPort interface for hooking up an external monitor – such as the new 24in monitor that Apple has designed specifically for use with its laptops. The DisplayPort upgrade makes sense - it's the emerging standard for digital computer-monitor connections, but the full-size port isn't exactly large, leaving us wonder whether this is really just another excuse to force folk to buy an adaptor. Certainly, you don't get one in the box.
Again, the new MacBook Pro had the new mini DisplayPort connector, so it’s clear that the two product lines really are starting to merge together now. That’s good news for buyers who might want to hook the laptop up to a larger monitor, perhaps to use the MacBook as their main desktop machine, as it means that they can now get the features they need without having to pay for the more expensive MacBook Pro.
In fact, Apple CEO Steve Jobs – with his fabled ‘reality distortion field’ obviously set to 11 – actually implied that this was a price cut as the MacBook now provides features and performance comparable to that of the MacBook Pro for less than £1000.
The Air influences are clear in the keyboard
There’s a kind of logic to this, as the new MacBook really does blur the once-clear dividing line between Apple’s ‘pro’ and ‘consumer’ laptops. And, to be fair, the price of the new MacBook still compares quite favourably to rival premium-name brands.
A Sony Vaio SZ with a similar specification to the £949 MacBook costs £1199, so the MacBook can genuinely compete in terms of price and performance while also dangling Apple’s stylish design under your nose to tempt you away from rival PC brands.
Stylish, fast - but at too high a price?
It’s certainly an attractive machine and we don’t doubt that many existing MacBook owners will be chomping at the bit to upgrade to the new version. Even so, the fact remains that the ‘low cost’ MacBook now costs the best part of £1000, which will obviously take it beyond the reach of many of the people who made the original MacBook such a huge success in the first place - especially during the tough times of a recession. And that includes key customer groups such as the iPod-toting students that are such an important part of Apple’s user base.
The old ‘white’ MacBook was one of the best selling machines – either desktop or laptop – that Apple has ever released, so killing it off and replacing it with a more expensive model just as the global economy is going down the toilet is a big risk.
So, as we mentioned earlier, Apple has taken out a little market-share insurance policy. Alongside the new metal MacBooks, Apple will continue to sell one of the old ‘white’ MacBook models with 2.1GHz processor, 1GB RAM, 120GB hard disk and the feeble Intel X3100 graphics chip for £719, ensuring that it still has a low-cost model available for people on a tight budget.
Only 2.4cm thick
What this means, in effect, is that the MacBook line has been split in two. The old ‘white’ model is still on sale for about £700, while the new ‘metal’ models establish a new price point for Apple around the £1000 mark. And, of course, the MacBook Pro is still available for people who need top-of-the-range features and performance.
There’s no doubt that the new MacBook knocks spots off its predecessors in terms of both design and performance. However, the increased price does mean that Apple is taking something of a gamble with one of its most successful product lines. We suspect that the gamble will pay off – we really do like the new metal models, and we think punters of all kinds will when they get their hands on one – although the worldwide financial apocalypse may make some people think twice about upgrading their existing MacBook right away.