MacBook Review

Apple has once again updated its popular consumer laptop. The latest glossy-screened MacBooks look visually identical to their six-month-old siblings, but a number of significant under-the-hood improvements have added new pace to this generation, with no increase in price.

Let’s start with speed: there’s a modest difference if you just look at the numbers. The new high- and mid-range models now clock at 2.2GHz, which slightly tops the previous generation’s 2.16GHz speed. The low-end build is still 2GHz.

The new MacBooks also feature the latest Intel chip architecture, a faster front side bus, an updated graphics processor, and increased RAM capacity – twice that recommended for the previous models.

The new models have been upgraded from the Calistoga chipset architecture to the Santa Rosa architecture. This is important because it provides the platform on which the rest of the improvements depend.

Santa Rosa is the fourth generation Centrino platform (a combination of Intel CPU, mainboard chipset and wireless network interface). Santa Rosa is used in the latest generation of MacBooks and sports many improvements. For example, you can now install up to 4GB of RAM, up from a recommended maximum of 2GB in the previous models (Apple recommends matched RAM pairs for the MacBooks for optimal performance); the front side bus has been increased to 800MHz from 667MHz; and the graphics chip has been updated to the Intel GMA X3100 with 144MB graphics allocation – the last generation had the Intel GMA 950 with 64MB. The MacBook’s new graphics processors don’t have dedicated video RAM, rather they share RAM with the main system memory, just like the previous models.

Another interesting aspect of Santa Rosa is that it features Dynamic Acceleration Technology (DAT) that, according to Intel, enables single-threaded applications to execute faster. DAT turns off one of the CPU cores (there are two inside the Merom Core 2 Duo used in the MacBook) when an application is running that only uses a single core. It then overclocks the remaining core using the same thermal profile as it would for both cores (essentially using the cooling system for two cores to run a single core faster).

Intel has claimed that this would help with games performance, because the chip would be able to switch quickly between single-threaded and multithreaded applications.

This claim is borne out by our Speedmark benchmark testing, which shows a modest increase across the board, but a significant increase in gaming prowess. Thus, at a stroke, the new MacBook has answered one of the common complaints about the system, that it is no good for gaming.

“Probably the thing most people will notice is the graphics controller, for better video capability,” said Mike Trainor, Intel’s chief mobile technology evangelist. That will earn the new platform high marks from video gamers and DVD watchers, since improved colour control will make the monitor show images nearly as vivid as a TV set.

Features
While there’s little to visually distinguish these MacBooks from their May 2007 counterparts, there has been a slight keyboard update. New media control keys are now located along the function key row, the same as in the new iMac keyboards. There’s no embedded keypad, and the Apple symbol is now gone from the Command key. The unit is slightly lighter at 5lbs, as opposed to 5.1lbs.

Otherwise, the new MacBooks have most of the same components as their older counterparts. All models ship with 1GB of RAM, a 13.3-inch glossy widescreen display with a 1,280 x 800 resolution, built-in iSight camera, built-in stereo speakers and microphone, one FireWire 400 and two USB ports, 802.11n-enabled AirPort Extreme, Bluetooth, Gigabit Ethernet, Apple Remote, and the usual slate of Apple software, including the new Leopard operating system and iLife ’08. The MacBook’s 5,400rpm Serial ATA storage ranges from 80GB for the low-end model, to 120GB and 160GB for the mid-range and high-end models. The low-end model has a 24x slot-loading combo drive, while the high-end models both have an 8x slot-loading double-layer SuperDrive.

Performance
Tested with version 5 of Speedmark (a new version of Macworld’s standard performance benchmark test, released to coincide with Leopard) the 2.2GHz MacBooks outpaced the older 2.16GHz models by about 4 per cent. Interestingly, the top of the line models matched or exceeded the 2.2GHz MacBook Pro with overall scores of 185 and 186 compared with the MacBook Pro’s 185.

Gaming scores improved with the new models, reflecting their updated graphics chips. Unreal Tournament 2004 frame rates jumped from 18.5fps for the 2.16GHz white model to 25.4fps for the 2.2GHz black model. In a Quake 4 test, frame rates nearly doubled from 4.5fps to 7.8fps in comparing those same models. Hardcore gamers will still want to steer clear of the MacBook line, but if you play games only occasionally or you tend to play games that are only moderately graphics-processor-intensive, you’ll definitely benefit from the MacBooks’ new graphics chip.

While the new systems took the honours for most of the benchmark tests, there was a lone anomaly – the older mid-range MacBook was a smidge faster at the Photoshop CS3 test than the newer models.

And the new mid-range white unit topped the new black one in the ZIP archive test. While worth noting academically, in reality, these test differentials are insignificant.

Battery life
Battery life was excellent and almost identical to the previous model. We watched a complete movie running off a DVD and it took 3 hours and 23 minutes for a fully charged battery to die (you can watch Doctor Zhivago in its entirety on a flight without having to recharge the MacBook’s battery).

That compares with the 3 hours and 20 minutes watching the same movie on the 2.16GHz white model. Compare that with our initial tests on a 2.2GHz MacBook Pro, which logged 3 hours of DVD playback.

The glossy screen remains the only option, which will remain a problem for some Mac people. The reflective screen tends to work better in darker environments, so is better suited to home use rather than sitting under the bright lights of an office.

It produces much richer colours, but the reflective nature of it also makes it act like a mirror, especially when the screen is showing large areas of black. As it stands, the MacBook Pro is now the only Mac with a built-in screen that has both a glossy and matt option.

Philip Schiller, Apple’s senior president of worldwide product marketing told us: “Our Pro users are used to the anti-glare display on the MacBook Pro and we didn’t want to switch that on them.”

Sadly, we can’t help but end on a sour note because it’s depressing to see Apple’s ‘black tax’ still present on the ridiculously over-priced £949 black MacBook model. Instead you can upgrade the £829 white model to a 160GB hard drive for just £50.01, to match the black model’s specs entirely, saving £70 in the process.

The over-charging for the black case always was, and sadly remains, a ridiculous state of affairs. We will continue to knock a star off this model’s rating until Apple sees sense.

OUR VERDICT

If you bought a Mac laptop recently, this latest MacBook upgrade will cause no reason for despair. However, if you’ve been awaiting the optimal time to refresh an iBook or even an older PowerBook G4, then that time is now. You’ll get plenty of value for your money, with a handy improvement in performance (especially with regards to gaming).

While we like the price of the entry-level MacBook, the lack of SuperDrive may be a problem for some people (although we’re burning fewer DVDs these days, and are starting to think that this may be the model to get), given the value for money it represents.

For a balance of features for your money, the mid-range model with SuperDrive remains the best choice. Avoid the black model unless you’re ‘a fool and his money’. Our advice would be to save yourself £70 by picking up the £829 white model and upgrading it to a 160GB hard drive.

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