MacBook (2006) full review

The announcement of the MacBook came as no surprise – after all we’ve seen a replacement for the aging 12-inch PowerBook G4 coming for months now. That’s not to say the MacBook didn’t surprise us, though. Its swish, stylish design, new-look keyboard, glossy screen and – most of all – Core Duo processor all caused a bit of a stir.

If looks could kill
This is an Apple product, which means it looks gorgeous, so let’s start with the design. Initial reactions were actually somewhat mixed, especially with regards to the new-look keyboard, and comments ranged from:“it’s a bit Fisher Price” to “looks very functional”. The keys are far more spread out than on the MacBook Pro (approximately 5mm between each), which – we have to admit – does give it a certain ‘Speak & Spell’ look. It is, however, much easier to use than the keyboard on the MacBook Pro and has a tactile ‘tap tap tap’ quality that we adore. On the downside, it doesn’t glow automatically in low lighting conditions, which is a bit of a disappointment.

Keyboard aside, there are lots of other striking features on the MacBook. The matte finish on the black model drew lots of positive comments, as did the new wider trackpad, magnetic clip display and – especially – the glossy display.

As with the MacBook Pro iSight is a built-in feature, with a minuscule camera sitting at the top of the screen along with a tiny green indicator light to the right and even smaller microphone socket to the left. FrontRow is also included, although we were dismayed that the remote supplied with our black test model was white, which was the only design stick-in-the-mud. Down at the front-right of the laptop sits a tiny infrared detector alongside the power light.

The speakers are another interesting design touch – they’re placed on the rear of the unit. When the new screen folds around to cover them they are designed to bounce the sound up and off the screen and into your face. We were somewhat sceptical when Apple first explained this, but we listened to it at an extremely low volume with an ear placed up close and it actually does bounce the sound up at you. In fact the sound quality is pretty good for a laptop, although, as ever, don’t expect it to rock the earth.

Gone is the titanium casing and in comes a new polycarbonate enclosure. Along with the new Intel chip this ensures that the whole unit weighs in at just 2.36kg and is just over an inch thick (2.75cm to be exact). Although we should point out that the 12-inch PowerBook weighed less at 2.08kg, it was substantially thicker and its face area was considerably smaller. Indeed the new MacBook is almost 5cm wider than the old 12-inch PowerBook model it replaces, thanks to the all-new widescreen display.

While we’re extremely grateful for this, it does mean that the slim, light MacBook has almost the same face area as the old 15-inch PowerBook and feels much larger than the old 12-inch model. As a result, it doesn’t quite have the same ‘chuck it in your satchel’ feel to it that made the 12-inch so popular with commuters and students. So now we’re hanging on for an even smaller MacBook to come out of Cupertino, maybe the MacBook mini?

Under the hood
Enough about the design, what lies under the bonnet? Well inside the polycarbonate casing sits a fairly high-speed laptop. Perhaps the biggest shock was the inclusion of a Core Duo processor as standard across the range. (We had been expecting the single core from the Mac mini to be included in the new laptop, so getting a Core Duo has really upped the ante on this machine’s power.)

There is, however, still reason to consider a MacBook Pro over this model. Instead of having the ATI Mobility Radeon X1600 graphics card, the MacBook features a more down-to-earth integrated Intel GMA 950 graphics processor with just 64MB of RAM. So what you get is incredibly fast processing power coupled with very little graphical oomph. This rules out using the MacBook for high-end graphics tasks such as games, video effects work and 3D graphics. It does, however, ensure that the processor intensive Rosetta function required by the Intel chip doesn’t grind to a halt.

Apple told us that the removal of the ATI graphics card was done for ‘cost reasons’ and to its credit, the MacBook is ideal for running tasks standard to iLife – home video, photo manipulation, video playback and so on – but it does mean that high-end, graphically demanding tasks are a bit beyond it.

Final Cut users would also be better off buying a MacBook Pro. As for Photoshop, we found it all right for basic photo manipulation, but professional designers working with 500MB graphics files with several layers will want to look to the MacBook Pro – as will users of InDesign.

That’s not to say that this is a bad machine – far from it. In many ways the MacBook is the most perfectly targeted computer we’ve seen from Apple in a long time. If – as we believe it is – the MacBook is aimed at people who want to be creative with the iLife suite, manage their digital life (movies and music), surf the internet from a WiFi hotspot, and do the odd spot of Microsoft Office work, they couldn’t ask for more. They certainly couldn’t ask for it to be done faster.

Another nice little bonus is the upgradability of the machine. Flipping off the battery cover at the back of the machine provides access to the memory sockets and, in a new move, also the hard drive. So you can quickly upgrade the two things on your laptop most likely to need a boost as you require more performance from your machine.

Cheaper speed
As we saw on the MacBook Pro, iLife and other Universal Apple applications run blisteringly fast on the Core Duo processor. We have the full benchmarks in our ‘Which MacBook’ feature (page 72) that tell the whole story, but believe us you’ll notice the difference straight away when moving from an old PowerBook G4.

The new MacBooks performed well overall, but especially in processor-intensive native (ie, running through Rosetta) application tests, where they even outperformed the 1.5GHz 12-inch PowerBook. The MacBooks were three times as fast in our Cinema 4D render test, nearly twice as fast in our Compressor MPEG2 encoding test, and about 1.5 times as fast in our iTunes MP3 encoding test.

What’s interesting is how little performance difference there is between the cheaper 1.83GHz model and the more expensive 2GHz models. This is especially true when using Intel native applications. Users running a lot of Rosetta applications may wish to shell out for the slightly faster processor, but everybody else should stick with the basic model. You’ll understand why when you see the unfortunate price structure Apple has adopted.

The basic unit costs a reasonable £749, and the next step up costs an extra £150, for which you get a SuperDrive and the 2GHz bump in processor speed. The black model, however, costs a whopping £1,028 and has only a slightly larger hard drive than the white model. To put this in perspective: you can purchase the top-of-the-range white model and add the extra hard drive space to it to create exactly the same unit as the black model for £90 less. It would appear that Apple is charging £90 just for a black case!

We would argue, on principle, that a black case isn’t worth £90; but then we do prefer the white case. Apple can go on about how stylish the matte casing is, and how they’ve ensured that all the ports are black to match the black casing; but at the end of the day it still looks a bit too much like every other PC laptop on the market. The white model, however, screams Apple Mac user at everyone in sight.

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