Review: Apple 13-Inch MacBook (Generation 3)

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After a little more than a year, Apple's entry-level MacBook line of notebook computers is now in its third generation. Sporting upgrades to wireless networking, CPU performance, and storage capacity, the new models bring near-workstation-class performance to the low end of Apple's lineup while continuing to offer a comprehensive suite of hardware and software features that make it ideal for a wide range of applications, from school and home use all the way up to pro-level content creation.

Hardware Features
We'll start things off with the power of this machine, since I began this article with the fairly bold statement that an entry-level notebook could approach workstation performance.

We have completed a comprehensive suite of benchmarks on this system and will publish the complete results in a separate article later this week. To give you a little preview, here are the results of a comprehensive suite of benchmark tests using Adobe Photoshop. We put the latest MacBook up against it's first-generation predecessors, against a first-generation MacBook Pro (which did not use the Core 2 Duo processor, though current MacBook Pro models do), and against some workstations that may be a little long in the tooth but that nevertheless continue to to considered, if not the most powerful systems currently on the market, at least up there. These include the G5 Quad from Apple (a four-core quad-processor based on the PowerPC G5) and against a four-core 2.21 GHz Opteron workstation. Again, not the most powerful systems available today, but nevertheless systems that you'd expect to trounce an entry-level notebook like the MacBook.

Here are the results.

And here's an explanation of the tests.

  • Test 1: A 4,000 x 4,000-pixel document was created, and on this document I applied 47 commands, including 28 individual filters and 19 image adjustments, layer and canvas transformations, and various other actions.
  • Test 2: A 2,000 x 1,500-pixel document was created, with a variety of commands applied, including several canvas- and layer-based transformations in succession.
  • Test 3: An 800 x 600-pixel document was created, and to that document every filter that ships with Photoshop was applied, with the exception of Reduce Noise and Displace. The test also included transformations, selections, fills, and the manipulation of text.

These tests, of course, tell only a part of the story. These and most of the others we'll publish later this week are pure tests of CPU performance and do not include graphics performance. Like the two generations of 13-inch MacBooks before it, the latest MacBook uses the Intel 950 graphics processor with 64 MB of DDR2 SDRAM shared with main memory. It simply does not compare with workstation-class graphics processing units or higher-end GPUs designed for notebooks.

So, in other words, you would want to bump up from a MacBook if you were working on any seriously OpenGL-intenstive projects in 3D applications, video editing, motion graphics, and the like. However, as the tests we'll publish later this week will show, this doesn't rule out the possibility of using a MacBook in something like a render farm, where CPU performance would be all you'd care about.

Beyond the performance-oriented categories of the MacBook's hardware, there are several upgraded and returning features to recommend this notebook. These include, in the 2.16 GHz white model reviewed here:

  • 120 GB internal SATA drive (5,400 RPM, with sudden motion sensor);
  • 8x SuperDrive with support for double-layer (DVD+R DL/DVD±RW/CD-RW);
  • 1 GB RAM base (667 MHz DDR2 SDRAM, expandable to 2 GB);
  • Built-in iSight camera for video and still image capture (640 x 480 pixels);
  • Gigabit Ethernet;
  • AirPort Extreme 802.11n (draft spec), in addition to backward support for 802.11b and g;
  • Bluetooth 2.0+EDR;
  • One FireWire 400 port;
  • Two USB 2.0 ports;
  • Digital optical audio in and out (mini-Toslink);
  • Analog audio in and out;
  • An IR remote for controlling music, movies, and slideshows; and
  • Mini DVI out (adapters for DVI-I, VGA, and S-video sold separately).

That's a lot of hardware features to cram into a machine selling for $1,199 (including education discount).

Regarding the overall usability and convenience of the system, I find it comfortable to use. I actually prefer the 13.3-inch screen to the larger Mac notebooks for the portability factor, although it has a narrower vertical viewing angle than its higher-end counterparts. And the unit's trackpad is just outstanding, with it's support for gestures for right-clicking, horizontal and vertical scrolling, and the like. (You don't have to worry about the actual clicker having only one button; tapping on the trackpad with two fingers is the equivalent of a right click.)

Any negatives on the hardware front? A few.

I like the overall concept of the MagSafe power adapter, which is on the whole convenient, but I've also had to replace them on two of my older (one-year-old) MacBooks for the reason that they stopped supplying power, probably owing to a loose wire. These were replaced under warranty with no fuss, and I've been more careful since that time, since my warrantees are now expired.

Heat can be an issue. Apple tried to pack as much as possible into a slim form factor (roughly one inch), and, if you work with your notebooks the way I do, running processor-intensive apps, you're going to feel that heat on your lap to the point where, if you're anything like me, you'll be willing to go out and buy a $50, fan-based cooling tray for the machine.

And, finally, I have an update for you on one of the issues I mentioned originally in this review. I had been experiencing erratic behavior with USB hard drives: specifically with USB drives unmounting themselves when the USB connector was jarred up, down, left, or right. But this appears to have been a software issue, one that has now been resolved with an OS update (10.4.10, the successor to 10.4.9), released the same day I posted this review. I never would have chalked up that kind of behavior to software, but I've now tested it with a variety of USB flash drives and standard external drives, and the issue appears to be resolved. That's what you call same-day service!

These are, on the whole, minor annoyances. The MacBook offers a tremendous number of hardware features at a price that comes in slightly lower than comparably equipped notebooks from non-Mac manufacturers. (Of course, there are PC notebooks that come in at less than half the price of the MacBook. They just don't have a lot going for them.)

Software Features
Now, Apple has always been known for its thoughtful approach to software in the sense that what's delivered to the end user is straightforward and elegant. I won't get into a comparison between Mac OS X and Windows. As you can probably gather, I'm a Mac user, and that's what I prefer. But the goal is always to provide the right tool for the right user. If some prefer Windows, great. If some prefer Mac OS X, fantastic. They work together nicely these days. Plus, like all Intel-based Macs, the MacBook can run Windows quite well (as you saw in a couple of the benchmark results above).

I will comment on ease of use. Since this is my first review of a computer for a K-12 audience, I had my seven-year-old daughter set up this MacBook, from unpacking to getting started making comic books. She went through it with a little bit of encouragement, including setting herself up as administrator and giving herself a custom admin icon on the fly during the setup process. The one hurdle she couldn't leap was in setting up wireless access initially. I couldn't either. For some reason, the set-up wizard couldn't figure out my wireless encryption scheme. But we resolved that right after the initial setup using the built-in AirPort utility.

Beyond ease of use, there are several software features tat should be appealing for a K-12 user base. I'll gloss over these briefly; you can find my more detailed reviews of these applications scattered in various publications all over the Internet.

First and foremost, I want to mention GarageBand. This is, in its own right, really a great audio tool--my favorite certainly for anything costing less than about a grand. And it's free. In fact, the only things that stop it from being considered a pro app are the limited number of plugins you can use on any given track (seven at a time per track) and the merely CD-quality supported sample rates. But for education users, probably the most significant thing about GarageBand is that it's the best podcasting tool I've seen to date, with support for ducking, speech enhancement, a huge library of sound effects and various audio samples, recording interviews via iChat, podcast artwork tracks, and up to eight inputs for simultaneous recording (plus one software instrument track, if your podcast for some reason involves a guy on synth). It's slick and easy, and it's a blast to use.

Next up is iDVD. This is a complete DVD authoring tool designed for simplicity and creating DVDs with impact using minimal effort. It's not a pro-level authoring tool like DVD Studio Pro, and it doesn't offer the encoding capabilities of pro-level systems, but it'll certainly get the job done for everything from student projects to event videography applications.

Likewise, iMovie HD is not a pro-level non-linear editor, But for students putting together projects, it's easy to learn, fun to use, and fairly versatile.

Those three are what I consider to be the best of the iLife suite. The MacBook ships with several other software tools (iWeb, iPhoto, etc.), but GarageBand, iDVD, and iMovie stand out as great reasons on their own to invest in a Mac.

Recommendations
Obviously I'm a fan of the MacBook. I bought two myself the day they first came out, and I haven't regretted the decision. The latest generation of MacBooks is even more compelling, with great CPU performance, improved networking capabilities, larger base storage, and larger base RAM. For features, performance, and price, I give it an overall grade of A-. Not perfect, but pretty outstanding.

The MacBook reviewed here sells for $1,199 with an educational discount. As of this writing, Apple is also offering education customers rebate of up to $199 on the purchase of a MacBook with an iPod or iPod Nano through Apple or an authorized Apple Campus Store.

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About the author: David Nagel is the executive editor for 1105 Media's online education technology publications, including THE Journal and Campus Technology. He can be reached at dnagel@1105media.com.

Proposals for articles and tips for news stories, as well as questions and comments about this publication, should be submitted to David Nagel, executive editor, at dnagel@1105media.com.

About the Author

Executive Producer David Nagel heads up the editorial department for 1105 Media's education publications — which include two daily sites, a variety of newsletters and two monthly digital magazines covering technology in both K-12 and higher education.

A 21-year publishing veteran, Nagel has led or contributed to dozens of technology, art and business publications.

He can be reached at dnagel@1105media.com. You can also connect with him on LinkedIn at linkedin.com/profile/view?id=10390192 or follow him on Twitter at @THEJournalDave (K-12) or @CampusTechDave (higher education). A selection of David Nagel's articles can be found on this site.


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