Editors' Note: As of October 20, 2009, the MacBook reviewed here has been replaced by an updated model.
In our original review, we mistakenly stated the price of an extended warranty for the MacBook. The cost is $249. We regret the error. (6/1/06)
Billed as a replacement to both the iBook and the 12-inch PowerBook, the 13.3-inch MacBook offers a great compromise between size and portability for a reasonable price (the baseline white model costs $1,099). Even better, that low cost gets you a number of features also found on the more expensive MacBook Pro--notably, Core Duo processors, digital audio in/out, and the groovy MagSafe power adapter. Its performance doesn't match that of the MacBook Pro, which is outfitted with discrete graphics and more memory, but the MacBook's combination of design, features, and software significantly narrows the value gap between Apple laptops and the PC competition.
Measuring about an inch thick, 12.8 inches wide, and just shy of 9 inches deep, the MacBook hits the sweet spot between portability and usability, much like the Sony VAIO SZ. At 5.1 pounds, the MacBook weighs about half a pound more than the 12-inch PowerBook and 1.3 pounds more than the VAIO SZ. With its AC adapter, the MacBook hits the road at 6 pounds--portable, though not exactly lightweight.
In a nice touch, the MacBook uses magnets instead of a physical latch to hold the lid closed. A small notch on the front edge affords just enough room for your finger, and the lid and case separate very nicely. Lifting the lid reveals a gray keyboard deck, which should hide dirt better than the iBook's pure white interior. The keys themselves are flat on top with rounded edges, and they are spaced farther apart than the MacBook Pro's and PowerBook's. (Apple tells us this design makes it more difficult to pop off the key caps, a useful feature for a laptop that is likely to see heavy use in schools.) With about half as much travel as other Apple keyboards, the MacBook's keyboard offers a considerably firmer and not uncomfortable typing experience. Below the keyboard sit a huge touch pad and single mouse button (at 4 inches wide and 2.8 inches high, they're about the size of a Treo 650). We love the touch pad's two-finger scrolling functionality.
Like the 12-inch PowerBook, the MacBook's speakers sit along the back edge underneath the screen hinge (when the lid is open) and somehow still deliver rich, multilayered sound. It's not as loud or powerful as what you'll get from the Dell Inspiron E1405, for example, but it's crisp, clear, and decent.
The MacBook's 13.3-inch wide-aspect display is just about the perfect size: it's large enough for watching movies or working with two windows open side by side, yet small enough to keep open on an airplane tray table or your lap. It's also incredibly bright (an above average 230cd/m² on our Minolta luminance meter), and its 1,280x800 native resolution offers the perfect amount of detail for the size of the display. In a first for an Apple laptop, the MacBook offers a glossy screen for starker contrast and more intense colors, though in bright environments, the glossy coating results in more glare.
For a laptop that starts at $1,099, the MacBook offers some high-end ports and connections. You'll find DVI/VGA output (though both require an adapter that is sold separately), digital audio in and out, and a slot-loading DVD burner. In addition there are FireWire 400 and two USB 2.0 ports, all side by side (we'd prefer they were spaced out a bit to avoid cable crowding), as well as an integrated iSight camera above the screen. Networking options include 802.11g Wi-Fi, Gigabit Ethernet, and Bluetooth 2.0+EDR (dial-up users will need to purchase an external modem). Missing from the mix are an ExpressCard slot and an integrated reader for flash memory cards--both of which are found on the $1,400 Sony VAIO SZ. Every MacBook runs on Mac OS X Tiger and includes the robust iLife '06 suite as well as Front Row media center software that can be controlled with the included Apple Remote. In addition, the beta of Boot Camp lets you turn the MacBook into a dual-boot machine that runs full versions of Mac OS X and Windows XP (though you need to purchase a full version of Windows separately).
We tested the $1,299 configuration of the MacBook (white), which includes a faster processor (2GHz Intel Core Duo processor) and the DVD burner, but otherwise shares the same basic specs as the base configuration, including 512MB of 667MHz RAM; a 60GB, 5,400rpm hard drive; and integrated Intel graphics. The black model is nearly identical to the step-up system we tested, except that it comes with a larger-capacity hard drive (80GB, 5,400rpm) and costs $200 more.
For everyday Web surfing and working with native applications such as iLife, the new MacBook provides more than enough muscle, though it is no gaming powerhouse. CNET Labs compared performance of the MacBook to older Apple laptops running the PowerPC processor, as well as to the 2GHz Core Duo-based MacBook Pro. Unsurprisingly, the MacBook's integrated graphics were insufficient for gaming--it trailed far behind the MacBook Pro's discrete ATI graphics on our games test--yet the MacBook sped ahead of the MacBook Pro on our iTunes MP3-encoding test.
Like all new Intel-based Macs, the MacBook is, for now at least, at a disadvantage when running applications that weren't designed for the new chip. The MacBook plodded behind even the previous-generation Apple laptops in our Photoshop and Sorenson Squeeze tests, which currently require the Rosetta translation software to run on Intel-based Macs. We expect this discrepancy to disappear once software publishers release more so-called universal binary apps; however, we recommend checking if your applications are or will soon be Intel compatible before buying a new Apple system. In our DVD battery drain tests, the MacBook held out for 3 hours, 48 minutes--slightly longer than average for a laptop of its size.
Apple backs the MacBook with an industry-standard one-year warranty that covers parts and labor, but toll-free telephone support is limited to a mere 90 days--well short of what you'll typically find on the PC side--unless you purchase the $249 AppleCare Protection Plan, which extends phone support and repair coverage to three years. Similar three-year warranties for PCs typically cost around $200. Apple does offer online troubleshooting, and its Web forums are a good resource for tips from other users and to download the product's printed manual.
(Shorter bars indicate faster performance)