The MacBook is Apple's first 13-inch laptop and occupies the sweet spot between ultra-portable 12-inch models and desktop replacement 14-inch models. It's also the first time since the launch of the iBook G3 clamshells that the company has released a laptop in two colours. The traditional white model is joined by a more exclusive black offering, which has 20GB of extra hard drive space and a higher price tag. Both are very portable and feature impressive styling, but they have a lot to live up to in the excellent MacBook Pro.
On first impressions, the MacBook is slightly heavier (2.3kg) than laptops of a similar size, but you can't fail to be impressed by its looks. Its attractive matte-black finish is punctuated by a bold, contrasting, back-lit Apple logo on the lid, and its gently curved edges help it stand out from the glut of ugly Windows-based laptops. Our only gripe in this area is the fact that the laptop is very prone to accumulating fingerprints, and gets dirty very quickly.
It's slightly less impressive on the inside, though. Open the magnetically-locked lid and you're greeted by a keyboard that's reminiscent of an old ZX Spectrum computer. The keys are spaced approximately 3mm apart and don't have the sloping edges seen on other laptops. This spacing means the MacBook is unlikely to trap foreign particles between its keys, but the overall aesthetic is somewhat retro.
Despite this, we found the keyboard extraordinarily easy to type on, and the elongated mouse touchpad, which is around twice as long as those on rival laptops, reduces the need to make multiple strokes when moving the mouse cursor. Unfortunately the laptop lacks any dedicated shortcut buttons for media playback, so you'll find yourself relying heavily on the mouse or using multi-button keyboard combinations to access common functions such as playback or volume adjustment.
There are no ports at the rear of the laptop, but there's a slot-loading DVD rewriter on the right side, and a set of input/output ports on the left. There are headphone and mic sockets, two USB ports, a six-pin FireWire port, Mini-DVI, LAN and power ports, all arranged according to size.
Apple's use of a Mini-DVI port helps improve the laptop's looks, but it means you'll need to carry the supplied VGA adaptor if you intend to use the MacBook with an external display. This isn't a major problem, but we were more impressed by the fact that the laptop uses Apple's magnetic (Magsafe) power port. This means the cable easily detaches itself from the laptop should you accidentally trip over it. Also impressive is the power indicator strip on the battery, which lets you see the level of remaining battery power at the touch of a button without powering up the laptop.
The black MacBook uses the same components as the entry-level MacBook Pro. It inherits the Intel 915GM chipset, and a 2GHz Centrino Duo processor, but the base model only comes with a paltry 512MB of (fast) DDR2 (PC2-5300) memory, so we'd recommend you upgrade this to 1GB if you're a demanding user.
Interestingly, the MacBook is the first Apple laptop to feature a glossy 13-inch screen. This is highly reflective and proved difficult to see when using the laptop in direct light. That said, we were impressed by the overall picture quality of the TFT panel. It was bright, had excellent contrast, and produced warm colours.
Its native widescreen resolution of 1,280x800 is also ideal for watching movies on, but you won't be playing any games with it, as the integrated Intel GMA 950 graphics adaptor isn't designed for anything more strenuous than showing movies, presentations or photos. Built into the screen is Apple's iSight webcam. This is great for web conferencing, but it only supports a low resolution of 640x480 pixels, so the picture quality is only about as good as a budget camera phone.
We were slightly disappointed by the level of storage in the MacBook. The top-spec model only comes with a rather paltry 80GB hard drive. This pales in comparison to the 120GB offerings on laptops such as the Sony Vaio VGN-S5VP, so it's not the ideal place to store a large collection of multimedia files. On a related note, the MacBook doesn't have a dual-layer DVD rewriter. It can read dual-layer discs, but is restricted to writing only 4.7GB of data at a time.
The MacBook makes up for this to some degree with strong networking capabilities. It has an integrated 802.11a/b/g wireless adaptor for connecting to Wi-Fi networks, and features an enhanced data rate Bluetooth radio. The laptop also supports 10/100/1000 Ethernet connections, which is up to 10x faster than ordinary LAN networks, but there's no built-in modem, so you'll need a broadband connection or an optional USB modem if you intend to take it online.
Like the 12-inch PowerBook before it, the MacBook's integrated speakers sit at the rear of the unit, projecting audio away from the user. This is strange in itself, but stranger still is the fact that the speakers are covered by the lid of the laptop when open. As a result, the sound quality isn't as good as it could be. We found it was on a par with most other laptops of this size, but that isn't saying much, as most are quite poor.
Like the MacBook Pro, the MacBook has a comprehensive software package. It comes with Mac OS X v.10.4 Tiger, iLife '06 (which features iTunes iPhoto, iMovie HD, iDVD, iWeb and GarageBand), plus a trial version of Microsoft Office 2004. You also get Apple's standard one-year warranty.
The MacBook delivers strong performance in most cases. This is thanks primarily to its use of Intel components, but like all new Intel Macs, it suffers when running applications that weren't designed for this chip. It's slower than the old PowerBooks when running applications such as Photoshop due to its need to translate these applications using Rosetta.
It performed nearly identically to the MacBook Pro in our video-encoding tests, completing the encoding process in 25.5 minutes, versus the Macbook Pro's 25 minutes. Gaming performance was unsurprisingly lacklustre. It ran Doom 3 at a paltry 3.8 frames per second (fps), which is frankly unplayable. We were more impressed by the battery life, however. It lasted 3.8 hours during DVD playback, which is enough to get through a couple of films.
Edited by Michael Parsons
Additional editing by Kate Macefield