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Apple MacBook (aluminium 2008 edition) review: Apple MacBook (aluminium 2008 edition)

There's a new breed of MacBook in town, and as you're about to learn, it's more attractive, more powerful and more expensive than previous models. The new design has much in common with the aluminium-swathed MacBook Pro in design, but sports a smaller 13.3-inch screen. Prices start at £949 for the entry-level MacBook, up to £1,149 for the slightly enhanced version. The previous MacBook -- now known as the white MacBook -- can be bought for £719. All are available now from the Apple Store.

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Apple MacBook (aluminium 2008 edition)

Pricing Not Available

The Good

Styling; build quality; backlit keyboard; mouse trackpad.

The Bad

Pricey; only two USB ports.

The Bottom Line

The new MacBook is, as we all expected, very good but very expensive. We can see where all the money is going, though -- it's an absolutely gorgeous piece of engineering you'll spend hours just looking at. If you've got the cash, we'd thoroughly recommend it. If not, you'll get more for your money buying a Windows machine

Design
The new MacBook is as attractive and as desirable as you'd expect from a new Apple product. Before we'd even extracted it from the packaging -- which Apple says contains less wasted materials than ever -- a crowd of CNET's finest had huddled around it.

Who could blame them? The new MacBook looks like a curious hybrid of the previous MacBook Pro and the MacBook Air. It is, we're told, carved from a solid block of aluminium, which is lovingly hollowed out before all the high-tech gubbins are placed inside. All that metal means the MacBook is a fairly heavy beast. It tips the scales at 2.04kg, but that -- believe it or not -- is actually lighter than its 2.14kg predecessor.

The MacBook's lid is as understated as ever. Just a lone, backlit Apple logo takes centre stage. Lift the lid -- the catch is magnetic -- and you're greeted by a silver and black colour scheme that's very easy on the eye. Most of the system is a silvery aluminium, while the keyboard buttons and screen bezel are black. Unlike Windows PCs, there are no unsightly stickers declaring how much RAM is installed, or what type of CPU is inside. The 'MacBook' logo below the screen says it all.

Apple is always bleating on about how easy its machines are to use, and the latest MacBook benefits from this philosophy. The keyboard is exceptionally comfortable and is backlit so the letters automatically illuminate in the dark. The mouse trackpad meanwhile, is now 39 per cent larger than on previous MacBooks and is made from glass, so it feels fantastically smooth to the touch. As before, it's gesture-sensitive, so you can make pinching and stretching motions to zoom in or out -- and there's a new four-finger upward swipe action that launches Expose.

There are no selector buttons below the trackpad. That's because the entire trackpad can be used as a button. You can't tap it, but you can physically push down until you feel it give slightly, as a membrane below the pad registers your touch. It feels a little unusual to begin with, but it soon begins to make perfect sense -- and the fact your thumb isn't permanently poised over a button may even reduce the chances of repetitive strain injury. Right clicks are registered by pressing down with two fingers. If this is too annoying, the trackpad has programmable hot zones, so you can assign a specific spot as your right click area.

All the MacBook's input ports are logically arranged on the left side of the laptop. Running from back to front, there's a MagSafe AC power connector, two USB ports, a DisplayPort video output, audio line-in and line-out, and a Kensington lock for securing the laptop to a desk. Just ahead of that is a neat battery-level indicator. Previously, this could be found on the underside of the laptop, but bringing it up to the side makes it much easier to see.

Speaking of the underside, we were somewhat surprised to find a removable battery hatch. Flip the catch just in front of it and you'll have access to the battery and -- if you've got a screwdriver handy -- the hard drive.


Features
The MacBook will ship in two guises -- an entry-level unit costing £949, and a more advanced model costing £1,149. The entry-level machine uses an Intel Core 2 Duo CPU running at 2GHz, 2GB of DDR3 RAM and a 160GB hard drive. That, we're not ashamed to say, is not good enough, given how much of your money Apple is asking for.

Apple has switched allegiances from ATI to Nvidia for its graphics hardware. The entry-level MacBook comes equipped with an Nvidia GeForce 9400M graphics card, a very solid card that allows smooth frame rates in all but the most demanding of games. It's not as potent as the 9600M GT in the new MacBook Pro, but it'll certainly do.

It's hard not to talk about the MacBook without mentioning its 13.3-inch widescreen display. This has a native resolution of 1,280x800 pixels, is LED backlit and produces absolutely fantastic image quality. The only letdown is the fact it comes with a glossy coating on the outer panel, which essentially turns it into a mirror whenever it comes into contact with direct light.

The only difference between the entry-level MacBook and its more expensive sibling is that the latter sports a faster 2.4GHz CPU and a larger, 250GB hard drive. We're not convinced this is worth the extra £200, but if you're unaffected by the credit crunch, who are we to put you off?

Both MacBooks can be customised at the time of purchase. Up to 4GB of memory can be installed, and they'll accept hard drives as large as 320GB. A 128GB solid-state drive is available for a jaw-dropping £420. Software includes Time Machine for creating backups, Mail, iChat, the Safari browser, Photo Booth, Front Row, Boot Camp (for installing Windows XP in addition to OS X), and the iLife '08 suite.

Performance
You'll be hard pressed to find a Core 2 Duo laptop -- Windows-based or otherwise -- that isn't fast. Obviously, our PCMark 2005 benchmark won't run on a Mac, but anecdotal testing yielded some positive results. Our review sample uses the faster 2.4GHz CPU and 2GB of RAM, and with this, the system booted in approximately 30 seconds and zipped convincingly through day-to-day applications. Even when multitasking with iTunes, Safari and iPhoto, the system never batted an eyelid. It also stayed cool to the touch -- even after prolonged use.

Graphics performance is vastly improved on previous models. Overall, Apple claims video performance is 6.2 times faster than on previous models. The new Nvidia cards are also compatible with Nvidia's Cuda technology. This enables programmers to write software that utilises the processing power of the graphics card as well as the CPU to solve complex computational problems. Video transcoding in compatible applications, for example, is significantly faster through Cuda, as is image manipulation in the latest version of Adobe CS4.

We're still in the process of testing the MacBook's battery life, but Apple claims customers can expect approximately 5 hours -- even with the wireless adaptor enabled. We find that difficult to believe -- 3 hours is more likely -- but we'll update this review with an independent battery score in the next day or so.

Conclusion
The new MacBook is, as we all expected, very good but very expensive. We can see where all the money is going, though -- it's an absolutely gorgeous piece of engineering that you'll spend hours just looking at. If you've got the cash, we'd thoroughly recommend it. If not, you'll get more for your money buying a Windows machine.

Edited by Nick Hide