13″ Aluminum MacBook vs. 12″ PowerBook — Is the Unibody A True Successor?

A Mac writer colleague and I have been engaged in a friendly debate for the past several months over whether the 13″ unibody MacBook is a worthy successor to the 12″ PowerBook as a serious road warrior machine. My friend is not anti-unibody by any means — he has a uni MacBook Pro — but while he will concede that the aluminum 13″ MacBook is the new 12″ PowerBook G4 in terms of Apple’s product lineup, he steadfastly contends that since the MacBook is not the same size as his beloved 12″ Little AlBook, it is not a legitimate 12-incher replacement functionally. His argument is that it’s an apples-to-oranges comparison, and he’s willing to accept only a machine with a footprint as small as or smaller than the baby PowerBook as a true replacement.

I beg to differ, and that stance has been reinforced by my purchase last week of a 13″ unibody, giving me the opportunity to use the machine in a variety of settings. I’ve never owned a 12″ PowerBook, but I’ve used one and a 12″ iBook was my main axe for more than three years, so I have a pretty good frame of reference in Apple compact notebooks. I agree with my friend that the 12″ PowerBook is a particularly good example of Apple laptop hardware, one of the great Mac notebooks of all time, and I even think its 4:3 aspect ratio display is a more sensible solution in a small laptop than the 16:10 widescreen in my new MacBook, but in terms of being a practical road-warrior laptop, I think it’s pretty much a wash except for the MacBook’s vastly superior speed and power.


My unibody feels feather-light to carry around. You almost have to pinch yourself to cognate that Apple has packed so much power into such a wisp of a package. It really takes me back to my impression of my first laptop, a PowerBook 5300 in 1996, which gave me the same vibe.

The strongest arguing point my friend has is in the matter of width. The 13″ MacBook is nearly two inches wider than his 12″ PB, and indeed about the same width as or a little wider than my old 14″ Pismo PowerBook. As an aside, it’s interesting to note that the generous display bezel margins on the MacBook appear to allow plenty of space for a 14″ widescreen. Now that would be interesting with a 1440 x 900 resolution.

Here’s how the two machines stack up:

13″ Unibody MacBook

Height: 0.95 inch (2.41 cm)

Width: 12.78 inches (32.5 cm)

Depth: 8.94 inches (22.7 cm)

Volume: 108.5 cu. in.

Weight: 4.5 pounds (2.04 kg)

12″ PowerBook

Height: 1.18 inches (3.0 cm)

Width: 10.9 inches (27.7 cm)

Depth: 8.6 inches (21.9 cm)

Volume: 110.6 cu. in.

Weight: 4.6 pounds (2.1 kg)

The unibody MacBook is just over a third of an inch deeper in chord dimension, but that’s pretty insignificant. What is significant is that the MacBook is more than one quarter of an inch thinner, four tenths of a pound lighter, and occupies slightly less volume than the 12″ PowerBook while providing a larger, higher-resolution display. There’s really very little to choose in terms of handling convenience unless you’re some place where width is really constricted, and in terms of power there’s no contest.

If you’re the sort of user who found the old 12″ PowerBook an ideal compromise between size, weight, features, and price and have been waiting for Apple to replace the 12″ PowerBook G4 with a corresponding MacIntel model, wait no longer — it’s here for all intents and purposes. Apple may be quietly working on a MacBook nano to take on the PC netbooks, but for now, the new 13″ MacBook should make a fine road laptop.

How about you? Better to sacrifice power for a smaller footprint (old 12″ PowerBook/PC netbook), or prefer a larger display and Core 2 Duo/Nvidia 9400M performance (unibody MacBook)?

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