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 […]

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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  1. No contest here. When I bought a (clearance) MBP about a year ago, what I really wanted was a 13″ MBP. Now, I essentially have it with my 2.4 Ghz uni MacBook. This machine is as close to perfect as I can imagine. I don’t understand the thick bezel around the screen either, though.

  2. As a user of the 12″, I disagree. There is no design reason that Apple cannot make a 12″ unibody other than the fact that they want all Macs to have a 16:10 screen. That’s always felt like a slap in the face to me and I don’t feel charitable as a result.

  3. Beating a dead horse… where is the firewire port?

    1. Right on the side…

  4. I like the idea of extending the screen of the 13″ MacBook to allow for a 1440×900 resolution, but I don’t think it’s feasible though. To get the tapered look on these machines, Apple had to put in a large bezel because the screen components wouldn’t fit in the tapered space.

    If the MacBook were to include FireWire, I think it could be a proper replacement to the 12″ PowerBook. It’s not like it’s *that* much bigger.

  5. I’ve owned both. The 12″ G4 was my favorite computer of all time. I only let it go several years ago for the Intel transition, and as a coder I needed an x86 machine. I have any particular attachment to the unibody. It’s a competently executed box, and better than the white Macbook it replaced. I think it has a better quality screen than the iBook level screen of the G4, but it doesn’t have quite the feel in my hands of the little indestructible G4. And I miss Firewire.

    On the other hand, it’s a whole lot easier to get to the inside components on the unibody. I destroyed one of my 12″ G4s trying to upgrade the Superdrive.

  6. I’m gonna have to agree with the G4 12″ fans. The 12″ PB is such a beloved machine that I own two of them, plus a pre-unibody 13″, a PB 17″, and a highly anticipated 17″ MBP on the way.

    For travel, the 12″ remains my absolute favorite, easily above the pre-unibody 13″. I’ve played around with a unibody 13″ as well, and while the memory, CPU, and HD are all fantastic, and the screen is beautiful, the 12″ really is the absolute limit in size for truly portable road warrior computing. That extra length may not seem like much, but when holding with one hand, every little bit of size counts for decreasing encumbrance. So the 12″ PB is still a personal fave, But it’s true that I’d be psyched if it was even lighter (say 3-3.5lbs), a tad thinner (say MB thickness), and had a blu-ray drive instead (not because bluray is so amazing on a laptop, but because my bluray collection is growing, and now I can’t take any of those with me when I travel…waaaaaaaaaaaaaah)

  7. Ooops, for that ideal machine…the specs would have to be 4gb ram, 250+ HD, and an updated CPU…and a better screen…hehehe.

    And for those who might say that’s what the MBA is for….All I can say is: no ports, no optical drive, no likey

  8. We have two 12″ PBs which are now beginning to fail. I have a white MB as my daily machine since I didn’t want to invest more until I saw how the laptop line developed.

    I mostly travel on public transport and the difference between a 12″ and 13″ machine is significant. The smaller format fits into more bags and I can use it in more situations, including when flying coach. To me, the whole point of buying a laptop is so I can take it with me.

    I’m beginning to see the attractions of a good Hackintosh sub-notebook.

  9. Oh, and also forgot another quibble with the Unibody. The missing enter key on the right side bottom row. My fingers have still not unlearned how to rename a file.

  10. Count me in as a 12″ PBook G4 fan. One of my grad students recently lent me his MB unibody for 3 days, and while it’s definitely a great machine (and fast, too), I still prefer my old PB G4 for portability. Plus, target disk mode is so incredibly useful (still haven’t swallowed that omission).

    I’ll probably end up getting a MB Air this spring, as it is the ultimate in portability (hey, if I’m gonna be Firewire-deprived, why would I go for the larger, heavier MacBook unibody anyway?). Quite a bit of data can be transferred to and from the MBA using ethernet, after all, and I’ll probably learn to love the MBA. But surely never as much as my 12″ PBook G4.

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