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Summary:

A Mac laptop question I’ve been getting asked over the past few months is which 13-inch MacBook is the better value — the posh aluminum unibody model, or the $300 cheaper carryover white polycarbonate unit, which, after two substantial updates in 2009, had been upgraded to […]

WhiteBook vss MacBook Pro

A Mac laptop question I’ve been getting asked over the past few months is which 13-inch MacBook is the better value — the posh aluminum unibody model, or the $300 cheaper carryover white polycarbonate unit, which, after two substantial updates in 2009, had been upgraded to pretty closely match the more expensive machine performance-wise, and had the bonus of a FireWire port, which the unibody didn’t.

My take has been that it’s a nice sort of dilemma, since you really couldn’t go wrong. Both models offered excellent value — more computer for the money than ever before in Apple portables.

However, the Mac portable landscape, and the relative value equation for these two models, shifted dramatically with the MacBook Pro line announcements at WWDC, and I can now declare a clear value-leader. The renamed, upgraded, and price-chopped 13-inch MacBook Pro now wins at a walk, retaining all the goodness of the aluminum MacBook but with a boatload of value added, along with a $100 price reduction. You really can’t go wrong with the new baby MacBook Pro now having a FireWire port restored and the welcome addition of an SD Card slot for good measure — something that’s never been seen before on an Apple laptop. You also get a backlit keyboard, a quarter-gigabyte more clock speed, and a built-in battery claimed to go up to seven hours between recharges.

The WhiteBook, now sole designate of the plain “MacBook” name, is still a formidable machine for $200 cheaper if you’re on a tight budget. Last week, prior to WWDC, Apple refreshed the white MacBook, quietly bumping the Core 2 Duo clock speed to 2.13GHz, the RAM speed to 800MHz, and matched the base unibody’s 160GB standard hardware drive capacity (upgradable to 500GB), which for a brief interval actually made the price-leader MacBook faster than the more expensive base unibody. But no longer. Here’s how it all shapes up between the WhiteBook and the 13-inch MacBook Pro now that the dust has settled a bit.

The Shootout

Processor Clock Speed
WhiteBook: 2.13GHz Core 2 Duo
Unibody: 2.26GHz Core 2 Duo
Advantage: Unibody

Frontside Bus Speed
WhiteBook: 1066MHz
Unibody: 1066MHz
Advantage: Draw

RAM speed
WhiteBook: 800MHz DDR2 SDRAM
Unibody: 1066MHz DDR3 SDRAM
Advantage: Unibody

Standard RAM
WhiteBook: 2GB
Unibody: 2GB
Advantage: Draw

Graphics Chipset
WhiteBook: NVIDIA GeForce 9400M graphics processor with 256MB of DDR2 SDRAM shared with main memory
Unibody: NVIDIA GeForce 9400M graphics processor with 256MB of DDR2 SDRAM shared with main memory
Advantage: Draw

Hard Drive Capacity (Standard)
WhiteBook: 160GB
Unibody: 160GB
Advantage: Draw

Display Backlight
WhiteBook: CCFL
Unibody: LED
Advantage: Unibody

USB Ports
WhiteBook: 2
Unibody: 2
Advantage: Draw

FireWire Ports
WhiteBook: One FireWire 400
Unibody: One FireWire 800 (backwards compatible with FW400 via optional adapter)
Advantage: Unibody

SD Card Slot
WhiteBook: None
Unibody: 1
Advantage: Unibody

Backlit Keyboard
WhiteBook: No
Unibody: Yes
Advantage: Unibody

Bluetooth
WhiteBook: Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR
Unibody: Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR
Advantage: Draw

Ethernet Port
WhiteBook: One Gigabit Ethernet
Unibody: One Gigabit Ethernet
Advantage: Draw

Video Out
WhiteBook: Mini-DVI
Unibody: Mini DisplayPort
Advantage: Depends on your needs and legacy hardware

Trackpad
WhiteBook: Conventional with button
Unibody: Glass multi-touch buttonless
Advantage: Unibody

iSight Camera
WhiteBook: Yes
Unibody: Yes
Advantage: Draw

Housing Enclosure
WhiteBook: White polycarbonate plastic
Unibody: Aluminum carved from a single billet
Advantage: Unibody

Price
WhiteBook: $999
Unibody: $1,199
Advantage: WhiteBook

Score (Wins in these 18 categories)
13″ Unibody MacBook Pro: 8
13″ White MacBook: 1
Draws: 9

There are also a few important distinctions that don’t show up in a straightforward features inventory comparison. While both machines have 13.3-inch glossy displays, the unibody has also been upgraded to a higher-quality screen from AU Optronics with 60 percent greater color gamut, another advantage over the WhiteBook.

Drop-Dead Gorgeous Jewelry Finish

The advantages of the unibody case are partly aesthetic (it is drop-dead gorgeous) but also structurally much more rigid, and presumably more durable and rugged than the white machine’s plastic case (which has had a history of cracking issues). The solid aluminum also has a sound-deadening effect that makes the machine virtually silent. You really have to see, feel, and (not) hear the unibody firsthand to truly appreciate its quietness, jewelry standard of finish, and precision component fits.

The Mini-DVI versus Mini DisplayPort advantages and disadvantages will depend partly on how important connecting to existing monitors and/or other devices you might have on hand is to individual users.

I like the buttonless trackpad in the unibody better than I thought I would, and it’s one of the best trackpads I’ve ever used. I experienced no difficulty in adapting to “buttonless” clicking. Both machines have “chicklet” type keyboards of which I’m not the biggest fan, but you get used to them.

I think the value equation between the two, which prior to this month’s revisions had been a bit of a saw-off, is now crystal-clear. The only category on which the WhiteBook beats the 13″ MacBook Pro is price, and my recommendation is that if you can somehow scrape up the extra $200, the unibody machine is well worth the extra outlay. My 2.0GHz 13-inch unibody MacBook is a delightful computer, and the new 13-inch MacBook Pro is even better in an abundance of ways.

What about the $1,499, 2.53GHz, 13-inch MacBook Pro? I’ve never thought that the top-of-the-line MacBook’s higher price was justified by what you get extra, but if a quarter GHz greater processor speed, 90GB more hard drive capacity, and an added 2GB of RAM look like $300 more value to you, then go for it. Also worth considering is that for another $200 on top of that, you can get a 15-inch display with basically the same specs as the $1,499 13-inch MacBook Pro.

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  1. It is worth noting that the 15 inch macbook pro also has an additional and more powerful graphics card. This may not seem like a big deal now, but come this fall with Snow Leopard, chances are it will take even more advantage of the powerful graphics card included in the 15inch. What would make the more expensive 13inch macbook pro more attractive was if it had the 2nd graphics card. Then one could get top speed and mobility in one travel sized package!

  2. Andrew, don’t forget that we’re talking about the low-end MacBook Pro 15″ that doesn’t include the more powerful – 9600GT graphics card.

  3. Nice analysis. I agree completely that the entry MacBook Pro is the better value.

    Further, as the owner of the high-end original 13″ unibody model, I also agree with your assessment that paying that $300 premium now may not be worth it. For me, the two biggest draws were a 20% faster processor and the backlit keyboard. But today the processor gap is only 13% and you already have the backlit ‘board.

    Get the lower MBP, source a 4GB RAM upgrade from someplace other than Apple, and you’ve got an amazing laptop.

  4. Don´t forget audio input! White Macbook has it, Unibody uses some kind of shared port that makes some recordings impossible. And AFAIK there is no digital optical input adapter for USB.

  5. Charles Moore Wednesday, June 10, 2009

    Hi Franco;

    Excellent point about the audio input. Digital audio fans should get the WhiteBook if they want a 13″ Apple laptop.

    Another point of comparison I should have included is that the unibody 13″ MacBook Pro supports up to 8GB of RAM, while the official ceiling for the WhiteBook os 4GB.

    CM

  6. Daniel Kvasnička jr. Thursday, June 11, 2009

    I think the processor and the RAM are not too much of an advantage… the difference between DDR2 and 3 has already been proven to be cosmetic and those 130 MHz are a similar case… An average Johnny Appleseed will never notice the difference, as regards these two things.

  7. The apple site has the Unibody with DDR3 memory for the 9400M vs DDR2 for the white macbook.

    Unibody
    NVIDIA GeForce 9400M graphics processor with 256MB of DDR3 SDRAM shared with main memory

    White
    NVIDIA GeForce 9400M graphics processor with 256MB of DDR2 SDRAM shared with main memory

  8. I’m wondering if the white polycarbonate is actually stronger than the aluminum choice… which seems to get dented corners quite easily.

  9. As the owner of the 13″ Unibody 2.4Gz MacBook bought thankfully tax free in Heathrow Airport back in November, I was pretty annoyed to see an ‘upgrade’ so soon, given the cost of Apple kit. This is my first Apple and I went for it based on good reports from user friends and pure love of the design. It is by a distance the best looking and easiest laptop to use I have ever experienced. I am lucky. I don’t use firewire devices and I have both CF and SD card requirements, mainly the former, so I always defer to a USB card reader. I also, sad person that I am, like the choice of changing out my battery when and how I decide and at home in my own time without giving over my laptop to anyone, even in an Apple outlet. The thing that did annoy me was the 60% greater quality gamut. Took my MacBook into the Apple store today and did a real world comparison. At 60% difference I expected to see some big differences in display, but no, just marginally sharper to my eye…maybe. So all is well and I am the proud owner of what another commentator called the MacBook Limited Edition. I really want to pair it with the LED cinema display but I have this awful fear as I walk home from the store, screen under my arm, that they will announce an upgrade with 5ms screen refresh instead of 14ms as at present…Hmm. The key message to Apple is that design whizzes that you might think you are, you need to get it right first time and LISTEN to you user base. The premium price for Apple hardware means that upgrades every 9 months are neither acceptable or financially realistic

    1. somethingmissing David Monday, June 15, 2009

      I hope I’m not being unduly blunt when I say that I don’t get people like you, David. Anyone who is used to Apple has a rough idea what kind of timelines are involved in updates – Immediately before an update, it’s far more often its nature rather than its existence that is debated by the Mac faithful. There are one or two excellent independent Apple product guides on the Internet (such as the Macrumors buyers’ guide) which give reliable estimates of where products are in their life cycles. Everytime Apple updates its products there’s a big hue and cry, yet there’s no real excuse for people to get caught out… most of the time it tends to be their own impatience that causes it. If you’re looking for a good rule of thumb with Apple stuff, I’d suggest steering clear of the first iterations of product families, because that’s the safest way to get the best for your cash. I tend to time my upgrades to come in when the second or third iterations of products are released, replacing them once every four or five years. There’s no need to have the latest and the greatest when the greatest will do.

  10. Charles W. Moore Thursday, June 11, 2009

    Hi David;

    I’m with you on batteries, but iFixIt says changing the “non-Removable” one is a reletively easy DIY task, noting

    ” The battery is easily user-upgradeable. All you need is a small Phillips screwdriver to open the case, and a tri-wing screwdriver to remove the battery.”

    You can check it out at:
    http://www.ifixit.com/Teardown/MacBook-Pro-13-Inch-Unibody/814/1

    With great photos!

    Charles

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