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Summary:

The new plastic unibody MacBook is arguably the second-best MacBook model Apple has produced yet (trumped only by the late 2008 aluminum unibody MacBook). So why am I finding myself unexpectedly underwhelmed and disappointed with it? When rumors began circulating in late summer about an imminent […]

macbook_unibody

The new plastic unibody MacBook is arguably the second-best MacBook model Apple has produced yet (trumped only by the late 2008 aluminum unibody MacBook). So why am I finding myself unexpectedly underwhelmed and disappointed with it?

When rumors began circulating in late summer about an imminent new unibody MacBook in polycarbonate plastic. Being a consummate Apple laptop aficionado, I was excited. Speculation that it would sell in the $700 – $800 range further whetted my anticipation but I was also expecting something insanely great. After all, Apple could build on what it had learned making polycarbonate MacBooks for three and half years (the best-selling Mac model ever) combined with the unibody engineering of the MacBook Pros adapted to plastic materials.

Instead of Insanely Great, We Get…OK

However, instead of insanely great, we get OK — or perhaps just a bit more than OK. I like it a lot better than the original MacBook, but there’s nothing really exciting or special to get up in the night and write home about. It’s just a good, solid-performing machine with better case engineering and build quality than its predecessor, and better-looking, but alloyed with some strange compromises that undermine its desirability and the “must-have” factor.

The case aesthetics are definitely a major step up from the iBook-esque previous model, whose looks were getting tired after eight and a half years. I like white computers and I like glossy finishes, and this has both, although I think Apple is blowing an opportunity by not offering it in black as well, and the high gloss is proving quite controversial with some.

I think the MacBook’s all-white keyboard looks more attractive and inviting, and will be easier to see (I’m not a touch typist), than the black keys on my aluminum Macbook, which are probably my unfavorite element of its generally pleasing appearance.

As for robustness, I haven’t got my hands on one yet, being out here in the Nova Scotia backwoods 150 miles from the nearest Apple reseller, but reportedly this new unibody machine has a solid feel, with no case flexibility or squeaks and rattles, and excellent panel fits, which is what I would expect based on my own aluminum unibody machine. Actually, the new MacBook’s rubbery-coated bottom panel is an aluminum stamping.

True Mediocrity Rears its Ugly Head

On the downside, true mediocrity rears its ugly head in the context of I/O connectivity and expansion, with an impoverished port array comprised of two USB ports (only one fully powered), Ethernet, a mini DisplayPort a combo headphone/line-in port (you can’t use both earphones and a microphone at the same time) and a security slot. No FireWire and, most bizarrely, no SD card slot (“Pro feature?” — get real Apple). No HDMI either.

FireWire and no expansion headroom are the big disappointments to me. I’m living daily with the vicissitudes of FireWirelessness with my aluminum unibody MacBook, and I’m not cheerily disposed, but Apple seems determined to dump FireWire wherever it can get away with it. When USB 3.0 is finally incorporated, maybe there will be a case for dropping FireWire, but USB 2.0 is an abominably lame and crippled substitute at this point. I’m dumbfounded that Apple didn’t learn its lesson from the chorus of boos when it tried that with the aluminum MacBook (OK, so I bought one anyway, and I like it almost unreservedly except for the FireWire crippling, but that really rankles).

No Legitimate Excuse

As for no expansion, there’s no legitimate excuse. Even the humblest tiny little $300 PC netbooks comes equipped with SD Card readers, and often three USB ports as well. There’s no satisfactory excuse for Apple leaving the SD Card slot out of the new MacBook and providing a measly two USB ports — only one of them delivering full bus power. My speculative deduction is that it’s just Apple contriving to put some distance between the MacBook and the more expensive 13″ MacBook Pro specs-wise.

Ample Power

In the positive column, the new MacBook’s internals pretty much match the current base 13-inch MacBook Pro’s: a 2.26GHz Core 2 Duo with a 3MB L2 cache, a 1066MHz frontside bus and 2GB of standard RAM, and the ubiquitous NVIDIA GeForce 9400M integrated graphics chipset, as well as a similar LED backlit display — the only difference being that the Pro has a 60 percent greater color gamut. Power-wise, I would find it more than satisfactory, having no complaints in that department about my 2.0GHz MacBook.

Then there’s the built-in, non swappable battery, which I have definitely mixed feelings about. Apple rates it at seven hours runtime, but a real-world four-to-five hours will be experienced more typically, after which you have to find a power outlet. I prefer swappable batteries.

In summary, while I want to like this new MacBook, I don’t find its $200 lower price nearly compelling enough to even tempt me to not opt instead for the $1,199 13-inch MacBook Pro with its SD card slot, FireWire port, brighter, better color gamut display backlit keyboard, and aluminum case, Certified Refurbished examples of which should be available for about the same price as a new unibody MacBook.

If this machine sold for, say, $799, it would be a whole different value equation — an opportunity missed in my estimation, although it’s harder and harder to argue with Apple’s pricing and marketing strategy given its latest quarterly financial results. I think the new MacBook will continue to be a strong seller for Apple, but I wish it would have tried a little harder with this one, though. Don’t you?

  1. Ben Huebscher Friday, November 6, 2009

    No legitimate reason? You really think Apple doesn’t pour over ever detail of the computer and just keeps things out for no reason? Look inside:

    http://www.appleinsider.com/articles/09/10/20/inside_apples_new_unibody_polycarbonate_macbook_teardown_photos.html

    There’s clearly no room for an SD card slot. That’s a tightly packed machine. Apple has to make engineering decisions based on the amount of space available? Yes, they could have forgone one of the USB ports… added firewire… maybe a smaller battery…

    There are thousands of ways they could have built this computer but this is the one they decided to sell. Adding firewire and/or an SD card would not only change the bill of materials but would greatly change the design of the computer. Apple made a decisions based on what 80% of the users are looking for… and for everyone else, $200 gets you those features.

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    1. OMG there’s clearly no room!!!
      :::facepalm:::

      In fact, no one knows how the hell they managed to put FW, separate audio I/O and SD slot on the “pro” 13″, which is smaller in all dimensions.
      They probably had to resort to some magic blackhole connectivity tech – that’s why those are pro features… =D

      Seriously, you could describe all the Apple portable lineup as (a) beautifully designed, sturdy assembled great pieces of industrial design with (b) heavily underspecced connectivity and (c) very low quality lcd batches.

      Thanks a lot Apple for (a), while (b) and (c) are simply ripping off OS X loving customers because there’s no alternative.
      Simple as that, there are no technical justifications.

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  2. WTF?

    You wrote so much about a product you haven’t even tried! How could you feel let down by a computer you haven’t bought yet?

    I mean, you have a point when you say it has its compromises, but hey, I need ports and color gamut, I buy a Pro machine.

    This is something great, maybe a little more greatness added here in Europe where it cost 250€ less than the baseline MBP 13″. You didn’t mention for example that it has a 250 GB HD, against the 160GB one of the 13″ MacBook Pro.

    You’re right about the black plastic option, but in the end I think this is gonna sell like crazy, because most of the people won’t never use a firewire port in their whole life.

    ;)

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    1. Stan the crazy man Wednesday, November 25, 2009

      excuse me, but i have almost never used a mac (for about 15 minutes) and even i have used a firewire port. I’m not saying anything personal about it to you, but i think ‘most of the people won’t never use a firewire port in their whole life’ is a bit of a stretch. But, don’t worry, i give you, say, 60% credit because although i have used one it is only going to my PC (trust me, it’s a desktop and i really want a mac) to charge my iPod.

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  3. I love Apple, I really do, but this is the one thing about them. They always seem to compromise the cheaper (and yet not so cheap) models. They lack basic common sense such as more than two usb ports. From my point of view if you’re a company which exceeds in innovation and design you should never compromise some products for the sake of others. All of their products should be as good as they can be under any circumstances. I think the day they truly figure this out, they’ll be able to deliver exactly what the customers expect. After all, we do pay good money for these products…!

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  4. There’s no need for HDMI.

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  5. I completely agree with the majority of what you had to say. Specifically when you refer to Apple trying to put some distance between the MacBook and MacBook Pro, I completely agree. I think Apple is really trying to move toward only selling the Pro and just kind of let the MacBook drop off.

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  6. You don’t need HDMI as it has a high res mini display port.
    You don’t need a SD cardslot because your camera has an USB port.
    You don’t need a swappable battery because well. You just don’t need it.
    You don’t need 3 USB ports. Get a Bluetooth mouse!
    You don’t need a FW port because most appliances are USB anyway.
    And lastly
    You don’t need to dislike a product and act like you’ve worn one out that you didn’t even try…

    I myself don’t have this macbook, i probably won’t buy one either. But in my day to day business i have had a few in my hands to install and set up for customers. They’re pretty, sleek and fast machines for low-ish end mac users. They don’t need the fancy-ness a MacBook Pro offers. If they do, get a Pro model! It’s only $200 more…

    I do think this macbook should be offered in a few colors. The colors of the shuffle/nano come to mind… Now that would be fun!
    Additionally, if the 2nd USB port is low powered as you say ( i havent noticed this) it should be upped to full power.

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    1. You don’t need to suck Apple’s dick just because someone wrote a slightly negative article on a laptop.

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    2. how come PC users get to connect their laptops to their HDTVs through HDMI and get video AND audio, while we have to get some 40$ adapter from monoprice that uses the 1 of 2 USB ports to get the same functionality.

      2 USB ports? seriously??

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    3. fail

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  7. Backwoods of Nova Scotia? Really?

    So, I took a closer look at the new white-Book at a local FutureShop (one of only two places in Fredericton, NB that really stocks Macs) — and I would agree with most of your comments. As a very happy owner of the last generation of the black-Books — I can’t understand why they would make such an improvement in the casing — and then drop things like Firewire… If the price was around 799 though — it would make sense.

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  8. I liked the article a lot. My 2 cents worth:

    1. Most consumers level users (their target market) don’t make use of Firewire. In fact, haven’t had a Firewire device since 2002. I don’t miss this at all and I am quite certain that the majority of people I know (the VAST majority) don’t own any Firewire devices. Those who read tech blogs will disagree but they are generally power-users in comparison. I have never seen a Windows laptop or netbook with Firewire either. I’m sure they exist but I doubt in the “consumer” models.

    2. I totally agree that, as HDMI is the new standard, building in “mini-dvi” or Apple-only ports simply give them an excuse to sell $30 converters. Also, if you plug into a HDMI port on a TV, you haven’t got sound at all. Not good. I have a Netbook with an HDMI port that works perfectly with a 41″ Samsung HD LCD better . . . Enough said.

    3. No one ever mentions this. Everyone complains about only 2 USB port, however, no one every mentions the fact that they are so close together you can only really use one at a time. All but the smallest flash drives overhang the slot by a zillionth of an inch and that’s just enough to block off the second USB port. So no, I’m not complaining about there being only 2 USBs, I’m complaining that there is in reality, only ONE!

    4. I would LOVE an SD slot. I have an SD slot on my printer so I use that if I’m at home. If traveling, I keep my camera and phone USB cords in the bag. Inconvenient but I live without it.

    All of that to say, if they’d add a REAL HDMI port and put 1/2 inch between the two USB ports, I’d have nothing to complain about. Now, can someone make sure that someone in Cupertino reads this??

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    1. joejoetheidiotpet Friday, November 6, 2009

      That was too funny,

      “It’s useless trying to get through the to Apple fanboy cult worshippers who probably sacrifice their new borns to a 50′ statue of Steve Jobs.”

      You are exactly right, they are just like those dumb ass people that claim to be religious and different when the truth is they use it to control the weak minded!

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  9. The screen seems to be not as good as 13 in mac book pro’s. There is some bluish tint to it. Perhaps it was the lighting in the store. Does anyone know if in fact apple uses different (lesser) screens? It wouldn’t be the first time.

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    1. It is a slightly worse screen. The Pro has 60% more colour gumat. But otherwise they are identical. Put two side by side (I saw this in an apple store) and unless you decide to go into graphics and high end photo editing its not noticable. The lighting creates a blue tint. One in the store looked the same while another looked as though the screen had blown. Move it from the light and its fine.

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  10. I have never seen a Windows laptop or netbook with Firewire either.

    They don’t target boot anyways so who cares?

    It ain’t the consumer who is bemoaning the loss of firewire, it’s the techs who have to fix the consumer’s machines. I still use a 12″ G4 Powerbook because it’s small and it has firewire so I can lug it to a bad machine, target boot it and mount it as a drive on the Powerbook where I can then use any of a dozen or so diagnostics and repair packages without having to constantly reboot the offending machine from the optical drive.

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