Blog Post

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 (s aapl) 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)?

36 Responses to “13″ Aluminum MacBook vs. 12″ PowerBook — Is the Unibody A True Successor?”

  1. Hi all,

    I own a 2.4Ghz Uni Macbook and I have to say that compared to my old 12″ 1.5 PB (One of the very last to be made) which was max’d out on Ram, although I loved the form factor it isn’t even close to the Uni-MB.

    The new screens are a million miles off the old for clarity, the speed of the machine is phenominal and I haven’t even put any extra ram in yet, the keyboard is a joy to work with and the backlight makes it fantastic to Blogg at bedtime.

    Now with Snow Leopard OSX as well, it’s unbeatable, no Windoze laptop is as tactile and fun to use whilst running so reliably.

    And last but not least, having the built in web cam, (something which most Power PC Mac’s missed out on except very late G5 iMacs) is fantastic, iChat is wonderful to use for V-Conferencing.

    I loved my G4, but won’t really miss it that much now I have the new one.

  2. brendon

    I recently sold my MacBook Pro 15″ 2.5Ghz, which actually sold on eBay for more than I bought it for new. I had a 1.5Ghz 12″ PowerBook that I kept for travelling but didn’t use much. With the money I made from the MBP, I maxed out the RAM and upgraded the HDD in the PowerBook to 250GB. I have to say I’ve owned many Apple laptops (Older Wallstreet PowerBooks, Lombard, iBook x 4, 15″ TiBook, 15″ AlBook, MacBook Pro) and the best laptop I’ve ever owned in this one I’m typing on now – the 12″ PowerBook. Sure I wish it had a Intel C2D in it, but with a clean install of leopard and just the basics apps I need for work etc, this machine is simply amazing and Apple hasn’t made anything better that this yet.

  3. I sold my powerbook G4 12″ for an aluminum macbook, and I dreaded the decision. I loved the macbook! It truely is great! BUT like some other poster pointed out earlier, the size difference beteen the 13.3″ macbook compared to the 12.1″ powerbook is gargantual. Especially for me, as a college student, when I’m taking notes in class and sometimes the desks are tiny and you can only fit a notepad on it, the macbook was just too large for me and didn’t fit right. Also the Powerbook G4 fits better on my lap, than the macbook.

    I sold my macbook aluminum, and now I’m shopping for the perfect 12″ powerbook G4. Unlike my macbook, my powerbook will NOT be my main computer. It will only be for campus use and coffee shop use. I’m gonna buy a new 24″ iMac when Apple introduces the 2010 line. But for now I’m gonna stick with the classic 12″ Powerbook.

  4. I am a fan of 12″ PB, best laptop I have owned (Overall).

    But my job paid for a 17″ MP a year ago, while it’s a sickening heavy and big computer, the performance is second to non, and being a heavy Photoshop/Illustrator/Indesign user it really has increased productivity by milestones, but I do miss my 12″ and I had to buy new bags to carry around my 17″.

    But with firewire port i the new UMBP I am seriously considering down grading to the 13″.

    I think it is a worthy contender to replace both my 12″ and 17″.

  5. Ragnar

    Well, it’s here, the 13″ Macbook Pro with a better screen and firewire 800! It’s made me seriously consider the switch from my 1.3 G4, but I still can’t get myself to do it!! A matte screen option would help, but the 13″ just doesn’t sit in my arm the same and doesn’t fit in my bag on end like the 12″ does.

    I may never have the same affection for another computer ever, I still love my G4!!

  6. Daniel Taylor

    I just purchased a 13″ MacBook and I am blown away. This is by far the best notebook I have owned. I never owned the 12″ PowerBook so I’m afraid I can’t compare the two, but I have a hard time imagining anything better.

    Size, form factor, speed, display quality, speed, fit and finish, speed, the feel of the case…did I mention speed? And the thing is cool and quiet, which boggles my mind considering it’s racing right past my PC notebook and desktop and not breaking a sweat! My PC notebook is no slouch, but I’m used to the fan blowing hard while it heats up my lap. Not this MacBook.

    I love this thing. I can’t recommend it highly enough. I’m actually looking forward to the work I have to do this week on it.

  7. I’ve owned both a 13″ unibody macbook and went back to the 12″ 1.5 ghz powerbook. With a new hard drive and maxed out ram, the powerbook is a perfectly usable machine. I love the feel and form factor of the 12″.

    For portability, there is no comparison between the two. I have no hesitation throwing the powerbook into a bag, or taking it around the house with me when I’m browsing or working on a document. It’s not meant to be a desktop replacement, nor was it ever meant to be. I’ve also tried hackintosh on a msi wind and lenovo s10, but they don’t match the powerbook in build quality, trackpad usability or keyboard ease of use.

    Then again, if apple comes up with a similar form factor containing a modern intel chip, I would not be able to give them my money quickly enough.

  8. I think you are looking at the wrong critical dimension. The big need I have (and I believe many others) is using the laptop on an airplane (while flying coach). The critical dimension is related to what you call “Depth”, but is really the “depth” when open!. This drives how easy is it to use the laptop on the little tray associated with tray table in coach class in airplane. Note, the 12″ powerbook is barely useable, the 13″ unibody has to be used as laptop – it cannot be used on a coach tray table (especialy if the person in front of you reclines their seat.

    Making the thickness smaller is a marketing ploy. The REAL issue is not carrying a closed laptop, but trying to use an open laptop in a confined space!!

  9. If you want to get a little more out of your beloved 12″ powerbook, upgrade to a ssd, max out the ram, and it actually runs leopard like a early intel mac!

    • Amen. I’ve been down a somewhat bumpy road with my 12″ 1.33 but now it seems solid as a rock running Leopard off a stealth 128 GB Silicon Power SSD. S’got a SuperDrive compatible DVD/DL burner and a 1 GB Crucial upgrade to add on to its 256 MB built in. Drives any LCD and rocks the wireless keyboard (Front Row!) and mouse. For those interested the RAM slot had intermittent problems until I took an Apple Store tech’s advice and looped just a little electrical tape between the cover and the chip. Reed switch problems too, probably my fault, annoyances cleared up mostly after second reassembly and are completely manageable with Insomnia.kext in the Dock. The SSD is its fifth hard drive, but will likely be its very last. It’s comforting knowing I probably won’t have to open it up again. After my latest repairs it really seems smooth as butter and super reliable. My new Mac Pro doesn’t replace this computer, but befriends it. I like a happy ending!

  10. I own a PB 12 since 2005, recently i bougth a new MBP unibody for professional purposes. But… i’ll never sell my PB, i think it is the best apple laptop ever because of the architecture, if a person love apple products and have a PB, shouldn’t give it away.

  11. Charles Moore

    Whoops! I blew that call on the respective weights, and with the spec. tables right in front of me too! Duhhhhh. Must have had my old 12″ G3 iBook (whose weight actually is 4.9 pounds) on the brain.

    I did, however, note the width comparison correctly, even emphasizing it:

    “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”

    I also beg to differ that thinness and volume are irrelevant to this discussion.


  12. I am further beating the horse. No firewire is a major design flaw. I would have bought one last week but there just wasn’t a key feature that was a deal breaker and the lack of firewire was the last straw.

  13. For me as a mac service technican I could only say: size matters! I´ll stay with my 12″ for a bit longer. Why? Well I had my time with any successor, including the MB(P) unibodys, of my PowerBook but I never had any problems handing them back to the customers. In server rooms there is not much space and every inch is important. And there is one thing I really know about my PB: It doesn´t kill it when it hits the ground! If Apple wants to sell me a new MP it should have a max of 12″, ethernet, cd, firewire or at least a pc card slot so I could add fw when needed. On the other hand processor speed doesn´t matter, and even if it would be pricier than the actual MB´s ordering would be a no brainer. I think laptops at that size have a special kind of customers, who exactly know what they need and accept the price for it.

  14. “four tenths of a pound lighter”
    So, you mean 4.6 lb.-4.5 lb.=0.4 lb.?!?

    You also conveniently left out the 12″ PowerBook is almost 2″ narrower. I would also argue that “thinness” and cubic volume are irrelevant.

  15. I agree. I have the 12″ PowerBook and bought the 13″ Unibody the day it was announced. I never cared for the plastic case iBooks and MacBooks and nothing there seemed revolutionary enough to make me want to upgrade. But I love the Unibody for the reasons you mention, and the trackpad is a dream. This is the longest I’ve ever gone without an upgrade!

  16. My 12″ Powerbook will do something that no other machine will do, including my Air. It will fit sideways into a briefcase. Doesn’t sound like much, I know. But it still goes on the road with me while the Air languishes at home.

  17. For most purposes, yes, I think this more than adequately replaces the 12 inch Powerbook. I don’t think it will be all the way there, however, until either Apple does something about the FireWire situation or implements USB 3. USB 2 just isn’t quite fast enough in practice. Presumably they’ll choose USB 3, because in order to restore the FireWire port, Apple would have to radically rethink the design of the computer (again) because there literally isn’t space for another port with the current design of monitor hinge. The only other place to put more ports on an Apple laptop is on the back, and having the monitor hinge drop out from the back side eliminates that as a place to put ports. You’d have to do what almost every PC manufacturer does and Apple used to do, and that is move the hinge back to the top plate of the computer. That would open a lot of options and I also think it would be ergonomically superior — you’d open a bit of vertical space between the keyboard and the display.

  18. Brian Richardson

    I just sold my beloved 12″ PowerBook 1.5 over the holidays, and replaced it with a refurbed black MacBook 2.4. I’ll always love the PB, but the performance of the BlackBook is way beyond the PB, and since I still have FW on the refurbed unit, I have not lost any functionality. VMware Fusion also runs Windows on the MacBook much better than VPC on the PB. Like many others, the lack of FW on the unibody MacBook was a showstopper for me.

  19. mikesgroove

    Though I consider the 12″ PB one of the most masterful designs Apple has ever created, I am in love with my 2.4 Uni. This is as close as Apple has gotten to a mini MacBook Pro since the move to Intel, and I think it is worthy of the crown. The design is stunning, the keyboard is a joy to type on (the backlight rocks) and it keeps up with everything I through at it. To me, in turns of power and performance per square inch, the new MB uni’s take the crown.

  20. 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.

  21. 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.

  22. 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

  23. 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)

  24. Glenn Howes

    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.

  25. 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.

  26. 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.

  27. 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.