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A Continuing Discussion of the Unibody MacBook 13″ vs. PowerBook 12″


Charles Moore wrote a great article about the unibody 13″ MacBook compared to the much-loved 12″ PowerBook. A friend of Charles argued that until the dimensions were nearly identical it could never be considered a replacement. Charles feels there’s a little more to it than that.

I think they’re both right (yes, life is good sitting on top of this fence).

I don’t disagree with Charles’ friend that width is a big factor, and here the new MacBook is much bigger than the 12.” However, I would suggest that depth is the more critical (for use on a table, airline tray table, etc.) and here the new model is only slightly bigger. Further, weight is a big factor and the two are pretty much identical.

So you need to consider just what you’re getting for those extra couple inches of width. It’s more than just a much bigger screen (in resolution, not just size). The larger case allows a larger thermal envelope so they can pack all that power in there. Remember that Apple (s aapl) could never get a G5 in a notebook no matter what. The G4 in the 12″ initially ran at 867MHz, less than the 17″ introduced the same day.

I’m just not convinced one must insist that every dimension be equal or smaller to be a true replacement. Given the near-equality of each dimension except width, and what you’re getting for that width — and its value — I’d say the 13″ kicks some serious butt. And I put my money where my text is, since I own one and love it.

What Apple Could Do

Can Apple do better? One thing to consider is that, while I believe 1280 x 800 a minimum reasonable screen resolution, does that have to mean a 13″ screen? No, it doesn’t. Apple could drop to a 12″ screen (maybe even 11) and still support 1280 x 800. Look at how beautiful 1920 x 1200 looks on the MBP’s 17″ screen to convince yourself.

The smaller screen could address the complaint about width. However, this is where fantasy ends and reality begins.


The 13″ screen size is ubiquitous. In short, they’re rolling off the assembly lines even as we “speak,” and have come down in price to make those models more affordable. Gearing up for a”non-standard” 12- or 11-inch might actually cost more. The smaller 10″ displays are certainly becoming common, but I’m not sure they could support 1280 x 800 well enough.


OK, you’ve managed to shave a couple of inches off the width. That’s great, right? Well, maybe not for the electronics inside, who suddenly begin to wonder why it’s so hot in here. (Yes, I know I shouldn’t anthropomorphize electronics. They hate that.) Anyway, would the smaller model support the 2.4GHz like the current high-end MB does? Likely not. Would it install the “full” NVIDIA graphics, or would it have to be slowed down like in the MacBook Air?


Do I think Apple could pull the CD drive from this new model? Personally, yes. Sell an external one as an option and use the “air sharing” software. I’m surprised at how little I actually use the CD in my MacBook. Still, many people want an all-in-one to be, you know, all-in-one, and there’s a lot to be said for that.

So then here’s the issue. Let’s say Apple uses an 11″ screen, and even removes the CD drive. Now the machine is small and light. And let’s say they use the 17″ battery technology to cram as much as they can into the thing. Even with a resolution of 1280 x 800, how powerful can this machine be? It would probably have to be even lower power than the MacBook Air. In short, not a primary laptop. That’s fine, you say? Yeah, except we’re talking about a 12″ PowerBook replacement, remember? The 12″ was perfectly capable of being a primary machine, so any machine dubbed as it’s replacement should be, too. A “netbook” will not be a 12″ replacement.

What’s That Leave Us With?

So what can Apple do? Well, to keep it affordable, stick with the common and relatively inexpensive 13″ display. Better keep the CD as well. Try to make it as slim and light as possible given those constraints, then pack as much power as can reasonably be kept cool in that footprint (preferably reaching “pro” levels).

In the end you’ll have something that balances all the factors in creating something simultaneously small, powerful, and affordable. And when Apple tosses all that in the margarita blender, what do they pour out? Well, well, it’s the unibody 13″ MacBook!

16 Responses to “A Continuing Discussion of the Unibody MacBook 13″ vs. PowerBook 12″”

  1. Angel

    I’ve neved had a powerbook, but other 12″ notebooks have a tiny keyboard, and that’s something I really don’t like. It’s awful when you work for 7 hours on a proper full-size keyboard and then arrive home and have to deal with those tiny keys.

  2. I have the 12″ PBG4 1.5 and it is a wonderful machine. If only it could get the webcam and the power upgrade, it would be absolutely perfect.

    However, nobody has mentioned anything about the keyboard. I think the old Powerbook keyboards are more solid and reflexive than the new klikity-klaks. Anybody agree?

  3. A month or so ago, there were a bunch of stories about “the best macs ever.” The SE30 got the most votes, but the PB12-G4 gets mine.

    The fact that we’re debating and not coming up with a good way to replace it shows, in a way, how perfect it was. There was a moment in time when it did everything it needed to in the environment that existed then. And for many of us (me included), it still comes pretty close.

    The inherent frustration that’s evident in some of these comments (and others) over the lacks of a suitable replacement is, sadly, to me an indication that no suitable replacement is coming – and that one day, we’ll probably all have to bite the bullet and upgrade/retire. Snow Leopard is going to be a big hurdle if it is really good and Intel-only, as I’ve read.

    Still: I sold my PB12 when I bought my first Macbook Pro – and totally regretted it. Man, did I regret it! Then my brother bought a Macbook. I offered him $500 and a bicycle that was in my garage for it. He’s riding the bike, and I’m using the machine. I hardly ever carry the Macbook Pro around…

  4. I’ll keep it brief. I’m another PB12-MB13 convert (or sellout depending on who you ask!)

    I had and fell in love with the
    12″ PBG4, the 1.5Ghz best of breed. I got it for free from my sister, much abused and dented and covered in stickers (the computer, not the sister!) $300 got me a new external housing, a bigger HD, and the maximum 1.25GB RAM. It came with Panther, went through Tiger, and even ran Leopard (albeit with a bit of beach balling).

    The plastic MacBooks were never a worthy replacement for my beloved PBG4, but the aluminum ones? I bought the 2.4Ghz one the week it came out from the Apple Store Fifth Avenue. And I’ve loved it. It hasn’t yet developed a soul like my PB had, but after another year of journeys, stories, and dents, it will get there :) it is a worthy successor.

  5. Guilherme

    I am the proud owner of a 1.5 GHz 12″ Powerbook and I love every aspect of it (well, it could have a better graphics chip than the FX5200), and it’s still enough machine for what I do. While I think the 12″ form factor can’t be beaten, I’m not hopeful that we’ll ever see 4:3 laptops rolling of assembly lines again.

    That being said, the only disappointing thing about the Unibody is the lack of Firewire. Being a long time Firewire user and seeing its clear edge against USB, I have invested a considerable amount of money on Firewire disks and cameras, and while most of them are also USB compatible, they’re much slower and I felt that Apple is backstabbing us who bought their words and went Firewire.

  6. Kurt Garnjost

    When Apple stopped making the 12″ G4 laptop, I dispaired. I loved my 12″ G4 PowerBook. It went all over the world with me and did all I asked of it. When the MacBook Air came out, it did not fill the bill. Too many compromises and not enough disk space. I actually use my laptop to do real work. When the 13″ MacBook UniBody arrived, I spent a lot of time considering. My investment in FireWire external drives was toast. It was bigger, but it was also a gorgeous piece of technology. Eventually, I gave in and bought one. I am not at all sorry I did. The increase in speed and processing power is substantial. The hard drive is 320 GB versus 100 GB on the 12″ G4. I have 4GB of RAM versus 1.5GB on the G4. The MacBook still fits in my smaller brief case. I have really not lost anything (except the FireWire port) and have gained much. The machines are not the same, but they are close enough that the 13″ MacBook is a worthy successor to the 12″ G4 PowerBook. (I also bought a new 24″ LED display, which is equally impressive. It’s only problem is my wife cannot yet use it with her hand-me-down 12″ G4 Powerbook when I am not home because of mini-display port.)

  7. I agree with the other folks chiming in for the 12 inch Powerbook. Footprint is just as important as weight and thickness. Just look at Sony with their super compact but full featured sub notebooks. Although I haven’t had the good fortune to own a 12 inch Powerbook I did have a 12 inch Vaio notebook before and I really appreciate the portability and its small foot print. My current workhorse is a Aluminum Macbook 13 incher and I feel that it is still a bit too wide for a frequent international traveler like me. As for heat issues, I’m pretty sure we are all aware of the cooler and more efficient versions of Intel cpu chips coming out in the near future. So a super compact 12 incher Macbook Pro NANO that does not fry eggs is possible a few years from now.

  8. I used the 12″ PowerBook for years, starting with a 1 GHz model and moving through two 1.5 GHz versions. I moved to a black MacBook in 2007 and now use a unibody 15″ MacBook Pro as my primary computer.

    Despite all of those changes in primary hardware, my travel machine remains a 12″ PowerBook (my first 1 GHz model). Even at the ripe old age of six, the PowerBook does just fine on modern software, runs long enough on its battery, and delivers a terrific user experience in the smallest footprint possible for a full-featured computer.

  9. Kendall and Joe,

    It’s not that I disagree with your viewpoints, but I believe that by going to a 12″ screen everything else changes. The expense, the power available, the “thinness”, maybe even more. When every nook and cranny is precious, you can’t lop off an inch or two and expect it not to cost you somewhere else in the design.

    I’d love to think of a 12″ MacBook or MacBook Air as exactly the same as the current model, only smaller. But what I’m trying to say is that that would NOT be the case. Something would have to be sacrificed in the move to a smaller screen. I’ll be the first to admit that, for many, the sacrifices would be worth it. But I have to wonder if that’s true for consumers as a whole. It would appear Apple didn’t think so.

  10. For that reason, I think they really missed the point of a small notebook compueter when they built the MacBook Air.”

    I totally agree with you there Kendall! =)

    The MacBook Air is NOT small. It is just thin and LIGHT. But in the strive to be thin, they became, well, “fat” in a sense and “bigger.” Now if they could trim that all down and become, oh I don’t know, a 12-inch screen??, then they’d have a winner on their hands.

    The world’s thinnest, lightest, and now smallest Apple notebook ever made. (Yes, dreams do come true).

    Now wouldn’t that be a great tagline. Hmm… I should be writing my own article to respond to all this.

    (Long live the 12-inch PowerBook G4!!).

  11. Kendall Tawes

    I agree with the fact the MacBook should be 13″, it’s a great size for that computer; what bugs me is the fact the MacBook Air has the technology that could fit into a 11″ widescreen notebook, but because of the need to be thin had to stretch it out to 13″. This is no good because I could really care less about thin, what I need is more desktop real estate which I can achieve in the 12″ PowerBook. This is the big problem with the article above. While the reasoning given to the size of the MacBook is dead on, I could not agree more, it ignores the fact that all the concessions to make a MacBook the size of a 12″ PowerBook were made for the thin MacBook Air. Why couldn’t the Air be 12″ or 11″ widescreen? If it were just a bit more thick one could relive their love of the 12″ PowerBook with more modern hardware even if it may be a bit slower than a full size MacBook. Instead of making such a nitch product like the Air more people could have been served by filling in for the missing PowerBook with a new model like it. That would sure delight people I know even ones with an Air. They all seem to be willing to give up the thin nature of the air for the small 12″ PowerBook with the Air’s Logic Board. If the screen is the issue then why did Apple even bother with partnering with Intel on the smaller Core 2 Duo Processor found in the Air, I’m not mistaken isn’t that ”non-standard” equipment and increased the “cost”. Sure a ”non-standard” monitor may have increased the cost a little but if it’s for the nitch of people that already love the 12″ PowerBook I think many people wouldn’t mind the extra cost.

    For that reason I think they really missed the point of a small notebook computer when they built the MacBook Air. That said I would still love an Air but I could not possibly justify the cost when what I want is just as possible to make.

  12. Tom… When my 12-incher finally passes into history, I am resolved to cope with the wide-screen options then available. I don’t like ’em, but can tolerate ’em. And, to some I probably sound like a whiny, picky basta**d. But, I actually travel **extensively** and use the heck out of my Powerbook on these business trips, in all manner of cramped spaces. It goes with me to every meeting, every hotel room, on every plane and train and taxi — open — in use. Most of my business travel is in Asia, where they haven’t heard that discs are dead. Thus, my momentary attraction to a MB Air as a replacement soured at not having a disc drive. Dunno… maybe I am too choosey. But, to my mind, this is the clearest example of the price we pay as Mac users by having to limit our choices to only those machines Apple itself chooses to build for us. Frustrating.

  13. Jack,

    Alas, I have given up on expecting a 4:3 ratio for notebooks. Make no mistake, I long for it, and bemoan the laptop world’s move to 16:10. It’s not just in laptops, but all-in-one computers as well. And even among external monitors a 4:3 is hard to find.

    So you have my sympathies, but I just don’t see it happening. LCD makers cut widescreens for TVs, none of them want to shift over to 4:3 just for computers.

    Heck, I’m just happy Apple hasn’t yet moved to the even-worse 16:9 ratio a lot of hardware makers are moving to. Believe me, that change is coming.

    As it is, the best I felt I could reasonably expect was that the 12″ PB “replacement” have at least a resolution of 1280 x 800, which slightly betters the old PB’s vertical resolution.

  14. I appreciate all you just said in rationalizing your position. However, I travel the world with my trusty 1.5GHz 12″ Powerbook, and have no intention of changing until Apple offers a true replacement, or this one simply can’t handle whatever contemporary software I require. In your assessment you presume for some reason that any new Apple notebook must use a wide aspect ratio LCD. Why? By “true replacement,” I mean just that: a modernized 12″ display (4:3) full-feature machine with disc drive.

    The current MacBook is sexy, for sure… it’s just not the machine the 12″ Powerbook was.