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A Beautiful Machine: Two Months On the Unibody MacBook

After two months of getting configured and acquainted, I’m pretty much comfortably settled in with my first Intel Mac — a little jewel of a 13″ unibody MacBook — and thus far it’s pretty much all good.

It’s been an adjustment going down from the 17″ display on my previous workhorse system, a 1.33 GHz PowerBook, to the MacBook’s 13″ screen, but I’m used to getting along with limited display real estate as I still use an old Pismo PowerBook as a utility and road work computer.

Rock-Solid Stable

What I’m most impressed with is the MacBook’s stability, and thus far I’ve experienced zero flakiness or reliability issues. It seems rock-solid, and while with the congery of applications I keep open for production work, I found that on the 17″ PowerBook, with its 1.5 GB of RAM, I had to restart roughly once a week as swapfiles built up and performance degraded, I’m able to go twice that long with the MacBook, even though the Intel (s intc) version of OS X is more RAM-hungry than the PowerPC variant. The Nvidia (s nvda) GeForce 9400M integrated graphics chipset annexes a fair chunk of system memory, and I still haven’t upgraded from the standard 2GB memory configuration. I deduce that Intel Macs must do a better job of memory management than PPCs.

Cool Running a Pleasant Surprise

Another pleasant surprise has been how cool the MacBook runs. Ever since the Intel shift, I’ve heard horror stories about hot-running MacIntel laptops, but this machine hasn’t demonstrated anything like that. In the more than two months since it arrived, the MacBook’s internal cooling fans have yet to cut in, even when doing heavy multitasking like running Time Machine backups in the background while dialed up to the Internet and engaging other tasks in the foreground. Temperature Monitor tells me that the 2.0GHz Core 2 Duo processor typically runs about 5°-7° hotter than the G4 in the 17-incher does (although it has occasionally spiked higher under heavy processor activity), but for some reason that doesn’t manifest in heat buildup at the palm rests or case bottom, or the frequent fan activity that was my main complaint with the big PowerBook, especially running later builds of OS X 10.4 Tiger and with OS 10.5 Leopard.

Actually, I had expected a more dramatic sense of increased speed with the Core 2 Duo compared with the G4. It’s definitely faster, quite significantly so, which means doing things like booting up and graphic editing (the latter presumably boosted by the efficient Nividia graphics as well as the faster processor), but not as different for Finder navigation and application startups as I had been led to expect. On the other hand, voice recognition performance with MacSpeech’s Dictate software is in a whole different dimension from that developer’s older iListen application that I use on the PowerBook, although that may be attributable to Dictate’s more efficient speech engine as well as the Core 2 Duo’s processing muscle. Whatever it is, it’s a delight.

I’m also quite happy with the glossy display, and am not sure I would opt for matte even if it were available.

Some Aggravations Experienced

There are some aggravations, but so far only ones I had anticipated. The lack of FireWire is frustrating at times, especially when doing large data transfers such as cloning the hard drive to external media. USB 2.0 is much slower than FireWire in real-world terms, and not really an adequate substitute. I also miss FireWire Target Disk Mode. Being obliged to connect to the web via dialup, I also miss the convenience of an internal modem, but that’s in common with all post-PPC Mac laptops. I’ve had to add a second four-port USB hub to my office workstation setup to compensate for the Apple (s aapl) USB modem clogging up one of the MacBook’s measly two USB ports. A minor niggle is that I’m not enchanted with the machine’s “helpful” attempts to adjust screen brightness to ambient light, which I find doesn’t work very well and obligates frequent manual adjustment.

I also didn’t expect to like the “chiclet” style keyboard much, and I don’t, although the multitouch trackpad, with its integrated “button” function, turned out to be more agreeable than I had anticipated and I find it quite satisfactory. However, neither of the built-in input devices are getting very heavy use anyway, because the MacBook’s production workhorse role keeps it perched on a stand and hooked up to an external keyboard and mouse and a bunch of other peripherals most of the time.

A Beautiful Piece of Work

Aspects that I like even better than I thought I would (and my expectations were high) are the look and feel of this MacBook. It really is a beautiful piece of work, and the precision machining, component and panel fits, and tactile pleasure of handling it really have to be experienced over a period of time to be fully appreciated.

It’s still early days, of course, but thus far the MacBook is on track to become one of my all-time favorite Macs I’ve owned and that bar has already been set pretty high by my experience with the 17″ PowerBook G4 and three Pismos.

24 Responses to “A Beautiful Machine: Two Months On the Unibody MacBook”

  1. Dan, I think you mean “off gassing”? The machine is made of pretty pure materials, like aluminum, and glass. Very little plastic, except for the keyboard, and internals. I’ve got a pretty sensitive nose and I didn’t get any bad off gassing from the thing. You should be ok.

  2. Charles W. Moore

    Hi All;

    Addressing some specific comments/question:

    I should have mentioned how silent my MacBook is — the quietest MAc I’ve ever owned.

    Temperature: Runs in the 50s C most of the time – sometimes in the low 60s and occasionally spiking into the low 70s under heavy load.

    USB throughput:

    Carbon Copy Cloner drive clone run on 1.33 GHz G4 PowerBook via FireWire to SimpleTech Duo Pro drive – roughly 5-6 hours.

    Carbon Copy Cloner drive clone run on 2.0 GHz unibody MacBook via USB 2 to SimpleTech Duo Pro drive – 24 hours.

    Essentially the same amount of data transferred


  3. I have the 2.4 ghz unibody Macbook and have been on it for 3 months. My girlfriend has the 2.0 version. It’s my first Mac and I reluctantly went for it after I couldn’t find a PC notebook I liked. I had Mac aversion. After 3 months I’m still buzzed from this machine. It’s incredibly well engineered and absolutely solid. I thought I would install XP on it, but found I can live without it fine enough. I find it weird that I was so against Mac computers when I’d never owned one. I suspect a lot of PC people are like that. Something bad must have happened in the 80’s that left a subconscious aversion to Apple. Maybe we just mistrust something that looks so good. It must have a down side, right?! Looks good, but, say, catches on fire! “I should have gotten something ugly that was less fire prone… damn!!!” I find that the aesthetic of the machine and OS X has been infected the rest of my life too. Clean up your life to look like a new Macbook and you’re on the road to contentment.

  4. Stuart Dootson

    @Snoopy – my unibody MBP doesn’t seem to have any real issues with 3D graphics. It gets warm (sorry, no idea about gfx temperature) but not hot.

    Also, that is with the 9400M rather than the 9600M, mind – I’ve never found the need to use the 9600M yet, as the 9400 has been fast enough (I’ve done some Blender with it, some older games etc).

  5. Stuart Dootson

    I got my unibody Macbook Pro around the same time you got your Macbook. Like you, I’m *delighted* with it. Unlike you, I’m quite happy with the keyboard :-)

    I find that the bottom of the case can get a bit warm to the touch when doing graphically intensive things (like playing Wacky Mini Golf ( with my niece and nephew), but even when doing really intensive stuff like building all the variants of the Boost libraries I need under Windows 7 running in Fusion (that’s a good 30 minutes with one of the cores pegged at 100%), the fans never really get obtrusive, the case only gets warm (not hot) and while one core’s available, the machine is completely usable. Lovely.

    And then there’s the look of the thing – I love going into meetings and seeing people’s reactions to the MBP compared to their big boxy, square Thinkpads, covered with stickers and strange protrusions :-)

  6. I have a 2-year-old MacBook Pro that I have absolutely no temperature problems with at all, _until_ I fire up any 3D-intensive programs. As soon as the gfx card kicks in, the internal temperature skyrockets, and the only way to even come close to keeping it under control is to use a USB base cooler. Of course I found _that_ out after frying its original logic board last year. :(

    Dboy, Melanie, Drdul, anyone up to throwing around some 3D-intensive stuff and reporting back on how well the unibody copes?

  7. I was forced to upgrade to the unibody Macbook Pro after my previous macbook pro was overheating.

    Apart from the gloss screen which I have gotten used to, I absolutely hate having the mini display port forced on me.
    1. I have to use the mindisplay port to DVI adapter often since neither my monitor nor most of the monitors at the office have display port. This means my laptop is not as self contained as the older one since I have to make sure I have the adapter with me. Even with a display port ready monitor, I must make sure I have a mindisplay port to normal display port cable available.
    2. Occasionally, when my macbook pro wakes from sleep, I get a screen full of snow on my external monitor and I have have to unplug the display port adapter and reconnect it to solve the problem.

    These would be deal breakers for me if I had a choice.

  8. “The lack of FireWire is frustrating at times, especially when doing large data transfers such as cloning the hard drive to external media. USB 2.0 is much slower than FireWire in real-world terms, and not really an adequate substitute.”

    While lack of firewire is an unfortunate shortcoming, the limiting factor for backup software is almost *always* how fast it can index your drives’ files- not the speed of the transfer protocol.

  9. JeremyK

    I recently bought the same macbook as the tested one (mines the 2.0GHz one if you got the 2.4) and I love it!! Its so quiet I’m not even used to it. I come from Toshibas which always have cooling problems and they always ran loud. They were heavy to move and they didnt work well as a laptop. This is a total contrast! This is light and portable, it is what a laptop is supposed to be. Its also really thing. I was playing my DS Lite one time and I put it next to it for comparison, same thickness (actually the macbook was about 0.25cm taller) but that is THIN for a laptop!

  10. Michael Cheung

    Lovely writeup. Really filled me with MacBook envy now. Fortunately only afew months to wait for my iMac (see what happens with Snow Leopard latest spec requirements first), and treat myself to new housewarming pressie and bday pressie rolled into one. :)

  11. I agree. My wife bought a 2.4 GHz unibody MacBook last week, and I am experiencing serious MacBook envy. As much as I like my 2007 MacBook Pro, the new MacBook puts it to shame. I also think that the unibody MacBook looks better than either unibody MacBook Pro.

    The one concern I had was the glossy screen, and after using it for a week (I left my wife with my MBP!), I’m a complete convert. If my matte-screen MBP died tomorrow, I’d order a glossy-screen MacBook immediately.

    @dboy: I was also surprised at the temperatures. I use smcFanControl on all my macs, installed it on the MacBook, but haven’t had to crank up the fans expect when crunching videos.

    @Melonie: The hottest component is the CPU, and it’s generally around the mid-40s Celcius at the default fan speed.

  12. what exactly are the temperatures you’re getting from the temperature monitor? i’m wondering if mine are normal. It doesnt feel hot but its’ not exactly cool either.

  13. It is hard for me to get used to the new Macs without Firewire, too. I’m not currently using a Mac, but I’ve been interested in the unibody Macbooks since last year. Great write up.

  14. I don’t know about you, but the one thing that has struck me is how quiet the Unibody Macbook is. I have the same one as you have reviewed and it is *silent* How silent? I can hear the hum of the external 2.5″ HDD over it! I like quiet, this is the quietest machine I think – even more so that a G4 1.25 Mac mini. Superbly engineered. I’ve even taken it completely apart, as any self-respecting engineer would do ;)

  15. I recently got a white Macbook (with the Nvidia 9400M) and I love it as well. Mine is an upgrade from an iBook G4 1 GHz. It is a little louder and it does run a little hotter but the G4 was easily one of the best laptops chips ever in those regards so I am willing to let it slide for the major performance increase. I have maxed out the RAM and added a 400 gig HD. I went with the white instead of the Unibody for two main reasons: price and Firewire. I love the new trackpad on the Unibody but that was the only feature that really differentiated them for me and it wasn’t worth the extra $300 when I knew I had to invest in the RAM, HD, and Windows XP (for college/C#/XNA stuff) ASAP.

    Odd note is compared to my stepdads Macbook (maxed out RAM as well) which is barely a year old and is running at 0.2 GHz faster this one feels faster. The better GPU was worth the wait.