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Value Shootout: White 13″ MacBook vs. Unibody 13″ MacBook Pro

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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 (s aapl) 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

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

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

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.

58 Responses to “Value Shootout: White 13″ MacBook vs. Unibody 13″ MacBook Pro”

  1. Hi, and thanks for the great information. Macbook Pro 13″ with 4gb ram and at least 250mg memory seems about right for me. However, in my move from business in an office to business via web-site I am flirting with creating a professional Avatar through Second Life. From some of my research it seems that maybe SecondLife does not respond well to the Macbook line of video cards. What is your experience or opinion on this?

  2. Hello I am in the same boat….

    My local dealer also has a 2008 13″ Macbook (Black) 2.4 ghz 250 GB HD + 2GB RAM + FW 400 for $50 less than a new 2009 Macbook Pro (2.26/160GB/2GB/FW800)

    Is there a big difference between the 2008 and the 2009 models? Any advice here?

    • Yes there is, I think the black macbook has Intel X3100 video card, but the new 2009 Macbook Pro has NVidia, that’s a big difference, and Macbook Pro has better build quality, construction than macbook in general.

  3. Hi i am buying a laptop and i am in the same situation as everyone here. Which laptop lasts longer? Is the Pro really worth it if im not really “technology savvy” or picky about those type of things? PLEASE HELP ME!

    PS i love apply i have the ipod touch. Its amazing!

  4. wondering what would be best, the macbook pro 13″ or macbook 13″ both factory refurbished. The book has only ysb ports while the book pro has firewire, sd card slot and 2 usb ports. The book has more memory but they are the same preice$999.

  5. With Apple releasing a new, updated version of the “whitebook” today, I am curious if you would still recommend spending the extra money to get the MacBook Pro?

    • I would agree.

      aluminum shell + firewire + sd card reader + infrared(does new white macbook have infrared for remote?) + backlit keyboard.

      The most important reason is, the new white macbook can be easily scratched. There is a review that mentions this.

    • With the updated MacBook, the specs are nearly the same. Do the backlit keybord … really make the price macceptable?
      Does anyone know if the MacBook Pro Model will have a new relaese this year? I’m planning on buying one but I’m not sure which one… Any advice?

  6. Good article. Thanks.
    I’m now deciding between the regular Macbook and the Pro. One difference that has not been mentioned is speaker quality. The white Macbook has much better sound as the Pro’s sound comes from under the keyboard and is not as full. I’ll decide which one tomorrow, but it’s very close. I need Firewire 400, but can get an FW800 to 400 adapter for the Pro. The nice Pro design and battery life may tilt the decision in its favour. The keyboard on the White Mac has a slightly better tactile response to me.

  7. I saw lots of posts of dented aluminum macbook/pro, I am pretty worried about the problem, I also saw lots of posts of cracked macbook white, why can’t I have something that is worry-free? I understand there is no perfect product, but the white cracks is obviously a design flaw.

  8. Very helpful review. I know several people who are about to make this decision as we speak. As a MacBook Pro owner I agree with the advice … it’s worth the extra $, it’s the best laptop out there.

  9. zodiggs

    great review! super detailed and just the answer i was looking for. thanks charles!!! i will be getting the mbp for sure! and fyi if you are a college student apple is having their back to school sale. any macbook comes with a free ipod touch (thats like over $200 off) and the macbook pro 13″ is only $150 more than the macbook white. i say $150 more is TOTALLY worth it for all the pros mentioned. woooo hooooo i’m getting my first mac :) i’ll still be using my pc desktop though :P

  10. Caroline hilson

    If I’m just going to use a laptop for music pictures video and internet which mCbook should I buy? MacBook or MacBook pro? Is the screen really that. Much better?

  11. Claire

    I am a freshman student in college and am in the market to buy a macbook pro 13″. Can’t decide if I should get 2GB or pay the extra $$$ now for the 4GB. I am a business major and plan to use it for school related work, pictures, music, etc. Any suggestions?

    • Claire. Definitely go with the 4gb option. As you state, you are using it for school related work. Who’s to say what you will be using it for in the near future. You want a machine that at least can grow to meet your changing needs. Of course, you can always upgrade later after you purchase the Mac, but if you’re squimish about opening electronic equipment, as I am, you will have to pay to have it installed later, thus adding to the cost. I say, just buy it now, As the old saying goes, it’s better to have it and not need it than it is to need it and not have it.

  12. Any thoughts on whether it is worth getting a RAM upgrade (2Gb -> 4Gb) on the most basic Mac Book Pro model? I will not really use the laptop for much more than word processing and internet usage, but for £80 extra maybe it is worth getting this done now? Alternatively, how easy/expensive is it to buy RAM for the Mac Book Pro from elsewhere and fit it myself?

  13. At the moment, there are huge discounts ($350 off) the original unibody 13″ MacBook where I live. I am unsure whether I should take advantage of the deals or wait (1 month) and pay more for the new MacBook Pro 13″. While at an Apple store today, I was a little disappointed with the screen of the original Unibody Macbook 13″ – tilting the screen slightly caused the quality to decrease quite rapidly! Especially compared to the 15″ MBP with the Pro screen. Will the new 13″ MBPs with their “better” screens improve on this?

  14. Patrick Maher

    Which unibody macbook pro is best for writers. I need side by pages as in Scrivener. I was contemplating the 15″ lowest level version alongside the 17″ Glossy and the 17′ antiglare.

    My hunch is the 17″ antiglare but the reports seem to suggest that it is the actual screen lifted form the previous 17″ MacBook Pro.

    I have to choose one. Is there anyone with a solid reason for selection and nor just a vague opinion or rehash of already published material?

    • If you have the budget for the 17″ MBP, that would be my first choice in your situation, for the extra screen resolution. The glossy screens aren’t actually that bad, unless maybe you do all of your writing outdoors.
      If you don’t want to spend the extra $$$ on the 17″, I would go with the low end 15″, which will give you everything you need minus some screen area, and maybe add an external display later.

  15. scrapnancy

    I have to say for me that that battery (non-removable vs removable) is worth comparing. The unibody battery may be a DIY change with a screwdriver to open the case, but I really don’t see myself doing that in the press room of a conference if I run low mid-day and don’t have time to sit and recharge (or even access to a seat near an outlet).

    Also, 7 hours may sound like a lot, but if you work all day and then hop a red-eye, you can run that battery out pretty quick having a near 24-hour day. The option to change batteries easily is usful.

  16. Charles W. Moore

    Physical dimensions:

    17″ MacBook Pro
    0.98″ x 15.47″ x 10.51″
    Weight – 6.6 lb

    15″ MacBook Pro
    0.95″ x 14.35″ x 9.82″
    Weight – 5.5 lb

    Size wise, the 17″ isn’t extravagantly larger than the 15″, although the extra pound and a bit of weight would be a factir if you are carrying it all day.


  17. The battery on the new MacBook Pro lasts way longer than any other Mac laptop I’ve seen so far (7 hours), and that is quite a difference! I have a PowerBook G4, one of the earlier models, (it used to be my mom’s I had one of the earliest laptops before this) and its battery only last about one hour. Good? Very. Also, in my humble opinion, the design of the new MacBook Pro is much more sleek and attractive. The fact that they have further attracted it is making my wallet even more jumpy, however, I’d have to order online, since they don’t have an Apple store near where I live. The speed is fantastic, too! The 200 GB drive rotates at 1200 RPM. The graphics are amazing too. I hate bad graphics, then it’s just like, what the heck. I just hope that in the future The MacBook Pro will show us even more amazing things when it adopts Snow Leopard amongst other things.

  18. 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

    • somethingmissing

      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.

  19. truth14450

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

  20. Andrew

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

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

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

  21. Daniel Kvasnička jr.

    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.

  22. Charles Moore

    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.


  23. Franco

    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.

  24. 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.

  25. halogan

    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.

  26. 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!