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.
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?