Since its debut in May 2006, the MacBook family has earned a place in the pantheon of Apple's all-time greatest hits. The sturdy, Intel-powered notebooks have been so popular with consumers, especially students, that they've helped the company nearly double its laptop sales over the last year and grab close to ten per cent of the US retail market.
The latest enhancements to the line aren't spectacular, but they're sure to solidify the MacBook's status as a market leader. All three models--still weighing in at 5.1 pounds, and still priced at US$1,099, $1,299, and $1,499--have slightly faster processors and higher-capacity hard drives. In addition, the entry-level model now has twice as much standard system memory (1GB) and on-chip L2 cache (4MB) as its predecessor, bringing it up to par with its higher-priced siblings.
Building on success
All three MacBooks come with the same rich set of standard features as before. As in the previous iterations, the base model includes a Combo (CD-RW/DVD-ROM) optical drive, while the other two models come with an 8x SuperDrive with double-layer support.
All three models include bright, glossy 13.3-inch screens, with a native resolution of 1,280 by 800 pixels; a 667MHz frontside bus to ferry data between the CPU and RAM; AirPort Extreme and Bluetooth 2.0+EDR (Enhanced Data Rate) wireless networking; a Gigabit Ethernet jack; one FireWire 400 and two USB 2.0 ports (but no FireWire 800); a scrolling trackpad; digital and analog audio in and out ports; a mini-DVI port, which, with the addition of $19 adapters, can drive displays with external DVI, VGA, or Composite and S-video connections; a built-in iSight camera for videoconferencing via iChat AV or having fun with Apple's Photo Booth software; an infrared Apple Remote and Front Row software; and, of course, the innovative MagSafe power connector, which reduces the risk of disaster by detaching itself from the computer if you trip on the power cord.
Also included is the iLife '06 suite of digital media applications, but no productivity software like iWork--you'll probably need to add Microsoft Office or something similar.
All three models now come with full, out-of-the-box support for 802.11n, the latest flavor of Wi-Fi wireless networking, which offers twice the range and up to five times the throughput of the previous standard, 802.11g. (The previous Core 2 Duo MacBooks, introduced last November, had 802.11n hardware built in, but you had to pay $2 and download special software from Apple to enable this capability.) Of course, you won't be able to use 802.11n unless you're connecting to a base station that supports the new standard, such as Apple's latest AirPort Extreme Base Station . (In principle, Apple's implementation of 802.11n should also work with other companies' 802.11n-capable hardware, but since the new standard isn't final, there are more compatibility challenges than with recent previous generations of Wi-Fi gear.)
Top to bottom
The $1,499 MacBook, with its handsome black enclosure , now includes a 2.16GHz version of Intel's Core 2 Duo processor, compared with the previous 2GHz Core 2 Duo, and it comes with a 160GB hard drive, up from 120GB.
As for the $1,299 white model, it now has a 2.16GHz Core 2 Duo chip, up from 2GHz, and its hard drive has grown from 80GB to 120GB. And the $1,099 white model , which previously came with a 1.83GHz version of the Core 2 Duo and a 60GB hard drive, now sports a 2GHz processor and an 80GB drive.
The biggest winner in all this is probably the entry-level model. In the previous generation, with only 2MB of L2 cache and 512MB of RAM in the standard configuration, it felt a bit sluggish, at least to me, in comparison to the other two models. Now, that's no longer true. In terms of Macworld Lab's Speedmark 4.5 benchmark, the new $1,099 model's score of 192 is a jump of 13.6 percent compared with the discontinued 1.83GHz model.
In the case of the $1,299 and $1,499 models, the performance benefits are not quite so easily discernible, because their processors, while faster, have the same 4MB of L2 cache as in the previous generation. Still, the Lab's test results show a clear and consistent speedup across a variety of applications.
None of the MacBooks performed very well on our Unreal Tournament frame-rate test because they still rely on their Intel chip set and a share of main memory, rather than a specialized chip and memory, for graphics processing. If you're a serious action gamer, you'll be happier with an iMac or a MacBook Pro.
Macworld's buying advice
With more cache and system memory as well as a larger hard drive, the $1,099 MacBook is noticeably snappier than its predecessor, and not significantly slower than its higher-priced siblings. Still, if you can afford an additional $200, my recommendation is the midrange model: its SuperDrive and roomier hard drive are sure to come in handy sooner or later--sooner if you're into digital music, photos, and video. As for the $1,499 black model, it sure looks classy, but I've found that handprints can mar its elegance. You'll have to decide if the cachet of owning a black Mac laptop--and the larger hard drive--is worth the extra expense.
[Henry Norr is a veteran Mac technology writer based in Berkeley, Calif.]