Gadget review: Apple MacBook

Much has been made of Apple's decision to introduce glossy LCD screens with its new MacBooks and offer the top-end model of its most popular laptop line in black as a £110 plus VAT option.

Some Mac fans have bemoaned the fact that Apple -- which released the MacBook last month -- took a page from the Windows world, where black laptops with shiny, reflective screens have been de rigueur for years now. Others are tickled with the changes.

More about the black-is-cool meme in a minute.

The bigger debating point about Apple's latest laptop centers on its screen. I was first captivated by glassy-looking LCD screens when they appeared on store shelves a few years back, and I bought a Sony Vaio last fall in large part for the high-resolution screen and vibrant X-Brite technology.

So when Apple offered me a top-of-the-line black MacBook for review purposes last week, I jumped at the chance to eyeball its take on screen sheen. Price of admission if you're buying: £875 plus VAT, although the MacBook lineup (in white only) starts at £637 plus VAT.

The new widescreen LCD is but one of numerous changes to Apple's consumer laptops, which replace the old G4-based iBooks with a truly modern portable. There's a totally new widescreen form factor, a new keyboard, wicked fast Intel Core Duo processors (at speeds of either 1.83GHz or 2GHz), an integrated Web cam, wider TrackPad and a slew of under-the-hood changes.

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Todd Benjamin, director of Apple portables worldwide, is understandably proud of the MacBook, and says the glossy screens are aimed at users who spend as much time looking at videos and photos as making them.

"They're watching lots of movies, sharing photos with family and friends and watching online videos," Benjamin said in an interview. "For playing moves, the display is beautiful. It gives you rich color, blacker blacks and better contrast."

He compared the new LCDs to TV screens, many of which also have a shiny coating that brings vibrancy to whatever's showing. The comparison is apt.

When Apple unveiled the new look two weeks ago, I was instantly afraid I'd find it so gorgeous that I'd regret buying a 17-in. MacBook Pro soon after they were released in early May -- particularly since the glossy look is now a free option on Pro lineup. As it turns out, I'm still happy with my 17-in. model, matte screen and all. Apple has found something of a happy middle-ground here: If you like sheen, you'll like this look. If you don't, you won't find it obtrusive. And if you want choice, there's always the MacBook Pro line.

Keys like a ZX Spectrum

Another notable change to Apple's newest laptop is the redesigned keyboard. I'm less wowed by this update. The new keyboard features flat, chicklet-like keys that sit above a recessed base. While its a marked improvement over the old slightly springy iBook-keyboard, the keys feel a bit slippery in use.

Maybe it's because I'm not a touch typist, or because I think the keyboard on the MacBook Pro (and its predecessor, the PowerBook G4) is among the best laptop keyboards out there. But this one feels more plasticky than the one on the Pro models. And it doesn't light up.

Benjamin stressed that the keyboard, like other design changes incorporated in the new MacBook, are as much about form as function. "It's mostly a new design change. It [the keyboard] comes up from the inside, so you lose that sponginess that was there before."

He pointed to other changes: The latch is magnetic, meaning there's no button to push to raise the screen -- just a small indentation that you lift up on. The feet on the bottom are installed from the inside, meaning no more lost nubbies. (The iBook feet were small pencil eraser-sized rubber nubs that could be knocked out.) The small light that glows when the MacBook is asleep has been moved to the right front of the laptop. And the new MacBook is 20 percent thinner than the model it replaces, but it's a bit heavier -- up from 4.9 pounds for the 12-in. iBook to 5.2 lb. for the MacBook.

Then there's the decision to offer a top-end model in black. Who but Apple could offer its laptop in basic black -- and charge users £110 for the privilege?

Benjamin is clear on this point: Black is cool, and the black-as-coal version is aimed at MacBook fans who want something a little exclusive (and who might miss the now-discontinued diminuitive PowerBook).

"We looked at the user who was buying our 12-in. PowerBook, who wants the smallest laptop Apple makes and wants a professional look," he said. "It is black throughout. There is not one grey accent that got left on there. It's a subtle approach that'll appeal to the professional user. It's kind of the ultimate MacBook."

Quite rubbery

The matte black finish has a bit of a rubbery feel, and it looks like rubber at first glance. It's not. Like its lesser white brothers, the black MacBook shell is made of polycarbonate plastic. And while black is all too common in the Windows laptop world, Apple hasn't had a black laptop since the days of the PowerBook G3 more than five years ago.

As is usually the case with Apple hardware, looks matter -- and they cost. The black MacBook is £110 more than the midrange model and offers the same hardware specs except for an extra 20GB of hard drive space. The standard hard drive in the MacBook range is 60GB; the black model gets an 80GB drive, though you can spend £110 more and get a 120GB model if you want).

So is an extra 20GB -- and a dose of exclusivity -- worth the extra money?

Mac fans have weighed in on a variety of forums and blogs, with some lauding the cool factor, others wanting more differentiation for those two Ben Franklins. I'm with the latter camp. Black is indeed cool. But it'd be cooler with a 100GB 7,200-rpm hard drive and 1GB of RAM standard.

One other note on the matte-black finish. The oil from your fingertips shows more easily than it does on the white models, although it's easy enough to wipe clean with a damp cloth.

Looks aside, the MacBook has other noteworthy changes: its hard drive, accessible from beneath the battery cover, is easy to replace -- though Benjamin said novice users might still want a certified Apple professional to do the upgrade if they're unsure of what they're doing. And he recommended that users looking to boost the stock 512MB of PC2-5300 (DDR2-667) memory included in all MacBooks use matching pairs of RAM.

The integrated 64MB of video RAM works better that way, he said. "It enhances graphics performance nicely. If you think you're going to want more memory it's advantageous to buy it that way so you don't end up swapping it out later."

Bumping the MacBook's RAM to at least 1GB is indeed a smart move. Buying that extra RAM from Apple may not be, as the company charges more than most major third-party suppliers. In this case, you'll pay an additional £70 to double the memory from 512MB to 1GB. If Apple simply shipped the MacBook with a single stick 512MB stick of RAM, you could get a matching stick for about £30.

In the larger scheme of things, this is more a quibble than a qualm, and I have little doubt the MacBook will turn out to be an immensely successful laptop for Apple. It's a powerhouse of a machine, well outfitted with all the extras a road warrior could need, and quiet. The Core Duo chips make it darn fast. The new widescreen-design, glossy LCD and revamped keyboard are eye-catching, and the price, for the most part, is on target.

To me, the sweet spot is the mid-range, £765 plus VAT model. Double the RAM to 1GB, slap in a 7,200rpm drive, and you've got a stylish laptop that comes close to the performance of the top-end MacBook Pro at about half the price.

Sure, you'll be toting around a shiny, white MacBook instead of a matte black hunk of hipness. But the form and function debate can only carry you so far. Black exclusivity notwithstanding, it's the price and performance equation that makes this laptop lineup really cool.

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