Apple MacBook notebook review

4.5 out of 5
£1149

For

Size, design, ease of use

Against

USB sockets too close together, glossy screen

If you're don't deem yourself pro enough to opt for the MacBook Pro, Apple has updated its MacBook range to feature the precision aluminium unibody as well. But what is the real difference, and in these "credit crunch" times can you really save some cash here by dropping the Pro label? We get digging to find out.

First up, the MacBook and it’s Pro big brother are very similar, so you’ll find that our feelings are mostly the same. Carrying the same styling as the design of the MacBook Pro, the casing now has those curved edges top and bottom giving it a thinner appearance. Like the Pro it is only 2.41cm thick. Because of the new "brick" manufacturing process the keyboard deck of the MacBook is made from a one piece unibody giving smoother seamless lines. While it’s not going to make much difference to your everyday computing use (it means the seal is on the bottom rather than the top) it is none the less impressive and worthy of showing off to people in the office.

Matching the Pro and the Air the keyboard gets black instead of silver keys, and great spacing, ready to catch the crumbs from your sandwich. The 13.3-inch model features a similar setup to the previous MacBook in that you have a full sized keyboard with speakers hidden out of sight facing the screen so the noise bounces back right at you.

Beneath the keyboard is a new larger trackpad that has removed the visual cue of a clickable button. Now the entire trackpad is a button (you still have to press down to click). The removal of the button means you've got more room for manoeuvres as well as allowing Apple to implement a number of shortcuts that you can do by moving your fingers over the device. In practice it works very well - you won't notice the button's gone - and it reality it's just like the BlackBerry Storm clickable interface.

You can control images within Apple applications, use two fingers to scroll up and down pages or now use four fingers upwards to minimise all your windows to the top of the screen or other programmable features. Clearly aimed at the new touchscreen user out there, it could be suggested that it is part of Apple's continued movement towards getting users ready for a completely touchscreen device.

Whether you believe that or not, what is clear is that it's very easy to use, and the extra features, where available, will make navigating around your desktop easier.

Of course it’s not just about a new keyboard layout and trackpad. Apple has also upgraded the screen. You now get a 13.3-inch LED-backlit glossy widescreen (1280 x 800 pixels) glossy screen that is thinner than the previous model. That gloss will either annoy or please. If you're planning on working in the garden in bright sunshine, don't.

Other new features include a magnetic latch rather than the mechanical one found on the previous version and the movement of the battery indicator that used to be underneath to on the side with the same small round button.

As this is a complete overhaul the ports have also moved and changed. Trying to keep it simple, you get all the ports down one side and the 8x SuperDrive on the other. In principle it sounds great, however USB dongle users will soon learn that because the ports are so close together you'll knock out whatever is on either side when you’re surfing the 3G highway. At least unlike the MacBook Air, you get an Ethernet socket.

Rather than opt for the industry standard HDMI, Apple has gone with Mini DisplayPort instead. Citing "engineered to standards that don’t even exist yet" the new video connector allows you to connect it to the company's new CinemaDisplay. It is compatible with current technologies such as DVI, VGA and Dual-Link DVI but you'll have to buy a separate connector (£15).

Compared against the MacBook Pro you loose the FireWire 800 slot and the ExpressCard slot, clearly where some of the savings have been made. It means that you don't get FireWire at all on the laptop. While the majority of camcorders are moving to USB, it's worth bearing in mind if you have an older camera that you are planning on using with the computer. The ExpressCard slot is unlikely to be missed.

Get past the design features and you get a typically impressive set of stats inside. Top of the range virtually matches a bottom of the range MacBook Pro and gets you a 250GB hard drive, 2GB of memory, and a 2.4GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor. On the graphics front you loose the second graphics card to play games, but are still left with the GeForce 9400M.

With companies like Adobe now offering software with hardware accelerated performance (CS4) the more powerful the graphics card, the more useful it is editing images, video and playing games. The lack of the second graphics card will really only affect you if you are planning on editing lots of large images or play the latest Mac games. If you plan to do neither - then the lack of the 9600M won't really affect you.

Verdict

Like the MacBook Pro, this is Apple turning its design eye to the laptop and making a very shiny toy that is likely to appeal to the Mac set through and through.

However like the MacBook Pro, the MacBook doesn't go completely unscathed. If this was my full time machine (I currently use a now old MacBook Pro) the two USB sockets so close together would frustrate me when it comes to being online via a dongle and accessing a USB stick - it would be impossible.

The advantage here is that if you are prepared to loose a couple of the features - like the second graphics card and the ExpressCard slot then this is a great offering if you're tight on cash, but still want a Mac.

Okay so you are still paying anywhere from £949 for the basic model, but for the first time the two models are very much of a muchness. You'll get the MacBook if you are after something portable, sleek and impressive. You'll get the MacBook Pro if you need to replace the machine in the office.