From Apple, a Luxury Laptop in Lean Times

By Rob Pegoraro
Thursday, October 23, 2008

Apple's new MacBook may be the finest-engineered consumer laptop ever built. But that doesn't make it an automatic purchase.

This machine packs a long list of luxury options into a case that has been machined largely out of a single slab of aluminum. But this $1,299-and-up model replaces a version that started at $200 less -- and which Apple now sells for $999 -- without providing major improvements in weight or battery life.

The MacBook's cause, and that of its higher-end sibling the MacBook Pro, is not helped by arriving in a lousy economic climate. For many potential customers, the reality of a thinner wallet may overtake the appeal of a thinner laptop.

If you're a design enthusiast, that's awful news. The MacBook seems not so much built as carved, with that precision-cut "unibody" aluminum panel wrapped around the keys, front and sides of the machine. Only four screws mar its exterior, compared to 11 on its predecessor and 16 on a contemporary Dell Inspiron.

This metallurgical wizardry gives this computer an impressively solid feel despite it measuring just under an inch thick, without any of the flexing visible on many thin laptops. But at almost 4.5 lbs., it weighs only about seven ounces less than the previous MacBook.

Open the MacBook's screen and you'll see that its touchpad isn't flanked by the usual button; the entire pad serves as the button and also accepts many of the same "multitouch" gestures as the iPhone. For example, dragging two fingers toward you scrolls down in a Web page; dragging three to the left takes you back to the most-recent page; dragging four across lets you switch to another application.

The multitouch controls are smart and efficient, but the it's-all-one-button touchpad seems gimmicky. It feels easier to press down on this thing with a thumb than a fingertip, so you'll probably click away in the same spot as before -- what problem was Apple trying to solve here?

The MacBook's screen has an LED (light-emitting diode) backlight, which may not seem like a big deal until you expose it to sunlight. There, it remains readable while laptops with conventional fluorescent backlights wash out.

Apple also touts this screen's lower electrical consumption: The MacBook loaned by the company didn't draw more than 30 watts of electricity when hooked up to a power meter. The efficient Intel processor inside contributes to that efficiency as well and allowed this machine to run cool, without any audible whir from its fan.

That reduced thirst for juice did not, however, seem to make a big difference in battery life. The test MacBook expired after two hours and 59 minutes of DVD playback and 3 hours and 51 minutes of MP3 playback combined with Web browsing, about the same times as its predecessor. Only when I set up a generous scenario -- its screen dimmed and its Safari Web browser pointed to two news sites that refreshed themselves every few minutes -- did it show a significant bump in battery life, lasting an impressive 6 hours and 5 minutes.

This machine also features all the design refinements Apple users have grown accustomed to: the "MagSafe" magnetic power cable that automatically detaches if yanked; the compact, lightweight (under 9 ounces) power adapter; the slot-loading optical drive that burns CDs and DVDs; the simple lineup of expansion ports on the left side.

And it includes Mac OS X Leopard, a considerably more attractive system for many home uses than Windows Vista.

But the new MacBook doesn't just compete against Windows laptops. It also competes with the old MacBook, newly discounted to $999. That configuration ships with a smaller hard drive (120 gigabytes instead of 160 GB) and less memory (1 GB instead of 2 GB), lacks the new MacBook's powerful graphics processor and comes clad in plastic, not aluminum. But it also provides more expansion options.

That older machine, in addition to its two USB ports, includes a FireWire expansion connector that accepts a variety of hard drives, camcorders and other devices. Apple removed FireWire from this year's MacBook -- without replacing it with a third USB port. So unless you have a house full of wireless peripherals that can link up to the MacBook's WiFi and Bluetooth receivers, you will find yourself constantly plugging and unplugging other gadgets, even more so than on other Apple computers.

It would be one thing if the new MacBook came with a major boost in features to justify paying $300 more than the white MacBook, itself no slouch. But too many of the new machine's selling points are tangential to its utility as a computer; spending extra for its undeniable style may be a luxury that is better skipped.

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