Apple MacBook (Late 2008) Review

By Mike on 12:01 am

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When Apple first released the Macbook in 2006, it became an instant hit with consumers. It marked the beginning of the transition from AIM's PowerPC processors to Intel's Core line. Essentially, the Macbook changed the vary face of Macintosh by moving it to an entirely new hardware base, which consumers ultimately benefited from immensely. The new Late 2008 Macbook also represents another game changer by introducing the aluminum unibody, nVidia 9400M, and the multi-touch track pad. Is the Apple Macbook a winner or should you look for cheaper PC solutions? Read on and find out for yourself.

Hardware and Design
Base Model Specifications: Intel Core 2 Duo "Penryn" 2.0ghz, 2gb DDR3-1066, Geforce 9400M 256mb shared, 160gb SATA Hard Drive, SuperDrive (DVDRW), 802.11a/b/g/draft n wifi, Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR, 13.3'' Glossy LCD at 1280x800 (16:10), 2x USB2.0, 1x Gigabit Ethernet, 1x DisplayPort, Audio In, Audio Out, standard keyboard, multitouch trackpad, 4200mAh Lithium Polymer Battery giving approx. 5hr battery life.

Top End Model: Same as base but adds Intel Core 2 Duo "Penryn" 2.4ghz, 250gb HDD, illuminated keyboard.

Options on All Models: Up to 320gb HDD or 128gb Sold State Drive (SSD), Up to 4gb DDR3.

The Macbook is classified as a thin & light laptop, which are systems with screens below 14'' but above 10''. The system clocks in at 4.5lbs making it a vary portable full featured laptop. Unlike the older Macbooks, Apple changed the casing to an all aluminum design rather than polycarbonate which had been used for all of Apple's consumer laptops since the white iBook days. Apple dubs it the unibody since most of the chassis is cut from a single block of aluminum. Apple claims this is a more efficient manufacturing process. Casting the shells of course requires moulds to be manufactured, which is time consuming. Apple has opted for a CNC cutting process instead. What the consumer gets is a highly durable chassis that looks good too. Apple has given it an anodized finish, making it resistant to dirt and smudges, unlike the old glossy polycarbonate model. It also brings the Macbook's appearance and design in line with the Macbook Pro. The system features a full sized keyboard which is identical to the previous Macbooks. I have to say the new keyboard design is not as good as what was present in the last generation of iBooks but it is tolerable compared to the ones on many other laptops. It just doesn't feel as crisp as the iBook's. Another nagging issue is that the sharp angled edge of the chassis can hurt your wrists while typing. The previous systems had a smooth rounded edge.

The screen is a 1280x800 LCD backlit with LED lights. LEDs run cooler and use less energy than cold cathode lighting, extending battery life. Apple has chosen to go with a glossy screen, which is a tad controversial. They have become a bit of a fad for computer manufacturers despite the fact that most people seem to prefer a matte finish. Using a glossy screen improves perceived contrast ratio and offers a little extra protection, but they show the dirt more and are highly reflective. Therefore, they can be difficult to see in certain lighting conditions, particularly outdoors. The LED backlighting is sufficiently bright enough to overcome that issue in most cases but I still would have preferred a matte finish. Image quality for the display is vary good overall. An external display can be added using the mini-DisplayPort connector, which I'll get to later.

Also new for design is the Multitouch track pad. Apple first introduced gesture controls in the iBooks and PowerBooks and the Macbook Aluminum brings it to its fully evolved state. The trackpad is a smooth glass surface though it is coated to prevent nasty fingerprints from showing. Notably missing is a mouse button. The entire trackpad is one big mouse button. Pressing down anywhere registers as a click. Alternatively, you can set it to use touch control as your mouse button, doing away with the mechanical process all together. The pad features up to four finger gestures. Of course two finger scrolling is still there. For some programs, a three finger swipe allows you to navigate through multiple photos or pages. Four finger swiping up or down controls Expose while side to side allows you to navigate between open applications. The iPhone's two finger pinch zoom in, spread zoom out feature has also been ported over for some programs. Also new is that Apple has finally included two button support on the track pad. The second mouse button can be controlled by clicking with two fingers, or it can be tagged to the left or right bottom corner of the track pad for a one finger click. This is a much welcome feature instead of using the option-click method all the time. Originally, the trackpad did have some issues registering clicks but this has been cleared up with a Firmware update. It may take some time getting used to but once you do, you'll wonder how you lived without it.

Under the hood, Apple is still using the same Penryn Core 2 Duo processors they used in the previous Macbook. However, speed has been cut from 2.1ghz to 2.0ghz. No reason was given for this though a 100mhz drop in speed is not likely to have any noticeable performance impact in everyday use. More importantly, Apple decided to ditch Intel's sluggish GMA graphics and DDR2 for an NVIDIA integrated solution that adds DDR3 support. In most computers, the memory, ports & buses, sound, and graphics are controlled by up to four chips on the motherboard. NVIDIA's Geforce 9400M chipset incorporates all these functions into one. This means that motherboards can be smaller and they consume less power. The 9400M is significantly faster than the Intel GMA X3100 used in the polycarbonate Macbook, meaning that it can handle more demanding graphics applications, including games. It uses up to 256mb of RAM shared with the system memory. Using DDR3 instead of DDR2 also helps alleviate the problem of integrated GPUs being forced to use slow system memory. DDR3 is a relatively new technology that is still slowly coming into PC desktops. Laptops with it are still quite rare. It is much faster and more energy efficient than DDR2 but has higher latency. It also costs more than DDR2 at the moment. However, demanding applications such as video and photo editors will be able to take advantage of it.
Other hardware is pretty standard. Apple still includes a relatively small hard drive for the price of the system. A scant 160gb. Fortunately, installing a larger drive is vary easy. All it requires is opening the battery bay and removing a single screw. Installing RAM is a little more difficult than it has been in past models, requiring you to remove the entire bottom panel. However, this task is not the nightmare it was with the original polycarbonate iBooks. The entire system is fully servicible meaning the battery, RAM, DVD drive, and hard drive are easy to replace. Apple continues to solder the CPU to the motherboard meaning throwing a 2.4ghz one into the base model is still out of the question. Speaking of drives, the SuperDrive, which is a DVD writer, is now standard in the Macbook. Apple finally ditched the DVD-ROM/CDRW combo.

For connectivity, Apple includes a variety of options including 802.11n wifi, Bluetooth, and USB 2.0. Conspicuously missing is a Firewire port. Apple has given its own peripheral connection the boot. Firewire was only ever used for some external hard drives and digital camcorders but people who use those devices will find themselves out of luck. Another controversial decision was the inclusion of the Mini DisplayPort. DisplayPort is a new video connector format competing against DVI and HDMI. It is royalty free unlike HDMI and allows data to be transferred along with audio and video over a single cable. Unfortunately, not many monitors, TVs, or projectors use it, and only one to my knowledge uses its mini version. The Apple Cinema Display is the one exception. Apple sells adaptors for VGA and DVI/DVI Dual Link but these are expensive. Apple originally used to package an adaptor for its mini ports with their systems but ceased doing that when they introduced the original Macbook. Vary chintzy in my opinion. The fact that one cannot simply plug it into any source without an adaptor is unweildy. Apple should have used the far more common HDMI port instead and just absorbed the licence costs given the price of the system.

The Macbook comes preloaded with OS X 10.5 Leopard as one would expect. OS X provides the most user friendly experience on the market. Expose and Spaces allow for easy desktop navigation. It makes doing work on your system a breeze. The multitouch trackpad now allows you to control them with just your fingers. No buttons involoved at all. I still like to tag Expose to to the screen corners so I can navigate them with just my pointer. Everything just works with OS X. Everything is plug and play. There's not really much I can say about it. It's not perfect but it's ideal for those who are computer illiterate or just want an easy environment to work with. GPU accelerated GUI features are far superior to the ones included with Vista Aeroglass. While Vista is mostly show, OS X puts function first. One thing of note is that Apple seems to ship fewer extras with their systems than they did in the past. iBooks shipping Tiger for example included an Atlas and Encyclopedia program, a trial version of Microsoft Office, and a couple of 3D games. However, all Macs still include the latest copy of iLife, which is iLife 08 at the moment.
One of my biggest pet peeves about OS X though is the print drivers. Sounds a little odd that I'd be bothered with that. Apple includes drivers for all major brands and models of printers by default with OS X Leopard installs. However, these take up a surprisingly large amount of space on the hard drive. Unnecessary ones can only be removed manually once OS X is installed. A utility would have been nice. The print drivers can be found in the main Library folder in the Macintosh HD. Search for the printer folders and simply delete all folders except your specific printer's brand and InstalledPrinters.plist. This can free up to 2gb or more.

Speaking of Vista, Boot Camp allows you to install it or Windows XP onto a second partition allowing you to run Windows on your Mac. I discussed in a previous article how to do this. Vista actually runs vary well on the Macbook. Originally, there were issues with the trackpad but these have since been corrected with the December 18th, 2008 driver update. Sound clipping is the only real issue. It's nice to be able to run Windows and OS X side by side since you'll frequently run into times when you'll need a program that's only available for one OS or the other. Most often software that only has Windows versions. The 9400M is sufficiently powerful enough for gaming on Windows. Vista does seem to consume more system resources and offers a shorter battery life compared to OS X on the Macbook. 64-bit versons of Vista and XP are not officially supported for the Macbook. Drivers are available but they require extra steps to install, which I described in depth in a previous article.

Apple systems are frequently criticized for costing more than PC laptops with similar specifications. When people tell me that, I usually point them towards Lenovo laptops, which are similarly priced to Apple's. While you do pay more, you are paying for better build quality. Apple laptops are less likely to break due to the superior materials used to make them. Aluminum is a lot stronger than the moulded plastic used in cheaper PC laptops. Apple systems can take a great deal of abuse, which they're likely to encounter when out on the road or being carried between classes. Battery life is also tops among the Macbook line, making them perfect for situations where you'll be away from an outlet for a long period of time, say taking notes at college lectures. That said, Apple systems may not be the best value. You are still paying for the Apple brand/experience and you do get less hardware options than you would going for something like a Dell or HP system. For the same price point, these systems will offer features like card readers, significantly faster CPUs, tons more RAM, powerful discrete GPUs in some cases, and Blu-ray drives. The question is whether you're willing to sacrifice features for durability and top notch battery life. If you're a road warrior, the Macbook is well worth it. However, I would still like to see it drop back to the $999 US price point. Given that my old iBook was sold for that yet was still relatively powerful for its day and had a discrete GPU.

The Macbook (Late 2008) is one of the best laptops on the market today. Apple has really reinvented itself with their mobile devices. The system is still plagued by a few small issues and a high entry cost but it offers the best durability and battery life available, plus the OS X experience. The system's design makes it ideal for road warriors who need full sized features in a package that will stand up to abuse. Definitely worth looking into.

What Works
-Aluminum unibody looks stylish, is light weight, and is vary durable
-Geforce 9400M offers power savings and significantly boosts graphics power over Intel GMA
-One of the first laptops to offer DDR3 support
-Multitouch trackpad design vary innovative
-LED backlit display is bright and has excellent image quality.
-OS X Leopard offers one of the best general computing experiences around
-Vary easy to upgrade HDD, RAM, DVD, and battery
-Vary long battery life

What Doesn't Work
-High cost compared to similar PC offerings
-Keyboard leaves something to be desired, sharp angles on chassis can hurt wrists.
-Won't run 64-bit Windows in Boot Camp without extra steps
-Glossy display
-Lack or Firewire and use of mini-DisplayPort a controversial choice. No adaptors included for Mini-DisplayPort
-Slightly slower CPU than polycarbonate model

Score: 8.5 out of 10

In part 2 of this review, we will look at performance benchmarks on the Macbook under both Vista and OS X.

1 comments for this post

Thanks for review, it was excellent and very informative.

Posted on 3 November 2013 at 21:37