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Apple's aluminum MacBook


You don't know the power of the dark side
— 10:58 PM on November 9, 2008

In typical PC hardware enthusiast fashion, we haven't covered Macs much here at TR. Major Apple product releases often receive coverage in the form of news posts, but we've historically regarded Macs with a mixture of disinterest and contempt. I think you can chalk that up to three major factors: you can't build your own Mac (not without headaches and possible law-breaking, at least), Apple's own desktops are expensive and closed-off, and Mac OS X isn't quite what you'd call a gaming OS.

That picture changes somewhat when we look at Apple's most recent notebooks. Sure, they're closed-off and don't run many games out of the box, but you could say the same about most Windows laptops. And while Apple's MacBook Pros do carry a heavy markup, the $999 and $1,299 MacBooks aren't really all that much pricier than comparable Windows laptops (more on that in a short while).

Last month, I succumbed to temptation and purchased the latter—a $1,299 MacBook with the standard hardware bundle. As a die-hard fan of Lenovo's ThinkPad line of laptops, I didn't make this choice lightly. However, the MacBook's build quality and features proved too tempting to resist. Read on as I share my thoughts on Apple's latest and greatest consumer laptop and how it compares to its Windows-based brethren.

Like father, unlike son
Where to begin? Perhaps to really understand the MacBook, one needs to go back and study its original ancestor: the iBook. Apple had been making laptops for years before that system, but following the return of co-founder Steve Jobs, the company's engineers got busy making an affordable consumer laptop to mirror the iMac. Amid considerable buzz on rumor sites (not to mention many poorly rendered 3D mockups), Apple finally unleashed the fruit of its labor in the summer of 1999.

The first iBook cost $1,599 (that's over two grand in today's dollars), looked not unlike a candy-coated toilet seat, and featured a 12.1" 800x600 display, a 300MHz PowerPC G3 processor, 32 megs of RAM, and a 3.2GB hard drive. It ran Mac OS 8.6 (and later Mac OS 9), an operating system that was looking increasingly antiquated due to its lack of protected memory and pre-emptive multitasking. Application crashes often took down the whole system, and because of the non-x86 processor, running Windows was only possible through slow emulators. The Apple faithful loved the iBook anyway.

Almost a decade has passed since then, and aside from the Apple logo on the display lid, you'd have a hard time finding similarities between the iBook and the new MacBook. On the hardware front, Apple has switched from questionably adequate PowerPC chips to Intel's latest and greatest 45nm Core 2 Duo processors, which it couples with very capable Nvidia integrated graphics. On the software side of things, the MacBook comes with Mac OS X 10.5—an OS that really has more in common with Nextstep and FreeBSD than Mac OS 9—and it can run Windows Vista natively. The latest OS X release even includes a tool that makes it easy to dual-boot with Windows.

Apple has come very far in the aesthetics and build quality departments, too. The new MacBook's shell is carved out of an aluminum brick, which results in a machine that's at the same time sleek, sturdy, and sexy. Of course, whereas Apple intended for the original iBook to be a kid-friendly consumer system, the aluminum MacBook is more of a luxury laptop by today's standards. But I digress.