Walt Mossberg

MacBook Laptop Lacks A Few Features But Has Lots to Like, Low Price

As part of its switch to Intel processors, Apple Computer has overhauled its line of Macintosh laptops this year. It has retired its venerable PowerBook and iBook brands and replaced them with just three main laptop models.

On the high end are two versions of the MacBook Pro, which replaces the PowerBook. And for more price-conscious consumers, Apple has just added the MacBook, to replace the iBook.

I reviewed the MacBook Pro earlier this year, and lately I’ve been testing the new MacBook, a handsome machine that packs a very good screen and keyboard into a fairly thin enclosure and is surprisingly inexpensive.

There’s a lot to like about the MacBook. It’s a very good choice for anyone considering a Mac and operating on a tight budget. Like the other Intel-based Macs, it can even run Windows alongside Apple’s own Mac OS X operating system. But it is missing some key features that are standard on Windows-based laptops, and it is heavy compared with its closest Windows competitor.

MacBook

The first thing you notice about the MacBook is its sharp, vivid 13.3-inch screen, which is larger than the 12.1-inch displays in the latest rash of relatively small Windows laptops. The MacBook screen is glossy, which makes for sharper contrast. Such screens can be subject to annoying reflections, but I didn’t find that to be a problem.

Another striking feature is the keyboard, which uses widely spaced keys that have flat tops, instead of the usual curved surfaces. It looks great, but I worried it would make typing clumsier. Again, that wasn’t a problem.

The MacBook also has a built-in camera, a built-in slot-loading DVD drive, and Intel’s new Core Duo processor, which packs the equivalent of two chips into one. There are three basic configurations, ranging from $1,099 to $1,499, and you can configure each to your specifications. Two of the configurations come in a white case. The top version is black and costs $150 more than a comparably equipped white model.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about the MacBook is its price. Despite Apple’s reputation for charging more, the MacBook is actually less expensive than its closest major Windows competitor. That would be the Sony Vaio VGN-SZ240, which also has a 13.3-inch screen with the same resolution, includes a built-in camera, and is available with the same processor and the same memory and hard-disk capacity as the MacBook.

When configured to match the major specs of the base model of the MacBook, the Sony costs $1,629, over 60% more than the MacBook’s $1,099 base price. But the MacBook is much heavier than the Sony. It weighs 5.2 pounds, 37% more than the Sony’s 3.8 pounds.

In my tests, the MacBook proved to be very snappy. Internet performance over my Wi-Fi network was excellent. Microsoft Office ran very well, as did the Firefox Web browser, Adobe Reader and everything else I tested.

On my tough battery test, where I turn off all power-saving features and keep the hard disk spinning and the screen at maximum brightness, the MacBook lasted three hours and 47 minutes. That suggests you could get nearly five hours with power-saving on and a more normal usage pattern. A high-end model of the much costlier Sony, which I tested in April, lasted only three hours and two minutes.

And like all Macs, the MacBook is vastly superior to Windows machines in terms of bundled software and security. Apple’s operating system is better designed, more stable and more modern than Windows XP. Its built-in iLife suite of multimedia software can’t be matched on Windows. And it has — so far — been attacked by only two viruses, compared with the more than 100,000 viruses and spyware programs that plague Windows. Those qualities are worth hundreds of dollars, in my view.

Like all Mac laptops, the MacBook lacks a right-click button, even though Apple’s own software displays right-click menus. To emulate a right click, Mac users typically must hold down the Control key while clicking the sole button. But the MacBook has a new way to do this that’s simpler: Place two fingers on the touch pad and click with a third. It works well. The MacBook also has Apple’s very cool scrolling feature, which allows you to scroll any screen by moving two fingers over the touch pad. It’s better than any Windows laptop scrolling feature I’ve seen.

But the MacBook lacks two important hardware features that are nearly ubiquitous on Windows laptops. It has no slots for the flash memory cards used in digital cameras, smart phones and other devices. And it lacks a card slot for the adapters that can provide laptops with many add-on features, including flash memory sockets and cellphone data modems.

The lack of the card slot is particularly nettlesome. Among Apple laptops, only the costlier MacBook Pro has one. Every computer maker seeks to differentiate its low-priced and high-priced products. But withholding a near-universal industry-standard feature from a consumer machine is a bad way to do this. Even Dell’s $499 laptop has a card slot. So if you buy a MacBook, you’ll need to connect your camera with a cable, and to do without some add-on features that require a card slot.

Despite these drawbacks, the MacBook is a solid machine at a great price.


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