Walt Mossberg

Apple Polishes Popular MacBook for a Higher Price

Apple‘s MacBook laptop, the company’s low-end portable computer aimed at average consumers, isn’t just any old product. It’s the best-selling Macintosh in history, at a time when Mac sales are growing much faster than sales of PCs in the U.S. overall. And, according to the sales-research organization NPD Group, the midrange model of the MacBook has been the single best-selling laptop of any brand in U.S. retail stores for the past five months.

So, when Apple completely revamped the design of the MacBook last week, it was a big deal, not only for Mac die-hards, but for anyone shopping for an everyday laptop.

I’ve been testing the base model of the new MacBook for the past five days, and I like it a lot, despite a few downsides. I found this new MacBook to be speedy, solid, innovative, and comfortable to use, with very good battery life.

The new model sports a sturdy aluminum case, instead of the old plastic one, and looks gorgeous. And it even seemed to run cooler than earlier Apple (AAPL) aluminum laptops. It’s 10% lighter, at 4.5 pounds, and 12% thinner, at 0.95 inch, than its predecessor, and continues to include a built-in DVD drive. Its processor is slower, yet it has good performance because of much faster graphics, and it also offers a far brighter screen in the same 13.3-inch size. But it still gets strong battery life — slightly better in fact than the older model, in my tests.

Plus, the new MacBook includes a huge, innovative glass track pad that functions as a combination of a traditional track pad and the multitouch screen of an iPhone. This track pad allows all sorts of fingertip gestures you can use to navigate Web pages, manipulate photos, and switch among programs.

In another radical step, Apple eliminated the button below the track pad. When you want to perform a mouse click, you just depress the entire track pad. The whole thing is a big button, which can act as either the left or right button on a traditional mouse, and which allows easy, smooth scrolling.

Apple's New Macbook

Like all current Macs, the new MacBooks come with Apple’s Leopard operating system, which I consider superior to Windows. But the new MacBooks can run Windows as well. In my tests, the new model ran Windows XP beautifully. I was able to run such Windows-only programs as Microsoft’s (MSFT) Internet Explorer and Outlook right along with my Mac software, at snappy speeds. It can also run Windows Vista.

The cheaper of the two new versions comes with an adequate 160-gigabyte hard disk, though larger disks are available, and two gigabytes of memory, which is plenty for a consumer Mac.

On my tough battery test, where I turn off all power-saving features and play an endless loop of music, the new MacBook lasted three hours and 53 minutes — six minutes longer than the old one. That suggests that, in normal use, with power-saving on, you could achieve Apple’s claim of five hours of battery life, or come close.

There are some drawbacks, of course. The cheapest of the new models costs $1,299, $200 more than the cheapest of the old models. Though that’s the same price as the most popular of the older models, and you get more for your money, the swooning economy may make that price tag tougher for some families to swallow. As a hedge against this, Apple will continue to sell the base model of the old MacBook, at $999.

Another downside to the new MacBook is that the radical new glass track pad will take some time to get used to. At first, I found its surface so slippery that I had trouble accurately placing the cursor on the item I wanted to select. But three other people I asked to test this had no such trouble, and my own woes with this disappeared after a few days, either because I got more used to it, or because the surface picked up enough dirt to become less slick.

It also takes a while to adapt to the lack of a button. For left-clicking, you press the whole track pad with one finger. For right-clicking, you press down with two fingers, or you can set an option to perform right-clicking with one finger by pressing on one of the lower corners of the track pad. You can also optionally use light tapping instead of clicking, a common option on other laptops.

In addition, the model’s bright LED screen comes in only a glossy finish, which some folks hate because it displays more glare and fingerprints than the old matte screens.

Apple still stubbornly refuses to incorporate a slot for the flash memory cards commonly used in cameras and cellphones. And the new model omits the FireWire port, which some consumers used to connect older camcorders and certain external hard disks. The new model uses a common Ethernet networking cable instead of FireWire to transfer all your files and programs from an older Mac, a process I found worked perfectly.

All in all, though, Apple’s new MacBook is a terrific choice for consumers and students, if you can handle the $1,299 price.

Find all of Walt Mossberg’s columns and videos online, free, at the All Things Digital Web site, walt.allthingsd.com. Email him at mossberg@wsj.com.

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