Apple's redone MacBook is another winner

Apple's plastic white MacBook computer has been the most-popular-selling Macintosh to date. So it's hardly a surprise that Apple plans to keep right on offering the notebook, now for $100 less at $999.

But MacBooks are climbing in status. Last week, Apple unveiled two redesigned versions, including the $1,599 model I'm testing. (The other fetches $1,299.)

Spending the extra loot buys you a bold new metal design with a glossy backlit widescreen LED display, spacious buttonless trackpad and souped-up Nvidia graphics for gamers. You get extra memory and storage, too. But Apple giveth and taketh away. The company removed the FireWire port that connects some camcorders and other devices. That's a deal-breaker for some people.

In many ways, these posh computers resemble smaller-screen versions of their even more expensive cousin, the MacBook Pro. Indeed, MacBooks and Pro models are similarly crafted from a single slab of aluminum through a new manufacturing process called "unibody construction." That makes them thinner, lighter and, according to Apple, more durable.

The MacBook I've been testing certainly feels sturdy. It's less than an inch thick and weighs 4.5 pounds, compared with 5 pounds for its plastic predecessor. Apple is also trumpeting the machine's toxic-material-free eco-friendliness.

But Apple risks ticking off users who rely on FireWire. Like many people, I still have a FireWire camcorder, not to mention an external FireWire hard drive. Apple may want to drive customers to the FireWire-capable MacBook Pro — models that start at $1,999 — which are certainly better equipped for video editing.

The company also figures many of the folks who would do a lot of video editing own newer camcorders that more likely use USB rather than FireWire. Apple isn't generous there, either: There are just two USB ports on the new MacBooks.

You can still get FireWire on the entry-level plastic MacBook, but it doesn't have the muscle for heavy-duty video editing.

I also wish Apple had included a memory card reader in its notebooks. It didn't.

Apple's laptops tend to be more expensive than their Windows counterparts. But it's difficult to make a direct comparison. Windows Vista doesn't come close to measuring up to Apple's rock-solid OS X Leopard operating system. Microsoft and its partners don't have a great answer for Apple's iLife digital multimedia software suite, either, which is loaded on all new Macs.

A closer look at the latest MacBook:

•Design. My test configuration has a glossy, 13.3-inch screen, 2 gigabytes of RAM, 250 GB hard drive and a 2.4 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo, the same processor as in the least-expensive MacBook Pro. As with other Mac laptops, it has an integrated iSight camera, DVD burner and a magnetic power plug that breaks safely away if you trip over it. The LED screen is bright, though I noticed my reflection while watching a movie.

The most dramatic change — besides, perhaps, the metal enclosure — is the spacious new trackpad, made of smooth glass. There are no buttons. Instead, this entire surface area is the "button." You can press anywhere on the pad, which may take a little getting used to. I tended to press the bottom of the trackpad, where the mouse buttons might have otherwise been. You can even "right click" by pressing in the bottom right area of the trackpad.

The roomy trackpad also lets you use a series of "gestures." You can pinch with two fingers to zoom in or out of text or photos, as on the iPhone. Or use three fingers in a swiping motion to browse through photos. Not all the gestures feel natural. Rotating photos with two fingers felt a little awkward at first.

The backlit keyboard on my test model lights up automatically in the dark, a feature not present on cheaper MacBooks. Typing on the keyboard felt fine, though I still prefer the keyboard on my ancient IBM ThinkPad.

•Graphics. Despite its popularity on college campuses, the older MacBook was never a gamer's delight. Nvidia's GeForce 9400 graphics help turn that around. I was pleased with the detail and fluid motion as I played Spore from Electronic Arts and Call of Duty 4 from Activision, Aspyr Media and Infinity Ward.

•Battery. Apple claims up to five hours of battery life for the new MacBook, but its tests don't factor in DVD playback. For my informal tests, I turned off power-saving measures and simultaneously ran a DVD and Wi-Fi, something you wouldn't do, say, on an airplane. Even so, I got about 2½ hours before the battery gave way, enough to get through a movie. You can conveniently peek at indicator lights on the side of the machine to get a quick reading on how much battery you have left.

It's also easy to lift off the back case to remove and replace the battery.

Apple has fashioned a winner with the new MacBook. Unless you can't live without FireWire.


TELL US: Have you used or purchased the redesigned MacBooks? Share your experiences and/or performance issues below.