This Does Not Compute

Technology, gaming, music and things that just don't compute

Colin’s 2010 MacBook Shootout

As I alluded to in a previous post, I recently picked up one of the current-gen white unibody MacBooks. Considering hardware is really my favorite part of computing (and technology in general), I figured a review was in order. And perhaps illustrating just how much money I give Apple each year, I figured that with three MacBooks in the house, I might as well offer my observations on the new machine as compared to the other two.

First, what I bought: A couple weeks ago I was cruising through the online Apple store’s Refurbished section, as I do occasionally to get a good handle on where Mac prices are heading (how Apple prices its refurbished machines tends to illustrate how much more Apple “values” the current machines over their predecessors, which typically are what’s sold refurbished). I don’t usually expect to buy; contrary to what many may think, I actually don’t have all that high of technical needs — I don’t need the fastest CPU, the newest chipset, the biggest screen, etc. Build quality, however, is huge for me. I’d rather pay more for a product that’s built like a tank but has half as many features as something cheaper and feature-packed, but obviously poorly engineered or manufactured.

At the top of the MacBook section of the refurbished page, I saw the Deal of the Century: a white unibody MacBook, the late-2009 model, with 2GB RAM, 2.26GHz Core 2 Duo, 250GB hard drive and all the other standard features, for $759 with free shipping. I blinked a few times, that was a great price for a 6 month-old model that originally sold for $999 new. Sure, it’s a revision behind as the current ones offer a newer chipset (the NVidia 320M vs. the 9400M in the refurbished unit) and slightly faster CPU (2.4GHz vs. 2.26GHz), but the specs were otherwise the same.

I had, in the back of my head, been thinking about getting a new MacBook; my then-current unit, a Late 2006 black MacBook, was certainly a good deal when I bought it used a couple years ago, and had served me very well, but its 3GB maximum RAM limit was becoming a problem (if you use VMWare Fusion, you know what I mean). I wanted something that would handle at least 4GB of RAM, and preferably run cooler and quieter too, but had convinced myself that to get that I’d need to drop $1200 on a MacBook Pro, which was just a little too much money to justify spending on a machine that, truthfully, I wouldn’t really use all that often.

Which is why the $759 refurb caught my eye. The price was very compelling; I mentally calculated that, if I could sell my black MacBook for even a little less than what they’d been going for on eBay, with tax I’d end up only having to fork out a few hundred bucks for a new machine. I’d remembered reading reviews on the white unibody MacBooks when they came out; most said that, while the quality was there, the features didn’t really justify the $999 new pricetag. So the hardware itself was a winner to most reviewers, including Engadget (whose reviews I’ve learned to trust). Of course, being as picky as I am, I needed to check a machine out for myself before I ponied up the plastic for it — but being a refurbished machine, I had to do it fast, as machines can disappear from the refrub page in just minutes if they’re a hot deal.

I swung by the Roseville Apple Store (I swear, the staff there is starting to recognize me) and checked out one of the machines. And I mean one of the machines, because that’s all they had on display, just one poor white MacBook, surrounded by iPads and iPhones. A couple grandmas had spent about 15 minutes looking at it before I got a chance to check it out, and when I turned to ask an Apple Store employee a question, they were back on it. So I really got about 3 minutes with the new machine, but that was enough for me to decide that, for $759, I’d be stupid not to buy the one I saw online.

That was on a Friday; I placed the order that night, it shipped the next day from an Ingram Micro warehouse in Pennsylvania, and I had it in my hands the following Thursday. It was shipped in a plain white box, with an Apple specification sticker slapped on the side. Inside was a long, skinny box with “Certified Refurbished” emblazoned in Myriad Pro on top, with the MagSafe power adapter and restore DVDs inside. Underneath was the MacBook itself, inside a fabric sleeve and packed with custom foam blocks for shipping.

The machine was absolutely pristine; not a scratch on its shiny polycarbonate body, not a mark on its rubber base. Externally, you just couldn’t tell that this wasn’t a new machine. I definitely feel like I got my money’s worth.

Anyway, onward with how Apple’s $999 plastic wonder compares to two prior machines, the $1299 (when new) 2008 unibody aluminum MacBook and the $1499 Late 2006 black MacBook:

Compared to the Late 2006 black MacBook

  • Even though it’s plastic, the unibody construction of the white Late 2009 machine makes it significantly more solid-feeling than the black MacBook. I could pick the black machine up by a corner, and it would creak and flex; the unibody machine, when closed, feels like one solid mass.
  • The keyboards just do not compare. The keyboard on the black MacBook is a mushy, squeaky mess. The keyboard on the white unibody machine is probably the nicest laptop keyboard I’ve ever typed on — very solid and responsive.
  • There are a total of 8 external screws on the white unibody machine, all of them used to hold the bottom panel on. Numerous screws dot the sides and bottom of the black MacBook, used to hold the top case and display to the inner frame and bottom “tub”. The lack of visible screws, of course, makes for a much cleaner look on the newer machine.
  • Side by side, the white MacBook is about 1/4 inch deeper and wider than the black model, but ever so slightly thinner. This is likely chalked up to…
  • …the display in the white unibody machine is LED backlit, whereas the black MacBook’s screen uses CCFL, which makes it thicker. Overall, I found the illumination from the LED screen to be more consistent. It’s also nice to not have to worry about CCFL tubes burning out or inverter boards failing as the machine ages.
  • I/O ports are similar, but the black MacBook offers FireWire and a discrete audio input jack whereas the white unibody machine does not. (I don’t use FireWire any more, and if I need audio input, I’d usually reach for my cleaner-sounding Griffin iMic anyway.) The white machine also lacks an IR sensor for an Apple Remote, but that’s something I’ve never used on the black model (in fact, I purposefully disabled it because when I’d use the remote with my iMac, it would wake the MacBook up if it was nearby).
  • Despite the fact that my black MacBook had a brand new battery and I had replaced its hard drive with an SSD, the newer machine still offers better battery life. No scientific numbers, just watching the battery meter tick down as I worked on the machines.
  • When woken from sleep, the black MacBook would rev its fan briefly and the optical drive made a noise similar to that of it ejecting a disc; the white unibody machine wakes silently.

Compared to the 2008 aluminum unibody MacBook

  • The differences between the two are fewer. Internally, they’re almost the same — DDR3 RAM, Core 2 Duo, GeForce 9400M chipset. They both feel equally fast.
  • The keyboards still don’t compare. Though better than the black MacBook, the aluminum machine’s keyboard is still a mushy mess, one that hasn’t improved since the machine became a MacBook Pro. The keyboard on the white unibody MacBook still wins.
  • The LCD on the aluminum model is perhaps just a little more vibrant; the LCD on the white unibody was more difficult for me to calibrate to my liking. Part of this may be due to the added layer of glass over the display on the aluminum model.
  • The aluminum machine is a little bit thinner, but about the same dimensions otherwise.
  • On my lap, the white unibody machine seems to get slightly warmer, but I suspect this is partly due to the aluminum machine’s ability to use more of its casing as a heatsink.
  • Compared to the 13″ MacBook Pro that’s currently shipping, you’re not missing much with the white unibody MacBook — just FireWire, an SD card reader and illuminated keyboard. $759 for a refurbished white unibody vs. $1199 for a new aluminum Pro, I’d rather save the money. I’ve seen refurb Pros for $999 occasionally, which close the gap, but I’d still just get the white MacBook.
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