Mac Musings

The Late 2009 MacBook Value Equation

Dan Knight - 2009.10.21 - Tip Jar

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Yesterday's introduction of new consumer Macs included some expected developments and some surprises: iMacs got bigger, the MacBook got a bit lighter, and the Mac mini got a bit faster.

Of the three, I'd have to say that the iMac got the biggest change, physically larger, higher resolution displays topping the list. The polycarbonate MacBook got its first redesign since the line was introduced in May 2006, and the mini's changes are all under the hood.

The New MacBook

At first, it sounded like the Late 2009 MacBook used a polycarbonate unibody lower case, but now that the new notebook has been dissected by iFixit, we know that it's aluminum that's covered with a white rubbery material. The rest of the enclosure seems to be made using the same white polycarbonate we're used to.

The new enclosure makes the MacBook a bit larger in its footprint, but at the same time 0.3 lb. lighter than the fully polycarbonate design. In addition to unibody design, the MacBook finally gains the buttonless glass trackpad found in all current Apple notebooks, except for the MacBook Air.

There are plenty of changes under the hood: a 2.26 GHz CPU adds 6% more horsepower, the 13.3" display is now LED backlit, and the FireWire port - a feature present on every polycarbonate MacBook but missing from last year's aluminum MacBook - is gone. The MacBook now has a built-in 7 hour battery, but there is no SD Card slot (a feature present in every MacBook Pro, along with FireWire 800).

Base RAM is 2 GB, and this should be expandable to 6 GB, as was true of other MacBooks with Nvidia graphics. That stock hard drive is an impressive 250 GB, and the Late 2009 MacBook has the same price tag as the model it replaces: US$999.

There are a few other changes: Upgrading memory and replacing the hard drive is no longer the simple process it was with polycarbonate MacBooks; you now have to open up the computer to reach RAM and everything else. This probably won't be a big deal for most, and for schools and other organizations where having notebook drives disappear could be a concern, this will be viewed as a step forward.

Drawbacks

There is no FireWire, which means no FireWire Target Disk Mode, a diagnostic tool that Mac users have loved for years. Using Target Disk Mode, you can connect a FireWire-equipped Mac to the FireWire port on another Mac and run diagnostics, copy data, etc. There really is no workaround, although it would be nice to see Apple figure out how to have a USB Target Disk Mode.

For those who take long trips and usually have one or two spare batteries, the built-in 7 hour battery is going to be a drawback. For the rest of us, it's an advantage.

I'm a fan of trackpads with a mouse button, but Apple is moving away from buttons (witness the new Magic Mouse, which has none). I'm sure it's not that difficult to get used to a buttonless trackpad.

Late 2009 vs. Early 2009 MacBook Value

It looks like dealers are clearing out the previous MacBook, only 6% slower at 2.13 GHz, at US$899. Like the new model, it has 2 GB of RAM, but it also has a smaller hard drive (160 GB). It has less battery life, but you can carry a spare. It has a trackpad button. It has FireWire, probably the most significant thing missing from the Late 2009 MacBook.

It's a tough call, because while saving $100 is nice, the polycarbonate MacBooks have been plagued with cracking plastic - something we all hope the new design eliminates. For long-term use, I'd lean toward the new unibody design because it finally dispenses with the troublesome design introduced in 2006.

But then there are refurbs. The Apple Store is selling refurbished 2.13 GHz MacBooks for US$749, which I'd say is enough of a difference to make it an excellent choice. Apple also has 2.4 GHz white and 2.0 GHz Unibody MacBooks at $899, as well as the 2.4 GHz black MacBook at $999.

Frankly, the newer CPU and the use of GeForce 9400M graphics put the 2.26 GHz MacBook ahead of the discontinued 2.4 GHz MacBooks. The only reason to choose one would be if you just have to have that beautiful black finish.

Comparing the year-old 2.0 GHz Unibody MacBook with the Late 2009 design, you gain processing power and hard drive space, which I'd consider a fair trade for the Unibody's aluminum design. The Unibody will let you carry a spare battery, but that's it's only real advantage - and neither of these models has FireWire.

Take care of it, and the $749 refurbished MacBook is an excellent value. The new MacBook is a good value at $999, and I'm sure we'll soon see online vendors discounting it by $50 to $75, making it an even better value.

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Dan Knight has been using Macs since 1986, sold Macs for several years, supported them for many more years, and has been publishing Low End Mac since April 1997. If you find Dan's articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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