'Book Value

Unibody MacBook 'an Excellent Successor' to 12" PowerBooks and iBooks

Charles Moore - 2009.04.14 - Tip Jar

I riffed on this topic last fall shortly after the Unibody MacBooks were announced, but five months on, having in the interim bought a 13" Unibody as my main workhorse system, and with many folks still perceiving a void in Apple's notebook lineup where the 12" PowerBook used to be, I think it's timely to take another look at whether the 13" aluminum MacBook is a logical and satisfactory successor to the G4 12-inchers, as well as whether some of the newer PC machines straddling the netbook/subnotebook categorization - notably the 11.6" Aspire One announced by Acer last week - might also merit consideration as a 12" PowerBook replacement.

Hands on Experience

I admired the 12" PowerBook but never owned one. However, I did use a 12" iBook as my main system for more than three years in the same role the MacBook is serving now, so it's interesting to take a comparative look at that as well. In short, the Unibody MacBook is easily superior to that old iBook in just about every way I can think of, other than the as yet imponderable quality of its dependability and longevity, but so far (two months), so good. The MacBook has been a rock of stability and presented no reliability problems whatsoever, although it's early days yet.

It's much faster (of course), and the screen is bigger, higher-resolution, brighter, and LED backlit. I find I'm quite happy with the glossy surface. I'm not especially smitten with the chiclet keyboard, but it's vastly better than the mediocre (and that's being kind) iBook keyboard (I would rate the 12" PowerBook's keyboard the best of the three by a considerable margin). The MacBook trackpad is many magnitudes superior to the iBook's as well, not just in feel but also its multitouch capabilities.

The aluminum MacBook's build quality is in a whole different dimension than the iBook's "Opaque White" polycarbonate housing with its uneven panel fits. I always liked the looks of the iBook, but it was just reasonably attractive, while the MacBook is arrestingly beautiful.


One characteristic that some 12" iBook and PowerBook fans cite as a caveat in the MacBook's bid to be a satisfactory replacement for those older machines is the footprint. The aluminum MacBook measures 12.78" x 8.94" while the iBook's footprint was 11.2" x 9.06" and the PowerBook 10.8" x 8.5", so the Unibody wants significantly more desk (or airline tray) space than the PowerBook, but it is actually slightly shallower in depth than the 12" iBook and less than 1.6" wider, which doesn't seem dramatically greater to me.

The MacBook is also thinner at 0.95" vs. 1.35" for the iBook and 1.18" for the PowerBook, and weighing 4.5 pounds, it's nearly half a pound lighter than the iBook (4.9 lb.), and even a tenth of a pound lighter than the 12" PowerBook as well as actually being smaller than the latter in volume (108.5 cu. in. vs. 110.6 cu. in.). It's certainly very handy to pack around.

Two Inconveniences

I do prefer the internal modem and especially the FireWire support with the old PowerPC machines, the absence of which is a moderate and sometimes substantial inconvenience respectively, and those are my biggest complaints so far with the MacBook - neither unexpected, and both about as annoying as I had anticipated they would be.

Power to Spare

Performance-wise, it's no contest. Even with its modest, by Core 2 Duo standards, 2.0 GHz processor, the MacBook is in a different class than the old G3 and G4 machines, and while maxing out the RAM in the iBook and PowerBook still gave you no more than barely adequate memory capacity, the MacBook's standard 2.0 GB of RAM is providing very pleasing performance even when running memory-hungry software like Dictate, and the headroom is there to double or triple that amount if need be. Graphics support is also delightfully lively with the MacBook's Nvidia GeForce 9400M integrated chipset.

The MacBook is also a cool runner, and the internal cooling fan has not cut in so far, even when multitasking Time Machine backups while dialed up to the Internet and doing other work in the foreground. The processor temperature actually runs just a few degrees hotter on average than the 1.33 GHz G4 in my 17" PowerBook, but for some reason the Unibody case stays cooler to the touch.

The Unibody machine is also superbly quiet. The iBook, with its little 20 GB IBM hard drive, was the previous champ for quietness of Macs I've owned, but the MacBook's 160 GB drive is even more silent.

An Excellent Successor

Personally, my verdict is still that the 13" Unibody MacBook makes an excellent successor to either the 12" iBook or PowerBook, unless perhaps there is some compelling reason why the 1.6" to 2" of width really is problematical. I find it amazing that I paid about $300 less for the MacBook than I did for the iBook (back in late 2002), although the MacBook is an Apple Certified Refurbished unit, while the iBook was brand new.

One point that I would like to note is that since I opened the box, I haven't regretted for an instant choosing the Unibody machine over the less expensive, entry-level MacBook White, even in the latter's latest revision, which has essentially the same processor, RAM, and graphics configuration and sells for $300 less (it does still have FireWire). The FireWire consideration notwithstanding, the tradeoff still favors the aluminum unit, and my recommendation would be that unless the extra $300 is going to put you into hardship, go with the Unibody.

11.6" Acer Aspire One

But what about that 11.6" Acer Aspire One I mentioned above? Well, it actually hasn't been released yet, but I couldn't help but note that it's display dimension is only half-an-inch smaller than the 12" PowerBook's.

It was inevitable that the distinction between netbooks and notebooks would eventually blur, and this 1" (2.5 cm) thick 11.6" Aspire One is a case in point - technically a netbook, I suppose, because of its single-core Intel Atom processor (of unspecified clock speed as yet) and possibly the new Z-series Atom announced last week by Intel - the 1.33 GHz Atom Z520, the 1.6 GHz Z530, or perhaps even the new 2.0 GHz Z550, the latter being the same clock speed as the entry level MacBooks, although the MacBook's Core 2 Duo processors have substantially more muscle than an Atom. Still, I imagine the 2.0 GHz Atom will be quite lively for most sorts of routine computing.

The 11.6" Aspire has graphics supported by a Mobile Intel US15W Express Chipset, comes with a 160 GB hard drive, 1 GB of RAM, and a full-sized "soft-touch" keyboard, and will be available in four glossy colors - white, dark blue, red, and black.

Also included with the "big" Aspire One will be a a five-in-one card reader, WiFi 802.11b/g, Bluetooth, and 3G connectivity, Dolby Pro Logic sound, and a 1,366 x 768 resolution 16:9 ratio LED backlit screen. The machine weighs in at just a little more than one kilo (about two-and-a-half pounds), and Acer claims 8 hours battery runtime on the 6 cell 5200 mAh battery, made possible by Intel Technologies and Intel Display Power Savings Technology that reduces backlighting with minimal visual impact. You tap the Acer PowerSmart key to engage these and other advanced settings to shift the notebook into power saving mode that Acer claims is up to 40% more efficient than a typical laptop.

There is a digital microphone, an Acer Crystal Eye webcam built into the display frame, a "multi-gesture" touchpad, three USB ports (one or two more than any MacBook, save for the 17" MacBook Pro), and VGA output.

It will be a cool runner, too, because the ULV Atom chips generate less hear to start with, while Intel's laminar wall jet technology uses louvered inlets to quietly jet cool air across the notebook's bottom.

Neither the Acer 11.6" Aspire One's price nor release date have been announced yet, but speculative estimates are ranging from $500 to $700. Quite an enticing bargain - at the lower end of that especially - but a decent replacement for the 12" PowerBook? It's the right size, weighs a lot less, and should be a much speedier better performer than the old G4, even with the low-power consumption Atom processor.

What do you think?

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Charles Moore has been a freelance journalist since 1987 and began writing for Mac websites in May 1998. His The Road Warrior column was a regular feature on MacOpinion, he is news editor at Applelinks.com and a columnist at MacPrices.net. If you find his articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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