Mac Musings

The 2008 MacBook Value Equation

Daniel Knight - 2008.02.28

Since January, Apple has introduced an entirely new notebook model, the MacBook Air, and refreshed the MacBook and MacBook Pro lines.

We looked at the MacBook Pro value equation yesterday, and we were surprised to discover that in terms of performance vs. price, the close-out prices on the 2007 models offered better value than the new ones. That's unusual, as we usually find the new models offer slightly better value.

Today we're looking at the new MacBook models, which are based on the new Penryn CPU, which has a smaller level 2 cache (3 MB vs. 4 MB) but an improved SSE4 velocity engine. The new consumer notebooks have bigger hard drives, higher clock speeds (but not by much), and the faster models have twice as much RAM.

The Last 3 Revisions

Five months ago, the then-current MacBook (introduced last May) had 2.0 GHz and 2.16 GHz CPUs, 80-160 GB hard drives, and 1 GB of standard RAM. Four months ago, Apple replaced these with 'Santa Rosa' models that ran at 2.0 GHz or 2.2 GHz, introduced a new graphics chip, and otherwise matched the specs of the models they replaced. We really couldn't get excited over the 2% boost in CPU speed.

Apple has improved clock speed yet again, but not quite what we would have expected. The new models run at 2.1 GHz and 2.4 GHz, for a 5% and 9% speed boost over the October MacBooks. With the smaller L2 cache, there may not be a perceptible speed difference.

Where Apple has really improved things is on the hard drive front. The entry-level MacBook now has a 120 GB hard drive, 50% more spacious than last year's model. And the top-end black MacBook has a whopping 250 GB hard drive, which provides room for 56% more data than the 160 GB drive in last year's black MacBook.

What About Value?

Apple has maintained the same price structure since the MacBook was first introduced: $1,099 for a slightly slower model with a Combo drive, $1,299 for a faster white model with a SuperDrive and a slightly larger hard drive, and $1,499 for a black MacBook with an even larger hard drive. That hasn't changed.

Traditionally the difference in clock speed has been 167 MHz or 200 MHz; this is the first time we've seen a 300 MHz difference, which translates to 14% more processing power. The middle model has 40 GB more storage space, 1 GB more RAM, and 14% more horsepower at an 18% higher price than the 2.1 GHz MacBook. That makes it the value champion in the new line, although at $200 less the entry-level model has nearly the same value.

As always, there's a $200 premium for the black MacBook, which, as always, is no faster than the white MacBook in the middle of the line. All you gain is a much bigger hard drive (250 GB vs. 160 GB) and a beautiful black package. I really is gorgeous, and if Apple didn't charge such a high premium for black, it would be more popular than white.

New vs. Discontinued

We were pleasantly surprised to discover how much Apple had slashed prices of the 2007 MacBook Pro models when we did yesterday's Value Equation piece. Let's see what things look like on the MacBook front.

Best prices on the 2008 MacBooks are $1,019, $1,219, and $1,394 after mail-in rebates. Here's what we found for the earlier Santa Rosa models:

At the bottom, you can save $100. You lose 5% in CPU speed and 40 GB of hard drive space. Value? We'd have to call it a tie. Although that's not a lot more speed, the extra 40 GB is a real plus.

In the middle, you save $150 with the 2007 Santa Rosa MacBook while sacrificing 9% of CPU speed. You also gain 1 GB of RAM and 40 GB of storage space, but the 120 GB in last year's model is much more likely to be sufficient than the 80 GB found in the entry-level MacBook. We give the edge to the 2008 model mostly because 2 GB of RAM means most users won't have to upgrade. There is a perceptible speed difference, although not a big one.

And then there's the black MacBook, which has a humongous $400 price difference. That's the hot model among close-out MacBooks. You can buy a 250 GB hard drive for under $100, and going to 2 GB of RAM will only set you back about $45 ($90 to go all the way to 4 GB). In the end, you still save $240 after upgrading the 2006 black Santa Rosa MacBook. Considering there's only a 9% difference if CPU speed, it's the hands down winner.


And then there are Apple refurbs, which carry the same warranty as brand new models. The 2.0 GHz Santa Rosa is in stock at $849, making it a great buy for an entry-level notebook Mac. It's a steal.

Apple also has 2.16 GHz and 2.2 GHz white MacBooks at $949 and $999 respectively. Compare that to $1,219 after rebate for the 2.4 GHz white MacBook, and you're saving $220-270. Once again, refurbished is the way to go if you really want value and don't need maximum speed.

The Apple Store also has refurbished black MacBooks: $999 for the 2.16 GHz model and $1,049 for the 2.2 GHz one. These are great prices, although not that much better than Mac Connection's after-rebate price on a new-in-box unit. While their inventories last, I'd probably pick new from Mac Connection (or $1,119 from over refurbs from Apple, since Apple collects sales tax (6% in Michigan) and neither Mac Connection nor do.

Of all the models available refurbished, we give the nod to the 2.2 GHz black MacBook, as it has better graphics (although not much better speed) compared to the 2.16 GHz model. If you've been lusting after a black MacBook, now is the time to buy.