Mac Musings

The Nvidia MacBook White Value Equation

Daniel Knight - 2009.01.22 -

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This week's update of the MacBook White was unexpected, since Apple last refreshed the polycarbonate MacBook just three months ago.

The 2009 MacBook White looks like all the previous white MacBooks, but there are some significant changes under the hood. The biggest difference is the inclusion of Nvidia GeForce 9400M graphics, the same video circuitry introduced with the Unibody MacBook in October 2008. The revised MacBook White also moves from an 800 MHz system bus to 1066 MHz.

However, not everything is a step forward. Where the entry-level Penryn MacBook and the previous MacBook White had 2.1 GHz CPUs, the new model runs at 2.0 GHz. However, this is a newer version of the Core 2 Duo CPU, so it may actually outperform the earlier 2.1 GHz models. And in contrast to the Unibody MacBooks, the MacBook White continues to use PC5300 DDR2 memory on a 667 MHz memory bus - and ships with 2 GB, twice as much as the 2008 MacBook White.

Perhaps the most surprising thing of all is that the 2009 MacBook White includes a FireWire 400 port, the only portable Mac so equipped, and has a Mini DVI port for an external display rather than the newer Mini DisplayPort found on all other current MacBooks (Unibody, Pro, and Air).

Because the MacBook White uses DVI for video rather than DisplayPort, the maximum resolution supported on an external display is 1920 x 1200, not the 2560 x 1600 allowed on the Unibody MacBook.

Core Value

For those seeking an affordable MacBook, the new US$999 model offers a lot. It should have comparable performance to the 2.0 GHz Unibody MacBook, although memory access may be a bit slower. At $300 less than the low-end Unibody MacBook, it provides a lot of value. (For $50 more, you can have the MacBook White equipped with the same 160 GB drive as the Unibody model.)

For those who have an external display, the Mini DVI adapters for DVI and VGA cost $10 less than the DisplayPort adapters, another small saving. And if you happen to have a monitor with Mini DVI, you avoid the cost of an adapter.

For those with FireWire peripherals or who want to use FireWire Target Disk Mode, the MacBook White is Apple's only notebook option below the $1,999 price point - and the Unibody MacBook Pro models now require a FireWire 800 to FireWire 400 adapter or cable to work with "regular" FireWire hardware.

2008 vs. 2009

I updated the MacBook price tracker yesterday and checked prices again this morning. A few more dealers have pricing for the 2009 Nvidia model, and a few less list the 2008 MacBook White. Surprisingly, at this point nobody is blowing out the old model with its Intel X3100 graphics.

At essentially the same price, there is no reason to choose the 2008 MacBook White over the 2009 edition, and the new model should force down used prices on the 2006 through 2008 models.

Apple does have some refurbished MacBook inventory. You can buy the 2008 MacBook White for $849 - about $95 less than the best price on the 2009 Nvidia version. For about $20, you can match the 2 GB memory configuration of the new model, resulting in a $75 overall saving.

The big difference is graphics, and gamers have the most to lose by choosing the 2008 MacBook over the new model with Nvidia graphics. Although the GeForce 9400M isn't as good as the 9600M GT found in the MacBook Pro models, it is significantly more powerful than the Intel X3100 graphics processor found in recent MacBooks. Bare Feats, never one to hold back its honest opinion, calls the 9400M "not as pathetic" as the X3100 for 3D gaming - and for anything else, it is a substantial improvement as well.

Although we haven't yet seen benchmark comparisons of the new MacBook vs. the old one, we're confident that there won't be any area where the 2009 model is perceptibly slower than the 2008 model - that 5% difference in CPU clock speed is something you'll need a benchmark to see.

Unless you are absolutely strapped for cash, the 2009 MacBook White with its Nvidia graphics is worth the small price premium over a refurbished 2008 MacBook White.

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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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