First take: The Core 2 Duo MacBook is fast as all get out

And it's on the market just in time for the holidays

A riddle: What's black or white and fast as all get out?

Answer: Apple Computer Inc.'s latest MacBook.

Announced last week, already on store shelves and measuring up well not only to its predecessor but to its big brothers in the MacBook Pro lineup, the new MacBook is an even better value than the model it replaces. With a notable speed boost from the new Core 2 Duo processor, more standard RAM and larger hard drives, the MacBook arrived just ahead of the holiday shopping season. It's as if (insert your holiday icon of choice here) had arrived early.

A prediction: Apple will sell a ton of these, an expectation not at all lost on Apple bigwigs, who rushed to tout their new consumer line as soon as it was released. Yes, they readily acknowledged, they wanted to get the updated model out before the holiday shopping season. That makes sense given the upsurge in sales of Apple's laptops this year.

The MacBook in hand was offered up by Apple for review purposes, and true to form, the powers that be sent out a top-of-the-line model. Dressed in stately black, it was tricked out with a 160GB hard drive and maxed out with 2GB of RAM. If you bought it that way from the Apple store, you'd pay $1,774 -- a fair jump from the basic black version's $1,499 price tag. And it's not that far away from the 15-in. MacBook Pro, which starts at $1,999.

That's a lot of money for a consumer machine, especially since $150 of that price is just so you can get it in black. But this is more than a mere consumer laptop. Aside from the shared graphics memory -- which is an issue only if you're heavy into gaming or planning to run Windows Vista with its high hardware requirements -- the MacBook specs are top-notch.

There are three MacBooks to choose from, although you can customize them in variety of ways. The base model, in white only, goes for $1,099 and offers a 1.83-GHz Core 2 Duo chip; 512MB of RAM; a 60GB hard drive; a combo drive that burns and plays CDs and plays DVDs; a built-in iSight webcam; and the usual retinue of features such as 802.11g wireless networking, Bluetooth, Apple's two-finger scrolling trackpad and its Sudden Motion Sensor technology.

But if I were buying, I'd go for the next model up: It's $200 more, but it has a 2-GHz Core 2 Duo chip (with twice the Level 2 cache); twice the RAM; 33% more storage space, with an 80GB hard drive and a dual-layer SuperDrive that burns and plays both CDs and DVDs. You can add on from there if you want Apple to boost the RAM to 2GB (add $175) or bump up the hard drive for more storage (add $150 to $350 depending on how much more you want). It also comes in white only.

If you want the extra cool factor of the flat black model, you'll have to pay. Cool costs -- though not quite as much as it did for the first generation MacBook. Sure, you get a 120GB hard drive, 50% more than in the midrange model, but otherwise the hardware is exactly the same as the mid-range model. There is one other difference: Unlike the white models, the black version seems to show fingerprints more, though they clean up easily. (Who knew fingertips could be so greasy?)

What price (black) beauty? In this case, $50. That's because if you opted for the mid-range model -- and upgraded to a 120GB hard drive -- you'd pay $1,449; $50 more now gets you that same upgrade -- and the black casing.

All three models come with what has to be among the brightest and sharpest LCD screens Apple uses in a laptop. The 1,280-by-800-pixel resolution is perfectly appropriate for the 13.3-in. widescreen LCD, and the glossy finish has grown on me a lot since Apple first unveiled it last spring. If you don't like glossy screens, you're out of luck when it comes to the MacBook; Apple only offers a matte finish on its LCD screens on the MacBook Pro line. Fortunately, the sheen isn't as reflective as on some of the screens used on Windows-based laptops, and the resulting vibrancy of colors is worth it. (My next laptop, a 17-in. MacBook Pro on its way now, has a glossy screen. Full report on that one next week.)

The MacBook keyboard up close.

The MacBook keyboard up close. Something else I've warmed up to -- or maybe just grown accustomed to -- is the keyboard on the MacBook. It's the same keyboard that was introduced in the first MacBook, and when I tried it out in May, I found it a little hard to use. The keys are flat and the small gap between them threw off my typing a little. I haven't noticed that with the MacBook this time around. And the fact that this keyboard doesn't lift out like the one in the old iBook adds to the overall solid feel of the MacBook. It's not heavy at 5.2 lb. but it feels hefty -- in a good way -- when being carried.

Another feature of the MacBook that I like is the latch -- or rather, the lack thereof. Unlike the MacBook Pro, which has a narrow button in the front that I sometimes have to fumble with, the MacBook lid lifts with a simple tug. And it closes with a solid thump, once again leaving you with the sense this is a well-built laptop.

One of the selling points of Apple hardware now that it's using Intel chips is that buyers have the best of both worlds when it comes to software. Macs run Mac OS X, of course, as well as Windows, both XP and Vista (though Vista isn't yet fully supported) meaning you're all set if you need to run the occasional Windows program. I haven't tried Apple's Boot Camp software on the MacBook, but using the Parallels virtualization app, I fired up both Windows XP and Vista with no problems. (The internal cooling fans, however, did come on when Vista was running and CoreDuoTemp showed a temperature spike to 139 degrees. It was the only time I've noticed the fans running and any significant heat increase.) Just don't look for the hardware-demanding "Aero" look in Vista -- the MacBook's shared graphics don't support it.

But why would you want to deal with Windows anyway? You're much more likely to stay on the Mac OS X side of things, especially since Apple's next operating system, Mac OS X 10.5, "Leopard," is due out by next spring. Leopard will be a 64-bit operating system. The Core 2 Duo chip is a 64-bit processor; 64-bit OS, meet 64-bit processor. User, enjoy.

The MacBook and a MacBook Pro.

The MacBook and a MacBook Pro. In fact, it's that new processor that makes the MacBook such a powerhouse. Apple's testing showed it to be about 25% faster in some tests than its predecessor. In day-to-day use, it runs seemingly as fast as my current 17-in. Core Duo MacBook Pro -- and that one has a processor with a slightly faster clock speed: 2.16 GHz. I ran my favorite benchmarking test using Xbench to get an idea of how the new MacBook stacks up and it confirmed what I found in regular use. The MacBook scored higher. The 17-incher, no slouch in the speed department, scored a 90 on Xbench; the MacBook turned in a score of 103. That's just shy of the 108 score a new 15-in. MacBook Pro returned when I tested it a couple of weeks ago -- and it had the 2.33-GHz Core 2 Duo.

The MacBook's glossy screen offers rich color saturation.

The MacBook's glossy screen offers rich color saturation. In other words, Apple's smallest laptop may be missing a few of the features now standard on MacBook Pros -- the lighted keyboard, discrete video RAM, the aluminum shell, higher-resolution screens and expansion options such as FireWire 800 and the Expresscard/34 slot. But in plain ol' performance, the new MacBook can more than keep up with its siblings.

Given that a MacBook Pro costs between $1,999 and $2,799 or more depending on how it's configured, Apple's newest MacBook, particularly the midrange, $1,299 model, is the pick of the pack. The $200 price difference between it and the base model is more than offset by a better feature set. And while black may be the cool choice, it's a pricey one. If anyone asks why you didn't get the top-end MacBook, just tell them white is the new black and spend your savings on more RAM, put it toward a backup hard drive -- or just stick it in the bank and start saving for your next Mac.

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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