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Review: 13-inch MacBook laptop a top choice

  • Story Highlights
  • Modest performance gains and new Leopard OS from Apple's 13-inch MacBook
  • No Express card or SD card slots
  • Only more expensive models are available in black
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By Dan Ackerman
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CNET.com

(CNET.com) -- Introduced in the fall of 2006, the current version of Apple's 13-inch MacBook laptop was a revolutionary product, combining Intel's Core 2 Duo CPUs with Apple's much-lauded operating system. Add in Apple extras such as the iSight camera, Front Row remote, iLife software, and MagSafe power adapter, and you have what is arguably one of the best-loved laptops on the planet.

Since then, Apple has been content to issue minor periodic hardware upgrades, which, while not all that exciting, continue to add CPU horsepower while keeping prices steady.

The latest update, from November 2007, bumped up the top available CPU to a 2.2GHz Intel Core 2 Duo, and added Intel's Santa Rosa platform and slightly better integrated graphics, resulting in a modest boost in performance.

But you'll probably be much more interested in Apple's new Leopard version of its OS X operating system, which comes preinstalled on new MacBooks. It adds a handful of useful new features, keeping the MacBook in our top tier of laptop recommendations, even if we're secretly itching for something new.

While the $1,099 entry-level MacBook is available only in white, we're much more used to seeing the black version (starting at $1,499) in the wild. The matte black look still isn't quite as sharp as the metallic MacBook Pro, but we still like it better than the plastic-looking white finish.

Inside, you'll find Apple's typically minimalist setup, including a power button, a full-size keyboard, a sizable touch pad with a single mouse button, and a built-in iSight camera that sits above the display. If you miss the scroll bar found on almost every Windows laptops, the two-finger scroll option works well (run two fingers down the touch pad, and it scrolls like a mouse wheel).

We remain fans of Apple's flat-key keyboard, although Windows users will have to get used to a Delete key that functions like a PC Backspace key, and no standalone equivalent key for what PCs call Delete. Compared with previous MacBooks, the main visual difference is that a few of the alternate functions on the F keys have been juggled around.

Don't Miss

The biggest new feature is the inclusion of Apple's latest version of OS X, commonly known as Leopard.

The look and feel are largely unchanged, but several useful new features have been added, including Time Machine, an easy-to-use backup utility; Spaces, which allows you to set up multiple desktops (one with all your media apps open or one for Web pages) and swap between them on the fly; and Quick Look, which lets you open a fast preview version of any document or file without waiting for their associated applications to open.

The MacBook still includes the Front Row remote control (sadly, only available in white), and the extremely handy MagSafe power adapter, which handily (and safely) detaches itself from a magnetic plug on the laptop's side when you invariably trip over the power cord.

The 13.3-inch wide-screen LCD display offers a clear and easy to read 1,280x800 native resolution, which is standard for a screen this size, as well as most 14- and 15-inch laptops (although Apple's 15-inch MacBook Pro offers a higher 1,440x900 resolution).

Apple's previous revision added support for 802.11n Wi-Fi technology, but the lack of an SD card reader remains one of the MacBook's few weak spots. Adding mobile broadband -- not offered by Apple -- will also be difficult without an Express card slot.

Not surprisingly, we saw a decent uptick in performance from the new 2.2GHz Intel Core 2 Duo CPU, with the new system beating the earlier 2.16GHz MacBook in each of our benchmark tests.

If you have a previous generation MacBook, the difference isn't enough to make you want to go out and get a new one, but credit goes to both the fast CPU and Intel's Santa Rosa platform for the improvement. Note that our review unit came with 2GB of RAM, a $150 upgrade over the default 1GB offered in even the $1,499 MacBook.

The MacBook ran for 4 hours and 30 minutes on our DVD battery drain test, which is even longer than the 3 hours and 36 minutes we got on the older 2.16GHz MacBook. We again give credit to the efficient Santa Rosa platform, and because our DVD battery drain test is especially grueling, you can expect even longer life from casual Web surfing and office use.

We're still not fans of Apple's nearly obligatory extended warranty upsell. The default warranty for the MacBook is one year of coverage for parts and labor, but toll-free telephone support is limited to a mere 90 days - -well short of what you'd typically find on the PC side -- unless you purchase the $249 AppleCare Protection Plan, which extends phone support and repair coverage to three years. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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