Since it first replaced the iBook in 2006, the MacBook narrows the performance gap between Apple's consumer and professional laptop lines with each new update. Apple last updated the MacBooks in November 2007, bringing with it an improved hardware architecture, faster system bus and more robust graphics. The changes in the MacBooks released last week aren't as significant as the November 2007 updates, but the changes still add extra oomph to Apple's consumer laptop.

What's inside

The new MacBooks use either a 2.1GHz or 2.4GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor (up from 2.0GHz and 2.2GHz, respectively) with 3MB of L2 cache shared between the processor's two cores. Previously, the MacBooks had 4MB of L2 cache, but the new Penryn processors inside the new MacBooks work efficiently with the smaller cache.

The 2.1GHz MacBook comes with 1GB of RAM. The 2.4GHz MacBooks (one white, the other black) come with 2GB; the models they replaced came with 1GB. All MacBooks support to up 4GB of RAM. As before, Apple recommends installing RAM in matched pairs into the two RAM slots for best performance with the integrated graphics system (the MacBooks come with two 512MB or two 1GB SO-DIMMs, and if you want to upgrade your RAM after purchase, you'll have to replace both SO-DIMMs for the best results). Although the frontside bus runs at 800MHz, the MacBooks continue to use RAM rated at 667MHz.

The new MacBooks use the same graphics chip as before, the Intel GMA X3100, which doesn't have dedicated video RAM. The MacBooks use 144MB of RAM from the main system memory, making the 2GB models even more appealing. The graphics processor can power an external display at up to 1,920x1,200 pixels to either mirror or extend the desktop (using an external display brings the shared memory used up to 160MB). To connect to any external display, you need to purchase one of Apple's video adapters (mini-DVI to DVI or mini-DVI to VGA).

As with the previous-generation MacBooks, the keyboard has media control keys located along the function key row. The keyboard has a springy yet solid feel to it, and offers a bit more tactile and audible feedback than early MacBook models. Unfortunately, you won't find the touted MultiTouch trackpad on any MacBook. If you really have the need to pinch, swipe, and rotate on the trackpad, you have to turn to the MacBook Pro or the MacBook Air.

The only difference between the £829 white 2.4GHz MacBook and the £949 black 2.4GHz MacBook (except for price and colour, obviously) is the black model's larger hard drive storage capacity. All MacBooks get a boost in hard drive size to 120GB, 160GB, and 250GB, from 80GB, 120GB, and 160GB respectively. All of the drives run at 5,400 rpm.

Most of the other components in the new MacBooks are the same as their older counterparts. All models have a 13.3in glossy widescreen display with a 1,280x800-pixel resolution, built-in iSight camera, built-in stereo speakers and microphone, analogue and digital audio input and output, one FireWire 400 and two USB 2.0 ports, 802.11n-enabled AirPort Extreme, Bluetooth 2.0 + EDR, and Gigabit ethernet. The 2.1GHz MacBook has a 24-speed slot-loading combo drive, while the other two MacBooks have an eight-speed slot-loading double-layer SuperDrive. One thing you won't find in the box anymore is the Apple Remote, which is now a paid-for add-on. Software-wise, the MacBooks include OS X 10.5 (Leopard) and iLife '08.

NEXT PAGE: The new MacBook's performance in our labs, plus our expert verdict >>

Performance

We tested the new MacBooks with version 5.0 of Speedmark, the latest incarnation of our standard performance benchmark test. The results showed moderate yet impressive gains - for example, the black 2.4GHz MacBook scored more than nine percent higher overall than its 2.2GHz predecessor. The 2.1GHz MacBook showed an almost eight percent improvement over the 2GHz MacBook it replaces. Perhaps most interesting, the 2.1GHz MacBook scored one point higher overall than the older 2.2GHz black MacBook, even with a slightly slower processor speed.

In our other tests, the 2.4GHz MacBooks consistently outperformed the old 2.2GHz MacBooks (except for a one-second lag in our Photoshop test) by as much as 12 percent, although sometimes by just a single second. Some of the better results came with processor-intensive multimedia programs. Compressor and Cinema 4D XL performed very well, and HandBrake testing showed the 2.1GHz MacBook besting the previous high-end MacBook by nearly seven percent. The 2.1GHz MacBook beat or tied the older 2.2GHz MacBook in five of the eight additional tests.

Unreal Tournament 2004 framerates for all new MacBooks improved negligibly and still lingered under 30 frames per second (fps) - not the kind of thing that will cause gamers to pick up a new MacBook. By contrast, the new 2.4GHz MacBook Pro pumped out more than 2.5 times as many fps as the 2.4GHz MacBooks, benefited by a much heftier graphics processor that includes 256MB of dedicated video RAM.

In my hands-on testing, launching programs took slightly longer on the slower, 2.1GHz MacBook than on the 2.4GHz MacBook, especially with lots of applications running. Part of this can be attributed to the 1GB RAM that ships with the 2.1GHz model.

Apple MacBook 2.1/2.4GHz 13-inch: Specs

  • 2.1GHz MacBook (white): £699
  • 2.1GHz Intel Core 2 Duo
  • 1GB memory
  • 120GB hard-disk drive
  • combo drive
  • 13in display
  • 2.4GHz MacBook (white): £829
  • 2.4GHz Intel Core 2 Duo
  • 2GB memory
  • 160GB hard-disk drive
  • double-layer SuperDrive
  • 13in display
  • 2.4GHz MacBook (black): £949
  • 2.4GHz intel Core 2 Duo
  • 2GB memory
  • 250GB hard-disk drive
  • double-layer SuperDrive
  • 13in display
  • 2.1GHz MacBook (white): £699
  • 2.1GHz Intel Core 2 Duo
  • 1GB memory
  • 120GB hard-disk drive
  • combo drive
  • 13in display
  • 2.4GHz MacBook (white): £829
  • 2.4GHz Intel Core 2 Duo
  • 2GB memory
  • 160GB hard-disk drive
  • double-layer SuperDrive
  • 13in display
  • 2.4GHz MacBook (black): £949
  • 2.4GHz intel Core 2 Duo
  • 2GB memory
  • 250GB hard-disk drive
  • double-layer SuperDrive
  • 13in display

OUR VERDICT

The new MacBooks represent some progress - PowerBook and even some first-generation MacBook users will definitely see substantial improvement over their current systems. If you just bought a MacBook a few months ago, however, you won't be kicking yourself for buying too early, since the differences between the two aren't that great. The 2.1GHz MacBook is a capable system, but for £130 more you can get a faster processor, bigger hard drive, SuperDrive, and - perhaps most important - an extra 1GB of RAM. That money is well worth it considering all the upgrades. There’s no denying the allure of the black model, with its sleek matte finish and quarter-terabyte hard drive - if you can afford the price difference, it’s a nice choice.

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