Apple MacBook 13.3" Laptop - MB881LL/A (January, 2009)
(6 Epinions reviews)
Epinions Product Rating:
The Love & Hate
Jul 15, 2009 (Updated Jul 20, 2009)
Review by Guy Techie
Rated a Very Helpful Review
User Rating: OK
Ease of Use:
Quality of Tech Support:
Pros:Surprisingly slick and quick interface, easy to use
Cons:Limiting hardware (2 USB ports, missing keys, trackpad), bad customer service, bad quality control
The Bottom Line: Great software marred by bad hardware quality and customer service.
My Long Story
Recommend this product?
Yeah, you can skip this intro if you want more MacBook meat, but it does tells you how to get a good deal on one if you are on the fence, and if you still have an old school ID or find a way to make one. :)
I am a hardcore PC enthusiest through and through. As such, I'm a curious one. I've dabbled in Linux, a bit of MacOS, a little BeOS, tried some ReactOS, and other operating systems. However, I've never used the Mac OS on it's native hardware for any extended period of time.
Well, one day, I found myself at an Apple Store in downtown Chicago (sales tax is high for sure! 10.25%!). My friend was waiting in line for the new iPhone 3GS, and I was just looking around. Now I have another friend who informed me of a "deal" Microcenter had for the previous version of the MacBook, which only difference (compared to the lowest end MacBook going for $999 now) is a slightly slower CPU (Core 2 Duo 2.0 GHz vs 2.13 GHz) and a slightly smaller HDD (120GB vs 160GB). It was going for $899 before a $150 mail-in rebate, for a total of about $750. However, when I was semi-serious in looking at one, I found the rebate was reduced to $50, which would make a luke-warm deal of $850. Meh...
Now I was just passing time by pestering a sales rep while my friend was doing the iPhone dance with a sales rep (well, to be fair, he came up to me first). I asked if they had anything cheaper than the $999 MacBook - perhaps the older one that had the slower CPU. He said he'd check. After a few minutes, he came back with one. After confirming that the price was $899, I was still in "pestering" mode (just poking for info).
It was when he asked if I was a student, my interest perked. I forgot about the student discount! Soon after, I bust out my school ID. He said I was able to get $50 off the MacBook, and I would also get a "free" 2nd Gen iPod Touch 8GB. It was free after an online rebate, of course, which would mean I would be fronting the cash first. He also offered a printer with a $100 rebate, but I refused. I didn't need another printer, and printers are a harder sell on Craigslist and eBay.
My mental math was - $900 - $50 - $200 (if I sell the Touch $30 under list) = $650. Of course taxes would suck, but it wasn't a bad deal. In fact, for anything Mac, it was a GREAT deal. I'd finally get a reasonably priced Mac!
I didn't need one, but I pulled the trigger. I'm real bad at this impulse buying thing, especially when the price is good (notice I didn't say "right").
Core 2 Duo P7350 2.0 GHz
2GB (2x 1GB) 667MHz PC2-5300 DDR2
nVidia GeForce 9400M 256 MB
120 GB 5400 RPM
Internal slot-loading SuperDrive (DVD recorder)
2x USB 2.0
1x Firewire 400
1x Ethernet (Gigabit)
1x headphone/optical out
1x mic in
1x infrared sensor
AirPort Extreme 802.11a/b/g draft-n (Broadcom chipset)
Mac OS X Leopard 10.5.6
The box is actually a lot smaller than any notebook computer I've bought before. Upon opening it, it doesn't seem as elegantly packed as other Mac products (I've been spoiled by the early gen iPod packaging), but still much better than most notebooks.
The MacBook itself is presented first, wrapped in a thin styrofoam bag. Underneath, you get a small "manual" and two discs (one is for MacOS X 10.5.6, one is for Applications, which is what Apple used to call the iLife suite). The power supply is a small square box located just above the notebook, along with a longer 3-prong cord if you need it. Otherwise, the power supply acts like wall wart.
As with all typical Apple products, the MacBook is elegantly simple in it's overall look, and the power supply is glossy white, matching the glossy white plastic of the MacBook. It does have the MagSafe power connector which connects to the MacBook with a strong magnet instead of your usual connector. They call it "MagSafe" because it's suppose to disconnect from your laptop should someone trip over the power cord instead of yanking your MacBook from the table to the ground.
The Apple logo on the lid actually lights up, which is cool, but can potentially annoy others. I notice it lights up my room in the dark when I use it in bed, so I guess it can act as a night light in my situation. The light on the Apple logo is actually the same light used for the screen's backlight, so it goes off when you close the lid.
The keyboard looks nice with the Chicklet style keys. However, PC users will notice a few keys missing, such as PgUp/Dn, Home/End, Ins/Del, Print Scrn, Scroll Lock, and Pause/Break. The most important ones, such as Del, Home, End, PgUp/Dn are the glaring ones missing. This makes navigation harder when running any varient of Windows via BootCamp and a virtual machine. I also find the keyboard to be mushier compared to other keyboards I've used. It deters a bit from the experience if you type a lot, but it's still functional without much complaints. The keys themselves are full sized.
The trackpad was the largest I've seen on a notebook, especially since this was a 13.3" notebook! The single button is oversized as well, but I am started to have some quality issues with it after a month of ownership. It seems to have a loud click/pop/squeek noise in certain areas, but not always reproducable, and not always in the same spot. The trackpad doesn't seem as response as most trackpads on other PC/Windows laptops.
The glossy screen is nice, and colors seem to pop out of the screen! This is especially true when you first see Apple's default wallpaper. The resolution of 1200x800 is just right for the 13.3" screen size.
Apple put the speakers on the back of the laptop and relies on the sound to bounce off the open lid of the screen. I must say, it doesn't sound as bad as I thought it would. In fact, it's quite servicable. It won't replace a good set of speakers, of course, but it will pleasently surprise you.
The iSight webcam works pretty well, but gets very grainy in low-light situations. At the store, the lighting was very good, and I was very impressed with the pictures and videos it captures. However, at home, the only well-lit place is the kitchen with the powerful flourecent lamps. The living room and bedroom is lit by a single compact flourecent bulb, and the iSight seem to struggle here. The resolution of the video is pretty good, however, at 640x480. The built-in mic (located next to the webcam) is also surprisingly good, picking up my voice at about 2-3 feet away (about how far I sit away from the screen). It also seem to pick up background sounds very well, which may not be great for chatting. However, it's a good omnidirectional mic, as a built-in mic should be. If you wanted a good mic for chat and to cut out background sounds, you'd need a headset with a boom mic anyways.
The MacBook doesn't come with many ports, however. You only get two USB ports! To further insult you, Apple put them really close together! Two standard USB connectors will coexist side by side, but anything even remotely wider, and you will be bumping the connectors together. I found it very limiting when I wanted to use my USB flash drive and sync my iPhone, all while wanting to avoid the touchpad by using a USB mouse! I'll gladly give up Firewire for another USB port!
The Mini-DVI port saves space on the laptop, I guess, but this requires you to purchase a Mini-DVI to DVI or Mini-DVI to VGA converter at $20 each! I found out you cannot use the DVI converter with a DVI-to-VGA converter, so Apple is forcing you to buy BOTH converters if you need to connect to different monitors and TVs! I decided to only get the DVI converter since I'm trusting that we are moving forward and away from VGA sometime soon. The way I see it, all HDTVs have either DVI or HDMI (which DVI is based off), but not all of them have VGA.
The first time I turned on the MacBook, I was greeted with a video that basically stylized the word "Welcome" in multiple languages. Then, it asked for my basic info, such as name, address, and email. Then you are greeted with a clean desktop with a mostly purple aura wallpaper.
It took a while for a Windows enthusiest such as myself to get used to the Mac ways. For example, the close and minimize buttons are on the left side of the title bar instead of the right. Also, the "+" button doesn't really maximize the window. Instead, it makes it "as big as it needs to be" (at least that is what Mac users told me). The Mac philosophy is that everything is a floating window, and a window that takes up the entire screen prohibits multitasking.
I find it hard to multitask without a Windows-like Taskbar. The Windows Taskbar allows you to switch to a program you want directly. The Dock on the Mac OS does not behave the same way as the Taskbar at all, so if you're used to switching windows this way, you must quickly unlearn this habit! Instead, you need to hit F3 key, which Apple calls "Expose". It takes all the currently open windows and space them out so you can see everything that's open and running. You can then click on the program you want in the foreground.
I found myself using iTunes a lot more on the MacBook than on my PC because it is much more responsive on the Mac. I've actually moved my music library to my laptop, but kept my podcasts on my server since it is always on and constantly updating to get the latest podcasts.
Safari is the included web browser, but you can also install third party browsers such as FireFox. However, after using Safari, I feel it's as good as FireFox, Google Chrome, and Internet Explorer. I have not run into any web pages that did not work under Safari just yet. The few that does not, I can use FireFox instead. Flash seems to be already built-in either on the OS or Safari itself, as I did not have to download any plugins to get flash-heavy sites to work, such as YouTube and Toyota's web site. The default view is a wall of recently visited web pages. I find this a very nice alternative to the single home page. You can remove pages you do not wish to show up, or pin them so they always appear in the same spot.
I keep hitting the wrong keys sometimes to activate shortcut keys and menus, since I'm from the Windows world. Ctrl and Alt are now replaced by Command and Option. Apple does have an Alt key, but it doesn't seem to do the same thing as the Alt key on a Windows machine.
Navigating around web pages and documents without the PgUp/Dn and Home/End keys was a bit frustrating. And deciphering the symbols in menus that corresponds to the special key modifers (Alt, Option, Command) is an excercise in itself.
I also had to get used to the trackpad, which does not scroll on the side of the pad like you'd expect from the PC world. Instead, you put two fingers on the pad and move up or down. To right-click, hold two fingers on the pad and click on the single button. Tapping the pad does nothing unless you change the default behavior in the Mac OS's Control Panel equivilent, the System Preferences.
Setting up Windows with BootCamp was actually pretty easy! Just run the BootCamp Assistant and away you go! It automatically partitions the drive and asks you to put in the Windows CD, then it restarts the machine and boots right off the CD. I've installed Windows XP, Vista, and 7, all without a problem. Also, since the MacBook uses a Core 2 Duo T7350, you can also run 64-bit versions of these OSes. The Mac OS X installation DVD have the drivers included, but those who installed a 64-bit Windows will be mistakenly told that it is no supported. In fact, if you navigate through the disk using Explorer, you will find the setup file for the 64-bit drivers.
Here's a tip: Download Sun VirtualBox! It's free, unlike VMWare and Parallels, and it also has a "seamless" mode that makes Windows applications look ike they are running right on the Mac OS desktop! It is a bit sluggish, but then again, there is an emulation layer you're going through, and you are sharing resources with the Mac OS.
The included iLife '09 is amazing! I barely use them all! In fact, I haven't really touched Garage Band or iDVD or iMovie yet. I am not exactly the creative type. However, I did try iPhotos and I love the way you can organize photos easily! It goes great with the iPhone's on-the-go camera as it is compatible with the GPS info tagged with every photo you take. You can easily tag photos with keywords, and also assign names to faces! iPhoto seems to be able to recognize the faces on other photos and will add the tag on those photos, so you can search and find that person easily! When you make albums and sync them to your iPhone, the albums are also organize the same way on the iPhone as it was in iPhoto!
iPhoto also have a few great and easy tools included that cost so much in a full-fledge photo editing program. You can trim/crop, enhance, color-correct, add effects (such as make it sepia or black and white), and of course, red-eye removal! It's no wonder everyone seem to prefer the Mac for managing media!
I have to say, iTunes for the Mac is much better than the PC version! It's quick, and seem to get album arts more reliably than the PC version. It also seems to recognize devices quicker than the Windows version. I've plugged in my iPhone, my iPod Touch, as well as a friend's iPod nano - all without any issues, and all detected nearly instantaneously. The PC version seem to wait a bit before it recognized anything. Also, general navigation is quick, while the PC version seem to wait a second or two before your mouse clicks do anything.
As a Windows enthusiest, I found it a bit daunting to learn to connect to my shared folders and printers, but was able to Google the information. My boss at work is a Mac-head himself, and was estatic to have another one converted. He showed me how to connect to our company's Windows NT-based domain, as well as a few power-user utlities and tips, including a few Dashboard applets, such as a screenshot utility and a hardware monitoring utility (CPU utilization/temp, fan speed, internal and external IP address, etc).
Speaking of Dashboard, it's a nicer way of incorporating "widgets", compared to Windows. Instead of always visible on your desktop or the sidebar, it's not there on the Mac OS until you hit a key on the keyboard! You can quickly use the calculator, check the date/time, weather, or with other applets, you can take screenshots, check up on your hardware statistics, and more, depending on the applet you have installed.
I'm starting to find Mac-equivilent programs to fill in my needs, such as Chicken of the VNC for my VNC needs, as well as the Mac version of the MSN Messenger. There is also a Mac version of a codec pack that allows you to watch/listen to most of the popular media formats out there in Quicktime.
I've also installed the only Mac game I had (both Mac and PC version on the same disc). It's an older game, so I had to download a Mac OS X specific installer, but Starcraft by Blizzard installed just fine, and ran flawlessly!
For those of you who play games in Windows, I tried Demigod on Windows 7 in BootCamp. It was a bit choppy, but after turning down all the graphical eye candy, I was able to run it relatively smoothly at the native 1200x800 resolution. The GeForce 9400M is quite good with occasional gaming, as long as they are of the "casual" type (such as Star Wars Legos). Battlefield 2142 being an older game seem to run fine as well. I just purchased Call of Duty World at War, so I'd be interested in how it will perform. I will report back when I get a chance to play.
The keyboard and trackpad does needs some getting used to, but even after using it everyday as my go-to laptop, I found it annoying. I don't like the fact I don't have those extra navigation keys. I didn't realize how much I used them until they were gone! However, this is he Apple way, since even their desktop keyboards mimic exactly how this MacBook keyboard is as well (chicklet keys, the layout, the number of buttons, etc). The full-sized keyboard for the desktops don't even have the number pad to the right! Of course, they do make one at the same price, but the ones included with the iMac are the "compact" ones without the number pad, much like the MacBook and MacBook Pros.
The trackpad is still giving me usability issues with the single mouse button, but I'm getting used to the scrolling with two fingers on the pad. In fact, I find it more natural this way. However, the scroll seems to be slow. I find myself swiping a few times to move just a few lines of text. Also, it deveolped a popping/clicking/squeeking noise when the trackpad button is pushed. It doesn't happen all the time, and sometimes the spot where it makes that noise moves. Talk about quality control... Come on... this is an Apple product!
Changing what OS to boot to via BootCamp isn't that intuitive either. I had to Google to find out I had to push and hold down the Option key while booting up to do this. The BootCamp Assist did not mention this during the setup. However, you can set which OS to boot by default in System Preferences (click on the Boot Camp icon).
There is also a matter of heat. When the CPU is only 40% utilized, the CPU can get up to 65c, which the fans would kick up and make a lot of noise (spinning at 6200 RPMs). I find that the situation happens more often than not, such as when watching a YouTube video, or compressing/decompressing files and video. Apple touts their low end MacBook as a good media organizer still, so the CPU does get utilized quite a bit.
Gaming, which utilizes the GPU heavily, also invokes the loud fan. The exhaust vent is mostly obstructed by the lid's hinge. While asthetically pleasing to not see gaping holes for vents, I think it really hinders the MacBook to get adaquate cooling. The entire back is where Apple decided to put things that requires grates, such as the exhaust vents and speakers.
Also, don't forget the limited USB ports, and how close they are put together!
The amazing thing about the MacBook is how easy it is to upgrade your memory and hard drive. I mean, that's all you really can do with a laptop, Apple or not. Apple made it surprisingly easy to do that! It's a surprise because Apple is known for not allowing their customers to easily do anything except to just use their products.
However, on the MacBook, you just pop the battery out (you need a coin to twist and unlock the battery), and undo three small screws on an L-shaped metal piece and removing it. After which, you can pull out memory by pulling on the latches. Popping memory in is just as just popping them in and firmly pushing them into place.
The hard drive will require you to pull on a tab to pull the hard drive out. You then need a special drive bit to remove the small cage from the old drive, put it on the new drive, then slide it back in. Or you can do what I did when I didn't have the special drive bit and just use Scotch tape to make your own tab on stick it on your new drive, then slide the drive in. I was still able to pull the drive out with this monkey engineering.
After you're done, just reverse the process with the L-shaped metal cover, and replace the battery.
I upgraded the 2x 1 GB DDR2 667 memory with 2x 2GB DDR2 800 memory, as well as upgrading the HDD from 120GB to 320GB!
Installing the Mac OS X from scratch was easy, too! You don't need to worry about drivers like you do with a PC. Just boot from the DVD and follow the steps. The only "hard" part is partitioning the drive, since there really isn't any hand-holding on this part. If you have ever had to partition your drive on a PC, this is not hard to figure out on the Mac, either.
However, it takes FOREVER to install the Mac OS X. It first checks the entire DVD t make sure it is still good at what seems to be 2x speeds, then the actual copying takes place, which also took a very long time. It took about an hour or so for the entire process! And don't forget to install the applications (iLife '09) afterwards, as it is a seperate DVD!
The OS installation is easy, but takes forever!
Overall, the Mac OS X is an excellent operating system. I am starting to find that it is easy to use, and also very media and social-network aware (good with metadata tags, recognizing faces in photos, geotagging, uploading to YouTube and Flicker, etc). While I am used to many of the Mac OS X quirks, I still cannot get used to the Dock! I find it very hard to switch to a particular window when I have multiple windows open. I've been using the Expose feature to switch right now, so I guess that's how Apple intended it to be.
I am also finding that the Mac OS X can be as advanced as you want it to be, since it is based off Unix. My Mac-head boss showed me how you can install an apt-get like program to download Linux programs and dependencies so I could run Linux applications! This makes getting programs very much Ubuntu-like in experience!
So yes, I love the Mac OS X! I'm just not very fond of the hardware. Don't get me wrong - it's very beautiful in the white color, the curved edges, the glowing Apple logo, the glossy 13.3" screen, and the slot-loading optical drive. It looks very minimalistic. The minimalistic design also lends to some limiting usability, such as limited USB ports, a mini-DVI instead of a full sized one, and a truncated keyboard/trackpad.
I can see the iMac with a real keyboard and mouse (such as one from Logitech or Microsoft) would give me an even better experience, or go full blow with the Mac Pro so you can choose your own monitor while having some grunt. The other spectrun is the Mac mini, which is basically a desktop version of the MacBook.
With a Apple notebook, you don't really have a choice with the keyboard, as it comes built-in, and is not really feasible to carry an extra full-keyed (notice I didn't say full-sized) keyboard with you everywhere you go with the MacBook. A mouse, I can see, but there are times where I don't want to carry a mouse with me.
I can now see why a "Hackintosh", which is a PC with the Mac OS X, is alluring. Imagine a trackpad with two mouse buttons, and a keyboard without any keys missing, and still being able to use the Mac OS X!
Wake up, Apple!
UPDATE - July 7, 2009Apple quality seems to have taken a dive. With my issues with the iPhone 3GS, I've also had some issues with the MacBook as well. Mainly, the touchpad button making a hollow clicking/squeaking noise. Search for this on YouTube - others are having the same issue, and I also posted my video as well, thinking I was the only one having this issue.
It would disappear sometimes, so I took a video of it and uploaded to YouTube. Also when it does come back, it's not always in the same place where I clicked it!
The Apple Genius appointments are silly, as they can make you wait sometimes hours after your appointment. And even so, after they replaced the part (the whole top part of the laptop, which involves me removing the InvisibleSHIELD for the wrist area), a different issue came up: the touchpad button is mushy feeling! There's no click in the top middle part or the top right side of the button! Also, the keyboard feels mushier, too - less responsive than the previous, which makes it harder for me to touch type.
I made another appointment with the Geniuses, and had to wait 45 minutes this time, only to be told that it's normal!
I am currently looking to sell the MacBook. I've been frustrated with Apple and their customer service (Read my review on the iPhone 3GS 32GB). When they talk down to you, they REALLY TALK DOWN TO YOU! And this is at 2 different stores, with different people! It's definitely NOT a staff issue, but more like an Apple policy issue, not to mention their quality control issues as well.
Amount Paid (US$): 899
Operating System: Macintosh
Processor speed: over 1000
Screen Size: 13 inches
RAM: More than 256
Internal Storage: CD-RW and DVD
Hard Drive (GB): Over 50
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