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Articles: The Unibody MacBook: Not your Father's MacBook

It shouldn’t surprise many that Apple is always looking to differentiate the MacBook from the MacBook Pro. With chip speeds at their current level, today’s processors can handle most operations with aplomb… so the two product lines need reasonably significant differences to justify the extra expense, and not just in screen size.

One of the most interesting developments in this area is the removal of FireWire from the new “Unibody” MacBook line. Unlike previous attempts, it’s not just about less power; it’s about limiting functionality.

Before we dissect the differences between the MacBook and the MacBook Pro, it is important to look at what has changed in this “unibody generation” of the laptop line. This time around, the MacBook and MacBook Pro are surprisingly similar, and could easily be confused for one another at a coffee shop.

The most significant change in both laptops is the case design, and you don't even need to know a thing about computers to experience the improvements. The milled aluminum frame is rigid and solid. The whole laptop feels as if it were a solid block of aluminum. Ever since the introduction of the Titanium PowerBook, people have gotten used to the "give" of the case. Whether it’s in the wrist rests or when pinching a closed laptop in one hand as you slide it into the bag, there has always been a slightly spongy quality to the tactile response of the Mac.

Now these Unibody laptops have no discernible give to your touch, which you will notice even if you did not notice the softness of the previous units.

Full screen rubber spacer.

Another quality that reaffirms the solid feeling of the new Mac laptops is in the lid spacers. All laptops have to maintain a gap between the closed screen and the keyboard. Not only does this help protect the screen and case from friction wear, but it will also absorb some of the vertical impacts a closed laptop can be subject to, much like a car's shock absorbers. On most Mac laptops, those spacers are 2 or 4 1/4" long strips of rubber. On the new Unibody Macs, there is a solid strip of rubber that runs along the edge of glass screen. This screen border acts as a spacer between the glass and aluminum frame of the screen housing, but it also works as a full contact spacer for the lid. With this new spacer style, there is no visible warping or bowing of the lid.

Flipping over the new MacBooks and MacBook Pros reveal identical battery / hard drive compartments. A flip-out lever replaces the coin-turned latch of Mac laptops past. You pull the lever up to remove the forward third of the laptop’s bottom plate. The battery and hard drive sit side by side. Finally, the Mac laptop batteries are not bonded to pieces of the case; which should make the third-party battery market rejoice. Removing one screw allows you to pull out the hard drive, which makes me think that upgrading the hard drive will become as commonplace as upgrading the RAM. Interestingly enough, it takes the removal of eight screws from the other two thirds of the bottom plate to remove and replace the RAM.

Battery indicators are now on the side of the MacBook line.

The other advancements of the Unibody case are visible when the unit is in operation. The power indicator for the battery is on the side, with about 50% more lights than the lights mounted on the bottom of the battery. This gives more detail as to the percentage of battery life remaining, but also means that you cannot press a button on your spare battery to see if it is charged. The glass screen is glossy, and for some people that will be a disappointment. The colors look sharper, but there is more glare. I used to recommend comparing a matte screen to a glossy screen before you buy, but Apple is going all glossy from here on out, so I guess you learn to love it or embrace an older or pre-owned Mac.

The buttonless trackpad is a significant change, but not as much as advertised. Instead of having a large button at the base, the whole pad can be pressed down to make the click. The feeling is very similar to an iPod’s click-wheel (that is if your iPod still has a scroll wheel). The top of the pad is the hinge point making the base the easiest place to press down, just as before. New and old trackpad users will have no problem adjusting to the "click-pad" once they stop hunting for the button. If only the multi-finger gestures were as easy to use as a buttonless button. There are a host of new finger gestures that work on this trackpad, but using them is not organic compared to what you do on an iPod Touch or iPhone. Not having the direct visual feedback under your fingers like you do on an iPhone just does not translate as well to learning the trackpad gestures. The new trackpad System Preference has some built in tutorials to help you learn. Compared to the extra trackpad space, the gestures are a minor addition, but I don't have nimble fingers, so your mileage may vary.

For the first time the MacBook and the MacBook Pro have the same integrated video chipset. Using the old Intel integrated graphics processor in a MacBook Pro would have been a large step backwards, but Apple chose to move away from Intel graphics processors. This switch from Intel integrated graphics, to Nvidia integrated graphics, does increase the graphic performance substantially over previous generation MacBooks. However, it is still an integrated graphics chip that has to borrow system RAM. For that reason Apple adds a second graphics processor to the MacBook Pros for desktop-grade performance with professional applications. This chip can be turned on when you sit down to do some serious work.

But other than the lack of FireWire, what are the real differences between a MacBook and MacBook Pro? Screen size, express card slot, and processor speeds are the main discussion points. The MacBook Pro has a single FireWire 800 port that can be dropped down to 400 speeds with a Sonnet FW800 to FW400 FireWire Adapter (Note: some pro products do not work well with those adapters). The MacBook has nothing but USB and its network connections to mount external drives.

The MacBook lacks a Firewire port.

This lack of FireWire is not as important for new Mac users, since Windows is a USB-dominated environment. Also, first-time computer users don’t have a legacy of equipment. FireWire is mostly going to be missed by longtime Mac users; people who own drives and devices that only have FireWire.

Those who have both USB drives and FireWire Drives understand the performance benefits gained from FireWire. A lot of digital cameras use FireWire of course, although USB 2.0 is starting to become more standard in the latest cameras.

Being able to Target Disk mode your old Mac and connect it to your new Mac via FireWire was one of the features that has made upgrading easy, or salvaging the data on a drive that wouldn’t boot up, via target disk mode. So in the end, this lack of FireWire feels as much like a differentiator as a concession to the ubiquity of USB especially at the low end of the computer scale (which now consists of these new MacBooks and most Windows machines), even though FireWire is a better technology.

Of course Apple was not as foolish enough to prevent migrating to new MacBooks, but you have to use a slower and more complicated network method, much like people did when moving to a MacBook Air. Many people who tried network migration to a MacBook Air opted to pull their hard drive out and place it in a USB enclosure to do the transfer. I bet a fair number of people will end up doing the same procedure when migrating to the Unibody MacBook. Time will tell if the loss of FireWire has any effect MacBook, owners but it certainly sets my sights a notch higher towards the MacBook Pro, and I think that is the way Apple likes it.

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