Apple has come through with Intel-based MacBook laptops (replacing the iBook), and the bottom line is, they’re a terrific bargain. As a portable music machine, unless you prefer bigger screens, it’s hard to go wrong with these computers. The only big downsides: black costs you extra, and like the mini before them, the integrated graphics are pretty limited for 3D. Here’s a quick look at what I think the big issues will be for musicians, though, of course, we’ll want to chat this one up in comments and on the forums.

First impressions . . .

What’s Hot: Blazingly-fast Core Duo performance, plus Windows (and Intel Linux!) compatibility, at $1099 in a laptop form factor? What’s not to love? The 13″ display should please many, too, who were tempted by the cute micro-size of the 12″ iBooks but couldn’t bring themselves to squint at something quite that small. (1″ sounds small, but it adds a lot of additional space.) Apple is also making these screens really bright. Add in reasonably-fast 5400 rpm drives and the usual USB 2.0 and FireWire, and there’s really very little you can’t do as a mobile musician with this machine. I expect a lot of CDM readers will be picking one up.

What’s Not: First off, unless you’re Darth Vader and need to coordinate your laptop with your body army, US$200 is a big premium for 20GB of extra hard drive space and a black color, so I’d stick with white. The glossy screen should look gorgeous, but they are known to cause glare issues. But the big dealbreaker for me is that, like the Mac mini, the new machine uses an integrated Intel graphics chip. They’ll run basic Quartz / OpenGL 3D graphics, but not nearly as well as the video cards on even the previous PowerBook G4, let alone the fantastic ATI cards in the MacBook Pro. I realize this doesn’t matter to most of you, in which case the MacBook is a great deal, but if making cool 3D interfaces in Jitter or Pd/GEM or Quartz Composer, or running customized game engines as sound interfaces, or even running sound processing on your graphics card GPU appeals to you, you should think MacBook Pro instead of the new mini and MacBook. (And if I forgot about you guys, this wouldn’t be CDM, would it? Of course, boot your MacBook Pro into Intel Linux, and you can run this.)

PC, anyone? I have to say, Apple’s Core laptop lineup looks stronger than comparable models I’ve seen from PC vendors, unless tablet capabilities are important to you. I wouldn’t buy a Mac just to run Windows, but the ability to supplement the Mac OS with Windows is, of course, fantastic.

Caveats aside, this looks like it could be a fantastic machine. I’m saving my pennies for the bigger screen, better graphics, and expanded expansion of the Pro model, but the real story here is that Apple’s $500 and $1000 Intel computers give users on a budget nearly all the pro audio power of a more expensive desktop. And that’s great news. Now, about the Power Mac Core . . . er . . . MacPro . . . er . . . Intel desktops. We’ll be watching.

  • Adrian

    Not bad, I have to hand it to Apple. At that price point along with boot-camp, even die-hard Windows users might be tempted to buy an Apple laptop.

  • I've been looking around at PC offerings, and I have to say, unless you're dying for a tablet, Apple's are suddenly looking like a very good deal. I think they're doing it by moving larger volumes of simpler configurations and by cutting out features most users don't want.

    The MacBook Pro also is very competitive.

    And I appreciate you saying that, Adrian. 🙂 So, all that said, what's your choice for Intel Core PC (Windows-only) laptop?

  • Adrian

    Well, I'm not exactly in line to pick up a MacBook quite yet. If I was to buy an Apple computer, it would be to put together a tri boot system of Win/OSX/Linux, as there are a couple of OSX-only products I would love to take for a spin (SonicBirth and MOTU MX4 being two examples).

    I'm more or less waiting to see what kind of price the next tower is going to be. If it has the power, and the price is right (are we now living in a parallel universe where Apple only moderately overcharges ala Alienware?), I might pick one up when I have the cash to spare.


  • Hi think this looks rather interesting but…..

    What about the graphics onboard chip? This used to be a huuuuuge problem for audio, causing dropouts and other problems when graphics had to be handled by the main RAM. .

    How about that?

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  • thesimplicity

    After checking out some unboxing pics… this model seems to be incredibly easy to upgrade. Remove the battery, the protective shield under that and the HDD and RAM are right there. I'm not sure if that's also true for the Pro model, but it's a very welcome design decision. I remember trying to upgrade the HDD on my old iBook myself… what a nightmare.

    Swap in a 7200RPM drive, some third party RAM… that's a half-decent and dirt cheap mobile DAW.

  • I don't think the graphics chip is going to be ANY issue, unless you're doing 3D graphics, etc. The Intel chips work just fine for day-to-day displays . . . i.e., you're likely to max out the GPU running Unreal Tournament, but not Ableton Live. And it's extremely unlikely to directly impact audio performance. I've never used one of these machines myself, but that's what I hear / what I've seen in benchmarks, etc.

  • Thanks, Peter, for your insight.

    Do you happen to have any online resources of real-world benchmarks, specifically for audio?

  • kokorozashi

    Exercise care! The MacBook has a glossy screen. You may find this unpleasantly surprising. More info here:

    And, just to stay on topic with this post, why would you buy a computer which only runs Windows when you could get one with comparable hardware which runs both Windows AND Mac OS X — AND IS CHEAPER?…

    (caveat: if you compare Dell and Apple as manufacturers, Dell certainly has cheaper options)

    (caveat caveat: you aren't buying a company, you're buying a computer)

  • Hi, Roland: The only benchmarks I've seen are the ones the folks in the Ableton forum are doing (though I think comparing CPU meter numbers is problematic), and the ones I did for Macworld with Logic. But I know developers are testing these things internally, so I'll try to see if any of them feel like sharing. 😉

    Kokorazashi, I agree, absolutely. I don't get the glossy thing. These screens do look nice in the store, and that seems to be Apple's rationale (along with many PC makers). I don't agree with the Ars Technica writer that you can't find PCs with matte-finish displays, though; even in Best Buy there are plenty of matte laptops.

    As for reasons to buy a Windows laptop:

    1. You never intend to use Mac OS. (True for many, making that issue moot.)

    2. There's a PC that has a specific configuration you need (I think the MacBook / MBPro line looks great, but this is possible)

    3. You love tablets

    I don't see the fact that Windows is "supported" on PC laptops making much of a difference. I mean, support in general is pretty awful. If we're talking phone support, Apple's free support only lasts 90 days (unless you pay to extend it), and I've *never* gotten useful information out of tech support people at companies like Toshiba and Dell.

    What many people have pointed out for a long time is that Apple's laptop hardware is really, really great. The current case design I think is fantastic, little features like the sudden motion sensor, wide trackpad, backlit keyboard, and so on are terrific. It's just a terrific design, which is as much about utility as it is aesthetics. The only thing they could do to screw it up would be, oh, I don't know, to add a glossy screen? 😉

    If MacBook Pros go glossy, I predict riots.

  • kokorozashi

    Glossy screen is now an option on MacBook Pro.

    I would similarly expect such riots. Visual designer types are the ones you'd think would like the contrast ratio, but they're also the ones who need a color on one part of the screen to match the same color on another part of the screen, and increased glare is going to screw that pooch right quick. (Of course, when color really counts, real visual pros are going to use CRT, but CRT ain't portable.)

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