As widely expected, Apple has given its MacBook Core 2 Duo CPUs, as with its existing MacBook Pro. The MacBook ships with either a 1.83Ghz Core 2 Duo chip with a 2MB L2 cache or a 2 GHz CPU with a 4GB L2 cache. To me, the added MHz along with the added cache and better specs make the higher-end white MacBook the sweet spot as far as value. (There’s still a “color tax” on the black MacBook, which remains at $1499.)

Does this MacBook now become the perfect music laptop? How should you configure it? Does Core 2 Duo matter? What’s the best music laptop choice at this point? Impressions and discussion, after the jump:

Finding the Perfect Configuration

The other change on the MacBooks, aside from CPU, is RAM. Previous MacBooks had 512M standard (256 x 2); the new model has 1G (512 x 2). That’s kind of a pain, again, since you’ll have to rip out 512M to install a 1G upgrade. I suggest at least installing 1G for 1.5 total, though, and jumping for 2G if you can; if you buy from someone other than Apple, the going rate is about US$160 for 1G even with factory-standard Samsung chips.

With a RAM upgrade and a hard disk upgrade, the MacBook should be one lean, mean mobile music machine. Logic Pro 7 and Ableton Live 6 both run beautifully on this architecture, for instance, delivering what feels like desktop-class performance. The 13″ size is perfect for gigs, because it allows you to focus all your gear-lugging pain on stuff like keyboards and controllers. And the glossy screen works just fine in most environments in my experience, despite my initial reservations.

You could upgrade the internal hard disk to a 7200 rpm drive, but to my mind the better option might be to go to an external disk. That way, you can easily tote large projects from a desktop machine at home if you’ve got one, and your projects are separate from your laptop in case your laptop drive decides to die. It’s also cheaper. FireWire 400 + a 7200 rpm drive (or, given improved 5400 rpm performance, even a 5400 rpm drive) should give you the extra disk I/O you need for disk-hungry apps like samplers and Ableton Live. Jerome at createfilmscores points to the new OWC SATA FireWire 400/800/USB2 enclosures:

OWC Mercury On-The-Go with SATA Drive

They’re portable, bus-powered, reliable, and cheap. Best bargain: get the enclosure and add your own drive.

I’m not concerned about the integrated Intel graphics on the MacBook. Unless you’re doing heavy-duty 3D, it should be just fine. If you’re running music into a customized version of Unreal for live 3D graphics, of course, go get the MacBook Pro with the ATI X1600. (A number of PC vendors are shipping the lower-end, dedicated mobile graphics cards like the ATI X1400 and NVIDIA 7300. These offer marginally better performance than the integrated Intel graphics, but not enough to make them worth it for most consumers.)

Core 2 Duo vs. Core Duo

Much has been made of Apple’s claim that the Core 2 Duo is “39% faster” than the Core Duo. Apple didn’t make up that number, though; the issue is that it’s not a real-world benchmark. Check the fine print, and you’ll see Apple uses the SPECint and SPECfloat tests, which are purely abstract/mathematical benchmarks of processing performance. Integer performance is where the Core 2 Duo shines. In real-world situations, you’ll never see a gain that significant. But that doesn’t mean the Core 2 Duo isn’t a good deal.

First, normally performance gains come with a corresponding increase in heat and power consumption. Not so with Core 2 Duo. Macworld finds the C2D cooler than the CD in the 2.16 model, and other benchmarks have found similar marginal improvements.

Apple’s current claim on the MacBook is actually 25%, and they do cite real world figures, like 20% faster performance in iMovie.

Macworld’s benchmarks for the MacBook Pro have been widely quoted as having only a “10%” gain in performance. But take a look at the Speedmark and Photoshop CS2 numbers: major gains. Generally, benchmarks from a wide variety of sources show that the Core 2 Duo kicks into high gear when given a lot of multitasking or multithreading. That should mean it does quite nicely on apps like Ableton Live 6 (which features enhanced multithreading) and Logic Pro, not to mention even a 10% gain — for no added cost — can be welcome when you’re redlining a project.

For some PC-side benchmarks, see PC Perspective. Again, overall marginal improvements, but some significant gains in certain areas, and I’m guessing you’ll see better results from audio apps.

The Core 2 Duo definitely isn’t revolutionary, and I wouldn’t lose any sleep if you have a Core Duo machine already. But is it worth a speed bump? Absolutely. And if you’ve been delaying purchase on either the Mac or PC side, you may be rewarded by buying now.

What’s Your Laptop Pick?

This naturally turns to the question of which laptop to get. I’ve been eyeing low-end configurations on both the Mac and PC side, and, frankly, it’s a great time to be getting a laptop for music. For US$900-1300, you can get a fantastic machine.

The addition of the Core 2 Duo should make the Mac more competitive. There’s still a slight price premium for the Mac over bargain PC laptops (especially from makers like Dell, Toshiba, and HP), but look closely when you comparison-shop. The moment you upgrade a budget PC to a 2G CPU over the now-standard Core 2 Duo 1.66 CPU, you’re generally looking at MacBook price territory. Apple doesn’t offer real custom configuration, but what they do give you is a fairly premium configuration at a competitive price.

Also, try this experiment: take a PC that looks cheaper, and add Windows XP Professional. It tends to obliterate the US$150 difference between models. If you don’t get Pro, you’ll not only lose out on some important features, but you’ll only be able to upgrade free to Vista Home Premium, or you’ll wind up stuck with XP Media Center Edition, which is officially incompatible with Ableton Live. Sure, you’ll need an XP license on the Mac to take advantage of dual-booting, but you’ll also have the equivalent of two machines.

The other problem on the PC side is that it seems virtually impossible to get a small laptop for a bargain price. Apple’s MacBook is basically a small but heavy (for its size) portable. On the PC side, your choices are basically large and heavy (7 lbs. and 15.4″ screens are common) or “ultra-portable”, with fewer pounds but a significantly higher price — and often 12″ or 14″ but rarely 13″ screens. There are some exceptions if you shop around, but Apple has done a good job of providing a configuration a lot of people will want without a bunch of choices you probably don’t. (That kind of sums up the platform, huh?)

That said, there are some very appealing deals on the PC side. The Dells, while fugly as all get-out, are really cheap on the Inspiron line. Lenovo recently discounted its IBM-style ThinkPad line, making it as cheap as the bargain-basement C series. Lenovo, you’ll recall, is IBM’s former computer division under new owners. Their new Lenovo-designed models have been roundly judged disappointing. The ThinkPad design is still great, and you could have a fully-loaded ThinkPad for the same price or less than a MacBook.

As appealing as dual-booting the Mac is, I think for now your fundamental question is which OS you prefer. If your only reason for running Windows is occasional accounting apps or connecting to the office software you need, then virtualizing or dual booting on the Mac should be just fine. But if you really prefer Windows, I’d get the PC. And if you prefer the Mac, you now have a great option — with the early-adopters having already taken some of the initial bugs (discoloration, heat, weird nosie, reliability problems) while you enjoy the more-polished version.

But enough of what I think: what’s your current laptop of choice? Any PC brands to suggest? (We’ve seen people burned by HP, at least.)

[tags]advice, hardware, laptops, Mac, Apple, Mactel, Intel, computers, benchmarks[/tags]

  • Wes

    hi dudes,

    ive only just bought a macbook core duo about 3 weeks ago, and ive found the performance pretty top notch, although i know i need to upgrade my RAM from 512 to 2G

    i was just wondering, do you reckon its worth trying to get apple to upgrade my mac to the new core 2 duo?

    does anybody have any idea on how i go about trying to get this sorted? anybody have any past experience on it?

    also is it REALLY worth the hassle? ie is the performance THAT much better?

    thanks for any feedback


  • sid

    I've heard that with the intergrated gtraphics you need to have matching pairs of ram sticks. If you have 1.5 GB of ram will this impair performance?

  • Wes, it's worth a shot, but I doubt it will happen.

    About macbook RAM: I've heard it said (by Apple, amongst others) that you can only really put matching RAM in MacBooks. It's something to do with the dual cores. So your choices are 512, 1GB or 2GB.

    Of course, if anyone's successfully rocked it with 1.5, I'd love to know, since I don't think I need, or can afford, the full-on two.

  • frank line

    the colour tax is only $50 this time around…

  • velocipede

    The MacBooks do look fine, but they do have some weaknesses compared to their older brethren. Some things to consider when looking at the MacBook for music use: Is the (smaller) glossy screen okay for your use environment(s)? Will you miss not having Firewire 800 or a card slot in the future? I think the cheapest MacBook Pro configuration has lots of advantages (if you need those features) that make it potentially worth the added cost, especially if it is going to be your main computer.

  • ganjjjj

    Just got a macbook a few weeks ago… Upgraded to 1.25, obviously not matching RAM chips, one GB and one 256… Works fine, got a significant performance boost.

  • thomas piper

    I Just got a macbook 3 weeks ago i love it. i have a 2.0 ghz core duo and 1gb of ram and it works fine and i have boot camp and parallels.

    i recommend it to anyone buying a computer. I have a iMac g5 as well and i like them both i run Logic pro, Ableton live, Reason etc. and it works like a champ!!!

  • Apparently the performance hit for unmatched RAM is nearly unmeasurable, so while matched is presumably better if you can swing it, it doesn't sound like it's worth losing sleep for it.

    Velocipede, all good points. But the differences you describe were also true of iBook vs. PowerBook back in the day. There are some users for whom a larger screen, ExpressCard (sadly, no PC Card option), and FireWire 800 are well worth upgrading to the MacBook Pro. For many users, this won't be an issue.

    I've also come around on the glossy screens. Users I know are largely really happy with them, and unless you spend ALL your time under fluorescents pointed directly at your screen, glossy seems okay.

    Not all glossy screens are created equal, either; different coating formulations on some of Apple's competitors appear to yield different results.

  • Thomas

    My BlackBook has 1,25 GB of RAM. I use it mainly for Reason and GarageBand and it really doesn't matter when using non-pairing RAM modules with music apps.

    BTW: The new MacBook is a nice update for all the anxious do-not-buy-first-revision-whiners 😉 The difference of the HD capacities between the white and the black MacBook is bigger with the new revision.

  • Robb

    Wes… When I got my first iBook, they came out with a upgrade within the week and offered to refund me the difference. I ended up paying an open box fee and just exchanging my week old iBook for the new one, which was being sold for the same price. I don't know how long that grace period is, but it would certainly be worth asking about. Even if you don't get a new one, maybe you could get some money back.

    Peter… I didn't think I'd like the glossy screen at all, but I took a chance when I upgraded last week and I really, really like it. It's not perfect, but the contrast and sharpness is great and I haven't experienced enough glare that I couldn't see what I was working on.

    I just got a MacBook Pro last week. It's a pretty serious upgrade from my 4 or 5 year old iBook. I wish I had known they were going to upgrade the MacBooks, though. I probably would have still gone with the model I bought, but it would have been nice to know all of my options.

    Take care, all.

  • FirewireGuy

    Peter, I'm a bit uncertain about your external drive recommendation.

    If you go for an external firewire drive how is that going to effect a firewire soundcard like the M-Audio 410 (or whatever)?

    You've only got a single Firewire port on the MacBooks.

    I've read that while technically possible, chaining the soundcard and harddrive off the same firewire port can lead to problems.

    I'd be really interested to hear if anyone is chaining and HD and soundcard off their iBook G4 or MacBook, and to hear how well that works for you.

    (Obviously I've got an iBook G4 and firewire 410)

  • Wes

    hi guys, thanks for the responses

    i went into my apple shop today to ask one of the sales staff about it and he reckons the grace period is 14 days, now im on my 15th day of owning it?!

    but he did reckon that if i came in and had a bit of a go then depending on the manager then they would probably change it for me, no probs.

    although i did notice that they didnt have the signs for the core 2 duo on the macbook display area, it still said core duo.

    but i reckon im gona take it back in tomorow and see what i can do.

    is there anything that you need to do to your mac before taking it back? ie reboot it to standard settings etc?

    thanks for the feedback

  • I've chained successfully via a MOTU 828 and Focusrite Saffire. Of course, these days you can always plug the HD into USB2 and the interface into FireWire or visa versa, depending on what you've got. I think I know people who have done that with the 410. It's usually possible; just need to check the order and it might be worth searching the forums for posts on similar setups.

  • Sid

    Thanks all, I feel better knowing that others have use mixed RAM without problems. This edition of the macbooks looks enticing, I wonder how much of an improvement the santa rosa chip will be with the imbedded flash memory, larger FSB, etc and if it's worth waiting 6 months (sonoma definitely wasn't worth waiting for)

  • You can definitley change devices on the FW bus. My own config on a Powerbook G4:

    FW port –> Motu Traveler –> DVD burner –> HD –> iPod


  • good to hear. not looking for a new computer now, but i'm hoping that a new upgrade comes in another 9 months so that i can buy one of *these* as a refurb. 🙂

  • You may not have to wait that long, object session. Refurbs usually appear via Apple pretty quickly, presumably because open box / return models are often classified factory refurb.

    That said, BOY do the current refurbs look terrific value-wise. (Check out the "Apple deals" section of the Apple Store.)

  • PaoliÃ&

    but what about firewire?

    I mean, I would like to use a Firewire Motu 828 and an SSL Duende, and maybe an external drive for samples. Can a MacBook not Pro handle this?

  • Robb

    Wes… You don't have to do anything to get your MacBook ready to be returned. They wipe the entire drive and reinstall once they get them back. It wouldn't hurt to do a "secure empty trash" on your private files, though. Not sure if you've had any time to set up financial data or anything, but I'd clear that out, just in case.

    Good luck with getting the swap working. You might be pleasantly surprised by Apple's flexibility. My last iBook went through a number of logic boards (a problem on the older, "ice books") and my last one went bad out of warranty. They still replaced it for free, so you might get lucky.

  • Wes

    thanks robb, tomorow is the big day, i shall keep you updated

  • ARg

    Some questions from someone ..

    Why buy macbook pro to make music? – y not getting any kind of laptop with same specs? – it would be cheaper too….

    If macs can get C2D pros can I install windows? Or is it stupid..? – cause i wanna use d/loading progrms for music…

    You be great if someone bothered answering..

    Many thanks!

  • Pipes

    What about the core 2 duo compatibility with the mbox 2?

    Digidesign hasn't done it's "full tests" yet to know if it meets the requirements. But there shouldn't be a problem should there?

  • rasmus

    I have bought a new macbook pro core 2 due and I now have problems connection my mbox 2 on this, the software is old or something… Can anyone help me finding new software or?

  • nocturnus

    Macbook Pro Core 2 Duo has weaker firewire bus power than Powerbooks, also new voltage protection circuit has issues with some devices that cause a spike when connecting. For example, Presonus Firebox has a problem initializing, requires power supply (can be removed after initializing). 1st gen Macbook Pro Core Duo (non FW800) don't have this problem.

  • Hi there. I am a pc owner who are wery sure about switching to a mac. My question is now.. Does anyone have experience in working with musik using a Macbook pro..? Do they tend to get to warm and shut down or are there any other flaws whatsoewer?

  • Hey, this isn't really a comment its a question But I wanted to know that,if you upgrade the ram of the macbook will the graphics for playing 3d games be better and would I get more FPS when playin games like Halo or Unreal Tournament?

  • Dave


    Does anyone know if the macbook's firewire port will power a focusrite saffire OK?