Apple apparently isn’t killing the white, $999, plastic MacBook at the low end of its line any time soon. They’ve even gone so far as to update the model – and that turns out to be a very good thing for visualists who want to go Mac on a budget.

Previously, you had a sort of painful choice on the Mac line:

1. Get TV out and FireWire with the original white MacBook, but have to settle for the lousy Intel X3100 integrated graphics – something that, speaking as an owner of one of these models, I would strongly advise against. (It will run things like vdmx, but you’ll be limited in terms of number of filters, lots of 3D stuff doesn’t work at all, and apps like Resolume 3 Avenue won’t run.)

2. Get better specs and a decent NVIDIA 9400M graphics card on the new, pretty, aluminum MacBook – but spend a few hundred more (or worse, depending on your country / rate of exchange), lose the ability to do TV out, and lose FireWire. (Ouch!)

3. Spend a LOT more on a MacBook Pro. You get FireWire (FW800, though FW400 will work with an adapter), a much better video card (9600M), and of course a bigger screen, ExpressCard … and you spend a lot more money. And you still don’t get TV out.

Now, the $999 model has improved upon its two Achilles’ heels:

1. It gets improved specs, with Bluetooth 2.1 and the newer-generation Core 2 Duo (1066MHz frontside bus). And most importantly:

2. It gets a passable NVIDIA 9400M graphics card. It’s at the low end of what’s available in GPUs now, but it’s a step forward – basic games will run, you get full OpenGL 2.1 support, some (very basic) GPGPU compatibility, and as long as you’re not stacking too many filters or doing anything fancy, it should be just fine for running simple things in Quartz Composer, visualist tools, and basic 3D sketches in tools like Processing. Note that you’re still better off with a more powerful card, like the 8600M in even the previous-generation MacBook Pro. That way, you get Motion and full Final Cut Studio support and better Core Image and Quartz Composer performance (as well as OpenGL in general.)

The TV out to me is really a nice part of the bargain, too. The Mini-DVI port on the MacBook remains compatible – at least in theory – with the adapter that provides TV out. That is assuming that this is still supported on the graphics driver for the NVIDIA 9400M, though, which we won’t know until someone tests this. (It is theoretically possible with that card, and all previous MacBooks and MacBook Pro’s – prior to these new-fangled models – worked just fine.)

Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, I’m completely wrong. Never underestimate the power of wishful thinking. No, as it happens you are not so lucky as to get to use your old adapters or get TV out, meaning if you want TV out and a great video card, look to the MacBook Pro released just before the unibody – 8600M GPU (which bests the 9400), all the Pro features, and via adapters any kind of video output you want. Or get a PC – if you can, because the PC seems struck with the same TV out woes. Details, thanks to a commenter who can read whereas I prove myself illiterate.

But If I were on a budget, the $999 white MacBook would be the model to beat – though I’d still be on the lookout for refurb MacBook Pros of the previous generation, which still have the best of all worlds.

And if I were looking to run PC software, I’d still get a PC, frankly. Shop around on the PC side and you should be able to get a better graphics card and specs, though it may be a little bulkier than the svelte 13” Mac.

Thanks to our anonymous tipster.

Spotted on Engadget

By the way, if you do have a new machine and miss FireWire Target Disk Mode, check out this cable.

Updated: don’t get me wrong. The 9400M is still going to be underpowered for a lot of GPU-based tasks, which means if you do have the cash, a better GPU is an improvement. If you don’t, that doesn’t help much, though, and this will at least do basic video tasks without an issue. (Though if you are on a budget, I’d be even more likely to get a PC.)