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The PowerBook Mystique

MacBook Pro vs. MacBook Value Revisited

by Charles W. Moore

Six weeks ago, I posted a ‘Book Mystique column entitled “Is The MacBook Pro Really A Better Value Than The MacBook?,” in which I concluded, albeit somewhat tentatively, that it is.

My reasoning was that the MacBook Pro has a real Graphic Processor Unit (GPU) with 128 MB or 256MB of dedicated GDDR3 video RAM instead of the Macbook’s Intel GMA950 “vampire video” that annexes up to 80 MB of system RAM for video support. The MacBook Pro has 100% more L2 Cache on faster processors than the base MacBook. While the clock-speed advantage of the MacBook Pro processors is not dramatically higher (2.33Ghz over the base MacBook at 1.83Ghz), the addition of that extra L2 Cache magnifies the difference, providing significantly better real-world performance that transcends nominal differences in clock speeds. The MacBook Pro supports up to 3 GB of RAM, while the MacBook maxes out at 2 MB (so that 80 MB lost to video support looms larger), and the MacBook’s come with a smallish (by current standards) 13” screen with a modest resolution of 1280 x 800 pixels, and you can get either a matte or glossy display with the MacBook Pros, while it’s glossy-only with the MacBook.

Speaking of monitors, the MacBook Pro comes with a DVI-out port and built-in Dual Link support that will take you up to a 2560 x 1600 30’ Apple Cinema Display, while the MacBook only supports external monitors with resolutions of up to 1900 x 1200 pixels - effectively a 24” flat panel display. While this not an issue for me, if big monitors are your fancy, it’s something to consider.

The MacBook Pro supports ExpressCard 34 hardware expansion and the MacBook does not. You also get larger capacity hard drives as standard equipment with the pro machines, and there are other bells and whistles that come with the MacBook Pro, like the backlit keyboard and ambient light sensor, a FireWire 800 port, and an extra USB 2 port on the 17” model, that simply aren’t available on the MacBook.

Of course the downside of the metal machine is that the least expensive MacBook Pro sells for $900 more than the base MacBook, although a more real-world comparison is the “middle model” MacBook which is a much better value than the stripper if you can pony up the extra 200 bucks, and that shrinks the differential to $700.

Given the price disparity, I don’t think the value equation is compellingly in favor of the MacBook Pro, but it does have a more attractive specification, and will probably hold its value better depreciation-wise as well, especially if you upgrade your system fairly frequently.

However, I’m thus far making these observations vicariously. Scott Silverman over at MacUser, on the other hand, has owned two MacBook Pros (Apple replaced his first, defective one) and now has a MacBook, and he professes to like the MacBook better.

Scott says:

“I find that in terms of everyday performance, there’s little difference between the MacBook Pro and MacBook. Mind you I did switch from a 2.16GHz Core Duo processor on the MBP to a 2.0GHz Core 2 Duo on the MB, but things on the MacBook are just as speedy. I’ve even been able to dabble in Aperture and Photoshop with no issues at all (alright so Aperture may have been a tiny bit sluggish due to the integrated graphics).

“Aside from performance differences, I find the MacBook to be superior in all other aspects. I honestly think it’s a better designed computer: it’s sleeker, smaller, lighter, more ergonomic, and overall just more Apple-like. One of my favorite features, aside from the smaller size, is the magnetic closure of the lid. I never realized what a pain the latch on the MBP was until I didn’t have to deal with it. I also love the MB keyboard and can’t get over how durable it feels. Things I miss on the MBP are the illuminated keyboard and… well I really can’t think of anything else. I guess I would say I miss the 15” screen, but there’s only a 160 pixel difference in length (100 in height) between the MBP and MB. The only part of the screen I miss is the matte finish, brighter backlight, and better color accuracy - all things easy to give up in my opinion.....

“It’s small, beautiful, powerful, durable, and even inexpensive. I’m not entirely sure why I opted for the inferior, $1000 premium MacBook Pro in the first place. This MacBook rocks.”

Scott makes a strong argument in favor of the MacBook, but his qualifications pretty much dovetail with the caveats I cited in my article. It really depends upon your tastes and priorities. My 17” PowerBook has the same resolution display as the 15” MacBook Pro, and I find the 900 pixel vertical depth no more than enough. The single biggest thing I miss most display-wise when switching back to my Pismo PowerBook or iBook with their 1024 x 768 resolution screens is not the AlBook’s screen width, but that 132 pixels of vertical scrolling space, and the MacBook isn’t that much better than the oldies with its 800 vertical pixels.

A brighter backlight and better color accuracy are not to be sniffed at either, although the glossy displays give you more vibrant color, but the MacBook Pro gives you the option of choosing your display type preference and the MacBook does not.

Whether the noted graphics sluggishness is a major consideration probably depends most on what you do with your computer. If you work (or play) a lot with high-end video or graphics, I’m inclined to think you will be happier with the MacBook Pro, although that aspect would not be a dealbreaker consideration for me.

I also like small notebooks, and am inclined to think polycarbonate is a more rugged, nicer-feeling, and generally bette all-round material for notebook housings. Or at least I did until there was that recent rash of reports about MacBook cases cracking. I don’t open and close my notebooks a whole lot, so the lid latch issue isn’t a biggie for me, but I get Scott’s point. The twin lid latches on my 17” PowerBook are a clunky annoyance.

‘Book Mystique reader David Cohen, who like Scott Silverman has also owned both a MacBook Pro and a MacBook wrote:

“As with all of these things, your perspective will vary depending onwhat you use the machine for. However, I have owned both a 15” MacBook Pro and a 13” MacBook, and used them as a working ICT consultant, bothin the office and on the road.

“Interestingly, I recently wrote my take on the situation, prompted by adiscussion with colleague John Nemerovski. The text can be found over at MyMac.com - http://www.mymac.com/showarticle.php?id=2830

“Not saying either viewpoint is right or wrong - I can only say what worked for me. And I am still overcome with technolust any time I am near a 17” PowerBook or MBP!”

Reader Aron Nelson wrote;


“I’ve been reading your articles for a long time now. For a while we had roughly the same computers etc...

“All that being said, when it came time for me to choose a new laptop, I bought the MacBook; a white one at that. For me, I just couldn’t get myself to purchase another “metal” Apple laptop. Here are the reasons:

“My 15” TiBook was just a little too large to use comfortably on an airplane. I suspect my MacBook will be much better.

“The TiBook got hot - the MacBook does get warm as well, but I like plastic a lot more.

“I was really tired of dents and scratches and paint flaking off. For me, glossy screen is a big improvement over the older matte screens. When I got a Sony Vaio, it made my TiBook screen look sad.

“I never used any cards and I don’t need a light up keyboard.

“There are more reasons like carbon fiber is weak on the laptops, the hinges are suspect, the metal flexes etc... etc...

“The bottom line is my Core 2 Duo MacBook is so good. Fast, runs quiet and cool (most of the time), the screen is great and the keyboard feels good!

“Runs Mac OS X, Windows XP and I got it with 2GB RAM, 160GB HD and I am really happy with it. It outperforms my Dual G5 @ 2Ghz for music work - it really is a great computer.”

One big advantage the the MacBook has going for it is easy hard drive swaps and upgrades - much superior to the MacBook Pro for which changing a hard drive involves a major teardown. The MacBook does, as Scott notes, have the advantage of being a newer design, presumably benefiting from the lessons Apple engineers have learned from the first two generations of ultra-slim Mac notebooks. The MacBook Pro in terms of its essential architecture dates back to January, 2003 for the 17-incher and September 2003 for the 15” model. Four years is a long time in the computer orbit.

Reader Brett Campbell notes:

“Charles: nice analysis, as usual.

“One more factor in the MacBook’s favor may be Airport reception; I haven’t seen any systematic assessments, but anecdotes I’ve read online suggest that the MBP’s aluminum case, despite improvements over the PowerBooks in this area, may still inhibit the wireless signal more than MB’s plastic case. What have you heard about this?

“I’m probably going to replace my 2005 15” PowerBook with a MacBook eventually, because I really don’t use any of the MBP’s extra features except the larger screen. (My ‘Book is my only computer.) But I use it all day, so I hope the MB’s screen is big enough to not overstrain my eyes. I expect I’ll be using the various zoom and font-size boosting tricks a fair amount.”

Actually, there have been a lot fewer complaints about Airport reception noted. since the MacBook Pro came out than there was with the metal PowerBooks. I guess they must have found a way to tweak it, of folks just got used to the lesser range.

A subjective factor would be how much one likes black computers, in which case the top of the line MacBook is your only Apple solution. I like white or metal better aesthetically, so would go with the middle-model MacBook by preference, and that’s the machine I’m currently recommending to folks who ask my advice on what they should get for an all-round, general purpose notebook. It’s also what I will more than likely end up with myself when I make my own next system upgrade leap.

Deals on Apple Certified refurbished MacBooks are especially attractive, and the Apple Store is currently listing all three Core 2 Duo MacBook models refurbished (with a full Apple warranty and AppleCare eligibility) for $949, $1,099, and $1,299 respectively. Pretty tough to beat that for value.

In summary, choosing between a MacBook Pro and a MacBook is a nice sort of problem to have. You shouldn’t go too far wrong whichever you decide on so long as you weigh the relative merits and shortcomings of each machine, so as to make an informed decision. I think I could be very happy with a MacBook, just as I was using my G3 iBook as my main production computer for three years. However, 13+ months of flawless service from this 17” PowerBook complete with a full complement of bells and whistles has convinced me of the desirability of using high-end Apple notebooks, and if I had my ‘druthers and money were less of an object, I would find the 17” MacBook Pro hard to resist.



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