New MacBook Is Apple of this Windows User's Eye

When Apple announced last year that it was transitioning its Macintosh systems away from the PowerPC platform and to Intel's then-upcoming generation of processors, there was much gnashing of teeth in the Apple camp. But yes, Apple really was abandoning a decade of Power PC usage, during which time the company mercilessly made fun of Intel, its processors, and those poor PCs that had to use them. My, what a difference a decade makes.

Since January, Apple has shipped a number of Intel-based Macs, and only its PowerMac G5 systems need to be replaced. During this short period of time, three Intel-based Macs have made their way through my home office: a 20" iMac, a Mac mini, and—most recently—Apple's new iBook (and 12" PowerBook) replacement, the MacBook.

Like its high-end MacBook Pro brethren, the MacBook features a widescreen display (13" in this case, at a resolution of 1280 x 800), a dual-core Intel Core Duo processor, an integrated iSight camera and remote infrared (IR), and a gorgeous form factor. The MacBooks are available in both white and black cases, just like the iPod, and they're beautiful to behold, with a magnetic latch and Apple's trademark row of ports on the side. One minor problem: The MacBook, like the Mac mini, uses an integrated graphics chipset that steals RAM from the system, which means it won't perform as well as a similar MacBook Pro. The MacBook is also pretty useless for 3D game playing.

I particularly value the MacBook's screen. Like many PC notebooks, the MacBook uses the so-called "glossy" screen type, which enhances contrast but often creates glare, depending on the lighting. However, unlike all the glossy screens I've seen to date, the Apple screen manages to offer incredibly high contrast with a minimum of glare. Indeed, if you're looking directly at the screen, there's almost never any glare. It's one of the prettiest screens I've ever seen.

The MacBook comes with Apple's reliable Mac OS X and the highly recommended iLife suite of digital-media applications, which are without peer in the Windows world. That said, one of the first things I did when I got the MacBook was download and install Boot Camp, Apple's dual-boot utility that lets you install—get this—Windows XP on any of the company's Intel-based Macs. (See my review at the SuperSite for Windows.) That's right, this MacBook is now running XP Professional.

The process of installing XP on the MacBook is straightforward. Boot Camp lets you non-destructively partition the disk so that you have separate spaces for Mac OS X and XP. You then create a driver CD that supplies XP with device drivers for most—but, irritatingly, not all—of the MacBook's special hardware. After XP is installed, you're prompted for the driver CD, and then comes the normal Windows post-install process, whereby you install all the latest updates from Windows Update through multiple reboots and install whatever applications you normally use.

I've thrown my entire collection of always-installed applications at the MacBook, and the performance has been incredible, quite a bit better than any of the low-end Windows notebooks I've tried over the years. Battery life is just OK—about 2.5 hours—as is the weight (a surprisingly heavy 5.2 pounds), but I've had problems with power management and have had to disable Sleep mode and instead use Hibernation, which appears to work more reliably. As I noted above, some of the MacBook's hardware— including the iSight camera, remote, and IR sensor—won't work. And I needed to download a keyboard utility called Input Remapper to make the Mac-centric keyboard more Windows-friendly.

What I'm left with is the ultimate "best of both worlds" scenario, at least in the tech industry. The MacBook is a dual-booting sensation, capable of offering the best of both Mac OS X and XP, regardless of which I need. I've moved my email over to the machine, so I'll be using it regularly going forward. The screen, as I said, is a joy to behold. I guess I could have gone with a MacBook Pro if gaming was a concern, but an acceptable 15" MacBook Pro costs about $1000 more than the MacBook.

Overall, I’m quite satisfied. But there's more to do. A new software-virtualization solution called Parallels (similar to Microsoft Virtual PC or VMware) has the potential to make dual-booting between two OSs as archaic as a steam-powered boat. Parallels lets you run a complete Windows environment from within OS X so that you can switch back and forth without the time necessary to reboot. The main problem is performance. Although Parallels performs far better than Virtual PC for Mac OS X (note that no version of Virtual PC works on Intel-based Macs, however), it's still virtualization and thus slower than a native PC. You'll also need oodles of RAM if you plan to run both Windows and the Mac OS. One other problem: Parallels uses a unique feature in Intel's Core Duo processor to coax as much performance as it can, but until the video-display hardware offers similar virtualization support, games and high-performance applications are a no-go. Still, it's something to think about, and I'll be looking at Parallels more in the future.

There's also Windows Vista to consider. Although Vista fully supports the MacBook's Intel graphics chipset, which should thus be able to display Vista's incredible Windows Aero ("glass") UI, the problem now is that Vista can use only 32MB of system RAM on the MacBook for the display, and that's not enough for Aero. Instead, you get a muddy, XP-like UI that's pretty unattractive. Perhaps this problem will be addressed in the future.

Overall, Apple has a winner on its hands, and unlike most Macs, the MacBook starts at a reasonable price ($1049), although the base model is woefully short in the RAM department. Upgrade to at least 1GB, and go nuts. You might just find your perfect notebook, whether you prefer Windows or Mac OS X.

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