Toybox: Apple takes the MacBook upscale

Apple has taken its most mainstream portable computer decidedly upscale with its latest refresh

If an Apple iMac married a MacBook Air, what would their offspring look like? A lot like Apple's new upscale MacBook.

The two new MacBook models in the line: a NZ$2,399 model with a 2GHz Core 2 Duo chip, and a NZ$2,899 version that sports a 2.4GHz processor.

The redesigned MacBooks look nothing like their lesser sibling. That's because both are made using a new manufacturing process. Apple has devised a way to carve the main chassis for its laptops out of a solid block of aluminium. The end result is a "unibody" laptop with no seams around the edges, no flexibility in the case and a distinctly high-end feel.

This is the most solid-feeling laptop I've ever used, and the keyboard — always a dicey part of the laptop equation — feels just as rugged. Although the MacBook uses the same Chiclet-shaped keys as before, they exhibit none of the sponginess I noticed in earlier iterations. Best of all, in the $2,899 model, they even light up in the dark.

Like the Air, the keyboard on both aluminium MacBooks is black, nicely matching the new black bezel that surrounds the 13.3-inch. LED screen. The bezel contrasts smartly with the 1280-by-800-pixel screen, which is amazingly bright and sharp. Even sitting outside in full sunlight, with the sun behind me shining directly on the screen, I could easily see what I was writing.

The $2,399 version has 2GB of RAM, a fast 1066MHz front-side bus and the new Nvidia GeForce 9400M integrated video processor, which can use up to 256MB of system RAM and drive an external monitor at 2560 by 1600 pixels. It also has a 160GB hard drive.

But Apple went all out on the $2,899 model. It's well worth the higher price. The most expensive MacBook now has a 2.4-GHz Core 2 Duo chip, a 250GB hard drive and the lighted keyboard. Both unibody models also feature a new MiniDisplay port for connecting to external displays and, more importantly, Apple's slick new glass-covered multi-touch track pad.

Gone is the clicker button. It's now incorporated into the track pad, which is larger than the previous version and offers more room for Apple's multifinger screen-navigation swipes. Pressing down on the track pad near the front of the laptop yields a definitive click, and the glass surface offers just the right amount of resistance. The only hitch is that if you use your thumb to click and your thumb touches the track pad at the wrong time, you'll find yourself selecting items, moving windows or changing font sizes inadvertently.

As before, all of the ports are on the left side of the laptop — though the MacBooks don't have the FireWire 800 port built in to the Pro models. The optical drive remains on the right side of the machine.

The aluminium MacBooks weigh just over 2kg, about 200gm less than the earlier model, and they're a little slimmer, just 0.95 in. thick with the lid closed. That's not much thicker than the Air, which has a more tapered look but is 0.76 inches wide at its thickest.

Battery life is very good. Without even trying to tweak the energy saver settings to save juice, I got four hours and 10 minutes.

Apple has taken its most mainstream portable computer decidedly upscale with its latest refresh. Not only does it offer faster hardware, but it incorporates innovative touches (like the new track pad) that are both useful and, well, cool. If you don't need the speed or lit keyboard of the $2,899 model and you're fine with a 160GB hard drive, the $2,399 model represents a real bargain.

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