Review and Benchmarks: Apple 13-Inch MacBook

After a little more than a year, Apple's entry-level MacBook line of notebook computers is now in its third generation. Sporting upgrades to wireless networking, CPU performance, and storage capacity, the new models bring near-workstation-class performance to the low end of Apple's lineup while continuing to offer a comprehensive suite of hardware and software features that make it ideal for a wide range of applications, from school and home use all the way up to pro-level content creation.

Performance Benchmarks
We'll start things off with the power of this machine, since I began this article with the fairly bold statement that an entry-level notebook could approach workstation performance.

Based around a dual-core, 2.16 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo CPU, the 13-inch MacBook (third generation) is entry-level only in the sense that it's the least expensive of the notebooks offered by Apple. By performance measurements, it holds its own against some fairly serious competition. We put it up against two G5s, including the G5 Quad, as well as other MacBooks and some Windows-based systems as well.

For these benchmarks, we've conducted tests based on processor-hogging applications running CPU-intensive operations, including rendering video, motion graphics, particle effects, and 3D scenes and performing a wide range of operations in 2D graphics apps. Applications tested include some fairly unlikely candidates for those who choose to go with a MacBook rather than a MacBook Pro or a workstation system, but the results are telling nonetheless. They include Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator, and After Effects; Apple Final Cut Pro and Motion; Maxon Cinema 4D; NewTek LightWave; and Autodesk Maya.

Few will ever need to put notebook computers through this level of processor torture, but those in design, motion graphics, animation, and video editing programs, among others, certainly will. For those that do not use these specific applications, these tests should at least give you an idea of the relative performance of the MacBook versus earlier Macs and some other systems when used for digital content creation--which is, of course, the main reason you'd use a Mac.

Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator, After Effects
We'll start things off with a look at its performance when running applications from Adobe's Creative Suite, including Photoshop, Illustrator, and After Effects.

With Photoshop, the MacBook beat every single system we tested in terms of the time it took to complete three sequences of operations, including two quad-core workstations that are not exactly the pinnacle of computing power today but that are nevertheless formidable machines. Here are the test results. Descriptions of the tests follow.

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And here's an explanation of the tests.

  • Test 1: A 4,000 x 4,000-pixel document was created, and on this document I applied 47 commands, including 28 individual filters and 19 image adjustments, layer and canvas transformations, and various other actions.
  • Test 2: A 2,000 x 1,500-pixel document was created, with a variety of commands applied, including several canvas- and layer-based transformations in succession.
  • Test 3: An 800 x 600-pixel document was created, and to that document every filter that ships with Photoshop was applied, with the exception of Reduce Noise and Displace. The test also included transformations, selections, fills, and the manipulation of text.

The story was similar with Adobe Illustrator. The MacBook fared well against other systems except in the case of the second test.

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  • For the first test, I ran a series of transformations on an object that had a gradient applied to it. This included duplicating, rotating, and moving the object so that, in the end, I wound up with 3,721 gradient-filled objects spiraling out from the center of my canvas. Almost needless to say, this is an extremely taxing sequence of operations.
  • Test 2 involved 3D objects with complex shading. The objects were transformed, aligned, rotated, and duplicated multiple times.
  • For the final test, I created and duplicated more simple objects, then aligned and transformed them several times, rasterized them, and finally applied some Photoshop filters to them.

With After Effects, I ran the latest Intel-native version of Adobe's motion graphics suite on the latest MacBook and compared it with performance on other systems running After Effects 7 in their native environments (Windows on Intel-based Macs and on the quad Opteron system and Mac OS X on PowerPC-based systems). All tests gauge rendering and encoding (QuickTime) performance only, not GPU performance.

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  • Test 1 was a cel-style animation that involved a PICT file and tracing paths.
  • Test 2 was a composite scene using several effects. Some systems could not complete this test, and I have indicated that in the results with an "NA."
  • Test 3 used Photoshop and Illustrator images in an animation and used 3D effects and random sequencing of numbers across the screen.
  • Test 4 is a 2D composite from an Adobe Illustrator document rendered out at 720 x 486.
  • Test 5 used a 3D composite comprising various 2D shapes undergoing transformations over time.
  • Test 6 used a 3D environment created entirely in After Effects from 2D images, animated and rendered to the QuickTime format.

Apple Final Cut Studio
Now, before I get started with Final Cut Studio benchmarks, I have to put in my standard disclaimer. Apple does not officially support Final Cut Studio on 13-inch MacBooks. Yes, Final Cut Studio can be installed and run on a MacBook, despite hat some reseller will tell you, and, yes, it runs it pretty well compared with some older systems. My advice, however, is that if you intend to use Final Cut Studio on a regular basis, you ought to invest in a MacBook Pro or a desktop/workstation system--something, at least, that Apple supports.

These tests are using Final Cut Studio 1. I have not tested Final Cut Studio 2 yet and do not know whether it will run on a MacBook.

We'll start it off with Final Cut Pro 5.1, in which the third-generation MacBook outperformed generation 1 MacBooks and MacBook Pros, as well as the dual-processor G5 it was tested against. Note that I could not conduct test 3 on the MacBook owing to footage that went missing just prior to this benchmark project. I include it here just for continuity, assuming I'll be able to relocate it for next time around.

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  • The first test used a project with DVCPro HD 720p60 clips in a sequence. The first clip had a Color Corrector 3-Way applied to it. The second had a Curl effect applied to it. The sequence also used a Swing transition.
  • The second test also used two DVCPro 720p60 clips. The first clip used Pond Ripple, and Lens Flare effects. The second used Gaussian Blur, Fisheye, and Color Balance filters. There was also a Ripple Dissolve transition applied between the clips.
  • The third test used seven 720p HD clips spread across three video tracks and included Page Peel, Center Split Side, Channel Map, and Ripple Dissolve transitions. Filters used in various parts of this project included Color Key, Luma Key, Pond Ripple, Lens Flare, Gaussian Blur, Fisheye, and Color Balance.
  • The fourth test rendered D1 footage and used Wind Blur, Color Offset, and Unsharp Mask filters.

Apple's Motion 2.1 tests came out a bit different. Motion relies heavily on OpenGL, which is not one of the strong points of the 13-inch MacBook line. You don't see a whole lot of improvement between the generation 1 MacBook and the Generation 3 MacBook, since they use the same graphics processing engine. It was beaten by the first-generation MacBook Pro, which does have excellent graphics capabilities; but it did beat the older AGP-based G5 desktop.

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  • Test 1 was purely a test of rendering particle effects in an NTSC DV project. Particle systems included Cloud Transport, Clockwork, Heavy Sparks, Spiral, and Star Tunnel.
  • Test 2 used six particle systems in a DVCPro 720p-format project. Particle systems included Magic Dust, Meta Wash, Smoke Cloud, Shell, Rocket, and Spiral.
  • Test 3 rendered a variety of effects--Radial Blur, Bevel, Refraction, Echo, and Fun House--over multiple layers and clips in a D1-resolution project.
  • Test 4 rendered multiple layers of video, text, shapes, and replicators with behaviors and effects in a D1 project. Behaviors included Randomize, Grunge 4, Spring, Wind, and Sequence Replicator. Effects included Echo, Fun House, Black Hole, Refraction and Radial Blur.

3D Performance
In the category of 3D, we turned to three high-end applications that have made the transition to Intel Mac-native status. We begin with Maxon's Cinema 4D, which we've tested using Cinebench. Now, Cinebench is constantly under development to fine-tune performance for the latest systems out there, so results can vary. If you want to compare other systems using the latest version of Cinebench, you can download it from the Cinebench site.

For these tests, Cinebench runs a battery of hardware and software operations, including OpenGL hardware, OpenGL software, CPU performance, and Cinema 4D software-based shading.

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With Autodesk Maya, we rendered (or attempted to render) several 3D scenes. However, for the third-generation MacBook rendering Mac OS X, we had to use the latest version of Maya (8.5), and some of the scenes simply would not load. These are noted with an NA. Of the two we were able to load successfully, the third-generation MacBook performed admirably. The MacBook isn't even close to being on Autodesk's list of certified systems for Maya; but you never know when you'll need a system like the MacBook to kick in a little extra rendering power.

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  • Test 1 rendered a smoke scene using highest-quality anti-aliasing.
  • Test 2 rendered a fog scene with anti-aliasing set to high quality.
  • Test 3 rendered a scene with a soft-body object and particles with anti-aliasing set to high quality.
  • Test 4 rendered several objects, including a cutaway of a building, with anti-aliasing set to "highest quality."
  • Test 5 rendered a complex object with anti-aliasing set to "highest quality."

NewTek LightWave is the latest to make its way into a native Intel Mac format. On the first test, the third-generation MacBook outperformed all other systems at rendering the scene, while in the others it turned in respectable, but not overwhelming, results.

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These tests used the following scenes, which were included with LightWave:

  • Test 1: Radiosity_BOX.lws (/Content/Scenes/Benchmark/);
  • Test 2: SunsetSample.lws (/Content/Scenes/);
  • Test 3: Teapot.lws (/Content/Scenes/Benchmark/);
  • Test 4: The_Matrix5.lws (/Content/Scenes/Abstract/);
  • Test 5: Virus_DOF.lws (/content/Scenes/Surface/).

These tests, of course, tell only a part of the story. These are, essentially, pure tests of CPU performance and do not include graphics performance. Like the two generations of 13-inch MacBooks before it, the latest MacBook uses the Intel 950 graphics processor with 64 MB of DDR2 SDRAM shared with main memory. It simply does not compare with workstation-class graphics processing units or higher-end GPUs designed for notebooks.

So, in other words, you would want to bump up from a MacBook if you were working on any seriously OpenGL-intenstive projects in 3D applications, video editing, motion graphics, and the like. However, as the tests we'll publish later this week will show, this doesn't rule out the possibility of using a MacBook in something like a render farm, where CPU performance would be all you'd care about.

Hardware Features
Beyond the performance-oriented categories of the MacBook's hardware, there are several upgraded and returning features to recommend this notebook. These include, in the 2.16 GHz white model reviewed here:

  • 120 GB internal SATA drive (5,400 RPM, with sudden motion sensor);
  • 8x SuperDrive with support for double-layer (DVD+R DL/DVD±RW/CD-RW);
  • 1 GB RAM base (667 MHz DDR2 SDRAM, expandable to 2 GB);
  • Built-in iSight camera for video and still image capture (640 x 480 pixels);
  • Gigabit Ethernet;
  • AirPort Extreme 802.11n (draft spec), in addition to backward support for 802.11b and g;
  • Bluetooth 2.0+EDR;
  • One FireWire 400 port;
  • Two USB 2.0 ports;
  • Digital optical audio in and out (mini-Toslink);
  • Analog audio in and out;
  • An IR remote for controlling music, movies, and slideshows; and
  • Mini DVI out (adapters for DVI-I, VGA, and S-video sold separately).

That's a lot of hardware features to cram into a machine selling for $1,199 (including education discount).

Regarding the overall usability and convenience of the system, I find it comfortable to use. I actually prefer the 13.3-inch screen to the larger Mac notebooks for the portability factor, although it has a narrower vertical viewing angle than its higher-end counterparts. And the unit's trackpad is just outstanding, with it's support for gestures for right-clicking, horizontal and vertical scrolling, and the like. (You don't have to worry about the actual clicker having only one button; tapping on the trackpad with two fingers is the equivalent of a right click.)

Any negatives on the hardware front? A couple.

I like the overall concept of the MagSafe power adapter, which is on the whole convenient, but I've also had to replace them on two of my older (one-year-old) MacBooks for the reason that they stopped supplying power, probably owing to a loose wire. These were replaced under warranty with no fuss, and I've been more careful since that time, since my warrantees are now expired.

Heat can be an issue. Apple tried to pack as much as possible into a slim form factor (roughly one inch), and, if you work with your notebooks the way I do, running processor-intensive apps, you're going to feel that heat on your lap to the point where, if you're anything like me, you'll be willing to go out and buy a $50, fan-based cooling tray for the machine.

These are, on the whole, minor annoyances. The MacBook offers a tremendous number of hardware features at a price that comes in slightly lower than comparably equipped notebooks from non-Mac manufacturers. (Of course, there are PC notebooks that come in at less than half the price of the MacBook. They just don't have a lot going for them.)

Software Features
Now, Apple has always been known for its thoughtful approach to software in the sense that what's delivered to the end user is straightforward and elegant. I won't get into a comparison between Mac OS X and Windows. As you can probably gather, I'm a Mac user, and that's what I prefer. But the goal is always to provide the right tool for the right user. If some prefer Windows, great. If some prefer Mac OS X, fantastic. They work together nicely these days. Plus, like all Intel-based Macs, the MacBook can run Windows quite well (as you saw in a couple of the benchmark results above).

I will comment on ease of use. I had my seven-year-old daughter set up this MacBook, from unpacking to getting started making comic books. She went through it with a little bit of encouragement, including setting herself up as administrator and giving herself a custom admin icon on the fly during the setup process. The one hurdle she couldn't leap was in setting up wireless access initially. I couldn't either. For some reason, the set-up wizard couldn't figure out my wireless encryption scheme. But we resolved that right after the initial setup using the built-in AirPort utility.

Beyond ease of use, there are several software features tat should be appealing for an education user base. I'll gloss over these briefly; you can find my more detailed reviews of these applications scattered in various publications all over the Internet.

First and foremost, I want to mention GarageBand. This is, in its own right, really a great audio tool--my favorite certainly for anything costing less than about a grand. And it's free. In fact, the only things that stop it from being considered a pro app are the limited number of plugins you can use on any given track (seven at a time per track) and the merely CD-quality supported sample rates. But for education users, probably the most significant thing about GarageBand is that it's the best podcasting tool I've seen to date, with support for ducking, speech enhancement, a huge library of sound effects and various audio samples, recording interviews via iChat, podcast artwork tracks, and up to eight inputs for simultaneous recording (plus one software instrument track, if your podcast for some reason involves a guy on synth). It's slick and easy, and it's a blast to use.

Next up is iDVD. This is a complete DVD authoring tool designed for simplicity and creating DVDs with impact using minimal effort. It's not a pro-level authoring tool like DVD Studio Pro, and it doesn't offer the encoding capabilities of pro-level systems, but it'll certainly get the job done for everything from student projects to event videography applications.

Likewise, iMovie HD is not a pro-level non-linear editor, But for students putting together projects, it's easy to learn, fun to use, and fairly versatile.

Those three are what I consider to be the best of the iLife suite. The MacBook ships with several other software tools (iWeb, iPhoto, etc.), but GarageBand, iDVD, and iMovie stand out as great reasons on their own to invest in a Mac.

Recommendations
Obviously I'm a fan of the MacBook. I bought two myself the day they first came out, and I haven't regretted the decision. The latest generation of MacBooks is even more compelling, with great CPU performance, improved networking capabilities, larger base storage, and larger base RAM. For features, performance, and price, I give it an overall grade of A-. Not perfect, but pretty outstanding.

The MacBook reviewed here sells for $1,199 with an educational discount. As of this writing, Apple is also offering education customers rebate of up to $199 on the purchase of a MacBook with an iPod or iPod Nano through Apple or an authorized Apple Campus Store.

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