Review: Apple's Intel Laptops Just as Good, and a Bit Faster

Apple Computer Inc.'s notebooks have long been highly regarded for their thoughtful designs and leading-edge features. But when it comes to performance, recent models have been lagging behind competitors that run Intel Corp.'s chips.

Unable to beat 'em, Apple last year announced plans last year to join 'em. It recently began shipping its first Intel-based laptop, the MacBook Pro, which looks a lot like the old PowerBook G4 line it's replacing.

Like the iMac desktop that also got a silicon brain transplant, the new notebook is fast, with decent battery life.

Also like the old PowerBooks, it includes some very nice touches, such as an impressively bright screen, stylish aluminum body, a video camera built into the display's frame, a keyboard that lights up in a dark room, and built-in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth transmitters.

The initial MacBooks, all with 15.4-inch widescreen displays, start at $1,999 for a 1.83 gigahertz Core Duo microprocessor, 512 megabytes of memory and an 80-gigabyte hard drive. The $2,499 model has a 2 GHz processor, twice the memory and a 100-gig drive.

I reviewed the higher-end model with a few extras tossed in — including a faster 2.16 GHz chip, faster hard drive and the maximum 2 gigabytes of memory. Besides its appearance and performance, there's something else that's breathtaking: its $3,199 price tag.

Still, it boots up in about 20 seconds. Programs launch without hesitation. The 69-megabyte, high-definition "Cars" movie trailer played flawlessly, to the delight of our toddler, even with other programs running in the background.

To execute instructions at maximum speed, Intel-based chips need "Universal" software that's adapted to it. Older software written for the PowerPC chips supplied by IBM Corp. and Freescale Semiconductor Inc. also can be used, but there is a speed penalty. So far, more than 1,000 programs have been "Universalized."

What about the all-important battery life? Starting with it fully charged, I surfed the Web, listened to music and engaged in other regular tasks for an impressive 3 hours and 10 minutes before the system went to sleep. Once plugged in, it woke up in seconds, exactly where it stopped.

The run time was slightly longer than for an older PowerBook, which I tested under similar under similar conditions a year ago. In that case, the battery fully drained in just under three hours.

The MacBook's result is even more impressive because the Intel chip runs two computing engines at once, instead of just one on the PowerBook's G4 chip. The MacBook's processor also runs at a faster clock speed.

But in another test, where I continuously played a "Thomas the Tank Engine" DVD, the fully charged battery lasted a little over two hours before running out of steam. It's basically the same result I had with the PowerBook G4 I tested a year ago.

Another noticeable difference is in the power cord. Rather than snapping into a socket in the laptop, it attaches magnetically. If someone trips over the cord, it will just break away, leaving the MacBook on your lap rather than on the floor.

It works as advertised, though it also had a tendency to pull out while I was surfing the Web on the couch. This is where the longer battery life pays off.

Apple also ships the MacBook with a remote control and its Front Row software, a program designed for watching movies, viewing pictures and listening to music from a distance. The notebook also can be connected to an external monitor or TV, using a built-in DVI port or other optional cables.

One particularly neat feature, made available through a software update last week, allows music and pictures stored on other computers to be remotely accessible through Front Row. It uses Apple's Bonjour technology, which is arguably the easiest networking technology ever.

Still, there are some downsides to the MacBook.

Apple has switched to a slightly slower optical drive for reading and burning CDs and DVDs and it's also dumped the built-in modem, which might be an inconvenience to anyone without broadband. It's also increased the size of the power adapter.

Still, those are minor quibbles. The new notebooks may have a new name and brain, but they haven't lost the Apple shine.