Top 10 things you didn’t know about the new MacBook

1. Yeah target disk mode… about that…

You may have twigged to the fact that without a Firewire port the MacBook can’t do target disk mode as we know it. You may have hoped that Apple had hacked it to work with USB. Sadly I confirmed with Apple Australia yesterday that the answer is no.

According to Geoff Winder Product Manager for Hardware at Apple Australia Target Disk Mode relied upon part of the Firewire standard which isn’t replicated in USB.

Winder said that Apple now believes that there is no real need for Target Disk Mode anyway – there are alternative methods for everything people would want to do with it. There’s Boot Camp for backup and the Apple Migration Assistant for full-disk cloning.

This is definitely a debatable point — Target Disk Mode is a key part of the special sauce that makes maintaining Macs much easier than PCs and Migration Assistant does nowhere near as exact a copy as something like SuperDuper cloning between two Macs with one in target disk mode. But that aside Winder’s point on Migration Assistant leads us on to the second point…

2. The system migration tool has been updated

According to Apple (not tested by us yet) the version of the system migration tool that comes with the new Macbooks is now considerably faster than it was before. You can also pause it so that if you accidentally disconnect the two Macs from each other you can resume the process.

The version on the MacBook is 1.2.2 (174) whereas the version that ships with the version of 10.5.5 on all other Macs is 1.2.1 (159). Presumably the pausing functionality will only work if both the client and master Macs are running the 1.2.2 version which is not yet available as part of Apple Software Update — but until we’ve actually tested a system migration we’ll have to reserve judgement.  

3. The system chipset has changed not just the GPU

Apple has made a big deal of changing from the Intel integrated graphics to the NVIDIA 9400M on the MacBook. What it didn’t talk about is that it has changed to an NFORCE chipset on the motherboard moving Mac notebooks even further away from an Intel “platform”.

The MacBooks may be running an Intel CPU but they’re not running an Intel controller chipset any more. You can tell this by looking at the serial ATA controller information in “About this Mac”. The MacBooks are using NVIDIA MCP79 controllers.

NVIDIA’s reputation for system chipsets certainly isn’t as solid as Intel’s with numerous mishaps in the past related to NFORCE motherboards. One particularly prominent one (resolved now) was with NFORCE 680i chipsets — the SATA controllers were actually causing disk data corruption.

But given Apple is one of those ‘special’ vendors that can get other vendors to change their implementations to suit it and it controls the operating system which run its hardware it’s likely that the NFORCE implementation is better than the average OEM Windows machine running on NFORCE.

Then again given it’s the first Mac ever to use an NFORCE chipset it could well be one of those “first hardware generation” products from Apple that old hands on the Mac scene advise people to avoid until Apple has had time to get all the glitches out.

4. Break the glass screen fascia; replace the whole screen

You know that glass front panel that sits over the LCD screen? Yeah that’s bonded to the aluminium case behind the screen for extra robustness. Should you drop the machine and bend the aluminium or break the glass fascia you’ll have to replace the entire screen and top case. Apple Australia confirmed that it’s all one part.

Then again the Mac product manager demonstrated the stiffness of the aluminium plate backing and also showed the screen flexing under some pressure without cracking. We were also able to press down onto the glass causing the LCD to blot where we were pressing without cracking it — so it’s not just a sheet of flimsy glass.

5. The MacBooks run a special build of OS X not yet released to other Macs

The MacBook we have on loan from Apple is running OS X 10.5.5 build 9F2114 – whereas the latest release issued to Macs generally is 9F33. We’ve spotted some small changes so far…

6. The battery indicator is now on the left side of the notebook

The battery indicator is no longer stuck to the battery – it’s on the side of the notebook using a small silver button that’s flush to the case and tiny holes in the aluminium (probably laser bored) that light up.

7. The chicklet keyboard on the MacBook is very firmly supported

Coming from the point of view of someone who has never liked the chicklet keyboard on the MacBook the latest gen version of it is surprisingly good. It is very firmly mounted inside the case (Apple says this is due to the carved ‘unibody’ design which provides a very stiff chassis) and try as we might we couldn’t get the keyboard to bend to pressure.

The introduction of the backlit keyboard into the standard MacBook also makes it a more viable option for MacBook Pro owners looking for that elusive 13″ MacBook Pro.

8. The speakers are surprisingly good

Given there are no speaker grilles on the body the speaker quality is surprisingly good. Sure there’s no bass to speak of but they’re not completely tinny and/or buzzy either – the sound is decently clear with OK midrange.

9. The viewing angle on the LCD is still lacking

Apart from Firewire and the Expresscard slot which are two “nice to have features” in the MacBook Pro the main feature which has always differentiated the Pro and the standard MacBook is the screen quality. In short: MacBook screens have always sucked in comparison to the Pro screen with considerably more washed-out colours and poor viewing angle – meaning if you’re not looking at it dead-on the colours are distorted and washed out.

Unfortunately although the new MacBook’s LED panel has made some advances in this respect it’s still nowhere near as good as the 15″ Pro screen. Tilting the display still causes the colour and contrast to distort very quickly.

Apple’s answer to this is that since you can tilt it so easily to suit your viewing angle it’s not really a problem. Errr right. (Of course the counter-answer is that now that the screen has a mirror-like pane of glass over it you may often be forced to use it at a non-ideal angle simply to avoid rooftop-lighting reflections at the cost of getting ideal colour and contrast.)

Even comparing a Pro screen next to a standard MacBook screen with ideal viewing angle it’s clear that the Pro screen has considerably better colour vibrancy and contrast.

That being said with Coloursync calibration it’s not as intolerable as the previous MacBook’s screen was.

10. Installing a hard drive is now even more superbly easy

If there’s one advantage the MacBook has long had over the MacBook Pro it’s the deliciously easy hard-drive installation with the hard disk able to slot in thorough the side of the battery bay.

MacBook Pro on the other hand seriously requires disassembly by an Apple qualified technician or you run the risk of damaging the case irrepairably as you try to prise it open adding to the cost of a hard drive upgrade by $100 or more.

The new MacBook is – astonishingly – even easier to install a hard drive into than the last generation. It sits next to the battery so all you have to do is pop the metal battery cover off undo one screw pull out the existing hard drive and slide the new one in.

You might think then that it would be overly easy for someone passing by your desk to steal your hard disk but it turns out you can’t open the latch on the bottom of the computer to pop the battery compartment lid if you’ve got a Kensington lock in place on the side of the computer. It just jams the latch opening mechanism.

11. How about a full set of system profiler specs?

Download it here: 360KB PDF.

Things other people have discovered

  • The new MacBook (and Pro) are the first notebooks from Apple to use a SATA optical drive. This means that if you were prepared to jerry-rig it up you could actually take out the optical drive and put a second hard drive in there. Yes that means you could potentially have a MacBook Pro with 2 x 500GB hard drives – 1TB of storage in a slim non-chunky laptop. The pic on the right is from the excellent MacBook Pro disassembly by iFixit.
  • There are now ‘submersion sensors’ in the notebook. Note these are likely to be nothing too high tech — just a couple of paper dots stuck inside the machine which are chemically treated to change colour when they come in contact with moisture. They’ve been installed in mobile phones for years — it’s surprising that Apple is touting them as a feature. They’re really a ‘warranty fraud protection feature’ for Apple more than anything else. has a good writeup here.
  • Apple is not providing any video port adaptors with either machine which is outrageous grab for cash considering this is the first machine on the market to come with DisplayPort Mini which means you WILL need a video adaptor to plug it in to an external monitor. The most expensive adaptor (DisplayPort Mini to Dual DVI) costs $AUD149 which is a considerable extra cost on top of the machine. Everyone else will have to shell out $49 for the DisplayPort Mini to DVI adaptor. 
  • The keyboard is not designed to be serviceable. If you break a key you will have to pay to have the entire top case replaced — very expensive considering this is the ‘unibody’ part of the machine which is machined from a block of solid aluminium. Apple has made this abundantly clear by using 56 screws to affix the keyboard to the top case. iFixit has the lowdown here
  • The MacBook Pro now has the same superb design for accessing the hard drive as the MacBook (described in point 10 of our list above). This means no more technician involvement in changing the hard drive making the MacBook Pro one of the most easily upgradeable laptops with RAM & hard drive easily user accessible.