Apple has made a minor upgrade to its MacBook line — same price, same lineup, but improved offerings. The $1099 white model is actually a pretty great deal now: 2.0GHz / 1 GB RAM / 80 GB HD means you get a pretty solid model out of the box. Upgrade to 1.5 or 2 GB RAM, and I think you’d be very happy, even running relatively intensive audio processing. As always, consider an external FireWire drive if you’re doing any significant multitracking. (Spend extra if you need DVD burning or, you know, the color black.) This could mean the previous revision could get some bargain prices. Honestly, if you look at standard equipment, I find the MacBook extremely price-competitive with Windows. Add in superior MIDI and audio support in Mac OS X over XP/Vista, and I know many PC users eyeing this as their next laptop.

The problem I have is with the MacBook Pro. It’s a terrific machine, but there’s not much middle ground between the $1099 MacBook and the $1999 MBP. The MBP’s ATI X1600 is a terrific video card — and a lot of PCs include lesser cards on their 15″ models — but that’s a big premium to pay if that’s the only draw for you. Apple advises Final Cut Studio users to use only the Pro model, but Logic Pro is totally happy on a plain MacBook — as are Pro Tools, Ableton Live, Max/MSP, and [insert your favorite audio app] the lot. (The MBP has additional features, like its FW800 port and ExpressCard slot and bigger display. But I really like the MacBook’s tiny size. I’d almost rather have two MacBooks than one MacBook Pro. As always, it depends on needs. But there’s not the same PC-switcher-magnet on the Pro line — yet.) It’s a great machine, but I wouldn’t rule out its smaller sibling before making the call.

For bargain hunters, I think the MacBook is ripe for the picking. For performance lovers, I’m interested on both the PC and Mac side with what happens with some upcoming laptop architectures. There’s some juicy stuff in store for both the CPU and (CDMotion types) GPU.

Lest you think I’m being Mac-biased here, by the way, I’ve been playing lately with a one-Mac, one-PC setup and thoroughly enjoying it. I’ve got a Toshiba and MacBook packed in the same backpack at the moment.

What’s your take? Looking to pick up a new laptop? Need some advice? Say something in comments, as right now I’m jet lagged in San Francisco and running on hotel room coffee. If specs for an Amiga 4000 slipped in there, I wouldn’t be surprised.

  • velocipede

    Well said, Peter. At the moment, the middle-priced MacBook is almost as powerful as the low-end MBP. (The premium for black is back up to $150…) Most of the improved specs are not that significant for making music unless you need the the card slot for something. However, I suspect (hope) that the MBP will also see even more significant improvements relatively soon. For most people, though, I would recommend the MacBook and then spend any extra cash on an external 20-23" monitor, a keyboard and a mousetrackball.

  • http://myspace.com/prospect Jonathan – Prospect

    I love my Macbook Pro. I come from the school of giant computer setups with racks of harddrives and multiple screens. When I went from a dual screen tower G5 setup to a Macbook Pro I was nervous as can be… but quite frankly this MacBook Pro is running Logic Pro with a bunch of plug ins and unreal track counts…and the performance is way better tha any souped up G5 tower I've worked with. Until there are some incredible CPU intensive plug ins that require it…. from here on out I'm sticking with the laptop setup.

  • http://www.prolifixx.com Dexx

    So right so true,

    i have been tellin all my PC goin friends about this new deal from mac and let me tell you not one of them are not impressed, about 5 of them are already saying "omg i'm getting it with my next pay cheque" and i'm still sittin here thinking, shite, "i gotta get one myself" altho the one with the combo drive is not appealing, i will however settle for the black one. i have an PBP and am happy with it, but i'd LOVE an intel-mac with 2ghz with the frosting… (dances in excitement)

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    Right, the MBP is really compelling as a replacement machine — even with the 15" screen. I was really impressed when we benchmarked it for Macworld; it held its own against a (then top-of-the-line) G5 tower. Not bad given the size difference — and relatively small price difference (the MBP being cheaper factoring in the fact that you don't necessarily need a screen).

    PC users could, rightfully, argue that they could get a roughly similar configuration for far less, just if we look at hardware alone and don't compare part-for-part. (There are PCs that cost more, as well — it's just a broader range of choice.) The OS does still make a difference, of course.

  • Lost

    I loved my Macbook. Before the battery craped out. 6 months after buying. Then sending it back only to be returned with a dead hard drive. Sent that in and its okay now, tho it does give me kernel errors now and again. I don't know if i want to send it in again tho, i dont know how much good it'll do. But this is one of the very first Macbooks and 1st gen Mac products are rarely too solid. Maybe if i complain enough they'll gimme a new one. But yeah great machine, but the small size and Mac's unfamiliarity with Intel components makes for a bit of a fragile/ unstable computer. Perfect for computer music though.

  • velocipede

    I would recommend shelling out the extra bucks for AppleCare for MacBooks, especially the Pro models and any rev a models. I dunno, but perhaps having to pay for 3-year warranty is a "hidden" cost.

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    You know, I was criticizing Apple for their warranty costs … but I see if you buy a similar 3-year warranty from Dell, for instance, you get hit pretty hard, too. It's definitely well worth it when you look at the failure rates of the components, which are pretty consistent across the board. The plans seem to pay for themselves at least half the time. That's an easy gamble, given what companies like Apple charge for parts a la carte out of warranty.

    I've had some hardware problems with my black MB, as well, which I think may mean sending it in finally. I got a refurb, so it may be an earlier generation machine (and it's definitely Core Duo, not the Core 2 Duo revision). The DVD burner is acting up, and there's a weird (largely cosmetic) intermittent screen flicker that's apparently quite common. Both I think are power-related. That could well be Apple's fault, but even there, most of the actual industrial design is outsourced.

    I will say, reliability numbers for most of the big makers are pretty close now. They're all using the same parts. Take Lost's example: battery, standard part. Hard drive, standard part. Kernel panics — probably logic board if it's hardware, though I wouldn't rule out software. And I don't think Apple is unfamiliar with Intel parts. They were coding Intel operating systems (ahem, NeXT) before PowerPC. And they're running largely to-spec Intel logic boards.

    Overall, the MB seems like a decent machine with fairly typical hardware liability, after some first-gen bumps (as with the MBP). I know what a real lemon looks like. I owned a PowerBook 5300c. Um, seven of them, if logic boards have a soul.

  • bliss

    I have yet to own a Mac laptop, but, of course, I have many friends who do own one and they all recommend AppleCare. They've all had to use it, for everything; hard drives, motherboards, displays, batteries, etc. So one should defintely figure in the cost for AppleCare before purchasing a Macbook.

  • anon

    Finally something we agree on bliss ;) hehehehe

    I think that goes for laptops in general though :(

  • ililt

    well macbook are rock solid for music production but even with 2 go of ram you can still do some motion work…final cut is working for dv source even a bit of hd with a good external HD

  • http://www.frankbongers.com Frank

    I've always been wanting to check out the MB and MBP offerings, but if I look at the failure rate displayed here, I'm quite hesitant to buy one in the future. I've always bought Compaq laptops for my live shows, and they work extremely reliable – NEVER had any failures, I'm still working on the same configuration when I bought it. So it kinda shocks me seeing you returning your MB's so often to Apple …

  • http://debsinha.com deb

    i have a friend who knows the MB would be fine but finds it impossible to work with the tiny screen (eg for ableton live sets). how do people feel about the screen real estate?

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    I use the MacBook with Ableton all the time. I think it depends on how your set is configured. But I personally want to reduce the amount of information on my computer screen working with Live, anyway, and the program helps you do that. (F11/full screen mode is a must at that resolution, of course.)

    You definitely need a MacBook Pro to run Final Cut Studio. Apple officially lists it as a requirement. I think you CAN get away with running Final Cut Pro; the problem is Motion, which relies on GPU power the integrated graphics chip on the MacBook just can't muster. The Intel chip runs fine for basic 3D (and I use it for that); where it starts to run into trouble is that it's not OpenGL 2-compatible (only 1.5), there aren't enough pipelines, it shares memory with the CPU, and it's restricted in performance. (That said, it DOES do fine for basic video playback, even GPU-accelerated.)

  • bliss

    I've read how some people hack the preference files to run FCP and Motion on unsupported hardware. Mileage varies, of course.

  • http://www.alonewithaghost.com Mike

    does Quartz Composer or anything of that sort have issues running on a MacBook?

  • tyc

    There are quite a few reasons I'd like to own a MacBook, but there's also one very important reason I don't want one…

    I don't want my laptop to be white. Unfortunately, white is really the only option that makes any financial sense.

    Try going to store.apple.com and configuring a 2.16GHz white alongside the black version. With any identical configuration (the easiest is to bump the HD size up on the white) there will be a $125 difference in price. For a color change.

    Incidentally, that's also essentially what I'd be paying extra for if I bought a MB Pro today. That sexy metallic casing is a big selling point for Apple's Pro notebook line.

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    @bliss: Motion may run, but it's still going to be constrained by the graphics card, I would think. I don't think Apple's just blowing smoke there. Not that I wouldn't try hacking it to see, especially just as a mobile, second machine for light work — I'd keep the desktop on the big jobs, anyway.

    @Mike: QC runs just fine on MacBook. I've had great luck with it. It really comes down to how much parallel graphics processing you're doing. In the case of QC sketches (or simple Jitter patches, etc.), the answer is usually not a lot. I've been really happy with VDMX and QC on the MB, not doing anything fancy, but still.

    @tyc: Hear you, but things to remember: plastic scratches less than metal. Black carries fingerprints more than white. Apple has resolved some of the discoloration issues with white. And refurbs can occasionally get you a deal on black; I got mine for $1000 and after discounting, it wound up being worth it. Of course, now that's probably why I have to send it in for repairs. :)

  • http://melodiefabriek.nl/ Marco Raaphorst

    Thanks Peter. Very helpful! I wonder if for Final Cut pro you really need the pro version. What do you think about that?

  • Mark

    I'm going to study Composition & Music Production next year, and I haven't got any idea on what laptop to buy. The macs seem great, but I'm more a PC kind-a guy.

    The only problem is, I don't know how to compare the two… Can someone give me some examples of PC-laptops which are relatively light (for travelling) and can run some audio apps with lots of VST's at a good speed?

    Because the market for PC-laptops is way bigger and less transparent.

    Thanks in advance…

  • http://myspace.com/takebackproductions Pat Serrano

    I have a buddy who is the floor manager at an apple store here on Long Island. I just went in to see him today, and he was showing me the new Macbooks. In every apple store you will see Final Cut Studio 2 installed on Macbooks. They run it decently, but not amazingly.

    If you have an apple store close, then check it out for yourself.

  • http://www.myspace.com/digitalemotion bryan tewell

    I have some questions comments.

    1st: how would you use an external firewire drive if you're multitracking on a macbook, unless you're using a USB2.0 interface? would it be just as well to use a USB2.0 drive? I know with my experiences that I used to have a terrible time with DP crashing continuously when I multitracked without an external drive, but now I'm using my 40GB ipod as an external and I have had much better luck ever since. I know it sounds like I just answered my own question, but I was curious if its even better to use a firewire drive (I could just get a firewire cable for my ipod huh? haha). Thanks to whoever answers.

  • http://www.myspace.com/digitalemotion bryan tewell

    oh yeah, I got a macbook pretty early on (I got one and upgraded it, spent about $1600, and now the base $1099 mb with the core 2 duo instead of core duo has the same thing!) and my screen definitely has a flickering problem that I have not yet had fixed. Other than that, its been the best computer experience of my life, and now they're even more worth it, you can get a sweet macbook for under a grand with a student discount these days, and they likely wont have problems like flickering screens the early ones like mine have.

  • Brett

    Macbook is a great audio machine. For those in Cananda, a good site to keep up on macbooks is ehmac.ca, they have a contest right now to win a free ipod.

  • Matheus

    thanks for the post, it generally made me make up my mind regarding laptops. i already have an intel core duo iMac, running logic pro and a couple of soft synths as the Korg Legacy Collection Analog Edition… Im about to begin university studies for the fall, which means I am in need of a laptop. Got around $700 to spend on a laptop, from my father – but that will give me a PC, and i'm not in the mood to work with two OS. Ok, Vista is not bad, but I'm in love with my mac and would prefer to keep it that way. I thought about putting my own money to that to get a MB – but I was unsure if it would handle any music applications, and I would really appreciate to have a mobile option to my studio, and If I could encorporate this in my "study laptop"-deal that would be perfect. I feel like there's a bit too big price difference between the MB and MBP to put more money on the MBP – as the MB obviously works well judging from your article.

    So, thanks for helping me make up my mind.