Which apple should I bite?
February 22, 2010 5:20 PM   Subscribe

Macbook vs. Macbook Pro: are FireWire and the aluminum exterior worth the extra $200? Is there another difference I'm missing?

I'm going to buy either a MacBook or a MacBook Pro 13" (low end version). After looking at macrumor's side-by-side spec comparison, it seems that the only things that make the MBP more expensive are the aluminum unibody (vs. the white plastic) and the FireWire port. Additionally, the MB comes standard with 90GB of extra hard drive storage.

Of all these features, the one that matters the most to me is the aluminum body. I am very, very hard on computers. They tend not to last very long in my care (the longest-living one so far has been my old PowerBook G4, which lasted 2 and a half years, my other two laptops have lasted no longer than a year and a few months). So the aluminum body is appealing to me. However, my experience with the aluminum G4 was that it dented very easily.

My questions:
Is the aluminum body that much tougher than the white plastic? Is it tougher than the old aluminum casing?

Should I care about FireWire? As far as I can tell, it's good for uploading video and pictures, but I don't do that often enough for it to be a big deal for me. Is there another use I'm overlooking?

Am I overlooking another spec difference between these computers that makes the MPB 13 a lot better?
posted by lunasol to Computers & Internet (17 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Best answer: "Is there another difference I'm missing?"

According to the very chart you pointed to, the other differences are that the MBP can hold twice as much memory, comes standard with the faster hard drive, has an SD slot, a backlit keyboard, weighs a quarter pound less, is slightly narrower, and slightly thinner.

Personally, because my work is very very memory-dependent I wouldn't accept a $200 discount on a machine that I knew could only hold half the memory, but if memory capacity isn't a concern for you -- and you'd know if it were! -- then it's down to the other minor differences I mentioned. The tradeoff of a $200 savings isn't worth half the memory capacity to me, though.

"Should I care about FireWire?"

I find my external FW hard drive to be much, MUCH faster than similar USB devices. That alone makes a lack of FireWire a dealbreaker for me.
posted by majick at 5:41 PM on February 22, 2010

FireWire 800 is much faster than USB (800 Mbps vs. 480), so if you transfer large files a lot then you'll find it useful. It used to be that you needed FireWire for transferring files from DV (tape) cameras, but now that everything is flash memory based, it's not really necessary.

From what I have heard the aluminum unibody is extremely durable, and much harder to dent than the old bodies. I don't know how the new ABS unibody compares to the AL one, but I imagine it is pretty durable as well.

$200 would be better spent to replace the stock hard drive with a bigger one (a 640 GB Western Digital is $90) and some nice software or external drive for Time Machine.

Be sure to get the AppleCare, as well.
posted by kenliu at 5:42 PM on February 22, 2010

I haven't had a unibody macbook, but my experience with an aluminum Powerbook- is that it's more suscepitble to dents and scratches than my current carbonite white macbook.

Don't underestimate the backlit keyboard. I found that supremely useful, and now mildly annoying that I don't have it.

I'm also very hard on my laptops- and I fear the MacBook Pros are a bit delicate for my treatment. My white macbook looks dingy and beat up- and I don't mind. I feel the MacBook Pros are meant to be pretty- and would not wear well.
posted by Dag Maggot at 5:50 PM on February 22, 2010

Best answer: It's very easy to say that the only difference is one is plastic and one is aluminum. I had a white macbook and although I loved it in general the casing fell apart. My girl friend also bought the white macbook and the casing also fell apart.

Ours are not the only one.

Maybe they've solved the issue with recent revisions. I don't know.

I purchased my 13 inch macbook pro on black friday, so the price was only a 100 dollar difference. But I would have done the same if it had been 200. It feels like a completely different class of computer, the build, the back lit keyboard, firewire, etc., and for me well worth it.

Then again, I keep my macs at least 3 years. So that's less than 70 dollars a year difference, or one night at a decent restaurant. Not a difficult choice for me.

(I've had my macbook pro for 3 months and it looks brand new (or pretty, whatever). I can't make any promises if you're dropping it on the floor, however.)
posted by justgary at 5:59 PM on February 22, 2010

Best answer: I got the Pro and am very happy I did. So far it's worked flawlessly for me.

I would probably have been happy with the regular MacBook as well, but the aluminum unibody is pretty sweet, considering I haul this thing around in my backpack 6 days a week. It's been steady and reliable.

The backlit keyboard (the MacBook doesn't have that?) is pretty sweet, but I use it a lot (going through notecards at night for example).

But the BEST PART is the freaking track pad. A-M-A-Z-I-N-G. Considering both the MacBook and MacBook Pro have the same track pad, you can't go wrong. I've never used the FireWire but I like the aluminum unibody $200 more than the plastic version.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 6:13 PM on February 22, 2010

My very, very unscientific research makes me believe that the plastic Macs have better Wifi reception than metal ones.
posted by jindc at 6:43 PM on February 22, 2010

If you haven't purchased yet, and can wait about a month or so, it is widely expected that there will be major updates to the MBP soon - they *should* be going from the Core 2 duo to the i3 / i5 / i7 series of processors. If so, this will be a significant boost in performance, so it will be worth waiting.

Keep an eye on MacRumors, they will have full details on this.

In regards to FW vs. USB - FW is indeed faster, although it's also becoming rarer. With the advent of USB3 on the way, it may die out completely, unless something new comes along on the FW side to compete with it. The main advantage of FW - bi-directional traffic (USB is unidirectional, meaning it takes longer to verify data on transmission) - is being incorporated into USB3, improving it greatly. With any luck, USB3 might be included in the new laptops.
posted by GJSchaller at 6:55 PM on February 22, 2010

Best answer: justgary: It's very easy to say that the only difference is one is plastic and one is aluminum. I had a white macbook and although I loved it in general the casing fell apart. My girl friend also bought the white macbook and the casing also fell apart.

I can completely confirm this. The case build on the latest MacBooks is utter crap. I have used Mac laptops over the last 15 years and this round of MacBooks suuuuuuuck!

The plastic on the corners is very brittle and after two years I had cracks and fissures on both the edges of the body and the monitor.

I now have the MacBook Pro and I couldn't be happier, as noted above it is another class of machine. I'm even ok with the fact that when I pick up the machine in the morning its as cold as ice.
posted by jeremias at 6:58 PM on February 22, 2010

Best answer: I had a Black MacBook in the similar construction to the current white Macbook and it was a pretty good computer - I didn't have any of the build problems people have noted with the plastic Macbooks.

I got the first gen of Alu monobody Macbooks though, and it is a world apart in terms of fit and finish, durability, everything. Mine has no backlit keyboard (this is when there were Alu Macbooks, now they're all Macbook Pro) but it has the huge multitouch trackpad (best ever) and the keyboard (which was always vv good) is awesome mounted in the aluminum frame - it's the most solid-feeling laptop keyboard I've ever used, including a couple of bomb-proof Thinkpads I used back in the day.

I have had very slight problems with the aluminum casing pitting slightly in the area between the edge and the keyboard where the heels of your hands go while typing, and particularly on the edge itself of my trackpad-hand side.
posted by mikel at 8:06 PM on February 22, 2010

Just as a note, pretty much everyone is expecting a Macbook Pro rev any day now.

My previous laptop was a 13 inch plastic Macbook, and I moved up to the unibody Macbook Pro when it was released. They feel like completely different levels of machine...the unibody Pro just feels more solid. There's less flex, and overall I feel like it's a lot tougher. The backlit keyboard is huge for me, and overall I'd pay the $200 unless you're really just not able to.
posted by griffey at 8:09 PM on February 22, 2010

I have one of those MacBook Pros and absolutely love it. I needed the Firewire port for my work so that meant I had to go Pro. The white MacBooks are pretty nice though, I wouldn't say no to one if I didn't need my Firewire.

The RAM thing is an issue but there's no way I'm maxing this thing out to 8 gigs until the 4 gig chips come way, way down in price (they were over $500 each when I got the MBP). But it still runs like a top with 4 gigs of RAM.

I think you'd probably be pretty satisfied with either but when the going gets weird, the weird go Pro. Or something to that effect.
posted by fenriq at 8:19 PM on February 22, 2010

As of a couple of years ago, another significant difference was the graphics card used in the MacBook vs. MBP. The Pro had a separate, dedicated graphics card; the MacBook had an integrated graphics system that (at the time I bought mine, a couple of years ago) got lousy reviews. Now, it looks like the MBP has both the integrated graphics system and the separate graphics card -- you choose which one you want to use, based on your own performance/power-consumption needs. The big caveat here is that, at a quick glance, it looks the 13-inch MBP you're considering actually has the same graphics system as the MacBook -- so, this is only a factor if you end up getting a different model. (And, even then, it's only a big deal if you're doing something fairly graphics-intensive.)

(I occasionally do 3-D visualization of scientific data on my laptop; the MBP is okay for this, my friend's Macbook basically unusable. YMMV.)

Re: the aluminum body: I actually view this as more of a liability than a plus. It's kinda like a Faraday cage, for one thing, which perhaps contributes to the fact that the wifi reception is consistently worse than with my other (non-metallic) laptop. It does look cool, though.
posted by chalkbored at 9:01 PM on February 22, 2010

contributes to the fact that the wifi reception is consistently worse than with my other (non-metallic) laptop.

This was the one question mark I had before buying a macbook pro. Only one person, but I haven't noticed a problem. Might not be as good as the plastic model (going by other opinions) but in every other conceivable way the aluminum is better.

I'm not saying some people might not use both and come away preferring the plastic, but they're rare.
posted by justgary at 10:01 PM on February 22, 2010

I believe the antenna for wireless functions is usually in the screen / lid - the unibody should not affect this. I'm having trouble verifying this, though - ifixit.com didn't have a listing that confirmed the location of the antenna.
posted by GJSchaller at 5:33 AM on February 23, 2010

I also agree with the others. Wait on the refresh. The core i series is a big jump processing wise.

Its worth waiting for.
posted by majortom1981 at 5:44 AM on February 23, 2010

Wait for the refresh. The current generation MacbookPro5,2 (13", 15" and 17" unibody) was last refreshed in early September 2009. The new CPUs are coming.

Justgary's comment about the wireless reception is valid. The black plastic bar across the bottom of the screen (part of the moving hinge mechanism) is where the 802.11a/b/g/n antenna is actually located. Same reason the bottom 1/4 of the iPhone 2G is plastic. Metal bodies and wireless do not go well together. That said, my 17" macbook pro5,2 gets great 802.11g/n reception. It will never be as good as a totally plastic bodied laptop, however... In 2006 I could sit on a neighboring house's roof terrace with a cheap plastic Dell laptop and connect to several wireless access points that were invisible from a first-gen Macbook Pro used on the same terrace.
posted by thewalrus at 7:41 AM on February 23, 2010

Response by poster: You guys convinced me to get a Pro. I went right out and bought it before I saw the comments about the refresh - oh well. You can spend your whole life waiting for Apple upgrades. I needed a new computer and this one feels light years faster, sturdier and generally more awesome than my hobbled Lenovo running Vista. Yay!

...and apparently if the upgrade comes out in the next two weeks and it's sufficiently impressive, I can return this one and get the upgraded one for a 10% reshelving fee.
posted by lunasol at 12:21 PM on February 23, 2010

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