A Continuing Discussion of the Unibody MacBook 13″ vs. PowerBook 12″


Charles Moore wrote a great article about the unibody 13″ MacBook compared to the much-loved 12″ PowerBook. A friend of Charles argued that until the dimensions were nearly identical it could never be considered a replacement. Charles feels there’s a little more to it than that.

I think they’re both right (yes, life is good sitting on top of this fence).

I don’t disagree with Charles’ friend that width is a big factor, and here the new MacBook is much bigger than the 12.” However, I would suggest that depth is the more critical (for use on a table, airline tray table, etc.) and here the new model is only slightly bigger. Further, weight is a big factor and the two are pretty much identical.

So you need to consider just what you’re getting for those extra couple inches of width. It’s more than just a much bigger screen (in resolution, not just size). The larger case allows a larger thermal envelope so they can pack all that power in there. Remember that Apple (s aapl) could never get a G5 in a notebook no matter what. The G4 in the 12″ initially ran at 867MHz, less than the 17″ introduced the same day.

I’m just not convinced one must insist that every dimension be equal or smaller to be a true replacement. Given the near-equality of each dimension except width, and what you’re getting for that width — and its value — I’d say the 13″ kicks some serious butt. And I put my money where my text is, since I own one and love it.

What Apple Could Do

Can Apple do better? One thing to consider is that, while I believe 1280 x 800 a minimum reasonable screen resolution, does that have to mean a 13″ screen? No, it doesn’t. Apple could drop to a 12″ screen (maybe even 11) and still support 1280 x 800. Look at how beautiful 1920 x 1200 looks on the MBP’s 17″ screen to convince yourself.

The smaller screen could address the complaint about width. However, this is where fantasy ends and reality begins.


The 13″ screen size is ubiquitous. In short, they’re rolling off the assembly lines even as we “speak,” and have come down in price to make those models more affordable. Gearing up for a”non-standard” 12- or 11-inch might actually cost more. The smaller 10″ displays are certainly becoming common, but I’m not sure they could support 1280 x 800 well enough.


OK, you’ve managed to shave a couple of inches off the width. That’s great, right? Well, maybe not for the electronics inside, who suddenly begin to wonder why it’s so hot in here. (Yes, I know I shouldn’t anthropomorphize electronics. They hate that.) Anyway, would the smaller model support the 2.4GHz like the current high-end MB does? Likely not. Would it install the “full” NVIDIA graphics, or would it have to be slowed down like in the MacBook Air?


Do I think Apple could pull the CD drive from this new model? Personally, yes. Sell an external one as an option and use the “air sharing” software. I’m surprised at how little I actually use the CD in my MacBook. Still, many people want an all-in-one to be, you know, all-in-one, and there’s a lot to be said for that.

So then here’s the issue. Let’s say Apple uses an 11″ screen, and even removes the CD drive. Now the machine is small and light. And let’s say they use the 17″ battery technology to cram as much as they can into the thing. Even with a resolution of 1280 x 800, how powerful can this machine be? It would probably have to be even lower power than the MacBook Air. In short, not a primary laptop. That’s fine, you say? Yeah, except we’re talking about a 12″ PowerBook replacement, remember? The 12″ was perfectly capable of being a primary machine, so any machine dubbed as it’s replacement should be, too. A “netbook” will not be a 12″ replacement.

What’s That Leave Us With?

So what can Apple do? Well, to keep it affordable, stick with the common and relatively inexpensive 13″ display. Better keep the CD as well. Try to make it as slim and light as possible given those constraints, then pack as much power as can reasonably be kept cool in that footprint (preferably reaching “pro” levels).

In the end you’ll have something that balances all the factors in creating something simultaneously small, powerful, and affordable. And when Apple tosses all that in the margarita blender, what do they pour out? Well, well, it’s the unibody 13″ MacBook!