Value Shootout: White 13″ MacBook vs. Unibody 13″ MacBook Pro

WhiteBook vss MacBook Pro

A Mac laptop question I’ve been getting asked over the past few months is which 13-inch MacBook is the better value — the posh aluminum unibody model, or the $300 cheaper carryover white polycarbonate unit, which, after two substantial updates in 2009, had been upgraded to pretty closely match the more expensive machine performance-wise, and had the bonus of a FireWire port, which the unibody didn’t.

My take has been that it’s a nice sort of dilemma, since you really couldn’t go wrong. Both models offered excellent value — more computer for the money than ever before in Apple (s aapl) portables.

However, the Mac portable landscape, and the relative value equation for these two models, shifted dramatically with the MacBook Pro line announcements at WWDC, and I can now declare a clear value-leader. The renamed, upgraded, and price-chopped 13-inch MacBook Pro now wins at a walk, retaining all the goodness of the aluminum MacBook but with a boatload of value added, along with a $100 price reduction. You really can’t go wrong with the new baby MacBook Pro now having a FireWire port restored and the welcome addition of an SD Card slot for good measure — something that’s never been seen before on an Apple laptop. You also get a backlit keyboard, a quarter-gigabyte more clock speed, and a built-in battery claimed to go up to seven hours between recharges.

The WhiteBook, now sole designate of the plain “MacBook” name, is still a formidable machine for $200 cheaper if you’re on a tight budget. Last week, prior to WWDC, Apple refreshed the white MacBook, quietly bumping the Core 2 Duo clock speed to 2.13GHz, the RAM speed to 800MHz, and matched the base unibody’s 160GB standard hardware drive capacity (upgradable to 500GB), which for a brief interval actually made the price-leader MacBook faster than the more expensive base unibody. But no longer. Here’s how it all shapes up between the WhiteBook and the 13-inch MacBook Pro now that the dust has settled a bit.

The Shootout

Processor Clock Speed
WhiteBook: 2.13GHz Core 2 Duo
Unibody: 2.26GHz Core 2 Duo
Advantage: Unibody

Frontside Bus Speed
WhiteBook: 1066MHz
Unibody: 1066MHz
Advantage: Draw

RAM speed
WhiteBook: 800MHz DDR2 SDRAM
Unibody: 1066MHz DDR3 SDRAM
Advantage: Unibody

Standard RAM
WhiteBook: 2GB
Unibody: 2GB
Advantage: Draw

Graphics Chipset
WhiteBook: NVIDIA GeForce 9400M graphics processor with 256MB of DDR2 SDRAM shared with main memory
Unibody: NVIDIA GeForce 9400M graphics processor with 256MB of DDR2 SDRAM shared with main memory
Advantage: Draw

Hard Drive Capacity (Standard)
WhiteBook: 160GB
Unibody: 160GB
Advantage: Draw

Display Backlight
WhiteBook: CCFL
Unibody: LED
Advantage: Unibody

USB Ports
WhiteBook: 2
Unibody: 2
Advantage: Draw

FireWire Ports
WhiteBook: One FireWire 400
Unibody: One FireWire 800 (backwards compatible with FW400 via optional adapter)
Advantage: Unibody

SD Card Slot
WhiteBook: None
Unibody: 1
Advantage: Unibody

Backlit Keyboard
WhiteBook: No
Unibody: Yes
Advantage: Unibody

WhiteBook: Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR
Unibody: Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR
Advantage: Draw

Ethernet Port
WhiteBook: One Gigabit Ethernet
Unibody: One Gigabit Ethernet
Advantage: Draw

Video Out
WhiteBook: Mini-DVI
Unibody: Mini DisplayPort
Advantage: Depends on your needs and legacy hardware

WhiteBook: Conventional with button
Unibody: Glass multi-touch buttonless
Advantage: Unibody

iSight Camera
WhiteBook: Yes
Unibody: Yes
Advantage: Draw

Housing Enclosure
WhiteBook: White polycarbonate plastic
Unibody: Aluminum carved from a single billet
Advantage: Unibody

WhiteBook: $999
Unibody: $1,199
Advantage: WhiteBook

Score (Wins in these 18 categories)
13″ Unibody MacBook Pro: 8
13″ White MacBook: 1
Draws: 9

There are also a few important distinctions that don’t show up in a straightforward features inventory comparison. While both machines have 13.3-inch glossy displays, the unibody has also been upgraded to a higher-quality screen from AU Optronics with 60 percent greater color gamut, another advantage over the WhiteBook.

Drop-Dead Gorgeous Jewelry Finish

The advantages of the unibody case are partly aesthetic (it is drop-dead gorgeous) but also structurally much more rigid, and presumably more durable and rugged than the white machine’s plastic case (which has had a history of cracking issues). The solid aluminum also has a sound-deadening effect that makes the machine virtually silent. You really have to see, feel, and (not) hear the unibody firsthand to truly appreciate its quietness, jewelry standard of finish, and precision component fits.

The Mini-DVI versus Mini DisplayPort advantages and disadvantages will depend partly on how important connecting to existing monitors and/or other devices you might have on hand is to individual users.

I like the buttonless trackpad in the unibody better than I thought I would, and it’s one of the best trackpads I’ve ever used. I experienced no difficulty in adapting to “buttonless” clicking. Both machines have “chicklet” type keyboards of which I’m not the biggest fan, but you get used to them.

I think the value equation between the two, which prior to this month’s revisions had been a bit of a saw-off, is now crystal-clear. The only category on which the WhiteBook beats the 13″ MacBook Pro is price, and my recommendation is that if you can somehow scrape up the extra $200, the unibody machine is well worth the extra outlay. My 2.0GHz 13-inch unibody MacBook is a delightful computer, and the new 13-inch MacBook Pro is even better in an abundance of ways.

What about the $1,499, 2.53GHz, 13-inch MacBook Pro? I’ve never thought that the top-of-the-line MacBook’s higher price was justified by what you get extra, but if a quarter GHz greater processor speed, 90GB more hard drive capacity, and an added 2GB of RAM look like $300 more value to you, then go for it. Also worth considering is that for another $200 on top of that, you can get a 15-inch display with basically the same specs as the $1,499 13-inch MacBook Pro.