Apple 13-inch MacBook

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It's been just another typical couple of weeks for Apple. First, it opened its latest New York City store, complete with enormous glass cube and Dr. Evil-style topless elevator. Then came the announcement of a Nike product that gives iPod nanos the ability to keep track of your physical training. After that, a new U2-autographed red and black iPod arrived, and a rebate for students of up to $179 on an iPod if they buy a computer, too. To top it all off, the new 13-inch MacBooks started shipping.

The first thing that startled me about the MacBooks were not their glossy white or matte black finishes, nor the fact that they had Intel dual-core processors rather than lower-powered single-core ones. I had expected all that. What surprised me was the price: they start at $1,099, even lower if you are a student.

The MacBook has most of what its pricier sibling the MacBook Pro offers: a built-in iSight camera, the Apple Remote so that you can access music and videos from across the room, the break-away magnetic power cable, even wireless Bluetooth support for cell phones, cameras and certain types of mouse. It can even support an external monitor in addition to its own screen.

It is, of course, missing some of the features of the Pro, such as the light-up keyboard, a light-sensitive display, a dedicated graphics card and an ExpressCard/34 expansion slot for cellular modems, card readers and other devices mostly not yet built.

There is a trick in the pricing, however: When you upgrade the hard drive of the $1,299 white MacBook, it has the same specifications as the black one, but is about $150 cheaper. Also, if you want to upgrade the RAM from 512MB to 1GB, it is cheaper to do so during your initial purchase. (If you upgrade RAM later, you'll have to throw away two perfectly good memory chips.)

The MacBook continues Apple's move towards an exclusively Intel-based lineup, and while a lot of software now runs directly on the new chip (for instance, Logitech's mouse and keyboard drivers), there are two major hold-outs, Adobe and Microsoft. You can use most of their programs on the new Macs, but they run only with help from Apple's invisible Rosetta software translator. My wife, an avid user of Office apps on her new employer-issued MacBook Pro, says that when she has several Office programs running simultaneously, she notices delays in typing and other subtle sluggishness. "It's microseconds," she says, but admits that it can be irksome. Microsoft has pledged to make the next version of Office for Mac Intel savvy, but whether that version comes this year or next is anyone's guess, perhaps even Microsoft's.

Speaking of Microsoft, the MacBook gave me an excellent opportunity to try out Boot Camp — that's the installation of Windows XP as a second operating system, in case you hadn't heard. On startup, I can choose the Mac OS or Windows, and everything I tried in the latter environment worked as well as it could have. I even tested out MTV's Urge service with — Jobs forgive me — an iriver clix music player. It all worked together even more smoothly than it had done on my high-powered Dell desktop. My biggest problem was an inability to "right-click" using the MacBook's trackpad. Although there is a way to do it by pushing control-shift-F10, I found it was easier to just add an external USB mouse.

The MacBook is a powerful and affordable option, especially for people who are uncertain about their Windows future. The next version, Vista, might be a success, but with a MacBook you can hedge your bet. You get a computer that runs both Mac OS X and Windows XP today, and even appears to meet the minimum requirements for Vista once it gets here. Dell and HP should be very worried indeed.