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June 4, 2018

Cheap plastic perfection: An ode to the MacBook that started it all

by John_A

The original polycarbonate white Macbook in a coffee shop circa 2008. Waring Abbott/Getty Images

If you went to any Starbucks between 2006 and 2011, chances are you’d see some a sticker-covered MacBook propped open beside a textbook, while a disheveled student typed away on a term paper. Teen indie pop leaked out of their white earbuds, while a grande soy latte with an extra shot was close at hand.

Who is today’s Mac user? Well, the MacBook Pro is still a favorite among creative professionals, and the MacBook Air is the go-to company-issued MacOS laptop, so those are the people we see behind those matte-aluminum displays. Professionals, YouTube stars, anyone with over $2,000 to spare on a premium laptop. That wasn’t always the case, Apple products have always been expensive, but there’s less room on the entry-level side of Apple’s current lineup for that disheveled college student.

It could just be nostalgia talking, but a quick look at the current lineup of MacBooks doesn’t inspire the same kind of fondness that the older, white MacBook era did. There’s a reason for that.

The original white MacBook (2006) was the first to feature the iconic Apple logo that would light up while the device was booting up. Nate Barrett/Digital Trends

An inspired design

Back in 2006, the icons of the glowing Apple logo, bright white cables, and friendly, rounded corners were more than just design features. They were a statement. The MacBook established a clear delineation in Apple’s laptop lineup — a focus point for bringing new, young buyers into the Apple ecosystem.

When you walked into an Apple Store back then, you knew exactly what your options were. The spendy, silver MacBook Pro or the entry-level MacBook. Unless you were professional photo or video editor, it was probably the MacBook.

Riley Young/Digital Trends and Nate Barrett/Digital Trends

And it was white — yes, white! That might not seem important, but in a time when laptops were uniformly gray or beige, the glossy white MacBook was playful and youthful in contrast. Again, this was a laptop meant to match the iPod and those trendy white headphones in all the commercials. It needed to be designed less for the office and more for the café or student union building.

“[The MacBook] was one of the first notebooks that didn’t have a latch,” Twelve South co-founder and creative director Andrew Green points out. “Back then everything had some dumb latch, but the MacBook was one of the first laptops that closed firmly without one.”

The white MacBook was a blank canvas, inviting us to make it our own.

A magnetic latch wasn’t a world-changing innovation, but it was the kind of thoughtful design that informed that period in Apple’s history. Back then, accessories for laptops were few and far between, and almost none of them were designed with Macs or MacBooks in mind. Twelve South was one of a few companies founded to fill that gap.

“People bought a $200 iPod as their first Apple product, and it had all these amazing accessories, and then they went and bought a MacBook and there weren’t any accessories for it, or they were just PC accessories painted white,” Green recalls.

It’s important to point out, this cottage industry was sprung up not to produce products that simply protected the MacBook — like a case for your iPhone. These were products that were designed to speak the same aesthetic language as the MacBook. That was unprecedented. Laptop accessories at existed for years, but no one cared much what they looked like, just so long as they did the job.

The release of the white Macbook, with it’s focus on design and aesthetics, jumpstarted an accessory movement that emphasized style as much as functionality. TwelveSouth

The MacBook’s elegant design made users want to buy accessories to personalize it, but not just any accessories. The white MacBook was a blank canvas for its users, and it was rare to see one in the wild that wasn’t adorned with stickers, wrist pads, or other aftermarket accessories.

“We started Twelve South with the notion that the Mac platform should have accessories worthy and exclusive to the Mac,” Green said. “Macs are used for creative output, so we felt very strongly that the tools to help users do that should be as elegant as their machines.”

Apple launched the “Get a Mac” campaign to coincide with its shift in marketing strategy (toward young adults and college students) following the released of it’s white Macbook.

Somehow, the MacBook became the must-have tool for wannabe creatives and students — the “crazy ones” who were set out to think differently and change the world. Apple called it a “superfast, blogging, podcasting, do-everything-out-of-the-box” laptop.

That kind of marketing caught on with a specific generation of new laptop buyers. As a laptop that started at $1,100, it wasn’t just a cheaper version of the MacBook Pro. The size of the device and the durability of the plastic chassis made it ideal for packing from class to class, and surviving dorm life.

It was built for a different set of demands than more premium machines and, most importantly, it was designed with entry-level or budget-conscious users in mind.

A new breed of Apple laptop

The MacBook didn’t appear out of thin air. Its predecessor, the iBook, first introduced the all-white look to Apple laptops. But there were some significant differences in the MacBook that established its own identity.

Riley Young/Digital Trends and Nate Barrett/Digital Trends

The MacBook ditched the removable keyboard the iBook featured, making it not just slimmer, but simpler. Corners became more rounded, the hinge design changed, the frontal latch was replaced by a magnetic closing mechanism. It was a refinement on the overall design, one that mirrored the iPod and made them an almost inseparable pair.

Even now looking at the white MacBook’s design, feeling how well it’s held up over the years, it’s easy to see why it was such an iconic device. The white MacBook might not have been everyone’s first laptop, but it’s often one of the most memorable. Like a spiral notebook from college, covered in stickers and doodles in ball-point-pen, the white MacBook was a device that invited users to customize it — and not just on the outside.

The white MacBook was built to be user serviceable and Apple even provided do-it-yourself guides offering step-by-step instructions.

It wasn’t just a coat of paint that made the MacBook stand apart from its predecessors. An entirely new internal design philosophy was on display, too. The iBook, for instance, was a pain to open. Just to replace the hard drive, you needed to almost completely disassemble the chassis. So, if you picked up the cheapest iBook to get you through your first semester away from home, you’d need some serious technical skills once you scratched together enough work study cash to upgrade it. It wasn’t exactly an inviting hardware experience.

The white MacBook, on the other hand, designed with students and budget-minded customers in mind, was built from the ground up to be user serviceable. Apple even provided a set of do-it-yourself guides offering step-by-step instructions on how you could open it up to replace or upgrade components on your own. It held your hand and gave you the confidence to tinker with it.

In that way, it was an investment in Apple’s ecosystem. A student might buy the laptop they could afford, with an eye toward upgrading it over time, rather than buying a new system in the next year or two. That support for expansion over time meant the white MacBook had a much longer shelf-life than an average laptop. Pairing robust Apple-exclusive build quality with the ability to upgrade the hardware as you went led some of these MacBooks to live surprisingly long lives.

Over time, though, expandability vanished from Apple’s laptops — that’s part of the reason it’s so hard to find a laptop today that has so much as a user-replaceable battery. Apple came to believe its customers would still buy a new MacBook every couple years, even if they couldn’t upgrade it on their own. That change in philosophy is exemplified by the product that choked the life out of the white MacBook. The MacBook Air.

The legacy and the return of the MacBook

Today, Apple’s lineup feels like it’s missing something. The MacBook Air has started to show its age, having been neglected for years now. The price point is no longer competitive for the hardware and performance it offers, and even the novelty of its ultra-light design has worn thin.

The white MacBook proved that high-quality budget machines can take on a life of their own and become cultural icons.

You might point to the 12-inch MacBook, which comes available in a dazzling array of colors, is a gorgeous, well-built machine, was perhaps meant to replace the MacBook Air. There’s a problem, though. It starts at $1,300 — no less than the 13-inch MacBook Pro.

The two devices step on each other’s toes, trying to fill the same niche in two different ways. It’s a mess.

Our hopes are high headed into WWDC of this year. Rumors have been percolating about some kind of a new MacBook or MacBook Air, creating a clear price and performance progression like Apple used to offer. It would make sense of things. It would bring order to Apple’s current lineup. And it could usher in a new era for Mac users — just like the original white MacBook did. But the most recent rumors says Apple’s plans have been delayed.

It’s a shame, because laptops like the inexpensive, durable white MacBook prove that high-quality budget machines can take on a life of their own and become cultural icons. As a testament to that enduring legacy, it turns out one of our photographers, Bill Roberson, still owns a fully operational white MacBook.

The white Macbook (2006) on top of a Macbook Pro (late-2013) and below a Macbook Air (2017). Nate Barrett/Digital Trends

“Oh yeah, I’ve got one, when do you need it?” he asked, when we were trying to locate still functioning MacBooks for this piece. “It still works just fine, upgraded it enough that my son can use it to play games.”

Over the years he’s upgraded the hardware and built it into a surprisingly robust machine. He’s since handed off to his son — who uses it to play Minecraft. “Heirloom-quality” isn’t the kind of longevity most manufacturers have in mind when designing laptops, at least not anymore, and that’s a shame.

Here’s to hoping Apple restores some of what made its entry-level MacBooks in the past so fondly remembered.

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