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About

The black polycarbonate Macbook (2006-2008)

The short-lived black Macbook was something of a fluke in the normally measured evolution of the outward appearance of Apple's computer products since the introduction of the G5 imac in 2004. First appearing after the transition of PowerPC to Intel processors in 2006, it was discontinued in 2008 after a few iterations and replaced by a version with the by now ubiquitous aluminum case.
The A1181 Macbook

Contents

Construction
Hardware
Operating system
Continued use
Software
Links

Construction

The case of this laptop computer is made of polycarbonate, a light-weight, strong, transparent thermoplastic polymer used as construction material in many applications, from greenhouses to compact disks and safety goggles. In the case of the black Macbook, a matte black finish is applied to its exterior, leading to the nickname of the "Blackbook". A white model was also available; this has a smoother finish that has proven less resilient and scratch-resistant over time. Both types are also known by their Apple Device Identifier A1181.

The black case is durable and quite sturdy. One might argue that the word "plastic" is something of a misnomer as this type of Macbook is far less susceptible to deformations than those with the aluminum case; examples of the latter can be readily found on ebay with disfiguring scratches, bent corners, and dramatic dents reminiscent of the metalwork of crashed cars.

Hardware

CPU

This machine is firmly rooted in the Core Duo and Core 2 Duo era. This has consequences for the number of cores and the clock speed, and the processor is on the fault line between 32- and 64-bit operating systems. The blackbook came in five different versions featuring progressive upgrades of the CPU, RAM, and hard drive capacity, shown in the table below.

Model number: A1181
Fixed storage: 80 GB (original) to 250 GB (early 2008)

Model ID Introduced CPU RAM (max)
-------- ---------- --------------------------- -------------
1,1 Late 2006 T2500 Core Duo @ 2.0 GHz 512 MB (2 GB)
2,1 Late 2006 T7200 Core 2 Duo @ 2.0 GHz 1 GB (4 GB)
2,1 Mid 2007 T7400 Core 2 Duo @ 2.16 GHz 1 GB (4 GB)
3,1 Late 2007 T7500 Core 2 Duo @ 2.2 GHz 1 GB (6 GB)
4,1 Early 2008 T8300 Core 2 Duo @ 2.4 GHz 2 GB (6 GB)
Ports

Ports
Macbook ports. Click on the image for a larger view.

The blackbook came equipped with a modest (for its day) array of connections and ports. Shown in the photo is the left side of the computer, featuring (from left to right): the MagSafe charger connector, Ethernet port, Mini-DVI, Firewire 400, 2 x USB 2.0, 3.6 mm microphone and stereo headphones jacks, and Kensington lock. Absent are SD card and Express Card slots. On the right side of the machine is the DVD drive and on the front is an infrared detector for use with an Apple remote control.

Screen, keyboard, and trackpad

For all incarnations of the laptop the display is a glossy 1280 * 800 screen. It is not as bright or as color accurate as modern displays, but is sufficient for indoor use.

The keyboard is one of Apple's first featuring the "chiclet" style keys. It works quite well, although I would recommend to try to get a US version of the keyboard for the larger "ANSI" Enter key. For many other localized versions a narrow, reduced-size variant of the ISO standard is used, which is easy to miss when typing at a fast pace. This shape has been in use since the 8-bit Apple //e from the early 1980's.

Enter keys

US keyboard and "International" keyboard. The enter key of the latter is a narrower version of the ISO standard. Also note the difference in key legends of the respective delete, shift, and enter keys.

The trackpad works well, with the usual accuracy we've come to expect from Apple. This vintage is not yet the "glass" variety, and its surface will lose its texture and become worn after extensive use. Using a mouse is therefore recommended.

Upgrades and repair

Unlike many other Apple computer models, the 2006-2008 Macbook offers easy access to the battery, the RAM, and the hard disk. The battery is easily removed by twisting a lock with a coin, and behind that lie two DIMM slots and the SATA hard disk location. (fotootje)

Repairing, while doable, is generally much more involved. To replace the keyboard for example, visit the Ifixit site for a step-by-step procedure. Many explanations for various repairs can also be found on YouTube.

Operating system

The original through the mid-2007 Macbook originally were sold with some version of OS X 10.4 Tiger. The later two came with OS X 10.5 Leopard. All versions except the original Macbook can be upgraded to 10.7 Lion.

My own Macbook is a 2.2 GHz late 2007 model. I run OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard as my operating system of choice. Snow Leopard came out in 2009 and was sold as for just USD 30.- retail, a very low price for a complete operating system at the time. The iLife creativity suite was not included, but the Xcode development tools are on the DVD as an extra install. The successor OS X 10.7 was introduced in 2010 and is more modern in some ways, but Snow Leopard has some special advantages: Snow Leopard for Intel macs
  • Through Rosetta (included from 10.4 Tiger to 10.6 Snow Leopard, but discontinued in 10.7 Lion), it is possible to run older OS X apps intended for PowerPC machines;
  • It is the last version of OS X to include the Front Row multimedia player;
  • It comes with the Xcode development suite included on the installation DVD (but Xcode 4.2 for OSX 10.7 can be downloaded from Apple's developer's website);
  • The system requirements are somewhat lower (less memory and disk space).

Note that the somewhat more modern 10.7 is likely to have slightly more software available for it, or perhaps newer versions, and while the core2duo processor is a 64-bit processor, Apple has ruled that this type of Macbook will boot to a 32-bit kernel in 10.6, limiting the addressable RAM to below 4 GB. In 10.7 however, the Macbook runs in 64-bit mode, and it can therefore address more than 4 GB of RAM.

Continued use

Can a computer of this vintage be used reasonably in the 2020's? I think it can. There are however some caveats of which you should be aware.

  1. These machines are more than 10 years old and getting pretty slow;
  2. The number of ready-to-install software titles is limited;
  3. The graphics adapter is too slow for 3D gaming;
  4. Perhaps once considered compact, this Macbook now seems bulky;
  5. "Macbook" is a pretty lame name, unlike Powerbook or Thinkpad;
  6. Any version of Mac OS X that runs on the A1181 Macbook has not received security updates in ages and must therefore be regarded as vulnerable and insecure. The same goes for Internet browsers that run on the system.

But if you can live with that, the A1181 Macbook can be a cheap and durable computer for off-line use which is easy to upgrade (up to a point) and actually looks almost as cool as a Thinkpad.

Software

Vintage commercial software

As mentioned above, getting software that runs on a vintage system can be problematic. Commercial developers have long since moved to later versions of the Mac OS. Nevertheless, one may still find appropriate versions of commercial titles on the second-hand market (helped by the fact that physical installation media were still popular in the era in which the A1181 Macbook was released). This includes various versions of the Mac OS X itself, and packages like Microsoft Office for example.

Unmaintained builds

Development of free or open source software in directly installable form that will run on versions of OS X is partly precluded due to these operating systems being outmoded, with a consequently small userbase. However, most publishers maintain a repository where older versions are kept, often with notes as to the system requirements. Examples are:

Maintained builds

There are some apps in active development that still offer builds for OS X 10.6 and 10.7.

Open source and MacPorts

The eminent other source of software, especially applicable to Unix-based operating systems like Mac OS X, is the do-it-yourself compilation route. Simply download the source code for the software that you are interested in, and compile! However, it is not always quite that simple. A C and/or C++ compiler is required, and while Xcode is included on the 10.6 DVD, it is a separate download for 10.7. Most open source titles are developed for and on Linux machines, which are somewhat different environments. Consequently some editing is occasionally required to get the make process running properly, which can be a frustrating experience.

A solution is to use MacPorts. This command-line oriented package management system takes care of the entire process of downloading source code — with any prerequisites — compiling it locally (which is why Xcode is required to use MacPorts) and installing the resulting binaries and libraries. I found however that quite a few packages do not compile successfully, possibly again due to the vintage of the system and the priorities of the maintainers; your mileage may vary, but I have not managed to build Octave or Matplotlib, for example.

As a conclusion to this page, a sequence of instructions is listed below that installs MacPorts on OS X 10.6 and shows some examples of its use.


Installing and using MacPorts on Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard

1. Install Xcode if you haven't done so already

Insert your 10.6 installation DVD;
From "Optional Installs", open Xcode.mpkg and follow instructions. (Note: make sure the command-line tools are included in the selection.)

2. Download and install Macports

Go to the Macports website: https://www.macports.org/,
or directly to the download page: https://www.macports.org/install.php
Make sure to download the proper.pkg installer for OSX 10.6 and install it.
Macports is now installed in /opt. Open a new terminal (so that updated $PATH settings will be active).

3. Maintenance of Macports

Once in a while, open a terminal and do the following to make sure your Macports subsystem remains current:
sudo /opt/local/bin/port -v selfupdate
sudo /opt/local/bin/port upgrade outdated

4. Install cool apps

Search for packages on the MacPorts website. The command for installation of apps takes the form
sudo port install <packagename>

For example:
sudo port install git
sudo port install gnuplot

In the process of installing Gnuplot, Python 3 is automatically installed as well. To make that version of Python the default, do

sudo port select --set python python39
sudo port select --set python3 python39

And so on. Enjoy!


Links

For more information, visit the links below.

  • The history of the Macbook can be found in this Wikipedia article;
  • Everymac has an extensive overview of all Mac models produced;
  • Luke Miani has a fun review of the black Macbook on his YouTube channel.

(Originally written 2021/06/29)

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