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Whether you’re starting high school or college in the fall, or have children who are, the Apple MacBook 13-inch is a great choice for those going back to school or for anyone who wants simple computing in a sleek design. Bound to make a strong fashion statement, this base-model MacBook costs just $1,099 (direct), yet has plenty of speed for average course work.

Apple’s signature color for its iBook notebooks has always been solid white. And though the high-end version of the MacBook 13-inch comes crafted in black, it smudges easily and attracts lots of fingerprints. The least-expensive MacBook 13-inch is another story altogether. Clad in classic Mac white, it’s a significant upgrade from the iBook laptop—also a back-to-school favorite—it replaces.

The combination of a 13-inch widescreen and a 4.7-pound frame places the laptop over the weight of a typical ultraportable (4.0 lbs). Nevertheless, the MacBook’s compact, 1-inch–thick chassis makes it superb for commuting across campus. One of the main differences between the MacBook and Apple’s more expensive MacBook Pro is the keyboard. The MacBook’s full-size keys are a bit flatter but handle just as well as the Pro’s. In fact, the keyboard is a little more durable because the keys are harder to lift.

You’ll find all the features here to get the school term started, including three USB ports, a FireWire port, and DVI-I output. The MacBook also has a built-in DVD±RW drive that burns single-layer DVDs only. For dual-layer support, you might consider an upgrade to the MacBook Pro or the Dell Inspiron E1505. The $1,099 configuration comes with a 60GB hard drive, which should provide plenty of storage space unless you’re a serious download junkie. It also has the much-adored iSight camera built in and the trip-proof MagSafe AC adapter. I can think of only two things that are missing—an RJ-11 modem and a PC Card/Express Card slot for expandability. Those aren’t crucial requirements in this day and age, however.

For most students, buying a separate software bundle can get costly. Not so with the MacBook 13-inch. The included iLife ’06 suite has everything you need, including the iPhoto photo editor, the iMovieHD video editor and DVD player, and the audio podcast-capable GarageBand.

How powerful is a MacBook 13-inch? The low-cost system uses the same Intel Core Duo technology as the pricier MacBook Pros, just clocked slightly lower, at 1.83 GHz (T2400). This step down is pretty insignificant when it comes to user performance. If you decide you do need to make an upgrade, I suggest investing an extra $100 to bump the system’s RAM up from 512MB to 1GB. Unfortunately, the MacBook uses integrated graphics from Intel, so if 3D graphics is a requirement for you, the MacBook Pro or the Dell Inspiron E1505 would be a better candidate. As for battery life, the MacBook will net you only around 2 to 3 hours, depending on usage, which means you’ll need to bring your power adapter wherever you go.

The $1,099 Apple MacBook 13-inch is probably the best bang-for-the-buck laptop configuration you’re going to get from Apple. Better yet, you can conquer all your classroom projects by starting with the bare essentials.

See how the Apple MacBook 13-inch measures up to similar systems in our laptop comparison chart.

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