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New MacBooks: What's Cool and What's Conspicuously Absent

New MacBooks: What's Cool and What's Conspicuously Absent

The new MacBooks Apple revealed on Tuesday represent both a leap forward and more of the same, writes Chris Maxcer. The Nvidia graphics hardware is a great addition, and the mid-level model redesign looks great. However, the central processors haven't been given a significant boost, and aside from a $999 bare-bones system -- which looks like it'll be left behind soon -- prices haven't moved much.

By Chris Maxcer MacNewsWorld ECT News Network
10/15/08 3:40 PM PT

Apple's MacBook line had been getting a little gray around the edges, and the company's refresh Tuesday introduced a lot more than a new silver aluminum sheen with glossy black highlights. In an oxymoronic way, though, everything is different about the new MacBooks, and yet they remain remarkably similar to previous generations.

Let me explain.

What's Smokin' Hot

I could start with the new design, but that's not the most important new change. What's bigger is the introduction of a new processor and graphics architecture that lets Apple continue to use Intel's processors for primary CPU functions but still tap into Nvidia's GeForce 9400M graphics processor with 256 MB of DDR3 SDRAM shared with main memory. This hot new GPU replaces Intel's built-in GMA X3100, and in so doing, Apple has launched a whole new line of laptops that are finally able to play the coolest 3-D, graphics-hungry games. For non-gamers, the change brings smooth yet snappy love to other graphics-intense applications like iPhoto, Aperture, PhotoShop, iMovie and the like.

In the MacBook Pro, owners get an added bonus -- a second Nvidia processor, the 9600M, that can kick on for extra graphics processing power. At times when the MB Pro doesn't need the extra kick, users can run with the 9400M to save on battery life.

There's a lot to love in Apple's latest overall design. First, because the base casing is carved out of a single block of aluminum in a manufacturing process that's new to notebooks, it's slightly thinner, the chassis is stiffer than ever, it has fewer parts, and the result is an astoundingly seamless case. Instead of the (admittedly tight) seams that show along the edges in the existing MacBook, the keypad portion has none. Apple is delivering a whole new definition of simple elegance. The illuminated keyboard is now standard with the new low-end MacBooks, and the MB Pros now share the same style of keys as the MacBook Air.

Oh, the Glass!

The new, larger trackpad is made entirely of glass, which is also the button. Nice. In addition to multi-touch finger swiping that will make using the MacBooks easier than ever, the glass trackpad opens up a world of possibilities for Apple down the road -- illumination, special hot areas, etc. Think about the iPhone's interface, or something similar, on the trackpad of the future.

The new displays are covered with a single sheet of glossy glass, all the way to the edges. It looks fantastic -- similar to the iMac's display -- but more importantly, Apple has introduced LED-backlight displays that blast out brighter color, start up faster, and suck less energy than previous generations of LCD displays.

As for external displays, Apple introduced a next-generation, industry-standard Mini DisplayPort -- and added it to the MacBook Air, as well.

Nicely Green

While Apple fanboys have been known to post strip-tease style unboxing videos on the Web, the company's latest packages are much smaller, which means Apple uses less material, takes up less space and weight on vehicles during shipment, and delivers a product that eats up a smaller carbon footprint.

Plus, every model of the new MacBook family now comes standard with displays that are mercury-free and made with arsenic-free glass. The units themselves meet stringent Energy Star 4.0 requirements, contain no brominated flame retardants, and use internal cables and components that are PVC-free.

On the Flip Side

Still, in many ways, not a lot has changed. While Apple took a major leap forward with its new graphics architecture with Nvidia -- which no other notebook manufacturer is providing yet -- the Intel processors don't appear to deliver any different performance than before. If there have been any gains, Apple hasn't published them, and they certainly didn't tout them. This isn't a big deal, partially because the feel of faster and smoother graphics will give the impression of improved overall performance. Either way, my 2.4 GHz black MacBook -- on the surface, at least -- seems to stack up right next to the new 2.4 GHz aluminum MacBook. (Just not in gaming.)

While the bodies are slightly thinner, the screen resolutions are the same as before -- no gains or losses in pixels.

The rumors about an US$800 price point didn't pan out. The only "8" comes in the price of the new LED-backlit, 24-inch external display, which will sell for $899. Apple did keep a white, older-generation of MacBook to sell for $999, though. It'll likely sell out and be discontinued.

There's no HDMI for easy connections to HDTVs. HDMI can't scale as well as the Mini DisplayPort in high-resolution monitors, but again, it's darn handy for messing around with TVs. A lot of other PC manufacturers are starting to include HDMI connectivity. There'll be adapters, of course, that'll get the job done.

As for Blu-ray, Apple CEO Steve Jobs called it a "bag of hurt," noting that the format has some tough licensing issues as well as a high cost that the company doesn't want to pass on to consumers. Still, Apple left the door open and remained non-committal.

Distinguishing characteristics between the MacBook and MacBook Pro could be amped. Other than screen size, graphics, slightly faster processors, and a FireWire 800 port, the differences don't seem to justify the big leap in cost. The $1,999 MacBook Pro, for instance, could use 4 GB of RAM standard.

The matte screen option is gone, too, for those professionals who value color accuracy over vivid pop -- or at least like to work outside or in light that can cast annoying glare on glossy screens.

While Apple dropped FireWire 400 ports, it retained a FireWire 800 port on the Pro models. USB 2.0 is approximately as fast as FireWire 400, but it doesn't have the resiliency of FireWire for things like booting from external hard drives. Most consumers won't even notice.

The 17-inch MB Pro didn't get the new aluminum redesign. While it did pick up a few improvements, Apple was vague on when it would take on a new design -- though current expectations put it at several months away, at least. It tends to be Apple's lowest-selling laptop, and 17-inch models remain niche notebooks in the market at large.


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