Several years ago I was privy to a conversation that didn't make much sense to me. The topic was whether or not PCs could be sold like cars, by model year instead of focusing on specs. The holy grail of PC sales has always been distilling the myriad of system specifications down to a simple, easy to understand number. Intel used to offer its iCOMP rating for microprocessors on PCs sold in stores, benchmarks like 3DMark have attempted to do the same thing as well. It'd be far easier however if consumers simply purchased based on model year; buying a 2008 model year PC would be better and faster than a 2007. The idea obviously didn't go anywhere and it didn't make a whole lot of sense to me given that, unlike cars, computers are generally not as emotional of a purchase.

I think Apple has managed to change that. Nearly every year or so we get a redesigned Mac, iMac or MacBook, and in many cases while they are no faster than their predecessor - they introduce one or two new features or a new design that makes you want them, with all logic cast aside. It's a lot like buying a car.

Apple sells its computers not only based on functionality, but largely based on the form and design. Now all manufacturers do this to an extent, it's just that none of the mainstream PC OEMs do it as much or as well as Apple. Apple's focus on design makes a lot of sense. All PCs can be created equal, these days Apple and Dell use the same components, so the only differences that Apple has to play with are the OS and the design. Thus investing more money into the OS and system design is the right move for a company like Apple.

The MacBook, MacBook Air and MacBook Pro

Last week Apple announced its updated MacBook, MacBook Air and MacBook Pro lineup. As expected the changes were largely aesthetic and the new machines look great. But there were also some pretty significant departures under the hood, thus giving me something to do here other than comment on how the curved corners are nice to pet. There are benchmarks to be run, battery life to be tested and something very unexpected to uncover about OS X vs. Vista at the end. I won't dilly dally for too long here, so let's get right to it.

Design Changes/Build Quality

It turns out that all of the extra money Apple is spending on its notebooks goes into materials and build quality. It looks like there are two areas where that money is used: the aluminum chassis and the glass display cover.

The MacBook and MacBook Pro are now made like the MacBook Air: carved out of a single piece of aluminum. That's actually a bit misleading, there are multiple pieces of aluminum that go into the construction of these things, but looking at the keyboard from above you see a single block of aluminum that has been shaped to look like a MacBook.

The PowerBook G4 and the first MacBooks had the keyboard built into a piece of aluminum that sat on top and there was another piece of aluminum that made up the bottom half of the notebook. The two screwed/snapped together and what you had was an aluminum notebook.

The old MacBook Pro (left) vs. the new MacBook Pro (right), note how the old MBP doesn't fit together nearly as well as the new one

With the new MacBook/MacBook Pro, Apple has effectively flipped its manufacturing process upside down. Instead of having a bottom that curves upwards and is capped off with a keyboard, the new models have a top that curves downwards with two plates that cover the bottom. The distinction is subtle but the difference is noticeable.

Rounded corners, it's like a big MacBook Air. Cute.

Rigidity is one of the biggest factors in making a notebook feel like it's well built. This is one of the things that IBM got very right with its Thinkpads early on, and something that Apple honestly did an incredible job with on the MacBook Air. The problem with building light notebooks is that the lighter you go, the flimsier the materials and the worse they hold up over time. By making sure the part you come in contact with the most is made out of a single piece of aluminum, Apple helps convey a sturdier built product.

Look ma, no latches!

Also gone is the bothersome latch from the MacBook Pro, the screen magnetically attaches to the keyboard surface when you close it. The latch on the old MBP was the cheapest feeling part of the machine, so I'm glad they fixed it.

The old latch, ugh.

Apple also made it easier to access the hard drive on these things, there's a nifty removable panel underneath the notebook that unlatches without a single screw. With the cover removed you can replace the battery or, after removing a single screw, remove the hard drive (you'll need to take out four more screws to actually swap out the drive though). This isn't quite as easy as the removable HDD trays you'd find in a Dell, but it does look better.

The design is far from perfect however, the new battery/HDD cover tends to rattle and definitely reduces the solid feeling of the notebook. Thankfully the parts of the notebook you interact with the most feel the most solid, it's just worth pointing out the imperfections.

The NVIDIA Move: The GeForce 9400M
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  • Imaginer - Wednesday, October 22, 2008 - link

    And you have the options of the new iMirror or the new iMirror! :P

    But all iJokes aside, this article did not really had me until it is mentioned of the new trackpad. Initially, I thought that Apple went off the deep end by going from one button to NO buttons. But in the end, the right and left click is simply a finger or two down away from touching the pad to make the click.

    It is a SHAME that Anand had many troubles with the fickleness of the pad - and even moreso in Windows. Big deal breaker (alongside the annoyance of the newly adopted displayport with no included adapter (nickel and dime? at the very least monitor manufacturers include BOTH the DVI and VGA cable with each monitor, wmy not Apple?).

    Features aside, I do agree while that many (including myself) equate Apple to the USSR of the computing world, they do put together a nice OVERALL package compared to other manufacturers. Next revision Apple.... you almost had me with this one... ALMOST. Get your windows stuff and hardware support together and well talk (yes and that includes supporting ALL of your "gestures" in the Windows platform too - yeah fat chance in hell).
  • ltcommanderdata - Wednesday, October 22, 2008 - link

    The Windows issues should hopefully be fixed with the next BootCamp driver update.

    But I have to agree about the glass/glossy reflectiveness. I really hope Apple brings back a matte option, which is unlikely, or at least find some way to reduce the reflectivity in the next refresh.
  • andreschmidt - Wednesday, October 22, 2008 - link

    The first reports are coming in at MacRumors and they are definitely Samsung SSDs...didn't they use that horrible controller?
  • Voldenuit - Wednesday, October 22, 2008 - link

    "In testing the first batch of Centrino 2 notebooks that Jarred received he noted that he can't seem to find a mainstream notebook with a 50 - 60WHr battery that can come close to offering the sort of battery life you get out of the Macs."

    You're not looking hard enough. The lenovo thinkpad T400 registered 6.5 hrs with wireless on using a 56 WHr battery.">

    That's about 30% longer than the Macbook Pro.
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, October 22, 2008 - link

    "With the T400 you can reach 9 hours and 41 minutes with the wireless enabled, screen backlight at 60%, and the laptop in integrated graphics mode using only the 84Wh 9-cell battery. In this situation the notebook is only consuming roughly 8.5 watts of power. In dedicated graphics mode under the same settings battery life falls by exactly 2 hours down to 7 hours and 41 minutes, and power draw increases to 10.5 watts. The 6-cell battery managed 6 hours and 4 hours and 28 minutes respectively."

    No mention is made of actually *surfing* the web - WiFi is merely enabled. Without knowing more about how they conduct their battery life testing, I can't say whether their numbers are comparable to ours. What I do know is that on the notebook I mentioned in an earlier comment, battery life almost doubles (142 minutes vs. 261 minutes) when I go from web surfing to idle.
  • quanta - Wednesday, October 22, 2008 - link

    The buttonless mouse is the dumbest idea. For example, if I have to press 1 finger for left click, 2 fingers on the pad for right click, how do I press both buttons? In addition, if scroll is done by moving 2 fingers, how does it not get confused with dragging with right mouse button? Furthermore, the lack of tactile feedback also reduces productivity. So much for another innovative design.
  • aj28 - Thursday, October 23, 2008 - link

    1) Why would you need to do a simultaneous left and right click?
    2) Why would you drag with the right mouse button? (also refer to below)
    3) It DOES have tactile feedback. The whole trackpad is a depressible button...

    Take your biased ideas elsewhere, thanks. Apple does good for the PC industry and provides an alternative to Microsoft-based solutions. Whether they're better or not is entirely a matter of opinion, but the bottom line is that they provide competition, and competition is good for everyone.
  • hb18 - Saturday, October 25, 2008 - link

    Another good use of simultaneous button clicks is mouse gestures in web browsers.
  • Johnmcl7 - Thursday, October 23, 2008 - link

    1 - For pasting in *nix applications, at least that's what I use on a conventional mouse.
    2 - Right click drag in Windows lets you choose the file behaviour (move, copy, create shortcut) whereas a standard left click drag will just do a default action.

  • headbox - Saturday, October 25, 2008 - link

    1. newflash: this isn't *nix. There's nothing preventing you from getting a mouse either.

    2. keyboard shortcuts are faster than mouse actions. Get to know them.

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