Apple's new MacBooks aren't so different

Upgrade appeal for existing users is low, says Tom Yager

Apple’s MacBook notebook product line is aimed at students, consumers and professionals looking for compact and affordable portable computers. MacBook seems poised to play second fiddle to Apple’s MacBook Pro, but in fact, the black, US$1,499 (NZ$2,055) MacBook is enormously popular among professionals despite lousy 3-D graphics performance, a much smaller display and a non-traditional keyboard.

Or maybe MacBook is popular because of what it lacks compared to MacBook Pro, because these combined traits lower MacBook’s price and extend its battery life with an imperceptible impact on the performance of productivity and base-level 2-D and audio media playback and generation software. MacBook is neither a gamer’s delight nor a portable desktop, but Apple is finding that these traits aren’t great drivers of sales.

Apple’s new MacBooks shrink the gaps between the US$1,099, US$1,299 and US$1,499 configurations. All models now ship standard with 1GB of 667 MHz memory, 4MB of shared cache per Core 2 Duo CPU, 802.11n networking, and larger hard drives in the three base configurations, with 80, 120 and 160 GB drives in all configurations. Also, the US$1,299 model’s optical drive has been upgraded from Combo Drive (CD recorder, DVD player) to the dual-layer DVD burning SuperDrive.

Apple’s new models make it possible to build your own configurations that undercut Apple’s base pricing.

The configuration that I find most appealing costs US$1,474. This is the US$1,299 model with the only must-have upgrade, a boost from 1GB to 2GB of memory. You end up with a sufficiently spacious 120GB hard drive and a shiny white chassis, but you save US$200 by sacrificing the 160GB hard drive and a matte black case. Everything else is absolutely identical. All of this is good news for new MacBook buyers, but for upgrade appeal to existing MacBook users, it’s relatively low.

With an Intel T7400 Core 2 Duo, MacBook gets a half-upgrade in terms of CPU, netting only a doubling of shared Level 2 cache with no increase in front-side bus or memory speed. These shortcomings reflect the fact that Apple chose to stick with Intel’s 945 chipset rather than Intel’s latest “Santa Rosa” 965 chipset. The 965 boosts integrated graphics performance and, when used with a chipset-optimised Core 2 Duo CPU, raises the front side bus to 800 MHz. The 965 chipset is a lock for MacBook Pro, and the MacBook announcement’s timing, being less than a month before Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference, is a strong indicator that 965-derived MacBook Pro notebooks will debut at the conference.

It strikes me as unlikely that MacBook Pro will leverage the full Santa Rosa Centrino Duo chipset, because Apple likes to go its own way with graphics and networking. In any case, mid-June will likely mark a full-line refresh of Mac notebooks, and MacBook’s simple yet relevant pluses will lead the way.

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