The 'Book Review

Death of Laptop Exaggerated, Mac 'Book Veteran Chooses MacBook Air, the MacBook ARM Debate, and More

This Week's PowerBook and iBook News

Compiled by Charles Moore and edited by Dan Knight - 2011.05.20

General Apple and Mac desktop news is covered in Mac News Review. iPad, iPod, iPhone, and Apple TV news is covered in iOS News Review. All prices are in US dollars unless otherwise noted.

News & Opinion

The ARM Debate

Bargain 'Books

News & Opinion

Death of the Laptop Greatly Exaggerated

The Register's Drew Cullen reports that some 644 IT pros took time out to complete The Reg's recent survey into mobile computing in business, and the data collected has been organized in a new 14-page white paper by The Register's research partner Freeform Dynamics. It's called "Mobile Computing Checkpoint: The present and future of flexible working," and can be downloaded for free (registration required).

Cullen cites study analysts Dale Vile and Andrew Buss' finding that IT professionals think the importance of fully functional laptop computers at work will increase rather than decrease over the next three years. In other words, tablets and smartphones are not about to replace laptops anytime soon but rather will remain nice to have third devices for more general professional use, at least in the short to medium term.

PowerBook/MacBook Pro Veteran Chooses MacBook Air

Three Guys and a Podcast's E. Werner Reschke says he's been a MacBook Pro owner since Titanium PowerBook G4 days. He recalls the misgivings he had when making the transition from a G4 Gray Blue Tower to the laptop - a sleek and "less powerful" but "more portable" PowerBook G4. He recalls that it was a scary leap but when the PowerBook G4 arrived it was, as Steve Jobs would say, "magical"!

Fast-forward to 2011: Reschke is now on his fifth 15" Apple notebook. Then his wife got a new second-generation MacBook Air to replace her four-year-old MacBook Pro and instantly loved it. Fate intervened when Reschke dropped his MacBook Pro, denting the side and shattering the screen. Faced with a repair bill of about $1,200 for a three-year-old laptop, it obviously made no sense - and he says the more he looked at his wife's sleek MacBook Air, the more he thought his PowerBook Pro looked like a boat anchor.

After making a sober assessment of what he does most of his day - email, web programming/surfing and some design work - he figured all of these could easily be handled by the MacBook Air's 2.16 Core 2 Duo and Nvidia GeForce M320 IGPU, so he took the plunge and bought a 13.3" MacBook Air upgraded with 4 GB of RAM and a 256 GB SSD, which he says was a great decision.

Editor's note: Reschke's experience pretty much mirrors my own shift from desktop to laptop (a PowerBook 5300) in 1996. I was totally hooked after just a half-hour or so, and have never looked back. cm

Publisher's note: My first notebook was a 400 MHz PowerBook G4, and it quickly eclipsed my Umax SuperMac S900 clone with its 333 MHz G3 upgrade card. It was an expensive choice (over $2,500 in early 2001), but I used it as my primary computer until I bought a 700 MHz eMac in 2003, and it remained in use as my field computer until it was dropped in mid-2006. That said, I'm used to huge displays (20" 1680 x 1050 and 22" 1600 x 1024 Apple ADC Cinema Displays), and they're only available for the 15" MacBook Pro (a build-to-order option) and the 17-incher (with a whopping 1920 x 1200 standard resolution!). At $1,950 for the hi-res 15-incher, I don't think I'll be going with a 'Book as my production machine for quite a while, if ever. But for field work, it would be nice to have one again someday.... dk

Is Apple in the Netbook Game?

ZDNet blogger Zack Whittaker riffs on the debate over whether the MacBook Air is a netbook, suggesting that, if not, it begs the question as to whether Apple has ever dented the netbook market at all.

Whittaker notes that the MacBook Air is generally more powerful than the vast majority of netbooks on the market, and with over 1.1 million units sold in the last quarter of 2010, it accounted for some 40% of Apple's total notebook business. However, Whittaker observes that non-Apple netbooks saw huge sales in comparison to the MacBook Air, although the iPad dented netbook sales.

Editor's note: This is something of a straw man construct. Historically, the redesigned MacBook Air is one of the hottest-selling Apple laptops ever, and starting at $999, it was never likely expected to achieve the mass market sales volume of machines selling for one-third to one-half as much. cm

Publisher's note: By definition, a netbook is small (12."1 or smaller display) and cheap (under $500). Most are powered by a single-core Intel Atom CPU and ship with 1 GB of RAM. The $999 MacBook Air is small, not cheap, powered by a real Intel Core 2 Duo CPU, and comes with 2 GB of RAM. It's sales are growing while the netbook market has declined by 40%. dk

No New Apple Death Knells, but Ignorance Abounds

The Mac Observer's Bryan Chaffin says that while he has no new Apple Death Knells to report, that doesn't mean the Internet is safe from stupidity, ignorance, and outright writing shenanigans, and he saw two articles recently that were so plain stupid he decided to put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard, as the case may be).

The squibs Bryan's referring to are Zack Whittaker's ZDNet piece (see above) entitled "Is Apple still (or was it ever) in the netbook game?" and another by The Street's Scott Moritz called "Apple's June Showcase to Lack Jewels."

Midyear MacBook Air?

According to Taiwanese IT industry watching site DigiTimes' Yen-Shyang Hwang, Yenting Chen, and Adam Hwang, the Taiwan-based supply chain for Apple products will begin shipping refreshed 11.6" and 13.3" MacBook Air models featuring Sandy Bridge Core "i" CPU silicon and supporting the Thunderbolt I/O interface in late May for launch in June or July, according to industry sources.

As with most Apple professional laptops since the second-generation WallStreet PowerBook in 1998, the Revision B MacBook Air Gen-2 will assembled by Taiwan's Quanta industries form components made by the usual OEM suppliers, and with the Air's still-fresh design, no form-factor changes are expected other than the Mini DisplayPort being upgraded to Thunderbolt support.

DigiTimes notes that Apple shipped over 2.7 million notebook PCs in the first quarter of 2011, historically the second highest quarterly level and only 5% lower than the shipment volume in the preceding quarter, although the 5% drop was lower than the corresponding industry average decrease of more than 10%, thanks mainly to robust sales of recently refreshed MacBook Pro models, and with shipments of the new MacBook Air, analysts Apple's notebook PC shipment volume in the second quarter is expected to rise by 5-10% on quarter and may attain 3.0 million units.

The Post-PC Era: It Doesn't Mean What You Think It Does

Forrester Research Senior Analyst Sarah Rotman Epps has posted a blog and video on the topic of how computing is changing. Ergo the "post-PC" era heralded by Steve Jobs at the iPad 2 launch is underway - pointing to a future where computing form factors, interfaces, and operating systems will continue to diversify beyond even what we have today - but Epps says that the meaning of the Post-PC Era is misapprehended by most of us, emphasizing that "Post PC Era" does not mean that the PC is dead, but rather that a host of technological innovations are making the post-PC era possible, and in turn accelerating social change, and vice versa. In the post-PC era, the PC is alive and well, but it is adapting to support computing experiences that are increasingly ubiquitous, casual, intimate, and physical, citing the new MacBook Air's instant-on immediacy as an emblematic example of what's coming and to some degree already here.

The Mac OS X Delete Key 'Goes Both Ways'

LifeHacker says:

"One of the biggest pet peeves for users who switch to Mac from Windows is the Delete key, because it feels backwards. To make matters worse, the vast majority of Mac users don't use the full-size keyboard (which has Delete keys for both directions). Here are a few quick shortcuts to set the matter straight for everyone, but especially for those MacBook users out there."

Publisher's note: It's also an issue with Apple's wireless keyboard, although you can order the Apple Keyboard with Numeric Keypad if you want full-size arrow keys, editing keys, and/or a numeric keypad. For more on the Delete key controversy and other Mac things that tend to trip up Windows users, see 30 Top Mac User Mistakes: How Many Are Apple's Fault? dk

The ARM Debate

ARM or Intel for MacBooks and Desktops? Apple's Dilemma

IBTimes' Carl Bagh observes that on the business front, Investors.com has cited Barclays Capital stating that Apple shifting from Intel to ARM chips could cut processor cost by one-third, saving $25 per PC, and that MIS-ASIA cites a report by IDC which forecasts that ARM will capture a 15% share of the PC chip market by 2015.

Bagh notes that Apple's strategy is now to integrate key features of iOS with Mac OS X, citing the example of the new 11" and 13" MacBook Air models borrowing key features from the iPad and Mac OS X Lion importing a host of features like Launchpad and Full Screen Mode from iOS, and suggesting that in the context of Apple creating a unified experience for users across its devices and OS platform, an ARM-based MacBook Pro or laptop that runs on iOS could be a reality - a strategy that would allow Apple to slowly transition laptop users to more expensive Mac OS X desktops.

Why Apple Won't ARM the MacBook

Real World Tech's David Kanter has posted an eloquent, detailed, and thoroughgoing analysis of why the rumor buzz launched by the SemiAccurate site to the effect that that Apple would abandon Intel x86 and migrate all of its notebooks to ARM silicon over the next two years doesn't hold water, observing that it would cause a massive disruption in the PC ecosystem and calling it an exceptionally unlikely scenario.

Your editor agrees. Kanter examines reasons that Apple might have for switching to ARM CPUs in its notebooks. One would be enhanced potential for convergence of the iOS and OS X platforms toward an eventual merger. Another would be tighter control over hardware - an abiding Apple obsession - and potentially greater integration of hardware and software engineering, also consistent with Apple tradition. Apple would find it much easier to steer the direction of ARM to suit its needs than is possible with Intel, and as a bonus save money by designing and manufacturing its own ARM chip.

Kanter also notes that Apple has switched CPU platforms twice before and managed it reasonably elegantly both times, and conceivably could pull it off again. However, he allows that studying the history of Apple's hardware choices and its approach to switching platforms actually reinforces the unlikelihood of an x86-to-ARM migration, noting that from a technical perspective, the performance and compatibility barriers are huge. [Publisher's note: Apple moved from 680x0 to PowerPC and then from PowerPC to Intel for increased processing power, something ARM does not offer. The most powerful ARM CPUs available today are 1 GHz ones, such as the dual-core Apple A5 and the Coretex-A9 MPCore, which supports up to four cores. Although ARM is developing a dual-core 2.0 GHz processor, the Cortex-A9 Hard-macro. dk]

However, Kanter contends that the most formidable obstacle to such a switch is would be performance, noting that the MacBook Pro is intended for performance hungry professional applications, and ARM has nothing anywhere near as powerful and refined as Intel's quad-core Core "i" Nehalem - and there are no ARM microarchitectures even on the horizon that can compare to Intel's Sandy Bridge or AMD's Bulldozer, with current ARM designs are at roughly the same performance level as x86 was in 2000. Kanter suggests that migrating to ARM would not just require matching x86 in performance but exceeding it. Then there's Intel and Apple's recent joint announcement of the Thunderbolt I/O interface, with Apple likely intending to consolidate and replace multiple I/O interfaces (e.g. USB, FireWire, DisplayPort) with a single Thunderbolt port, and Intel having little motivation to license the patents to ARM.

He also explores a number of business reasons why Apple switching its laptops to ARM makes no sense, summarizing that the strongest argument for Apple sticking with x86 is that it meets its needs quite well, and maintaining that while it's an intriguing thought experiment, Apple will not be switching from x86 to ARM for notebooks in next few years, venturing that it would not even be possible. He does suggest that a plausible scenario would be for that Apple to develop some sort of hybrid system to enhance areas like boot/wakeup performance and facilitate more iOS/OS X integration, and five-to-ten years from now, who knows?

Great article!

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