New Unibody MacBooks Provide Some Reasons to Buy an Earlier MacBook Pro
- 2008.10.27 - Tip Jar
It was extremely exciting when Apple released its first new laptop case designs since the plastic MacBook of May 2006. 2-1/2 years is an eternity in the tech industry, and when you consider that the high-end MacBook Pro models were introduced months earlier (with an uncanny resemblance to the aluminum PowerBooks from 2003), you can see that Apple's designs were a bit long-in-the-tooth.
Needless to say, anticipation was high, and in very uncharacteristic fashion, there were plenty of hints and leaks floating around the web about what the new models would look like.
Now that they are out, how do they compare? Do they make everything that came before obsolete? Are the "early 2008" models suddenly low-end Macs?
First off, actually technology improvements - as in processor speed, memory, and storage - can best be described as evolutionary and minor improvements. The frontside bus is faster, but in the case of the base aluminum MacBook, the processor itself is actually slower. DDR3 memory is faster, but not drastically, and while slightly larger hard drives are offered, there is nothing radical except for the availability of SSD (solid state drive) on the MacBook and MacBook Pro, which is a welcome addition.
Where the electronics are really improved, says Apple, are the graphics. At the high end, the MacBook Pro's Nvidia GeForce 9600M GT is a generation more advanced than the outgoing model's 8600GT GPU, and with Apple's announcement that MacBook Pros are not excluded from the defective Nvidia chip debacle, it may also be safer. I haven't seen any direct comparison of game frame rates between old and new MacBook Pro systems yet, but I'll trust Apple that the new ones are faster.
Where graphics are seriously stepped up is in the consumer MacBook and the ultraportable MacBook Air. The new Nvidia GeForce 9400M is still an integrated GPU, like the Intel X3100 it replaces, but according to Apple it is up to five times faster (four times according most benchmarks on the Web). Whether it's 5 or 4, it is impressive all the same, and it finally allows the MacBook and MacBook Air to be used for real games.
Apple describes the new integrated graphics as having roughly half the performance of the old MacBook Pro's dedicated graphics.
Taken in context, the new integrated graphics are up to 5x the speed of the old integrated graphics. The old MacBook Pro is roughly twice the speed of the new MacBook. The new MacBook Pro in dedicated mode is up to 2.3x the speed of the same system in integrated graphics mode. That tells us that the new MBP with dedicated graphics is about one-third faster than the old one and that all Apple systems are much faster than the older integrated graphics. More importantly, it shows that even the new integrated graphics don't measure up to the old dedicated GPUs on MacBook Pro models, but have gotten enough better that gaming on a MacBook is finally an option.
Of course the big deal about the new Apple portables isn't the CPU or even the GPU, but rather the the aluminum case. Believe it or not, there is nothing new here. We've seen this for almost a year on the MacBook Air, and one look at Apple's website, which compares all three series, describes each of them as having a precision aluminum unibody. Clearly, the Air was the shape of things to come.
Unlike the Air, however, the new MacBook and MacBook Pro have built-in optical drives, removable batteries, and easily accessed RAM and hard drives. Bravo.
The new MacBook and MacBook Pro resemble the Air in more than just their aluminum brick enclosures, as they also share the same keyboard and latchless lid design. Actually, those last two design elements were introduced back in 2006 on the plastic MacBook, but they are clearly presented in an evolved state on the Air and the two new models.
The keyboards feel a bit better built on the new models, and except in the base model MacBook, are backlit. I've used backlit keyboards back in the 15" PowerBook days and can say that this is a truly worthwhile feature, and I'm glad to see it offered on at least the high-end MacBook.
The New Trackpad
The new touchpad is a radical change - and not shared with the MacBook Air, though when the upgraded Air ships next month we might get a pleasant surprise on that front. The new touchpad has been described in detail elsewhere, but suffice it to say that it doesn't look or feel like it's made of glass, rather it matches the aluminum of the rest of the computer quite well. The touchpad-as-button design works well, at least in the time I played with it at the Apple Store, and can be used either the same way we use our trackpads and buttons today or in the way it was intended, which took me all of three clicks to master. I didn't care much about the new gestures, but then I rarely use the old ones.
No Matte Displays
The consumer MacBooks were already glossy-screen-only, so the new models don't disappoint in that regard. Losing the matte screen option on the Pro was a big mistake, in my opinion. I've used a Santa Rosa MacBook for over a year now, and a 12" PowerBook before that, and can honestly say that glossy is everything it's advertised as - and also everything users complain about. In short, it's a mixed bag, better for movies and photos in a dark room, and horrible when used in harsh lighting or near a window. Most people can get by with a glossy screen just fine, but for working with your laptop for long hours in a variety of environments, many users still prefer matte.
As I've written about in my last few articles, I have been busy moving everyone in my office from their Windows PCs to Macs. My office manager was already on a MacBook and remains so. My secretary has a new iMac, and the glossy screen is annoying for the last hour of the day when the sun hits her window. My paralegal's ThinkPad was replaced with my MacBook, where the glossy screen is no issue whatsoever, as she always works on an external 19" LCD with a matte screen in "lid closed" mode. As for me, the glossy screen on the MacBook was the reason why I passed that machine on to my paralegal, so that I could buy a new, matte screen laptop for myself.
Needless to say, Apple's new all-glossy lineup, impressive as it is, lost out in comparison to clearance pricing on the previous generation MacBook Pro. For the same $1,599 as a 2.4 GHz aluminum MacBook, I got a 15" MacBook Pro with dedicated graphics and a glorious LED backlit matte screen. No, I didn't get the new aluminum brick enclosure - and I would have liked to - but for the places and manner that I work, the matte screen is more important. I won't go so far as to say that I won't buy a glossy laptop in the future - who knows what sort of antiglare coatings will be introduced. But for now, when I have the choice, the decision is easy.
Of course, had Apple released a matte screen MacBook Pro last week, I probably still would have bought the older model - and not just for the clearance prices. Anyone who read my articles from 2006 knows that I got a very bad case of the "Rev. A blues" with a black Core Duo MacBook, and that experience convinced me that no matter how attractive a radically new model is, I'll stick with the old one until the bugs are out. January's MacBook Air was followed by a few teething problems, and while nowhere near the level of the original MacBook, still suggests that early adopters remain the final round of beta testers.
In conclusion, I am very excited about the new Apple laptops, and come my next upgrade cycle in 2011 or so, I will probably buy the Rev. B Unibody MacBook Pro. For now, however, I will look longingly at all of the new models I see people enjoying, all while happy in the knowledge that I got both a raging bargain and a proven piece of technology in my new early 2008 MacBook Pro. That, and possibly being the last ever matte screen Apple portable also may make this something of a classic in the years to come.
Andrew J Fishkin, Esq, is a laptop using attorney in Los Angeles, CA.
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