Apple Archive

MacBook Plus: Adding Flexibility and Easy Upgrades to Apple's Notebook Line

- 2006.10.20

Last week I looked at the upgradeability of Apple's notebooks (see Apple, Please Bring Back Flexible, Easy to Upgrade 'Books). This week I'm going to discuss the requirements for a decently upgradeable machine and talk about how Apple could position such a machine - and why they might not want to sell it on upgradeability alone.

The prime example of an upgradable notebook is the IBM ThinkPad 600E. It's a relatively small and light notebook, and the classic black ThinkPad look makes this 1999 model appear just as modern as the latest T60 to any casual observer.

The Keyboard

I mentioned last week that I had a new keyboard on its way. This was because the cable for the keyboard lies just below the hinge of the screen, so each time the screen is opened and closed, the cable is stressed - and eventually it just gives way. Then the keyboard no longer works. (Apple's had similar problems with screen cables on its PowerBook 100 series as well as the 13.3" WallStreet G3, which was in need of constant screen cable replacement - and the model was short-lived because of it.)

The new keyboard, which I purchased on eBay for about $25 (interestingly enough, PowerBook G3 keyboards are about $5-10 cheaper), can be user-installed.

Yes, there were a number of screws to remove, but IBM provided documentation on exactly how to take apart the computer. A simple visit to IBM's website allows you to download a service manual showing you how to access every part of the computer. (Apple has service manuals but makes it very hard for end users to find and download them.)

The overall procedure of installing the keyboard took about 15 minutes. I had a class at 2:30, started the procedure at 2:00, and took the computer to class.

Apple had an even better idea - making the keyboard simply lift out like on the PowerBook G3 models, the iBooks, and the PowerBooks G4s. An easily replaceable keyboard should be the start of a perfectly designed portable.

Memory Upgrades

Many notebooks today have two RAM slots. On the newer IBM T-series, one is located at the bottom while the other is below the keyboard. On the MacBook, the slots are in the battery compartment.

This is another idea that Apple's come up with which I particularly like. Accessing the battery, RAM, and hard drive from one compartment brings the upgradeable components together and makes the procedure simple for someone who wants to replace either the RAM or the hard drive - or both. (For those interested in aesthetics, this machine looks much cleaner on the underside with only the battery compartment visible.)

Processor Upgrades

That said, I believe that the processor should also be accessible from underneath the keyboard, as on my IBM. This ThinkPad features a removable chip, and nearly any Pentium II chip up to 400 MHz will function in the slot. I've even read on the ThinkPads.com forums that some users have success with special versions of 600 MHz chips (although they don't always run at the full speed).

Regardless, now that Apple is using Intel chips, the ability to replace the CPU with a faster one would be very welcome, especially since the G4 PowerBooks were not designed to accept processor upgrades (something once popular with PowerBook 1400 and G3 owners).

The Device Bay

The most important part is a removable optical drive. The PowerBook G3s had it, and they could accept an extra battery for extended runtime. ThinkPads have had this for a while, and the higher-end Dells also have this option. Since most notebooks only run for 2-5 hours on battery power, a second battery would dramatically increase the runtime for someone who has limited access to electrical outlets.

The MacBook and the IBM 600/T-series illustrates that a small, light notebook doesn't have to be completely upgrade-unfriendly. The MacBook could go further, however.

Hard Drive Upgrades

tangerine iBookThinkPads are mainly purchased by businesses, because they appreciate the easily interchangeable parts and rugged construction. MacBooks are consumer notebooks. Their upgrade options are a far cry from the original tangerine and blueberry iBooks launched in 1999, where the hard drive was nearly impossible to access.

Today's consumer needs extensive hard drive space for digital music, photographs, and video. For example, a friend of mine recently bought a white MacBook with a 60 GB hard drive. Her previous notebook, a Sony VAIO, had a much smaller hard drive, but it also had limited capabilities, and she almost exclusively used it for Internet browsing and email. With her MacBook, she's copied her CDs to the hard drive, as well as downloaded some music. At this point, the 60 GB hard drive - which sounded big at first - is already getting full.

She just bought this computer, so buying another one would be ridiculous. When I explained that she could easily replace the hard drive with a larger one, she was surprised and very pleased to know that she had an elegant way to increase the computer's storage capacity without dealing with an external drive or burning DVDs of her data.

A Solution that Feels Good

Perhaps it won't make the computer last any longer, but the ability to change parts when your needs change lets you feel good about your purchase in the long run.

Want a double-layer DVD burner? If you have a machine with a media bay, you can just slide one in.

Apple already has a base-level MacBook with no interchangeable optical drive and fairly limited upgradeability.

But what if they added a "MacBook Plus" that featured a media bay that accepts either a second battery or an optical drive? College students would be all over this model, and sales of second batteries would most likely be fairly high. If a MacBook already gets four hours on battery power, imagine getting eight hours! That's more than a day of lecture time. People who travel would also appreciate this model, as eight hours of battery life would allow nonstop use on a flight from New York to London.

Apple could sell the MacBook Plus on the basis of long battery life alone (selling anything electronic based on upgradeability is a bad idea; it's like saying, "Buy this model and you can ignore our upcoming ones"), and maybe give this machine a 14" screen.

The MacBooks would remain at the bottom, from US$1,100-1,500, and the MacBook Pros would be at the top. The "Plus" would fit in snugly in US$1,500-2,000 range and would have the potential to sell very well.

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