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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 laptopcase designs since the plastic MacBook of May2006. 2-1/2 years is an eternity in the tech industry, and when youconsider that the high-end MacBook Pro models were introduced monthsearlier (with an uncanny resemblance to the aluminum PowerBooks from2003), you can see that Apple's designs were a bitlong-in-the-tooth.

Needless to say, anticipation was high, and in very uncharacteristicfashion, there were plenty of hints and leaks floating around the webabout what the new models would look like.

Now that they are out, how do they compare? Do they make everythingthat came before obsolete? Are the "early 2008" models suddenly low-endMacs?

First off, actually technology improvements - as in processor speed,memory, and storage - can best be described as evolutionary and minorimprovements. The frontside bus is faster, but in the case of the basealuminum MacBook, theprocessor itself is actually slower. DDR3 memory is faster, but notdrastically, and while slightly larger hard drives are offered, thereis nothing radical except for the availability of SSD (solid statedrive) on the MacBook and MacBook Pro, which is a welcome addition.

New Graphics

Where the electronics are really improved, says Apple, are thegraphics. At the high end, the MacBook Pro's NvidiaGeForce 9600M GT is a generation more advanced than the outgoingmodel's 8600GT GPU, and with Apple's announcement that MacBook Pros arenot excluded from the defective Nvidia chip debacle, it may also besafer. I haven't seen any direct comparison of game frame rates betweenold and new MacBook Pro systems yet, but I'll trust Apple that the newones are faster.

Where graphics are seriously stepped up is in the consumer MacBookand the ultraportable MacBookAir. The new Nvidia GeForce 9400M is still an integrated GPU, likethe Intel X3100 it replaces, but according to Apple it is up to fivetimes faster (four times according most benchmarks on the Web). Whetherit's 5 or 4, it is impressive all the same, and it finally allows theMacBook and MacBook Air to be used for real games.

Apple describes the new integrated graphics as having roughly halfthe performance of the old MacBook Pro's dedicated graphics.

Taken in context, the new integrated graphics are up to 5x the speedof the old integrated graphics. The old MacBook Pro is roughly twicethe speed of the new MacBook. The new MacBook Pro in dedicated mode isup to 2.3x the speed of the same system in integrated graphics mode.That tells us that the new MBP with dedicated graphics is aboutone-third faster than the old one and that all Apple systems are muchfaster than the older integrated graphics. More importantly, it showsthat even the new integrated graphics don't measure up to the olddedicated GPUs on MacBook Pro models, but have gotten enough betterthat gaming on a MacBook is finally an option.

Unibody Construction

Of course the big deal about the new Apple portables isn't the CPUor 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 theMacBook Air, and one look at Apple's website, which compares all threeseries, 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 havebuilt-in optical drives, removable batteries, and easily accessed RAMand hard drives. Bravo.

The new MacBook and MacBook Pro resemble the Air in more than justtheir aluminum brick enclosures, as they also share the same keyboardand latchless lid design. Actually, those last two design elements wereintroduced back in 2006 on the plastic MacBook, but they are clearlypresented in an evolved state on the Air and the two new models.

The keyboards feel a bit better built on the new models, and exceptin the base model MacBook, are backlit. I've used backlit keyboardsback in the 15" PowerBook days and can say that this is a trulyworthwhile feature, and I'm glad to see it offered on at least thehigh-end MacBook.

The New Trackpad

The new touchpad is a radical change - and not shared with theMacBook Air, though when the upgraded Air ships next month we might geta pleasant surprise on that front. The new touchpad has been describedin detail elsewhere, but suffice it to say that it doesn't look or feellike it's made of glass, rather it matches the aluminum of the rest ofthe computer quite well. The touchpad-as-button design works well, atleast in the time I played with it at the Apple Store, and can be usedeither the same way we use our trackpads and buttons today or in theway it was intended, which took me all of three clicks to master. Ididn't care much about the new gestures, but then I rarely use the oldones.

No Matte Displays

The consumer MacBooks were already glossy-screen-only, so the newmodels don't disappoint in that regard. Losing the matte screen optionon the Pro was a big mistake, in my opinion. I've used a Santa Rosa MacBook for overa year now, and a 12"PowerBook before that, and can honestly say that glossy iseverything it's advertised as - and also everything users complainabout. In short, it's a mixed bag, better for movies and photos in adark 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 workingwith your laptop for long hours in a variety of environments, manyusers still prefer matte.

As I've written about in my last few articles, I have been busymoving everyone in my office from their Windows PCs to Macs. My officemanager was already on a MacBook and remains so. My secretary has anew iMac, and the glossyscreen is annoying for the last hour of the day when the sun hits herwindow. My paralegal's ThinkPad was replaced with my MacBook, where theglossy screen is no issue whatsoever, as she always works on anexternal 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 thatmachine on to my paralegal, so that I could buy a new, matte screenlaptop 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 generationMacBook Pro. For the same $1,599 as a 2.4 GHz aluminum MacBook, Igot a 15" MacBook Pro with dedicated graphics and a glorious LEDbacklit 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 Iwork, the matte screen is more important. I won't go so far as to saythat I won't buy a glossy laptop in the future - who knows what sort ofantiglare coatings will be introduced. But for now, when I have thechoice, 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 forthe clearance prices. Anyone who read my articles from 2006 knows thatI got a very bad case of the "Rev. A blues" with a black CoreDuo MacBook, and that experience convinced me that no matter howattractive a radically new model is, I'll stick with the old one untilthe bugs are out. January's MacBook Air was followed by a few teethingproblems, and while nowhere near the level of the original MacBook,still suggests that early adopters remain the final round of betatesters.

In conclusion, I am very excited about the new Apple laptops, andcome 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 allof the new models I see people enjoying, all while happy in theknowledge that I got both a raging bargain and a proven piece oftechnology in my new early 2008 MacBook Pro. That, and possibly beingthe last ever matte screen Apple portable also may make this somethingof a classic in the years to come. LEM

Andrew J Fishkin, Esq, is a laptop using attorney in Los Angeles, CA.

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