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Alan Zisman on the Mac

This Time Around, Apple Upgrades Are Evolutionary, Not Revolutionary

- 2011.03.22 - Tip Jar

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2011 was going to emerge as the year to "Get Apple" with competitors trying hard to get a piece of that company's profitable market for smartphones, tablets, laptops, and more.

That may be easier said than done, however.

By mid-2009, for instance, statistics suggested that Apple held an astounding 91% of retail sales of personal computers priced above $1,000, the most profitable market segment - clearly an opportunity for competition. Dell, for instance, debuted an Adamo XPS laptop: a 13" slim and sleek ultraportable targeting potential customers of Apple's MacBook Air. Now? No Adamos to be found on Dell's website.

HP targeted Apple's main line MacBook Pro customers with a stylish Envy laptop line. While 14" and 17" Envy models remain in production, HP recently dropped its Envy 13 model, a direct competitor to Apple's most popular MacBook Pro model.

While competitors try to match or surpass the feature set on current Apple products, Apple is a moving target. Ultralight MacBook Air models were updated last fall, mainstream MacBook Pro laptops in late February, and the not-yet-one-year-old iPad was bumped up in early March.

PC Magazine (not generally one of the Mac's biggest fans) described the new 15" MacBook Pro model as "the fastest, most technologically advanced laptop to grace our labs benches."

The new MacBook Pros don't look any different - all that distinguishes this year's 13" model (priced from $1,249) from last year's model, for instance, is a little lightning bolt icon beside the port for connecting external displays.

This Thunderbolt port can still be used to connect a projector or large-screen monitor, but it's also a high-speed connection for future hard drives, networking devices, and more, promising 20 times the speed of USB 2.0. It was developed by Intel, and Apple is the first to use it.

Internally, the new 13" MacBook (there are also updated 15" and 17" models) also includes more powerful Intel Core i5 processors and larger hard drives. Screen resolution is unchanged while the new Intel graphics processor is actually a bit slower than the last generation's discrete Nvidia GPU. (The larger MacBook models include dual graphics processors: one to maximize battery life, the other for better gaming performance.) At seven hours, battery life remains strong.

The new iPad 2, meanwhile, is thinner, a bit lighter, with a more powerful main processor and faster graphics. It adds a pair of (low-resolution) cameras: front for video calls and rear for shooting stills and video.

Some things remain the same: 10" screen size with 1024 x 768 resolution. Battery life is around 10 hours. The same range of models with the same storage capacities - 16, 32, and 64 gigabytes - at the same price points. (The original iPad models are available at somewhat reduced prices.)

And while tablets announced by competitors, including HP and RIM, are not yet available to interested customers, the iPad 2 quickly arrived on store shelves. Apple followed up its March 2 product announcement with US availability on March 11 and availability in Canada and many other countries promised for March 25.

Samsung mobile division vice-president Lee Don-Joo admitted that Apple's thin new model made him feel a need to "improve the parts that are inadequate" and revise pricing on Samsung's competing Galaxy Tab. Tablet competitors have found it difficult to match Apple's iPad (and now iPad 2) pricing.

Competitors are finding it difficult to compete with Apple in the high-end laptop and tablet markets, but Apple does have a bit of a dilemma: the media, the stock markets, and many customers expect every product announcement to be a revolution. The new MacBooks and iPad 2s are instead relatively modest incremental improvements over previous models - nice enough, but no need to rush to replace last year's models.

(Still, if anyone wants to make me a good offer on my first-generation iPad....) LEM

First published in Business in Vancouver March 22-29, 2011 issue #1117.

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Alan Zisman is Mac-using teacher and technology writer based in Vancouver, BC, Canada. Many of his articles are available on his website, www.zisman.ca. If you find Alan's articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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