Making MacBooks similar, yet different

When introducing the new MacBook models at Apple’s laptop event on Tuesday, Steve Jobs noted that the top three requests from MacBook users—meaning the three things MacBook owners wanted to see most in future models—have been a MacBook Pro-like metal enclosure, faster graphics performance, and an LED-backlit display. In adding those features to the MacBook, as well as introducing new features to both the MacBook and MacBook Pro simultaneously, Apple has made its professional and consumer laptop lines more similar than they’ve ever been. At the same time, the company has tried to differentiate the two lines by giving the MacBook Pro a few new features of its own, as well as by removing a popular feature from the MacBook.

First, lets’ take a look at the similarities between the two lines:

  • Enclosure: Both the MacBook and the MacBook Pro use Apple’s new Precision aluminum unibody enclosure, which takes a single piece of extruded aluminum and cuts and machines it into the laptop’s top panel (for the palmrest, keyboard, and main body). This was a major change for both lines: the MacBook Pro previously used an aluminum enclosure made from many different pieces, and the MacBook line previously had a white- or black-plastic case. The end result is that to the untrained eye, the new MacBook simply looks like a scaled-down version of the MacBook Pro. (The $999 MacBook retains the white-plastic case.) But the MacBook Pro inherited perhaps the best feature of the previous MacBook case, as well: For the first time, Apple’s “pro” laptop has an easily accessible hard-drive bay for easy upgrades.
  • Displays: Both lines now feature a new LED-backlit, glossy, widescreen display with glass that spans the entire face of the laptop’s top panel.
  • Trackpad: Apple’s new Multi-Touch, buttonless trackpad is standard on both new lines.
  • Impressive graphics performance: For the first time since the Intel transition, Apple’s consumer laptops include a graphics card that doesn't cripple the machine.
  • Backlit keyboard: The new models have seen the keyboards of their predecessors converge: the new shared keyboard—identical to that of the MacBook Air—features black Chiclet-style keys, like those of the previous MacBook, with backlighting like that found on the previous MacBook Pro. (It’s worth noting that only the $1,599 MacBook gets backlighting, according to Apple.)
  • Many other technologies: From system-bus speed (1,066MHz) to the now-standard Mini DisplayPort connector to SATA to SuperDrives to wireless to battery life, the two lines provide the same specifications. The MacBook is no longer based on lower-end—or older—technologies compared to the MacBook Pro.

The result of these changes is that Apple’s laptop line—17-inch MacBook Pro aside—is as similar, top to bottom, as it’s been since before the company introduced the iBook as a separate consumer line in 1999. In fact, if you didn’t know better, it would be easy to think that Apple is now selling a single line of laptops, ranging in price from $1,299 to $2499, with the customer gaining more features with each step up in price.

And there’s the rub, for Apple: If the new lines were to share too many technologies and specs, there would be a good number of people who might consider the less-expensive MacBook models over the premium MacBook Pros. Indeed, during the Q&A section of Tuesday’s event, Piper Jaffray analyst Gene Munster asked Steve Jobs if there was concern that the new MacBooks would reduce demand for the more-expensive MacBook Pro. Jobs’ response was that many MacBook Pros are bought by professionals, and for them the MacBook Pro is a bargain.

But what Jobs didn’t point out, at least not explicitly, is that Apple has been careful to make the MacBooks and MacBook Pros different enough—and different enough in ways that matter to “pro” users—that many pros and power users will stick with the MacBook Pro line. Consider the differences between the new lines:

  • Speed: If you want the fastest laptop, you must buy a MacBook Pro. The MacBook line tops out at 2.4GHz with a 3MB Level-2 cache. That’s the starting point for the MacBook Pro line, which is available with a 2.8GHz Core 2 Duo with 6MB of Level-2 cache.
  • Display size: As before, if you need more than 13.3 inches of screen real estate, you’re a candidate for the Pro line, with its 15-inch and 17-inch displays.
  • Graphics performance: While the MacBook line finally got a quality graphics card (the Nvidia 9400M), that card’s 256MB of memory is still shared with main memory. Apple reserved the best video performance for the MacBook Pro line: Not only does the Pro get a better card (the Nvidia 9600M GT with 256MB or 512MB of its own video memory), but it also gets a second card (the 9400M). You can choose which card to use based on your performance and battery-life needs. (It’s also possible that Snow Leopard, the next big update to Mac OS X, may be able to take advantage of the second video card, as Snow Leopard includes technology that can offload CPU tasks to the graphics card for better performance.)
  • Faster hard-drives: Apple provides build-to-order options for 7,200-rpm hard drives only for the MacBook Pro. (Of course, you can easily upgrade either line yourself thanks to the new enclosure design.)
  • FireWire: The new MacBook follows in the footsteps of the MacBook Air by omitting a FireWire port—the first Apple consumer laptop since the original iBook in 1999 not to include FireWire. I’m of two minds about this. On the one hand, Apple seems to be following the market in choosing USB for consumers and FireWire for pros: a growing number of consumer hard drives and DV cameras use USB instead of FireWire. FireWire is becoming a feature of higher-performance—and more-expensive—products. And I could justify the lack of FireWire on the MacBook Air, given that the Air’s own performance was slow enough that FireWire was essentially overkill. But FireWire is still superior to USB in nearly every respect; the MacBook’s components offer enough performance that there would still be a clear advantage to having FireWire; and FireWire is Apple’s baby. (Plus my two-year-old DV camera has only a FireWire connection; I can’t use it with a new MacBook.) So it’s sad to see Apple reserve FireWire for its “pro” products. Even a lowly FireWire 400 port would have been welcome here, leaving FireWire 800 for the MacBook Pro line.
  • ExpressCard: The MacBook Pro remains the only portable Mac with an ExpressCard slot, although it’s still ExpressCard/34 rather than the more-versatile 54 version.

In the case of FireWire, it’s tough not to think that Apple removed the feature from the MacBook for no other reason than to differentiate the pro and consumer lines. (Unlike with the MacBook Air, there appears to be plenty of room for a FireWire port.) But the other differences seem fair to me, as they’re the types of performance-eeking options that mean a lot to professional users but are less important for many consumers. In fact, despite these differences, the new MacBook is a much more appealing computer than its predecessor. Based on my limited hands-on, it looks great, it feels as solid and sturdy as the MacBook Air—perhaps even sturdier—and its performance should be improved enough that many games that weren’t playable on the previous version should perform well.

At the same time, Apple has still endowed the MacBook Pro with enough unique features aimed at the professional market that true “pros” will pay the additional $400 to $900 to get them. After all, in computing you pay for performance, and the MacBook Pro offers at least five avenues for increasing performance: processor speed, graphics speed, hard-drive speed, FireWire, and ExpressCard peripherals such as eSATA. And that’s not counting the larger screens popular with professionals.

Taking a step back to look at the two laptop lines together, I think that the new-and-improved MacBooks have shifted the “indecision point” between the MacBook and MacBook Pro. In other words, while there are customers for whom the choice between the MacBook and the MacBook Pro is an obvious one, there is always going to be a group of people whose needs fall squarely between the two and who have to decide between saving money or getting more performance and features. The new MacBook’s major improvements—the better graphics performance, the metal enclosure, the new trackpad, and the brighter screen—make it easier for many people to choose the MacBook, and shifts the point at which the decision becomes difficult towards the MacBook Pro. That means less profit per computer, but Apple will likely sell more than enough MacBooks overall to make up for those losses.

Updated 10/15/2008, 12:58am: Clarified that the Nvidia 9400M is not a "discrete" video card.

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