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When Apple quietly updated the 13-inch MacBook a couple weeks ago, giving the company’s least-expensive—and previous-generation-design—laptop better performance than the more-expensive aluminum unibody models, it was a good hint that the aluminum models were due for a refresh. After all, what company wants to undercut its “premium” models by selling a better-performing product for less money?

Sure enough, just 12 days later, Apple announced updates to nearly the entire MacBook line. The MacBook Air gains faster processors; the 17-inch MacBook Pro gets a faster processor and a larger hard drive; and the 15-inch MacBook Pro sports faster processors, higher RAM capacity, a solid-state drive option, a longer-life battery, an improved display, and an SD memory-card slot (in lieu of the ExpressCard slot found on the previous version). All of these changes are accompanied by lower prices.

These are notable upgrades, but it’s the changes to the 13-inch MacBook that are generating the most buzz. Keep in mind that Apple’s consumer laptop line got a dramatic overhaul just last October, when the company switched all but the entry-level model to a new aluminum unibody enclosure, converted to LED displays, added a multi-touch trackpad, upgraded the graphics and processor performance, and even added the “pro”-level backlit-keyboard feature (albeit only to the most-expensive model).

As I pointed out at the time, these upgrades brought the MacBook models enticingly close to the 15-inch Pro line. For people who didn’t need the large screen, the less-expensive 13-inch MacBook was mighty tempting. In fact, it appeared that Apple omitted FireWire from the MacBook models solely to differentiate them from the Pro line.

So it was interesting to hear, during Monday’s WWDC keynote, Phil Schiller ask rhetorically, “What can we add to just make [the MacBook] a MacBook Pro?” Indeed, the 13-inch member of Apple’s laptop line now includes most of the same features and technologies as its larger siblings: a longer-life, integrated (read: non-swappable) battery, improved display technology, 8GB RAM capacity, a 500GB hard drive or 256GB SSD, a backlit keyboard on all models, and an SD memory-card slot. It even includes…wait for it…FireWire 800.

The 13-inch model still can’t match the 15-inch MacBook Pro when it comes to screen real estate and processing power—the 15-inch models start at 2.53GHz and can reach 3.06GHz, while the new 13-inch models start at 2.26GHz and max out at 2.53GHz. The 15-inch MacBook Pro is also available in a dual-video-card configuration. But the two lines are otherwise nearly identical. In fact, they’re similar enough that Apple has officially bestowed “Pro” status upon the unibody 13-inch models—welcome, 13-inch MacBook Pro.

In the past, a change this dramatic would have surprised me. Apple has traditionally reserved the best features—SuperDrives, FireWire 800, you name it—for its most-expensive models, only later trickling those features down to the consumer line. This feature segregation, if you will, often seemed to be little more than a mechanism for propping up the sales of higher-end systems and their larger profit margins.

But as Macs have become more and more popular, especially in the consumer market, we’ve been seeing more and more “pro” features finding their way into “consumer” models, and much earlier. Whether it’s FireWire 800 on iMacs or aluminum bodies for MacBooks, Apple has gradually been moving to a model where you pay more for raw performance, rather than useful features.

Part of this is likely due to competition from other computer makers: when everyone else is offering particular features for less money, there’s pressure to improve your own products to stay competitive. But I suspect it’s also because of the growing popularity of Macs in general—the more computers you sell, the less profit you need to make on each to generate healthy balance sheets. Apple no longer seems afraid that 13-inch-laptop sales will cannibalize sales of the larger, more expensive models, instead aiming to sell more laptops overall.

Whatever the reason, from a consumer’s point of view Apple’s new laptop line sports the company’s most aggresive pricing, and provides the best value, to date. While budget shoppers may be disappointed that there’s no $500 or $600 model, the just-updated white MacBook is the best laptop Apple has ever sold for less than $1,000. The 17-inch model is a killer large-screen computer at $2,499. The MacBook Air, though still demanding a premium for being small and light, has dropped in price dramatically since its 2008 introduction, while providing better performance and more storage. And the new heart of Apple’s laptop line is a collection of 13- and 15-inch laptops with a common—and impressive—set of features ranging in price from $1,199 to $2,299. Across this range, lower prices don’t require you to give up useful features; for each $200 to $300 jump in price, you simply get better “basics”—faster processors, more RAM, larger hard drives, and, when jumping from $1,499 to $1,699, a larger screen.

(This neat set of price intervals also has a marketing benefit for Apple: with such relatively small jumps in price between the models, no matter which MacBook Pro you choose, it’s tempting to spend "only $200 more” for an even better machine.)

Personally, I’m hoping this new approach eventually finds its way to Apple’s desktop computers. There’s quite a hole there between the consumer and pro machines.

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