Apple's new notebooks answer the call for innovation

Apple's new MacBook, MacBook Pro, and MacBook Air notebooks set the bar for low price and extraordinary design

By now, there's probably relatively little you don't know about Apple's new Mac notebooks, but just in case I'll catch you up. All new Mac notebooks, including the $1,299 MacBook, are built from a one-piece aluminum frame. They feature a new Nvidia integrated chip set and GPU silicon, share an LED-lit glass display that is flush all the way to a very skinny bezel, and meet EPA's highest standards for green manufacturing.

The $1,299 MacBook has turned into something akin to a 13.3-inch MacBook Pro. Costing $700 less, MacBook nevertheless sports the most-requested features from MacBook Pro, including the metal chassis and integrated Nvidia graphics.

[ What if notebook manufacturers kept pace with available technologies? See "The best laptop money can't buy" and "The perfect laptop, take two" | Also, check out the Enterprise Mac blog. ]

Apple's MacBook Pro is a real winner in the desktop replacement category. It shares the new MacBook's unibody frame, but sizes up the display to 15.4 inches and incorporates hybrid integrated/discrete 3-D graphics. The hybrid design starts with MacBook's power-efficient Nvidia 9400M chip set with integrated graphics (this uses system memory as graphics memory), but adds a discrete, 32-way Nvidia 9600M GT GPU that users can kick into action for CAD, math acceleration, gaming, or just a way-snappy GUI. By shifting gears from discrete to integrated, Apple claims that MacBook Pro grabs an extra hour of battery life, rising from four hours to five.

The least you can spend for a metal MacBook is $1,299, while the top of the line is the $2,499 MacBook Pro with 4GB of RAM and 512MB of graphics RAM. The more modest white plastic MacBook is available for $999, but it's worth the extra money for the metal and the Nvidia chip set. MacBook Air, still in its youth, has been refitted with the Nvidia 9400M integrated graphics chip set as well.

WorldBooks had it first

You could say that I saw much of this coming. Back in July, I laid out the specifications for what I considered to be the perfect notebook computer -- actually, two perfect notebook computers. I took what knowledge I have about manufacturing processes, component costs, and user's desires (well, my own) and painstakingly "designed" a pair of imaginary notebook PCs that my editors polished and dubbed WorldBook. I based the designs on a mating of MacBook Air and MacBook Pro, and incorporated things like an edge-to-edge flat glossy display, an oversized buttonless glass trackpad, hybrid integrated (low-power) and discrete (high-performance) GPUs, removable hard drive, DisplayPort video output, and uncommonly long battery life. All of these features have found their way into MacBook or MacBook Pro. Features that I tossed in for the sheer hell of it, like a solar panel and a simple display under the trackpad, did not make Apple's list.

Still, I called it. Genius, you say? Oh, you flatter me. I merely crystallized what professionals want from their notebooks. The similarities between my imaginary specs and Apple's real notebooks indicate only that Apple is tuned in to the frustration and ennui of commercial notebook buyers. Still, I couldn't see the upside to remaking the MacBook and MacBook Pro for Apple. Why would Apple subject its bread-and-butter notebooks to the "anything goes" design and engineering romp that resulted in MacBook Air? Left untouched except for CPU and bus speed bumps, Mac notebooks would grow market share without a drain in R&D. Nobody would fault Apple for sticking to a formula that, by most measures, doesn't need improvement.

Apple is no stranger to either ingenuity or the courageous application of same, but if any company is now in a position to benefit from just coasting, it's Apple. Shows you how much I know. Whatever points I earned for insightfully pinpointing several key design elements of Apple's new models are driven into deficit by my conservative assumptions about optimizing manufacturing processes and my naive read of the silicon supply chain.

Apple surprised me by bravely returning to its old tricks, including in-house silicon engineering and radical manufacturing innovation. In the case of silicon, Apple took the Nvidia 9400M desktop chip set and the 9600M GT desktop GPU and adapted them for notebook use. As I desired, MacBook Pro shifts from low-power integrated graphics, still claimed to be five times faster than the Intel integrated graphics in prior MacBook and MacBook Air, to a 32-way GPU. Courtesy of Nvidia's chip set, Apple goosed memory and front-side bus speed to 1,066MHz. This is several notches past nifty.

The view from Nvidia

Let's be clear: I haven't laid my hands on these machines yet, so I won't characterize anything more than the creativity and daring of their design, except to offer that in my experience, Nvidia's got excellent chip set chops, as evidenced by its share in the x86 server chip set space. I did not know that Nvidia has a hybrid integrated/discrete GPU solution. I'm not sure how much of Nvidia's Mac notebook technology was derived from Apple's guidance. Apple claims to have contributed to Nvidia's design, but admits that it holds no exclusive on the result, meaning that we'll soon see this 9400/9600 hybrid approach used elsewhere.

As an aside, Nvidia's enormous design win with Apple justifies speculation about Nvidia's future relationship with Intel. Intel might have protested Apple's spurning of Intel's notebook chip set by raising the cost of CPUs or, if you prefer, reducing Apple's loyalty incentives. Given that Apple's notebook pricing remained stable, I'd say that Intel elected not to fuss. Perhaps Intel already sees buying from Nvidia as keeping it in the family.

We ran our editorial about our fantasy notebooks under a banner proclaiming that they represent design perfection. It turns out that there is no cure for journalistic hubris like having one's predictions made real five years ahead of (my) schedule. For their design and the manufacturing technology invented to make them possible, Apple's new notebooks are as remarkable and ahead of their time as a flying car. Seriously now, how could I see that coming?

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