Apple’s spring notebook classic

Dan Moren
13 October, 2008
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As the financial crisis drags on and the US presidential election marches steadily closer, everybody and their sidekick has a prediction about what’s going to happen in the next couple of months. Nor is the rarefied air of the Apple community immune to this disease of predictionalisis. With the announcement that Apple is planning on rolling out new laptops late tomorrow night, what kind of changes can we expect to the portable lineup that bears the name MacBook?

In recent years, the notebook computer segment has increasingly become one of Apple’s strongest performers, outselling desktops every quarter for the last two years—in the most recent quarter by more than 50 percent. It’s also one of Apple’s most visible faces: Mac laptops abound on television shows and in cafes and colleges across the country.

So as we go into the holiday season, it’s no surprise that Apple wants to bump up its portable line to incorporate faster, shinier technology. The company’s done the same thing for the past several years, and this year will likely be no exception. So let’s delve into what we can expect to see when the spotlight falls on notebooks.

Some sort of processor increase for the MacBook is a lock. Apple’s consumer laptop line was last updated this past February, when the processors were updated to Intel’s Penryn line of Core 2 Duos, featuring 2.1GHz and 2.4GHz speeds with a 3MB cache. The MacBook Pro was updated at the same time, sporting 2.4GHz, 2.5GHz, and 2.6GHz options, only a modest increase from 2007.

Don’t expect to see a brand new chip technology, though. While Intel discussed its new Nehalem architecture at this year’s Intel Developer Forum, those chips aren’t expected to surface in mobile platforms until late next year. That means that we’ll probably just see a speed bump within the Penryn family of Core 2 Duo chips. 

Nowadays, most comparable laptops from PC vendors are running at speeds of between 2.0GHz and 2.8GHz. Traditionally, Apple’s speed bumps feature modest clock speed increases, around one or two hundred MHz. Expect to see speeds top out in the 2.5GHz or 2.6GHz range for the standard MacBook, and maybe up to 2.8GHz for the MacBook Pro.

In the memory department, all of Apple’s laptops currently come with 2GB of RAM except for the intro-level MacBook; I’d hope to see that join the 2GB club. While the MacBook Pros may get bumped to 4GB standard, Apple somehow still seems to be able to convince users to pay its exorbitant RAM upgrade prices, so that’s a revenue source that it wants to keep taking advantage of.

My colleague game maven Peter Cohen has expounded on what the MacBook line ought to see in the video card department: in short, something better than the integrated graphics that are leaving MacBooks out in the cold. Apple’s spent some ad money promoting the iPod touch as a game device, while its computer line has continued to lag behind. Then again, Apple’s attitude to gaming has been confused, to say the least. Even after continued proclamations that it “gets” gaming, the company never quite seems to follow through. The chances of high-powered graphics chips surfacing in the consumer MacBook line seem middling at best.

From the left field department, there’s still the long-lingering question of high-definition disc formats. With HD-DVD finally dead, Blu-ray has been crowned the unequivocal disc of the future (at least until it, too, gets replaced). But despite being on the board of the Blu-ray Disc Association, Apple hasn’t shown much interest in bringing the format to its computer line, and it’s likely that such a move would start with the high-end Mac Pro—but the company’s no stranger to surprises.

But under-the-hood improvements aside, the big question mark surrounding laptop updates is what they’ll look like. Will the new MacBooks sport an aluminum enclosure like their Pro and Air siblings? Might ambient keyboard backlighting make it to the consumer line? Will the MacBook Pro finally adopt the distinctive keyboard of the other two MacBook lines? Despite the transition to Intel chips, and the addition of other niceties like iSight cameras and a new port or two, the MacBook lines are relatively unchanged from their iBook and PowerBook predecessors circa 2003.

Of course, the rumour machine is working overtime, with the most popular speculation referencing something called the “brick.” It’s surfaced on blogs and filtered through Twitter, but there still seems little consensus about what it is. Theories range from a whole new product to a fabrication process to a, well, complete fabrication. Rest assured, everybody’ll be waiting for the brick to drop when the 14th comes around.

Apple intentionally kept external changes low when it made the switch from PowerPC, in order to indicate that Macs were still Macs, but with that transition fully behind us, isn’t it time for a change—a change, if I may borrow from Barack Obama, that we can believe in?

Throw your own spanner into the rumour mill, or share some good old fashioned real thoughts about tomorrow’s event, in the AMW Forums.

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