Watching the new MacBooks being introduced , the first thing that struck me was how subdued the assembled viewers were.
This was for two reasons - the onlookers were journalists and not fans, and many of them were busy typing frantically into their notebooks as they watched. But it still seemed weird and silted compared to the usual fervour at Apple product launches.
In the launch, Jobs first pointed out the high points for Apple. Growth is still dramatic, with 50 per cent of current Mac buyers being first-time Mac users. Jobs claimed Macs currently take up 18 per cent of computing units sales in the US and a rather incredible 39 per cent unit share of the US education market. Since Apple takes more profit from every unit sold than most companies (queue bargain-basement PC user outrage), Apple has been growing even more dramatically.
This all helps to explain how Apple could afford to spend months working with NVIDIA to make powerful graphics chips for their new MacBooks, months working on (if Bob Mansfield, Senior Vice President of Mac Hardware is to be believed) just the very feel of the new glass trackpad, and months refining the industrial techniques to make a light, rigid laptop chassis from a solid billet of aluminium. You can watch how the chassis are made here, if you like industrial stuff.
But where is Apple going with all this? Famous Apple designer Jony Ives pointed out that the biggest selling Mac ever has been the little MacBook. The little luminous shiny plastic thing pops up all over the place, and is especially popular with travellers and students. It was quite different, even at a glance, from the bigger, serious-looking aluminium MacBook Pro.
But it only takes a few seconds to realise the very new MacBook looks just like a MacBook Pro now, only smaller. It's no longer the cuddly rounded-off polycarbonate love object, it's a very serious looking thing. Is that what students want? I'd say the new features and the tougher, lighter form, plus the fact it's greener etc would all be compelling reasons, but I guess we'll find out.
For the money, now you get a Mac laptop that can actually compete in the workplace, handling Photoshop, video and audio tasks with aplomb, and offering excellent gaming performance to boot. Glenda Adams, veteran Mac game programmer and director of development at Aspyr Media, called the 9400M video card in the MacBook "a big win for gamers."
But can you do without a FireWire 400 port - the connection most video cameras still support? (Apple will make adapters available, for a price, apparently.) Apple seems to be saying ‘it's USB for consumers and FireWire for professionals' as the new MacBook Pro still has Firewire 400 and 800 ports. A growing number of consumer hard drives and DV cameras do use USB instead of FireWire, tis true. Soon enough for you, though?
Despite the omission of FireWire, once again Apple has narrowed the gap between its consumer and pro machines. Why?
Partly as a response to current MacBook owners. Jobs noted that the three things MacBook owners wanted to see most in future models were: metal case, faster graphics performance and an LED-backlit display. That display is glossy, by the way, as it is in the new MacBook Pros, raising the ire of some photographers who really prefer matte.
Note that the MacBook video card, as Macworld points out, doesn't have its own RAM like ‘proper' video cards. It still borrows some of the MacBook's main memory, although a lot more than before - 256MB. So adding more RAM will always improve your MacBook, giving the system more overhead above that video-allocated 256MB.
But still, why did Apple make a consumer machine that looks and acts like a pro machine? Don Frakes of Macworld thinks the new-and-improved MacBooks will shift what he calls "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." A smaller, lighter model might be perfect for them.
The new MacBook's major improvements make the model most attractive, and as Apple says, it's the biggest selling Mac by far. Now that a secondary monitor can be plugged in, yet still the MacBook can process high-end graphics and 3D, it's essentially a pocket powerhouse. Less MacBook Pro sales would represent less profit per computer for Apple, but Apple's strong sales in this category (should they continue) will offset the difference.
Among other realisations from the product announcements video: the new Mini DisplayPort looks like it will appear in every new model of Mac (Jobs said so twice). DisplayPort isn't an Apple technology. The emerging I/O standard was designed to replace clunky VGA connectors and is effectively in the running against the HDMI connector. Apple developed DisplayPort into ‘Mini DisplayPort' as it appears on the last MacBook Pro, plus on all of the new line of MacBooks announced this week.
DisplayPort is royalty-free and an open standard, whereas HDMI demands manufacturers pay an annual fees for use of it, plus a 4 cent per device royalty. DisplayPort is up against HDMI in a way, as it's already established (it's even in the Apple TV) but DisplayPort is a pretty extensible standard so its utility should grow, and no doubt Apple sees many possibilities for the connector down the track. Of course, Apple probably retains the rights to the Mini DisplayPort - expect it to show up in new Cinema Displays across the board. Once again, roll on the Macworld conference in January, when Apple will also have to redefine the Pro desktop line-up.
This article originally appeared on the New Zealand Herald - http://blogs.nzherald.co.nz/