Apple touched up its line of laptop computers today with a minimal nod to the economic turmoil that might push consumers to be more frugal this holiday shopping season.
Apple avoided a major price cut to the Macintosh line, though it did lower its least expensive computer, the existing version of the entry-level MacBook, by $100 to $999.
For the updated MacBook and MacBook Pro machines, Apple added some of the high-end features that had been in the MacBook Air, including thinner laptop casings and a "multitouch" track pad, which, like the iPhone, understands gestures for spinning and zooming.
In an event at Apple's headquarters, Steve Jobs, Apple's co-founder and CEO, also said Apple broadened its use of graphics chips and associated technologies from Nvidia Corp., at the expense of Intel Corp., which still supplies the computers' central processors. Jobs said the change speeds up processing-intensive activities — playing popular 3-D video games, for example — as much as six-fold.
As at other events in the last few months, Jobs appeared thin but, in a tongue-in-cheek nod to persistent questions about his health, projected a slide with his healthy 110-over-70 blood pressure reading.
The redesigned laptops are thinner and lighter, and use what Apple touted as a construction "breakthrough" when it debuted in the super-slim MacBook Air in January. All the new laptops now use casings cut and tooled from aluminum, without a stronger skeleton fused to the insides.
At the lowest end of the redesigned laptops, a MacBook will cost $1,299, while the most expensive MacBook Pro, which comes with two graphics chips from Nvidia for extra-fast graphics processing, costs $2,499. An updated MacBook Air, the ultra-thin portable notebook that does not have a CD or DVD drive on board, is $1,799.
The track pads built into MacBooks and MacBook Pros also got a makeover. They're much larger and made from glass for smooth scrolling, and instead of a separate button to mimic the clicking of a mouse, the entire track pad depresses.
Jobs declined to take questions on the economy, telling reporters and analysts that "there are much smarter people than us that you can ask about the global financial meltdown."
However, Apple's decision to keep most laptop prices well over $1,000, despite competition from PC makers whose cheapest notebooks cost less than $500, would appear to reflect the company's confidence it can maintain its premium status even in tough times.
Tim Cook, Apple's chief operating officer, said Apple was benefiting from negative press for Microsoft Corp.'s Windows Vista operating system, and pointed out that Macintosh sales growth has far outpaced the broader PC market over the last several quarters. Market tracker IDC said in its last quarterly report, in July, that Apple ranked third in the U.S. PC market, with 7.8 percent share.
Apple shares were down $6.59, 6 percent, at $103.67 in afternoon trading.
Steven Baker, an analyst for market researcher NPD Group, said he wasn't surprised by Apple's decisions on pricing or the new features it incorporated into the laptop line. Baker expects Apple's sales to slow this year along with other PC makers as economic jitters inhibit consumer spending.
"Clearly the MacBooks and MacBook Pros were in need of a refresh," Baker said. The update was incremental, but, he said, "that's kind of where the PC market is these days."
Apple's decision to work more closely with Nvidia for its graphics processing could be a needed boost for the Silicon Valley chip maker.
In July, Nvidia disclosed a major problem with an unspecified number of its laptop chips that were already built into computers from several manufacturers. The problem caused the chips to suddenly fail, leaving users with badly mangled video or no video at all.
Hewlett-Packard, Dell and Apple have notified customers that their machines contained the problem with Nvidia chips. Apple's notice came just this week.
Nvidia hasn't recalled the chips, and the computer makers have so far said they won't replace all the problem chips - just the ones that fail.
The original disclosure caused a 31 percent one-day drop in Nvidia's stock price, and the shares have continued sinking. Although Nvidia remains the world's largest maker of standalone graphics chips, the foul-up has given a big opening to its main rival, ATI Technologies, a company now owned by Advanced Micro Devices Inc.