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The Next MacBook Makeover: High Hopes, Low Expectations

The Next MacBook Makeover: High Hopes, Low Expectations

It's about time we saw a MacBook Pro refresh, and rumor has it an update could come as early as Thursday. What I hope to see is a major makeover: new technologies, incredible redesign, mind-blowing internals, the works. What I expect is a much more modest upgrade, with maybe a few new bits thrown in to keep things interesting. Apple just doesn't have to work very hard to maintain its lead.

By Chris Maxcer MacNewsWorld ECT News Network
02/24/11 5:00 AM PT

Rumors are flying fast and furious regarding the long-awaited next generation of Apple MacBook Pros. The last major update to the line came in April last year, but we might finally get a redesign as soon as Thursday.

Of course, it's also possible that Apple will fold a MacBook Pro announcement into its March 2 media event next week, where Apple is widely expected to reveal it's second-generation iPad 2. Apple could theoretically include both product lines in an announcement effort showcasing mobile products.

On the flip side, Intel is also rumored to be announcing something related to its Light Peak connectivity technology, possibly dubbed "Thunderbolt," on Thursday, which means Apple and Intel would both benefit from the synergy. Apple gets to say it has Thunderbolt, shipping now, and Intel gets to ride on Apple's considerable marketing and media influence.

So What's Coming to the New MacBooks?

The big question that all the blogs and rumor sites are trying to unravel -- not to mention more than a few financial analysts on Wall Street -- is what kind of release can we expect? Notice I didn't say "hope for" ... that's a whole different animal.

What I hope for is a major refresh to the MacBook Pro line. While at some point I expect to see MacBook Pros that share the svelte wedge shape of the latest MacBook Air, I think it's too soon for Apple to mess with the overall unibody chassis much. But there is some hope that Apple will use a new alloy called "Liquidmetal" to reduce weight by as much as 20 percent.

Aside from making the MacBook Pro lighter, Liquidmetal may give Apple good reason to change the color, too. When I first saw a shiny all-black mockup by designer Dario Crisafulli, I had to stifle an urge to dig out a credit card just to be ready in case Apple does give us a new black option. I use an aging black MacBook -- one of the last -- and for some reason I can't explain, I still prefer the look of it over the newer silver MacBooks, despite their technical and physical advantages.

Sadly, Though, I Don't Expect a Major Redesign

While I hope for a major form-factor redesign, I don't expect one. Why? Because Apple doesn't have to, and if there's one thing that I've noticed about Apple, it's that the company is quite content to hold back features or changes until the last possible minute they are needed to boost sales and consumer adoption. It's oxymoronic for a company that keeps pushing the envelope, but it exists.

A case in point is a camera on the iPad. Apple very obviously has been working on FaceTime for quite a while, and it knew that consumers would want a front-facing camera on their iPad so they could FaceTime with the iPod touch, iPhone, and Macs ... but Apple has yet to include a front-facing camera.

I don't believe there's any real technical hurdle, just that Apple doesn't have to, and when it introduces its next-generation iPad 2, it'll be used as just another excuse to buy an iPad. In racing terms, it seems that Apple is quite comfortable leading by just a few lengths ... there's no benefit to risk burning up an engine or blowing out a tire just to lead by a full lap.

And where's the proof of a comfortable lead? Apple's Mac sales, which are dominated by MacBooks, are up 20 percent year-over-year for the March quarter, according to NPD Group. The MacBook Air could be taking the Lion's share, but the Pro is a constant performer.

What Can We Expect?

We can definitely expect a few much-needed improvements, with lesser improvements going to the 13-inch MacBook Pro line vs. the 15-inch and 17-inch MacBook Pros. Here are some key options:

  • New Processors. The entry-level 13-inch MacBook Pros are in dire need of new processors, and they'll likely pick up new dual-core Intel Core i5 processors based on Intel's new Sandy Bridge architecture. 15-inchers and above might get i7 or even quad-core options. The memory and system bus speeds will likely be faster, too.
  • New Graphics Processors. Intel's Sandy Bridge will likely bring the Intel HD Graphics 3000 integrated GPU to the 13-inch MacBook Pro, but that built-in GPU might not exactly be a step up from the previous built-in Nvidia version. However, the CPU performance boost might mitigate it some -- a three steps forward, one step back sort of issue.

    Meanwhile, the larger workhorse MacBook Pros should still have a second GPU to automatically tap, mostly likely Nvidia's next-generation GeForce series to replace the existing GeForce GT 330M.

  • Solid-State Drives. Solid-state drives are wicked fast, durable, and they let you launch your MacBook in record time. And with SSDs, the bouncing icon action in the Mac OS X dock you see while an application launches may become extinct.

    The problem is cost. Right now, from the online Apple Store, you can add a 128GB SSD to a MacBook Pro for a staggering US$300. A 256GB unit for a disappointing $750. A 512GB SSD drive will set you back $1,400. I would love to see Apple bundle in a 256GB SSD as standard fare -- the current 13-inch, $1,599 MacBook Air with the standard 256GB of flash storage gives me hope.

    But one issue with the MacBook Pro is that its owners tend to put them to work, and they want larger hard drives. Apple may also introduce a dual-drive solution where a small chunk of flash-based storage is dedicated to Mac OS and applications, leaving a second, traditional spinning platter hard drive for longer-term storage.

  • Bigger 13-Inch Screen? With the 13-inch MacBook Air, Apple introduced a 1,440 by 900 pixel display, which trumps the 13-inch MacBook's 1,280 by 800 pixel screen. Basically, more pixels means you can cram more stuff onto your display, which is handy for working with text, Web browsing, and applications.

    What's the potential for an upgraded screen on the 13-inch MacBook Pro? 50-50. Because the current screen has a 16:10 aspect ratio, while the MacBook Air screen is 16:9, it would require some changes to the physical structure of the MacBook Pro, and if Apple isn't yet making design changes, they'll let it ride as-is (which would be disappointing, of course).

  • New Thunderbolt Connector? One of the biggest rumors gaining steam is the introduction of Intel's new Light Peak "Thunderbolt" high-speed connection, which is designed to replace a variety of ports, like USB, FireWire, SCSI, SATA and PCI Express, though it's hard to imagine Apple ditching USB and FireWire ports anytime soon. Just another cool step forward toward easier connectivity with attached devices (like hard drives), as well as a speed boost.
  • HD Camera? The built-in webcam could use an improvement, for sure, if only so that it can keep up with the quality delivered by Apple's mobile iOS devices. Is it high on the demand side? I don't think so, but chatting families will appreciate it nonetheless.
  • No More SuperDrive? While Apple is widely expected to eventually cut out its SuperDrive entirely (like on the MacBook Air), I don't think Apple will do it yet. If Apple does, I would expect it to happen with a major form-factor refresh ... maybe.
  • Better Battery Life. I don't think I've seen any solid refresh that didn't include an increase in battery life. It would be surprising if Apple didn't eke out some gains.
  • Built-in 3G? Far down the list of possibilities is a model that will sport built-in 3G (or 4G) communication in addition to WiFi -- like the iPad, for instance. I would expect this to appear in a MacBook Air first, though, and not until 4G coverage is ubiquitous across the land.

    But the option, along with favorable terms from cellular service providers, remains an enticing thought for the truly mobile worker.

What About Little Old MacBook Amateur?

Last of all, we haven't even mentioned the lone white MacBook. With the $999 MacBook Air, I wonder how many white MacBooks are selling. Apple has said the new MacBook Air represents the next generation of MacBooks, and it's hard to see how the white MacBook can possibly join the group. I wonder how long Apple will bother with it?

Despite my overall expectations for a fairly modest update to the MacBook Pro line, I hope that Apple wows the world with an astounding new 15-inch form factor and package of internals that will remain competitive for a long time. And if an announcement doesn't come Thursday, maybe it'll come March 2 as part of a "mobility" metaphor at Apple's scheduled media event.

But I doubt it because Apple doesn't have to pack the event to get attention. An iPad 2 will dominate the news for weeks to come, all on its own.


MacNewsWorld columnist Chris Maxcer has been writing about the tech industry since the birth of the email newsletter, and he still remembers the clacking Mac keyboards from high school -- Apple's seed-planting strategy at work. While he enjoys elegant gear and sublime tech, there's something to be said for turning it all off -- or most of it -- to go outside. To catch him, take a "firstnamelastname" guess at Gmail.com.


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