While my MacBook gently weeps


— 7:08 PM on October 14, 2008

Stevenote day. Few days of the year inspire as much ambivalence for me—save for spending the holidays with my family. For those uninitiated PC enthusiasts out there, here's how things tend to work: every few months, Steve Jobs takes the stage in a black sweater and pair of Levi's. He talks about how well Apple is doing, shows a new television ad, and usually makes some jokes at Microsoft's expense. All of those entertaining (and sometimes groan-inducing) moments aside, the main appeal of Steve's keynotes is always the introduction of new Apple products. After pointing the spotlight at iPods about a month ago, today's focus was the aging MacBook lineup. Before I get into my thoughts on the day's announcements, I think it's time I give full disclosure on my Apple support and why I'm always so torn whenever these events roll around.

Despite being accused of "drinking the Kool-Aid" when I bought my first and only Apple product (a black MacBook) a little over a year ago, I like to think of myself as an equal-opportunity computer user. I use both Windows Vista and Mac OS X every day on my desktop PC and laptop, respectively. I can work just as well in either OS, and I recognize the flaws and benefits of each—I simply use whichever tool is better suited to the task at hand. Because I find myself unable to become a zealot for either platform, I always end up watching any industry events with great interest, regardless of whether they're focused on Microsoft or Apple.

So, why the ambivalence, especially when today's event focused on the only product line from Apple that really interests me? It's simple: new gadgets are fun to ogle, but no one likes watching a product in which they've invested money become obsolete. Many would say this is a silly argument and a computer's capabilities don't change just because something new comes out. It still surfs the web, creates documents, and lets me communicate with friends just as well as it always did, no matter what shiny new revision is sitting in Apple Stores. Unfortunately, that rebuttal isn't accurate, especially when it comes to Apple's products. Hardware capabilities drive software, and since Apple has such tight control over its platform's hardware, it tends to be a bit more aggressive with system requirements. The simple fact that all new laptops from Apple are using far superior Nvidia chipsets means that soon enough, I'll start finding software my poor Intel GMA 950-powered MacBook won't support. There are already effects in Apple's Keynote presentation app that my MacBook can't use, and I'm dreading what I'll be missing out on in Apple's next software releases as GPU horsepower becomes more and more critical to daily computing tasks. In the end, every keynote leads me to weigh the pros and cons of my hardware against the new generation, as well as the cost upgrading entails. This is exactly what Apple wants, but at least for now, my MacBook is still up to snuff. The rational side of my brain has won out against the "ooh shiny toy I want it" consumer-whore side, at least for one more Stevenote.

With my personal dilemma out of the way, let's move on to some of the more interesting announcements (and non-announcements) I noticed from today's event:

  • Nvidia chipsets across all SKUs. Finally, people can stop crying for a replacement to the classic 12" PowerBook, since the new aluminum MacBook brings most of the Pro's features into a 13.3" form factor. The line between MacBook and MacBook Pro has now become extremely blurry, with screen size now playing the biggest part in differentiating the two models. Things were pretty simple before today's refresh: if you wanted discrete graphics, you'd get the MacBook Pro. Interestingly enough, Apple probably realized that many former Pro users would jump ship to the smaller, less expensive model, so it took away a key feature that content creators will need:
  • FireWire. It's gone from the new MacBook, and you'll never convince me Apple did this because of space constraints. Plenty of audio engineers get by just fine on a MacBook thanks to its great CPU performance and compatibility with FireWire audio solutions, but Apple just drew a line in the sand: the MacBook is for mainstream consumers despite its beefier graphics solution, and the MacBook Pro is for enthusiasts and content creators. While the removal of FireWire is sure to upset a vocal minority of MacBook users, Apple probably doesn't care. It's not unlike Nintendo ignoring hard-core gamers to focus on the much wider, more lucrative mainstream consumer-base. Nintendo is happy to let enthusiasts game on the PC, Xbox 360, and PlayStation 3, because it's too busy selling a Wii Fit to every mom in the country. What we're seeing here is Apple streamlining its offerings so that each SKU targets a different consumer vertical. I agree with their strategy for the most part, save for one little problem. Apple has spent the last couple of years pushing its software, namely the iLife suite, as a fantastic content creation suite that's designed for consumers. iDVD and iMovie HD pack functionality that was before limited to complicated and expensive Adobe suites, and they bundle it up with a slick, easy interface that has become a large selling point for new Apple computers. But without FireWire, how is John Q. Consumer going to get the footage of little Billy's soccer game from his DV cam to his MacBook? Goodbye iMovie HD. Goodbye iDVD. Might as well not even bundle them—they both just became worthless on the new MacBook.
  • Mini-DisplayPort has replaced Mini-DVI on the MacBook, and the MacBook Pro lost its full-size dual-link DVI. Enjoy buying new dongles for both DVI and VGA at $29 a pop. Oh, and the adapter for dual-link DVI costs $99. Ouch. While I understand Apple is trying to embrace a new standard, isn't it a bit early?
  • No matte option for the LCDs. If you're a purist that still hasn't embraced glossy displays, or you just plan on using your laptop outside a lot, you're in for disappointment. Personally, I'm glad to see it go. I've had glossy screens on my laptops for over 4 years now, and I can't imagine going back. Glossy LCDs simply look richer to me, and with almost every laptop available sporting them, most consumers must agree. Those with a window behind them will just have to close the blinds.
  • No resolution bump for the LCDs. Lenovo's ThinkPad X300 packs a 1440x900 display into the 13.3" form factor—why can't Apple? Plenty of other laptops also feature a 1680x1050 option at 15.4", but the MacBook Pro doesn't. Some argue that's because Apple uses higher-quality LCDs, but for some reason, I don't think that's the case.
  • DDR3 is the new standard. At least it's not that much more expensive than DDR2.
  • No Blu-ray. This is actually a pretty big deal for me, and likely the feature I'll be holding out for before I buy my next notebook. Steve's response when asked about it was, "Blu-ray is just a bag of hurt. It's great to watch the movies, but the licensing of the tech is so complex, we're waiting till things settle down and Blu-ray takes off in the marketplace." For now, Apple will keep pushing its iTunes HD service, and I'll keep ignoring it.
  • No tablet. Despite constant "credible internet rumors" suggesting otherwise, Steve shot down a touchscreen interface for MacBooks once again, saying it "hasn't made a lot of sense to [Apple]."
  • No netbook. Steve didn't say no when asked about it, but he added that the netbook market is "just getting started." The MacBook Air is basically a larger-form-factor (and very expensive) netbook, so if it's selling, why change it?

When all is said and done, this was actually a pretty good Stevenote. We got some compelling new products, some interesting Apple decisions to debate, and of course, just enough left out to have us waiting for the next event. But before I leave you, I've got one more minor gripe to get off of my chest: this is the second year in a row that Apple's updated laptops a month after school starts. While using students to clear out your stock before a refresh is a great idea, it's almost insulting to update the SKUs just a few weeks later. Knock it off and just save the updates for Macworld Expo in January. That way, we at least get a quarter of use out of our laptops before they're obsolete.

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