The Best Computer Apple Ever Made? – The Book Mystique

The new MacBook Pro is undeniably a nice laptop computer – a category I’ve long considered the royalty of the computer world. But is it “The very best computer we’ve ever built” as Apple Senior Vice President Of Industrial Design Jonathan I’ve claims in a video presentation accompanying the new MacBooks launch? I have my doubts. Does it reveal the direction and design orientation for Apple notebooks going forward? Without a doubt.

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Reasons for my hesitancy and skepticism in response Sir Jonathan’s best ever computer claim are several. For one, it’s way too expensive, at least in a contemporary context, with a starting price of $2,199 with a modest 256 GB SSD. That’s actually about what I paid for an entry–level Wall Street PowerBook G3 with a 233 MHz CPU, a 12.1 inch, 800 X 600 resolution display, and a 2 GB hard disk drive back in 1999, but never mind. Laptop prices have plummeted over the past 13 years as power and capacity have increased exponentially.

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So there’s a value argument in favor of the new MacBook Pro, but in my estimation an even stronger one can be made for the holdover, late 2008 form factor 15 inch old MacBook Pro, which got an Intel Ivy Bridge CPU speed bump (same chips as the Retina machine has), faster graphics processors — both integrated an discrete — and USB 3 in a refresh announced in tandem with the new 15-incher.

The new MacBook Pro’s marquee feature is a 2880 x 1800 resolution retina display with twice the resolution and 4x the pixel count of the same dimensioned panel in the older machine. Aside from that, the new MacBook Pro is arguably most notable for what you don’t get; an internal optical drive, FireWire and Ethernet ports are gone, a significant proportion of the older machine’s thickness and weight have been dispensed with, and storage capacity (especially affordable storage capacity, since the new model is SSD only with no HDD option offered).

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The ultra–high–resolution Retina display is of course very nice, but as I do with the Retina-ized new iPad, I have misgivings about its practical desirability on a laptop. I can see it appealing to high-end photography and video oriented users, but driving and feeding all those extra pixels places a heavy tax on hardware computing performance and battery charge life, plus software optimized to support high display resolutions is going to result in more data constipation and clogging slowdowns on networks with less than optimal bandwidth.

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That, along with the fact that Retina resolution still seems to me more parlor trick and engineering show–off than of functional benefit to most users, makes it difficult for me to be terribly enthusiastic.

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However, Apple’s refreshment/redesign of its entire notebook lineup on Monday has clarified things considerably for those of us intending laptop system upgrades in the not-too-distant future. One thing it has clarified for me is that I will not be getting a Retina display new MacBook Pro to replace my late 2008 model aluminum unibody MacBook.

However, that ultra-reliable machine’s direct descendent, the 13 inch MacBook Pro, is still offered, and better than ever with this latest revision, still at the same price points as it was before the upgrade, which reinforces its status as the best–value Apple laptop. That’s reflected in its stellar sales performance representing 46.2 percent of Apple laptops sold in most recent quarterly metrics. Its 1280 x 800 resolution 13.3–inch display is sort of the antithesis of Retina resolution, but the practical functionality is there for folks who don’t require a lot of display real estate and the high–and video–crunching capability of a discrete graphics processor with dedicated video RAM. The 13-inch Ivy Bridge speed bumped MacBook Pro is the likeliest candidate for my own forthcoming anchor Mac upgrade, The 13-inch MacBook Pro is available with a 2.5 GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 processor, Intel’s latest HD 4000 IGPU which Apple claims is 60 percent faster than the HD Graphics 3000 unit it replaces, 4 GB of memory, and 500GB hard drive for $1,199, or with a 2.9 GHz dual-core Intel Core i7 processor, 8GB of memory and 750GB hard drive at $1,499.

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The 15-inch MacBook Pro is available with a 2.3 GHz quad-core Intel Core i7 processor, 4GB of memory, Intel HD Graphics 4000 and NVIDIA GeForce GT 650M, and 500GB hard drive starting at $1,799 ($400 less than the base new MacBook Pro, but still well over my budget limit); or with a 2.6 GHz quad-core Intel Core i7 processor, 8GB of memory, Intel HD Graphics 4000 and NVIDIA GeForce GT 650M, and a 750GB hard drive for $2,199. Configure-to-order options include faster quad-core processors up to 2.7 GHz (supporting Turbo Boost up to 3.7GHz), additional hard drive capacity up to 1TB, up to 8GB of memory for the lower-end model and solid state storage up to 512GB. By comparison, the new MacBook Pro maxes out (build-to-order) with that same 2.7GHz/TB 3.7GHz quad-core Intel Core i7 CPU ($200), but only up to 768GB of very expensive ($500.00 extra) flash storage. However the new model does support a 16GB memory upgrade ($250), adding all of which will put your purchase price over $3,000. An external Apple USB SuperDrive will tack on another $79.00 if you need optical drive support.

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My other realistic alternative to the 13-inch MacBook Pro would be a MacBook Air, which has become even more interesting with its WWDC refresh with Apple knocking $100 (between 6% and 8%) off the prices of three of the Air’s four standard models (the base 11-inch model with its puny 64 GB SDD is still $999). There’s now a 13-inch Air model that matches the 13-inch Pro in price at $1,199, although with a slower 1.8GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 processor and far less storage capacity of 128GB with its SSD and of course no internal SuperDrive. Doubling the SSD capacity to a still very modest 256 GB will set you back another $300, and the cost of taking it to the maximum supported 512 GB is $500. On the upside, you get a higher-resolution 1440 x 900 resolution (same res. as the old 15″ MacBook Pro) display. You can also get that same internal hardware spec. in the 11-inch form factor for $100 less if you are content to live with 1366 x 768 panel resolution and without a SD Card slot.

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The mid-2012 Air also gets an Ivy Bridge/Intel HD 4000 IGPU speedbump, plus a doubling of standard and optional RAM capacities to 4 GB and 8GB respectively with the memory spec. upgraded from 1333MHz to 1600MHz., as well as USB 3 and support for SATA III SSDs that can reach 500 MB/s. According to Primate Labs’ Geekbench scores, both 2.0GHz MacBook Airs outperformed previous generation models by nearly 20 percent. The RAM enhancements especially are a huge value booster for the MacBook Air because it doesn’t support memory upgrades after manufacture, and the foregoing 2 GB base RAM spec. was a bit ludicrous in today’s context for all but very light duty users. I’m barely managing with 4 GB in my MacBook. However the Air’s RAM inflexibility and the constrained capacity/high price of SSD storage remain inhibitors for me in choosing it over the 13″ MacBook Pro.

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Back to some closing observations about the new MacBook Pro, while there have been substantial sacrifices made to pare the form factor down to 0.71″ thickness much of the space saved by eliminating the hard drive and SuperDrive has been eaten up by larger batteries to keep those 5.1 million pixels lit for a tolerable interval (similar to what’s obtained with the iPad 3). The the Retina Display is likely going to keep the new Pro in its discrete Nvidia GeForce GT 650M graphics processor with 1 GB of dedicated VRAM most of the time, with the power-conserving Intel HD Graphics 4000 IGPU not getting much of a workout, which will further compromise real world battery life.

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One interesting new wrinkle is an internal cooling fan with asymetrically-spaced blades that Apple claims to be much quieter than traditional symmetrical-blade fans.

The Last Laptop?

Slate’s Farhad Manjoo agrees with Sir Jony Ive that the new MacBook Pro is the greatest iteration of the personal computer, but also that it could be the final one, noting that at this juncture in many ways the MacBook Air especially (and the new MacBook Pro is essentially a 15-inch Air with a Retina display) is a complement to the iPad, not its enemy. However he anticipates that at some point in the future the two machines are destined to collide, and that either the Air or the iPad must win out, or we’ll see some novel combination of the two, but in the meantime he maintains that this much is clear: If the personal computer is to have any future, the MacBook Air is its last best hope.

I reluctantly think he has a point.

We shall see.

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