A Good Year Ends And An Exciting One Shapes Up For Apple Laptop Fans

by Charles W. Moore

2005 was a good year in the Apple laptop orbit, not really a vintage year (except for the fact that the hardware was all getting pretty long in the tooth), but the very good year nevertheless. Looking ahead to 2006, one thing we can be certain of is that it's going to be a watershed year. The vintage part will depend upon how solidly engineered and built the new MacIntel machines turn out to be.

After a bit of a shock when no iBook or PowerBook new product announcements were made that Macworld Expo in January — 2005 started out strong two weeks later with a major refreshments of the entire PowerBook line, with modest speed bumps, some feature enhancements, and a couple of completely new wrinkles -- a scrolling trackpad and a hard drive Sudden Motion Sensor.

This was a pretty substantial upgrade aside from the paltry clock speed increase, but many PowerBook enthusiasts who had been expecting -- or at least hoping for -- a G5 PowerBook announcement were disappointed, and speculation resumed as to when the G5 'Book would be unleashed. However, Steve Jobs' bombshell revelation at the World Wide Developers Conference in June that Apple would be switching from Power PC to Intel chips over the next two years pretty much doomed any prospect for a G5 PowerBook, notwithstanding the fact that IBM now does have a low-power G5 CPU available. I don't believe it credible that Apple would devote engineering and development resources to getting a lame duck G5 laptop to market with Intel machines in the pipeline.

As for the iBook, it also got a substantial refreshment in July, even more substantial than the PowerBooks eight months earlier in some respects. Speed bumps to 1.33 GHz and 1.42 GHz for the 12-inch and 14-inch machines respectively, much-needed RADEON 9550 graphics processors with full support of OS 10.4 Tiger's Core Image graphics function, a significant price drop for the 14-inch machine with a SuperDrive now standard equipment, an upgrade to 512 megabytes of RAM standard across the board, plus the scrolling trackpad and Sudden Motion Sensor technology. The performance/specification gap between iBook and PowerBook diminished, with a welcome cost/value enhancement for the four-plus-year-old dual USB iBook design.

Speaking of which, as I've noted above, 2005 was a "vintage" year in one context at least; the entire Apple laptop fleet was getting elderly, with the newest model, the 15-inch aluminum PowerBook, dating back to September 2003, and the 12-inch one all the way back to May, 2001 in its original G3 iteration. It's a testament to how insanely great these designs were from the get-go that they still seem not just contemporary, but even (especially the aluminum PowerBooks, cutting-edge in appearance after years on the market.

In October, the 15-inch and 17-inch PowerBooks got another refreshment — No speed bumps at all, but higher resolution displays, dual-layer DVD burners, 5400 RPM hard drives, and some other enhancement tweaks. The 12-inch PowerBook, on the other hand, was pretty much passed over, getting only the faster hard drive upgrade and a $200 price reduction on the SuperDrive model, with the combo drive becoming a BTO delete option.

I'm inclined to believe that the July and October 2005 revisions mark the end of the road for the G4 iBooks and PowerBooks respectively. There is still speculation that Apple might do one more PowerPC revision with one of the faster G4 chips Freescale now has available, and a few romantics still contend that the chimerical G5 PowerBook could yet make an appearance. I think not.

The 12-inch PowerBook will probably be discontinued along with the 14-inch iBook when new widescreen MacIntel iBooks are released, perhaps as soon as two weeks from now at Macworld Expo. Reports out of Europe last week say the current iBook has been end-of-lifed in the channels there, and emsnow.com reports that:

"Apple computer will adopt Intel processor next year. According to the understanding, the ODM order of new Apple notebook has been obtained by Quanta and Asustek," and "Apple computer stated it would exhibit its desktop and notebook with Intel processor at Mac World Expo in San Francisco, USA from 9th to 13th January next year."

The new 'Book will almost certainly come with a 13-inch or 14-inch wide aspect ratio display, and probably be powered by a version of Intel's next - generation "Yonah" CPU, which is coming on stream. Another strong possibility, with an eye to the iPod world's embrace of entertainment video, is more TV integration in Apple's next generation of laptops.

It has been rumored that the 12-inch iBook might survive for a time as Apple's bargain-basement price-leader laptop, which is a plausible notion, but arguably contradicted by the end-of-life reports. One factor may be manufacturing logistics. The iBooks and 12-inch PowerBook are all built by Asustek, and with production lines ramping up to produce the new MacIntel iBooks, it could be impractical to maintain production of the older model machines.

As for MacIntel PowerBooks, Apple may surprise us, but I'm doubtful that there we will see the 15-inch and 17-inch models replaced with MacIntel hardware before March or April, and possibly not even until the WWDC in June. A problem Apple is going to have with that is once MacIntel laptops are available, even if it's only iBooks at first, sales of Power PC models are likely to tank, especially if, as expected, even the new low-end Intel-based machines will handily outstrip Apple's already lagging G4 PowerBooks in performance. There should be some sales to those wanting to get one of the last Power PC books for software compatibility and Classic Mode support reasons, but I can't see that becoming a major stampede, even though it's something I've pondered doing myself.

I'm keeping my powder dry, however. While in rational terms, a 1.5 GHz or 1.67 GHz PowerBook would no doubt serve my objective computing needs quite handily for a few years hence (after all, I'm currently using 700 MHz G3 and 550 MHz G4 machines), I know full well, having lived through the 68k to Power PC transition in the mid-90s, that even the nicest G4s are going to seem like yesterday's news once the MacIntels have landed.

That said, I'm going to miss Power PC, most profoundly in that the MacIntel transition will constitute a much more radical break with the Macintosh Classic tradition than even OS X did. I still have applications (e.g.: Word 5.1) that I used on my first Mac, an 8 MHz, 68000 Mac Plus with 2.5 megabytes of RAM running System 6,0,3 back in the early 90s, that still work great in Classic Mode in emulation under OS 10.4.3 Tiger on my current machines. Not that I use them very often, and none is really mission-critical, but I'm a traditionalist by temperament, and will miss the tangible, usable, link to the road that brought me this far.

However, the future of the Mac is no MacIntel, and I am more convinced than ever that Steve Jobs made the right decision to switch CPU platforms. The year ahead promises to be an eventful and exciting one for Mac aficionados, most especially Mac portable users, since it looks like we will be in the vanguard of the changeover. Hang on: it's going to be fun.