2008 Wrapup - The Apple Notebook Year In Review

by Charles W. Moore

What a year “Crazy ‘08” has been, with oil prices bursting through and then soaring far above historic highs during the first seven months, then crashing to less than one quarter of their July peak by Christmas. The Dow Jones Industrial Average kicked off the year with a close of 13,043.96 on January 1 - well of its historic all-time high of 14,164 on October 9, 2007, but still well up there - then swooned to close at 8,668.39 December 31, the worst economic meltdown since the Great Depression.

However, 2008 was an eventful one in more positive ways for Apple notebook computer fans, with the most new model and update releases of the MacIntel era and one of the most prolific ever.

The MacBook Air

The Mac portable year kicked off in a big way at Macworld Expo in January with the introduction of one of the most spectacular - albeit controversial - Apple notebook form factors ever, the all-new MacBook Air, pitched as “The World’s Thinnest Notebook,” measuring an unprecedented 0.16-inches at its thinnest point, while its maximum height of 0.76-inches when closed.

Despite its three-pound weight and anorexic profile, the Air came with a 13.3-inch 1280x800 LED-backlit glossy display, a full-size backlit keyboard, a built-in iSight video camera, and a large trackpad with multi-touch gesture support. Powered by a special, downsized (60% smaller than the standard Core 2 Duo) version of Intel’s Merom family processor running at clock speeds of 1.6 GHz or 1.8 GHz, with 4MB L2 cache and an 800 MHz frontside bus, the MacBook Air was no powerhouse, but offered reasonable performance. although less than you got with the contemporaneous entry-level 2.0 GHz MacBook

The MacBook Air’s problems were not with it’s undeniably sleek and attractive design, but rather with what had gone missing or been compromised in the quest to pare weight and thickness down, and there was a lot. If there was ever a salutary exemplar of “form over function,” the MacBook Air was it.

The MacBook Air came with a respectable 2 GB of RAM soldered to the motherboard, but unfortunately that was also its maximum RAM capacity. There was no RAM expansion slot. Video support was via the Intel GMA X3100 integrated graphics processor, which annexes up 144 MB of system RAM for graphics support, rather than having a real GPU with its own dedicated VRAM, so you didn’t even get your full 2 GB dedicated to system operation.

The Air’s standard hard drive in the base model was a non-standard 1.8” unit (iPod Classic type) of a modest 80 GB capacity and 4200 RPM rotation speed, with the only upgrade offered being an even smaller 64 GB solid state drive for a suck-in-your-breath thousand bucks extra. There were no other hard drive upgrades offered, so if 80 gigs wasn’t enough, you were out of luck.

Then there were the MacBook Air’s I/O ports, or rather poverty of them. No FireWire and not much else either - just one lonesome USB 2.0 port flanked by a headphone jack and a Micro-DVI video port. That’s all folks, and that USB port had to handle pretty well all peripherals you might need to use - the external SuperDrive, the optional Ethernet connector, a microphone if you needed one, an external keyboard and mouse, printers and scanners, a modem, and so on., and there were no expansion slots of any sort.

Also gone missing was an internal optical drive, so to access or burn CDs and DVDs you needed to pony up another 100 bucks for the MacBook Air’s special external USB SuperDrive, and with no FireWire, there was no FireWire Target Disk Mode (a deficiency that alas has subsequently carried over to the new unibody aluminum MacBook, which we shall get back to farther on).

Battery performance was respectable enough, with three to five hours of runtime depending on what you were doing, but if that wasn’t enough for your needs, you were again out of luck since the battery isn’t user-switchable without partially disassembling the computer, so you had to wait until you found an AC outlet and through the recharge interval.

Then there was the price. The base unit started at $1,799.00 but that didn’t include the external optical drive ($99 extra), Ethernet connector ($29.00), or if you were on dial-up like me - modem ($49.00), The upmarket, flash drive model was the most expensive machine in Apple’s portable line at $3098.00 and your could dude it up to $5536.90 by checking every box on the option list, which is nosebleed territory we hadn’t seen in an Apple notebook since the high-end WallStreet PowerBook G3s back in the late ‘90s.

Despite the undeniable seductiveness of its aesthetics I was disappointed with the MacBook Air. I had been hoping for a worthy successor to the much loved 12” G4 PowerBook, which notwithstanding its svelte dimensions could serve as a no-apologies production workhorse computer. The MacBook Air can not, being too compromised in too many ways - the stingy port array, especially lack of FireWire, the small, slow hard drive, the limited RAM capacity, the non user-replaceable battery, and so on and so forth.

Light weight, of course is a great boon to anyone who lugs a notebook around on a regular basis, but it’s entirely possible to build a three pound laptop with a somewhat thicker form factor than the MacBook Air that is a much better and more useful computer. There are now PC subnotebooks that weigh even less than the AirBook, yet come with a much more comprehensive array of I/O ports and even expansion slots, as well as having internal optical drives and upgradable RAM and hard drives and user-swappable batteries. Some can be had with both PCMCIA and Secure Digital slots, Gigabit Ethernet jacks, FireWire ports, audio-in jacks, and two or three USB 2.0 ports.

On the upside, the original MacBook Air has proved to be a reasonably reliable and unbuggy machine, especially for a Revision A model.

The Early 2008 Penryn MacBook And MacBook Pro

Meatier fare for serious notebook users came along a little more than a month later with the release of new MacBook and MacBook Pro revisions equipped with new “Penryn” family processors based on Intel’s 45nm CPU technology supporting clock speeds up to 2.6 GHz. The new entry-level 2.4 GHz unit came with a 3 GB L2 cache, while the 2.5 GHz and 2.6 GHz chips had 6 GB. Penryn’s SSE4 vector engine could handle 128-bit computations in a single clock cycle, accelerating data manipulation by simultaneously applying a single instruction to multiple data. Apple chose to make the 2.5 GHz variant standard in the high-end the MacBook Pro, but a 2.6 GHz Penryn was available as a BTO option, and Apple claimed that with that CPU, the MacBook Pro was 50% to 74% faster than the original version Core Duo MacBook Pro in early 2006.

Because Intel’s 45-nanometer process Core 2 Duo chips achieve higher levels of performance without using more power, they produce less heat and provide longer battery life.

The Early 2008 MacBook Pro also received a video support upgrade, with NVIDIA GeForce 8600M GT graphics processor units sporting up to 512MB of video RAM. The combination of a 16-lane PCI Express architecture and the powerful graphics processor kicked MacBook Pro video performance to a new level with 16x full-screen anti-aliasing, 128-bit High Dynamic Range rendering, and texture fill rate of up to 8.2 billion textured pixels per second for graphics performance up to 2.3 times faster than that of the original Core Duo-based MacBook Pro.

Unfortunately the Early 2008 MacBook was still cumbered with the same poky Intel GMA X3100 integrated graphics processor used in the MacBook Air, which annexed up 144 MB of system RAM for graphics support, rather than having a real GPU with its own dedicated VRAM, and offering commensurately lackluster performance.

The revised MacBooks still came with the familiar 13-inch glossy display in three models speed-bumped with faster Penryn processors and larger hard drives standard. The new clock speeds were 2.1 GHz and 2.4 GHz with 120GB or 160GB 5400 rpm hard drives on the low-end and middle white models, and the top of the line black 2.4 GHz model came with a 250GB, 5400 RPM hard drive, previously only available as an option. The 2.4 GHz MacBook models shipped with 2GB of memory standard, while the base 2.1 GHz model got 1 GB standard, expandable up to 4GB across the range.

The 15” MacBook Pro carried over the LED backlit display that had been introduced on its May, 2007 revision, but the 17” version still shipped with a conventional CCFL backlight, although an LED backlight was offered as a $100 BTO option. The MacBooks were not available with LED backlighting.

Also new was an enhanced trackpad supporting multitouch gestures.

In general, the February, 2008 MacBooks and MacBook Pros represented a solid and significant upgrade, and were mature technology that should have been thoroughly debugged. That appears to have been the case with the 13” MacBooks, but unfortunately a sour note was sounded with respect to the MacBook Pro later in the year when Apple quietly announced a new extended service program for MacBook Pro users whose machines are equipped with NVIDIA GeForce 8600M GT graphics processor units, which turned out to be prone to experiencing video anomalies such as distorted or scrambled video.

Apple noted that:

In July 2008, NVIDIA publicly acknowledged a higher than normal failure rate for some of their graphics processors due to a packaging defect. At that same time, NVIDIA assured Apple that Mac computers with these graphics processors were not affected. However, after an Apple-led investigation, Apple has determined that some MacBook Pro computers with the NVIDIA GeForce 8600M GT graphics processor may be affected. If the NVIDIA graphics processor in your MacBook Pro has failed, or fails within two years of the original date of purchase, a repair will be done free of charge, even if your MacBook Pro is out of warranty.

The Unibody MacBook And MacBook Pro

On October 14, 2008 Steve Jobs unveiled the first complete redesign of the MacBook and MacBook Pro since the original models of those machines were introduced in 2006.

The new mid and high-end MacBook and 15-inch MacBook Pro both sported a precision unibody enclosure crafted from a single block of aluminum, new NVIDIA graphics, LED-backlit displays and oversized glass Multi-Touch trackpads with almost 40 percent more tracking area and support more Multi-Touch gestures.

The new MacBook family meets Energy Star 4.0, EPEAT Gold and RoHS environmental standards thanks to elimination of toxic chemicals by containing no brominated flame retardants, using only PVC-free internal cables and components, and energy efficient LED-backlit displays that use up to 30 percent less energy, are mercury-free and made with arsenic-free glass. The displays themselves are the same size and resolution as their outgoing antecedents - 13’3” and 1280 x 800 for the MacBook, and 15.4-inch 1440 x 900 for the MacBook Pro.

The new MacBook line comes with an NVIDIA GeForce 9400M 3D integrated graphics processor featuring 16 parallel processing cores and delivering up to five times the 3D graphics performance as the Intel GMA X3100 integrated GPU in the first-generation MacBook, and which is expected to have sufficient power to run many 3D games that don’t support older integrated graphics technologies. The 15” MacBook Pro got an entirely new graphics architecture facilitating switching between the same power-saving NVIDIA GeForce 9400M integrated graphics processor used in the MacBook plus a powerful NVIDIA GeForce 9600M GT discrete graphics processor with its own dedicated 256MB or 512 MB GDDR3 video memory for higher performance when required.

Lighter and thinner than the models they replace, both the unibody machines are aesthetically arresting, with more rounded=off form factors and thinner lids with their entire inside face covered by a single glass panel and a black margin around the display, a la the aluminum iMac.

The most dramatic change was with the MacBook, which now shares the all-metal enclosure motif with the MacBook Pro, and to some degree is arguably the replacement for the 12” PowerBook that the MacBook Air wasn’t. While the new MacBook’s footprint is still larger than the baby PowerBook’s was, otherwise it compares very favorably, actually weighing in at a tenth of a pound lighter, measuring nearly a quarter inch thinner, albeit slightly deeper and substantially wider (thanks to its larger display). It’s certainly small, light, and trim enough to stop my griping about no 12” PowerBook successor, or at least it would be if it had FireWire, which Apple banefully left out.

Here are the respective spec. numbers:

13” MacBook Size And Weight
• Height: 0.95 inch (2.41 cm)
• Width: 12.78 inches (32.5 cm)
• Depth: 8.94 inches (22.7 cm)
• Weight: 4.5 pounds (2.04 kg)1

12” Aluminum PowerBook Size And Weight
• Height:1.18 inches (3.0 cm)
• Width:10.9 inches (27.7 cm)
• Depth:8.6 inches (21.9 cm)
• Weight:4.6 pounds (2.1 kg) with battery and
optical drive installed

There are still some important distinctions between MacBook and Pro - notably the unavailability of the NVIDIA GeForce 9600M GT discrete graphics accelerator with dedicated VRAM on the smaller unit, and the lack of an ExpressCard 34 slot and the FireWire port. But then, the 12” PowerBook had no PC CardBus slot and had lower-powered graphics than the larger aluminum PowerBooks did.

Gone missing from both models is the FireWire 400 port, although the MacBook Pro still has a FireWire 800 port that can support FireWire 400 via an optional adapter. The MacBook Pro has also shed its full size DVI video port, which has been displaced by a Mini DisplayPort which requires optional adapter dongles.

Processors are of the Penryn Core 2 Duo family as with the Early 2008 models. The unibody MacBook is available in two models: a 2.0 GHz machine with a 160GB 5400 rpm hard drive, and a 2.4 GHz MacBook with a 250GB 5400 rpm hard drive and a backlit keyboard. The new 15-inch MacBook Pro is available in 2.4 GHz with 3MB shared L2 cache and 2.53 GHz Core 2 Duo with 6MB shared L2 cache versions, and a 2.8 GHz CPU is a build to order option. All the new models get a 1,066 MHz front-side bus, and all come standard with 2GB 1066 MHz DDR3 SDRAM that is expandable to 4GB.

All unibody models except the 2.53 GHz MacBook Pro come with 2 GB of RAM upgradable to 4 GB, while the 2.53 GHz unit has 4 GB standard. All have 8x internal SuperDrive optical drives, built-in AirPort Extreme 802.11n wireless networking and Bluetooth 2.1+EDR, a Gigabit Ethernet port; a built-in iSight video camera; two USB 2.0 ports; one audio line in and one audio line out port, each supporting both optical digital and analog.

The 2.1 GHz White MacBook Carried Over

Also still available as a $999 price leader is the 2.1 GHz white MacBook, mildly updated with a SuperDrive now standard. The Penryn Core 2 Duo CPU features an enhanced SSE4 vector engine and 3 MB of L2 cache shared by both cores running on an 800 MHz system bus. A measly 1 GB of RAM is standard but can be expanded to 4 GB, but you still get the old Intel GMA X3100 graphics processor, although the base MacBook still has a FireWire 400 port.

Late 2008 17” MacBook Pro And MacBook Air

As for the other Late 2008 Apple notebook models, the MacBook Air received an expected, and some would contend overdue, refreshment - updated Intel Core 2 Duo CPUs with 6MB shared L2 cache, a 1066 MHz front-side bus, the NVIDIA GeForce 9400M integrated graphics; the hard drive model is bumped from a marginally-adequate 80 GB to 120 GB and the solid state drive model’s capacity is doubled from 64 GB to 128 GB. Prices remain the same at at $1,799 and $2,499, the latter with the SSD.

The big 17” MacBook Pro is held over for a few more months at the same $,2,799 price point until a new unibody model is ready and now comes with the high resolution 1920 x 1200 LED-backlit display standard and a larger 320GB hard drive or an optional 128GB solid state drive.

In summary, it’s been an exciting and tumultuous year in the Mac portable orbit. I’m not entirely happy with all the developments, but I have to concede that the new unibody machines especially are seductive.

So what can we look forward to in 2009? You can bank on at least one and perhaps two new revisions of the entire line and the introduction of unibody versions of the 17” MacBook Pro should be pretty well assured as well, perhaps including a version powered by the quad-core mobile Core CPUs Intel announced this week but I don’t expect anything as dramatic as we saw in 2008. The only exception might be if Apple decides to address the small and cheap PC laptop onslaught with something not as cheap, but still lower=priced than the base MacBook. As always, the anticipation is part of the fun.