Apple Portable Computing 2012 – A Tumultuous Year In Review – The ‘Book Mystique

As we enter the festive season finale to 2012, The last two ‘Book Mystique columns of 2012 will look respectively at the year in review from an Apple portable computing perspective, then peer speculatively ahead at what may be coming in 2013.

It’s been an extraordinarily tumultuous year both on the MacBook and the iPad fronts, from a historical perspective on par with other banner years — 1995 (PowerPC, 1997 (G3), 1999 (iBook, New World ROM), 2001 (metal enclosures, dual-USB iBook), and 2006 (MacIntel) 2008 (MacBook Air) and 2010 (iPad, Gen-2 MacBook Air) for game-changing Apple portable computer innovation.

First up was the third-generation iPad announced on March 7, by Apple CEO Tim Cook at an Apple special event held at the the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco. The first new iPad model not to be introduced by the late Steve Jobs didn’t look radically different from 2011’s iPad 2 (which has remained in production in a 16 GB WiFi configuration only) but was powered by a new dual core A5X processor with quad-core graphics, and a 2,048 x 1,536 pixel resolution Retina Display which puts 50 percent more pixels on the screen than does a standard 1,920 x 1,080 high definition TV screen. The model array remained the same as with iPad 2, with Wi-Fi only and Wi-Fi + 3G Cellular models in 16GB, 32GB, and 64GB memory capacities. Price points also remained the same as for the outgoing iPad 2 lineup starting at $499, with the holdover iPad 2 reduced to $399.

The 3rd-gen iPad’s 2,048 x 1,536 Retina display was generally well-received, although some issues consequent to it weren’t so much. The iPad 3 is heavier, thicker, and runs hotter than the iPad 2. Its nearly 50 percent larger capacity battery naturally takes longer to charge. There was essentially no increase in computing function performance as the 45nm process A5X processor is the same as the A5 chip used in the iPad 2, but with a quad-core instead of a dual-core graphics engine, and the Retina display’s video demand pretty much cancels out any extra speed from that. Many of us upgrade systems seldom enough that We like to realize a substantial performance gain when we do, and unless one is enthralled with the screen resolution, the third-generation iPad didn’t deliver that.

The biggest news of 2012 for Apple laptop fans came with a major slate of announcements at the Worldwide Developer’s Conference (WWDC) in San Francisco on June 11. Apple released another tranche of upgrades for the existing unibody MacBook Pro 15-inch and 13-inch models, and discontinued the 17-inch MBP, replacing it with a new 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display. The MacBook Air models also received major upgrades, and the price of the 13-inch Air was dropped to match the 13-inch MacBook Pro at $1,199. All the new MacBooks received Intel’s latest generation Ivy Bridge Intel Core i5 and i7 processors, running at a range of clockspeeds in either dual-core or quad-core configurations. All models now came with at least 4 GB of RAM (not upgradable on the MBA and the Retina MacBook Pro after manufacture). All of Apple’s laptop models also finally got USB 3 ports (with USB 2 backward compatibility), and a new Magsafe 2 charging port

The new MacBook Pro range debuted with just one model — a 15-inch “new MacBook Pro” featuring a 15.4-inch, 2880-by-1800 resolution Retina display, all flash storage, and quad-core processors, in a radically thin and light design that Apple called “The very best computer we’ve ever built.”

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, and claimed to be the world’s highest-resolution notebook display with over 5 million pixels — 3 million more than an HD television. 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).

The new MacBook Pro is Powered by Intel Core i7 Ivy Bridge quad-core processors up to 2.7 GHz with Turbo Boost up to 3.7 GHz, NVIDIA GeForce GT 650M discrete graphics with 1GB of dedicated GDDR5 video RAM, up to 16GB of 1600 MHz RAM and flash SSD storage up to 768GB, and a new thinner MagSafe 2 power adapter connector. The new MacBook Pro also features two Thunderbolt and two USB 3.0 ports plus an HDMI port, and a base price of $2,199 with 8GB of RAM and a 256GB SSD. Gone were the old-school Pro’s internal optical drive and dedicated Ethernet and FireWire ports, although both protocols can still be supported via optional Thunderbolt to Gigabit Ethernet and Thunderbolt to FireWire adapters.

Vital statistics are:
Height – 0.71 inch (1.8 cm)
Width – 14.13 inches (35.89 cm)
Depth – 9.73 inches (24.71 cm)
Weight – 4.46 pounds (2.02 kg)

Will it really be the best computer Apple ever made? Judgment will have to be withheld on that for a while. Computer hardware teardown specialists iFixIt weren’t impressed, giving the 15-inch rMBP a miserable Repairability Score of 1 out of 10. However the rMBP points to where Apple sees the future of laptop computers going. I anticipate that the older model 13-inch and 15-inch Pros will be phased out in 2013 once the full new model lineup is established. Meanwhile, the 17-inch MacBook Pro was abruptly terminated with the introduction of the 15-inch rMBP.

However, Apple also sensibly opted to keep the late 2008 aluminum unibody form factor and still bestselling 13-inch and 15-inch MacBook Pros in production for now, suitably tweaked with the latest Intel Ivy Bridge Core i CPUs, Intel HD Graphics 4000 IGPUs for both sizes, and NVIDIA GeForce GT 650M discrete GPUs for the 15-incher, USB 3 and Thunderbolt I/O ports, standard 4GB of memory and 500GB hard drive upgradable to 8GB of memory and 750GB hard drive for $300 more for the 13-inch model, and standard 8GB of RAM and hard drive capacity up to 1TB for the 15″ MacBook Pro. Despite the substantial value added, Apple maintained these machines price points, starting with the base 13-incher at $1,199. Also unchanged were screen resolutions, at 1280 x 800 for the 13-inch and the 15-inch model at 1440 x 900. Configure-to-order options include faster quad-core processors up to 2.7 GHz, additional hard drive capacity up to 1TB, up to 8GB of memory and solid state storage up to 512GB.

The mid-2012 13-inch MacBook Pro features the Intel Core i5 or Core i7 Ivy Bridge dual-core processors up to 2.9 GHz with Turbo Boost speeds up to 3.6 GHz. The mid-2012 15-inch MacBook Pro features Core i7 quad-core processors up to 2.7 GHz with Turbo Boost speeds up to 3.7 GHz and NVIDIA GeForce GT 650M discrete graphics. Both the 13-inch and 15-inch MacBook Pro can be configured with a 1TB hard drive or SSDs up to 512GB that Apple says are up to twice as fast as the previous generation.

The MacBook Air also got a refresh, with the 11-inch model upgraded to a a 1.7 GHz processor and 4GB of memory, and the 13-incher speed-bumped to a 1.8 GHz processor and 4GB of memory with configure-to-order availability of a 2.0 GHz Intel Core i7 processor, up to 8GB of 1600 MHz DDR3 onboard memory and up to 512GB flash storage. Configure-to-order options include a 2.0 GHz Intel Core i7 processor, up to 8GB of 1600 MHz DDR3 onboard memory and up to 512GB flash storage. The 13-inch Air’s base price with a 128 GB SSD was also lowered to $1,199 — parity with the 13″ MacBook Pro. THe 11-inch Air with 64 GB of storage stayed at $999.

Also released at the WWDC OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion and iOS 6.

The year’s second wave of major Apple portable product announcements came on October 23, 2012, with the unveiling of the widely-rumored 13-inch version of the third-generation MacBook Pro with Retina display. Much is riding on the success of this machine, since the 13-inch unibody MacBook Pro that it presumably eventually replace rather than supplement as it will for the present, is not only the best-selling MacBook model, it’s the best-selling Mac system overall. You don’t want to mess lightly with that sort of success.

Apple’s senior vice president of Worldwide Marketing Phil Schiller commented inan interview with the New York Times’ Harry McCracken that Apple is not going to let what they consider outmoded technologies like rotating hard disks and optical drives, “hold them back”, noting: “They’re anchors on where we want to go.” That’s a pretty strong hint that the future for the non-Retina MacBook Pros is likely a short one.

Whether Apple laptop fans will embrace a machine only offered with low to modest capacity SSD storage memory, hard-soldered non-upgradable RAM, and fewer physical connectivity options the way they have the 13-inch unibody remains to be seen.

Actually, its likely that the 13-inch MacBook Air , now offered at the same price as the non-Retina MacBook Pro, is being positioned to take over as the volume-seller 13-inch Mac laptop, with the Retina machine remaining the up-market option.

An interesting factoid is that the 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro is actually smaller than the 13-inch MacBook Air, with a 12.35 inches wide x is 8.62 inches deep x 0.75 inch thick form factor. By comparison, the Air is 12.8 inches wide, 8.94 inches deep, and 0.68 inch thick — still thinner than the Retina, but definitely with a smaller footprint.

As for that marquee Retina display, as Phil Schiller noted during the Oct. 23 special event announcement, it completely changes what you expect from a notebook, which os true enough, but not entirely in a good way. The 13-inch rMBP packs more than 4 million pixels into its display, at a pixel density of 227 pixels per inch, and features IPS technology for a 178-degree wide viewing angle, with 75 percent less reflection and 28 percent higher contrast than the non-Retina 13-inch MBP.

The 13-inch rMBP is available powered by either a standard 2.5 GHz Intel Core i5 processor or an optional, 2.9 GHz Core i7, with an integrated Intel HD Graphics 4000 graphics processor, 8GB of non-upgradable 1600 MHz RAM, and up to 768GB of flash storage. There are two-each Thunderbolt and USB 3.0 ports, an HDMI port for quick connectivity to HDTVs, a FaceTime HD camera, dual microphones, improved speakers, three-stream 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0, and a MagSafe 2 power port. Things you don’t get include FireWire and Ethernet ports, an SD Card slot, and an optical drive.

The 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display is not inexpensive starting at $1,699 with the 2.5 GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 processor with Turbo Boost speeds up to 3.1 GHz, 8GB of memory and 128GB of flash storage. Ordering the 13-inch rMBP with an upgrade to 256GB of flash storage takes you to $1,999.

The 13-inch rMBP did fare slightly better in iFixit’s teardown analysis, garnering a Repairability Score of 2 out of 10 as opposed to the 15-incher’s 1 out of 10. But whether we like the MacBook Pros with Retina display or not, they represent the future of Apple laptops.

However, the 13-inch rMBP wasn’t the only major Apple portable announcement on October 23. The also widely rumored and anticipated 7.85-inch iPad mini also made its debut appearance.

In a nutshell, the iPad essentially packs the performance and feature set of the iPad 2 into a smaller form factor, and sells for 70 dollars less, although at $329 still more costly than many had been hoping. It’s powered by the same A5 32nm system-on-chip that’s been used in the iPad 2 since last winter, and has the same 1064 x 768 display resolution. It does have a much better, five megapixel rear-facing camera than the iPad 2’s mediocre two megapixel unit — the same 5-megapixel iSight camera as the iPad third and fourth generation, with an ƒ/2.4 aperture and a five-element lens, autofocus, tap to focus, tap to set exposure functions, a backside illumination sensor that optimizes display-as-viewfinder performance across the ambient light spectrum from sunlight to candlelight, built-in face detection that automatically balances focus and exposure across up to 10 faces, and shoots full 1080p HD video.

The mini also gets the new Lightning dock connector that was introduced with the iPhone 5 in September.

Compared with the full-sized iPad, the iPad mini is 23 percent thinner, 53 percent lighter, and like its seven-inch competitors, it fits in one hand comfortably.

What hadn’t been widely predicted was the announcement of a fourth-generation 9.7-inch iPad version upgrade along with the mini. Most speculation predicted only a switch to the new Lightning dock connector and perhaps some minor specification tweaking.

The big news was the new A6X chip, the “X” signifying a dual-core, 1.4GHz A6X processor chip with quad-core graphics enhanced version of the Apple-designed A6 SoC that was introduced on the iPhone 5, amounting to a substantial 40 percent power increase over the 3rd-gen iPad’s A5X silicon at 1GHz, and according to Apple doubling both CPU task performance and graphics performance over the 45nm A5X SoC in the 3rd-gen iPad, plus delivering a claimed two times faster Wi-Fi, and still offering the same battery life as the 3rd-gen unit.

The gen-4 iPad’s Retina display features the same 2048-by-1536 resolution and 3.1 million pixels, which is four times the number of pixels in an iPad 2 display and a million more than an HDTV.

The iPad 4th-gen’s 5-megapixel front-facing iSight camera with ƒ/2.4 aperture five-element lens has been updated from VGA to HD allowing you to take high quality self-portraits, record 720p HD video, and a hybrid infrared filter screens out harmful IR light for more accurate, uniform colors. The cameras also feature a backside illumination sensor. The new machine sports dual-band (2.4GHz and 5GHz) 802.11n Wi-Fi and support for channel bonding, and download speeds of up to 150 Mbps, plus next-generation LTE cellular connectivity. Apple is aggressively pitching the 4th-generation iPad as an enterprise platform.

That’s a wrap on what has been a good year for Apple portable computing fans. Next week, the last ‘Book Mystique of the year will take a speculative look ahead at what we might expect — or at least hope for — in 2013.

Merry Christmas!

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