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Should Apple Build A 15-inch MacBook?

by Charles W. Moore

The next addition to Apple’s portable family should without question be a subcompact MacBook Pro. I’m sure Apple is losing sales to users who liked the 12-inch PowerBook, but find the 13-inch MacBook too big and heavy, and/or too compromised with its GMA 950 “vampire video” graphics support. These folks have a number of attractive alternatives on the Windows PC side. An interesting new one is the new ASUS U1F Subnotebook that I profiled here last week, which comes with a lacquered “piano finish” and real hide leather palm rests, and weighs a barely there 2.2 pounds. For more information, visit:

However, once the subnotebook void has been filled with a new baby MacBook Pro, the last element still missing from the market spectrum that Apple had covered during the aluminum PowerBook/dual USB iBook era is a standard-sized consumer notebook - a replacement for the erstwhile 14-inch iBook.

I am obliged to concede that I was not a big fan of the iBook 14-incher, which really didn’t offer much over its 12-inch stablemate other than the larger display size, which I considered a mixed blessing. With the same 1024 x 768 resolution as the 12-inch model, it made for a grainier, less sharp and crisp presentation of the same information offered by the smaller unit’s display. Strictly speaking, the 14-inch model was usually offered with a slightly higher clock speed than the contemporaneous 12-inch iBook, and you could also get a SuperDrive optical drives on later versions, which was never offered on the 12 incher, probably for fear of cannibalizing sales of the 12-inch PowerBook. However, in general, my personal preference was always for the 12-inch iBook over its physically larger sibling..

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The 14” iBook was unveiled at Macworld Expo in January, 2002, with surprisingly little fanfare, powered by a 600 MHz G3 processor with 256k of on board cache. Some commentators heralded it has the “Son of Pismo,” referring to the much-beloved last iteration of the G3 Series PowerBook. That assessment had some justification, given the rough performance parity between the two machines (the Pismo had a 500 MHz G3 processor with one megabyte of level 2 cache, which pretty much canceled the iBook’s 20 percent faster clock speed and more powerful video support, but smaller cache), and the same screen size and resolution. However, the iBook, nice computer that it was, never really lived up to the “Son of Pismo” billing, with its lower-quality keyboard and lack of a removable-device expansion bay and PC card slot expandability.

Those shortcomings notwithstanding, the 14-inch iBook was a respectable seller over its long production run in 600 MHz, 700 MHz, 800 MHz, and 900 MHz G3 versions, and 933 MHz, 1 GHz, 1.33 GHz, and 1.42 GHz G4 models, the last of the line being particularly well-equipped with PowerBook style USB 2, Bluetooth, Airport Extreme, a scrolling trackpad, and sudden motion sensor. Almost a PowerBook, but just a bit short of the mark.

In May, 2006, both the 12-inch and 14-inch iBooks, as well as the 12-inch PowerBook (which had shared a lot of the dual-USB iBook engineering and was built by the same subcontractor) were discontinued at the introduction of the brand new, Intel-powered MacBook computer.

It appeared that Apple figured it could cover all the bases with a 13 inch, 1280 x 800 resolution display and form factor, at least initially. The original 14-inch iBook was introduced seven months after the 12-incher, but that interval has now past since the MacBook intro, and until last week I hadn’t heard of any really serious rumors of a 15-inch MacBook in the works, although I’ve been hearing from readers who fought that such a machine would be a good idea.

One reader said he would definitely go for a 14 or 15 inch MacBook. “I find 13.3 inches to be too small,” he noted. “I want a decent replacement for my Pismo which just gave up the ghost.

A couple of weeks ago, my fellow-columnist at Low End Mac, Adam Robert Guha, announced that he will probably replace his 12” PowerBook with a Lenovo ThinkPad T60. Adam has owned a clamshell iBook, a PowerBook G3 Lombard, a 400 MHz Titanium PowerBook G4, and the LittleAl PowerBook, so he knows Apple laptops well. Why would he consider switching to a Windows PC?

As Adam explains it, “Apple just doesn’t offer what I need right now.” In short, Adam likes the MacBook and believes its polycarbonate case would be rugged enough, but says the 1280 x 800 display resolution is not enough for his needs and he doesn’t like glossy screens, and while the 15” or 17” MacBook Pros offer enough resolution and are available with matte displays, his experience with owning two metal-skinned PowerBooks has convinced him that they are not sufficiently rugged for the sort of use he subjects his notebooks to: “I’m not particularly thrilled at repeating the whole metal-casing ‘looks great when new’ ordeal that I went through with my TiBook and my 12” PowerBook.”

Adam’s prescription is “more rugged version of the MacBook Pro with a more rugged case, perhaps similar to that of the black MacBook, but able to accommodate more RAM (2 GB isn’t enough) and with better access to the hard drive than the MacBook Pro has in case something should happen. “Think of it as a 15.4” MacBook,” said Adam.

Perhaps Adam should hold off on the ThinkPad purchase for a bit, because it seems Apple may finally be working on a MacBook in that size category. Last week, the Taiwanese IT news Website Digitimes reported:

“Apple is planning to introduce 15.4-inch MacBooks in the second quarter of 2007, according to industry sources in Taiwan. The new model will fill the gap between the company’s 13.3-inch MacBooks and the 15.4- and 17-inch MacBook Pros that form its current notebook line up....”

“Currently, 13.3-inch MacBooks are manufactured by Asustek Computer, while the new 15.4-inch model will be made by Quanta Computer, which also manufactures the 15.4- and 17-inch MacBook Pros for Apple....

Prices for the 15.4-inch MacBook models are likely to be more competitive than their 13.3-inch counterparts, due largely to the relatively lower cost of 15.4-inch LCD panels...

That could be exciting news for 14” 14" iBook and Pismo or Lombard PowerBook owners looking to join the MacIntel experience in a "relaxed-fit" machine, but a cautionary note is in order. DigiTimes is an often very interesting source of intelligence about developments, trends and going-on with Apple’s Far East product subcontractors, but their usually unnamed “sources” have been spectacularly wrong in the past, such as when they predicted back in ‘05 that a G5 iBook/ PowerBook release was imminent.

So take this rumor with a big grain of salt. If Apple really does have a 15” MacBook in the works, that will be great. I think they will sell a bunch (but they still need to address the subnotebook issue first).

However, while there is some cause for optimism, it wouldn’t pay to be holding your breath. Intel’s Santa Rosa notebook CPU with its “Robson” NAND cache technology is due for release in the near future, and one would anticipate that Apple will want to use it in a MacBook Pro before releasing it in a consumer model. Introduction of a Santa Rosa-powered subnotebook MacBook Pro would kill two birds with one stone, but Santa Rosa may be a bit too hot for cramming into a tiny-footprint, lightweight form factor.

Still more questions than answers. As usual, we’ll have to wait and see.


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