Apple Portables, The Year In Review 2009

by Charles W. Moore

After Apple’s tour de force introduction of the unibody MacBook Pro 15 inch and 13 inch aluminum MacBook in October, 2008, -- the first major Mac notebook generation change since Intel machines debuted in 2006, I figured 2009 might be a bit of a yawner new product wise for Apple portable fans, but that’s not how it turned out.

Something that had been expected of course was the arrival of a 17 inch version of the unibody, which was unveiled by Phil Schiller pinch-hitting for the ailing Steve Jobs at Macworld, and turned out to be very much what we’d anticipated, with 4GB of standard RAM upgradable to a maximum of 8 GB (twice the spec. of the 15” MacBook Pro), 2.66 GHz and 2.93 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo 45nm technology Penryn processors running on a 1066 MHz front-side bus, both NVIDIA GeForce 9600M GT discrete graphics processor unit and NVIDIA’s GeForce 9400M integrated graphics processor for better battery life, an ExpressCard/34 expansion card slot, three USB ports, and a FireWire 800 port, and a Mini DisplayPort for video out, and in most respects the 17 inch or was a larger-screen version of the 15 inch MacBook Pro, with a glossy 1920 x 1200 resolution (a razor-sharp 133 pixels per inch) display sporting 78 percent more pixels than the 15-inch MacBook Pro’s 1440 x 900 screen. One more distinction was that the 17 inch machine was available with a matte screen coating option. What wasn’t expected was Apple moving to a MacBook Air style non– swappable built-in battery. The price point remained the same as the previous model with a base of $2,799.

Also in January, the long-in-the-tooth but still strong-selling price leader $999 white MacBook got a major refresh, with a slight clock speed downgrade from 2.1 GHz to the same 2.0 GHz Penryn Core 2 Duo CPU with 3MB on-chip shared L2 cache running 1:1 with processor speed as used in the base unibody MacBook, although the White ‘Book stuck with (less expensive) 667MHz DDR2 memory instead of the faster 1,066MHz DDR3 used in the unibodies. More importantly, the integrated graphics chipset was upgraded to NVIDIA GeForce 9400M integrated graphics with 256MB of DDR2 SDRAM shared memory that had been introduced with the 13 inch aluminum MacBook -- a substantial advance from the Intel GMA X3100 graphics chipset that had been one of that model’s weaker points. The white MacBook also got a faster 1066 MHz frontside bus (up from 800 MHz in the preceding model}, plus 2 GB RAM standard instead of the former 1 GB, all for the same $999 price point, and.... it still had a FireWire 400 port.

This refresh, which I figured would be the last for the original plastic MacBook, enhanced its value substantially, although after weighing the alternatives carefully, I personally opted to buy an aluminum unibody MacBook when I upgraded my own system last February.

In May, Apple proved my prior assumptions mistaken and refreshed the white polycarbonate MacBook yet again, this time with another speed bump to 2.13 GHz, adding 40 GB of standard hard disk capacity taking it from 120 GB to 160 GB, and also upgraded its RAM specification to 800MHz DDR2 SDRAM as opposed to the 667MHz RAM used in the preceding version. This refresh for a short time made the old price leader faster in clock speed than the more expensive base 2.0 GHz unibody MacBook, which was a clue that the unibodies were soon destined for their first revision upgrade.

That came in June, and proved to be more than just an incremental refresh. First, the 13 inch model got “promoted” to full MacBook Pro status, with 2.26 GHz and 2.54 GHz models available, an illuminated keyboard, plus the restoration of a FireWire port -- the absence of which on the original unibody MacBook had elicited a chorus of boos and disgruntlement. And with good reason, I can testify, being the owner of a FireWireless unit. For good measure, the 13 inch MacBook Pro also got a Secure Digital card slot and along with the rest of the MacBook Pro line, a built-in higher capacity battery, which some of us consider a mixed blessing at best. Another change was substitution of a single, iPod-style, audio in/out port for the earlier model’s separate digital audio ports. This amounted to a downgrade, but was required rendered necessary in order to make room for the ST card slot and the FireWire port, a reasonable trade-off.

Indeed, your humble servant considers the 13 inch MacBook Pro to be the best value for the money, and potentially overall best laptop computer Apple has ever made. Did I mention that I really like this machine?

However, not far behind on the value equation is a new, price-leader, 15 inch unibody MacBook Pro offered at a substantial $300 price drop from the previous entry-level 15 incher at $1699. This reduction was made possible by dropping the discrete NVIDIA GeForce 9600M GT discrete graphics processor unit with its 128 MB of dedicated video RAM, and relying solely on the integrated GeForce 9400M graphics chipset. Also gone is the ExpressCard expansion slot, that Apple says fewer than 10% of 15 inch MacBook Pro users actually used anyway, to be replaced by an SD Card slot. With its 2.53 meg gigahertz Core 2 Duo CPU, this model is for all intents and purposes a 15 inch screen version of the top-of-the-line 13 inch MacBook Pro. Aside from the larger screen size and $200 higher price, you could also now get a matte display screen coating with any 15 inch MacBook Pro model -- an alternative not offered for the 13 inch machine.

If you need more graphics muscle, you can still get it with the two higher - spec 15 inch MacBook Pro models at 1999 and 2299, which still sport NVIDIA GeForce 9600M GT discrete graphics processor units with 256MB GDDR3 video memory plus 2.66 GHz and 2.8 GHz CPUs, but the ExpressCard slot is no longer available on any 15 inch MacBook Pro. For that you’ll need to go with the 17 inch model. The 15 inch unit also of course gets a built-in battery.

Moving on up, the 17 inch MacBook Pro received only a minor refresh, being as it had only been released only four months earlier, the only spec. changes being a speed bump to a standard 2.8 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor, a larger capacity 500GB hard drive, and a $300 price cut to $2,499.

The long - neglected MacBook Air also finally got some attention in June, with a minor refresh consisting of an entry-level model price cut to $1,499 for the 1.86 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo system with a 120GB hard drive and NVIDIA GeForce 9400M graphics, and the 2.13 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo system with a 128GB solid state drive and NVIDIA GeForce 9400M graphics now went out the door for the previous base model’s price of $1,799.

But Apple wasn’t done with notebook introductions for 2009 yet. In October, a year after the debut of the aluminum unibody’s, the plastic MacBook but it’s own first total redesign. Apple also calls it a “unibody”, although that’s more than a bit of a stretch. The monocoque plastic case and chassis is now molded as a single unit, but depends on a stamped aluminum, rubbery material coated, bottom cover panel to add stiffness and rigidity, which is something quite different from being laser - carved from a solid billet of aluminum as the Pro models are.

Still, it’s a more robust and IMHO better - looking package than the previous plastic MacBook, whose design essentially dated back to the dual USB iBook of May, 2001.

The new MacBook likewise gets a non–swappable built-in battery, but alas loses its predecessor’s FireWire port, and has no SD Card slot either, rendering it a mediocre performer in the conductivity and expandability department. The price point remains at $999, and reviews have been positive, other than complaints about the FireWire omission.

So, as we draw down the curtain on 2009, we can look back on another banner year in the Apple portable orbit despite the recession. Notebooks now represent some 70% to three quarters of Apple systems sold, although during the last quarter the new iMacs have been the hottest - selling Mac model, and with good reason, what with the availability of Intel i5 and i7 CPUs making them also the fastest Macs ever made, and the 27 inch model in particular representing an incredible value for the money.

However, look for the notebooks to regain momentum in 2010. Next week we’ll take a speculative look at what’s likely to materialize as we enter the 11th decade of the new millennium in Mac portables.