Apple MacBook Pro Preview and a Value Proposition for Buying It

by Reads (189,149)

by Perry Longinotti, Alberta Canada

Introduction

Apple’s announcement of the Intel-based MacBook Pro at last week’s Macworld Expo surprised many pundits. Popular wisdom (if you can call it that) on the Apple rumor sites was that the lower-priced iBook line would be the first to benefit from  the platform shift. Now that the cat is out of the bag, we can start to speculate on how the new Apple notebook will stack up. For credible websites that like to base product ratings based on empirical data, it is soon going to be possible to directly compare the performance between Apple and Windows notebooks on a hardware level – apples to apples if you will.

Already, there have been a few attempts at making the comparison. In my opinion the ones that I have read were laughably over-simplified. As a user that embraces both platforms, I am hoping that we can keep the discussion objective.

An LG LM70 PC notebook reviewed by this author alongside his Apple PowerBook — proof positive on dual platform experience! (view larger image)

While NotebookReview waits for shipping hardware, we thought we would do a comparison between the MacBook and similar Windows notebooks to get a sense of the value proposition. This is more of an intellectual exercise right now, but it might help a few people decide whether they want to be a MacBook early adopter. 

The PowerBook was a powerful brand, so it is a little bit surprising that Apple would abandon it. The shift from ‘Power’ to ‘Mac’ might be seen across the board as Apple works harder to differentiate their products from those of Dell, HP, Lenovo, Toshiba and others. Even Apples can run Windows natively (as soon as Vista ships) but only Apples can run the MacOS so it makes to underline this distinction in the naming conventions.

I am not a product manager at Apple, but I will try to articulate their target audience for the MacBook. It does not appear that Apple is shifting its focus, they are clearly targeting this notebook at the same crowd the PowerBook was designed for: mobile professionals.

Simply comparing the MacBook to the least expensive Core Duo notebook on the market is an oversimplification. We have been, and will continue to be, subjected to crude attempts to compare Apple to Windows notebooks. Consider the agenda of the writer and background. Me? I just like cool gear and I don’t care who makes it — I will let my work speak for itself (including articles criticizing Apple quality). Neither Apple nor Microsoft has even paid me any money and I am not loyal to either one.

Construction

The MacBook looks as though it will follow in the footsteps of the 15″ PowerBook — and few people will argue that the PowerBook is not a premium product.

Why spend more money? Well, I am not trying to sell you one and I really do not want to spend a lot of text on the question: Some lessons have to be learned the hard way. For anyone that travels a lot or who relies on their notebook to earn a livelihood, the difference between a starter notebook and a premium workhorse is obvious.

Apple MacBook Pro

Apple MacBook Pro (view larger image)

Durability is crucial and this extends beyond providing just a strong frame. Durability encompasses the choice of components. Cutting corners on some of the supporting hardware that goes into a PC might be acceptable on entry-level computers, but it can be extremely costly on a business machine. Imagine be on the road, away from support, and missing out on a time sensitive opportunity because of hardware problems — all because you decide to save a couple of hundred dollars

This durability cannot come with a weight penalty. Inexpensive notebooks are usually made out of inferior materials. You need a lot more of these materials to create a product that will last at least a year (or until the warranty lapses) and this makes them heavy.

A durable lightweight PC is not cheap to assemble so it obviously isn’t cheap to sell. If durability and portability matter to you than you are probably willing to pay a little more for it. If these characteristics mean nothing to you that is fine — you have tons of choices and none of them will be an Apple.

Apple MacBook Pro (view larger image)

Apple learned a lot from sexy but flimsy and creaky Titanium PowerBook (I say this as someone that has owned two). For the last few years Apple has pioneered the use of solid materials and the MacBook Pro looks like it will use the same thick aluminum shell that made the final PowerBook so satisfyingly solid. If you have ever taken one apart, you know that Apple’s notebooks have an exoskeleton-like shell whereas most Windows notebooks rely on an internal skeleton or chassis. I really like Apple’s approach.

MacBook Pro Hardware Overview

So, let me dust off my old Product Manager’s hat and get to what really excites me about the MacBook (and any notebook for that matter): the hardware and the innovations.

Processor and Chipset

Intel’s new CPU is at the core of the MacBook (pun intended). From a purely technical standpoint, the MacBook’s Intel Core Duo CPU is a really exciting new product. It takes Intel’s best product (the Pentium M) and literally improves it by a factor of two. The Core Duo uses two Pentium M CPU cores each with its own 1 MB of cache. This is accomplished by shrinking everything down to a 65 nanometer die process.

On a clock for clock basis the Core Duo compares very well with the AMD Athlon64/Turion. That is a good thing because even the fastest Pentium 4 processors were poor substitutes for mid-range Athlon64 processors while consuming significantly more power and generating much more heat.

Intel (and by extension the PC CPU industry that they lead) is shifting its focus from raw speed to a more complex speed per watt ratio. In other words, it is more important now to get the most possible speed with the least amount of power used and heat generated. Expect to see less emphasis on GHz in favor of overall system performance.

Finding a Windows notebook that matches the MacBook Pro will be pretty easy, even though Apple is not using Intel’s CPU naming convention. Choices will be 1.67 or 1.83 GHz depending on spec level. Faster Duos are available but my suspicion is that Apple chose to keep their new notebooks as cool and quiet as possible and passed over the 2.0 GHz Duo for that reason.

Apple has chosen to outfit the MacBook Pro with the next generation of BIOS which is called Extensible Firmware Interface (EFI) and this may make it tricky to get current generation Windows XP running on Apple hardware because of how new it is. Microsoft’s Vista operating system comes out in the next year and it supports EFI. Soon you will be able to dual boot your MacBook between MacOS and Vista. There is already some speculation that XP might work on the new Macs. It will be simple enough to test as soon as MacBooks ship, but even if it is not officially supported I am sure that the hacking community will come up with something.

The chipset used in the MacBook Pro is not disclosed, but the general specifications of the notebook strongly suggest that Apple is using Intel’s new 945PM (Napa) platform/chipset with discrete video. All the hallmarks are there: 667 MHz front side bus, Serial ATA storage interface, and PCI Express for video.

Last year’s Centrino features are present as well. WiFi (either 802.11b/g or 802.11a/b/g), USB 2.0 and ExpressCard34 are all standard features of the Intel package. The MacBook’s Bluetooth and Firewire are likely powered by chips from vendors other than Intel (probably the same suppliers as before). Despite the different underpinnings I expect that Apple’s Airport Express and Bluetooth will work on the MacBook Pro exactly as they did on the PowerBook line. Although it is probably there (as part of Intel’s 3945 network chip), I have not seen any official mention of 802.11a on Apple’s spec sheets.

Memory (RAM)

Apple is continuing their policy of offering less RAM in their standard spec than comparable PCs. With 512 MB of 667MHz DDR2 the MacBook Pro has half as much RAM as a typical Windows notebook. I have noticed that the RAM is faster though — looking at various notebook configurations from other vendors I saw 533 MHz DDR2. In order to benefit form this new type of memory it is important to have it operate as fast as possible. Some flavors of DDR2 (such as the 400 and 533 MHz versions popular on value systems) are actually slower than first generation DDR.

For DIY up-graders that would want to add their own memory, keep in mind that Intel’s platform has dual-channel memory. Apple leaves you with an empty ram slot on the MacBook Pro. When you upgrade your RAM and populate both slots (and you should on the standard model) an additional benefit is the increased memory bandwidth of dual channel.

Graphics and Video Capabilities

ATI’s RADEON Mobility X1600 handles the video work. This is an interesting part that is targeted at the thin and light notebook segment. I have not seen it on many Windows notebooks yet. I expect that it will supersede the X700 in ATI’s mobility lineup with slightly better performance (10-20%) and a few new features. This will mean that it offers very good performance for people unwilling to use a desktop replacement notebook. When comparisons are made between notebooks it is often the video component that gets over-looked.

At roughly 2x the performance of a RADEON Mobility 9600, 9700, X600 or NVIDIA GeForce FX 5600 and 5700 the X1600 is a fast video chip. It is about 4x times as fast as a RADEON 9000, 9100, 9200 series or GeForce FX 5200 or 6200 series. It really is not fair to compare the MacBook Pro to a Windows PC with the above components or lower. Again, if the occasional game with  the visual details turned-up relatively high does not appeal to you then you probably do not need this feature.

Speaking of games, the ability to dual boot and the inclusion of the ATI X1600 means that the MacBook Pro will be a nice notebook for playing games — and that includes all Windows games. Playing a game of Civilization 4 or Guild Wars at native resolution and maximum visual settings on a notebook is pretty cool. How it will compare to PC notebooks with the same or similar video subsystem will depend on the clock speeds that Apple specified for the graphics processing unit and the RAM.

The other possible (and more probable) use for this notebook is video playback and encoding. The MacBook’s X1600 video chip supports ATI’s AVIVO technology. In addition to accelerating High Definition (HD) video decoding for smoother playback, AVIVO also accelerates encoding or trans-coding of video content. This feature was recently rolled out in the latest ATI driver package for Windows and hopefully it will be a shipping feature on the MacBook Pro. As more and more content is available in HD format the inclusion of the chip will be become fully appreciated.

You can attach an external monitor using the MacBook’s DVI port and included DVI to VGA adapter but you can not attach it to a television because the S-Video port has been omitted. Perhaps Apple will release a DVI to component video adapter (or even HDMI).

Hard Drive & Storage

Storage is pretty straightforward on the MacBook. You get a ‘Superdrive’ DVD burner and a Serial ATA (SATA) Hard Drive. The largest drives available today are 120 GB and 100 GB is becoming standard. Apple has selected drives at 5400 rpm as standard and 7200 rpm available as an option.

Audio

Intel’s platform includes HD audio (Azalia) and it remains to be seen how Apple will implement this. Optical in/out on the MacBook suggests that Apple’s Core Audio will finally have some decent hardware to output to. I am really curious to see if there is a Realtek, CMI or ADI codec chip in the MacBook.

Battery and Power

Battery life measurements for the MacBook Pro will be very interesting. Apple really squeezed everything they could from their previous architecture and they showed a really good understanding of how to get the most battery life from it. On the Intel platform they have a lot less experience. Sure, the hardware is the same as what you will find in a Windows notebook, and everything else being equal the Apple should have similar battery run-down times. But a lot of the advanced power saving features of Intel’s platform are implemented in the software driver. This includes Speed Step for CPU throttling but also Intel’s wireless drivers and ATI’s Power Play feature.

The other power related item that I am interested in is what the MacBook Pro’s power brick will look like. Apple has made some truly elegant power adapters in the past. They have been small and easy to store. I am really hoping that they continue this as it makes traveling with a notebook much easier. At 85 Watts, I expect the MacBook’s new power brick to be bigger than the previous PowerBook’s 65 Watt unit.

Innovations

A common way that people wreck their notebooks is by tripping over the power cord and brick. This usually results in one of two things (unless you are lucky): the power plug on the notebook snaps or is damaged, or the notebook tumbles and unspeakable things happen to the screen or case. Surprisingly no one has attempted to solve this problem — maybe they prefer to sell you a new machine.

Apple has devised a  solution called MagSafe. This is a magnetic power attachment designed to break a connection if the cord trips you up. Before any serious damage results from these common accidents the cord will break its connection to the notebook. If it works, this will be another nice innovation from Apple.

The other nice feature, that has not been copied by Windows notebook makers as much as it should have, is the back lit keyboard. On dark flights or low light conditions it makes navigating the keyboard much easier. This really benefits a ‘hunt and peck’ typist like me.

Software

Another area that gets overlooked when people compare Apple computers to Windows computers is the software that comes bundled. It may be that because the video and photo applications bundled with Windows are so poor that it is hard for people who have not tried them to know just how good Apple’s applications are. They are ‘free’ after all.

Well actually they are not free, but they are included with new Mac. Starting with iLife 06, Apple provides their customers with a suite of consumer video, photo, audio and DVD authoring software that is as good (and mostly better) than anything you can buy to run on Windows. iLife consists of iPhoto, iMovie, iDVD, GarageBand and iWeb. The first three are comparable to Adobe’s consumer suite of Photoshop and Premiere Elements. You really need to factor this into the equation. Maybe we are playing into Apple’s favor a bit by doing this.

Apple’s Mac Operating system is another wild card. In terms of features, it is closer to the unreleased Microsoft Vista OS. It offers several quantifiable benefits to Windows XP  particularly relating to security, but this is an old argument and one that I don’t want to re-visit. What concerns us here is what version of Windows to compare it to.

The inclusion of Apple’s front row, and the matching remote control, is puzzling. Does this mean mean that we should compare the MacBook to Windows notebooks using Windows Media Center Edition (MCE)? I don’t think so. Apple has not devised anything approaching MCE’s excellent TV feature integration for Front Row yet. Also, the MacBook lacks a TV output. The remote would make a cool device for controlling PowerPoint or Keynote presentations. Until Apple fleshes Front Row out a bit more I really don’t know what to make of it and its matching remote. I think bundling iWork 06 might have been a better choice.

Comparison of Apple MacBook Pro to PC Core Duo Notebooks

We went out to the websites of several manufacturers that have announced Core Duo notebooks. We checked quite a few sites but many did not have pricing or full specification listed yet. It looks like we can expect to see shipping product first thing in February.

Gateway, Dell and Acer have detailed specs, configurators and pricing for Core Duo notebooks we sampled from those vendors. HP, Lenovo and Sony have models listed but we could not configure and price out systems to match the ones below. Toshiba and Fujitsu do not have any Core Duo units listed on their sites yet.

Specs Comparison Table of Apple MacBook Pro to Core Duo PC Laptops (bold = best):

Hardware

MacBook Pro

MacBook Pro

MacBook Pro

Gateway S-7510Nb

Dell Inspriron 9400

 Acer 8204 WLMi

Price

$1,999.00

$2,499.00

$1,744.00

$1,999.00

$2,299.00

CPU

Intel Core Duo

Intel Core Duo

Intel Core Duo

Intel Core Duo

Intel Core Duo

CPU Speed

1.67 GHz

1.83 GHz

1.67 GHz

1.83 GHz

2.0 GHz

RAM

1x 512

1 x 1024

1x 512

2x 512

2 x 1024

RAM Speed

667 MHz

667 MHz

533 MHz

667 MHz

667 Mhz

HDD

80 GB

100 GB

80 GB

80 GB

120 GB

HDD Speed

5400 RPM

5400 RPM

5400 RPM

5400 RPM

5400 RPM

Video

ATI X1600

ATI X1600

ATI X1400SE

NVIDIA GeForce Go 7800

ATI X1600

Video RAM

128 MB

256 MB

128 MB

256 MB

256 MB (512 with Hyper Mem)

Video Out

DVI/VGA

DVI/VGA

VGA/SVid

 

DVI/VGA/SVid

Screen

15.4″ 1440*900

15.4″ 1440*900

15.4″ 1400*1050

17″ 1440*900

15.4″ 1600*1050

Networking

Gigabit Ethernet

Gigabit Ethernet

Gigabit Ethernet

Gigabit Ethernet

Gigabit Ethernet

Bluetooth

Yes (2.0)

Yes (2.0)

Yes (1.1)

Yes (2.0)

Yes (2.0)

WiFi

802.11G

802.11G

802.11A/G

802.11A/G

802.11A/G

Modem

49

49

56k included

56k included

56k included

Optical Drive

(DVD RW/CD-RW)

(DVD RW/CD-RW)

(DVD RW/CD-RW)

(DVD RW/CD-RW)

(DVD RW/CD-RW)

Card Reader

NA

NA

6 in 1

 

5 in 1

Firewire

400

400

400

NA

400

Weight

5.6 pounds

5.6 pounds

6.3 pounds

7.9 pounds

6.6 pounds

Battery

60 Watt Hour

60 Watt Hour

6 cell

6-cell, 54 Watt Hour

9-cell battery

Innovations

MagSafe, Back Lit Keyboard, iSight, Remote, Aluminum Construction

MagSafe, Back Lit Keyboard, iSight, Remote, Aluminum Construction

 

  QuickCharge, OrbiCam, BlueTooth VOIP phone, Carbon Fiber Lid

Software

Operating System

MacOS 10.4

MacOS 10.4

XP Pro

XP Pro

XP Pro

Applications

iLife 06

iLife 06

Adobe Elements 4/2 ($149)

Adobe Elements 4/2 ($149)

Adobe Elements 4/2 ($149)

Antivirus

NA

NA

MacAffee 15 months ($79)

MacAffee 15 months ($79)

MacAffee 15 months ($79)

Total

$2,048.00

$2,548.00

$1,972.00

$2,496.00

$2,527.00

Prices as of Jan 14, 2006

Gateway’s S-7510 model was very close to the basic MacBook Pro spec, but the omission of a strong video chip was disappointing. Some people might argue that the Gateway’s X1400SE is good enough, but have a look at any notebook forum and see how many people turn to video system over-clocking and hacked drivers to squeeze out just a bit more performance from their computers. Any standard-sized notebook at $1500 or more should have a RADEON X700 or Nvidia GeForce Go 6600 at minimum. The X1400SE with 4 pixel shaders and 2 vertex shaders is only about 30% as powerful as the X1600 (12 pixel/5 vertex). For the small difference in price between the two, the MacBook Pro (basic spec) is the better choice than the Gateway when you factor this one feature alone.

Dell’s Core Duo offering is the Inspiron 9400 series. Sadly, there was no Latitude available with this CPU. The Latitude line is aimed at professional users and compares better with the Apple Pro notebooks primary in the area of portability. The Dell comes with a great screen, and a much faster video system in the NVIDIA GeForce Go 7800. The 9400 is a fundamentally different animal, but consider how you will use your notebook. For a student or LAN party gamer the Dell makes a lot of sense. For a mobile professional the 9400 is a bit big and heavy. 

Finding a perfect match for the MacBook Pro so soon after Core Duo’s launch was nearly impossible but we did something close: the Acer TravelMate 8204 WLMi. Acer is trying to innovate themselves out of being a commodity business machine vendor. And while they still sell a lot of value-priced notebooks, I think that products like their Ferrari line and the TravelMate 8204 that Acer are succeeding. High-end TravelMates have been around for a while, and last year’s 8100 series was very attractive. It packaged together Intel’s best components into a no-compromise performer. It looks like the new 8200 series is going to step things up a notch.

On paper, Acer’s TravelMate 8204WLMi beats Apple’s best on features with a fantastic list of specifications (double the RAM, 20% larger hard disk) and matches the MacBook Pro’s innovations. A good example of the innovation is the inclusion of a VoIP Bluetooth phone that slides into the 8204′s PCMCIA slot. The pricing that I found for the Acer ($2419 CDN at Digital Spyders Inc.) puts it right into the MacBook Pro’s price range (factoring in the cost of some software to balance things out). I am pretty sure that the 8204 will create a lot of buzz when it is available in stores.

Conclusion

On paper Apple has created a competitive product in the MacBook. Now that these Intel based systems are known and their specifications disclosed I think you can see that the notion of Apple having over-priced systems is not true. You can argue with elements of their value proposition such as the bundled software, but for a lot of people those features are deal breakers. I keep a Mac around just to have iLife and I consider the $70 Apple charges for the latest version of the stand alone software to be a good value (especially considering the $150 price tag of Photoshop/Premiere Elements).

Apple, with the possible exception of RAM, offers a complete specification. If you take a good look at both the Gateway and Dell offerings you might have a hard time selecting either of them over the MacBook Pro. Gateway and Dell both compete on price, there is not a single thing other than a low price that makes these machines special. I think that Dell in particular is conscious of this and I hope to see them spending more in Research and Development in 2006 and creating some interesting products.

I should also mention that Macs ship almost completely free of trial-ware and spy-ware. Recently I have reviewed some Gateway and HP products that were encumbered with a ton of bloat-ware and no Windows XP install disks in the box to help me do a clean install. Keep this in mind.

Happily, we also see that there are companies that will push Apple hard at the high-end and not simply on price. Acer, in particular, looks as though they are willing to duke it out on the basis of innovation and clever design. I hope more manufacturers chose this battleground. I did not know much about the Acer TravelMate 8204 before writing this article but I am now very interested in it and will be looking for one when they ship.

When the next gen iBooks come out, we will have a look at how they compare to entry level Windows notebooks, but the same conclusion will probably follow. You get what you pay for with Apple. If you don’t need everything that Apple includes in its products there are lots of stripped-down systems out there vying for your attention. Apple is not participating in the race to zero and I applaud them for that.

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