Several years ago I was privy to a conversation that didn't make much sense to me. The topic was whether or not PCs could be sold like cars, by model year instead of focusing on specs. The holy grail of PC sales has always been distilling the myriad of system specifications down to a simple, easy to understand number. Intel used to offer its iCOMP rating for microprocessors on PCs sold in stores, benchmarks like 3DMark have attempted to do the same thing as well. It'd be far easier however if consumers simply purchased based on model year; buying a 2008 model year PC would be better and faster than a 2007. The idea obviously didn't go anywhere and it didn't make a whole lot of sense to me given that, unlike cars, computers are generally not as emotional of a purchase.

I think Apple has managed to change that. Nearly every year or so we get a redesigned Mac, iMac or MacBook, and in many cases while they are no faster than their predecessor - they introduce one or two new features or a new design that makes you want them, with all logic cast aside. It's a lot like buying a car.

Apple sells its computers not only based on functionality, but largely based on the form and design. Now all manufacturers do this to an extent, it's just that none of the mainstream PC OEMs do it as much or as well as Apple. Apple's focus on design makes a lot of sense. All PCs can be created equal, these days Apple and Dell use the same components, so the only differences that Apple has to play with are the OS and the design. Thus investing more money into the OS and system design is the right move for a company like Apple.


The MacBook, MacBook Air and MacBook Pro

Last week Apple announced its updated MacBook, MacBook Air and MacBook Pro lineup. As expected the changes were largely aesthetic and the new machines look great. But there were also some pretty significant departures under the hood, thus giving me something to do here other than comment on how the curved corners are nice to pet. There are benchmarks to be run, battery life to be tested and something very unexpected to uncover about OS X vs. Vista at the end. I won't dilly dally for too long here, so let's get right to it.

Design Changes/Build Quality

It turns out that all of the extra money Apple is spending on its notebooks goes into materials and build quality. It looks like there are two areas where that money is used: the aluminum chassis and the glass display cover.

The MacBook and MacBook Pro are now made like the MacBook Air: carved out of a single piece of aluminum. That's actually a bit misleading, there are multiple pieces of aluminum that go into the construction of these things, but looking at the keyboard from above you see a single block of aluminum that has been shaped to look like a MacBook.

The PowerBook G4 and the first MacBooks had the keyboard built into a piece of aluminum that sat on top and there was another piece of aluminum that made up the bottom half of the notebook. The two screwed/snapped together and what you had was an aluminum notebook.


The old MacBook Pro (left) vs. the new MacBook Pro (right), note how the old MBP doesn't fit together nearly as well as the new one

With the new MacBook/MacBook Pro, Apple has effectively flipped its manufacturing process upside down. Instead of having a bottom that curves upwards and is capped off with a keyboard, the new models have a top that curves downwards with two plates that cover the bottom. The distinction is subtle but the difference is noticeable.


Rounded corners, it's like a big MacBook Air. Cute.

Rigidity is one of the biggest factors in making a notebook feel like it's well built. This is one of the things that IBM got very right with its Thinkpads early on, and something that Apple honestly did an incredible job with on the MacBook Air. The problem with building light notebooks is that the lighter you go, the flimsier the materials and the worse they hold up over time. By making sure the part you come in contact with the most is made out of a single piece of aluminum, Apple helps convey a sturdier built product.


Look ma, no latches!

Also gone is the bothersome latch from the MacBook Pro, the screen magnetically attaches to the keyboard surface when you close it. The latch on the old MBP was the cheapest feeling part of the machine, so I'm glad they fixed it.


The old latch, ugh.

Apple also made it easier to access the hard drive on these things, there's a nifty removable panel underneath the notebook that unlatches without a single screw. With the cover removed you can replace the battery or, after removing a single screw, remove the hard drive (you'll need to take out four more screws to actually swap out the drive though). This isn't quite as easy as the removable HDD trays you'd find in a Dell, but it does look better.

The design is far from perfect however, the new battery/HDD cover tends to rattle and definitely reduces the solid feeling of the notebook. Thankfully the parts of the notebook you interact with the most feel the most solid, it's just worth pointing out the imperfections.

The NVIDIA Move: The GeForce 9400M
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  • Calin - Friday, October 24, 2008 - link

    What about testing power use under XP I mean
    XP compares more favourably to Mac OS (or anything else) than Vista, and I wanted to know if that excessive power use is Vista-only, or if it does appear on Windows XP too
    Reply
  • strikeback03 - Thursday, October 23, 2008 - link

    Or some version of Linux? Reply
  • wilkinb - Wednesday, October 22, 2008 - link

    yeh I agree the diff will be how the OS is set to manage each device etc etc...

    On my Sony laptop i get around 2 hours on high performance and a bit over 5 hours on battery saving...

    The results they posted dont really tell us much other then a bootcamp vista install isnt as good as an osx install at managing power on apple laptop... amazing right?

    I am sure if i dont use the Sony install and tool/drviers etc I will also get less battery life on my laptop. So the question would be do you think apple put more effort into power management on their OSX install then they did for Vista?
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, October 22, 2008 - link

    Let me just say that I've tried testing various power saver setting under Vista on several notebooks (see review on Friday) and I just can't get anywhere near 5 hours of battery life. Sure, the CPUs are a bit higher spec on some of the notebooks, but as one example a 12.1" laptop with 55 Whr battery, 320GB 5400RPM HDD, 4GB RAM, LED backlighting, and P8400 pulls an "amazing" 138 minutes of DVD playback and 142 minutes of web surfing... though it does manage 261 minutes when sitting idle at the desktop.

    As best I can tell, the CPU and HDD just don't seem to be entering sleep modes much if at all, unless the system is 100% idle. Even then, 261 minutes idle battery life doesn't compare favorably to the MacBook pulling 286 minutes of web surfing.

    How big is the Sony battery, if I may ask? (Just for reference, take Voltage * mAhr to get Whr.) What sort of CPU, GPU, HDD, RAM does it use? What we need to see to prove it's possible is a Vista laptop with a 20W TDP CPU, 2GB RAM, 5400 RPM HDD, and 13.3" LED backlit LCD that can still get close to five hours of battery life with a 55 Whr battery. If you think you have one, get the manufacturer to send me one for review! :)
    Reply
  • Spivonious - Thursday, October 23, 2008 - link

    Are you guys turning off the Vista indexer and SuperFetch? Those two things would run the harddrives pretty constantly on a fresh install, which would definitely drag down battery life. Reply
  • JarredWalton - Thursday, October 23, 2008 - link

    Do normal users disable SuperFetch? I've disabled indexing as much as I know how, since I don't use it, but SuperFetch is part of Vista. Besides, it shouldn't run on battery power (and neither should indexing). Reply
  • Spivonious - Friday, October 24, 2008 - link

    If you want to actually test Vista battery life, install the OS and use it for a week before testing the battery life. I agree with the other poster that both the indexer and SuperFetch are great features, but they do spin the harddrive when the computer is idle until the index is built and SuperFetch learns what you use most often.

    Spinning harddrive = lower battery life

    Comparing battery life between Vista and OS X is like comparing the time it takes to eat a pomegranate and an apple.
    Reply
  • headbox - Saturday, October 25, 2008 - link

    no, battery tests let people know how long they can use their computer without plugging it in.

    You're not comprehending the article- the PC laptops are also being tested at idle, just sitting there doing nothing. If Vista is going to spend that entire time "superfetching" nothing, that's a problem.
    Reply
  • jonmcc33 - Thursday, October 23, 2008 - link

    No, normal users do not disable SuperFetch. That's just bad tweaking advice, as much as turning Indexing off is as well. Both are amazing features added to Vista.

    I tested a Latitude D630 (2.6GHz Core 2 Duo Penryn, 2GB RAM) with Vista Business and a 9-cell 85WHr battery. Life was over 5 hours.
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Thursday, October 23, 2008 - link

    I wouldn't be surprised if there's just some glitch on many of the laptops that's keeping battery life down, but until some manufacturer can deliver Vista with 55 Whr and 5 hours (give or take) battery life I remain skeptical. Users shouldn't have to hack their laptop in any way to get the increased battery life; it should just work properly out of the box. You know, like the MacBooks with OS X. Reply

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