2008
10.16

Have they oversimplified? Not upgraded enough where it counts?

As you may know, Apple released a few new computer models Tuesday, thnning down, lightening up and bringing sexy back to the computer marketplace. Or something like that. But they also showed their true colors: arrogantly proclaiming “you don’t need XYZ feature” by flat-out removing it, without warning, from their new computer models. Here are a few of those missing features:

1. FireWire
Granted, the tech is a little on the expensive side to implement, and its uses are limited to higher-end or specialized gear, but Apple’s decision to remove it from the Macbook feature list is outright weird. Due to this omission, the previous Macbook models are actually better tuned for video editing than the current generation, despite better specs on the new units. If you get a new Macbook and have a digital video camera from the last five years or so, you’ll need to get a new camera in order to still import video to your computer. The funny thing is that, for all the computers I’ve bought in the last five years except for the Macbook Air and another ultraportable laptop (Toshiba Portegé R100), a FireWire port has been included. It might not be the powered, six-pin port seen on Apple computers over the past several years, but it’s still definitely a connector conforming to IEEE 1394a standards, ready for me to plug in a digital camcorder, external hard disk or audio mixer when the need arises.

This is an even odder occurrence considering Apple’s strong push behind the format early on. It’s a good standard, too; though its theoretical transfer limits are about 17% slower than USB 2.0′s, in practice FireWire gets near 100% of its rated transfer speed, and USB doesn’r. This is because FireWire data transfer is handled by its own chipset, whereas USB transfers have to harness CPU power. Less of an issue now, but FireWire is still faster than USB in most cases.

On the flip side, FireWire is expensive, both in space and price, to implement in comparison with USB 2.0. But that’s not a valid excuse for Apple, who is selling a $1300 machine ($1250 with paltry educational discounts) without the port, particularly since even the sub-$600 Lenovo IdeaPad series includes the interface! Sorry Apple, you guys are getting WAY too progressive here.

One other FireWire-specific advantage: Target Disk Mode. Boot up your FireWire-equipped Mac in this mode and your Mac shows up as a hard disk when you connect it to another computer. It’s a great, fast way to transfer data between, say, an old computer and a new one, but now it’s gone on the consumer-grade Apple notebook line. It’s still there on the iMac desktops and even the Mac Mini, but on the latter model Target Disk’s days are numbered. Migration on the Macbook will now be done via Ethernet…hopefully it isn’t the joke that AirPort-based data transfer is on the Macbook Air.

Additionally, the Macbook Pro is now down to one FireWire port (FireWire 800, requiring an adapter to work with standard FireWire devices but better than no port at all) instead of both a FireWire 800 and a 400 port. This means that you can’t, for example, have a high-end external hard disk plugged in while downloading video from a high-end video camera. I may be wrong, but FireWire hubs are few and far between, and two ports are better than one. Except if you’re Apple, who has a penchant for oversimplifying just about everything.

2. USB
It puzzles me why Apple still only includes two USB ports on even its high-end notebook computers. Most PC laptops have three or four, and the two-port models tend to be thin-and-light, not performance-based machines where more than a few connections would be wanted, or needed, simultaneously. Then again, we’re talking about the people who decided one port was enough on a driveless, Ethernet-less Macbook Air. Hello guys, 1996 called, they want their lack of USB ports back.

In all seriousness, look at various consumer-grade scenarios. Suppose I want to copy photos from my camera. That’s one USB port used; no built-in memory card reader of any type means that I need to hook something up to the Macbook in order to download the pictures. If I’m also charging or sync’ing my iPhone or other digital device, my two USB ports are now in use. If I want to copy photos from a digital camera to a USB flash drive, both ports are in use. If I want to hook up an external hard disk, I have one port left over. If I’m importing video from a video camera on a Macbook Pro to an external hard disk, then want to plug anything else in, I have one USB port to do it with, then I’m done.

Apple has the same problem, to a lesser extent, on their desktops. Not counting the two keyboard ports, the iMac has one port left over once you plug in your keyboard and mouse. Thankfully, my external monitor has a four-port hub where I can plug in my two external hard drives, my MagicJack VoIP adapter and anything wider than the tiny space reserved for the USB port on the sides of my keyboard. The only thing those ports are good for are slim-profile flash drives.

Sure, Apple has Bluetooth keyboards and mice, but the Bluetooth keyboard doesn’t even have  numeric keypad, and Apple mice are just plain wonkey.

So let’s take a Macbook and plug the $900, 24-inch LED-backlit LCD into it. We now have four USB ports available. If you want an external keyboard and mouse, you will end up between two and four available USB ports. Better than the iMac under similar circumstances, but still not great. Most desktop PCs have between six and eight USB ports, so there’s always one left over when you need it. For plugging in a printer, for example…

Again, Apple’s “less is more” notions will get them into trouble sooner than later…

3. Price
By reducing the price of the last-gen Macbook to the price of an entry-level iBook (yes Virginia, Apple did use to make $999 notebooks), Apple dodged an outcry from people who would have otherwise realized that Apple has actually raised the price of their computers by $200. The starting price for the new generation of Macbooks is $1299, $1249 ($250 above the last generation) for educational users. The Macbook Pro price has sayed the same, but most people won’t be shelling out $200 for a laptop. Considering the real possibility of the white Macbook being phased out as soon as stocks are cleared, we’re looking at a significant increase in starting price for an Apple portable computer in an economic downturn. Huh?!?

On the other hand, Apple has significantly slashed prices on all previous-generation notebook computers, particularly on the Macbook Pro and Macbook Air line. Granted, you’ll end up with lower-end graphics and a smaller hard drive, but at $1349, a refurbished last-generation Macbook Air is a steal (anyone want mine? I’ll beat that offer…). The Macbook Pro from a week ago is now $1349, $1499 and $1799 for models that were $1999, $2499 and…um…even more costly…when they were the latest models. To make a more relevant comparison, the low-end Macbook Pro, with very reasonable specifications, is just $50 more expensive than the low-end new Macbook. I hate being on the trailing edge of technology, but that’s an offer I couldn’t refuse if I wanted to buy an Apple notebook right now.

One thing to note: the 17″ Macbook Pro got a $200 price drop and not much else this time around. Apple says they’ll update it later. I’m not sure I believe them, but $2599 is better than $2799 on every day except pay day…

3. DisplayPort
DisplayPort is a standard. Apple’s Mini DisplayPort is not. What’s funny is that Apple sells adapters for their proprietary connector for VGA ($29), DVI ($29) and dual-link DVI ($99) but not DisplayPort itself, at least as far as I’ve seen. I think that qualifies this connector as proprietary enough. It also makes previous Mini-DVI (a connector shared by iMacs and previous-gen Macbooks) cables useless. They were less expensive, too…

This also means that all Macbook (regular, Pro or Air) users who want to output video to a second screen have to pony up for an adapter; my Macbook Air came with adapters for both VGA and DVI, while the Macbook Pro had a standard dual-link DVI port, convertible to VGA if needed. It’s a $29-$99 additional expense if you want to, say, put Keynote slides onto a projector…or you can buy Apple’s special 24-inch LCD for $899. I could get a similar panel for a few hundred dollars less elsewhere, though it wouldn’t have a MagSafe charger attached (that connector is patented by Apple) and I’d need a Mini DisplayPort adapter, plus an audio cable or two, to replicate the performance of the Apple unit with a Macbook.

In case you haven’t noticed, I don’t like closed ecosystems, especially ridiculously proprietary ones like Mini DisplayPort (sort of like MiniDVI except 50% more expensive and…um…newer). This is from someone who spent over $3500 on Apple products within a space of six months!

4. The Tocuhpad
I have less to say about this one. Sure it’s cool, and it’ll finally mean that Windows users will get decent touchpad options (hold-down-the-mouse-button-while-trying-to-tap-with-two-fingers-to-right-click is really, really hard) while using a Macbook. But for some people having no buttons on the touchpad will take some getting used to. I have yet to test the system out to see whether “the whole touchpad is the button” means tap-to-click or press-to-click (a la Mighty Mouse…geez I hate that abomination that calls itself a pointing device) but at any rate, while I won’t have much of a problem adjusting, people used to pointing devices with buttons may find the learning curve hard to bear.

5. Logoff to switch graphics
Got a new Macbook Pro? Cool. Need to change GPU’s to save battery life or increase performance? Go to System Preferences, switch an option, close all your programs, log out, log back in. Granted, Windows computers have a switch you flip (in software or hardware), then a restart to perform, but with Apples tight hardware-software integration one can’t but wonder why they couldn’t do a seamless transition. At least make a menu bar option available for quick switching!

6. Performance
Yes, the new processors have 1066 MHz frontside buses. Yes, they are paired with DDR3 memoryy. Yes, the graphics cards were updated, and nVidia’s integrated graphics are likely much better than the Intel X4500HD parts seen in comparable Windows notebooks. But on the other hand Apple actually downgraded the processing speed on the $1299 Macbook. The low-end Macbook has a 2.1 GHz processor, the previous $1299 Macbook a 2.4 GHz unit. Now, the 2.4 GHz model costs $1599.

The Macbook Pro fares better. The lower-end model stays at 2.4 GHz and the higher-end model is now 2.53 GHz (vs. 2.5 GHz) with an upgrade option to 2.8 GHz. Note however that quad-core notebook processors are now available. On the Macbook Air front, the story is similar; 1.6 GHz replaces 1.6 GHz, 1.86 GHz replaces 1.8 GHz. At least the disk capacities are bigger.

About the graphics, I can get a $1000 computer with 4GB of memory from Dell (the Studio 15) that includes a 2.26 GHz new Intel processor and ATi Radeon HD 3450 graphics. Sorry Apple, the 3450 beats the nVidia 9400 part, I’m pretty sure. LED backlit screen, you say? Of course…$125 extra on the Dell for 1440×900, $25 more for 1920×1200. As you were saying?

In conclusion, I’ll be reviewing the new Macbooks soon, and maybe the glaring flaws won’t bother me then as much as they do right now. However I honestly believe that Apple could have done without some of their purist removals at this point when revising the Macbook specs. What do you think? The comment box is a-waitin’. I will admit up front that 0.95″ thick laptops that weigh 4.5 and 5.5 poinds for 13″ and 15″ models are freakin’ sweet, though…

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