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Apple's late to the Core i5 laptop party

Performance laptops based on Intel's Core i5 processor are pushing out the older Core 2 laptops. Meanwhile, the Mac maker sticks to its Core 2 guns.

As performance laptops based on the Intel Core i5 processor proliferate, older Core 2 models look, well, old. That means Apple's core silicon is past its prime.

This Toshiba 13.3-inch laptop packs the Core i5 processor and a touch screen.
This Toshiba 13.3-inch laptop packs the Core i5 processor and a touch screen. Toshiba

What began as a trickle about a month ago is now a torrent of new Core i-based notebooks. Although lower-end Core i3 processor-based systems are widely available for the more budget-minded, the Core i5 is now powering performance laptops for those willing to pay a little more money.

The mobile i5 and i7 chips are, in a word, fast. Made on Intel's cutting-edge 32-nanometer manufacturing process, they handily outperform the older Core 2 Duo. Tech Web site AnandTech said the i5 processor delivers "the single largest performance improvement we've seen from a new mobile processor in years," and Tom's Hardware said it "boasts the best balance between desktop-class speed and true mobile usability we've ever seen."

Dell: The Dell 15.6-inch Studio (S15Z-3630CPN) offered at Best Buy is a good example. Priced at $1,049, it comes, as many systems do, with the popular Core i5-430M processor (2.53GHz) and an ATI Radeon HD 4570 graphics chip with 512MB dedicated video memory.

Other features for this Dell Studio model include 4GB DDR3 memory, a 500GB Serial ATA hard disk drive (7200 rpm), two built-in 2W speakers, a built-in optical drive, and Microsoft Windows 7 Home Premium Edition 64-bit operating system.

Apple, by comparison, offers a 15-inch aluminum MacBook Pro for a pricey $2,299 that uses the older 2.8GHz Core 2 Duo and comes with specifications that are otherwise pretty similar to the (much) cheaper Dell system.

Hewlett-Packard: A $1,299 15.6-inch HP Envy (considered the company's consumer luxury laptop line) offers similar specifications to the Dell system but with more powerful graphics silicon. In addition to the Core i5-430M, it comes with a more powerful 1GB ATI Mobility Radeon HD 5830 graphics chip, a 320GB disk drive (7,200rpm), and 4GB of DDR3 memory.

Sony: This week, a slim Sony system (VPCS111FM/S) with a 13.3-inch display found a spot on store shelves at Best Buy for the first time. Although it misses the sub-inch-thick cutoff for ultrathins by a few tenths of an inch, it does fall into the thin category (1.2 inches in height) and certainly does qualify as one of the thinnest Core i5 laptops yet--and one of the lightest, at 4.4 pounds.

Other Sony specs include a 500GB hard disk drive (5400RPM), Intel Graphics Media Accelerator HD, 4GB of memory, a built-in optical drive, and Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit. One thing to note: No ATI or Nvidia graphics here. Ultraportables--the designation that Best Buy gives it--typically don't come with discrete (standalone) graphics cards.

On the upside, Sony offers a two-year limited warranty for the system, a step up from the typical one-year consumer laptop warranties. It's priced at $1,049.

Toshiba: The Core i5-based U505 Satellite from Toshiba (U505-S2010) is also relatively light, at 4.7 pounds and about the same thickness as the Sony. At $1,099, it is loaded similarly to the Sony laptop (including an optical drive) but adds a touch screen.

By comparison, Apple offers its aesthetically attractive Core 2-based 13-inch aluminum MacBook Pro with an Nvidia graphics chipset. But the $1,499 model is using last-year's Intel and Nvidia technology.

The upshot: With more and more speedy Core i laptops coming out of the woodwork, it doesn't make a lot of sense to buy an older Core 2 Duo system. Apple surely knows this and, as CNET's Erica Ogg pointed out last month, an e-mail sent from Intel to participants in a training program for company sales representatives hinted that a MacBook running the Core i5 may be coming soon.

A refresh of the MacBook Pro line can't be very far off, but the clock is ticking.