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Apple's MacBook refresh ... not so fresh

Apple's recent MacBook refresh didn't add much to the product line. What's Apple missing?

Apple refreshed its MacBook and MacBook Pro product lines last week. I was hoping for more significant improvements, but the changes were minimal.

Apple's MacBook Pro
Apple's MacBook Pro Courtesy of Apple

The updated models come with new Intel processors, larger hard disks, more main memory, and more graphics memory.

The new Penryn processor was expected to improve battery life, but I noticed something when I compared the specs for the old MacBook Pro to those of the new model. The new machine's stated battery life has dropped from six hours to just five. However, Apple now refers to five hours of "wireless productivity," whereas the old machine didn't use that qualifier. This suggests to me that Apple is now rating battery life with wireless networking enabled, and may have been doing the measurements with Wi-Fi off on the older machines. If that's what happened, Apple should explain it; without the explanation, the apparent drop in battery life is disappointing.

Well, these machines are just a midlife kicker. The real advance will show up later this year when Apple ships machines based on Intel's forthcoming Montevina platform, which includes the same Penryn processors but introduces a new family of chipsets code-named Cantiga.

Apple will presumably add other new features along with Montevina. I have no idea what Apple is working on, but we can look at other PC notebooks on the market today to see what technology Apple might consider adopting:

  • Extreme Edition processors
  • Support for more than 4GB of DRAM--Mac OS X "Leopard" is a full 64-bit OS and 4GB isn't really enough any more, especially if you use a virtualization environment such as Parallels Desktop or VMware Fusion to run Windows apps within Mac OS X
  • Integrated WWAN--I use an Option ExpressCard 3G adapter for the AT&T network, but I'd rather have this function built in to free up the slot
  • Blu-ray optical drives--I expected to see this feature last year!
  • A secondary solid-state hard disk--I suggested this feature in a blog post last June, and now Sony has it in its Vaio TZ92 notebook
  • Intel HD audio
  • Nvidia's GeForce 8800M GTS and GTX graphics chips
  • Hybrid graphics--the ability to use a discrete graphics chip for high performance or the simpler graphics engine in the chipset for longer battery life; Sony offers this feature too
  • A fingerprint reader--Apple's systems are already more secure than most Windows machines, but a fingerprint reader would be a useful complement to existing security measures
  • Tablet mode--maybe not on all machines, but it'd sure be nice to see a tablet-capable MacBook

Apple has often been ahead of the competition. Earlier PowerBook and MacBook models were among the first notebooks to introduce super-thin cases, Gigabit Ethernet, motion sensors, LED backlights, DVI video outputs, FireWire, and other advanced features. Perhaps Apple is looking well beyond the features I've listed here, some of which have become almost routine in Windows notebooks.

Of course, even without these improvements, existing MacBook and MacBook Pro machines are still among the sleekest, fastest, and most capable notebook PCs on the market. But no tech company can afford to stand still, not even Apple.

And I need a reason to replace my own MacBook Pro. It's almost a year and a half old, and I'm getting itchy. C'mon, Apple, surprise me!