Opinion: Apple's MacBook -- The case of the new machine

Is the newest laptop Apple's next Cube? Or a great leap ahead?

Whenever Apple Inc. releases newly designed products -- meaning hardware offering more than just a speed bump -- the greater question is, "What does it mean?" That is, are the new features mere anomalies, or are they something truly new that will set the shape, material and design of the future?

The most obvious negative example remains the loved-by-some, hated-by-more Cube, a compact desktop Mac with a sexy Lucite skin that, unfortunately, cracked and scratched easily. That plus expandability issues, a vertical optical drive and problematic ports pushed this undeniably unique design onto the scrap heap of history.

But the new laptops Apple revealed this week promise a more material great leap ahead -- but not so much for the technical specs. Intel's Nehalem processors, due next year, will kick the whole speed thing up a serious notch -- but in terms of materials and processes.

Tucked in among the now-standard talking heads that populate Apple events, the MacBook video on Apple's site shows and tells all about how the new "unibody" casings are extruded, CNC machined, milled and lasered into submission. Suddenly outdated are the standard construction processes of stamping the case and bolting structural elements on.

Those who love fine bicycles have long understood of the structural superiority of machined rather than stamped metal parts; whole companies use only CNC machining, water jets and laser-cutting to optimize strength and minimize weight. Now it appears that Apple has come to understand that as well. CEO Steve Jobs and his colleagues were clearly pleased with their discovery, and now that Apple's moving toward new manufacturing methods, we can hope it learns a bit about materials, too. Other industries have been tweaking aluminum, titanium and steel alloys for decades.

new 15-in. MacBook
The new 15-in. MacBook sports a "unibody" aluminum case.

But my point is: Though the start-up costs of rolling out this method must have been high for Apple, spreading it to new designs may actually save money in the long run. Though Apple is no longer buying off-the-shelf structural parts, it's easier to revise a CNC specification than retool a production line based on molds and stamps. This could be how all Apple computers, even the low-end MacBook, will be made in the near future -- a rare example of a trickle-down theory that actually works.

Apple is now also stressing the environmental advantages of this method of construction. Check that video again and watch the execs talk about how all the metal shards left over from manufacturing are collected for recycling. No waste is always a good idea, as is getting Greenpeace to stop protesting your products.

Of course, not everything is perfect and sunny. The low-end MacBook does not yet share in the metal machine wealth, suggesting that Apple hasn't quite amortized the process enough for its use at a low price point. And as for the 17-in. MacBook Pro, ostensibly the top of the line, it carries on with its old casing; some have suggested that Apple wasn't able to get enough -- or cheap enough -- LED-backlit screens in that size.

The result is a messy product matrix that is unusual for Apple of late. The $999 MacBook made of white plastic has a faster processor than the next MacBook up the chain. The redesigned MacBooks -- there are two, priced at $1,299 and $1,599 -- emerge from the same new process Jobs touted Tuesday, as is the new 15-in. MacBook Pro. At the top of the chain is the biggest MacBook Pro, which got a few minor tweaks but was left largely unchanged. You cannot say Apple doesn't offer variety with its latest helping of change.

And where there is change there are always the wrathful. The new MacBook is too sleek for even one FireWire port, and Mac fans quickly noted its absence. Think about that: Apple proposed the FIreWire (IEEE 1394) standard in the late 1980s, and it first showed up on Macs in the later 1990s for use with video and audio equipment -- and even as a potential replacement for SCSI buses. The fact that it carried power along with I/O made it great for such devices, as it obviated the need for an extra power brick, another cable, more mess. Steve Jobs himself exhorted Mac users to get on Apple's own FireWire standard, and people rushed out to buy FireWire video cameras, hard drives and audio equipment.

And FireWire was good -- much better than USB in terms of speed and power management and extremely useful for transferring files between Macs. FireWire was the way most people used Apple's excellent Migration Assistant: Just hook your new Mac to your old one, fire up the Assistant and all the relevant files were transferred over. But, as an Apple representative told me at this week's event: "Everything is USB now."

Maybe in the future that will be true, but the past -- and past purchases -- are with us still, for many.

(For those drawn to the shine of the new aluminum MacBook, here's a file transfer tip: New MacBook buyers can use the Assistant over a wired (Ethernet) network, or even a wireless (AirPort) one. If you use the latter, the Assistant is smart enough to halt the process and restart it right where it left off should you lose your connection. Still, though, it's not as cool or as reassuring as the FireWire connection, and in the wireless network scenario, probably not as fast.

Let's hope this isn't a conscious move by Apple to force amateur camcorder freaks to move to the higher-cost MacBook Pro. Then again, maybe that's just the type of consumer that compulsively updates their equipment. And it'd be sad if the FireWire standard is eventually being deprecated completely, only to go the way of the floppy disk.

Still, though the latest Intel inside is the less exciting aspect of this update, this new construction method is ingenious, useful and elegant -- an example of why Apple remains Apple.

Dan Turner has been writing about science and technology for over a decade at publications, including Salon, eWeek, MacWeek and The New York Times.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

  
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