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Apple’s Note-book Update Mostly Ignores 17-inch MacBook Pro

Most of you know that I am addicted to the 17-inch form factor for my note-books. I first bought a 17-inch PowerBook G4, the one with the 1.33GHz processor, shortly after it was released in late 2003. After a couple of years of regular use, it passed on to my son, Grayson, who later sold it when he acquired a black MacBook.

I’m now on my second 17-inch MacBook Pro, and it gets more use than ever these days, as I migrate more and more of my workload to the bedroom.

That takes us to the latest Apple note-book revision, replete with the long-awaited changes to the stagnant form factors that had gone largely unaltered since the days of the Titanium PowerBook.

Normally these revisions have arrived in the form of modest speed bumps, with faster processors and larger hard drives. However, there hasn’t been all that much of an improvement in Intel’s CPUs in recent months. So what is Apple to do to refresh its note-book line and garner big sales for the holiday quarter in a seriously troubled economic environment?

Well, one thing to do is change the looks. So all but the entry-level MacBooks ditch plastics for a specially-crafted unibody aluminum enclosure that also inherits beveled edges reminiscent of the MacBook Air and black borders around the displays, similar to the iMac.

The metal trackpad is history, replaced by glass, with the MultiTouch feature that supports gestures and pinches in the fashion of the iPhone and iPod touch. Reminiscent of the famous Mighty Mouse, the entire trackpad sports an integrated click button. According to Apple, the new line meets Energy Star 4.0, EPEAT Gold and RoHS standards, making them more environmentally friendly than ever.

But skin-deep charges weren’t sufficient, evidently, so Apple addressed the serious graphic shortcomings of the previous MacBooks, which were fine for displaying regular pictures, but pathetic for gamers. So those Intel integrated graphics are history, replaced by the NVIDIA GeForce 9400M, a new integrated chipset design that supposedly increases performance by up to five times. Since this chip is also included on an updated MacBook Air, it means you can actually use that model, too, for gaming and get decent performance, with performance said to be up to four times faster.

With creditable graphics on its consumer line, Apple pulls a two-chip trick on the MacBook Pro, so you can stick with the NVIDIA integrated graphics chip and get the best possible battery life or switch to the NVIDIA GeForce 9600 GT discrete chip, which increases performance by 1.5 times at the expense of dropping battery life by up to an hour. Your choice, and I think 90% of the MacBook Pro owners will stick with the integrated graphics for most purposes.

Of course we’ll have to wait for the reviewers to get their hands on these units and see how well they perform in the real world.

In other developments, the MacBook Air’s pathetic 80GB drive was upgraded to 120MB, with a 128GB solid state drive available as an option. The poor, neglected 17-inch MacBook looks the same as the previous model, but is now equipped strictly with the 1920 x 1200 glossy display. The hard drive increases from 250GB to 320GB, and RAM is maxed to 4GB, all at the same $2,799 price as its predecessor.

I would hope and expect the 17-inch model will get the rest of the updates at some future time, perhaps next year?

But what of all those rumors about a cheaper MacBook, the first in years that’s cheaper than the magic $1,000 threshold? Well, Apple’s trick there is just to keep a version of the 13-inch white MacBook in production, and reduce the minimum price from $1,099 to $999. With roughly a third of the dollars spent on personal computers in the U.S. retail market going Apple’s way, clearly they want to move as many boxes as they can in the next few months.

I’m not going to cover all the raw numbers, though. Apple has plenty of online information to satisfy your cravings for all the specifics and prices.

But one omission does trouble me. You see, content creators were, by and large, not enamored with glossy displays, which are prone to annoying reflections under some lighting conditions. You could order your MacBook Pro with a matte screen if you preferred, but now you can’t. It’s now glossy or nothing.

In addition, it appears that Apple is conceding defeat to a large extent with its FireWire standard. At one time, you needed them for camcorders and external drives. But you can’t do that with the new MacBook, which omits a FireWire jack. Now that might not impact a lot of our readers, but if you have an external FireWire device of any sort, you’re out of luck.

Unless, of course, you opt for the MacBook Pro, which contains a single FireWire 800 port. And yes, you should be able to adapt that connector to the older FireWire 400 standard. Or live without.

The other important development at Apple’s press briefing answered that expected $899 entry in its price list, a new 24-inch LED Cinema Display, the first update to the line in several years. It carries the same slim form factor as the updated Apple note-books and the iMac and is due later this year.

Now if Apple would only produce a 30-inch version, I might indeed place it on my must buy list.