Two Juicy New Apples

MacBook and mini please the eye, the brain, and the budget


As design innovations go, MagSafe isn't a big deal. It replaces the standard power cord socket on Apple Computer's (AAPL ) new MacBook Pro laptop. With the old design, you'd send the computer flying if you tripped over the cord. MagSafe is a nifty magnetic connector that simply breaks away. History books won't celebrate this invention, but it's an example of the smart touches that distinguish Apple in an industry where design is all about slicing a buck off of the bill of materials.

The new MacBook (from $1,999) is the successor to the 15-inch PowerBook G4 and is Apple's first notebook to use an Intel (INTC ) Core Duo processor. While the insides are all new, Apple kept the PowerBook's very successful, three-year-old design essentially unchanged. Two more Intel-driven PowerBooks are expected to follow, one large and one small.

The Intel processor makes a big difference in these laptops, more so than for the new iMac desktops, which I reviewed on Feb. 13. That's because the chip in the old PowerBook was a full generation out of date. When the MacBook Pro is running programs written for the Intel chips, you get an impressive speed increase -- though it falls short of the 300% gain claimed by Apple. As for the older Mac programs, they all run perfectly well, but the user won't feel any improvement.

TO TEST DRIVE THE MacBook Pro, I ran a piece of free software called HandBrake that converts the video on a DVD so that you can view it on a video iPod, an extremely processor-intensive task. HandBrake is one of a new breed of "universal" programs that can run on both old and new Macs. Converting 16 1/2 minutes of recorded video took 22 minutes on PowerMac G4 and just nine on the new MacBook. You won't get boosts like that in reading e-mail or browsing the Web, but you will see real gains in tasks such as photo processing and video editing.

Apple has managed to go on selling PowerBooks even as their performance fell further behind in the Windows competition. One reason may be the company's ability to connect with customers on an emotional level. The camera built into the new MacBook is a good example of how Apple combines functional and fun. Used with the built-in iChat software, these turn a Mac into an instant and very good teleconferencing device. When you first set up your user account, you are invited to take a picture of yourself and use it as your login icon. Now try the same thing on a Windows PC. It's a taxing, six-step process, assuming the picture is already saved on your PC.

The new Mac mini (from $595), a desktop not much bigger than a fat paperback book, also runs on Intel now, and it has handy new tricks. It has a selection of video connectors and Front Row software that make it simple to show videos and photos and play music on a TV/stereo system. It comes with excellent networking technology called Bonjour that can find and play content stored on other computers -- even Windows PCs, if the content is stored in an iTunes library.

There are good reasons competitors such as Dell (DELL ) and Hewlett-Packard (HPQ ) have a tough time keeping up with Apple. One is Apple's rejection of rock-bottom pricing. Desire for big orders from low-end retailers such as Wal-Mart (WMT ) has pushed HP and other PC makers to adopt the cheapest hardware platform, leading to $300 desktops and $700 laptops. There's no way to hit that price point and match Apple on design. What's more, PC makers sell to corporations, which insist on the ability to replace components easily. Apple's beautiful design doesn't allow that, and home users don't care.

Apple has thus turned its lack of access to corporate markets into a virtue. It can focus its energies on what appeals to consumers, especially ease of use and products that please the heart and the eye as well as the brain and the budget. The new mini and the MacBook are just the latest happy examples.

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By Stephen H. Wildstrom

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