Apple Laptops: The Hits Keep Coming

The latest MacBook and MacBook Pro enhancements should keep the hot streak going
The MacBook Pro can be set at maximum graphics or a lower level for better battery life

Apple (AAPL) is the only company I know that can tell its customers what they want and make them like it. Nobody else has pulled that off since Henry Ford decreed that consumers could get a Model T in any color they liked as long as it was black. The latest MacBook and MacBook Pro computers suggest that Apple has not lost its touch.

The difference between Apple and the rest of the industry is stark. Dell (DELL) sells 26 laptop models, each available in many configurations, while Apple offers five, with few hardware options. The average selling price for MacBooks and MacBook Pros in September was $1,483, compared with $689 for Windows notebooks, according to market researcher NPD Group. The point isn't that Macs are overpriced for what they are but that Apple offers only high-end products. Yet despite these seeming disadvantages in variety and price, NPD notes, Macs grabbed nearly 18% of the U.S. retail notebook market in September, a jump of nearly three percentage points since last year.

It's not easy to come up with a dramatic design breakthrough in what is largely a mature product category. Last year, Apple offered the revolutionary MacBook Air, but its extreme thinness and lightness was achieved at a sacrifice in functionality that wouldn't be O.K. in its workhorse laptops.

A Solid Lineup

The latest notebooks should keep Apple's winning streak going. The two new products are a 15-in. MacBook Pro (from $1,999) and a 13.3-in. MacBook (from $1,299), now in a Pro-like aluminum case. Rounding out Apple's family are the old white MacBook ($999), the 17-in. MacBook Pro (from $2,799), and the Air (from $1,799). The last two models got processor and graphics upgrades but are otherwise unchanged.

The most striking feature of the new laptops is their huge and extremely usable touch pad. I have long preferred pointing sticks to touch pads, but Apple's latest innovation might change my mind. As in the last generation of MacBooks, this pad uses multitouch: One finger moves the cursor, two fingers scroll the display. What's new is there's no button—just press firmly on the pad, and you feel a button-like click. One finger gives a standard mouse click. Press with two and you bring up a menu appropriate for what you are doing, just like a right click on the mouse. It's simple, and it works.

The MacBook Pro is equipped with two Nvidia (NVDA) graphics adapters. Users can switch between a GeForce 9600M GT to get maximum performance for games, video editing, or other graphically intense applications, and a less capable 9400M chip for best battery life. Expect similar dual-graphics technology to show up on high-end Windows notebooks as well.

Older Hardware Connections Impacted

MacBook fans may find some other changes disconcerting. Apple is relentless in scrapping old technologies. This time, that may be painful for users of older external monitors and video cameras. Both new Mac models use an external video connector called DisplayPort that only plugs directly into the new $899 Apple LED Cinema Display. For all other monitors, you'll need a $29 adapter. Try using an older video camera and there's a worse catch. Apple has eliminated the FireWire port on the MacBook, rendering cameras that connect to computers only with a Firewire cable unusable. The Pro does have a FireWire port, but it's a new version, called 800, so you'll need another adapter cable to use it with a FireWire 400 camera.

With special software, it is now easy to run Microsoft Outlook and other Windows programs on the Mac. I use VMware's Fusion 2.0 virtual machine software on the MacBook Pro, and the results are so good that I'm longing to take a Mac laptop on the road. But that's where Apple's limited variety is a problem. At 4½ lb., even the 13-in. MacBook is too heavy, while the Air is too limited. Oh, well. Apple has never tried to be all things to all people. It may not solve my problem, but Apple's way seems to work just fine for the company and most of its fans.

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