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MacBook upgrades fortified with new technologies

Touting a new manufacturing process, LED-based displays, glass trackpads and an innovative graphics chipset from Nvida, Apple refreshed its entire line of notebooks today.

The announcements, made by CEO Steve Jobs and several of his top lieutenants at a special Apple Media Event on the company's Cupertino campus, confirmed most of the rumors swirling around the anticipated MacBook upgrades for the past few weeks.

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Perhaps the only disappointment was in the pricing. Some had predicted an $800 entry-level MacBook, but Jobs merely announced a $100 price drop on the existing white plastic-encased model to $999, which the company plans to continue selling.

The new technologies turn up in all the new MacBooks; the backlit LED-based display technology also turns up in two refreshed 17-inch and 24-inch Cinema Displays.

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According to as video shown at the event, LED display technology is brighter, boasts "instant-on" capability and is 30 percent more energy-efficient traditional flat-screen displays.

Perhaps the most dramatic new technology from a user perspective is the glass multi-touch trackpad, which is included in all the new models except the MacBook Air.

With the glass trackpad, Apple has dispensed with the button, providing 39 percent more surface area. The trackpad itself is now one big button so you can click on any part of it.

Building on the iPhone and iPod Touch interfaces, the glass trackpad enables a few new gestures, including some that require three and four fingers. It may take some getting used to, but using gestures as a primary means of controlling a computer could well replace the veteran mouse.

The MacBooks also will sport a new integrated graphics chip from Nvidia, the GeForce 9400M. Jobs said the chip is five times faster than the Intel GMA integrated graphics chip used in the previous MacBooks. In real world use, Jobs claimed the Nvidia chip is three to eight times faster, providing half the performance of a dedicated graphics card.

The high-end MacBook Pro uses the Nvidia 9400M as well but retains a dedicated graphics card, the Nvidia 9600M GT. Yep, you get both. The rationale? The 9400M is more energy efficient; "Turbo mode" with the 9600M GT costs you an hour of battery life. So the user can switch between the two depending on the priority.

Apple spent a fair amount of time boasting about its new manufacturing process.

Originally devised for the ultra-thin MacBook Air, the process starts with a solid block of aluminum, which is cut and carved into the desired configuration. Apple Senior Vice President for Industrial Design Jonathan Ive explained that this method results in lighter, more rigid notebook frames than building them the old way with multiple parts.

The specs on the new goodies:

MacBook Pro

$1,999 model: 15.4 inch LED display, 2.4 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo, 2 GB RAM, 250 GB hard drive, SuperDrive, GeForce 9600M GT with 256 MB RAM. Shipping today.

$2,499 model: 15.4 inch LED display, 2.53 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo, 4 GB RAM, 320 GB hard drive, SuperDrive, GeForce 9600M GT with 512 MB RAM. Shipping today.

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Notes: The MacBook Pros get a FireWire 800 port, but no FireWire 400 port, a bad omen for the FireWire 400 spec. However, Apple has added an ExpressCard/34 slot.

MacBook (new aluminum models)

$1,299 model: 13.3 inch LED display, 2 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo, 2 GB RAM, 160 GB hard drive, SuperDrive, GeForce 9400M integrated graphics. Shipping today.

$1,599 model: 13.3 inch LED display, 2.4 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo, 2 GB RAM, 250 GB hard drive, SuperDrive, GeForce 9400M integrated graphics. Shipping today.

Notes: The consumer-level MacBooks drop FireWire altogether, and don't get the ExpressCard/34 slot. Sayonara, FireWire.

MacBook Air

$1,799 model: 13.3 inch LED display, 1.6 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo, 2 GB RAM, 120 GB hard drive, GeForce 9400 M integrated graphics. Shipping early November.

$2,499 model: 13.3 inch LED display, 1.86 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo, 2 GB RAM, 128 GB solid-state drive, GeForce 9400 M integrated graphics. Shipping early November.

Notes: The MacBook Airs did not get a price drop, just some beefed up specs and some of the new technologies shared with its MacBook siblings, such as the Nvidia 9400M and a mini-display port.

One More Thing: Apple COO Timothy Cook opened the presentation with a few word on how well the Mac business is doing. He mostly repeated things avid Apple followers already know, but offered some impressive market share figures.

According to Cook, Apple now has 17.6 percent of the U.S. PC market by unit sales and 31.3 percent of the U.S. PC market by revenue.

He also tipped his hand a bit on the Oct. 21 earnings conference call when he noted that Apple has sold 7.1 million Macs so far in 2008. Subtracting the Macs sold in the first two quarters, that means Apple sold about 2.3 million Macs in the September quarter, fewer than many analysts expected.

The impressive recovery of AAPL stock in the past few trading sessions could be in for a setback when Apple announces its earnings next week.

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