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Ruminations on the new MacBooks

Having had some time to ponder on and learn more details about Apple's new line of notebooks announced last week, a number of things occur to me:

Price cut veils price hike: Steve Jobs masterfully obfuscated this by keeping the previous plastic MacBook on the roster, but Apple's new consumer notebooks do in fact cost more than those they replace. Previously the low-end MacBook cost $1,099; the cheapest aluminum MacBook is $1,299, a $200 increase. A MacBook with a slightly faster processor and bigger hard drive costs $1,299; its aluminum equivalent is $1,599, a $300 increase.

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The already expensive MacBook Pro line escaped any increase, but higher prices on the consumer models makes them tougher for students and home users to afford. It seems an odd strategy in the face of a dark economic forecast.

True, the aluminum MacBooks have better graphics and those fancy multi-touch glass touchpads. But still. In the past Apple has often conferred significant upgrades on a line of Macs while maintaining or dropping prices. These MacBooks don't even have a FireWire port, for Pete's sake.

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And yes, you can buy the "old" MacBook for $999, but that's yesterday's technology. Remarkably, most of the news stories last week emphasized not that the new MacBooks cost more, but that Apple had dropped the price on the old model. Brilliant!

Even more remarkably, the $999 MacBook was widely – and erroneously -- reported as "Apple's first sub-$1,000 notebook." Apple's first offered a sub-$1,000 notebook back in November of 2002 when it dropped the price on the iBook G3 to $999.

Reality distortion field, indeed.

"Mystery product" revealed: At July's earnings conference call, Apple CFO Peter Oppenheimer referred to a "future product transition" that would lower gross margins for the September quarter, setting off speculation that Apple had some exotic new product in the wings. It turns out Oppenheimer was referring to the manufacturing method of carving the new MacBooks out of a single block of aluminum. Impressive to be sure, but many had hoped for a smaller "netbook" type of product or even a touch-screen tablet Mac.

Death of FireWire? I noted in my post last week on the new MacBooks that the consumer models lacked a FireWire port (the Pro models retain a FireWire 800 port). I shot off an email to Apple PR asking for an official explanation that they predictably ignored.

Over the next few days the Mac Web exploded with complaints, with many swearing not to buy a new MacBook until Apple restored the FireWire port. One Mac fan in Germany even started an online petition.

Steve Jobs reportedly sent a customer an email explaining that most digital video cameras now use USB 2.0, negating the need for FireWire on the consumer MacBooks.

But FireWire isn't just for digital video. For many, FireWire's Target Disk Mode (which allows a Mac attached to another by FireWire to access the second Mac's hard disk as if it were an external drive) is an indispensible troubleshooting tool. Some just use FireWire to attach speedier external drives. And others use FireWire for digital audio as well as digital video.

While USB 2.0 can perform all of these tasks (except Target Disk Mode) to some degree, FireWire performs them faster, particularly when transferring large amounts of data.

Apple played a key role in the development of the FireWire (IEEE 1394) standard; you'd think it would be the last PC company to drop it from a product line. Though FireWire never became he ubiquitous standard that USB 2.0 has become, many Mac users nevertheless have a legitimate need for it. Apple pulled the plug on FireWire in the MacBook a bit prematurely, in my opinion.

Some users worry FireWire will gradually disappear from all consumer Macs, remaining only on the pro models as an enticement to upgrade. We should get an answer to that question when the iMac line is refreshed, which could happen before the end of the year.

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