(Th)Air and Back Again – A MacBook’s Tale

What 13″ laptop is 1.1″ thick and weighs 5lbs?

An Apple MacBook, from 2008.

Why is that relevant? To put the MacBook Air into context. When the MacBook Air was released in 2008, its svelte 3/4″ “thinness” and 3lbs was a revelation, showing what mobile productivity could feel like. Today, nearly every consumer 13.3″ notebook >$500 is 3/4″ thick and less than 3.5lbs, touchscreen included. Even the MacBook Pro, which is a distinctly more capable machine, than the Air, is hardly thicker at all and only 0.5lbs heavier.

Meanwhile, the new 12″ (retina) MacBook is 25% thinner and 1/5 lighter than an 11.6″ MacBook Air and provides 12.5% more screen area (not to mention a drastically increased resolution). In comparison, the new MacBook is once more a mobility revelation. Importantly, the form factor size and weight reductions did not come at the expense of solidity, much performance (within 15% of a latest generation MacBook Air) or battery life. I played around with a co-worker’s MacBook, recently, and it is mind-boggling object to behold.

And it’s because of this progress that I believe we will soon see the MacBook Air, as we know it today, go into retirement. I’m guessing two versions of an “all new” MacBook will take its place, one with the same 12″ size as the current MacBook, and another in the 13.5-14″ range and 1/3 pound heavier, to give it some distinction from its smaller counterpart. Similar to the original announcement, the release should happen in late Q1, in time to address the college graduation season and continue to be fresh, going into back-to-school.

Skylake-Y seems like a shoe-in, with its performance profile very similar to Broadwell-U, in all but the most intensive, long-running operations, where the limited thermal headroom will crimp performance. In order to hit the psychologically and advertising-important “starting at $999″, I think the smaller, 12″ version will come with 8GB RAM and 128GB storage. The larger ~14” version likely starts at $1299, with an upgraded processor and 256GB storage.

The odd-duck MacBook Pro with optical drive notwithstanding, Apple hasn’t long carried 3 notebook line-ups for long, so unless one believes instead the new MacBook or the MacBook Pro line will disappear, it’s only natural that the in-between MacBook Air merges into the more distinctive option, shortly. It’ll also help with the naming, back to good old Pro and non-Pro.

Apple WWDC 2009 – Some Wow, Mostly Boring

As usual, I followed Apple’s WWDC keynote earlier today through the live blog at Gizmodo. Overall, most of the expected announcements were made, including more information on Snow Leopard and the new iPhone 3GS. However, the updates to the MacBook Pro line, including rebranding the 13.3″ MacBook to Pro status wasn’t foreseen. A couple thoughts.

Windows Vista/7

I think people are finding the unqualified attacks on Windows to be a bit long in the tooth. This clever slide didn’t get much of a response from the crowd. Why? Perhaps it’s because many people know Windows 7 is a significant improvement over Vista in usability. And for the vast majority of users, it’s the most important aspect they deal with every day.

And talk about pot calling the kettle black. What are some of the major innovations with Snow Leopard? Exchange support. A dock that takes cues from Windows 7’s new taskbar (gasp!). A mail client that no longer uses more threads when idle (talk about innovation). Improved 64 bit support and performance.

Here, I’ve fixed up Apple’s Snow Leopard logo for them.

No Leopard

Saving grace? It’s only a $29 upgrade for Leopard users. I think Microsoft could learn a thing or two, especially for Vista customers (not that it would be good for the bottom line). Then again, the changes over Leopard do seem to be pretty minor to most, even if ‘90% of the codebase’ has been updated. Without fancy new effects on the desktop, I doubt most users would be willing to shell out the previously standard $129 upgrade price.

Apple iPhone 3GS

The iPhone 3GS is a pretty incremental upgrade over the existing 3G, but I guess there’s not much point in releasing a devilishly awesome iPhone at this point when most of the 3G users are still locked only a year into their 2 year contracts. Nevertheless, if I were a new customer, I don’t see any reason to go for a $100 cheaper device in the 8GB iPhone 3G, which amounts to just over $4/month extra, as opposed to upgrading to the 3GS, with double the storage and some extra features. I’m sure Apple is hoping to upsell you with that exact logic.

And damn, did anyone else zone out (yeah, I know I was reading, but still) during the endless iPhone app demos? I know the App Store and the whole development community for the iPhone is doing great, but jeez, talk about keynote buzz-kill.

Apple MacBook Pro

The most interesting piece of information for me today was the update to the MacBook (Pro). I considered getting a 13.3″ unibody MacBook in the past, but couldn’t get over the mediocre battery life. Now, the new 13.3″ MacBook Pro has an increased battery capacity (from 45WHr to 58WHr) and consequently, battery life has increased as well. And at around 7 hours of ‘wireless productivity’, it’s at the point where I’m strongly considering it again. I can deal with the built-in battery, which many people are still ranting about. Yeah, the free iPod Touch promotion for the back-to-school period doesn’t hurt.

Yep, I think I just might buy one.

A New MacBook, A New Touchpad

Apple’s recent launch of a new line of notebooks marks another milestone in touchpad functionality. While for other manufacturers, the touchpad rarely even makes it onto a specification sheet, touchpad improvements have recently been a recurring bullet-point in Apple’s notebooks’ launch presentations.

I used a MacBook at Sybase for a while and I really enjoyed the huge touchpad and two-finger scroll. Compared to my Dell XPS M1330, the touchpad was gigantic and the scrolling was far more accurate. Then the MacBook Air upped the stakes by building in more finger gestures. And with the new generation of aluminum MacBook and MacBook Pros, the touchpad has done away with its singular button, instead making the entire touchpad ‘clickable’. Furthermore, a bunch of new three and four finger gestures have been included to activate features such as Exposé. Again, the touchpad has increased in size.

MacBook Pro's button-less touchpad

I thought the lack of a dedicated button sounded a bit like trouble and sure enough, there have been some problems with the entire-touchpad-as-button idea. At Indigo, our team product manager ordered a new MacBook Pro and had it delivered to the office. It was a seriously sweet piece of kit, although I didn’t even try to get any hands-on time with it. Didn’t seem appropriate at the time. I’ll have to ask him whether he’s run into any touchpad issues.

While perhaps not a complete success, the new touchpad shows that this is an area that Apple is innovating in (or at least getting Synaptics to innovate in). There are some significant usability improvements that can be had with a relatively small change to many existing laptops, such as improving the touchpad. I’m not sure why no one else is following Apple’s lead. Anyone? Anyone at all?

Now, what I’d really like to see is a context-sensitive, multi-touch display, a la the iPhone, as a touchpad. Make it a screen and have it display useful buttons, depending on the current use. For example, on the desktop, show the most commonly (or customized) used programs as icons that can be launched directly from the touchpad. The possibilities could be astounding.