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The MacBook turns Pro

LaptopsApple updated its 13in MacBook a few weeks back, giving the company's least expensive laptop better performance than the more expensive aluminium unibody models. This was a pretty strong hint that the aluminium models were due for a refresh.

Sure enough, just 12 days later, Apple announced updates to nearly the entire MacBook line. The MacBook Air gains faster processors; the 17in MacBook Pro gets a faster processor and a larger hard drive; and the 15in MacBook Pro comes with faster processors, higher RAM capacity, a solid-state drive option, a longer-life battery, an improved display and an SD card slot (replacing the ExpressCard slot found on the previous version). All of these changes are accompanied by lower prices.

Apple MacBook review

These are notable upgrades, but it's the changes to the 13in MacBook that are generating the most buzz. Keep in mind that Apple's consumer laptop line got a dramatic overhaul just last October, when the company switched all but the entry-level model to a new aluminium unibody enclosure, converted to LED displays, added a multi-touch trackpad, upgraded the graphics and processor performance and even added the 'pro'-level backlit-keyboard feature (albeit only to the most-expensive model).

Turning Pro

As I pointed out at the time, these upgrades brought the MacBook models enticingly close to the 15in Pro line. For people who didn't need the large screen, the less expensive 13in MacBook was mighty tempting. In fact, it appeared that Apple omitted FireWire from the MacBook models solely to differentiate them from the Pro line.

So it was interesting to hear, during Monday's WWDC keynote, Phil Schiller ask rhetorically: "What can we add to just make [the MacBook] a MacBook Pro?" Indeed, the 13in member of Apple's laptop line now includes most of the same features and technologies as its larger siblings: a longer-life, integrated (read: non-swappable) battery, improved display technology, 8GB RAM capacity, a 500GB hard drive or 256GB SSD, a backlit keyboard on all models and an SD memory-card slot. It even includes... wait for it... FireWire 800.

The 13in model still can't match the 15in MacBook Pro when it comes to screen space and processing power - the 15in models start at 2.53GHz and can reach 3.06GHz, while the new 13in models start at 2.26GHz and max out at 2.53GHz. The 15in MacBook Pro is also available in a dual-video-card configuration. But the two lines are otherwise nearly identical. In fact, they're similar enough that Apple has officially bestowed 'Pro' status upon the unibody 13in models - welcome, 13in MacBook Pro.

A new strategy

In the past, a change this dramatic would have surprised me. Apple has traditionally reserved the best features - SuperDrives, FireWire 800, you name it - for its most expensive models, only later trickling those features down to the consumer line. This feature segregation, if you will, often seemed to be little more than a mechanism for propping up the sales of higher-end systems and their larger profit margins.

But as Macs have become more and more popular, especially in the consumer market, we've been seeing more and more 'pro' features finding their way into 'consumer' models, and much earlier. Whether it's FireWire 800 on iMacs or aluminium bodies for MacBooks, Apple has gradually been moving to a model where you pay more for raw performance, rather than useful features.

Part of this is likely due to competition from other computer makers: when everyone else is offering particular features for less money, there's pressure to improve your own products to stay competitive. But I suspect it's also because of the growing popularity of Macs in general - the more computers you sell, the less profit you need to make on each to generate healthy balance sheets. Apple no longer seems afraid that sales of 13in laptops will cannibalise sales of the larger, more expensive models - instead aiming to sell more laptops overall.

Whatever the reason, from a consumer's point of view Apple's new laptop line sports the company's most aggresive pricing, and provides the best value, to date. Across this range, lower prices don't require you to give up useful features; for each jump in price, you simply get better 'basics': faster processors, more RAM, larger hard drives and, at the top end, a larger screen.

Personally, I'm hoping this new approach eventually finds its way to Apple's desktop computers. There's quite a hole there between the consumer and pro machines.

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