Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Is Now A Good Time To Buy A MacBook?

A question I am frequently asked by readers is whether it's a good time to buy a particular model of computer. My boilerplate response usually goes something like there is no slam-dunk "right time" to buy a computer, and if you're seeking insurance against buyer's remorse, it doesn't exist. Whenever you make a computer system purchase, the one sure thing is that within six or eight months at the outside, and perhaps even in days or weeks, the model you bought will be superseded by a machine that is faster, with new and/or better features, and often cheaper.

If your current computer has become a bottleneck to your work efficiency, or is bereft of some feature or technology that could improve your computing experience, that now is the time to upgrade. On the other hand, if your current computer is still doing a good job for you, and pretty much all you require of it, then my advice is to stick with what you've got until there is some compelling reason to replace it. The longer you hold out, the more computer you'll get for your money when you do make the leap, and the more value you'll wring out of your expenditure on the machine you're using now.

However, all that doesn't mean that strategic purchasing is not a possibility in a variety of contexts. For instance, maybe you;re particularly smitten with a computer model that's about to be (or just been) replaced or discontinued. A good recent example is the 12" G4 PowerBook, for which the 13" MacBook is not a completely satisfactory substitute for serious road warriors. I'm of the school of thought that Apple will be replacing the 12" PowerBook with an Intel-powered Mac subnotebook at some point, but in the meantime, some folks scrambled to snap up the last 12" PPC 'Books when they were discontinued last May, and that model has retained its value much better than the norm in the used and refurbished market. Indeed, Apple is actually still selling Certified Refurbished 12" 1.5 GHz Powerbooks for $100 MORE than the price of a brand new 2.0 GHz MacBook.

Another good time to make a strategic purchase is when a computer model is getting a bit long in the tooth design and engineering wise, and Apple starts piling on the spec. upgrades and features in order to goose lagging sales, such as in mid-2005 when the G4 iBook was enhanced with a whole raft of theretofore PowerBook-exclusive stuff like the scrolling trackpads, sudden motion sensors, and 512 MB of standard RAM. Indeed, those last revision 1.33 GHz and 1.42 GHz white G4 iBooks supported more RAM (1.5 GB vs. 1.25 GB) than the last-generation 12" PowerBook.

Then there is the dynamic that applies when a model receives a relatively modest refinement and speed/feature upgrade well along in its model life, such as the Revision C Core 2 Duo MacBooks Apple released last week. While the MacBook update is being dissed by some commentators as a yawner, IMHO this sort of product tweak usually results in one of the most strategically advantageous times to purchase.

Once a computer model has been in production for more than a year, and undergone a couple of generational updates, as the MacBook now has, one can be reasonably confident that it's been pretty thoroughly debugged and that early production glitches and gremlins have been ironed out (although do be aware that a new bug affecting use of external monitors has cropped up in the Revision C MacBook, see: http://docs.info.apple.com/article.html?artnum=305507 ). A minor speed bump using chips that have been used in the MacBook Pro models for eight months is highly unlikely to introduce any new bugs or reliability issues, so if you're looking for a relatively "safe" time to buy, a window of opportunity has just opened with the Revision C MacBooks.

For the short term, the new MacBook upgrade also reduces the performance gap between the consumer MacBook and the professional MacBook Pro to an even thinner sliver, although I think it also sets the stage for the distinction between the two categorized to widen substantially with the next MacBook Pro release, possibly as soon as at the World Wide Developers Conference next month. There are already Windows PC notebooks in the retail channels powered by Intel's new Santa Rosa mobile CPU, which incorporates support for auxiliary flash memory caches to boost notebook start-up times and enhance battery life, and it can be fairly safely assumed that Apple is putting the finishing touches on its own Santa Rosa based MacBook Pros.

Another engineering enhancement likely to debut in the next MacBook Pro is LED-backlit displays, and it would not shock me if we saw a significant form factor redesign, although that is much more speculative than the Santa Rosa and LED predictions.

Whatever, look for the specification and feature gap to widen considerably when the curtain rises on the Revision C MacBook Pros. It now seems probable that the MacBook spec. is locked until October/November, which is Apple's traditional time for Apple's fall notebook revisions.

So, at this point in time, if a mature, debugged product appeals to you, now is a great time to buy a MacBook. On the other hand, if you're likely to be bothered by Santa Rosa envy when the MacBook Pros are released, then it might be prudent to wait, although you'll probably have to wait six months for a Santa Rosa MacBook.

The new MacBooks Apple unveiled last week include faster Intel Core 2 Duo processors, 1GB of standard memory across the board, and larger capacity hard drives in every model.

The Revision C MacBook form factor remains unchanged, with the same 1200 x 800 resolution 13-inch glossy widescreen display that all MacBooks have had from the get-go and the somewhat unorthodox keyboard design that some rate the best that’s ever been in an Apple notebook. It comes with built-in 802.11n wireless networking for what Apple claims delivers up to five times the performance and twice the range of 802.11g.

In summary, the new MacBooks get:
• Faster Core 2 Duo processors clocked at 2.0 GHz and 2.16 GHz with 4MB L2 cache across the board
• Standard RAM is now 1 GB on all three models expandable to 2 GB
• Increased hard drives capacities with 80GB, 120 GB, and 160 GB standard on the three models respectively, with 200 GB optional
• integrated 802.11n support

Price points remain the same starting at $1099 for the 2GHz Core 2 Duo with 1 GB RAM, an 80 GB hard drive, and a Combo Drive, $1,299 for the white 2.16 GHz Core 2 Duo with 1 GB RAM, a 120 GB hard drive and a SuperDrive, and $1499 for the black 2.16 GHz Core 2 Duo with 1 GB RAM, a 160 GB hard drive, and a SuperDrive.

The biggest value enhancement, and it's substantial, is with the entry level 2.0 GHz model, which in addition to the speed bump from 1.83 GHz, also now comes with twice the amount (4 MB) of level 2 cache as the previous model, a gigabyte of RAM instead of 512 MB standard, an 80 gigabyte hard drive rather than a 60 GB unit, although it still has a Combo Drive as opposed to the two more expensive models' SuperDrives. While the extra $200 for the middle MacBook model used to be a no-brainer value-wise if you could afford it, now you have to determine whether DVD-burning capability and a 40 GB larger HD are worth the $200 to you.

As before, I question the value of the top-of-the-line $1,499 MacBook unless you really can't live without black. Personally, I would prefer white anyway, so that's not compelling for me.

Revision C MacBook Specifications and Prices in detail:

The 2.0 GHz, 13-inch white MacBook, for a suggested retail price of $1,099 (US), includes:

* 13.3-inch glossy widescreen 1280 x 800 display;
* 2.0 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor;
* 667 MHz front-side bus;
* 1GB of 667 MHz DDR2 SDRAM, expandable to 2GB;
* 80GB Serial ATA hard drive running at 5400 rpm, with Sudden Motion Sensor;
* a slot-load Combo (DVD-ROM/CD-RW) optical drive;
* Intel Graphics Media Accelerator 950;
* Mini-DVI out (adapters for DVI, VGA and Composite/S-Video sold separately);
* built-in iSight video camera;
* Gigabit Ethernet port;
* built-in AirPort Extreme 802.11n wireless networking and Bluetooth 2.0+EDR;
* two USB 2.0 ports and one FireWire 400 port;
* one audio line in and one audio line out port, each supporting both optical digital and analog;
* Scrolling TrackPad;
* the infrared Apple Remote; and
* 60 Watt MagSafe Power Adapter.

The 2.16 GHz, 13-inch white MacBook, for a suggested retail price of $1,299 (US), includes:

* 13.3-inch glossy widescreen 1280 x 800 display;
* 2.16 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor;
* 667 MHz front-side bus;
* 1GB of 667 MHz DDR2 SDRAM, expandable to 2GB;
* 120GB Serial ATA hard drive running at 5400 rpm, with Sudden Motion Sensor;
* a slot-load 8x SuperDrive with double-layer support (DVD+R DL/DVD±RW/CD-RW) optical drive;
* Intel Graphics Media Accelerator 950;
* Mini-DVI out (adapters for DVI, VGA and Composite/S-Video sold separately);
* built-in iSight video camera;
* Gigabit Ethernet port;
* built-in AirPort Extreme 802.11n wireless networking and Bluetooth 2.0+EDR;
* two USB 2.0 ports and one FireWire 400 port;
* one audio line in and one audio line out port, each supporting both optical digital and analog;
* Scrolling TrackPad;
* the infrared Apple Remote; and
* 60 Watt MagSafe Power Adapter.

The 2.16 GHz, 13-inch black MacBook, for a suggested retail price of $1,499 (US), includes:

* 13.3-inch glossy widescreen 1280 x 800 display;
* 2.16 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor;
* 667 MHz front-side bus;
* 1GB of 667 MHz DDR2 SDRAM, expandable to 2GB;
* 160GB Serial ATA hard drive running at 5400 rpm, with Sudden Motion Sensor;
* a slot-load 8x SuperDrive with double-layer support (DVD+R DL/DVD±RW/CD-RW) optical drive;
* Intel Graphics Media Accelerator 950;
* Mini-DVI out (adapters for DVI, VGA and Composite/S-Video sold separately);
* built-in iSight video camera;
* Gigabit Ethernet port;
* built-in AirPort Extreme wireless networking and Bluetooth 2.0+EDR;
* two USB 2.0 ports and one FireWire 400 port;
* one audio line in and one audio line out port, each supporting both optical digital and analog;
* Scrolling TrackPad;
* the infrared Apple Remote; and
* 60 Watt MagSafe Power Adapter.

Additional build-to-order options for the MacBook include the ability to upgrade to 120GB or 160GB (5400 rpm) or a 200GB (4200 rpm) hard drive, up to 2GB DDR2 SDRAM, Apple USB Modem, Apple Mini-DVI to DVI adapter, Apple Mini-DVI to VGA adapter, Apple MagSafe Airline Adapter and the AppleCare Protection Plan. Additional build-to-order options also include pre-installed copies of iWork ‘06, Logic Express 7, Final Cut Express HD 3.5 and Aperture 1.5.


***



cmoore@macopinion.com


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CM
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