The MacBook Family Comes of Age
The MacBook has been a popular seller for Apple since its debut, but my previous laptops in that line had been relegated to handling mostly lightweight computingsurfing the web and reading email. For serious work, I turned to my desktop. The additional screen real-estate, fast graphics, and speedy processor of my desktop machines (at work and home) made my trusty MacBook seem more like a toy than a powerhouse. And now, with the iPad shipping and selling out across the country, the MacBook has more to prove than ever. Why spend upwards of $2,000 on a laptop if a $500 device can do almost as much?
Before we answer that question, let's first look at the often-broken promises of mobile computing. Laptops are supposed to provide a desktop-like experience conveniently packaged in a lap-sized box. Unfortunately, this has rarely been the case. Battery life on my previous laptops ranged from 3-4 hours, depending on the processor-intensity of the work I was doing. If I wasn’t near an outlet when the battery gave up, I was out of commission until a power socket was available. On the laptop, I struggled to find room to lay out the palettes and controls that are packed into most modern software. Time for a break? Playing a game or watching an online video chewed through the battery in record time, and that's if the laptop could do justice to the game or video given its limited graphics capabilities. In short, while mobile computing sounds like a good thing, the experience was second-rate.
Now that I've set the stage with my past MacBook experience, let me tell you how far the MacBook has come. I’ll give you a hint: The latest generation of MacBook, coupled with recent changes in Snow Leopard, changes everything.
The MacBook family is now available with Core i5 and Core i7 processors. These multi-core processors trounce the previous generation's Core 2 Duo CPUs, even running at the same clock speed. They are also capable of temporarily increasing their computing performance when particularly tasking applications are running, dramatically improving performance when it is needed. Standard benchmarks place the performance improvement at 50-70 percent greater than last year's models. Real-world applications, such as video encoding, run almost twice as fast.
For me, this has meant that running software like Parallels (Windows compatibility) has become virtually flawless. So flawless, in fact, that I can usually boot my MacBook, start Windows in the background, and switch back and forth without so much as a stutter. Even Apple's own resource hogs, like iTunes, launch and work without lag. Have you ever tried to play back a 1080p movie trailer? In the past, I've found myself choosing lower and lower resolutions until the video finally played smoothly. On the new MacBooks, this appears to be a thing of the past. Don't get me wrongyou'll still see an occasional spinning beach-ball cursor ("Please wait…"), but there is a tangible improvement to the user experience that will make you feel like your MacBook isn't a second-class platform.
Supporting the new MacBook CPUs are a new line of NVIDIA GeForce mobile graphics processors, all running faster but with lower power consumption than ever before. What makes the MacBook's video implementation unique, however, is that it includes not only the NVIDIA GPU, but an integrated Intel graphics unit as well. Why two? Because the NVIDIA offers high-performance for games, but is overkill for typical work. There's no reason that browsing a webpage, for example, requires the 48 processor cores included on the GPU. For day-to-day work, the MacBook can automatically switch to the Intel graphics saving precious battery life, then power on the NVIDIA chipset for games, 3D rendering applications, or other graphically-intensive processes. Previous models of the MacBook line offered similar features but required to you log out of the computer to switch modes! Now, switching takes place seamlesslyjust use your computer and it takes care of optimizing your experience. Coupling this capability with higher-resolution displays elevates visual computing (and gaming) to a new level.
In addition to hardware improvements, Apple has opened up access to hardware video decoding in Snow Leopard 10.6.3. This announcement came and went with hardly any fanfare, but the implications are significant. This seemingly small change makes it possible for Mac developers to offload video decoding to the graphics processorand the MacBooks are no exception. Online video sites like Hulu will be able to stream HD-quality video without a huge hit on your MacBook's performance or battery life. Entertainment software (such as the popular Boxee and Plex) will be able to do the same. Watching full movies on your MacBook without having to plug in has moved from the realm of "wouldn't that be nice?" to "no problem." These improvements can be seen already with Adobe's release of a Flash beta that includes hardware acceleration.