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Summary:

Last week Apple quietly upgraded the entry-level white MacBook’s Core 2 Duo processor clock speed from 2.0 GHz to 2.13 GHz, added an additional 40GB of standard hard disk capacity, and upgraded its RAM specification to 800MHz DDR2 SDRAM. Obviously, additional speed and capacity is a […]

Last week Apple quietly upgraded the entry-level white MacBook’s Core 2 Duo processor clock speed from 2.0 GHz to 2.13 GHz, added an additional 40GB of standard hard disk capacity, and upgraded its RAM specification to 800MHz DDR2 SDRAM. Obviously, additional speed and capacity is a plus, but as The Mac Observer’s Ted Landau questions, why upgrade this long-in-the-tooth laptop at all?

Significant Value-Added

To recap recent developments in the MacBook world, the unibody aluminum machines, released October 2008, mostly replaced the preceding white-and-black polycarbonate models, with the entry-level unibody model featuring a 2.0 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo and an NVIDIA GeForce 9400M graphics processor, which remains the current spec at this writing (although reportedly there has been an unheralded upgrade of display quality).

Meanwhile, Apple continued selling one, last, lonely representative of the previous MacBook form factor — a white MacBook model, initially with a 2.1 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor. However, the “WhiteBook” received a substantial upgrade on January 21, 2009 with the addition of an NVIDIA GeForce 9400M integrated graphics chipset replacing the older and much slower Intel GMA X3100 graphics of the previous model. The standard RAM allotment doubled from 1GB to 2GB, and its system bus speed was increased from 800 MHz to 1066 MHz, but the processor speed dropped slightly to 2.0 GHz, matching the base unibody MacBook spec. With the price remaining steady at $999, this obviously represented significant value-added, and presumably the last revision of this machine.

But Apple wasn’t finished with the WhiteBook yet, and last week, as noted, it gave that machine a nice little spec bump — still at a price $300 less than the base unibody MacBook.

Not Dead Yet

Since around Christmas, many pundits have been predicting that Apple would soon drop the polycarbonate-bodied MacBook, possibly replacing it with a bare-bones version of the unibody MacBook at the $999 price point. But that hasn’t happened, and this latest refresh seems to indicate that Cupertino intends to carry on selling the WhiteBook for quite some time, which is good news for budget-conscious Apple laptop purchasers who have been dismayed with Apple’s decision to drop FireWire support from the unibody MacBooks. (The WhiteBook still has a FireWire 400 port.)

Landau speculates that Apple hasn’t yet found a way to make selling a $999 unibody profitable, which is a reasonable surmise, and with development and tooling costs for the plastic MacBook long since amortized, it’s probably able to turn a tidy profit on the white MacBooks at that price point, even with the two value-added revisions this year keeping it current and competitive in terms of power.

The Education Market Factor

Another factor cited by Landau is the WhiteBook’s popularity in the education market, where its relatively modest price (it sells for $949) and scuff and bump-resistant ruggedness of its polycarbonate housing make it especially attractive, as do its FireWire 400 port and mini-DVI connector (as opposed to the unibodies’ Mini DisplayPort connector). Again, I think that’s a reasonable assumption.

The value of the $999 MacBook has again been significantly enhanced without a price increase, and while the WhiteBook still sells for twice as much or more than a typical PC netbook, it’s more than arguable that you get more than twice the computer.

  1. The white Macbook will stay on the market just as long as it takes for the unibody Macbook to get a USB v3 port, I guess. They really blew it for a lot of people with dropping the Firewire for something a LOT slower, and they know. They just can’t afford to loose all the customers that feel that way. I would have bought a unibody when it came out, if not for the missing Firewire. And I am not going to either. So the only solution is a new white one – a USB3-version will be for 2011 or so, I guess.

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  2. I would postulate that the change in specs has more to do with suppliers than with Apple. If Intel finds that all their processors fall into a 2.13 or higher bin, they are not going to want to sell any at lower prices and 2.13 becomes the new low end. Likewise hard drive manufacturers are moving to new platter densities so maybe 120GB drives simply aren’t being offered anymore.

    Yes I realize the 2.0 is still being used in high volumes in both the unibody and mini, but I expect that will change soon. In the case of the unibody it simply must. Paying $300 for LED backlighting and slower performance is not something most consumers do.

    I think Apple intends to move the whole unibody line to non-replaceable, smart batteries and perhaps re-position the top MacBook as a 13″ MacBook Pro.

    I think a simplified lineup would make a lot of sense. I’d make just 6 standard configurations: a single MacBook Air, two MacBooks (13″ and 15″) and three MacBook Pros (13″, 15″, 17″)

    The MacBooks would be, in the short term, the existing 2.13GHz whitebook plus a unibody 15″ MacBook with the same processor and graphics. When economically feasible the plastic model would be dropped in favor of a 13″ unibody.

    The MacBook Pros would all be 2.8GHz with GT150 video, 4GB RAM and 320GB HD. That would create a wide enough performance gap to justify the much higher prices of the Pro lineup. Faster processors, larger HDs, etc. would be available, as usual, as options.

    I really think MacBook customers would rather have a choice of screen size than processor.

    I also believe Apple will stick with the current Penryn family of processors until Intel starts volume production of Westmere processors some time in 2010.

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  3. There is another issue – Apple’s international pricing. I get the impression that Apple builds a machine to a price point that it thinks the market can stand in the USA. However, this strategy is not one that suits an international market. The recent weakness of Sterling and the Euro have seen significant price increases in Europe. Six months ago here in the UK the MacBook was £699. The new unibody MacBook starts at £929. If that were the entry-level model it would harm sales considerably, particularly since it is a machine that students are likely to find attractive. The white MacBook, which increased in price by £30 following the recent speed-bump, is still more reasonably priced at £749. That’s a difference of £180 or $297 at today’s exchange rate.

    Apple is more or less alone in having significantly increased its European prices. Other manufacturers prices have remained steady, and at a time when inflation is close to zero, it’s somewhat surprising. Apple presumably doesn’t indulge in the same level of currency hedging as other volume computer builders.

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  4. Louis wheeler Wednesday, June 3, 2009

    What if the reason is that Apple wanted to add the NVEDIA 9400 GPU to the new white MacBook? This means Apple’s entire Line up now uses NVEDIA. The older white MacBook had Intel integrated graphics.

    Why would Apple want to upgrade its GPU? Snow Leopard 10.6 is due out in one to ten weeks. Snow Leopard has in it OpenCL software which allows the 16 cores of the NVEDIA GPU to be used in novel ways. The CPU speed bump is too small to be relivant, since Intel dropped its price on the previous speed.

    Apple values its education customers. There would be a huge outcry if Snow Leopard turned out to be a huge success but Apple’s education customers were left out.

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  5. Louis wheeler Thursday, June 4, 2009

    What if the reason is that Apple wanted to add the NVEDIA 9400 GPU to the new white MacBook? This means Apple’s entire Line up now uses NVEDIA. The older white MacBook had Intel integrated graphics.

    Why would Apple want to upgrade its GPU? Snow Leopard 10.6 is due out in one to ten weeks. Snow Leopard has in it OpenCL software which allows the 16 cores of the NVEDIA GPU to be used in novel ways. The CPU speed bump is too small to be relivant, since Intel dropped its price on the previous speed.

    Apple values its education customers. There would be a huge outcry if Snow Leopard turned out to be a huge success but Apple’s education customers were left out.

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  6. [...] example, let’s say you really wanted to read Charles’ Mystery of the White MacBook Upgrade Unravelled article here on TheAppleBlog, but just don’t have the time to spare. The article, as it [...]

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