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Sussing Out the New Apple Notebook Value Sweet Spot

In January, 2001, I was initially blown away by the just-introduced Titanium PowerBook G4, titling my initial commentary on Steve Jobs’ Macworld keynote’s “one more thing….” – “Simply The Coolest Piece Of Hardware Apple Has Ever Built.” Then, after some sober second thought I ordered a leftover PowerBook G3 Pismo.

Two years later, Mr. Jobs unveiled the 17″ aluminum PowerBook (whose form factor essentially lives on nearly six years later in the 17″ MacBook Pro) and the jewel-like 12″ PowerBook; then later that year at Macworld Expo Paris Jobs followed suit with the 15″ aluminum PowerBook. I looked on admiringly, commenting: “Apple’s fantastic G4  PowerBook laptops have essentially eliminated any rationale other than lower cost for owning a desktop computer for most of Mac-users,” then went out and ordered a G3 dual-USB iBook.

At Macworld Expo 2006’s, Steve rolled out the first-ever Intel-based Mac laptop – the 15″ MacBook Pro. That time my enthusiasm was less effusive. I grumbled a bit about the form factor being nearly identical to the outgoing 15″ PowerBook, but did observe that: “Fortunately, when you peer beneath the MacBook Pro’s familiar-looking aluminum skin, things get more exciting.” However, not exciting enough for me. A month later I bought the Apple Certified Refurbished 17″ PowerBook G4 than is still my production workhorse.

There definitely seems to be a pattern established here.

Fast-forward to October, 2008 and another milestone Apple notebook release. I really like the new “unibody” 13″ MacBook and 15″ MacBook Pro Steve Jobs announced Tuesday, and I’m due for another system upgrade. Actually, when I bought this PowerBook as a tide-me-over “last Power PC until I see how the dust settles” machine nearly three years ago, I didn’t imagine that I would not have upgraded to a MacIntel inside of two years, but the PowerBook has been a rock, never giving a moment’s trouble, and thus dampening incentive to move on.

But it’s time, so as much as I admire so many things about them, will I go for a new unibody machine, or revert to pattern and opt for more mature technology? My current thinking inclines me toward the latter, and here’s why.

It’s not entirely my longstanding policy about not buying “revision A” computer hardware, although that factor certainly enters into the equation. With my budgeted price range topping out at about Can$1,500 before taxes, the logical choices seem to be among the recycled white MacBook 2.1 GHz at $999, the new MacBook 2.0 GHz at $1,299, and the Apple Certified Refurbished MacBook Pro 2.4GHz at $1,349/. The 2.4 GHz MacBook is out of my budget target range, selling in Canada for $1,599 CAN and the new 2.4 GHz MacBook Pro in a whole different dimension at $2,149 CAN.

Here’s how I’m currently leaning: The 2.1″ price-leader MacBook is a bit like warmed-over lasagna from the night before – delicious the first time around, but now a leftover. The new MacBooks are nice pieces of work, except I don’t think I can live happily without FireWire at this point. That leaves the refurb. last-gen. MacBook Pro, which is substantially faster than the MacBooks in my price envelope, has a real graphics processor unit, is mature technology and generally better-equipped, at 50 bucks below my price cutoff, and only about $85 above the nominal U.S. dollar price. Seems like the value sweet spot to me. What do you think?

16 Responses to “Sussing Out the New Apple Notebook Value Sweet Spot”

  1. I’m always happy when Apple brings out new models, because I then go out and buy the previous one at a major discount. It’s saved me thousands of dollars over the last decade and a half, and because my uses don’t require the latest and greatest tech, I’ve never felt deprived. This time, I pounced on a previous-generation MacBook Air with bundled external superdrive for $1500 – $400 less than a new one. It’s a birthday present for my wife, who can lift only 5 lbs — the first computer she’s ever been able to lift on her own.

    The drawbacks were the smallish 80GB hard drive (but she uses external drives for all her photos anyway), the smaller screen (so far, no complaints from dropping down from a 17″ PowerBook), and the paucity of ports (turns out she’s not even bought the USB hub we thought she’d need, and her peripherals don’t require FireWire). Performance is plenty snappy for her needs (mostly photography) so it seems like a good choice for her particular needs and a nice price break.
    The only problem is that I now have a serious case of Air envy! What a beautiful machine, and the 2 lb. weight difference between it and my MacBook makes more of a difference than I’d imagined. I console myself with the knowledge that I got a similar price break on my black MacBook when I bought a previous generation model last year, and it’s more than adequate for my needs.

  2. George Lien

    Good question. Tough choice.

    The Gen-4 MacBook is plenty portable speed for me. Now, you want to choose between a Gen-5 and the latest Gen-6 MacBook with supposedly 5-times the graphic speed.

    I guess you need to ask yourself whether the applications you do are graphic intensive.

    If the answer is no, I would go with the black Gen-5 MacBook and invest the price difference on maxing out the memory from 2GB to 4GB.


    George Lien

  3. I’m looking for advice. I’m deciding between two models that have the same price: the new MacBook (2.0GHz/160GB) vs. the last generation black MacBook on clearance (2.4GHz/250GB). I understand that the new screen’s backlit LED is an improvement over the black MacBook (although I see in this review that it suffers compared to the MB Pro). And the new MacBooks have a bus speed that may (or may not?) make up for the .4GHz extra processor speed. I ask because many folks love the black MacBook and the price has dropped. I’m switching from PC, so no firewire isn’t a problem for me.

  4. There’s a lot of value indeed for certain customers in last-gen Macbooks Pro’s: multiple Firewire ports (although not on separate controllers, so no speed/stability gain) and the matte screens rate very high in my book. If you’ve got a mix of FW400 and FW800 devices it’s the best option to weather the demise of firewire for another year.

    Although you’ll be impressed with the performance and battery life of any of the Intel Macs, you will notice a difference with the PowerPC generation. They were a lot more stable IMHO. Better firewire chips/design and stability (especially for my audio interfaces), less USB driver problems (again: audio interfaces), more consistent sleep behaviour, generally more stable in general but that may be a Leopard thing.

    They’re still solid laptops, but my powerbooks were absolutely rock-solid in every way, but I couldn’t stand their performance after I bought a Mac Pro last year.

  5. George Lien

    Right now I’m typing this on a late 2007 black MacBook, which I’m very happy with. The new MacBooks look nice, but not including a FireWire port makes me wonder why I would choose such machine over a MacBook Air.

    Maybe Apple’s plan was to have us to buy more MacBook Air and less MacBook?

    I don’t know.

    What do you think?


    George Lien

  6. Regarding the “Rev A” curse. Eversince the iPhone and the Macbook Air I feel that Apple has been already releasing solid reliable “rev A” machines. If you are willing to plunck down the change I feel that the low end unibody Macbook is probably a solid value. Of course refurbished Macbook Pros are also a outstanding deal but in my experience the build quality of the last generation is a bit lacking and much more fragile then the unibody Macbook/Macbook Pros.

    I’m a purchasing offiser for a small company that just bought 7 Macbook Pros and just after a year we had to send 4 back to Apple for mother board replacements. The other 3 had small minor QC quirks like the keyboard letters rubbing off, the lid wraping and random heat problems.

  7. Charles Moore

    Hi Oh Blah Dee Blah Dah;

    You have me nailed temperamentally as far as cars go. I’ve owned over 50 in 41 years, and the newest was three years old when I bought it. My current rides are a 1990 Toyota Camry and a 1994 Mazda B-4000 4×4 pickup. I do like driving Mercedes and BMWs, but never found the right deal.

    A former neighbor of mine always drove used Cadillacs. He said it amused him when folks would make comments like “must be nice to be able to afford a car like that,” then drive away in a new econobox that had cost them two or three times what he paid for his current used Caddy of the day.


  8. Oh Blah Dee Blah Dah

    RE: “There definitely seems to be a pattern established here.”

    You are like a used car buyer. You are the type that always drives a Mercedes or a BMW, but it is always purchased used.

    The world needs someone to help with recycling, and you are doing a good job of it, and you are making a market for the earlier Macs.

  9. Vague Nomenclature

    I’ve been an early Mac adopter twice. I got the first beige G3 desktop and the first flat-screen, all-in-one iMac. There were a few troubles, but mostly software, and nothing that caused any downtime.

    About four months ago, I needed a new laptop to replace a borrowed one aluminum MBP I had to return to its owner. I bought a brand new, next to the last MPB for about the same price as a the top of the line MBs at the time. Got a great deal and it’s an awesome machine. I keep my Macs about 8-9 years before replacing them, so I’m good for a while.

    But, if I could have waited until today to buy, the temptation to come up with a few hundred more would have been too great. I absolutely love the idea of the billet aluminum chassis. And that graphics card has got to be sweeeeet.

    So, yeah. Buy the last gen, knowing that on your next go around, you can get the newest config at a discount.

  10. I bought a mid-range MacBook 2.4 Ghz. machine about a month ago. I love the computer. It replaced an iBook G4, which replaced an iBook G3 four years ago. I was planning on waiting for the new MacBooks but after thinking about it for awhile I opted for the last, most mature iteration of the Early 2008 machine. It’s simply the best notebook I’ve ever had, fast at the things I care about (data processing over graphics), and comparable to my desktop machine, an iMac Core Duo (first iteration).

    When the new MacBooks were announced, I was certain I made the right decision. Except for the graphics processor, the Early 2008 Macbook has better specs than the Late 2008 model, has a FireWire port, and a faster CPU. Sure, the aluminum shell would be nice, but the plastic case is good too. It’s a better deal. You can buy a reconditioned model for $1049 from Apple, $50 cheaper than I paid a month ago. I recommend this machine.

  11. I’m with Lucky, an that’s exactly my plan. My 1.25 GHz PowerBook G4 is feeling slower and slower for my use of it, but in six months I’m hoping for new MBPs to be available refurbished and by that time I’ll have saved enough money to afford them at that price. Plus, I’ll be more sure of receiving a fully working system than fully “revision A.”

  12. I say go for it. Or wait a little more, let’s say about half a year, ’till the next updates and then get the future “old” unibody macbook pro as a refurb.

  13. I agree with your comment about staying away from Rev A Apple products.. I’ve made that mistake a few times, and have gotten myself screwed, each of those times… Wait till the next refresh comes to buy one of the new MB’s or MBP’s… you’ll be glad you did!