“Mystery” of the White MacBook Upgrade Unravelled

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.

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