Should I drop my PC for the new MacBooks?

With today’s announcements about refreshes to the entire Apple MacBook family of laptops, no doubt, half the members of the Apple cult have already run out to the nearest Apple store. View a video explaining today’s Apple event:
But should the average PC user/gamer jump, too? Here are five big things Joe PC needs to know before deciding.

1. Die Integrated Graphics, Die!
Intel’s integrated GPU, which most Windows-based laptops use, is about as elegant as a moose in a tutu. With today’s Apple announcement, a reasonably powerful integrated graphics system is available for laptop motherboards: nVidia’s new GeForce 9400M. And the Apple MacBooks have it.

2. On the SLI
The new 9400M nVidia graphics chip set is like cake frosting for the new high-end MacBooks. Apple now pairs the motherboard GPU with an additional GeForce 9600M GT graphics-intensive application. This means games!

3. It’s in the Air
Someone at Apple must have said, “Hey, I love the MacBook Air’s keyboard. Let’s put it on everything else and use a similar slim design.” Done. For green techies, that also means fewer parts, less waste, and an all-around thumbs up from Mother Earth.

4. Show Apple the Money!
Most of the refreshed notebooks feature updated designs, slightly beefed-up hard drives, and roughly the same price as before. Run the specs before you buy.

5. Is It Time for PC Users to Go to the Mac Side?
The decision about whether to jump ship depends on how badly you want to play games (or use Photoshop) on a MacBook.
Already, nVidia has deals inked with five of the top 10 Windows notebook manufacturers. And as soon as next week, we expect to hear news of a Windows-based notebook flaunting the same 9400M.

Let’s dig a little deeper into all of this.

A New Graphics Game
Matt Peckham, PC World’s Game On columnist, got it half right the other day when he pondered whether the new MacBook Pros would prove to be decent gaming machines. He was railing about how the GeForce 9600M GT is just the step-up model from the 8600M that currently resides in MacBooks.

But he didn’t factor in the new integrated GPU on the motherboard–the GeForce 9400M–which is stuffed into the new MacBook Pros as well. nVidia had planned to announce the release of notebooks with Hybrid SLI (short for “scalable link interface”) performance on October 15, and Apple was a day early.

What Exactly Does Hybrid SLI Performance Mean?
Hybrid SLI means that the on-board graphics power is sufficient to handle high-definition video. And when you want to run a more graphics-intensive app, such as DirectX 10 games, the technology flips the switch into a turbo mode where the two GPUs piggyback–conceivably boosting performance by 80 percent, according to nVidia spokespeople. Take that, Intel!

Sony notebooks had a physical power-toggle between two GPUs ages ago. That involved a toggle flip and PC reboot before working. It sounds similar-ish, but not the same as, what Nvidia’s offering here.

From the get-go, these new nVidia chip sets are going to be better than Intel’s current graphics option. But how much of a performance boost will these new machines deliver? That remains to be seen: We don’t have one in the labs–yet.

All in all, this looks to be a big first step for Apple (and for nVidia). Plenty of people have used Boot Camp with their MacBooks to obtain their preferred mobile gaming platform. For instance, PC World’s Matt Peckham (again!) played Dead Space on a MacBook with all the settings cranked to 11–and it ran without a hitch. Offering a more robust alternative can only be a good thing. But don’t forget that nVidia’s tech is sure to touch down on Windows-based laptops pretty soon.

What Steve Jobs Emphasized

Steve Jobs, Apple’s CEO, emphasized the following points in today’s Apple announcement event:

  • The new MacBooks consist of fewer pieces and use aircraft-grade aluminum.
  • Smaller and more rigid machines should prove to be more durable.
  • The laptops have backlit LED displays.
  • They also have big, bad mousepads. (Does that make them ratpads?)
  • The keyboard introduced on the original Air is now available on more MacBook models.

Many users considered taking the plunge into the Apple pool when the first MacBook Air came out. But unfortunately that stylish mobile PC lacked some things that matter (ports, for example). So now, with every new MacBook, we expect to encounter some additional mind-blowing industrial design innovation that will finally propel us off the high dive despite our reluctance.

During the company’s press event today, the talking Apple heads spoke of the joys of ID and the unibody aluminum aesthetic of the Air. That’s by way of explaining why Apple has stamped that style into just about everything else rolling down the assembly line. Here are the highlights.

With most of these machines, you’ll see the same cut-out keyboard that Sony has been engineering for a dog’s age. (“Cut-out” means that the frame of the laptop looks as though someone had punched holes in it to pop QWERTY keys through). That design is now Apple’s standard.

Touch PADs
Another innovation is the big, glass touch screen that camps at the bottom of Apple laptops. The company says that the pad area is 39 percent bigger than before and that it now doubles as the button. You can perform the right-click function so beloved of PC users by mapping a corner of the oversize touch area to perform the task.

One thing I’m not completely sold on is the decision to stack all of the connectivity ports on one side. By jamming them together, Apple seems to be asking for trouble. Plug a beefy USB flash drive into one port and a USB mouse into another, and neighboring jacks might get covered up.

HD Video
Jobs today dismissed the Blu-ray format as a “Bag of Hurt.” Of course, given his not entirely unbiased position, he could hardly have done anything else but assert that HD video from iTunes is better. How about the lack of HDMI in the new notebooks? It apprears that Apple is really trying to push DisplayPort technology. Hence, the miniports on new MacBooks, and the introduction of a new 24-inch display.

Battery Life
Though crisp backlit LED displays are always a good thing, I’m a little skeptical about the 5-hour battery life that Apple promises with these new notebooks. We’ll have to put the laptops through our Test Center’s workout regimen before we believe anything regarding longer batter life.

My Take on Today’s Announcements
Before today’s event started, rumors abounded: an $800 value Mac was incoming. Sure, it would make a boatload of sense to try and create an affordable portable in this economy. But nobody was terribly surprised by today’s pricing announcements.

People joke about the PC/Mac exchange rate. Heck, Microsoft’s PR machine made a crack yesterday about a “Mac Tax”–paying a premium for the Apple name. Here’s a breakdown.

Announced: The white 13-inch MacBook ($999) comes with Intel Core 2 Duo, pokey Intel integrated graphics, 1GB RAM, and a 120GB hard disk.
My two cents: Is Apple offering anything new here besides cutting a few bucks off the price? If the company had crafted a real value machine, it might have been an interesting game-changer. With all of the talk about how the Mac OS is more efficient than Windows Vista, surely Apple could could have cobbled together a mini-notebook capable of running a low-key Leopard?
In this economy, I’d wager that it would sell like hotcakes. Apple hotcakes.

Announced: The step-up MacBooks, starting at $1299, ship with the nVidia GeForce 9400M integrated GPU (goodness!) and 2GB of RAM.
My two cents: Are these step-up MacBooks better than what’s already out there? Hang on a sec. Running a quick spec check on a 13-inch notebook at the HP store, I find that you can assemble a dv3500t with 3GB of RAM and a250GB hard disk for about $300 less than the MacBook costs.

Announced: The Air keeps the same basic pricing scheme as the first-generation models ($1799 and $2499), but beefs up the hard drive (a 120GB HDD or a 128GB SSD) and the nVidia GeForce 9400M GPU.
My 2 Cents: What’s interesting to me about the Air announcement is that it puts this machine squarely in competition with Samsung’s recently announced NP-X360–which costs roughly the same amount. The two dance spec-for-spec most of the way. Apple has the nVdia edge, which could make it the winner, but Samsung offers more ports (and HDMI).
Which is better? We’ll tell you after we test them both.

Announced: The 15-inch MacBook Pro (starting at $1999) is the real deal.
My 2 Cents: Of all of the Apple announcements made today, this one is probably the likeliest to sway people to embrace the Mac side of The Force.
This is where you’ll see nVidia combine the power of two GPUs by having them work in tandem.

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