MacBook family

There’s a reason all these MacBooks have become a big hit with laptop musicians. Expect to see so many of them you get sick of seeing them. That’s why we strongly suggest customization, like making a new case out of mylar or something.

Apple has unveiled its revised MacBook Pros today, with some subtle but significant improvements. I spoke to Apple a few minutes ago to get some of the details on what’s new.

The new MacBook Pro includes new, faster CPUs and the Santa Rosa Intel architecture refresh to the Core 2 Duo, delivering 2.2GHz and 2.4GHz brains and 4MB L2 cache. That should translate to a marginal but very measurable performance improvement, without having to spend a penny today over what you did yesterday. Santa Rosa also allows memory expansion to 4GB, huge news for anyone working extensively with sample libraries. There are also improved displays with LED backlighting and the addition of the NVIDIA GeForce 8600M GT GPU, basically a generation ahead the ATI X1600 in the original MBP (itself a very respectable card). We’ve got more on the visual side of the equation on Create Digital Motion, basically because I’m rapidly developing GPU lust.

What does this mean for music? Not the earth-shaking shift from G4 to Core Duo, but still some very good news. Think faster performance in audio apps, more memory for samples, and better displays and graphics. I know plenty of people on the fence on the MacBook Pro. Apple has the latest and greatest from Intel at roughly the same time as their PC-only competitors, so this should mean you can make an educated purchase decision today. And yeah, this might be my first choice even when I have to run Windows. (Come on, sometimes you need to make some beats in FL Studio or do your accounting.)

Improved CPU performance means faster music apps

Think 30% to nearly 60% performance gains in creative apps, thanks to incremental improvements in first the Core 2 Duo and now Santa Rosa.

I’ve been a big fan of the Intel Core Duo architecture since the beginning. This was what was missing from the PowerPC roadmap that was a big factor in making the switch to Intel in the first place. I had done extensive tests of the MacBook Pro for music for, using the first Core Duo. We noted back then that “In Apple’s tests, a 2.16GHz MacBook Pro running Logic 7.2 processes 135 PlatinumVerb reverb plug-ins, 4.5 times as many as a 1.67GHz PowerBook G4.”

Well, Apple has unearthed their PlatinumVerb reverb test again. Comparing their original 2.16 Core Duo MacBook Pro to the current 2.4GHz Santa Rosa Core 2 Duo, the latest machine demonstrates what Apple claims is a 55% improvement of the fastest machine today over the fastest machine when the MacBook Pro shipped. That’s pretty impressive for just over a year.

Now, Apple’s tests — loading an absurd number of reverbs — aren’t exactly real-world. But Macworld found that the performance gains were still impressive in real-world tests, particularly for audio, which is by its nature full of parallel processing. With apps like Logic and Live optimized to take advantage of multithreading on these processors, this is very good news.

I look forward to testing this myself. I also would love to put a new MacBook Pro up against my quad G5 tower. The original MBP was actually nipping at the heels of the Power Mac in processing performance. The new MacBook Pro should actually outrun the tower. Since the MacBook Pro has FireWire 800, you could even hook up a hard drive RAID, a 30″ display (which is bigger than most of us need, anyway), and replace your desktop.

I also think yet again audio is an excellent indication of the robustness of the CPU architecture in general. We’re one of the only markets that requires all of that performance in real-time, onstage even. With the last of the Intel-native music software finally making the jump, I think you’ll see even more MacBook Pros on tour than you do now.

What about PCs? Of course, in fairness, Apple isn’t the only company shipping Santa Rosa laptops. You should see similar performance gains on Windows running apps like SONAR, Live, and FL Studio, each of which have multi-processor optimizations of their own. Then again, you’ll also see performance gains on Windows XP and Vista on the MacBook Pro, which for me is pretty tough to resist. (Worth buying an optional, bigger hard drive add-on to run both OSes to me.)

New Displays

I’ll talk more on Create Digital Motion about the visual side, but suffice to say, you’re getting a better, more ecologically-friendly display on the new MacBook Pro than the old one. The LED backlighting looks better, delivers full brightness the moment you turn it on rather than taking a few minutes to warm up, doesn’t contain eco-unfriendly mercury, and uses less power. Apple claims they save 30 minutes of battery life in their wireless web test, and up to a full hour. That’s consistent with other numbers we’ve seen on the backlighting technology. (And frankly, as it is, I’ve been pretty happy flying New York to San Francisco with my MacBook. I mean, you need to take the occasional nap break, or put down the laptop long enough to eat stale chips.)

Also interesting: not only does the 17″ display now have a 1920px option, but it has improved low-frequency response in its speakers, for when you’re watching Daily Show in bed and don’t want to futz with headphones.

Which Machine to Buy?

Apple definitely lacks a low-cost 15″ laptop option, so it may cause a little sticker shock having to start at US$2000 for a 15″ display. On the other hand, try configuring a PC laptop with a higher-quality 15″ display, higher-quality case, built-in webcam, extras like the sudden motion sensor and disk protection, FireWire 400 and 800, ExpressCard, and high-end dedicated graphics card. What I think you’ll find is not that Apple charges a hefty price premium, but that the MacBook Pro is competitive with premium PCs. Apple just doesn’t let you strip down the configuration or choose a lower-end model. If that’s important to you, and you don’t need to run Mac software or don’t care about the Mac OS, then the PCs are still a competitive choice. I think it’s tougher to say the PCs are competitive at the premium level, though, because you wind up paying the same (or more, strangely enough) for one OS instead of two, and arguably with an inferior product design.

I’m also rapidly becoming a believer in running Windows on Apple hardware. I’ve been testing a quad Mac Pro, and it’s been hands-down the best Windows Vista experience I’ve seen on any hardware. Yeah, you heard that right. Apple is just using very reliable, tried-and-true hardware configurations, and they’ve done a good enough job with the Boot Camp beta that you can consider a Mac a PC. Add in the fact that we haven’t seen the final Boot Camp yet, Leopard is around the corner, and Parallels is developing at a ridiculous rate allowing you to run both OSes side by side from the Boot Camp partition, and … well, darn it, I don’t mean to sound like an Apple fanboy. But there’s a lot of Mac- and Windows-exclusive software I like to run. With Boot Camp, I no longer have to commit to one or the other. And I really am running both — FL Studio and z3ta+ are worth booting into Windows for, just as Logic and VDMX5 for visuals are on Mac.

Now, sure, you could buy a MacBook and a dirt-cheap PC and still get two OSes; 15″ laptops starting at US$1999 isn’t cheap (and I believe the situation is actually worse for some of you in other parts of the world). But having one machine do both is at least worth considering.

The MacBook remains a great machine if you’re on a budget. I love its pint-sized form factor on the road, more than the MacBook Pro. And for audio, raw CPU performance is very, very good on the US$1100 MacBook — certainly beyond what I need live. Via HD for Indies, you’ll see Macworld likes the MacBook (non-pro) changes.

It comes down to this:

The MacBook Pro is worth getting if you need FireWire 800, a larger display, a real GPU, or ExpressCard. (And all of them together are a pretty big deal. Not to mention, the keyboard backlighting is pretty handy for live use.)

The Mac Pro is still worth getting for expandability, internal RAID, support for dual displays, and if you don’t mind having a machine tied to your desk.

But as I type this, coincidentally, booted into Vista on a Mac Pro, I really do think Apple does deliver a fantastic Windows PC. Any hardware that ends silly OS vs. OS wars and lets you use whatever you want is okay by me.

And this looks to me like the mature MacBook Pro a lot of us have been waiting for.

Now you just have to think of a creative way to cover up that glowing Apple logo so you don’t look like everyone else. Knitting a cover could be a good way to go. Black electrical tape looks ghetto. Don’t do it.


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