As you’ve no doubt heard by now, Apple has new laptops as of today, including even a refresh for the Air. Look past the industrial design and gestural trackpad, and some of the significant under the hood changes to Apple’s laptop line are graphics-related. There’s a new graphics connector, which adds the nice feature of dual-link DVI support, refreshed GPUs, and possibly most importantly, an easier transition to the low-end. While it’s too soon to know for sure, my hope is that means a US$1299 MacBook could now be capable of running software like Final Cut Studio and Resolume 3 might now run on non-Pro machines.

The bad news: when Apple giveth, it also taketh away. FireWire is gone on the non-Pro model. And the Pro is down one FireWire port. And there’s no HDMI or Blu-Ray, if that matters to you. And something went wrong and the 17″ model is still the old 17″ model (though that may not be a deal breaker, if Apple will reduce the price).

It’s the FireWire thing that bothers me — especially strange, given it’s a format Apple helped advocate, and given that Apple has pushed HD video for consumers with iMovie. It’s an absolute about-face. It means that while Apple may have just given you a way to run Final Cut, they may have also taken away the ability to capture footage, so I wouldn’t be surprised if Studio still doesn’t run on their low-end machines. (This despite the fact that, on the audio side, people do pretty heavy-duty audio work in Logic Studio on even a Mac mini.)


The MacBook line now uses the NVIDIA GeForce 9400M. It’s an integrated chip, but benchmarks suggest it should behave more like an entry-level, current-generation dedicated GPU. Now, watching Apple’s presentation, you might think this is some revolutionary new design, but it has appeared in PC laptops, too, from makers like ASUS. And while the engineering feat is really significant, and an order of magnitude better than the awful Intel integrated graphics, you’ll still squeeze more GPU performance out of, say, any used $1500 MacBook Pro than a brand-new $1500 MacBook.

Anyway, my sense is that this could bridge the software divide that has separated Pro and non-Pro users. If you have a plastic MacBook, you can’t run Final Cut Studio (Motion, in particular, relies too heavily on the GPU), and you can’t run great upcoming software like Resolume 3. (I do run VDMX successfully on my MacBook, but some fancier effects and extra layers don’t work as well as they do on a dedicated GPU.) We’ll have to see how the NVIDIA drivers work out, but I’m hopeful that this could make the Mac entry level for visualists a lot lower. It’s a pretty big bummer to have to start at US$1999 just to get a GPU fully capable of running live visuals.

On the Pro is the NVIDIA 9600M GT with up to 512MB of VRAM on the $2499 Pro.

Graphics, FireWire Connectors (or lack thereof)

There’s also a new display connector, the Mini DisplayPort. In fact, the Mini DisplayPort and 9400M are even on the MacBook Air. The DisplayPort is a new, emerging standard, and, for what it’s worth, has gotten standards approval from VESA. Short term: it’s a pain there’s no HDMI, but you could see DisplayPort showing up other places, and it’s clear Apple’s trying to push it over HDMI and DVI. Apple theoretically could have supported both but evidently chose not to for political reasons; DisplayPort has pass-through HDMI compatibility.

Now the bad news: there’s no more FireWire connector on the non-Pro MacBook. That means you can’t connect a DV camera, which to me is a pretty huge deal. Even on my non-Pro MacBook, I can plug in my camera and edit in Adobe Premiere pretty successfully (or, via Boot Camp, in Sony Vegas). There’s no SATA, either, which is the emerging drive standard — even on the Pro. And you can only remedy that situation on the Pro with its ExpressCard slot, which the standard MacBook still lacks.

At least, if you want a second laptop to run visuals on and don’t want to use integrated Intel graphics, you have a reasonably affordable Mac option now.

Bottom line: I don’t think this is anywhere close to a game changer. If you’ve been waiting to upgrade and you were planning to go Mac, it’s all good news, so long as you had your eye on the Pro models. But anyone hoping for a real change in the Mac value equation will be sorely disappointed. Sure, the Mac is wildly popular among visualists, but I have to say, you do have a choice. I think a Windows laptop remains a strong option value-wise. And, hey, competition is good.

MacBook Specs
MacBook Pro Specs

Create Digital Music on FireWire Changes:

No FireWire on MacBooks? Only one FW800 jack on Pros, when you might want a fast bus for an audio interface and another one for storage? Here’s what I think on the audio side of the equation:

What the New Apple Laptop Port Changes Mean for Audio

Updated: It’s time to talk to Apple, say fellow Mac users. Eugenia of Eugenia’s Rants and Thoughts is encouraging unhappy Mac users to tell Apple they want FireWire back on the MacBook:

No firewire on new Macbooks
Apple – MacBook – Feedback