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Surprise upgrade for cheapest MacBooks

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Apple keeps springing surprises on us, some very pleasant, some a little harder to swallow.

There was the surprise of Apple not attending Macworld this year, although when you looked at the history it was clear Apple had been successively pulling out of major Mac-related events.

Really, us Apple watchers should not have been surprised, but hey, Macworld was the ultimate Mac conference and it still came as a blow.

It was a surprise that the iPod touch had improved sales figures over the December period right up to Christmas Day. App Store sales have indicated a big spike in downloads from the touch model, despite it being a premiere model of iPod.

Some pundits were predicting, somewhat gleefully, Apple's decline - but here it was still selling premium priced products at a healthy rate.

Apple's latest earnings figures will probably surprise as well - the last three months have not been good for most computer and consumer electronics companies. With the exception of IBM, most stocks went down, but Apple has fared OK; in fact, it has continued to grow, reporting nine per cent unit growth over the year-ago quarter for Macs, three per cent unit growth in iPod sales and 88 per cent unit growth for the iPhone.

It was a bit of a surprise that the new guitar and piano lessons feature of GarageBand '09 only works on Intel Macs, but once again, maybe we shouldn't have been surprised. Apple deleted the G-series of PowerPC processors in Macs years ago already and is in the latter stages of its full transition to Intel. Who knows if Snow Leopard will support the G4-G5 CPU family at all? It may be time to upgrade your hardware.

The future could hold any number of surprises. Intel has made quad-core chips and even dropped prices significantly, lately - these could end up in new iMacs or even Mac Pros, with octa-core towers a possibility. Snow Leopard's ‘Grand Central' is designed to help developers better exploit multithreading in these multi-core CPUs.

Other developments could include developments from touch-screen patents filed last year, not to mention LCD screen technology developed by Apple that allows monitors to capture images.

But I like today's surprise a lot. When Apple released new MacBooks - the aluminium so-called unibodies, slimmer, with better graphics chips that could at last handle modern games - Apple left one model of the older Polycarbonate MacBook in the line-up.

In New Zealand this meant you could still get an entry level MacBook for under $2000 New Zealand dollars, but hey, it had that limiting Intel Graphics Media Accelerator X3100.

Well, that changed today. Apple sneaked in a proper NVIDIA GeForce video card, which means even the cheapest MacBook can now drive a bigger screen (although not the 30-incher; external resolution is limited to 1920x1200) and will run ‘proper' games (maybe even Call of Duty 4, for example).

Apple also bumped installed RAM from one to two GB. The frontside bus has been accelerated to 1066MHz. While the processor did get slowed down a little, from a 2.1GHz to a 2.0GHz Core 2 Duo, and it still only uses 667MHz DDR2 RAM instead of the faster DDR3 RAM of its aluminum brethren, Bluetooth has also been improved, going from v2 to v2.1 + EDR.

Not bad for a machine that retails for the same price (NZ$1848), even if it is made from that glossy white and not-quite-so-green Polycarbonate stuff.

Otherwise the Poly MacBook is exactly the same _- it has the 13.3-inch glossy 1280x800 pixel LCD, 802.11n Airport Extreme, a 120GB 5400RPM hard drive and the 8x SuperDrive optical drive.

Notably, the Poly MacBook retains the FireWire 400 port, so if you need FireWire 400 support in a little MacBook, it's a more attractive option now with its better video and a faster architecture. And please note that Apple has often created a ‘best of brand' model shortly before final deletion.

This also means Apple could get the NVIDIA card into the mini, so that might be the next little ‘surprise'.

Cool huh?

- Mark Webster

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