Solving the White MacBook Upgrade Mystery

| Ted Landau's User Friendly View

There's a minor mystery to be found in this week's Apple news. On Wednesday, Apple upgraded the specs for its white MacBook. The mystery is: Why?

To understand why this is even considered mysterious, let's back up a bit.

Apple introduced its latest line of MacBooks back in October 2008. The new aluminum unibody MacBooks largely replaced the prior white polycarbonate models. The least expensive aluminum model featured a 2.0 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo and an NVIDIA GeForce 9400M graphics processor. This model is still available for $1299.

At the same time, Apple released an updated version of the prior white MacBook model, now sporting a 2.1 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor. The specs for this lone white MacBook were again modified in January 2009: the processor speed dropped ever so slightly to 2.0 GHz, but the system bus went up from 800 MHz to 1066 MHz and the NVIDIA GeForce 9400M replaced the older Intel Graphics card. Overall, the result was a faster MacBook for the same $999 price.

This week, Apple bumped the processor speed on the white MacBook back up to 2.13 GHz, while also offering slightly faster RAM and a larger hard drive. The price remained at $999.

The first question, after examining these tech specs, is why didn't Apple simply drop the white MacBook back in October? That's what Apple usually does when a new model comes out. For example, you don't see a white iMac still for sale. Apple does sometimes sell a discontinued model until the stock runs out. But this was clearly not the case here. Apple continues to restock — and even improve — the white MacBook.

Why? I have two theories. As they are not mutually exclusive, they can both be true.

First, Apple wanted to retain a $999 price point. Apple's marketing is well served by being able to advertise a laptop for "under $1000." If Apple determines it can sell enough of these white MacBooks to make it worth their while, without seriously hurting the sales of the newer model, why not? If and when Apple finds that it can profitably sell an aluminum MacBook for under $1000, that's when it will relegate the white model to the history books.

Second, the white MacBook is likely especially attractive to the education market. For a secondary school classroom, the small advantages of the aluminum model are not worth another $300. In fact, with its FireWire 400 port and a mini-DVI connector, the white model may actually be preferred to the new MacBooks (which lack any FireWire port and have a less common Mini DisplayPort connector). Apple is very interested in keeping this market happy, so it has kept the white MacBook in the mix.

But why does Apple keep improving the white model, including the changes this week? Why not? Essentially, as the prices of components come down, it makes sense for Apple to offer the best white MacBook it can while keeping the price at $999. Considering Microsoft's recent ad campaign, that criticizes Mac laptops for being "too expensive," it seems especially worthwhile for Apple to up the specs.

Consistent with all of this, Apple released the revised white MacBook this week with no fanfare at all. There was no press release and no mention of it on Apple's home page. The only hint that something had happened at all was the "NEW" badge above the white MacBook listing in the Apple Store. I believe this is Apple's way of saying: We don't want to encourage you to buy this model. We'd rather you get the aluminum notebook instead. So we're not going to make a big deal of it. But if you seek it out, you'll find that the white MacBook is an even better value than it was last week."

This gets to the final question: If you are looking for a low-cost MacBook, which model should you get? The least expensive aluminum model or the upgraded white MacBook? Personally, I'd have to say: "Go with the white one." For the typical "low-end" customer seeking this price point, the advantages of the aluminum model (such as the touted unibody construction) simply aren't worth the extra cost (just as was the case for education purchasers). I am sure Apple is aware of this. That's why I suspect that the aluminum MacBooks (and perhaps the entire laptop line) are likely to be upgraded soon, so as to more clearly justify a higher price.

Mystery solved.

Comments

azarkon

I agree, I think it is important for apple to have a sub-1000 price point, and the aluminum chassis is probably keeping the other macBooks from being that cheap.  The bigger question is why the base macbook, after getting the graphics and other guts of it’s brethren, still has a firewire port and hasn’t switched over to mini Display Port (like the Air has). 

But I do have to disagree with you: especially if you want your Macbook to last like macs typically do, the more durable aluminium is a worthwile upgrade as the plastic of the white macbook is much more prone to cracks and abuse. I have one, and know many people who have had problems with the plastic cases.

graxspoo

This situation is pretty funny. Apple removed FW 400 from the new MBs to try to differentiate them from the Pro models… but it kept selling the old white model. Now they’ve reved the white MB, probably because of the bad economy, Microsoft’s ads, the backlash against the loss of FW 400, or some combination, the lowest end “old” MB is actually quite a bit more desirable than the aluminum “new” MBs.

It costs less, it does more, it’s that simple.

(BTW, I have a two year old white MB, and yes, the case has cracked near the palm-rest, but the computer still works fine. Plus, I have FW, thank you very much.)

MCal

Well I agree somewhat on both the price point and the education arguments. I do feel there’s something else going on here.
Here in the uk the white Macbook has steadily been getting more expensive… from ?699 when the black model was top of the non-pro range, to ?719 for the previous white Nvidia model and now to ?749!!!  Apple is gradually pricing itself out of the mass market over here I’m afraid….  B4 you say troll please note I’m a machead and this brings me no pleasure. I’m also a Pro Mactech and this harms my livelyhood. They are giving the microsoft ads more relevence here..
Beyond this I tend to believe the rumour that the Alu Macbook will gain fw800 ( as it’s a terrible deal right now…. we don’t sell many at all ) and will probably gain ‘Pro’ at the end becoming a true replacement for the 12"pbook and justifying it’s higher price. The Macbook name being reserved for Plastic (or similar) cased units in the future… At the moment the lineup is abit of a mess imho..

Al.

JulesLt

MCal - some of the price rise is down to the falling pound (remember when it was near $2 to the pound??) - Apple aren’t the only ones raising their UK prices (HP and Dell have also done so since last August) but they are also tend to change their specs/models to hit certain price points.

The funny thing is that is exactly what I expected Apple would do - use falling component costs to close the gap with their competitors at the bottom end, given that - in my opinion - people looking at the lowest-end MacBooks are not really looking at performance/

MCal

JulesLt. Yes of course thats a part of it. But the pound is now climbing again and there are piles upon piles of 15” Laptops for ?399 here….  Business is down badly in our retail stores and all people look at (mainstream people) is the pricetag and the white Macbook is climbing. The white Macbook should be no more than ?599. You can’t even say it has superior build quality.. it flex’s like an Acer in some areas.
  I understand that Apple is looking only at the premium market and keeping there 35% margin.. But Dealers have a tiny margin and all of ‘em are hurtin’.
I love the products, I love OSX and I even mostly admire the company, but I think they need to re-evaluate the current strategy.. Oh and add bloody fw800 to the Alu Macbook so people want it lol grin

Al.

JulesLt

I agree - ?599 would be the sort of price people might stretch to - or at least aspire to - if they thought it was seriously better than a ?399 machine. And whatever Apple say about being unable to build a cheap machine, even G4 iBooks are usable machines (possibly more usable than the bottom end Celeron Dells).

Now personally, 13” beats 15” anyday - my ideal machine would have been a replacement for the 12” Powerbook, and the 13” AluBook is close enough for me (I don’t need F/W so can live with it). But I can see why a lot of people think 15” beats 13” - netbooks at the bottom, 17” at the top.

Lachlan

The old MacBook is good value - pity they can’t/won’t incorporate its features into the new shell. Dropping Firewire for the new models was a big mistake for the established education market - ie. the labs with firewire drives and peripherals.

To me the fact that the white polycarbonate model is still being offered, is proof that Apple lost the plot with the new model.

Glenn Howes

It’s true that the white MacBook wins the spec per dollar argument, but the unibody version is an incredibly solid piece of engineering. If you look at what happens to the plastic on a white MacBook over time, you can see how cheaply it is made in comparison to the unibody. A 4 or 5 year old MacBook will often look like it’s completely falling apart with grungy plastic, missing keys and flickering display, a fate I don’t believe will happen to many unibodies, with their solid construction and LED backlit screen.

The unibody MacBook I’m typing this on was a replacement for a first generation Intel MacBook, and it is superior to it in every way except for the lack of FireWire. It has a better screen, case, keyboard, weight, balance, and palm rest comfort. The battery, RAM and hard drive are easier to replace. I’m willing to pay a good chunk of change more for a device I am using 12 hours a day, and which I make a good living using.

bc

This reminds me of what happened with the eMac. Apple kept an older, cheaper, long-popular but now dated and less attractive model around primarily (and eventually exclusively, IIRC) for large, edu institutional purchasers, who had to consider bids against cheap PC boxes. The danger now is that the white model is TOO attractive, so I hope it portends an imminent price cut or feature upgrade (firewire redux?) on the alu models.

OldGuy

It has an official name now too - - MacBook White - - at least that is what it is called at the bottom of the page at www.apple.com/macbook.  Not sure if they had it there before, but now, under Macs we have: Mac Pro, Mac Mini, MacBook, MacBook Pro, MacBook Air, MacBook White, and iMac.

I’m writing this on my early 2008 MacBook (White).  (My previous Mac is my late 2001 iBook, which still works, on its original hard drive).

Jimbode

TW, I have a two year old white MB, and yes, the case has cracked near the palm-rest, but the computer still works fine. Plus, I have FW, thank you very much.

This will be repaired at the Apple Store for nothing, even out of warranty, as this is a know issue.

concerned

The reason that the plastics break is due to abuse…. squeezing and slamming shut. I do neither and my plastics are like new.

ogreinprogress

The white MacBook also silently eliminated the ability to connect to a composite video source, aka a TV as an external display. Since when is eliminating a feature an upgrade?! It was possible to connect the Mini-DVI to Video connector with all MacBooks up until this point, why take it a way in the January 2009 model and from this point forward?

Why would Apple do this… I’ll bet it was a screw up when upgrading from the Intel integrated graphics to Nvidia integrated graphics but not upgrading the Mini-DVI to the Mini DisplayPort (since it is still possible with the unibody MacBooks) essentially creating a hardware incompatibility issue. Of course it may have been a cheap move to cut costs on components and make more money on the white MacBook, but I’d like to believe that Apple simply screwed up.

MCal

Hmm. Hopeful this Video out issue could be solved by a firmware update. Of course it may well not be. Maybe they’ll use it as a ‘feature’ on the Alu? lol

Al.

JulesLt

Well, Apple are well known for removing features (floppy disks being the one everyone remembers, but ditto going with USB for mice and keyboards - while my Dell at work still supports PS/2 connectors). But in this case, it sounds like a mistake (as you say, Alu MacBooks can do it, and a cheaper MacBook is even more likely to be used with a display that doesn’t support direct digital).

Glenn Howes

The reason that the plastics break is due to abuse?. squeezing and slamming shut. I do neither and my plastics are like new.

No, they are caused by the nature of the material involved. The palmrest area of my first Intel MacBook turned a grungy color after a year and was happily replaced (the plastic that makes up the palmrest and the frame around the keyboard) by a Genius, and it’s replacement started to chip around the edge next to the trackpad, and a Genius would replace that too because it’s a known issue. I’ve seen MacBooks at the Genius bar that had half cm strips of material that had fallen off half the way across the palmrest.

The fact that they are replaceable on request does not make the material in question any more appropriate for its use. I’m just saying that anodized aluminum will have no such problems.

Nor am I saying that the white MacBook is worse than the industry standard for consumer notebooks. Far from it, most low end notebooks might as well be made of cardboard. I’m just saying the unibody MacBook has a great case.

JulesLt

I’ve seen that on a couple of white Macbooks - they don’t seem to age as well as the older iBook.

And my black MacBook had started to go shiny on the trackpad (plus would pick up fingerprints as soon as touched it. Which probably says more about my hands that anything else).

The glass trackpad on the new machines is obviously an answer to that issue (as well as how to make the trackpad fit in with the Alu casing without appearing to be a cheaper bit of grey plastic).

dude piece

thanks for the astonishing insight, captain obvious

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