Solving the White MacBook Upgrade Mystery

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.