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Apple’s Latest Hack: Aluminum Computers

4 minute read
Josh Quittner

One of the many definitions of the word “hack” is a clever solution for a computer gram. When writing code, that is, the fewer steps the better; simplicity is key. One can’t help but think of that every time Steve Jobs unveils a new Apple product.

The new laptops he showed off during a press conference at Apple HQ in Cupertino, Calif., this morning, for instance, are cleaner, simpler versions of the existing line of MacBooks and MacBook Pros, but manage to do much more. (That’s a lesson that PC makers, who load each new generation of their machines with endless gimmicks and extras, never seem to learn.) At this rate of hacking down the product line, I suspect that within three years, the MacBook will be nothing more than a sheet of unbreakable glass.

The hack trumpeted today, however, was How To Make A Laptop Stronger, Lighter and Cheaper By Carving It Out of A Block of Aluminum. This technological feat was pioneered on the earlier superlight MacBook Air and from this day forward (until we reach the Glass Singularity, I guess) will be standard fare on all Mac laptops. Jony Ive, design boss and Apple’s second-most important man, explained: “Rather than start with a thin piece of aluminum and add multiple parts for structure, we start with a thick piece of aluminum.” The frame, or “unibody” that results after much drilling, cutting and buffing is so gorgeous that Jobs directed his Apple-uniformed cadre to hand out one per row and let the press and analysts kvell.

Where PC makers wallow in confusion — some laptops include multiple types of mouse (touch pads and pointers), for instance — Apple has found a moment of Zen. The new MacBook has eliminated its single-button mouse altogether; every interaction now occurs via a glass touch pad. To select something, you simply push down on the glass pad. Or as Jobs said, “The whole trackpad is the button.” This generation of touch pads, by the way, lets users do a lot more with one hand. One finger directs the mouse, two fingers enlarge and reduce images, three fingers allow you to rapidly side scroll through documents, and swiping four fingers across the pad manages all the windows one has open on the screen.

The new laptops also have new graphics cards that are supposed boost image-rendering speeds 500%. That should be great for games.

What we didn’t see was the rumored $800 Apple laptop; Apple kept its price points high, with the high-end MacBook Pro starting at $1,999, and the consumer-friendly MacBook starting at $1,299. That could be a risk in these consumer-cautious times, but the rate of Mac sales has exceeded the growth rate of PC sales for the past four years, despite Apple’s higher prices. And by commanding (and getting) that higher price, its revenue has soared. According to Tim Cook, Apple’s chief operating officer, “one out of every three dollars spent in retail [on computers] is spent on a Macintosh.”

Apple sold some 2.5 million Macs last quarter, the most ever. Cook argued that customers flock to Apple simply for its products. He also credited Apple’s snappy advertising campaign and seductive retail stores, where more than 400,000 people enter daily. He even gave a backhanded thanks to Microsoft, saying that the company’s much maligned Vista operating system drove users to Apple. “I think it’s fair to say that Vista hasn’t lived up to everything Microsoft has said it would,” Cook claimed. “And consequently it’s opened doors for a lot of people to switch to the Mac.”

Jobs, who says he’s beat his pancreatic cancer, continued to look healthier. He’s still skinnier than Reddy Kilowatt, but he was relaxed, and looked and sounded strong. Still, before taking questions from the audience at today’s “town hall” style press conference, he projected a slide reading: 110/70. “This is Steve’s blood pressure,” the Apple co-founder said. “If you want to see it go higher, just ask questions about my health.” No one did.

(Click here for thirty years of innovation at Apple.)

(See photos of the iPhone 3G hitting stores here.)

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