I was so focused on the iPhone 3GS and Snow Leopard announcements from this year’s WWDC that I almost missed the gravity of the MacBook Pro announcements.

Apple announced price drops on nearly all of its laptops. The new lineup looks like this:

  MacBook MacBook Pro 13-inch MacBook Pro 15-inch MacBook Pro 17-inch
CPU Core 2 Duo 2.13GHz Core 2 Duo 2.26GHz Core 2 Duo 2.53GHz Core 2 Duo 2.8GHz
GPU NVIDIA GeForce 9400M NVIDIA GeForce 9400M NVIDIA GeForce 9400M NVIDIA GeForce 9400M + 9600M
Memory 2GB DDR2 2GB DDR3 4GB DDR3 4GB DDR3
HDD 160GB 160GB 250GB 500GB
Battery Life Up to 5 hours Up to 7 hours Up to 7 hours Up to 8 hours
Price $999 $1199 $1699 $2499

 

If you want an all aluminum body, you have to buy a MacBook Pro. There’s only a single MacBook model and it’s the white chassis that’s been around for a while now.

Apple added a 13” MacBook Pro to the lineup to fill in the gap, although it’s not clear to me whether this 13” MacBook Pro uses the same LCD panel as the old 13” aluminum MacBook or a derivative of the 15” MacBook Pro’s panel, which is superior.

Of course there are different models within each one of these categories that you can purchase, but they are irrelevant to the discussion we’re about to have. Look at the battery life row in the table above; Apple is claiming up to 7 hours of battery on the new MacBook Pros. The old specs used to be up to 5 hours.

Apple did some clever work on its own here. Standard lithium ion batteries are made up of cylindrical cells, similar to AA batteries. The problem with these batteries is that they waste a lot of space within a notebook (try cramming a lot of cylinders into a box, you end up with wasted space). This wasted space translates into larger batteries than are necessary, which makes for larger notebooks.

In order to continue to drive laptop thinness down, Apple started experimenting with using custom lithium polymer batteries instead of the industry standard lithium ion parts. Lithium polymer cells aren’t made of cylindrical cells (they’re rectangular), so there’s no wasted space. Not only does this make the batteries more compact, but it also gives you greater capacity since you’re using all available chassis volume for the battery.


Makes sense. Courtesy, Apple.

Apple also found that it was wasting space in the removable enclosure for the batteries as well, so its lithium polymer offerings are no longer user removable. I suspect this part of the equation has more to do with cutting costs than saving space though.

Apple first used this lithium polymer battery technology in its MacBook Air. It gave Apple a very thin battery that allowed it to create the MacBook Air’s sweet form factor. Then came the new 17” MacBook Pro, without a removable battery. Apple claimed that this battery would last for five years before it needed replacing and resulted in up to an 8 hour battery life.

The extended life is supposedly due to an on-battery sensor that communicates with the system's management controller that can dynamically sense the needs of each lithium polymer cell and feed that info back to the charging circuitry. The result is slight variations in charging current designed to optimally charge each and every cell; apparently reducing wasted charge cycles significantly. Apple claims that most cells will hit 80% of their life after 200 - 300 charge cycles, but its special lithium polymer batteries will hit the 80% mark after as many as 1000 charge cycles. Apple claims its unique battery chemistry and microprocessor managed charging (Adaptive Charging) is responsible for these gains but it’s a difficult statement to prove; we’ll have to wait and see what happens after a few years of use.

Lithium Polymer: 46% More Capacity, 0% More Weight
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  • iwodo - Saturday, June 13, 2009 - link

    Just to be fair, which Sony laptop do you own?
    I have never had a notebook that last longer then 5 hours in light mode surfing in my 10 - 15 notebook i had own.
    And Chinese invented football ( Soccer in US ), but english were the one that popularise it. Apple did not invent this tech, but so what? They were the first one to brave enough to use it.

    And as far as i know virtually all Laptop batteries are made by Sony. If you want to create yet another type of battery yourself, that means higher cost and that is why no other manufacture has follow suit.
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Saturday, June 13, 2009 - link

    I'd love to know which Sony laptop that is as well. I've seen higher battery life laptops from Lenovo and Sony, but anything approaching 8 hours with a moderate sized laptop (at least 13.3") on a standard 50-70 Whr battery? Never heard of it; 4-5 hours is about the top I've heard advertised... but then there are a lot of manufacturers out there, many different types of batteries, etc.

    Sony VAIO TZ150N is supposed to come close to 8 hours. But then, that's an 11.1" laptop with a Core 2 Duo U7500 CPU (1.06GHz), 1GB RAM, 4200RPM HDD, and GMA 950 graphics. An updated version might also offer similar battery life, but let's see them do all that with a 2.53GHz CPU, 15.4" LCD, and 4GB RAM.

    I've been trying to get Sony to send me a laptop for review; their site currently lists the VAIO TT as offering up to 7.5 hours... again with a 1.6GHz (1.4GHz?) CPU, 11.1" LCD, no optical drive, and 4500MHD graphics. Oh, and it starts at over $2000!

    You need to compare Apples to... well, not Apples, but at least something with similar specs. It's relatively easy to get 10+ hours of battery life with Intel Atom and a 10.1" netbook if that's what you want, but it would be about 1/4 as fast as the stuff in the $1700 MacBook Pro.
    Reply
  • Johnmcl7 - Sunday, June 14, 2009 - link

    It is an old TX running on its extended battery, it genuinely gives the machine batterylife to die for and in terms of portability/batterylife (the two factors mentioned in the conclusion). I don't know where you get the no optical drive part for a TT, all the machines in this range have had optical drives back to the TR's and the TT is no different - it offers either a DVD burner or a blu-ray drive. Interesting you should mention that though because as far as I can see Apple don't offer blu-ray on their 13.3in machines unlike Sony who offer it right down to their ultralights. I'm sure I can look forward to the next Apple advert from AT where Apple will innovate once again by adding blu-ray to notebooks (and only a few years behind everyone else). Long way to go on the screens as well.

    As for comparing apples to apples your conclusion makes no reference to performance. A ULV processor is not as fast as a standard processor but it's a damn sight faster than an Atom and it also can be used in a machine which is far smaller, lighter and lasts far longer on battery. Hence when looking for portability and batterylife I went with an ULV based machine, its processor isn't the fastest out there but it's far from the slowest and while the new Macbook is sitting with a dead screen I can keep on going for over twice as long. The machine is also nowhere near as spartan as a netbook and despite being lighter than the Macbook air it has an onboard optical drive and more onboard ports.

    I do have as 13.3in machine which is around 5-6 hours on its battery but it's still a lot bigger than an ultralight and when getting as big as 15.4in (which your article recommends for portability??) then batterylife and portability are less of a concern against performance and features (such as the Studio 16's RGB LED screen). Whenever I'm travelling further afield I wouldn't want to take either the 13.3in or 15in machines simply due to size and weight, it's a bonus the ultralights can also last forever and a day on battery. If I do ever want batterylife from the big ones there's nothing stopping me buying an extra battery which also means that if the main battery does die for any reason (and it does happen) then I'm not completely stuck.

    I find it really strange that integrating the battery is so acceptable and frankly extremely worrying, having worked with many laptops this is something I desperately hope will not be copied by others.
    Reply
  • deslock - Sunday, June 14, 2009 - link

    Integrated batteries has you "extremely" worried and you "desperately hope" that others don't copy Apple? Becoming desperate or "extremely" worried over things so mundane is not healthy; perhaps a different perspective will put you at ease:

    In our department, we almost never remove batteries from laptops (PC or Mac). In fact the only time we do it is to swap out hard drives, upgrade memory, or replace a faulty battery. For us (and I suspect for most people), having to remove some screws from the bottom of the laptop to get to the battery, memory, and hdd is not a big deal. And Apple's new batteries having a higher capacity and more recharge cycles makes it even less of a potential inconvenience... so I'm puzzled why some are concerned about this trend.
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Sunday, June 14, 2009 - link

    Sorry (JohnMcl) about the optical drive comment - must have looked at the wrong notebook or gotten confused; I thought it was an external drive. Regardless, Blu-ray on laptops is nothing special when you get right down to it; any company can grab a BD-ROM/DVD-RW and put it in a laptop for $150, provided you have the necessary HDCP hardware. That's another hunk of junk, though, considering HDCP has interfered with BRD playback on several laptops because of driver updates, but you can get cracked movies that work flawlessly on any laptop.

    As for the comparisons, again, you need to compare apples to apples. Just because a company with a ULV gets 8 hours doesn't make it the same as Apple's MacBooks. 2.53GHz and 8 hours of battery life is a lot better than 1.2GHz and 8 hours. 15.4" is more power hungry than 11.1". So Apple is "handicapped" by a faster CPU and a larger LCD, and yet they match or exceed the battery life of pretty much everything else.

    So they don't let you easily swap batteries. I can see some people finding that inconvenient, but how many times does the average person spend longer than eight hours using a laptop during a day and never have a chance to plug in? If I sit down in an airport and I'm going to be there for more than an hour, I find an outlet. If I'm working at some location, typing pretty much necessitates sitting down at some point, which means if my battery is low I can plug in somewhere.

    Since you like Sony so much and keep talking about them, let's do some comparisons. The VAIO SR is similar to a 13.3" MacBook in specs - truly similar and not some slower, smaller, etc. laptop. It advertises 6 hours of battery life - or 9 hours with an extended capacity battery. The 14.1" CS says up to 4 hours, or 6 hours with the extended capacity battery. The 15.4" NS says 1.5-4.0 hours of battery life, and that's with a lousy 1280x800 LCD. Up to 5.5 hours on the FW, which is a 16.4" notebook.

    Now, if you want to say you don't like Mac OSX, great. If you absolutely need the ability to swap batteries and get 14+ hours (with two batteries), fine. I still say that's a very small minority. All I'm saying is that for the performance and features, Apple appears to be giving users at least 33% more battery life than any competitive Windows Vista laptop.

    I've written about all this plenty in my laptop reviews. What I want is a laptop that:

    Gets great battery life (over 6 hours, and preferably 8+) while running Vista (or Windows 7 or XP).

    Comes with a reasonably fast (2.4GHz or better) CPU.

    4GB or more RAM.

    A decent GPU (at least 9700M GT series would be nice) that I can disable when mobile (no one plays intense 3D games on battery that I know of, since the GPU runs at 1/4 speed in that case anyway).

    A good LCD - at least 1440x900, and preferably more. (Possibly with RGB LED backlighting, though in the one system I've tested that did appear to use more power than conventional CCFL LCDs).

    Personally I want a 13.3" to 15.4" laptop - anything smaller and typing on it kills me. I know others feel the same, and I know some people that think anything over 12" is "too big".

    Weight needs to be under 6lbs. including battery.

    It seems to me that Apple pretty much offers all of that except for the Vista part and the GPU - but as Anand points out, GPU really doesn't matter much for most Apple users. As far as I can tell, Sony and Lenovo offer some of the above, but they don't get it all either. It should all be possible, if someone would just put in the R&D work, but instead we get tons of clone Vista laptops that get 2-3 hours of battery life; or we get smaller, slower and more expensive Vista laptops.

    If someone can do all of the above in a 15.4" (Apple has basically shown it can be done with the last iteration), then extending that same process to 13", 11", 16", 17", etc. notebooks shouldn't be a problem. Sony is the closest out there, I'd agree with you, but if Apple prices are expensive Sony's are just as bad (or they have lower cost models where they cut corners and features just like everyone else). The VAIO SR and Z look like the "best" choice right now. With the various features and options I'd like to get, the Z CTO is over $2000. The SR on the other hand can be had for around $1550 (not sure about Apple's warranty right now, which might affect the price on the Sony if we make it equal). I'd love to test the SR, and I've already requested one from Sony. So far no luck unfortunately. :-(
    Reply
  • erple2 - Sunday, June 14, 2009 - link

    So let me get this straight - your argument on the wonderfulness of the Sony is based on a computer that has completely different specs (significantly slower processor, smaller and lower resolution screen, slower graphical capability, smaller size, slower, lower capacity harddrives) all for a starting price of at least 350+ dollars difference, and saying that it's battery life is better? I should hope that it is, then.

    Throw in an atom processor, and you can get even more battery life, with even more portability over what you get with that Sony, all for a price that's 1/4 the base cost of the Sony.

    I do agree with you on one point, however. The lack of a user-replaceable battery seems currently to give me a bit of pause. I do like the fact that when battery number 1 gets low, I can swap out for battery number 2. I have used that on several occasions with my own laptop. However, if the original battery lasted "about 7 hours" on one charge, that would be less of an issue for me. If I was used to the battery lasting 7 hours already, however, that would be more of an issue I think.
    Reply
  • moiaujapon - Saturday, June 13, 2009 - link

    It's fantastic that Apple has taken steps to optimize the performance of their batteries, but awful that they simultaneously eliminated the scalability of that performance entirely. On average the new 15 MBP has a 46% longer battery life. But I carry a second battery, meaning that my set up has a 100% longer battery life than the stock battery of the previous version. And I use that full amount every single day. And of course if I needed to, I could add a third, and so on. With this new model I simply could not work a full day (I spend 10+ hours working outside every day, without access to a power outlet).

    Why take the impractical route of switching to non-swappable batteries? Why not optimize swappable batteries to give us, say, a still very admirable 30% increase in battery life while keeping the scalability? Then I would be impressed. Right now I want to like the new model, but it's too impractical for a lot of users who need a longer battery life.
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Saturday, June 13, 2009 - link

    Unfortunately for you, I think you're in a very small minority. The vast majority of notebook users I know do not carry around an extra battery, but they do carry the power brick "just in case". Sacrificing the ability to swap batteries in order to boost battery capacity 46% and at the same time keep the same weight is a viable approach. It might be nice if they kept an alternative solution to cater to users like yourself, but then I suppose the older models do just that.

    What I really want is for some non-Apple companies to look at what Apple is doing and follow suit. I've talked about it in every laptop review of late, and frankly the difference between MacBooks and Windows laptops is huge when it comes to battery life - over twice the battery life for the same size battery and components.
    Reply
  • Johnmcl7 - Saturday, June 13, 2009 - link

    Think this through a little further - you say it's a minority that carry an extra battery but those are clearly the ones that really need the extra batterylife. Those who do not are clearly not that bothered about having extra batterylife.

    I really, really hope that other manufacturers do not follow what Apple has done so I can continue to enjoy far better batterylife than a Macbook will likely ever have.
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Saturday, June 13, 2009 - link

    Just to clarify, when I say "follow Apple" I'm looking more specifically at battery life with a reasonable battery; I don't care all that much whether it's removable or not (provided it gets decent battery life in the first place). If I could get 8 hours of battery life, I definitely wouldn't have a need for a second battery. Reply

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