The new line of Apple laptops was released a couple of months ago, and they’re phenomenal with respect to design. For a little background, the now “classic” MacBook Pro design has largely gone unchanged on the surface since arguably the Titanium PowerBooks from 2001, though there have been some less obvious but important changes since then.
Though the classic design has persisted for several years, it still had a number of flaws. As a matter of preference, the optical drive was front-loading, which isn’t exactly a flaw but something I’ve always felt was not ideal. But the more serious flaws include the laptop’s amount of flex when handled with one hand: the sheer torque due to gravity on the machine was enough to warp the optical drive briefly when handled. It made the laptops seem too delicate.
Perhaps the primary flaw in the older design was the lack of a user installable hard drive. Some 20 screws and 20 minutes were required to replace the hard drive, an operation that often left the machine’s top casing a little less than perfect, as it had a combination of weird snaps and connections to be refitted properly. After several careful disassemblies, my MBP top case still had a couple of funny issues.
Hard drive installation on the “classic” MacBooks, however, was the easiest it’s ever been. Simply remove the battery, take out something like 3 screws, and pull a tab and the hard drive could be replaced. It was an oft-overlooked aspect of phenomenal design.
Laptop design isn’t simply making a nice looking case and cramming a bunch of components inside. A lot of technical knowledge is required to figure out how to fit all the components so that the ports are accessible and that the machine runs cool enough. Additional considerations include issues such as hard drive and memory installation, both of which should be able to be done by anyone with a little patience and some familiarity with electronics.
I consider the new MBP 15″ design a phenomenal success because it solved the 2 major problems of the classic: rigidity and hard drive accessibility. It utilizes a fabrication process that cuts the bulk of the machine from a solid block of recyclable alumin(i)um that was pioneered on the MacBook Air and is now used throughout the entire Apple laptop line, save one of two notable exceptions. The 17″ MacBook Pro did not get the unibody treatment, and if you believe my claim about the difficulty inherent in laptop design, it’s not difficult to see why.
The new 15″ MBP has massive under the hood reorganization. Its logic board used to span the entire back of the computer in kind of a weird way. The battery and RAM sat in the middle of the machine like a strange island. Ports were located on both sides.
In the new machine, all of the ports are located on the left, and the entire logic board is contained there. The battery and the hard drive are directly beneath the palmrest of the new machines, and the optical drive sits on the right hand side. The organization is not unlike a bento box at your favorite Japanese restaurant.
For the MacBook Pro 17″, several design choices must be considered. The 17″ had an extra USB port, and it may be possible to retain that or at least another FireWire 800 port. They’ll probably do away with FW 400, if current trends on the MacBook provide any clues. Certainly they’ll go with a mini DisplayPort, and they may be inclined to use another NVIDIA chipset on the 17″. If they try and put ports on both sides of the machine, they’re back to the same problem of connecting both sides of the machine via a logic board (or two) that somehow spans the center of an even larger computer. And considering hard drive and RAM accessibility, it’s not immediately obvious how they might try and accommodate all of that.
Probably we’ll see several of the 15″ cues in the new 17″ (expected as early as Jan.) — hard drive and battery in the front, optical drive on the side, and all of the ports on the left. The only trouble is that, with the larger screen, there still won’t be that much more room for additional ports on the left hand side, considering power, 2 USB, 1 FW 800, audio in and out, the mini DisplayPort, and the ExpressCard/34 slot. They may be able to cram one more FW 800 port on that side, and they’ll have plenty of logic board space for its associated electronics, but these types of issues are a funny trade off that is undoubtedly the cause of the delay in the new design.
Essentially, though the machines appear similar on the outsides, their form factors are different enough to warrant almost an entirely novel design problem that has yet to be fully addressed.