Details, Details, Details. Why Apple’s MacBook Pro refresh matters more than you think

I wasn’t planning to write about this morning’s MacBook Pro refresh. After all, for the most part, these are speed bump machines with some nice processor upgrades for the most part. Nice, but not earth shaking either. Then three features leaped out at me. Better battery life. An automatic way to switch between discrete and integrated graphics and momentum scrolling. Three features. None of them are a reason to buy a new computer. In fact, if Apple had ignored them didn’t include any of them in this release, I suspect they’d have not sold one less MacBook as a result.

Which gets me to my point. They did include them. Why? It’s simple, details matter. A lot. We often hear of the “Apple tax” and have seen vendors copy Apple’s form factor down to the metal case, keyboard layout and other design elements. What many other vendors miss is the attention to the small details that by themselves don’t matter all that much but add value and delight as the user discovers them. Are they small issue? Sure, but they fix real problems. The need to switch graphic modes by logging in and out is not a big deal but it’s inelegant. It costs wasted cycles. It makes things harder for the user. Some engineer was bothered enough by this to fix it. It’s now a feature. It’s now the standard on how this function should work. In short, for those that use this feature, it will bring a smile to their face. To those who never used it, it’s one more way the computing experience became that much more seamless.

When vendors focus on the big picture but also focus on the small details as well, they differentiate themselves from the market. By worrying about things no one else is worried about they find new ways to delight and provide value to their customers. Along the way, they change customers to fans and generate trust and loyalty. And that’s the important takeaway from what appears to be a minor product refresh but actually is something more.

85 responses to “Details, Details, Details. Why Apple’s MacBook Pro refresh matters more than you think

  1. I agree with you, but Apple this time makes a non-sense way of upgrade: Why do they still use Core 2 Duo architecture for the 13″ model, instead of the better Core i3/i5, with a minor Thermal Design Power? and what about 5400rpm hard drives?
    These models are very expensive: the optionals are like gold-pieces (an upgrade from 250GB to 500GB +130‚Ǩ, but a normal 500GB hard drive’s cost is 60‚Ǩ!)

  2. Here’s the thing, the graphics switching in the new Mac Book Pro’s is a technology developed by Nvidia and is already implemented in a few Asus laptop models (e.g. UL50Vf & U30Jc). It is known as Optimus. So while an engineer did take time to fix it, it wasn’t Apple saying it was inelegant, it was Nvidia refining their graphics switching process that they already developed. Don’t get me wrong Optimus rocks. A few sites, like AnandTech and Engadget are definite fans of it. However, instead of praising Apple (it IS awesome that there is new hardware coming out) be sure to give credit where credit is due.

    http://www.nvidia.com/object/optimus_technology.html

  3. Good overall point, and certainly true about stuff like the magsafe connectors – but diminished by the examples. Laptop battery life is generally considered a key features, not a ‘detail’ – all laptop manufacturers focus on it with different success. Dynamic GPU switching was implemented in the PC world first (Optimus) and Apple’s version doesn’t seem to be a significant improvement. That leaves momentum scrolling – which surely is a software thing?

    And the scarcity of ports is an anti-detail (how many laptop of the MBP spec only have 2 USBs?)

    Mark.

  4. Excellent point. I hear again and again ‘…I converted a few years ago and I’ll never go back…’ and I’ve NEVER heard that about PCs. Ever. Apple Macintosh keeps moving the bar higher and higher but it’s not about competition, it’s about being the ONLY one up there.

  5. Do you agree with the Zdnet blog (Jason O’Grady) that says Blu-Ray was probably omitted because it threatened sales by the iTunes store? I hope it is not so, but I must say the thought of it tempered my interest in buying the machine as an upgrade, because I imagined that attention to detail you describe above running through the machine, but used for the purpose of driving Apple content sales rather than making me smile. LIke Microsoft in the 90’s, but done well.

  6. I’m totally with you. Not getting things like this with other computers (or in other operating systems, for software-level things) is the non-Apple tax, which I find a lot more onerous that paying a bit more money.

  7. While I absolutely agree that Apple attention to detail is a huge part of what sets them apart (Jonathan Ives alludes to the same concept during his inverview in the documentary, Objectified) the graphics card switching technology this post focused on was not developed by Apple, it was developed by NVIDIA and is marketed as the Optimus Technology (http://www.nvidia.com/object/optimus_technology.html) and has already been deployed in numerous PC laptops for months now.

    This refresh was much welcomed and pretty substantial but sorely, sorely overdue and far from ground-breaking.

  8. From my understanding it has been possible to switch between discrete and integrated on-the-fly on Windows for a while (only on certain laptops of course). This is not such a new feature.

  9. Nice post, though I quibble with your point on graphics switching. Having to do it through hardware was a big deal, and a feature that was notably behind the Wintel world.

    What is impressive is that Apple’s solution is so much cleaner than anything else out there.

  10. really?

    It seems they had to do it, due to nvidia losing their chipset license. And the intel integrated graphics being a necessity for i3/5/7.

    So basically they needed a way to switch it to the discrete graphics processor..

    Other vendors use the nvidia optimus tech to do this.. apple apparently an in house solution..

  11. I have often struggled to explain why these little details are important to folks that still by the low end laptops and netbooks. Your article helped me to see that it’s the indication of the engineering pride that went into the product, which is very rare to find in anything mass produced these days. It also becomes a bit of a treasure to find these hidden gems.

  12. I absolutely agree. I’d add that since people tend to buy new laptops only every two or three years, there’s also a much bigger cumulative effect. When I bought a MacBook Pro a few months ago to replace a 2007 machine, I was wowed not just by the faster processor and bigger hard drive. I also greatly appreciated other improvements like the new keyboard design, the latch-free closure, the can’t-be-lost feet and so on. The MBP was improved in ways large and small at each iteration and so my new machine seemed light years ahead of the old one.

  13. Good observations. This is why I have been a long-time customer of Apple. It’s the little things that demonstrate that an organization is committed to quality and customer experience: they do things they don’t have to do, and that nobody else will.

  14. Amen, Michael — thanks for the thoughtful post. As an owner of the previous version of the MPB, the manual switching from “better battery life” to “higher performance” wasn’t a painful process, but it did interrupt workflow. Apple’s new solution is exactly as you say — invisible and elegant.

    The devil may be in the details for Apple engineers, but the results are heavenly for us end-users.

    Thanks again for the post. I’m here thanks to John Gruber’s recent link. You’ve got a new subscriber. :)

  15. Um, integrated graphics is the ‘intel tax’. It’s their way of making sure you HAVE to buy their graphics chips, no matter how crappy they may be. There is approximately 0 chance of Apple including it if it was not welded to the CPU.

  16. “It’s simple, details matter. A lot.”

    That’s so true, and Apple is really good at it. However, in this particular case, I think it only applies to momentum scrolling. The solution to switch between integrated and discrete graphics seamlessly seems to have been developed by Nvidia. It has already been adopted by ASUS in the UL50VF-A1 laptop, for instance. This is a ‚Äúvalue add‚Äù from Nvidia, I don’t think that Apple would duplicate the effort.

    NVIDIA Optimus Technology Delivers Perfect Balance Of Notebook Performance And Battery Life
    http://www.nvidia.com/object/io_1265444450529.html

    02.09.2010 – Nvidia Optimus: What You Need to Know
    http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,2817,2358927,00.asp

  17. Quoting myself: “I don’t think that Apple would duplicate the effort.”

    Oops, they did. Insanely great. :-D

    ‚ÄúWe discussed the graphics switching technology at length with Apple this afternoon, and though Apple’s implementation is similar in concept, it differs in a few key areas from Optimus.‚Äù

    Inside Apple’s automatic graphics switching
    http://arstechnica.com/apple/news/2010/04/inside-apples-automatic-gpu-switching.ars

  18. I’m surprised that they didn’t add “momentum scrolling” as a software update. If you use a Magic Mouse with a last generation MBP, you get momentum scrolling when you scroll on the mouse.

    Regardless, I do appreciate the little improvement that Apple adds when it does a ‘speed bump’. The auto-graphics switching is going to be a huge thing that I’m sure others will copy in a less elegant way.

  19. There’s another feature with the new MacBook Pro’s that not a lot of people seem to be talking about: a 64-bit instruction set with the i5 and i7 processors. This marks the first time that MacBook Pro’s can take full advantage of Snow Leopard’s 64-bit support. It also marks the first time that MacBook Pro’s can take advantage of more than just 4 gigs of RAM. That’s a huge feature if you ask me. :)

    • @Jeff; that’s not at all accurate. All ‘Uni-body’ 15″ & 17″ Macbook Pros have had 64-bit and 8GB RAM support.

    • Jeff, all (except maybe the first gen?) Core2 and higher Macs support 64bit processing. Snow Leopard can be persuaded to boot up in 64bit kernel mode on most of them, but even in 32bit kernels that doesn’t stop them running other processes in 64bit.

      The previous generation of MacBook Pro’s supported 8gig RAM, and the generation before those would work with 6gig.

    • Um, what? MacBook Pros have had 64-bit Core 2 Duo processors for over three years now. I’m typing on a Penryn-based MacBook Pro right now. Or is there some other point you’re trying to make?

  20. @Jeff Whitfield: “It also marks the first time that MacBook Pro’s can take advantage of more than just 4 gigs of RAM”

    Sounds wrong to me, as even before yesterdays update, it was possible to order a MBP with up to 8 gigs of RAM.
    In addition, AFAIK the Core2Duos have been using the x86_64 architecture since nearly half a decade. And software support began in Tiger (for Unix processes), was improved in Leopard to include GUI-Apps and finally includes the whole system in Snow Leopard.
    Therefore, while the i5/i7 may have additional instruction sets (I don’t know), 64bit is nothing new in and of itself…

  21. Everyone who is talking about Apple just deploying Optimus needs to read this article:

    ‘Apple’s approach in the new 15″ and 17″ MacBook Pros differs from Optimus in two key ways. The first is that the switching is all handled automatically by Mac OS X without any user intervention (though there is actually a System Preference to deactivate it, if you choose). Apps that use advanced graphics frameworks such as OpenGL, Core Graphics, Quartz Composer or others will cause the OS to trigger the discrete GPU. So, when you are reading or writing Mail, or editing an Excel spreadsheet, Mac OS X will simply use the integrated Intel HD graphics. If you fire up Aperture or Photoshop, Mac OS X kicks on the NVIDIA GeForce GT 330M.

    The second way that it differs from Optimus is that the integrated graphics are powered down when the discrete GPU is active. This saves even more power than Optimus does, leading to a stated battery life as long as nine hours.’

    http://arstechnica.com/apple/news/2010/04/inside-apples-automatic-gpu-switching.ars

  22. Jeff Whitfield, the Core 2 generation of CPUs supports both the AMD64 instruction set and more than 4 GB of RAM. The major new feature of the i7 is TurboBoost.

  23. @Jeff Whitfield: What are you talking about? The Core 2 Duo that the older versions of the MacBook Pro sport are perfectly capable 64 bit processors that can take full advantage of Snow Leopards 64 bit support. Also, certain previous versions of the MacBook Pro have been able to take advantage of over 4 GB’s of ram. Anything from late 2008 onwards was able to use 6 GB’s of ram. It is new that this new model can hold up to 8 GB, which is fantastic news.

  24. Paul – implementing Blu-ray, or at least Blu-ray with true-HD, would require quite significant changes to OS X (basically, to guarantee that the path between the decoded video data and the screen or external display is untappable).

    It’s doable – as Microsoft have proven – but the question is whether it worth it.

  25. Jeff:
    – Core 2 Duo is 64-bit
    – MBPs have 64bit EFI since at least MBP4,1
    – Snow Leopard runs 64bit processes (anytime, and even Leopard does) and 64-bit kernel (with proper arch boot flag in plist) on those easily.
    – MBPs can have 8GB RAM anytime since late 2007.

    Some Late 2007 to Early 2009 are restricted to 6GB (4+2) because 8GB, although apparently working and addressable, causes some instability due to a chipset/cpu combination bug. Others in that range easily reach 8GB depending on said cpu/chipset combination.

  26. All of the commentators above saying that the Graphics Switching was developed by Nvidia are wrong. It was developed by Apple, and specifically does things a different way than Optimus to improve battery life (by de-energising the integrated graphics hardware when using the discrete graphics subsystem).

    And THAT just underlies Michael’s point. Worrying about the details is very much part of the Apple value proposition.

  27. Heh heh – this article just changed my life!

    I’ve had the previous generation 17″ MBP for over a year and had kinda forgotten about the whole twin graphics card thing. I just went to System Prefs and noticed that my system was optimized for “better battery life” – switched to higher performance, logged out and SHAZAM!

  28. Michael – nicely write post! I take your point though and both agree and disagree! You cite Apple’s focus on the detail as a differentiator, and a key to their success. However, I suggest that focus on such detail is only a ‘differentiator and a success factor’ if the business actually turns out successful. Should the company end up as a failure, then the ‘experts’ will tell you it as because there was too much attention to detail, and not enough ‘big picture’.

    For Apple, detail is their USP. This USP works in a premium product with a high design element. This doesn’t mean to say that should Microsoft start doing this (snigger) that they would claw back ground.

    Rich

  29. While I agree that Apple’s attention to details is remarkable, and I’ve been a happy user for 9 years, there is another “detail” a few people are discussing: Apple is increasing by $100 the price of the basic 15″ Macbook Pro, and making antiglare available for another $150 (sure, with higher resolution, but still!)

  30. As Adam says, the GPU switching is *not* Optimus, it’s more refined than that. Rather than relying on a list of applications downloaded from Nvidia, the switching examines the software itself (e.g. whether OpenGL is employed in the app).

    In addition, unlike Optimus, the system doesn’t keep both processors fired up whilst deciding which to switch to. This is why it’s such a potential energy saver.

  31. The battery life and graphic switching go hand in hand. It’s a feature that results from the ability to make both the hardware and the software. This is Apple’s core advantage. As more PC makers get their design act together, the ability to offer customer features that rely on the interaction of hardware and software is where Apple will offer differentiation.

  32. Hi Michael,
    as it happens Apple will sell one “extra”
    MacBook, the short battery life has kept me from owning a MacBook for all these years.
    For me battery life is crucial, that and low weight.

    As an answer to Your suggestion :-)
    ” No – I´ve always considered an extra battery as too cumbersome.”

  33. I was playing with my friend’s new MBP today when I discovered the hot-switching graphics. AWESOME. Super jealous, my 2.8Ghz MacBook Pro doesn’t do that and for that, I am sad.

  34. I’m not interested in ANY MacBookPro upgrade until I see a fix for the frozen cursor problem. It’s an annoyance that isn’t a “detail”, it’s a serious design flaw that Apple has never seen fit to fix or issue a recall of machines for (that I’m aware of). I love my MBP with its matte screen, but won’t touch another one without knowing in advance that the same “detail” has been addressed.

  35. The Core 2 Duo is a 64-bit CPU. This does mark the first time that Apple is officially supporting more than 4GB of RAM on a MBP (which is a huge deal), but it was possible to put 6 GB into a previous line model (I’ve heard of people doing it, but haven’t seen it myself).

  36. First time that the MacBook Pro has been 64-bit? Totally wrong. It has had a full 64-bit instruction set since late 2006 when it shipped with the Core 2 Duo.

    All MacBooks and MacBook Pro’s with Core 2 Duo have been able to take advantage of >4Gb RAM since about then and the full 4Gb has been available to user processes (ie. a maximum of 4Gb visible in a single address space) with the OS living in its own separate space unlike Windows.

  37. What is your opinion of the cheap macbook which i just got i month ago?Which you sell it for the new i series pros or just keep what you have? thanks J

  38. Yes not having a Blu-Ray will drive people to the iTunes store, but Blu-Ray may never take off because we’re downloading most stuff anyway. Blu-Ray is too late to the party. Maybe if they’d standardized a few years earlier, it would have gained more traction. Blu-Ray drives add cost.

  39. @Jeff:

    Uh, don’t know where you’ve been, but all of the Core 2 chips implemented the 64-bit ISA. I’m writing this in 64-bit Safari 4 on 10.6 on a second-gen (not unibody) MBP.

  40. The comments indicating that Apple’s graphics switching technology was developed by Nvidia is not correct. Perhaps the “idea” of dynamic GPU switching was described by Nvidia and implemented for Windows laptops, the GPU switching done by Apple in OS X for MBPs is completely different. While Nvidia works by using a “white list” of apps that require the discrete GPU, Apple uses a smart technology that watches low level graphics calls to determine when to switch on the GPU.

    Please read this article for more info: http://arstechnica.com/apple/news/2010/04/inside-apples-automatic-gpu-switching.ars

  41. this doesn’t seem smart work.

    * windows notebooks didn’t have to log out to switch video chips. apple’s disruptive implementation was clunkily behind the curve, making the fix necessary, not a detail.

    * since apple switched to built-in batteries, long battery life is a crucial design component, not a detail.

    * momentum scrolling is one of many UI gadgets moving from the touch OS to the desktop. maybe this is a detail like you’re saying, but i see it as part of apple’s OS architecture, which has its clumsy downsides also, with ‘details’ such as the incredibly poor alertbox-driven notifications system left unpolished on the iphone because there’s no in-house way to fix them.

  42. Don’t forget about the AES-NI instruction set either. Hardware accelerated AES crypto operations. Arrandale is not a nominal speed bump from C2D either… Apple long ago said 10.6 was optimized for Nehalem and we’re seeing the fruits of that in Arrandale in the mobiles. Big hat tip to Intel+Apple. I’ve been waiting for this chip for the better part of it being on the roadmap.

  43. Jeff: Uh… what?

    Core 2 processors all have a 64 bit instruction set. Have since day one. So the MPB has been 64 bit at the processor level since the first generation after the Intel switch, when they moved off of Core to Core 2.

    And the previous THREE generations of MPB (15″ and 17″) supported 6GB of ram.

    The i5/i7 CPUs have significant advantages over the Core 2, but “being 64 bit” isn’t one of ’em, and the 4 gig addressing limit hasn’t been there since June of 2007…

  44. Having bought my first Macbook Pro in December of 2008, I can tell you that I will never again return to the land of Windows and PC’s for my own computing needs. While I am forced to use those at work in the corporate world, for those with a choice a Macbook Pro is hands down the winner. And like this article says – it is not one thing. It is 1000 little things. Installing or uninstalling an application on Windows is overall more difficult than a Mac for example. Content driven help that takes you to where changes are made automatically as part of the help system. Security head and shoulders above windows in terms of malware and viruses. System stability – how many of you folks can leave your windows laptop on for weeks on end – cycling between sleep and operational? I can go MONTHS without rebooting my Macbook. Fit, finish, small features – the list is endless. People want to look at a spec page and say – oh I can buy a PC that has the same specs on paper. Maybe. But I have yet to see a PC that has the fit, finish, stability, integration, and overall solidity of a Macbook Pro.

  45. The details are why apple computers are coveted. And why some people hate them. Apple haters tend to be people who go, “Wow, you’re retarded. Can’t you just do it yourself?” (there are some pretty whack websites by the neo-pc’s) It’s pretty cool that their obsession for perfection gives them so many loyalists and so many haters. I didn’t notice that.

  46. The graphics processor switching of the new MacBook Pros isn’t NVidias solution. Apple developed it’s own with real advantages over NVidias. Read Daring Fireballs report on this.

  47. This thread is nothing but a clueless Apple fanboi party. Get real. The new macs are way behind the specs of a ton of PC’s.

  48. Yeah, those Mac book Pros needed that upgrade to i5+i7 cause they r too far behind what windows pcs have. The prices for those macs are outrageous in my opinion as the branding costs even more than the hardware it takes to build itself. PC user for now and forever

  49. There is a Swedish saying: “Många bäckar små gör en stor, stor å.” (“Many small creeks make a big river.”)

    It is the same with features: Three features may not make that great a difference in this release; however, accumulated over the releases of ten years, the difference can be enormous.

  50. Jeff is right – this is the first time a 64 bit CPU is shipped on a portable Mac.
    .
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    .
    .
    .
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    Now, twenty more morons can show how smart they are :)

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