Are Apple's New Laptops Worth All The Hype?

At the risk of sounding like a grumpy old crank, there must be others for whom the Apple shtick is wearing a bit thin. Today the Cupertino, Calif.-based company announced some upgrades to its notebook computers. That's it. Most PC makers would view this as an opportunity to issue a press release. Not Apple. No, that company last week sent out sexy invitations to a "special event" that was "invitation-only." And there, today, on the Apple campus, was the full dog-and-pony show, with CEO Steve Jobs, COO Tim Cook, Senior VP of Industrial Design Jon Ive and Senior VP of marketing Phil Schiller all trotted out to a stage to share with the world the profound news that the mighty brains and geniuses inside Apple have developed … some upgraded notebooks.

The Apple execs devoted a lot of time talking about Apple's revolutionary new process for making notebooks, using some kind of aluminum unibody that's super-duper advanced and makes the laptop rigid and durable and blah blah blah. The idea, apparently, is that if you just toss around enough hooey people won't notice that you don't really have much new to sell. This old trick is one that magicians have been using for centuries. It's called misdirection. Ever seen David Blaine in action? Then you know where Steve Jobs gets his inspiration.

Last month they dragged all of us poor tech hacks out to San Francisco for another one of these very special "events," and that time all they had to show was some upgraded iPods. Now it's a bunch of upgraded notebooks. "This wasn't a big `wow' announcement," says Richard Shim, analyst at researcher IDC. "They're doing a lot of things that others in the industry are doing, but they're Apple, so it's special."

For the record, here's what's new. There's a new MacBook Pro which features two graphics processors - one that's integrated onto the main circuit board and offers decent performance and five hours of battery life, another that's separate from the main circuit board that offers screaming graphics performance but will run down your battery in four hours. You can use either one.

There are two MacBook Pro models. The top one costs $2,499 and has a 2.53-GHz processor and a 320-GB hard drive; the lesser one costs $1,999 and has a 2.4-GHz processor and a 250-GB hard drive. There's also a new MacBook, now made of aluminum like the MacBook Pro, with two price points--$1,299 and $1,599--based on processor speed and hard disk drive space.

All of the new machines have sexy cosmetics - a frameless glass screen, for example, and a glass trackpad that also functions as a button. Apple also has upgraded the MacBook Air, with a faster processor, faster graphics and a bigger hard disk drive. (That machine, announced earlier this year, is a gorgeous piece of work but hasn't been a great seller.) There's also a new 24-inch flat-screen monitor. Apple also cut the price of its current white plastic MacBook from $1,099 to $999. Apple watchers had been hoping for a new $800 MacBook, but no luck.

The most tantalizing bit of news in the whole event was some market share figures that Apple trotted out, claiming that in the U.S. retail market Apple now has 18 percent market share of all units sold and 31 percent share of dollars spent. That helps explain why Microsoft is pumping so much money into Vista ads. But just for a reality check - the key words in that Apple statistic are "U.S." and "retail." Shim at IDC says if you measure market share the old-fashioned way--all units sold, worldwide--Apple's market share was only 3.6 percent in the second quarter of this year. Even if you just count the U.S. market, Apple's share was 8.1 percent. Apple knows it can't be all things to all people. In certain niches--university students, for example--the company is doing quite well. But if the company ever hopes to pick up big share of the overall market, it will have to do more than crank out incremental improvements on its laptops.