Hey, Let’s Build an $800 MacBook!

[SHAMELESS PLUG: Technologizer will be liveblogging the Apple notebook event on 10/14/2008 @ 10am PT. Please join us.]

Fact: There’s no better way to spur debate among technology fans than to start talking about whether Macs are overpriced in comparison to Windows PCs. I did that in a series of stories back in August, and they remain among the most-read, most-commented-upon pieces that Technologizer has published to date. (I found that my conclusions varied depending on which Macs I was looking at, and which PCs I compared them too…and I got feedback both from people who said I was too partial to Macs and from folks who said that I was unfair to ’em. I took that as a sign I was reasonably balanced.)

With new Apple portables due next week, I’ll need to update my assessment. Whatever Apple announces, it’ll change the comparison at least a little–and it seems a dead certainty that any new models will sport more RAM, larger hard drives, and faster CPUs than the ones they replace.

From a pure price standpoint, the most interesting rumor about next week’s news is that it will include an $800 MacBook, which would be the cheapest Apple portable ever. (Current MacBooks start at $1099.) It’s an entirely plausible idea, and while that doesn’t mean it’ll turn out to be true, it got me to thinking about what a machine might be like.

So why don’t we try to configure it, spec by spec?

CASE: Rumor has it that Apple is going to put the replacements for current MacBooks into aluminum cases. Sounds reasonable, but it seems unlikely that it’ll do that with an $800 laptop. So let’s assume that an $800 MacBook would retain a plastic housing. White, definitely; black, possibly (at least on a slightly higher-end version); multiple colors a la the iPod Nano would be fun.

CPU: I’m not an expert on the economics of figuring out which Intel CPU to put into a laptop at a particular price point. If Apple goes as low as $800, it’s possible it will put a Pentium chip inside rather than a Core 2 Duo. But Apple likes to trumpet the power of the CPUs inside its computers, and they usually have fairly speedy processors even when the RAM and hard drives are on the skimpy side. How does a 2-GHz Core 2 Duo sound?

GRAPHICS: This one’s easy–integrated ones.

RAM: If the history of Apple pricing is any indication, an $800 MacBook would be pretty bare-bones here, and there’d be a $900 version that would be less so. So I think it’s entirely possible that the $800 version will have just a gig.

HARD DRIVE: Same deal as with RAM. I’m guessing 120GB, or maybe 160GB if we’re lucky.

SCREEN: Almost certainly 13.3-inch, I’d guess. It’s a nice size–small enough to be inexpensive, roomy enough to prevent squinting. And it’s great for airplane use.

OPTICAL DRIVE: It’ll have one. If it’s a combo drive that burns only CDs, I’ll wince. But I’m going out on a limb here and saying that it will have a DVD burner.

WI-FI. Definitely–and definitely N, which is common but not universal among cheap laptops.

ETHERNET: It might have it, but I wouldn’t be surprised if an $800 MacBook ditched it, as the MacBook Air did. With the Air, it was to shave bulk; with the $800 MacBook, it would save Apple a few pennies.

BLUETOOTH: Probably, but it wouldn’t be absolutely stunning if it didn’t have it, I guess. (I suspect a fairly high percentage of MacBook owners never avail themselves of it.)

PORTS: Two USB. Probably a FireWire one–maybe even 800–although the day will come when there will be USB-only Macs. Mini-DVI and optical audio in and out.

WEBCAM: Yup.

MEMORY CARD READER: Some folks would cheerif Apple adds one–even if it does only SD–but if I were forced to guess, I’d guess that they won’t.

KEYBOARD AND TOUCHPAD: Same keyboard as the current MacBook, and a roomy touchpad that does multi-touch. But it won’t have the fancy-schmancy touchpad with a buil-in display that’s been rumored for new MacBooks.

SOFTWARE: Leopard and iLife.

OTHER GOODIES: A nice MagSafe AC adapter.

Looking over the above guesses, what I’ve basically configured is something very similar to today’s $1099 MacBook. And that’s what I’m guessing this will be: A new MacBook that’s similar to today’s base model, but at a signficantly lower entry price. It’ll still be substantially more expensive than a basic Windows machine, but it’ll come closer.

Wild card: It’s conceivable that Apple is going to release a Mac netbook–something that’s much smaller than any current Mac portable, with an Intel Atom processor and very basic specs. I’m guessing not, though–such a machine would be a niche product, but a more mainstream $800 Mac would sell like hotcakes.

Please refute the above speculation, expand on it, or even agree with it…


11 comments

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  1. Alan October 9, 2008 at 1:22 pm #

    Good time to price a cheap macbook, bad time to buy one, since the economy is doing so poorly at the moment. But I’m looking for a cheap/low powered one for the wife, so this maybe my Christmas gift. Time to replace the ole thinkpad she uses now.

  2. Rishi October 9, 2008 at 1:42 pm #

    It’s always neat to see Apple come out with new updates; however, owning what currently is the latest MacBook kind of depresses me. $1500 a few months ago for something which may now be outdated. *Sighs*, I guess that’s technology for ya. I just wish the MacBooks had more upgradable features.

  3. the Innocent October 10, 2008 at 3:51 am #

    Well the rumor is that Apple will use Nvidia chipsets on their new laptops so a guess Intel’s stuff would be cheaper. So i am thinking that the $800 Macbook will be the same specs as the current low end one. And while the others in the line move up to the Nvidia integrated graphics the $800 laptop will use the the same Intel stuff. Similar to what it did with the iMacs where the base config had Intel graphics and all the others had discrete graphics.

  4. Kevin C. Tofel October 11, 2008 at 7:42 am #

    More netbooks have been sold in the last year (their first for the product type) than all Mac notebooks in the last 12 months. I don’t think I’d call an Apple netbook a “niche product” based on the sales numbers. 😉

    Before the recent rumors started, I guessed an $800 Apple netbook based on three reasons: http://www.jkontherun.com/2008/10/3-reasons-well.html

    Having run OS X 10.5.5 on my MSI Wind, the standard Intel Atom-based netbook platform can handle the OS with surprising ease. It wouldn’t take much for Apple to make this happen.

  5. Harry McCracken October 11, 2008 at 7:04 pm #

    Good point, Kevin. I’m still skeptical about a Mac netbook, though–“niche” is the wrong word, but I do wonder if they’re a fad. They hit aggressive price points in part by being pretty basic in terms of specs. And MacBook Air aside–and the Air is not so much tiny as thin–Apple has never seemed to have much interest in small notebooks (I still miss the 12-inch PowerBook).

    For all these reasons, I’m still expecting the $800 MacBook, if it exists, to be a reasonably standard notebook. I’d love to be wrong, though, since a Mac netbook could be a lot of fun…and the Mac Mini sort of sets a precedent for Apple doing a cheap, stripped-down, tiny computer.

    –Harry

  6. Geez. October 14, 2008 at 5:52 am #

    Gez. Just paid $1799 Aus dollars on a new macbook… only to find this.

    Life doesn’t get any better then this.

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