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Apple Pioneers New Battery Tech with 17-inch MacBook Pro

As expected, Apple completed the transition of the MacBook line to the latest unibody design with the announcement of the new 17-inch MacBook Pro. Apple’s largest notebook was the last remnant of the original MacBook Pro form factor, which itself was nearly unchanged since its debut as the aluminum PowerBook G4. The new model sports the upgraded design, faster processors, larger memory and hard disk options, and a new integrated battery design that Apple claims offers up to an 8-hour battery life on a single charge.

The unibody design is a mere 0.98 inches (25 mm) thick and 6.6 pounds (3.0 kg); which Apple claims is the world’s thinnest and lightest 17-inch notebook. As with the newest 15-inch MacBook Pro, it comes with the new multi-touch buttonless trackpad, Mini DisplayPort, Firewire 800, ExpressCard/34, and multiple USB ports. It runs on an upgraded Intel Core 2 Duo processor at 2.66 GHz standard, with a 2.93 GHz option; both sport 6 MB shared L2 cache and a 1066 MHz frontside bus. It comes standard with 4 GB DDR3 memory, and it supports up to 8 GB of total RAM. A 320 GB hard disk, with an option for a 256 GB solid state drive, round out the basic specifications.

As with the other MacBook Pro, the 17-inch model includes both integrated graphics and a second, discrete Nvidia 9600M GT graphics processor. These power a new LED backlit glossy screen with a 1920 by 1200 resolution at 133 pixels per inch; a $50 option swaps the glossy display for a traditional matte/anti-glare screen (sure to please the graphics professionals, but you do lose the black bezel). The screen has a 60 percent wider color gamut (the range of colors it can display) and a 700:1 contrast ratio.

The most significant change is the unique integrated battery, which uses new lithium polymer technology to offer up to 7 hours of run time using the discrete graphics processor, and 8 hours with the integrated graphics. Because the battery is integrated into the MacBook Pro body, Apple claims it is 40 percent bigger than a removable battery. To extend the life of the battery and improve efficiency, Apple combined the new battery chemistry with an adaptive charging system, creating a battery that – according to Apple – will last up to 1,000 charge cycles, thus extending the life of the battery three times beyond the industry standard to about five years of normal use. (A video detailing the
changes in the battery technology
can be viewed at Apple’s Web site.)

Moving to a fully integrated battery is a risky move, but it is a direction the entire mobile computing industry is considering as users continue to demand power for bigger processors, better graphics, and increased wireless networking. Notebook designers can build the batteries right into the laptops, taking advantage of custom designed cells that fit into the nooks and crannies left after squeezing in all the hardware. The problem is, of course, that batteries have a limited life span and need to be occasionally replaced. For instance, I’m on my third MacBook Pro battery, and Adam’s brand-new MacBook battery is already ailing after a mere two months. If an integrated battery does go bad or wears out, the laptop can be sent to Apple
for replacement.

Apple failed to mention any external battery options for situations where even 8 hours isn’t enough. Since Apple has yet to license the MagSafe charging connector, no third party-vendors will be able to provide external options. It’s also unclear at this point whether the RAM and hard drive are user-accessible, as they are for the MacBook and 15-inch MacBook Pro.

Thus, 17-inch MacBook Pro users trade flexibility and convenience for a greatly extended battery life. Since the average notebook refresh rate for professional users is about three years, Apple is clearly banking on the battery lasting longer than the average user will keep the notebook.

The 17-inch MacBook Pro starts at $2,799, is available for pre-order today, and should be released by the end of January 2009.

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