CUPERTINO, Calif. — Apple touched up its line of laptop computers Tuesday with a minimal nod to the economic turmoil that might push consumers to be more frugal this holiday shopping season.
Apple avoided a major price cut to the Macintosh line, though it did lower its least expensive computer, the basic MacBook, by $100 to $999. Enthusiasts and some analysts had hoped Apple would drop the price to $800 for its entry-level laptop.
For the updated MacBook and MacBook Pro machines, Apple gave them some of the high-end features that had been in the MacBook Air, including thinner laptop casings and a "multitouch" track pad, which, like the iPhone, understands gestures for spinning and zooming.
In an event at Apple's headquarters, Steve Jobs, Apple's co-founder and CEO, also said Apple switched from Intel Corp. to Nvidia Corp. as the supplier of the laptops' graphics chips. Jobs said the change speeds up processing-intensive activities — playing popular 3-D video games, for example — as much as six-fold.
As at other events in the last few months, Jobs appeared thin but, in a tongue-in-cheek nod to persistent questions about his health, projected a slide with his healthy 110-over-70 blood pressure reading.
The redesigned laptops are lighter than existing machines, and Apple touted a construction "breakthrough" in the way the casings are cut and tooled from aluminum, without a stronger skeleton fused to the insides.
At the lowest end of the redesigned laptops, a MacBook will cost $1,299, while the most expensive MacBook Pro, which comes with two graphics chips from Nvidia for extra fast graphics processing, costs $2,499. An updated MacBook Air, the ultra-thin portable notebook that does not have a CD or DVD drive on board, is $1,799.
The new machines can be ordered online Tuesday and are expected to reach Apple's retail stores on Wednesday.
Jobs declined to take questions on the economy on Tuesday, telling reporters and analysts that "there are much smarter people than us that you can ask about the global financial meltdown."
Maintaining premium status
However, Apple's decision to keep most laptop prices well over $1,000, despite competition from PC makers whose cheapest notebooks cost less than $500, would appear to reflect the company's confidence it can maintain its premium status even in tough times.
Tim Cook, Apple's chief operating officer, said Apple's Macintosh sales growth has far outpaced the broader PC market over the last several quarters. Market tracker IDC said in its last quarterly report, in July, that Apple ranked third in the U.S. PC market, with a 7.8 percent share.
Cook said Apple was benefiting as rival Microsoft's Windows Vista operating system has received a landslide of negative press.
"Vista hasn't lived up to everything that Microsoft hoped it would," he said. (Msnbc.com is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC Universal.)
Steven Baker, an analyst for market researcher NPD Group, said he wasn't surprised by Apple's decisions on pricing or the new features it incorporated into the laptop line. Baker expects Apple's sales to slow this year along with other PC makers as economic jitters inhibit consumer spending.
"Clearly the MacBooks and MacBook Pros were in need of a refresh," Baker said. The update was incremental, he said, but "that's kind of where the PC market is these days."
Nvidia chip issue
Apple's decision to work more closely with Nvidia for its graphics processing could be a needed boost for the Silicon Valley chip maker.
In July, Nvidia disclosed a major problem with an unspecified number of its laptop chips that were already built into computers from several manufacturers. The problem caused the chips to suddenly fail, leaving users with badly mangled video or no video at all.
Hewlett-Packard, Dell and Apple have notified customers that their machines contained the problem with Nvidia chips. Apple's notice came just this week.
Nvidia hasn't recalled the chips, and the computer makers have so far said they won't replace all the problem chips — just the ones that fail.
LED-backlit displays, no 'netbooks'
Apple is also working to be more environmentally conscious. LED-backlit displays, which use less energy, are being added to the MacBook, MacBook Pro and Apple’s 24-inch Cinema Display screen.
Environmental considerations were made in packaging, as well, Jobs said. The MacBook Pro, for example, he said, has 37 percent less packaging.
When asked if Apple would get into the market for small "netbook" notebook computers, Jobs described it as "a nascent market," and said that Apple will see how it goes.
He also said Apple is "waiting until things settle down" with the Blu-ray high-definition market before adding Blu-ray to Apple's products.
"Blu-ray is a bag of hurt," he said during the question-and-answer session. "I don't mean from the consumer point of view. It's great to watch movies, but the licensing is so complex. We're waiting until things settle down."
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