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Apple MacBook

on Sunday, April 18, 2010

Updates to Apple's MacBook line of laptops are always closely watched, and they generally fall into two categories: there are major evolutions, such as the switch to aluminum unibody construction in 2008, and then there are minor spec upgrades, typically small bumps to processor speed and hard-drive size.

The newest version of the MacBook Pro line surprisingly falls outside of those two extremes. The iconic unibody aluminum construction remains, as does its large glass multitouch trackpad (in fact, from the outside, the new MacBook Pro looks identical to its predecessor). But the revamped internal components are much more than a simple spec upgrade.

The 15- and 17-inch Pro models have moved to Intel's newer line of Core-i CPUs, from the older Core 2 Duo models (the 13-inch Pro, unfortunately, still uses a Core 2 Duo CPU). Both mainstream Core i5 and high-end Core i7 versions are available. This requires a new chipset architecture (courtesy of Intel) and a switch from the integrated Nvidia GeForce 9400 to Intel's built-in integrated graphics for the systems' default GPU.

Our review sample is the highest-end 15-inch base configuration, with a 2.66GHz Core i7 CPU, 4GB of RAM, a 500GB hard drive, and Nvidia GeForce GT330M discrete graphics. At $2,199, it's definitely expensive, but it's still $100 cheaper than the previous high-end 15-inch MacBook Pro configuration. The lowest-priced 15-inch model costs $1,799, which is $100 more than the previous low-end 15-inch MacBook Pro--but that system now includes discrete graphics instead of only integrated graphics. Overall, this round of updates follows the usual Apple trajectory: keeping the price steady but adding faster, more powerful components.

We continue to pine for oft-requested extras such as HDMI, Blu-ray, and 3G, but at the same time, the Core i7 CPU is extremely impressive, both on paper and in action. With the 13-inch model still stuck with a Core 2 Duo CPU, this revamped 15-inch MacBook Pro now feels like the line's powerhouse flagship model.

As with the previous MacBook Pro models, the unibody chassis starts with a solid block of aluminum, which is carved down, rather than a thin outer shell that has had support struts added to it. The result is a thin yet strong chassis that feels very solid and substantial. Even the $999 white polycarbonate MacBook now uses a similar body type.

We remain fond of the large trackpad that uses multitouch gestures for much of its functionality. In fact, touch controls are almost as vital to the MacBook as they are to the iPhone or iPad (plugging in a mouse is also an option, but you miss out on a lot of time-saving gesture controls that way).

Of the multitouch gestures, our favorite is sweeping moves with four fingers; left or right brings up the application switcher, and up hides all your active windows. Once you get used to that, going back to a regular touch pad is difficult. We've noted in the past year or so that many PC makers have added some form of multitouch functionality to their touch pads, but we have yet to find any that work as well as Apple's.

This year's version also includes a small behavioral tweak, which Apple calls "inertial scrolling." Like on the iPhone and iPad, flicking two fingers up or down to scroll now feels like there's more mass behind the effort, and the page will continue to move slightly after you've lifted up your fingers. The recent Magic Mouse peripheral from Apple included a similar effect.

The 15.4-inch wide-screen display offers a 1,440x900-pixel native resolution, which is what we're used to from previous 15-inch MacBook Pro models. But with the growth of online HD video, and ever-higher resolutions for digital still and video cameras, some users will want more pixels to play with. A 1,680x1,050-pixel display option is now available, which costs an extra $100 (or $150 for a version that also includes an antiglare coating). Still, for a $2,000 laptop, the higher-resolution screen should be included by default.

Apple embraced the simple joys of the SD card slot in last year's MacBook Pro update, but this time around there are no comparable new features (although we're excited that the DisplayPort output now supports audio as well as video).

You do, however, have several ways to push the 15-inch MacBook Pro well past its $1,799-$2,199 default configurations. Bumping the 500GB hard drive from 5,400rpm to a faster 7,200rpm model is a $50 upgrade, and SSD drives are available from 128GB ($200) to 512GB (a whopping $1,300). RAM can be doubled to 8GB for $400, but each of the three base 15-inch models is locked into particular CPU/GPU combos.

The 15- and 17-inch MacBook Pros have "automatic graphics switching," an Apple-engineered variation on Nvidia's Optimus graphics-switching technology. The concept is simple: the system uses its integrated Intel graphics by default, and when an app launches that requires the discrete Nvidia GeForce 330M GPU, it seamlessly switches over to that, then turns it off when it is no longer required.

Previously, switching between the (integrated) GeForce 9400 and the (discrete) GeForce 9600 found in last year's MacBook Pros required you to manually flip a software switch on the power options menu, and then log out and log back in.

The GeForce 330M (available in 256MB and 512MB versions) is not a hard-core gaming powerhouse, but it should be capable of playing just about any current PC game--although you may have to dial down the detail levels or resolution for optimal frame rates. It's the seamless switching between GPUs that interests us more, as it lets you take advantage of the discrete graphics for HD video and gaming, but won't run down the battery when not in use. In the Mac version of Call of Duty 4 we got 34.5 frames per second at 1,440x900-pixel resolution, with 4XAA and other high-end graphics options turned on, and 59 frames per second at the same resolution, but medium in-game graphics settings.

smart phone`s map

A service launched last week by Skyhook Wireless will make it possible for other businesses to predict, with new accuracy, which local bars will be hot at 8 p.m. on Monday night, or how many people will walk past a particular billboard poster at noon on Friday.
What's hot: SpotRank generates “heat maps” showing the density of cell-phone users for a given time and place. This image shows the southwest corner of Manhattan's Central Park on Monday, March 29, at 6 p.m..
Credit: Skyhook Wireless
Skyhook Wireless's pool of anonymized location data, gathered from cell phones that have used its services over the past 24 months, shows user behavior in every major city in North America, for every hour of every day of the week at a resolution of 100 meters. This is enabled by the 300 million check-ins received daily from every iPhone, iPad, Snow Leopard-powered laptop, as well as Dell devices and a growing number of Android-powered smart phones.

Several other companies are using similar technologies to map human activity across time and space--an activity first referred to as "reality mining." However, no other company has made available a comparable amount of data to independent developers.

Skyhook Wireless's new service, called SpotRank, is available to developers through an application programming interface (API) from its partner SimpleGEO--a cloud-based service for managing large quantities of geolocation data. The data resembles a heat map of population density in a given city at any point in time. The data can be strung into time sequences to show the changes in human activity as a city cycles through the workday, the commute home, and nightlife.
Internally, Skyhook Wireless has begun developing applications for SpotRank data--including new ways to inform buyers of outdoor advertising. "We can tell [advertisers] where the best spot in Manhattan is to put a sign on a side of a building," says Skyhook CEO Ted Morgan.
"It's very valuable data," says David Fono, a developer at Atmosphere Industries who has begun working with the SpotRank API for games that play out across a city. "The level of data they have is staggering," Fono says. "This is a pretty significant addition to the tool set. Just the fact that it's a fairly reliable metric for human traffic in an area, I don't know of anything else like that at the moment."

There is growing interest among technology companies in mining the physical movements of users, but privacy promises to be a hot-button issue. "We are keen to do something similar [to SpotRank], but we want to make sure we maintain user privacy," says Sharon Biggar, chief operating officer of U.K.-based Path Intelligence, which uses passive receivers to track the cell-phone traffic of shoppers and concertgoers as they visit public places. Path Intelligence can determine the location of a device to within a meter or two, and individuals can be tracked continuously as they move through an area, allowing engineers to tell business customers which stores in a mall tend to be visited together, for example. In contrast, SpotRank data only shows an aggregate number of people in any one area at any given time.

Hackers Again?

Cyber attacks can come from governments, terrorists, thieves, or bored high school students. This makes the cyber security equivalent of "arms control" difficult to achieve. But a pair of researchers yesterday proposed methods of deterrence that they believe could work in cyberspace.
Cyber warrior: Vladislav Sherstuyuk, a retired four-star Russian general who leads the Institute of Information Security Issues at Moscow State University, announced a new cyber security research collaboration on Monday.
Credit: Veni Markovski
"There has been a lot of discussion lately about the analogy of cyber warfare to nuclear warfare. But it is not a good analogy in some ways--the technology should drive us in different directions," said Tom Wingfield, a law professor at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, at a cyber security conference organized by Russian researchers.
Wingfield and James Bret Michael, a computer scientist at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, CA, argue that surveillance on computer networks and other forms of intelligence can often provide the clues needed to expose a potential hacker, and this exposure may often serve as enough of a deterrent.

"With public deterrence, you shine a light on a malefactor before he attacks or soon after--so it's visible to the press and the public and his own people. In some cases that's the right answer," Michael said. "In others, you can use a nonpublic approach."
"Sometimes just being identified is enough to prevent an attack from taking place, because hackers depend on anonymity and surprise to succeed," Michael says. And such methods can work no matter how the underlying attack technologies advance.
The conference was sponsored by the Institute of Information Security Issues at Russia's leading university, Moscow State University. At the event, Vladislav Sherstuyuk, a retired four-star Russian general who heads the Institute, also announced a new research collaboration that includes government officials from Russia and China and academic institutions including the Indian Institute of Information Technology, Allahabad, and the State University of New York at Albany.
The agreement will "undertake common research on international information security," he said. While the collaboration was partly symbolic, it reflects increased concern worldwide over the potential for computer attacks to wreak havoc. "It's clear that cyber security has risen to the top tier of security issues around the world," said Greg Rattray, chief internet security advisor to ICANN, the U.S. based organization that assigns Internet names.

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