Hands on with the new Apple MacBooks

I've just managed to get up close and personal with the brand new, iMac-styled MacBooks and MacBook Pros in secluded room at the back of Apple's flags

I've just managed to get up close and personal with the brand new, iMac-styled MacBooks and MacBook Pros in secluded room at the back of Apple's flagship store on Regent Street.

My first impression: they're beautiful. But they completely fail to address the way the market has moved in the past year. The arrival of our gadget of the year, the Asus Eee PC, has had a seismic effect on what people expect for their money. And the once-competitive MacBook range has now returned to the realms of luxury.

Before I get into the details, it's worth noting that the bottom model of the MacBook range (£719) is still pretty much the same as it used to be, in a white plastic enclosure - but with an £20 higher pricetag (you now get a DVD burner built in, which almost justifies the hike). Likewise, the top-of-the-range 17in MacBook Pro is still in the old enclosure. Rather less surprsingly the MacBook Air still looks the same, but benefits from more disk space and better graphics - but no extra USB or much-needed speed bump.

The big changes have been among the mid-range models - the 13.3in MacBook (starting at £949) and the 15in MacBook Pro (starting at £1399). Both now share the same looks 

1) The design. The first thing you notice is the all-glass screen with black bezel, which makes the MacBooks look like portable iMacs. It looks glorious - if rather reflective. Then there's the 'unibody' design - the 'revolutionary new' manfuacture process which, it turns out, was already used for the MacBook Air. It essentially means the shell around the keyboard was made from one piece of aluminium. This apparently makes the machine stronger and gives the MacBook a seamless appearance. All the notebooks are noticeably thinner compared to the predecessors (the MacBooks are just over 3mm - or 12% - thinner, but this is accentuated by the tapered edges). The MacBook is 10% lighter than it was, too, but it still feels pretty hefty.

2) The graphics. One of the key differences between the MacBook and the MacBook pro was the graphics card - the 13.3in MacBook used to use Intels own integrated graphics card, while its Pro sibling had a dedicated card. Now the MacBook has a much-improved NVIDIA GeForce 9400M (this is still integrated into the main chipset, but delivers vastly improved 3D performance) while the Pro adds a separate NIVIDIA 9600M GT graphics card. On the Pro, you get to choose between using the integreated 9400M chip, which gives you an extra hour's battery life, or boosting the performance with the 9600M card. You have to log in and out to put the changes into effect.

3) The trackpad. A spacious rectangle of smooth glass that invites MultiTouch gestures (most useful for scrolling - with two fingers - and navigating pages in Safari using three-finger swipes). There's no separate button - you can tap anywhere on the pad to click - but fortunately the bottom of the pad does actually move and click when you press it, so you get some tactile feedback.You can click with two fingers to right-click, or just set the right hand corner of the trackpad to be your right mouse button.

The pad is markedly bigger than previous MacBooks, and a revised Trackpad control panel allows you to learn about Multi-Touch functions.

There are new gestures, too - the four-fingered upward swipe launches Exposé (ie allows you to see all your open Windows) and downwards reveals the desktop. Four-fingered sideways swipes allow you to switch between open applications.

I've been using Multi-Touch on my MacBook Air, and my early skepticism has dissipated - they really do come in handy. But I'd recommend using the MultiClutch add-on app in order to unleash the full potential of Multi-Touch by defining your own controls of third-party applications.

4) The connections. First of all: Firewire is dead. May it rest in peace. It's totally absent from the MacBook and the new Cinema Display, and is only available on the Pro in its Firewire 800 form. I'll write more on this later.

Secondly, there's (another) new display connection: Mini DisplayPort. It's compatible with DVI and VGA but also allows the MacBooks to hook up to the brand new display, which looks very much like the new iMac and won't be available until November.

5) The battery. Apple is quoting 5 hours of usage for the new MacBooks and MacBook Pros (with the high-performance videocard switched off, presumably). We'll put that to the test pretty soon. One slightly cool feature: the battery life indicator is now on the side rather than the bottom, so you don't have to turn your MacBook over to find out how charged it is when it's turned off.

So that's it. Apple's new laptops are lovely, but (too?) expensive. What do you think?

We have a new MacBook in the office, so we'll be recording a video and shooting some snaps imminently. Watch this space.