One of the most exciting design concepts Apple has recently introduced is the unibody. This is the enclosure for the MacBook Air, the 15 inch MacBook Pro, and the new MacBook.
The unibody begins life as a single piece of aluminium. Using CNC (computer numerical control) milling machines, Apple then creates a laptop casing that accommodates a keyboard, trackpad, ports, display, and the comprehensive interior electronics.
The result is robust and lightweight. The new aluminium MacBook weighs in at just 2.04 kg (4.5 pounds). This is modest for a laptop packed with so many features. It is still heavier, though, than the wonderfully thin MacBook Air’s 1.36 kg (3 pounds). These two laptops, together with the MacBook Pro, catch the eye with their engineering perfection and elegance.
The unibody is a simple concept but an extremely difficult idea to achieve in practice. This is why laptop manufacturers generally build their casings from separate parts. These allow room for error. The unibody, however, must be precise in every respect; if not, the interior components won’t fit.
This bold approach to design is typical of Apple. Another example is the iMac, Apple’s desktop computer that holds its technology behind the 20 inch and 24 inch widescreen displays. The iMac’s enclosure is a single sheet of aluminium, apart from a compartment on the bottom that gives access to the memory cards. The ports, iSight camera, microphone, optical drive slot, and inner parts are all discretely integrated. Together they provide a powerful computer that takes up far less space than any comparable PC.
The Mac mini is not as slim as the Apple laptops and the iMac, but it doesn’t need to be thin to be stylish. Instead, it’s a fine example of how a quality computer can reduce clutter by being just 16.5 cm (6.5 inches) square, and 5 cm (2 inches) high. The anodised aluminium enclosure, pearly white cover, curved corners, and quiet running make the Mac mini a desirable object to have sitting on a desk. It certainly compares well to the bulk of a standard desktop PC.
Apple’s iPods have a similar design philosophy. Aluminium, glass, and highly polished stainless steel feature alongside subtle curves and carefully positioned controls. The Click Wheel design of the classic and nano has even become a style icon in its own right, deriving from the Scroll Wheel and Touch Wheel of earlier generation iPods.
iPod design, like the laptops, is also about weight or, to be exact, the lack of it. The iPod nano is a mere 36.8 grams (1.3 ounces), although the iPod shuffle beats this with its feather-like body of 15.6 grams (0.55 ounce).
Ease of use
Exterior design alone, however, has not kept Apple’s products at the forefront of multimedia technology. The hidden designs and compatibility of the hardware and software within a Mac and iPod have also helped to achieve this.
This compatibility means that the user of an Apple product has an enjoyable and trouble-free experience. The design of Mac OS X, for instance, provides a fast and logical operating system that outshines Windows Vista in almost every respect.
Ease of use extends to the software that comes with every Mac such as the Safari web browser. Safari doesn’t just find information quickly on the Internet – it keeps up with the latest web technology, organises your data, and helps you distinguish one item from another.
Safari’s success as the world’s best web browser, and the popularity of other Apple software such as the iLife suite of applications, is partly due to frequent revisions. Apple’s software design specialists never wait for things to happen: they are always searching for ways to develop and improve. Mac users can therefore be confident that their software is up to date.
The same is true of the iPod designers. Recent design improvements include Genius, which automatically creates playlist of songs that match; the accelerometer, which makes games more fun to play and provides the iPod nano with its shake to shuffle feature; and the 3D graphics of the iPod touch.
The iPod touch, of course, has an outstanding Multi-Touch screen that is a major design feature by itself. Apple also uses the Multi-Touch concept on its laptops, and has now given the MacBook, MacBook Pro, and MacBook Air larger trackpads made of glass and with more features than previously. The result not only makes these laptops more fun to use – they look sleeker as well.
Concern for the environment
The third element of Apple’s approach to design is concern for the environment. The LED backlighting for displays doesn’t contain mercury; internal cables don’t have PVC; and components are free of toxic BFRs (brominated flame retardants).
Apple also promotes the recyclable qualities of the aluminium and arsenic-free glass that make up many of the Mac and iPod casings, and has cut back on the packaging it uses.
Such efforts are considerable, and are developing all the time. Among the acknowledgements are the granting of Energy Star status for Macs, thanks to their excellent energy efficiency, and much-coveted EPEAT (electronic products environmental assessment tool) gold ratings for the MacBook Pro and MacBook Air.
These successes prove that environmental concerns can play a major role in design concepts. No doubt other companies will follow Apple’s lead.
Innovation has not featured here as a design concept because it is a separate principle. With Apple, innovation is fundamental to the company’s existence and strategy. Some manufacturers view innovation as an end in itself, but Apple treats it as part and parcel of everyday design and development.
Customers can therefore take innovation for granted. It underwrites products that are great to look at, straightforward to use, and that respect the environment. In other words, they’re brilliant designs.