NEW YORK – Plastic used to be the sexy material of the future. Now, it's the cheap, ugly material of the past.
Just look at the effort Apple Inc. put into getting rid of plastic when designing its new $1,300 MacBook laptops, which went on sale last week.
Apple now is machining the upper part of the chassis from a single block of aluminum, shaving it down to perhaps one-tenth of its original mass.
The result is a laptop with the stark elegance of a Modernist skyscraper, all glass and metal. The only things that are still plastic are the keys, the Apple logo on the lid, the bumpers on the bottom and some cladding on the hinge between the bottom and the display.
All that metal looks great, and it feels cool, in both senses of the word, to touch. But is this really what we want out of Apple?
The company is doing better than ever, with 9.5 percent of the U.S. PC market, according to Gartner Inc. Ten years ago, that figure was more like 3 percent.
Not to knock Apple hardware, but I think the reason for this rally is mostly the company's software, which is easy to use and well integrated with the hardware and Apple's online services.
One of the best ways to get access to Apple's OS X software has been its cheapest laptop, the MacBook. Chief Executive Steve Jobs has said it's Apple's best-selling computer.
But at $1,100, it's been nearly twice as expensive as a Windows laptop with comparable hardware. That's a hefty premium to pay for good software.
Unfortunately, with the laptops it released last week, Apple chose to make the hardware slicker and more stylish, rather than push the price down.
It brought some of the features of its even more expensive MacBook Pro line to the consumer line, rather than bringing the consumer line substantially closer to Windows PCs in price (though the older MacBook, now dubbed the "MacBook White," got a $100 price cut).
At $1,300, the cheapest of the new metal MacBooks is now $200 more expensive than the old plastic one.
For the price you do get some nifty new features, but some omissions in the MacBook package remain.
The new MacBook has the same 13.3-inch screen as the White, but it's now backed by light-emitting diodes rather than fluorescent tubes. This means the screen reaches full brightness faster, and extends battery life a little bit.
The track pad is now huge and covered by glass, which gives it a pleasant, luxurious feel. The button has been eliminated to provide a larger tracking surface, but the bottom corners are spring-loaded, acting as buttons.
The graphics chip has been considerably upgraded, which helps with games and movie playback.
I was able to play the fairly taxing 3-D spaceship game "Eve Online," which has been difficult or impossible on a non-Pro MacBook before.
My favorite upgrade is the external battery indicator, which should be passed into law.
Pressing a small button on the side of the laptop will light a row of eight diodes to tell you how much charge is left in the battery, even if the computer is off.
Previous MacBooks had these indicators on the battery, so you had to turn the unit upside down to get a readout.
A few Windows laptops have indicators on their batteries, but I don't know of any that are as convenient to read as the new MacBook's.
Most laptops have no external indicators at all, so you have to turn them on to find out whether they need charging.
The new model weighs 4.5 pounds, half a pound less than the White, yet it has longer battery life. Apple says it's good for five hours of "wireless productivity," which presumably includes periods of inactivity.
I got one hour and 50 minutes of life from the battery when I played movies and games nonstop at full screen brightness.
Like all Apple laptops, the MacBook lacks a slot for data cards from cameras, phones and music players.
This isn't a problem if you're carrying the right cable to connect your camera via the USB port, but isn't Apple supposed to be about easy, elegant computing?
Also, the MacBook has only two USB ports, and they're both on the left side of the body. If you use a mouse with your right hand, the cable has to snake around.
Casting a glance at the competition from the Windows side: Hewlett-Packard Co.'s new dv3510nr has a screen that's the same size, also backlit by LEDs and powered by a good graphics chip.
It weighs the same as the MacBook, yet it has a larger hard drive, a backlit keyboard, a card reader and three USB ports, one of which one doubles as the kind of port needed for the newest, fastest external hard drives. Another port lets you connect the computer to a high-definition TV set with a standard cable.
All for $100 less than the MacBook.
Of course, the HP computer is plastic, but from a utilitarian point of view, that isn't a bad material for consumer electronics. It's tough. It's light. It's easy to manufacture.
High-end cameras used to have shells of brass and aluminum, but they were prone to denting, so the metal was phased out in favor of plastics that were tougher and gave a better grip.
(In fairness to aluminum, it is much easier to recycle than plastic. Apple made several other environmentally conscious choices in designing the MacBook.)
The new MacBook is an excellent computer, but doesn't really the change the advice I would give people who are looking for a new laptop.
If you're price-conscious but really want Apple software, get the $1,000 MacBook White.
If you're price-conscious but not set on Apple software, get a Windows laptop.
If you aren't price-conscious ... hey, can you spare me a hundred bucks?