Apple is between a rock and a hard place and it’s all Intel’s fault. Yes, it was the right thing to cast its lot with Intel when PowerPC processor development stalled. The Mac was falling behind Windows PCs, and the promised G5 chip for notebooks never arrived. And I haven’t begun to mention those Power Mac G5s that required liquid cooling because they ran so hot.
So when the first Macs with Intel Inside appeared in 2006, it was a revelation. Performance improved at a good clip, and the teething problems were few. The worst issue for most was the tendency for those first MacBook Pro notebooks to run too hot.
In recent years, though, performance improvements for Intel chips have been modest. Sure, Intel’s slow integrated graphics have become less slow and are pretty decent overall, but the largest change was improved power efficiency. That has allowed for all-day service on Apple’s notebooks without having to plug them in.
The Mac refresh routine has been fairly consistent. Intel releases a new chip family each year, and there are corresponding updates to most Macs. There have been exceptions, such as the Mac Pro which uses the Xeon server-grade chips and the lowly Mac mini, which hasn’t seen an update since 2012.
Unfortunately, Intel’s development schedule has hit roadblocks, and the Broadwell chips are running extremely late. Some low-power versions were slated to ship this summer, but the ones that Apple uses may not come out until the end of the year, or early next year. This pushes major Mac speed bumps to 2015, but Apple shouldn’t be expected to wait.
Their solution was to take slightly faster chips from the Haswell family and issue minor refreshes for the MacBook Air and the MacBook pro families. The former also benefitted from $100 price cuts. With the MacBook Pro, Apple’s plan was to double installed memory on most configurations, and only reduce the price of the high-end 15-inch MacBook Pro configuration, which already had 16GB installed.
Benchmarks of the new versus the old show slight improvements, but you’d need a stopwatch to demonstrate the faster speeds for most functions. By offering more value for your money, though, Apple has succeeded in growing the Mac platform at a faster rate than other hardware, even the iPhone. So sales increased by 18% in the June quarter, although both Gartner and IDC erroneously claimed that Mac sales declined in the U.S. That error remains uncorrected, even though Apple reported double-digit sales growth in this country. So it seems the survey organizations will stand by their numbers however wrong they might be.
In any case, Apple has managed to make the best of a bad situation, and it’s not as if they can easily move to a different processor platform. AMD, for example, lags behind Intel in performance, although their chips are undeniably cheaper in many cases. But AMD is at least compatible with Intel.
The other option for Apple might be ARM, and Apple has plenty of expertise designing custom chips for the iPhone and the iPad. The A7 is 64-bit, and newer versions could possibly be developed in a more powerful form, more power hungry, for use in desktops and notebooks. But performance would still lag behind current Intel parts, although I suppose that difference might be reduced over time. That Apple is leveraging the power of graphic chips for normal computing functions helps.
Certainly there have been ongoing rumors that Apple is planning on building an ARM-based MacBook some time in the future. I presume such prototypes already exist, and Apple would continue to seek alternatives if Intel doesn’t deliver the goods.
But an ARM-based Mac, even if performance was comparable to Intel hardware, would be a difficult move. There are all those legacy Intel apps that would have to be ported to ARM, and Apple would, as before with processor transitions, have to devise a method to translate older apps until they are updated. If that could be done with little or no performance loss, perhaps it would make sense, though such a transition might take a couple of years to complete. And what about the Mac Pro?
In the meantime, the Mac is doing quite nicely at a time when you might have expected sales to stagnate or drop slightly. The Continuity integration between OS X Yosemite and iOS 8 is yet another step to encourage you to buy into both platforms. That will also help boost Mac sales.
Besides, today’s Macs are quite fast enough for most people. Those who need the cutting-edge get it with the Mac Pro. Even the aging Mac mini can perform credibly, particularly when equipped with a solid state drive. Obviously the public is responding and, by and large, not focusing on modest speed boosts that may have little impact on their daily routine.
But lowering the price of flash storage would do wonders. Paying up to $800 for a 1TB flash upgrade on the newest MacBook Pro with Retina display seems pretty outrageous, particularly since you can buy drives with that capacity for less than half that price from other companies.
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