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  • Will Macs Soon Change?

    December 27th, 2007

    The other day, after my son returned from his semester of college studies in Spain, I watched as he set up his well-worn 17-inch PowerBook G4 on his desk. That particular form factor actually debuted in 2003, and Grayson’s note-book, the 1.33GHz model, appeared in the spring of 2004. My 17-inch MacBook Pro was acquired in May 2006.

    Why do I mention this? Well, unless you put the two side by side and look carefully, you will be hard-pressed to see any difference, and the latest MacBook Pros are pretty much the same. No, you don’t have to remind me of the tiny dimensional differences and all that. That’s not important. It’s the overall form factor, which remains unaltered.

    Some tech pundits speculated that, in switching to Intel processors, Apple would take the opportunity to revitalize the case designs for all or most of their computers. That didn’t happen. While the internal layouts may have been altered to accommodate the new processor family — and this is particularly true with the Mac Pro where internal hard drive bays were doubled — they are otherwise hard to identify from their predecessors.

    Now I realize it has been suggested that Apple retained the old designs to signify continuity, retaining a positive brand identification through processor switches, as if to demonstrate that it’s not important what’s inside. What counts is how well the computer performs and the value it offers to you.

    That makes sense, and I’m inclined to go along with that viewpoint. Sure, it has also been suggested that Apple had spent a huge sum just in switching processor architectures, and revising form factors might have raised development costs considerably, but, now that Apple is beginning is third year of the Intel transition, isn’t it high time something change in the way Macs look?

    Yes, you can cite the iMac as the harbinger of change, but remember that the basic shape is the same. It’s just a different case for the most part. Besides, Apple’s displays acquired aluminum first.

    Now one of the more popular rumors is that Apple is developing a thin and light note-book for early 2008 introduction, perhaps during the Steve Jobs Macworld keynote in January. Sure, if you repeat a rumor often enough, it might even come true. Witness the iPhone, a product that had been touted by rumor sites for a number of years before it became a reality.

    Of course, a tiny note-book isn’t new to Apple. Consider the PowerBook 2400 series, and even the 12-inch PowerBook G4 as examples of small portables that had some measure of success.

    Thin and light also generally means well below five pounds in weight, so where would Apple take the space from if it decided to keep a fairly decent-sized LCD display, say in the arena of 12 or 13 inches?

    Sure, miniaturization has taken a huge leap since the first aluminum PowerBooks appeared. It’s also possible that Apple might shave additional space by using Flash memory for all or part of its new note-book’s storage system. However, it won’t come cheap, and the size you might select as reasonably space and price efficient, 64GB, is a mite slim for today’s note-books. Of course, if the product came equipped for an external docking station with additional desktop storage, that might compensate.

    The advantage of Flash memory would also mean greater battery life, not to mention the fact that Intel’s latest chips are also more efficient in their use of current.

    But would a tiny entrant in Apple’s note-book line be essentially a slimmed down MacBook Pro, thus keeping a similar aluminum case design, or represent something else altogether? Besides, how many design choices do you have for a note-book computer, other than using different components for the case and maybe moving speakers, the keyboard and trackpad around a little? Would Apple revert to Titanium, which wasn’t such a great choice because of the tendency to scratch and bend when it was used in the PowerBook? Or stick with aluminum and play the color game to give you the illusion of a difference?

    What about other ingredients of a note-book, such as a track button in the fashion of the IBM/Lenovo ThinkPad?  Is that a practical input device, or just a gimmick? What about a second mouse button to accept the reality that an Apple note-book may also be the most effective way to run Windows too? Besides, Mac OS X readily accepts multi-button mice, and don’t forget Mighty Mouse.

    Whether or not Apple makes its note-books smaller, would they also be encouraged to dicker with the case designs for other products, such as the Mac Pro? Do you care whether your professional desktop workstation has a case that reminds you of a cheese grater, or is it just a matter of design efficiency? After all, the openings do help the internal cooling system, right?

    Would Apple at this point revert to plastics to cut weight, or are we past that now?

    There is one other factor to consider: There’s been no significant change in the designs of Windows note-books, other than varying color schemes here and there, and Apple’s taking a bigger and bigger share of the portable computer market. So what’s to change?

    Unless, of course, Apple wants to take computer design into a new direction. And that, my friends, may be the development even the rumor sites haven’t yet talked much about. Of course, this column may inspire them, but I’m more interested in whether the possibilities inspire you, the reader.



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    5 Responses to “Will Macs Soon Change?”

    1. Andy Carolan says:

      Maybe the change in Macbook design hasnt changed radically because its current incarnation is a form that works well for the majority of users. Same with the iMac perhaps? The shape of the iMac in particular has become a kind of design icon, it uses the deskspace it occupies very efficiently and is identifiable to most simply by its design. Besides, remember how careful Apple has to be with even the most subtle of changes, such as the change to the “shiny screen surface”.

      Perhaps an Apple “Tablet” may be a welcome departure from the laptop style, but not to replace the current style, but to add to the range of portable devices. Obviously Apple has a pretty good understanding of producing an effective user interface using touch screen technology as demonstrated with the iPhone.

    2. Bill says:

      Moving to a 12″ screen, dropping the optical drive, and using an aluminum case instead of plastic could cut the weight of a “macbook slim” by a couple of pounds over the 5.2 lb. of the current Macbook.

      I’d buy it.

    3. Andrew says:

      I would too, but please use a real hard drive instead of expensive and small flash. Hard drives are huge and cheap, and if they wear, they can be easily replaced.

      Regardless, if it weighs less than 4lbs I’ll buy it as well.

    4. Dana Sutton says:

      Yes, it was very important to have the first generation look just the G-5, since that helped overcome any possible customer resistance to the debut of the Intel Mac. But normally in marketing a new model you want to emphasize the difference, and nothing advertises that more eloquently than a fresh look. The old “cheese grater” styling is getting a bit tired. I doubt if all those vent holes are necessary any more, at least if the next generation of Intel processors has about the same cooling requirements as the present one. And yes, the current Mac Pro is darned heavy, it’s way too easy to hurt yourself or our Mac Pro in lugging it around. A return to a plastic case might well happen: I should imagine plastic is cheaper to manufacture, and aluminum has the disadvantage that it prevents the use of internal antennae. And maybe a return to plastic would help Apple’s marketing by looking more at home in an office setting and less like a piece of lab equipment. A new look for the next Mac Pro is especially likely because the current line of Cinema Displays is getting old, tired, and waaay overexpensive, so much so that they must be selling very poorly these days, so we can probably look forward to new models more or less coordinated with the release of the next Mac Pro. So this would be a great opportunity to introduce a new look for both. (And I bet the next Mac Pro will feature a SATA port, which is long overdue).

    5. Adam says:

      Yes, it was very important to have the first generation look just the G-5, since that helped overcome any possible customer resistance to the debut of the Intel Mac. But normally in marketing a new model you want to emphasize the difference, and nothing advertises that more eloquently than a fresh look. The old “cheese grater” styling is getting a bit tired. I doubt if all those vent holes are necessary any more, at least if the next generation of Intel processors has about the same cooling requirements as the present one. And yes, the current Mac Pro is darned heavy, it’s way too easy to hurt yourself or our Mac Pro in lugging it around. A return to a plastic case might well happen: I should imagine plastic is cheaper to manufacture, and aluminum has the disadvantage that it prevents the use of internal antennae. And maybe a return to plastic would help Apple’s marketing by looking more at home in an office setting and less like a piece of lab equipment. A new look for the next Mac Pro is especially likely because the current line of Cinema Displays is getting old, tired, and waaay overexpensive, so much so that they must be selling very poorly these days, so we can probably look forward to new models more or less coordinated with the release of the next Mac Pro. So this would be a great opportunity to introduce a new look for both. (And I bet the next Mac Pro will feature a SATA port, which is long overdue).

      Personal experience has taught me that the aluminum cases are not all that heavy in and of themselves, believe me, I have completley stripped my fair share of Mac Pros and Power Macs in my time as an Apple Certified Tech. In fact, If you ask me the chassis of a PowerMac G5 once emptied is barely different in weight from that of a PowerMac G4. Let’s not forget that all those “plastic cases” are lined with steel to one degree or another, which incidentally is not that great for wireless antennae either. Placement/orientation of the antennae ends up being just as critical (if not more so) than case material. The weight of a G5 comes by and large from the power supply and the huge cooling apparatus on the CPUs. Take out the kilowatt supply from a last gen G5 quad core and you suddenly lose a HUGE amount of weight. The CPU units (integrated heat sinks so it’s all one unit really) in the PowerMac G5 can weigh more than the hard drive. The support structure for that unit is also quite beefy with the inherent weight you would expect.
      These points are also largely, but not precisely, similar in the Mac Pro.

      Because of these factors I would say that even if Apple went to plastic cases there would need to be quite a few engineering changes related to power and cooling before you will see any major weight savings. And the “cheese grater” look? Yeah it’s old, yeah it’s not really pretty but all that air flow really does mean cooler temps, which means a lot less fan noise. My MacPro runs very quietly under heavy load. Typically any noise I here is from the optical drive or the fan on my graphics card. Compare that to what we heard (from down the hall) when the Mirror Drive Door (last G4 PowerMac) models came out. I like a quiet work space. Plus I actually like the aesthetic of the thing, but that’s a purely personal statement.

      Cheers

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