The Mac Hardware Report: How Important Are Looks?

February 26th, 2008

Apple has continued to raise the bar for cutting-edge industrial design, but little has changed when it comes to appearance in the Mac lineup in recent years, other than the strikingly individualistic beveled shape of the MacBook AIr. As my friend Rob Griffiths, of Macworld, observes in an intriguing commentary this week: “But then, I came to a startling conclusion: it seems Apple has perfected the design of its Mac cases.”

I think he may be stretching a little bit to come to that conclusion. But there was, at least at one time, an elegant and surprisingly-practical logic to Apple’s choices for the way Macs look. Take the Power Mac G5, which featured an extremely hot-running processor configuration. Apple’s design crew fashioned an extraordinarily sophisticated cooling system with multiple fans and even liquid cooling on the most powerful models. It certainly made sense to have that famous (or notorious) cheese-grater look at the front and rear, which greatly enhanced ventilation.

For two years, I had a Power Mac G5 Quad situated below my desk, and I have to tell you that I did look on occasion for evidence of coolant leaking, in the same way you look under your car in search for evidence that some unsavory substance is dripping.

When the Mac Pro arrived in the summer of 2006, the case was, from outward appearances at any rate, precisely the same. But that was essentially in keeping with Apple’s ongoing design motif, which was to change as little as possible, except what was required for new or changed functions.

Now in the case of the Mac Pro, the internals are more friendly to expansion, since only half the number of cooling fans are needed. So you can add four internal drives rather than two, and an extra optical drive too. Yes, the ports and port layouts are altered too, but you have to look carefully to see that.

Some of you probably expected that Apple would use the occasion of its switch from PowerPC to Intel processors to reinvigorate Mac designs. But clearly that didn’t happen. One reason I voiced at the time was that Apple wanted to reinforce the feeling of continuity. A Mac is a Mac even if the electronics inside, particularly the processor, are built by different manufacturers. It still looks and works the same — or at least better because of ongoing improvements not just in the processor, but in the supporting chips.

But with the Intel transition long since past, what is stopping Apple from making major design changes now? Do we still need the grated look to enhance cooling on a Mac Pro? Well, I suppose with a couple of graphic cards, all RAM slots occupied, and lots of intense 3D rendering on, it could enhance the reliability of what is basically a workstation rather than a personal computer.

However, where does that put the MacBook and MacBook Pro, which emerged from the Intel transition with minor size adjustments, but were otherwise similar to their PowerPC predecessors? All right, there’s the Multi-Touch touchpad on the MacBook Pro, shared with the MacBook Air.

The iMac? Well, beyond basically taking the externals of Apple’s aging display line and grafting them onto an all-in-one personal computer, not much really changed.

I won’t get into the tragic tale of the Mac mini, which remains unaltered, but still available, despite falling under the radar for quite some time.

Indeed, for the most part, Apple has made only minor external changes to its products, concentrating mostly on enhancing the stuff that really matters, and is most responsible for its functions and performance.

So are we to conclude, as Rob Griffiths no doubt does, that Apple has reached the pinnacle of its design expertise as to personal computers, a nirvana of sorts? Does this mean that they can retire their Mac design crew, or just redeploy them to work on future iPods, iPhones, Apple TVs and other products that, so far at least, we know nothing about?

That’s a really good question, and my response is probably no. At the same time, Apple’s creative team is focused in lots of different areas, and it can’t just make changes for changes sake. Right now, Macs are hot, and appear destined to continue to fuel the growth of Apple for quite some time, particularly as iPod sales begin to taper off — or appear to be tapering off. None of that growth has required Apple to change the look of its computers in any meaningful way, though you could argue that an aluminum-clad iMac is certainly different when compared to the plastic version.

So there’s no incentive at this point to focus development dollars where they are clearly not needed. In fact, Apple has in the past also kept basic case designs in production through multiple model changes. Consider the original compact Mac, which eventually morphed into the Mac Classic. The Mac IIcx became the IIci, and then, with slight external changes, the Quadra 700. I could go on.

However, even with incremental changes, you might still find that the Mac of 2012 will look quite different from the one you bought in 2008. What do you think?

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3 Responses to “The Mac Hardware Report: How Important Are Looks?”

  1. Andrew says:

    What about the new design introduced with the MacBook? The MacBook shares its polycarbonate material with the iBook it replaced, but not much else. Wasn’t this a radical new design, and as evidenced by the new Air, the shape of things to come? The Air borrows its shape, magnetic display latch and keyboard from the MacBook, while using the aluminum finish thats been a mark of Apple’s pro models for the last 5 years.

    Looked at next to the Air and the MacBook, the Pro looks quite old-fashioned with its display latch and PowerBook keyboard. The MacBook Pro has kept the PowerBook form-factor for the most part, but I would imagine that when it finally does get a design redux, it too will look more like an aluminum MacBook than something altogether new.

    Apple’s design seems to go in waves. We had translucent plastics for a number of years following the original iMac, just as the case design from the later Quadras carried over through first the PPC transition, then the first generation of the G3 era.

  2. Dana Sutton says:

    Part of the reason for little appearance change is that the current Macs look so great. The iMac is so beautiful that it deserves star billing in a museum of industrial design. The Mac Pro, to be sure, may look a little clunky, but its massive aluminum case delivers an important message: “I’m a piece of electronic equipment that deserves to be taken seriously, not something goofy to be lugged around by some hippies in a microbus with Flower Power stickers all over it,. I have a legitimate place in an office or a lab. I deserve plenty of respect.” That’s a heck of an effective message, it has no doubt done a lot to turn the Mac’s image around in the business world and boost sales, and it would be very hard to improve on it.

  3. Al says:

    Great, classic marques always maintain continuity in design. Look at Rolex, Mercedes Benz, Steinway. No, it’s not limited to expensive luxury brands. The original Mini and Beetle held their basic designs for a very long time and the revivals stayed true to the basic themes.

    On the other hand look at the products of Seiko, Cadillac, and Sony where the only source of design continuity is the trademark and logo. Ford tried to do a retro Thunderbird but it failed dismally because the design theme it revived did not last that long anyway in its first incarnation. It wasn’t really a classic so why revive that?

    Programmed obsolescence is a manufacturer’s way of getting you to part with your money much sooner than you wish or need to. I like companies that do not intentionally make their older products look dated. I have a 4-1/2 year old PowerMac G5 that felt like I bought a new computer when I updated from Panther to Leopard. I like the fact that it looks like the current Mac Pros and thus I am spared the daily, constant subtle pressure to replace my ‘old’ computer soon.

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