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  • The Argument Against Major Mac Redesigns

    May 29th, 2008

    Among the rampant rumors in anticipation of the WWDC are claims Apple plans to seriously rejigger the case designs of its Mac note-books, possibly a reflection of the flourishes that debuted in the MacBook Air.

    The main fly in the ointment is that Intel’s newest chipset has been postponed for a few weeks for various reasons, which means there’s little incentive to introduce any new models until then. Then again, Steve Jobs could conceivably announce the product revisions, blame Intel for the delay, and then explain they’ll ship some time in July. I can see that.

    However, the real question here is whether it makes any sense at all to alter the highly-successful form factors of the MacBook and the MacBook Pro. Some suggest that the plastic casing of the former might be less than robust under hard use, and, being a note-book popular among students, aluminum might prove to be more reliable. Then again, my son spent several years using an aluminum-clad PowerBook G4, and the case suffered from bumps and dents, things that might never have harmed a hard plastic shell.

    Regardless, are Apple’s note-books in dire need of a case refresh? It’s not like an iPod, where Apple has been known to toss away the mold of a successful model and deliver something brand new. Yes, I understand the MacBook Air looks refined compared to the relatively conservative shapes of its siblings. However, those beveled corners may have, in part, been required as a result of the internal chassis layout. Maybe not all, but a MacBook Air, aside from its obvious utility for road warriors, is also a first-class “Sharper Image” device that people might buy for its looks.

    It may even be that Apple wasn’t fully convinced that a thin and light note-book would succeed without a spiffy design to go with it. The incredible successes of the MacBook and MacBook Pro come despite the rectangular shapes, and squared-off corners. They impress you as elegant compared to the stodgy look of most PC note-books. Why mess with success?

    That’s a good question that I wouldn’t presume to answer. Maybe Apple has found ways to miniaturize the components and layouts still further, with more integrated chipsets, and thus they can shave weight off their mainstream note-books. Imagine getting the 17-inch MacBook Pro below six pounds. While I don’t travel enough for mine to disturb, I can see where frequent journeys can cause shoulder pains unless you choose the backpack route.

    Actually, I do have a backpack in the closest, but I have never actually used it. Since it also has enough space to also serve duty for overnight travel, I might take it with me to a future Macworld Expo.

    When it comes to Apple’s desktops, the iMac, an unexpected sales success, looks just fine as it is. It is refined to the basics, a computer display with minimal overhang and depth, a true marvel of form following function, after Apple’s excursions with pear shapes, flower pot-style bases and articulated arms. There are no complexities to consider, so, aside from making it thinner over time and reducing the extra girth at the bottom, I don’t see any pressure on Apple to change things here either.

    That takes us to the Mac Pro, another aging design that owes an awful lot to the 2003 Power Mac G5. At five years of age, do we really need the cheese grater grill now that cooling needs aren’t as severe as they were in the days when a G5 had eight or nine cooling fans, and embedded liquid cooling for the fastest versions?

    The real question is whether or not it makes sense to alter the tried and true minitower motif, and why. It’s not like the days of the IIfx, when far smaller displays would sit atop an elongated desktop computer. The base of a large monitor, say the 24-inch or 30-inch style, are sufficiently high not to require placement on top of an actual computer, so the latter can exist perfectly fine on the floor.

    But imagine if Apple turned its professional desktop on its side, say a thickened version of the Xserve? That would, in fact, return us to the era when the IIfx reigned supreme in creative departments around the world. It wouldn’t be so deep as to cause a problem with a display placed on it.

    Of course, that sort of design is one I’ve considered for that “mythical” midrange desktop, the so-called “headless iMac” that would fill the market that some believe exists between the Mac mini and the Mac Pro. A thinner version might recall the IIci, although some have suggested a double-sized mini, although that might harken back to the Cube, and I think Steve Jobs had his fill of that.

    However, such exercises in desktop computer redesign are really unnecessary. The Mac mini probably isn’t selling a whole lot simply because Apple isn’t investing sufficient marketing dollars to move it, and it hasn’t been updated in an awfully long time. Besides, it looks just fine, witness the fact that Apple has emulated that shape with Apple TV, AirPort Extreme and Time Capsule.

    In the end, maybe Apple will refine casing here and there in the months to come, but a serious alteration is probably unnecessary and it’s questionable whether such redesigns would really boost sales to any significant degree.



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    10 Responses to “The Argument Against Major Mac Redesigns”

    1. Joel Fagin says:

      Your point is well made but when ever I hear anything like this I always default to “Apple knows what they’re doing – irresepctive of what they actually do”. I would tend to think that if Apple redesigns their computers then an argument of “do they really need to?” is simply not an issue. If Apple thinks they need a redesign, then they have good reason.

      It’s also clear that if Apple doesn’t think they have a reason to update, they won’t (as your long lasting examples show).

      In short, I’m constantly amazed how many people don’t trust Apple to do what they have done best for the last ten years.

    2. Dana Sutton says:

      I agree with Joel in general, but I’d make two points. a.) The aluminum case and “cheese greater” front of the Mac Pro is something you either love or hate, let’s not get into that. What is beyond argument is that a metal case interferes with radio waves, one remembers the G3/4 cases with fondness because you didn’t have to hang any antennae out of them. b.) The Mac Pro is HEAVY, which can be dangerous both for the Mac and for the spinal cord of the poor soul who has to lug it around (and the sharp edges on the carrying handles don’t help the situation). There are also arguments for a redesign based on the amount of desk space consumed by the footprint. What it really comes down to is this: the massive case used for the MacPro was designed to house all the cooling apparatus required by the G-5, which is no longer necessary.

    3. Bryan says:

      I think a redesign would be appropriate to stay ahead of the competition. And to refresh purchases. Lets figure what happens:

      Apple releases a new redesigned macbook and macbook pro
      we want, but have a good current model
      we sell it on ebay or craigslist – our old one
      buy a the new one cause were apple fanatics and like the lastest and greatest
      apple profits with now a sale of the new unit and a new customer. Extends market use. No one throws out thier macs like they do PC’s. We give them away or sell them. Increasing Apples market share.

      So why a redesign? I thiink that answers the question.

    4. Adam says:

      … b.) The Mac Pro is HEAVY, which can be dangerous both for the Mac and for the spinal cord of the poor soul who has to lug it around (and the sharp edges on the carrying handles don’t help the situation). There are also arguments for a redesign based on the amount of desk space consumed by the footprint. What it really comes down to is this: the massive case used for the MacPro was designed to house all the cooling apparatus required by the G-5, which is no longer necessary.

      Why are you moving a Mac Pro around? I have moved mine once since setting it up – when I got a new desk. The concept of a tower is a machine that won’t be moved around and thus can house the most impressive components with no thought to portability.

      I used to be a Mac Genius (when the Mac Pro came out I was the first to replace a logic board in my store and thus was the Mac Pro expert) and I have 2 observations of my own here:
      1) There’s not really a lot of empty space in these things. The footprint is partially the result of 4 SATA 3.5 in drive bays, the MLB is very large, and the heatsinks are not exactly tiny either. Plus you have power supplies, optical drive bays, etc… Yes, the G4 and earlier PowerMacs got a most of this into a smaller form factor but what you may not be aware of unless you tore them down to the casing, as I have, is that the heatsinks in the G4s are much smaller and the 2 (not 4 in most cases) IDE drives were much, much more tedious to switch out which in these days of large multi-media files can be a big deal. The reason this is so has a lot to do with the location of the stacked mounting sleds in order to fit that smaller form factor. Thus to get 4 SATA 3.5in drives easily accessible in the MacPro you have established a wide, long footprint to start with. As for the massive case not being needed for cooling, although they are much quieter than the G5 PowerMac, the MacPro really does need that huge heatsink. A smaller sink, or lesser volume of air and you are back to needing liquid cooling. Not a great option, trust me.

      2)If you must move a MacPro, bend at the knees, not the waist, and place your hands into the space at the “feet” of the tower so that your palms are gripping the main case, not the “handles”. You will lift with your legs and you will find the grip quite comfortable. In fact, this is so much better on your hands that it is the way I grip every Apple tower produced since the G3 blue and white. Those corner handles have always had tough edges.

      Cheers!

    5. G.S. Kennedy says:

      Yet another well reasoned piece—the Apple product line really has no competition except for the new designs coming out of One Infinite Loop. My only question is how a word like alternation got past your spell-check and proofreading? “but a serious alternation”

      Peace!

    6. Yet another well reasoned piece—the Apple product line really has no competition except for the new designs coming out of One Infinite Loop. My only question is how a word like alternation got past your spell-check and proofreading? “but a serious alternation”

      Peace!

      When spelling checkers are smart, we won’t have to worry about this anymore. 😀

      Peace,
      Gene

    7. javaholic says:

      Industrial Design has always helped set Apple apart from the crowd. When people think Apple, they often think style. Refreshing their product design helps keep Apple fresh in the mind of the consumer. Apple themselves have set this expectation with customers. Even if Apple only updated product X with had a larger HD and speed bump but it came in a restyled case, that’d be enough to stimulate sales.

      I’ve had a 15” 1.83GHz Core Duo MacBook Pro for the last 2 years. Nice keyboard, display (although the newer, higher res one would be beneficial from time to time) and have never had any issues with it. If Apple could build this product, no compromises, into the Air form factor I’d be in. Until then I’m fine with the extra weight. I also run a MacPro with 23” Cinema Display. While the Pro line has been slightly face lifted over the years inside and out, it’d be nice to see a refresh on the exterior design. As for the Cinema display line, well, I wonder if Apple actually remember they sell displays? Not only is their pricing out of step in today’s market, it’d be good to at least pop a camera in the top for those of us that are more than often strapped to the desktop.

      After a bit of experimentation over the years, they seem to be settling on some unification with their design. Maybe going thinner and lighter is where it’s at next. I just hope with all this extra attention they’re gaining these days, they don’t stop pushing the boundaries on all of their products, not just some.

    8. Maybe the reason Intel’s newest chipset has been postponed for a few weeks is because they sold all their first run to Apple? 🙂

    9. I’d love to see a new Mac in a IIci type case. It would be very easy to get into and configure, and can be optionally placed up-right if need be.

    10. Bill Burkholder says:

      I’d love to see Apple build something as upgradeable and flexible as the old G4 towers. I have two of those beasts, and have added RAM, SATA controllers, bigger hard drives, better optical disc burners, better video cards, and accelerators to them over the years. They aren’t super fast, but they do run Tiger quite nicely, along with most recent productivity software (Office 2004 and Adobe CS).

      My point is that at least some model of Apple’s Macintosh should be considered a 10-year personal investment, not a 3-year corporate write-off. These 1999 machines were given to me by my company, once their useful life there was exhausted (about six years!). My kids enjoy the upgraded versions and will for several more years, thanks to cheap upgrades.

      I think a lot of us would enjoy a desktop Mac with full accessibility and user-replaceable components. Companies who sell replacement parts are plentiful. Want more storage? Memory? Video capability? A new optical drive? More ports? A faster network connection? It’s all out there. Just give us box to put it in. Oh, and while you’re at it, Apple, give us the ability to upgrade the processor again!

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