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The Argument Against Major Mac Redesigns

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.