Are You Dreaming About the Future MacBook?

January 14th, 2011

When Steve Jobs introduced the latest incarnation of the MacBook Air last fall, he made it perfectly clear that you were seeing the Mac portable computer of the future. In the past, the Air had been the poor stepchild for the rest of the lineup, reportedly with middling sales, but sufficient to keep Apple’s faith and inspire periodic revisions.

Although the numbers won’t be known until next week, preliminary reports indicate another blowout December quarter, with record numbers of Macs, iPhones and iPads sold. Surveys show that Apple outpaced a flat PC industry, where the iPad may have cannibalized sales of netbooks big time. Macs seem immune, or maybe Apple would have sold more if there was no iPad.

In passing, it’ll be interesting to see if the analysts make a more substantial move towards combining tablet and traditional PC sales. If that happens, Apple’s worldwide share will of a sudden expand to join the top tier . Clearly PC box makers don’t want that to happen — until they have lots of iPad wannabes to sell.

But when you return to the MacBook Air, how does its design influence future MacBooks and MacBook Pros?

One strong possibility is the increased use of solid state drives (SSD) in place of traditional mechanical hard drives. That development would be a long time coming, a revelation for those of you who have suffered from failed hard drives, particularly in portables. My son underwent that catastrophe a few months back, but had a full online backup that allowed him to restore his stuff.

My personal encounter of this sort dates back to an iBook Apple sent me to review more than a decade ago. On the day I was to leave to San Francisco to attend the Macworld Expo, the drive began to click annoyingly, as performance slowed down dramatically. I hoped it would survive for the duration of the trade show; it didn’t, but I was able to borrow a Windows note-book from a publisher for whom I was writing regular articles. It was an awkward situation, but it worked out reasonably well.

And in case you ask, no I don’t think the hard drives Apple uses are any worse than the ones other PC makers place in their gear. Stuff happens.

The problem with an SSD is, unfortunately, one of cost. You figure on paying 10 to 20 times the price of a traditional hard drive of similar capacity. Imagine taking a $999 MacBook and spending upwards of $500 to get an SSD that matches its 250GB capacity.

The comparably priced MacBook Air comes with 64GB of storage, and you have to make serious compromises to survive the lack of space to put your stuff, such as putting most of your data on another Mac, and installing only the essential apps, documents, music and videos.

But that’s today, and it probably won’t be long before a 128GB is cheap enough to replace the one that has half the capacity. The situation changes drastically. My MacBook Pro has roughly that amount of data, and I could dump a third of it without feeling threatened.

It’s quite possible Apple will also hasten the migration to SSD by letting you put more of your files in the cloud, perhaps that new server farm they built in North Carolina. Suddenly the need for lots of coal storage will be far less significant for many of you. But I do agree that Apple will probably have to wait a couple of years, at the very least, before making a wholesale migration to SSD. Even then, content creators may insist on a traditional hard drive because of the superior price/storage ratio, or perhaps a hybrid configuration that’s part SSD-part mechanical, which can still speed up performance tremendously.

The other notable change might be the loss of the optical drive. Apple has avoided Blu-ray, and it doesn’t seem that a whole lot of customers are complaining, even though you can get one on a PC, or from a third party to install on your Mac. As you no doubt recall, Steve Jobs referred to Blu-ray as a “bag of hurt,” because of the complicated licensing scheme. Apple’s direction is to move everything online, so you won’t need an optical drive. On the MacBook Air, the OS comes on a tiny USB stick. An external optical drive is optional, but I wonder how many need it beyond requiring a crutch?

Although the discovery surprised me, I have probably used my MacBook Pro’s optical drive maybe once or twice since it was purchased. I do make CD copies of music I’ve purchased from iTunes on my iMac, but once my wife becomes accustomed to accessing the same tunes streamed from my Mac on our Apple TV, I expect my need for burning CDs or DVDs will be lessened severely.

I do, however, feel that Apple made a big mistake not including gigabit Ethernet on the MacBook Air. You get a slower 100 megabit USB dongle as an optional accessory. I understand Apple’s desire to simplify the ports, but that’s too simple. Wi-Fi is still far slower than wired, though that, too, is apt to change as faster standards come on line.

The next generation MacBooks and MacBook Pros will likely be slimmer and lighter too, a consequence of adapting some of the MacBook Air’s design tricks. Beyond that, I don’t expect to see touch support spread beyond the touch pad. That’s just not Apple’s way, at least until they devise a better way.

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10 Responses to “Are You Dreaming About the Future MacBook?”

  1. Kaleberg says:

    We recently chose an 11″ MacBook Air over an iPad. The price difference wasn’t all that much, and we got a much more open and usable machine. We type a lot in our daily lives, so having a real keyboard made a lot of difference. Besides, the keyboard base props up the screen for viewing. An awful lot of iPad owners have to schlep around an iPad stand to hold up the screen when they watch a movie. We bought the ethernet dongle, but we don’t use ethernet at home, and we haven’t found need for it yet on our travels. Still, it is better to be prepared. We haven’t bought an optical drive for it. We have optical drives on our other MacBooks, and they have faster processors for ripping video anyway. We just rip on one of our bigger laptops and drag and drop onto our travel machine.

    I think that the MacBook line will get lighter and smaller, but Apple will keep the Pro line for users who really do want to do video production, serious image processing, advanced audio, rendering and other compute, memory and disk drive heavy jobs on the road. You can do an awful lot without moving to a Mac Pro and getting chained to a desk.

  2. Andrew says:

    I agree. Since purchasing my 11″ MacBook Air, my 15″ MacBook Pro (top of the line i7, high-res, matte) is used for very little. The few tasks the Air just isn’t up to, ripping DVDs for in-flight viewing, Windows games, etc) are in no way work-related tasks. Usually, the MacBook Pro sits at home, essentially an expensive desktop. Had I known last year just how capable the new Air would be, I would likely have bought an iMac instead of the MacBook Pro.

    Will those changes make it to the rest of the line? I do see the pro models keeping their drives as they are more of an all-purpose machine, but that doesn’t mean they won’t continue to slim down, and that battery life won’t continue to improve. Honestly, I see a lot of the thinking of recent MacBook Pros incorporated into the MacBook Air, with the new models merely an evolution of what has come before.

    All-flash is really the only major change the Air brought, and you have had the ability to order a MacBook Pro with SSD for some time.

  3. justmy2cents says:

    I just don’t understand Apple’s obsession with anorexic laptops..

    As far as I’m concerned, The MacBook Pros, as they are, could stand to be force fed a few BBQ Pork sandwiches… If a 5lb pro laptop is too damn heavy for you, it’s time to hit the fracking gym!!!

    I have 0 interest in crippled laptops.. I want more storage, not less.. I want an expresscard slot in a 15″ MBP with better graphics..

    I could see if it were just me, but I support Pro and ProSumer users that all seem to echo the same thoughts. I have one client that’s been waiting for almost two years for Apple to sell him a laptop he wants.. He’s ready to give up and switch to Windows or Linux and hackintosh for the Mac apps he needs/wants…. He’s not alone.

    I understand that Apple’s not hurting for income, that the consumer space is doing very well for them right now, but look at Sony. Not long ago, Sony was the dominate player in consumer electronics.. Now? Consumers are fickle.. Pro and Prosumer users tend to be stubborn.. This is part of what kept Apple from going down in the 90s… But, if Apple completely alienates the Pro and Prosumer buyers, then finds itself missing a beat on the consumer market.. Shrug..

    Hate seeing Apple act so short-sighted and myopic.. There’s no good reason that they should be ignoring all the low-hanging fruit of Pro and Prosumer users that don’t give a rat’s ass about thin and light that want more flexibility and power..

    • Andrew says:

      I disagree. If you don’t mind heavy and bulky, buy a desktop. Portables are designed for portability, and that means the thinner and lighter the better.

      Of course that equation varies by class, with screen size an important factor for different tasks, but so long as there is sufficient power, I want my 11, 13, 15 or 17 inch laptop as thin, light and small as possible around the size limitations of its screen.

      • justmy2cents says:


        Wait, you think I should have to choose between a crippled 3lb laptop or a 30lb desktop?

        Yeah, we disagree..

        I’m sorry, but that makes absolutely no sense at all.

        I’d say that if a 5lb non-cripled laptop (Like my non-uni-body 15″ MBP) is too heavy, you should get an Air.. or an iPad.. Shrug. Why does every product Apple makes (besides the Mac Pro *workstation*) have to look like it hasn’t eaten anything besides cocaine in 3 months?

        Let me add, I’m not expecting Apple to sell a *Pro* MacBook Pro that’s un-crippled on the cheep, and I have no problem with that. $3000? Fine. Just sell me a laptop that’s not anorexic.. not crippled.. actually *gasp* useful as a Pro machine!

        • Andrew says:


          And how is the 5lb unibody crippled compared to the 5lb non-unibody? More powerful, easier to upgrade, thinner and stronger. What exactly is Apple doing wrong here?

          I didn’t say your choice should be between a 5lb non-crippled laptop and a 30lb desktop. I DID say that Apple is doing it right. I am quite glad that Apple isn’t in the 9lb 15″ laptop business.

        • Andrew says:

          @justmy2cents, I would add, the current 15″ MacBook Pro can be made even better by ditching the optical drive, making it even thinner and lighter, without any sacrifice at all in power. That makes a full-power, non-compromise 15″ laptop into a 4.0 lb instead of a 5.5 lb proposition, which is a huge boost in portability with no sacrifice in power.

  4. Matt says:

    I think the Air will impact Apple’s portable lineup to the point that the standard Macbook will cease to exist. Let’s face it, the Macbook is now the least “Mac-like” Mac being made. It’s still being made out of white plastic, while every other Mac is being made with aluminum. It’s feature set make it hobbled compared to the Macbook Pro, and clunky when compared to the Air. How many people in the future will want the $999 Macbook over the $999 Macbook Air? If you want a lot of hard drive space and an optical drive, get the 13″ Macbook Pro for $1199. The MacBook is becoming the new stepchild in the Mac universe.

  5. Richard says:

    The trend toward a hybrid setup, that is to say a SSD boot drive and a rotating data (home folder) drive, has been ongoing for some time now with the Photoshop and performance crowd as an after sale project. It seems to offer a good balance of performance and storage capactiy. Yes, it still has the risk of drive failure which always will exist, even with SSDs (but to a lesser extent, perhaps).

    Simply pull out the optical drive and install it in an external case and you have the space for the SSD.

    One other benefit of SSDs that I was never aware of applies to mountaineers and aviators who go above 10,000 feet. It seems that above that altitude the reduced air density reduces the air cushion that the heads of a rotating drive depend upon to avoid head crashes enough to be a problem.

    I see this continuing as an aftermarket modification for some time to come for the most part, but the manufacturers, including Apple really should explore this in the next year or so. The potential to speed up boot times and improve the responsiveness of apps is potentially worthwhile to enough purchasers to warrant their efforts.

    I doubt that the price of SSDs will drop to the point that rotating drives are completely replaced any time soon however.

    Most pro/prosumer photographers want something small enough to carry into the field that still has substantial computing power for running photoshop & etc, but not to the extreme (or with the compromises) of the MacBook Air. Oh, and another thing, they want non-glare screens and eSATA connections for external HDs used to backup copies of their images to multiple external drives. No one wants to haul a 17″ MacBook Pro just for the priviledge of having a fast connection option via the express card slot. That should be standard equipment on any MacBook Pro. Period.

  6. Bill in NC says:

    How about an SSD slot in all MacBook Pro models, including the 13″?

    That would allow us to boot from a smaller capacity SSD, but keep our hard drives as well (if optical has to go, I’m OK with that).

    And give us the i5, not the crippled i3, in the new Sandy Bridge 13″ MBP as well.

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