Are We Expecting Too Much From A Mac Refresh?

June 17th, 2011

While there is surely lots of anticipation about the next iPhone, and even perhaps the iPad 3, though it may nine or ten months away, I wonder about the pent-up excitement over that expected MacBook Air revision. Sure, the MacBook Air, resurrected from relative obscurity with a smart refresh last year, has been a shining light in Apple’s portable computer sales, probably more than anyone expected. But is a new version sufficient to cause excitement?

In fact, I was a tad skeptical over the prospects for success simply because of what the Air sacrifices. There’s no built-in optical drive, Ethernet is an optional connector, and you cannot even upgrade RAM and storage without replacing the main logic board, or engaging in a seriously awkward parts swap that involves the careful use of solder. It’s an ultimate computing appliance that, like the iPhone or iPad, requires you to buy the configuration you want on Day One, knowing that it is not likely to be changed later.

The rumors of the 2011 revision have it that Apple will switch to Intel’s speedier and more power efficient Sandy Bridge chips, which have passable graphics capability. More than likely, there will be a Thunderbolt port as well, which will open up all sorts of compelling expansion possibilities that you ordinarily wouldn’t expect from such a thin and light note-book. Beyond that, I’d hope Apple would increase standard RAM to 4GB, and maybe even afford you the opportunity to change it out if you wish to 8GB. But Apple’s eternal quest for miniaturization, not to mention a case unsullied by trap doors, may make it difficult to provide space for a proper set of removable RAM slots that can be easily accessed.

Regardless, most people probably won’t notice significant performance differences without a stop watch, meaning that the upgrade won’t set the tech world afire. So expectations shouldn’t be terribly high, even though speculation is fun.

At the same time, maybe I’m underestimating the potential. The last refreshes for the MacBook Pro and the iMac delivered compelling speed boosts. A fully decked out 27-inch iMac, customized with the Intel i7 processor, a second drive (solid state), and extra RAM, is a box that, in many respects, rivals the speediest Mac Pro costing twice as much. Once my ship comes in, I might even consider one, even though I am getting perfectly satisfactory performance from my late 2009 model with a previous generation Intel i7, the first one to incorporate the current form factor.

What this means is that there’s loads of potential with the current Mac designs to continue to make healthy improvements in performance and perhaps other goodies once or twice a year. It may even help speed up upgrade cycles, which will certainly deliver huge benefits to Apple’s bottom line, and that’s in addition to all those Windows users who continue to flock to the Mac.

I also wonder about the fate of the plain old MacBook. Is the Air meant to completely supplant that model, or will Apple give it a basic shave and haircut and keep it going? I surely expect a new Mac mini which, with Intel Sandy Bridge chips, and perhaps a solid state drive option, will deliver incredible levels of performance for such a tiny box. The Mac Pro will probably also receive a near-term upgrade, and some suspect the case will be slimmed and rearranged somewhat, so it can be hooked into the larger slot on a server rack. Indeed, since Apple is offering the Server version of Lion, an unlimited edition, as a downloadable $49.99 upgrade, this might be a reasonable way to actually replace the late Xserve.

At the same time, a new report suggests that Apple isn’t going to release any Mac upgrades until after Lion ships next month. That way, they don’t have to fuss with fulfilling extra free update orders, and buyers won’t have to concern themselves about installing a major OS upgrade only a few days, or weeks, after spending lots of money on the latest and greatest Mac. I suppose that makes a whole lot of sense, particularly if sales of the current models are moving along at a pretty good clip.

And, by the way, if you bought a new Mac on or after June 6, 2011, you’ll be able to get Lion anyway, free, although $29.99 is a fairly trivial expense as far as OS upgrades go. My real concern is the people who are not going to be able to conveniently download the Lion installer, because they have Internet performance and/or bandwidth constraints, or they never upgraded to Snow Leopard. I still think Apple needs to sort out that dilemma with a retail version containing physical media. Even if the number of Mac users eligible to install Lion, and who aren’t using Mac OS 10.6, might be relatively small in the scheme of things, I suspect the number has to be in the millions.

Or maybe Apple hopes that, in fleshing out the Mac hardware lineup over the next month or two, the new machines will be so compelling that users of older Macs will be only too happy to buy them.

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13 Responses to “Are We Expecting Too Much From A Mac Refresh?”

  1. Joe B. says:

    What I want to see is a Mac Mini with a Quad i7 processor + room for 8GB of ram and thunderbolt port(s).

    A system like that can make a mean server.

    • @Joe B., It would have to be a pair of 4GB RAM modules, which would be rather expensive, but, yes, I suppose it would be possible to stick everything in there, with a 512GB SSD. But it would be hellishly expensive for a computer with pretenses of being cheap.


  2. Kaleberg says:

    The MacBook Air competes with the iPad, not the MacBook or MacBook Pro. When we went shopping, we considered both, and we already have a MacBook Pro and a couple of MacBooks. (One is an old one which drives our media center.) If you need a pocket sized computer, go for the iPhone. If you want something bigger, go for the iPad. If you want a keyboard and an unlocked unit, go for the Air. We went for an 11″ MacBook Air. It has all the comforts of home, including the ability to run our custom accounting applications, but isn’t all that much more of a pain to lug around than an iPad.

    If we had needed serious computing power and had wanted to run heavy weight applications, we would have bought another MacBook, Pro or even an iMac. They are very powerful computers now. We do video and rendering on them. The Mini and Pro seem to be machines you bolt to the floor like milling machines or press formers, not portable tools. They move with the building, not the worker. We would have used a Mini for our media center, but we already had an old MacBook sitting around.

    The old product matrix has been re-forming.

  3. PhillyG says:

    If you don’t have the bandwidth to download Lion, then you probably don’t have sufficient bandwidth to take advantage of Lion, either.

    On the other hand, if you typically use mobile away from home, there is nothing stopping you from downloading Lion.

  4. clyde b says:

    I would not have bought an Air but for $ale pricing. I like having a minimalist machine without the extra fragility of a hard disk and optical device. What I miss is a Firewire port and 2 USB ports. Keep on adding features and you lose the whole idea of the Air. Like toting around a keyboard and mouse for your iPad. I do not see the purpose of a living room sized laptop, and wish all the bells and whistles were available on the smallest Pro.

    I live out in the swamps and greatly appreciate my Verizon wireless connection. It is fast enough to watch streaming videos, but I doubt that the connection would be glitch free long enough to successfully download Lion. The local library can’t deal with the ‘complications’ of plugging in. The local branch of the bank is not allowed to plug in customers’ computers for obvious reasons.

    Once Lion is downloaded, what am I to do if I need to boot from an external disk or reinstall to get rid of problems? I hope all the info on burning your own disc works after I get Lion. I find doing a clean reinstall is a wonderful way to completely clean house. If I need data I can retrieve it, if I don’t think of stored data, then I don’t need it gumming up the SSD. Time Machine and iCloud will be a great way to keep the OS light and agile.

    Just getting Lion and iCloud would involve a day’s trip into cement and asphalt hell full of unhappy, rude, aggressive people who aren’t even impressed that I have a MacBook Air. For the same carbon footprint and extra cost, I could get a disc in the mail and spend the money saved on driving to the beach or canoeing waters. Maybe I’ll just mail my Air to my resupplier at the other border of the country and say carbon be damned.

    • @clyde b, Thank you for affirming my statement that not every Mac user lives in the throes of a large metropolitan area, where super fast Internet access is available everywhere. My suggestion is that you call Apple after Lion ships and ask them to find a way for you to get a copy without wasting that full day. I expect they’ll ultimately do the right thing, but people like you need to stand up to the plate and make your voices count.


      • clyde b says:

        @Gene Steinberg, You are right in suggesting I ask for oil for my squeaking wheel. As I use software from Apple, I always wonder how to communicate complaints and just as important for them, suggestions. Do you know of such a mail address? I bitch to my contact at my reseller (SmallDog) and I am occasionally surprised to see my problems incorporated in one of their blogs. And there must be more McNut’s like me because Apple does go through changes that I ‘thought of’.

        • @clyde b, The crew at Small Dog is a good place to start. But just picking up the phone and dialing up Apple support is another direction to take. You tell them you want Lion, but you aren’t going to waste precious fuel — and your valuable time — lugging your computer to the big city to download the upgrade.

          I would not presume to suggest you have someone make a copy for you, since that would violate the Apple user agreement — unless that person is using the same Apple ID as you. Maybe that might make it legal.


          • clyde b says:

            @Gene Steinberg, If it is economical, I could send Air in for a tuneup or cleaning. The reseller could download Lion and iCloud for me, and then I could burn a copy myself. Since they are acting as my agent to download to my computer, I do not see anything immoral or illegal about this. But the point is well taken that I should call Apple. Resellers lack a lot of clout with Apple, and I think that the genii in Silly Gulch are missing the point of fully supporting their dedicated outlets, otherwise just sell stuff at Walmart, such as is happening with the iPad at Verizon. The problem with that is that the phone guys are into phones and Apple stuff is just another product. I was fortunate enough that the small town Verizon store here had an Apple McNut who could give me the information I needed about my Verizon connection. BTW. He accidentally ran over his brand new MacBook Pro with his brand new Cadillac. The book survived the outrage and works just fine except for a few dim spots in the screen and a screw post embossed bottom case. I suggested he contact Apple and offer to sell it to them for its sales value. Are you old enough to remember, “takes a lickin’ and keeps on tickin'”?

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