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Are We Expecting Too Much From A Mac Refresh?

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.