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Checking Out Possible 2012 Macs

It’s a given that, when Intel’s Ivy Bridge processor lineup debuts some time this spring, there will be new Macs to go along with that product introduction. So you’ll see more performance, and lower power consumption. Intel’s now-decent integrated graphics may even get a little more decent.

Now Apple sometimes makes special deals with Intel to beat the competition, and I wonder what sort of financial arrangement that entails, since Apple doesn’t participate in that “Intel Inside” marketing scheme. So, for example, new Macs introduced in 2011 got Thunderbolt, a high-performance peripheral port that was developed by both Apple and Intel. This year, the Windows PC world will have their crack at this feature, courtesy of those new chipsets that embed Thunderbolt. Maybe then we’ll even see more than a handful of products that take advantage of a feature that, in essence, puts the power of the internal slots on a Mac Pro on every other Mac.

Y0u may expect that the iMac will continue in its present form, although Apple will surprise us from time to time. That, among all-in-one PCs, the iMac gets a third of the sales, is a tribute to the ongoing popularity and flexibility of a product that is a direct descendant of the very first 1984 Mac.

What’s happened to the iMac is that it has become a credible tool for many content creators who cherished the power and expandability of a Mac Pro. It’s not a total replacement, but Thunderbolt, plus some sort of breakout box that handles PCI cards, would go a long way towards erasing some key advantages of the Mac Pro, other than it being external, of course. As Intel’s desktop chips grow more powerful, with extra cores, the performance advantage of the Mac Pro has been whittled down to a small number of apps that require six or 12 cores. Over time, you’ll see lots more cores on the desktop chips too, maybe enough to minimize the need for two of them.

Since Apple already sells customized iMacs with two drives, a regular hard drive and a solid state version, it would be a neat idea to have an accessible rear slot to allow you to easily swap drives. It may go against Apple’s design sensibilities, but it would be a practical way to set up an iMac as a more sensible and expandable personal computer. The positioning of the drives and the design of the cover could, I suppose, be done in a way that’s fairly seamless and not likely to be visible without looking real hard. Besides, do Mac users really look at the behinds of their iMacs that closely, and would it hurt product placements? I doubt it.

Sure, there will be a new Xeon lineup this year, thus creating the possibility of a 2012 Mac Pro. Apple would only have to update the graphics hardware to the latest and greatest, add some SSDs to the bundles, plus a pair of Thunderbolt ports. Suddenly the Mac Pro would be up to date without a huge expenditure in development dollars. This would make it feasible for Apple to continue to build these workstations.

But it’s also true that Apple has gone for volume sales in a huge way, and the Mac Pro doesn’t generate much volume. The controversial release of Final Cut Pro X seriously upset some video editors who have gone to Avid systems and Adobe Premiere as a result. But a more consumer-friendly FCP delivers a whole new audience who find $299, plus the cost of a couple of extra modules, low enough to buy in large quantities. These prosumers surely include budding movie makers who couldn’t justify the cost of the full-blown FCP application suite, and a Mac Pro. Today’s iMac at a fraction of the price becomes the ideal video production tool.

So far, I’m not saying anything that presents more than minor changes over existing products, nor is it a stretch of logic.

As you probably know, three quarters of the Macs sold these days are portables. Here there is speculation about a 15-inch MacBook Air, following the design scheme of existing models. Whether the MacBook Pro would change much is an open question. Some speak of a slimmer model, also without an internal optical drive. But that depends on how many MacBook Pro users still require those drives, and whether most of you can live without one except in rare cases where, perhaps, an external version would be sufficient.

Don’t forget that people protested when Apple killed the internal floppy drive beginning with the first iMac. Sure, you could buy an external floppy drive, and that alternative was sufficient for a couple of years until floppies disappeared entirely. Well, at least you had the chance to copy the floppies onto a CD; oh wait, it took a while before Apple realized you needed a CD drive with recording capability.

Nonetheless, I don’t see much reason for Apple to have to change a lot on the Mac platform. It’s not as if there’s any real innovation with Windows PCs these days. But making the mid-range iMac a more compelling replacement for a Mac Pro is a given. I do not, however, expect the Mac Pro to go away right away, although its days are clearly numbered.