With reports that Mac sales may continue to flatten, or may have declined slightly when compared to last year, there is a growing amount of speculation on the form and contents of the next generation Mac hardware. Depending on which story you believe, these product refreshes may be on time or somewhat delayed.
Unlike the days when Apple used PowerPC chips, it’s fairly easy nowadays to grasp when a new Mac may be in the offing. All it takes is a look at Intel’s processor roadmap, and the introduction of major new designs. So with the launch of the Ivy Bridge family, which has begun to ship, it seems inevitable that new Mac hardware will come real soon now. Indeed, you can even search for a set of benchmarks said to be based on the new Macs running OS 10.8 Mountain Lion.
I suppose potential performance might even be calculated in a reasonably accurate fashion by comparing the specs of the Ivy Bridge parts compared to their counterparts from last year’s Sandy Bridge family. Or you can check online for preliminary benchmarks using standard Windows PCs.
So it doesn’t take rocket science to realize the chips will deliver more power, be more power efficient and will offer improved performance with Intel’s usually poky integrated graphics. You can expect that new generation MacBook Airs will stick with the integrated graphics, while the higher-end MacBook Pro configurations will contain both integrated and discrete parts, with the usual automatic switchover depending on the needs of a specific app. The real question is whether there’s going to be a 17-inch model, which is the configuration I’ve preferred.
Now even with loads of MacBook Air imitators coming out, including a certain HP model that attempts to mimic its silver casings and black keyboard, you have to wonder whether Apple will make serious changes, or leave things well enough alone. I mean, I don’t see it being much thinner, which means Apple will likely concentrate on making it faster, more power efficient, and perhaps eking out additional battery life.
When it comes to peripheral ports, with USB 3.0 support in Intel’s Ivy Bridge chipsets, it will likely arrive at last on the Mac platform. Although USB 3.0 seems to be playing second fiddle to Thunderbolt, the estimated 5 gigabit speed is still 10 times faster than USB 2.0. It’s more than enough for any hard drive, and surely puts the nail in the coffin for FireWire 800. That said, it’s likely Apple will continue to offer FireWire on some Macs for legacy support, although an adapter cable of some sort would be a useful option to offer as a replacement.
Of late, the rumor sites have shown possible mock-ups of a 2012 MacBook Pro, which are typically thinner than the previous model, though not tapered. This slimmer form factor will evidently come at the expense of the built-in optical drive, which I expect will continue to be offered as an optional extra for those who need the lifeline. I suppose Apple could also use some of the saved space to add a beefier battery, so maybe the next MacBook Pro will survive longer plane trips without the need to recharge.
When it comes to solid state drives, they will be offered, but traditional hard drives will probably still be available for customers who need the extra storage space and don’t want to pay huge premiums for SSD. The era of the affordable SSD is not quite here, except for modest capacities. Then again, I could certainly survive with a 256GB SSD on a MacBook Pro, but not as a $300 option.
One possible innovation from Apple would be the availability of lower cost SSDs. Even a $200 premium would be encouraging. Apple has the power and the checkbook to order huge quantities of parts to get the best possible prices. But the era of the 512GB SSD for even $300 is still not upon us.
Another rumored feature is the Retina Display. Since the iPhone and iPad have them, it must be inevitable that such displays will appear on regular Macs, or so they say. There are even reports that higher resolution icons are already present in OS 10.7.4, which would appear to make that development inevitable. Or maybe Apple put them there to test future products — or to fuel the rumors.
However, Apple would still have to confront a much higher bill of materials for 13-inch and 15-inch displays, not to mention panels as large as 27 inches. Apple is already paying a decent premium to outfit a third generation iPad with a Retina Display. Those prices will be far higher for larger parts, assuming they are even available in decent quantities. While I never say never with Apple, the arrival of a Retina Display on a traditional Mac is not a given.
The next question is when will the new Macs arrive? For some reason, the speculation has it that they must show up around the time of the WWDC. That would be a little late, assuming Apple wants to garner the highest possible Mac sales figures for this quarter. But it would also be a curious time, unless Mountain Lion becomes available for immediate release. It wouldn’t make a whole lot of sense to release a new Mac one month, and upgrade the OS the next. If new Macs came out in the next week or so, with Mountain Lion due by September, that would seem a sensible development. I haven’t heard much chatter that Mountain Lion has reached a point where it may only be a few weeks from release.
Now that the MacBook refresh chatter is out of the way, I suppose we can return to the iPad mini and other unfounded rumors, or even whether there will ever be another Mac Pro.