New Mac Updates: Worth the Bother?

July 31st, 2014

Apple is between a rock and a hard place and it’s all Intel’s fault. Yes, it was the right thing to cast its lot with Intel when PowerPC processor development stalled. The Mac was falling behind Windows PCs, and the promised G5 chip for note-books never arrived. And I haven’t begun to mention those Power Mac G5s that required liquid cooling because they ran so hot.

So when the first Macs with Intel Inside appeared in 2006, it was a revelation. Performance improved at a good clip, and the teething problems were few. The worst issue for most was the tendency for those first MacBook Pro note-books to run too hot.

In recent years, though, performance improvements for Intel chips have been modest. Sure, Intel’s slow integrated graphics have become less slow and are pretty decent overall, but the largest change was improved power efficiency. That has allowed for all-day service on Apple’s note-books without having to plug them in.

The Mac refresh routine has been fairly consistent. Intel releases a new chip family each year, and there are corresponding updates to most Macs. There have been exceptions, such as the Mac Pro which uses the Xeon server-grade chips and the lowly Mac mini, which hasn’t seen an update since 2012.

Unfortunately, Intel’s development schedule has hit roadblocks, and the Broadwell chips are running extremely late. Some low-power versions were slated to ship this summer, but the ones that Apple uses may not come out until the end of the year, or early next year. This pushes major Mac speed bumps to 2015, but Apple shouldn’t be expected to wait.

Their solution was to take slightly faster chips from the Haswell family and issue minor refreshes for the MacBook Air and the MacBook pro families. The former also benefitted from $100 price cuts. With the MacBook Pro, Apple’s plan was to double installed memory on most configurations, and only reduce the price of the high-end 15-inch MacBook Pro configuration, which already had 16GB installed.

Benchmarks of the new versus the old show slight improvements, but you’d need a stopwatch to demonstrate the faster speeds for most functions. By offering more value for your money, though, Apple has succeeded in growing the Mac platform at a faster rate than other hardware, even the iPhone. So sales increased by 18% in the June quarter, although both Gartner and IDC erroneously claimed that Mac sales declined in the U.S. That error remains uncorrected, even though Apple reported double-digit sales growth in this country. So it seems the survey organizations will stand by their numbers however wrong they might be.

In any case, Apple has managed to make the best of a bad situation, and it’s not as if they can easily move to a different processor platform. AMD, for example, lags behind Intel in performance, although their chips are undeniably cheaper in many cases. But AMD is at least compatible with Intel.

The other option for Apple might be ARM, and Apple has plenty of expertise designing custom chips for the iPhone and the iPad. The A7 is 64-bit, and newer versions could possibly be developed in a more powerful form, more power hungry, for use in desktops and note-books. But performance would still lag behind current Intel parts, although I suppose that difference might be reduced over time. That Apple is leveraging the power of graphic chips for normal computing functions helps.

Certainly there have been ongoing rumors that Apple is planning on building an ARM-based MacBook some time in the future. I presume such prototypes already exist, and Apple would continue to seek alternatives if Intel doesn’t deliver the goods.

But an ARM-based Mac, even if performance was comparable to Intel hardware, would be a difficult move. There are all those legacy Intel apps that would have to be ported to ARM, and Apple would, as before with processor transitions, have to devise a method to translate older apps until they are updated. If that could be done with little or no performance loss, perhaps it would make sense, though such a transition might take a couple of years to complete. And what about the Mac Pro?

In the meantime, the Mac is doing quite nicely at a time when you might have expected sales to stagnate or drop slightly. The Continuity integration between OS X Yosemite and iOS 8 is yet another step to encourage you to buy into both platforms. That will also help boost Mac sales.

Besides, today’s Macs are quite fast enough for most people. Those who need the cutting-edge get it with the Mac Pro. Even the aging Mac mini can perform credibly, particularly when equipped with a solid state drive. Obviously the public is responding and, by and large, not focusing on modest speed boosts that may have little impact on their daily routine.

But lowering the price of flash storage would do wonders. Paying up to $800 for a 1TB flash upgrade on the newest MacBook Pro with Retina display seems pretty outrageous, particularly since you can buy drives with that capacity for less than half that price from other companies.

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8 Responses to “New Mac Updates: Worth the Bother?”

  1. Jay says:

    Over the years I’ve gotten a lot of good use out of my iMacs (lump-stick-rectangle followed by an aluminum version) and have enjoyed using them and they’ve given me very little trouble. They’ve had all the “power’ I’ve needed, and I’ve been looking forward to purchasing a new one, but having to pony up for a 27-inch version to have memory that can be upgraded after purchase is holding me back. I’m kinda feeling stuck on this.

  2. DaveD says:

    It is good to see Apple moved on when Intel hit a speed bump with the 14-nm Broadwell processors. It is also good that Intel is focused on making chips that use less energy. If I recalled correctly, Apple had to prod Intel into making a better graphics architecture and a more energy efficient chip. As far as moving Macs to ARM processors, one can never say never, I still find it unlikely as long as Intel continues with its tick-tock plan even though the time window may have to be longer.

    As a notebook user, I can go with excellent mobility with the MacBook Air or get good mobility with the MacBook Pro and just pay more for number-crunching needs. Though not in the market, I do see that Apple really needs to update the Mac mini.

  3. Jase says:

    MacBook Air would be the logical product to be the first OS X machine to move to an Apple-designed SOC. I think that it could work right now. The cost savings to Apple would be considerable, and a custom chip could be designed to run particularly well on OS X in a laptop.

    I think that at least some Macs running OS X on a custom Apple ARM-based System on a Chip is inevitable, and it will probably happen a lot sooner than most people expect. If Apple designed the SOC to be able to consume more power and to work in a laptop instead of being limited by the lower power consumption requirements and thermal envelope of an iPhone or iPad, then I think that it could be fast enough to run a Mac. In fact, I may try to wait until Apple releases an ARM-based MacBook before I purchase my next Mac.

  4. L says:

    Seems everything is always – next year. Somebody is asleep at the switch over in Cupertino. Step back a moment at look at the situation on hardware releases, nothing of note so far this year and it’s nearly August. Altogether bad execution if not simply poor planning.

  5. Jase says:

    I think that Apple will be ok this year with hardware releases, with possibly 2 larger screen iPhones, new iPads in the Fall, probably a new Mac Mini, and of course the so-called iWatch or wearable device.

    What I would really like before the end of the year is an updated Apple TV, with better processing and graphics performance to run games and other apps that would be downloaded from the App Store. I would also like the machine to be able to take micro SD cards and USB drives. Competitors of Apple already offer games and other apps, and USB ports and a micro SD card slot, so none of this would be difficult if Apple had the will to offer a really capable Apple TV.

  6. Jase says:

    Here is an article which argues that Apple will likely begin designing its own ARM based chips for the Mac:

  7. Jase says:

    Thanks Gene.

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