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  • The Note-book of the Future

    March 11th, 2015

    Ahead of Monday’s Apple media event, it seemed to be all about Apple Watch. Now that it’s over and done with, it’s also clear Apple is making big investments into the future of the Mac, and, in fact, appears to be pointing into a probable direction for PC technology.

    So when you look at the new MacBook, which some referred to as a MacBook Air with Retina display before it was launched, you can see the sum total of Apple’s priorities. It’s slim, it’s light, but it appears to offer grown up features with the promise of a better typing experience and a more useful trackpad.

    I say promise, as reaction to the new keyboard appears to be mixed, at least based on quick hands-one experiences from some reporters. There’s less travel than a standard note-book keyboard, to allow for the slimmer form factor, and it may take a while for you to get used to it. I’m not 100% sold on the standard Apple desktop and note-book keyboards as it is. My personal preference is a Matias quiet pro, which offers traditional mechanical key switches with the sound tamed to the level of a regular keyboard.

    Indeed, the Apple Bluetooth keyboard that came with my last iMac purchase still sits unused in my bookcase because it’s not my cup of tea.

    But what about that single USB-C port? That appears to be a deal killer for many of you, especially if you expect to attach multiple drives, perhaps an extra display, and you want to swap USB sticks. Having to buy a $79 dongle for extra ports may seem to be an unnecessary tradeoff for super slim and light, but I suppose that’s up to the customer.

    Remember that the MacBook is a first generation product, and Apple didn’t spend countless millions of dollars developing slimmer unibody cases, tinier logic boards and unique battery shapes just to have a one-off. There’s a game plan here, and it’s about freeing note-books from physical wires. That unifying name may indicate that Apple’s end game is to have a single portable product lineup consisting of the usual range of display sizes with several CPU, RAM and storage options that depend on the target audience. I suppose Apple might keep the standard MacBook Air around for those who don’t want to pay extra for a Retina display, at least as long as Retina displays cost a fair amount more than the regular ones.

    Let’s look at the wireless factor.

    I can see where Wi-Fi and Bluetooth can handle most of the data transmission chores. Transfer speeds of 802.11ac are, theoretically, 900MB per second, but it’s rarely realized in the real world. However, it’s more than sufficient to move data at the speed of a storage device without the need to connect cables. But that’s today’s technology and Wi-Fi will continue to get much faster in the years to come.

    So in 2016, the Wi-Fi Alliance is expected to produce a draft of a successor technology, 802.11ax, which is expected to quadruple connection speeds to individual network clients. Buy a Wi-Fi storage device to skip the cables. Actual wireless transfer speeds under ideal conditions are already in the SSD range and can only get better. That, plus a wireless display connection, would mean you may not need to connect anything to your future MacBook except for the charging cable.

    And maybe not even that. So with a future wireless charging scheme, Apple would only provide that port, USB-C or a successor technology, for legacy hookups. Besides, some tiny flash drives are wireless. Aren’t cables old fashioned yet? Clearly Apple wants you to believe that they are. The original MacBook Air with minimal ports was Apple’s first foray into this wireless universe. The 2015 model has two USB 3 ports, and a single Thunderbolt 2 port, but the 13-inch model ads a slot for an SDXC card.

    Thunderbolt? Well, maybe Apple will keep it going if a MacBook Pro stays in the lineup, along with desktop devices. But Thunderbolt gear is not cheap and not plentiful. Would a faster successor to USB-C, a standard that would surely receive widespread adoption, ultimately replace Thunderbolt except maybe for professional workstations?

    Indeed, it’s possible USB-C, using reversible connectors, can be a unifying standard for the iPhone and iPad too. That means goodbye Lightning connector after hundreds of millions of you bought new cables.

    Don’t forget that the first iMac, in 1998, jumpstarted USB technology. It’s very likely the new MacBook, if it’s successful as I expect it to be, will speed USB-C adoption, and promote more wireless solutions. There will certainly be various third party docks for desktop use, so you can use cables if you must. Don’t forget all those floppy drives for Macs after Apple ditched the technology.

    So, yes, I do expect a future MacBooks to come with larger displays, possibly 15 inches. The 12-inch model is clearly meant as a compromise to replace both 11-inch and 13-inch versions. Ditto for higher caliber processors, since Intel Core M isn’t known for stellar benchmarks.

    On a more personal level, would I buy a larger version of the new MacBook as a successor to my 2010 17-inch MacBook Pro? A good question. I recently had it upgraded with an OWC 480GB SSD and it runs just great. While standard definition, the display is clear and sharp enough and I’ve no problems using it.

    Well, except for the weight. At 6.6 pounds, it’s a lot to carry in a shoulder bag. Even though I work out almost daily — despite a back condition — the strap digs into my shoulder and it becomes painful after a while. If Apple can deliver a 15-inch MacBook weighing less than 3 pounds, it would be a compelling choice. The current 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display comes in at just shy of 4.5 pounds.

    Ports? Well, I can backup wirelessly to a cloud-based service such as CrashPlan. I don’t hook up too many things to that MacBook Pro except for the MagSafe adapter for charging, and, for remote recordings, a USB mic. So I don’t feel constrained by Apple’s decision to offer a single port.

    Ask me again when or if there’s a larger, more powerful MacBook with the new form factor.



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    3 Responses to “The Note-book of the Future”

    1. Kaleberg says:

      This isn’t all that surprising with the advent of gigabit+ per second WiFi. I’ve actually been impressed with the performance I get doing backups and streaming video, and my server is an antique white Macbook. There are also some smaller WiFi chipsets out, developed for hobbyists like the ones in the Arduino Yun or for the Raspberry Pi. I’m hoping to see some real experimentation with ideas for docks. It would be great just to carry a computer and a power adapter on trips, but also have a small box for things like an SD card reader, portable disk drive or printer that never need to leave my hotel room. Maybe Mophie or one of its competitors will combine a powerpack, WiFi and USB hub. That could come along for the ride, but not slow me down during the day.

    2. DaveD says:

      Yes, I agree. Apple is skating to where the puck is going to be. I do think the keyboard on the new MacBook would provide a better user experience than typing on an iPad. That single new USB-C port reminded me back in the day when Apple dropped their Apple Desktop Bus (ADB) port and went with new USB one languishing on the Wintel side. Even connector developed at Apple was not sacred.

      However, the new MacBook is unique for its thinnest, fanless design using a low-power Intel processor. I am glad to see a refresh on the MacBook Air line. Still a place for good value at a reasonable price. I can’t see that Apple would drop the MacBook Air and would like 8 gigabytes be minimum floor for on-board memory. Maybe the drop day will come, but I’m glad it wasn’t yesterday.

      Who would be in the market for the new MacBook? It can’t do the heavy lifting. So, my guess is one who wants to do content creation on the go with style and minimal fuss.

    3. Shameer M. says:

      The new MB is a great looking device. It’ll be interesting to see to what level, if any, does it cannibalize iPad Air sales. I can definitely see most non-power users getting by with a MB, iPhone 6 / 6 Plus, and an Apple Watch.

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