Macs and Wrong Directions

December 29th, 2015

During his appearance this past weekend on The Tech Night Owl LIVE, commentator Peter Cohen suggested that Apple’s Jonathan Ive has a “thin fetish.” He didn’t make that statement to be provocative, but to suggest that Ive had taken some wrong turns in design in the interests of style over substance.

So it makes sense to treat a mobile gadget as a closed box, since the tiny parts are not easily worked on. And I realize some of you are able to change batteries and switch out displays with little or no damage given the proper tools and instructions. But most people will prefer to visit an Apple Store Genius or perhaps a third-party service shop if you have a product out of warranty and want to save some money.

When it comes to Macs, it would seem perfectly logical to want to do some upgrades over time. Macs are in service longer these days, and Apple is still supporting many models from 2007 to 2009 with OS X El Capitan. So it would stand to reason that some of you may want to add RAM or replace a traditional hard drive with a super-fast SSD. Indeed, an SSD upgrade can bring a huge performance advantage.

While RAM upgrades were possible up until a few years ago for most Macs, Apple has clamped down. In part, this appears to have been done to make them thinner and lighter, but at what cost?

Take the Mac mini, Apple’s cheapest Mac. With advancements in processor design, particularly Intel’s internal graphics, the latest version is quite speedy for many tasks. Starting at $499, it’s a great competitor against a cheap Windows box, particularly if you already have a display, keyboard and mouse on hand from an older computer.

The first Mac mini, in 2005, was famous for being difficult to upgrade. You needed to use a putty knife or similar tool to crack open the case, after which it was possible to upgrade RAM and the hard drive. A major revision that made it thinner also included a simple removable cover to get at the RAM slots. But when Apple cut the price from $599 to $499, the ability to upgrade was sacrificed with the curious decision to switch to soldered RAM. That, and not having a removable cover of some sort, might save a small amount of money in production costs, but why inconvenience the user?

You can easily upgrade RAM on the 27-inch iMac, but not on the 21.5-inch version. Too compact? Well, from the front it doesn’t matter, but when you look at the rear, it’s almost razor thin at the edges and bulbous in the middle. It’s done in the interests of being slim, but it seems a curious tradeoff, and it doesn’t explain why there’s no way to replace RAM on the smaller model.

If you want to replace or upgrade the drive, be prepared for one of the most user hostile procedures imaginable. The previous generation iMac required that you pry off the cover with suction cups. To go thin, Apple employed adhesive. Either way, I say don’t bother. Let someone else do it. It costs about $100 for a Mac repair shop to open your iMac to replace a drive.

In either case, it was common for customers to buy a Mac with the basic RAM configuration, and go to a third-party dealer, where you’d save plenty of cash, when it was time to upgrade. Now you have to buy what you need or do without if you buy the smaller iMac.

With Mac note-books, the only model that can still receive a RAM transplant is a legacy 13-inch MacBook Pro. For the rest, forget about it! While the lack of upgradeability might make some sense for the 2015 MacBook and a MacBook Air, it doesn’t seem logical for a MacBook Pro. That model is reaching a market where customers might actually want to upgrade at some point during the ownership process.

Again, just wanting to save money and putting off that upgrade until later has become impossible.

Now it may just be that Apple’s surveys of its user base indicate that only a small percentage bother with RAM upgrades, and they are confined to the big iMac or the Mac Pro. Maybe. But it doesn’t seem as if Apple would sacrifice much in the way of slim and light by making RAM upgradeable regardless.

Then there’s the Mac Pro.

After pretty much ignoring the product for a couple of years, a 2012 update was limited to minor processor revisions. For late 2013, Apple threw away the playback by giving up on the minitower concept of a personal computer or workstation with room for internal expansion cards and extra drives. Instead, it was made small, light and relatively portable, the theory being that, aside from a single SSD and RAM, you’d install what you needed externally with its four Thunderbolt 2 ports and four USB 3.0 ports. So the sexy Mac Pro would be surrounded by an unsightly mess of expansion boxes and drive assemblies with loads of cable clutter.

I suppose Apple believes you can thus take a Mac Pro out in the field to capture audio and perform other basic chores, but do the “real” post-production work in an office docked to all that extra gear. Or maybe not. It’s two years since the new Mac Pro arrived and no product refreshes are in sight, despite the fact that there are faster Xeon processors and faster graphics chips. So what’s Apple’s end game, or will the new Mac Pro receive the same neglect as it predecessor?

In practical terms, the 27-inch 5K iMac, with all possible upgrades, is more powerful than a Mac Pro except for the few apps that benefit from the extra processor cores. But the Mac Pro can handle more peripherals, and more external displays for those who need that capability. Is that enough for Apple to keep it going? I think the Mac Pro will stick around as a showpiece, but it may not get the love it deserves.

Are these upgrade limitations all about Sir Jonathan Ive’s peculiar priorities, or do they make sense from a practical usability standpoint? I remain skeptical.

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One Response to “Macs and Wrong Directions”

  1. Frank says:

    I’m currently using a maxed-out early 2011 MBP with a 1680 x 1050 display – 16 GB RAM, 1 TB Samsung SSD, 1 TB HGST 7200 RPM drive. I’ve already replaced the logic board twice (both under Apple Care) but seriously wonder which machine I’d replace it with if I were in the market for a new one. The only weak link in this setup is the graphics card, an AMD Radeon HD 6490M with 256 MB. With the speed increase that came when I installed the SSD, it’s great for everything I need it for, but if I needed to replace it, it would cost me $2800.

    Another victim of the thinness fetish is the security slot. There’s no way to secure a new Mac notebook because they’re too thin. I’m an academic librarian and Macs are popular among our students, but also with thieves. If a student’s working and needs to use the toilet, they have a choice of taking their chances by leaving their notebook or carrying it with them.

    The cynic in me sees Apple’s approach as a ploy to force users to replace their machines more frequently (got stolen because you couldn’t secure it? – buy a new machine; need more RAM? – buy a new machine, etc.).

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