The Mac Betting Pool

August 16th, 2016

If you’ve purchased a Mac in recent years, you may have considered buying the latest and greatest. But it doesn’t seem as if much has changed. While the iPhone of every other year looks different, Apple can keep the same Mac form factor for years before it changes. If you bought a 2010 MacBook Air, you may wonder how it differs from the current model, released in 2015. I mean, they do look the same and all, aside from the near-microscopic lettering on the bottom, although the specs have been beefed up substantially.

That’s certainly one of the shortcomings of Apple’s Mac upgrade cycles and the labeling strategy. You cannot easily detect what model Mac you have unless you consult About This Mac to see. Or you have a good pair of reading glasses to help you check the underside labeling. Even then you have to translate the model or serial number.

So there’s HandOff, the ability to start something, such as an email, on one Mac and pick it up on another, or an iPad or iPhone. But it requires Bluetooth LE and a 2012 Mac or later. But the 2012 Mac looks pretty much the same as its predecessor.

Apple added Force Touch to the mix with the 2015 MacBook Pro, but the difference was not readily visible unless you confirmed the model number or just try it out. Maybe it would be a little cluttered, but wouldn’t it be possible to have the label reflect the true model designation? Instead of putting MacBook Pro below the display, why  not MacBook Pro (2015) or something similar?

I realize using a wider but more informative product label may harm the sensibilities of Apple’s design team. But it’s not that easy to determine the exact model Windows PC you have either. Obviously, an iPhone 6 will seem identical to an iPhone 6s at first glance, though there are slight physical changes to accommodate 3D Touch.

The real issue, though, is the lack of recent upgrades for most Macs. The only all-new model was the 2015 MacBook, which received a modest refresh earlier this year. The current MacBook Air is based on a 2010 design. If you pit the 2010 model against the 2015 version, there were significant improvements across the board from the SSD to the processor. Reducing the price to $899 was a real boon for those who regard Macs as too expensive.

But what does Apple plan next? Some suggest the MacBook is the Air’s successor, but it starts at $1,299, $400 more than the basic 11-inch MacBook Air. Unless Apple can cut $300 from the MacBook’s price, it wouldn’t represent a proper replacement. But what about a MacBook Air with Retina display? Well, Apple added a 5K display to the 27-inch iMac in 2014, and the starting price, after some discounts, is essentially unchanged. It’s a really good deal at $1,799. Compare the cost of a standalone 5K display, plus an all-in-one PC, and you’ll see what I mean.

But can Apple upgrade the Air with Retina displays and not increase the price? What if it cost just $100 more? What if Apple kept a refreshed version of the current MacBook Air with the regular display in stock for $799? I suspect Apple could do it without seriously reducing profit margins. With the latest Intel parts, it would introduce more budget-conscious PC users to the Mac, and provide a substantial upgrade for current Mac owners.

But what about the MacBook Pro? Again, an aging form factor long in need of some changes. Current speculation has it that a major refresh is due this fall, perhaps with a slightly slimmer and lighter case design, along with a touchpad above the keyboard that can be used for context sensitive navigation. With macOS Sierra, you’ll be able to use an Apple Watch and Touch ID to unlock your Mac. But what about having a power switch with Touch ID on Mac notebooks? Perhaps this is something more suited to the MacBook Pro, but it would be a useful feature for the enterprise and any Mac user for that matter. Apple has certainly perfected its fingerprint sensor system. It’s also a feature long offered on PC notebooks, so it makes perfect sense.

Assuming that all new Macs would have the latest Intel Skylake processors, the fall refresh could be fairly decent overall. The iMac is new enough that it would probably earn little more than a slight performance upgrade. The Mac mini is a year overdue for a refresh, and the last Mac Pro shipped in December 2013.

I’d love to know what Apple plans for its powerful workstation computer. While many Mac users will find that a souped up 27-inch iMac provides all the processing power they require, there is a subsection that requires the extra processing power of a multicore Xeon. It’s a small market, but I hope Apple will make it clear where the future of the Mac Pro stands.

I realize a small number of Mac users are probably waiting on the sidelines for the next refresh, though I doubt many would buy a Windows PC as a result. Even when the new Macs come out, as I expect they will this fall, the existing models are good enough of many. People are hanging onto their gear longer than ever, and even a substantial refresh is going to be a hard sell.

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