Is Apple Losing the Mac Advantage?

September 2nd, 2016

Over the years, Macs have taken on the image of the superior personal computer. Sure, Windows may be close, but no cigar. Apple’s integration between software and hardware is tight, almost seamless, thus ensuring a wonderful user experience. When it comes to getting real work done, the Mac is the computer that mostly gets out of the way and lets you focus on your apps and your tasks.

However, some Mac users — and tech pundits — clearly believe that Apple doesn’t care so much about Macs anymore. In 2007, the company switched its name to Apple Inc. from Apple Computer Inc., thus emphasizing the change in the company’s focus from personal computers to a much wider range of electronic devices.

While major macOS releases have become predictably annual — and the branding change does indicate a positive push by Apple — hardware upgrades are less frequent. For the most part, those upgrades are very minor, consisting of a processor replacement, maybe better graphics, and perhaps a speedier drive. Prices are the same or a little lower, but the perceived changes from one year to the next aren’t significant. So it’s true that any MacBook Pro of 2015 is notably faster than my 2010 MacBook Pro, but the fact that I added an SSD blurs the distinction considerably. All right, I’d love to have a Retina display.

In 2016 so far, there has been only one Mac refresh, faster parts for the MacBook. That’s it. So it’s reasonable to conclude Apple has other priorities. But it’s not a matter of just packing in newer chips in essentially the same box. That’s been done on the MacBook Air and the MacBook Pro for several years. At the same time, people are keeping their computers for longer periods of time. macOS Sierra supports Macs built six or seven years ago, so if you want to run the latest operating system, it’s not that you are suddenly behind the curve. Well, maybe for some features, but not for most and not for the apps most of you run.

The problem is that Microsoft is making a huge push with the Surface Pro tablet, and other PC makers, including HP, are intent on grabbing sales from Mac users or would-be Mac users in the absence of new gear from Apple. The Mac Pro, untouched since 2013, is a huge target, since PC makers earn the lion’s share of profits from high-end workstations.

Now the loyal Mac user would probably not be so readily tempted. If their existing Apple gear is working all right, there’s no rush. Or there shouldn’t be. But if it’s time for something new, the lack of recent compelling upgrades from Apple has to raise concerns.

But there may be solace for Mac users come this fall. There have been published reports that Apple is busy working on a new generation MacBook Pro with a slightly thinner, lighter case. A major new feature is an OLED touch-based set of context-sensitive function keys. Seems gimmicky to me, but I’ll grant Apple’s priorities, particularly in the ability to display changing labels to reflect different functions. There may even be a Touch ID-based power switch, and it’s about time.

Add that to the usual parts upgrades, and perhaps this will be a compelling refresh. If Apple knocks $100 off the price, that would be the icing on the cake. Even better, Apple needs to charge less for SSD and RAM upgrades. Without the ability to do easy upgrades — or any upgrades — Apple is holding Mac users hostage. I still think that, despite the minor design consequences, Apple needs to make it possible to easily upgrade RAM and storage, especially on a professional notebook. Maybe not the MacBook Air, but even that model ought to be easy to upgrade.

And what about the MacBook Air, which has existed in its present form for several years with only minor refreshes? The most obvious change would be the addition of a Retina display, but that might reflect the MacBook. Unfortunately, at $1,299, it’s priced out of the range of those seeking a reasonably affordable portable computer.

Now I suppose Apple could knock off a couple of hundred from that price, while retaining modified MacBook Airs at the lower end of the spectrum, or leave the MacBook in its present form as a single device that caters to people who want a light notebook with a great display and few frills.

I wouldn’t presume to guess Apple’s intentions, but I do not believe the MacBook was created as a dead end unto itself. Clearly there’s ongoing investment in the platform, and it may just be a matter of circumstances, development time, arrival of parts from Intel, and so forth, which has delayed the new models. Or maybe they aren’t delayed at all, and are arriving just as Apple expects.

Meantime, the fate of the Mac Pro remains uncertain. The same is true for the Mac mini, which had its last update in 2014.

It would be helpful, though, if Tim Cook says something about great new Mac hardware coming soon during next week’s iPhone event. He’s not likely to say which new models are forthcoming, but it would be reason for Mac users to fill just a tad optimistic.

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12 Responses to “Is Apple Losing the Mac Advantage?”

  1. DaveD says:

    I saw the MacBook with Retina display introduced in 2015 was Apple’s vision of a cutting-edge notebook. I believe the jury’s still out on the keyboard and a single USB-C port. As in the past the new parts are carried over to the rest of the MacBook line just like when the original MacBook Air came out. The MacBook Air of today is so much better than the first model. It is an affordable, high quality with a non-retina display, good keyboard, and zero expandability after purchase. It is too bad that the pro Macs and Mac mini have little to no expandability for the power users who desired to upgrade in need to get things done faster.

    I do feel that the Mac products line is a bit on the boring side. Hopefully some of the rumors are true to present some excitement this fall.

    • patrick says:

      I found my MacBook Retina laggy. I do have 20-30 browser windows open at any one time, but it’s not really much faster in day to day use than my cheap Chromebook. I use a 2009 MacBook Pro which is faster and not laggy.

      The MacBook Air screen is pretty terrible. I was going to buy an Air, but I couldn’t stand to look at the screen.

      They should have had the Air have Retina. Bam, done (Increase the SSD).

      I’m afraid the bean counters at Apple have too much influence and are trying to squeeze every penny of profit they can maximize. I’ve used Apple computers since the beginning, and a person would be better off with either a 2012 or so used MacBook than dumping cash into a $1799 MacBook Pro with somewhat decent SSD.

  2. dfs says:

    For the past several years the Mac Pro has become a piece of exotic studio and lab equipment and for the average user the iMac is the flagship Apple computing product. No doubt the Pro is vitally necessary for certain niche markets, and I doubt that Apple would ever be willing to walk away from these altogether (especially because some of these niches have to do with creating media output). But they can’t be expected to focus on its development. Unless, of course, they chose to repurpose the Mac Pro as a computer for gamers. But for some reason I don’t understand that’s a market for which Apple has never shown very much enthusiasm.

  3. Czar Embo says:

    I agree heartily with your statement on replaceable ram and SSDs on Powerbook Pros, but for the Mac Mini as well. Some loyal Mac users such as myself really can’t afford the entry price of the largest beneficial options right away. And ram! Come on Apple a 16-gigabyte ram limitation on Powerbooks and Mac Minis? This pretty much is a serious limitation given the memory that 64bit processors take – I’m down to about two programs running concurrently. Power users are getting squeezed out of the Mac ecosystem due to Apple dragging their heels on memory expansion.

  4. Paul Robinson says:

    Excellent commentary– and so true!

    I agree– the touch strip seems gimmicky–however, if let users customized it to their liking — i.e., one touch launching of favorite apps, particular settings, and override apps taking control of it, they’d have something!

    Imagine if you could touch an icon and a horizontal pop-up menu appear with the ability to slide left or right make a choice!

  5. patrick says:

    I’ve owned almost every Apple laptop until 2009.

    1. I did buy the retina MacBook, but it’s laggy. I went back to my 2009 MacBook which is faster (it is upgraded with an SSD.
    2. I’ve tried and tried Windows out of work and – no thanks. For me, no thanks (I do have a Windows tablet I’m going to sell)
    3. I use a $90 (used off eBay) Chromebook about 90% of the time now. Once my music is uploaded to Google Music, I’m done with MacBooks/Apple laptops, at least for now.
    4. The MacBook Air is an embarrassment. That screen?

    Please, I don’t want to hear people say that building an inexpensive computer would be junk. The Chromebook has proved you can buy a quality hardware and software that is suitable for the majority of the population.

    Apple is a gross embarrassment with their base laptops having 128 GB of SSD. If Apple did to the laptop what they have done with their phones, they would probably have something pretty nice.

    After 40 years, I no longer recommend Apple. Or, that is, I don’t promote it. iTunes is beyond terrible and their proprietary nature of messaging and OS X applications needs to go away. They need to take a page from Google.

    Sorry, the company is once again lost. Sadly. You should not have to pay $1499+ for a good, fast computer (the Pro with 256 GB SSD). The Pro I want is $1799 (512 GB SSD). NO WAYYYYYYYYYYY!!!!!!

  6. pat Fisher says:

    It sounds like the new iPhone is going to be pretty nice. The SE was pretty nice. But up there with Macs, what about AppleTV? My ATV2 keeps restarting randomly. People tell me to get a new one, but I hear the 4 is no better in a lot of ways than the 3 and why?

    Again, Apple’s priorities are screwed up. They look bad to have a good phone, but overpriced computers and ATV is a mess.

    40 year Apple user. Apple is a train wreck and I’m giving up on them.

    • This is an old myth, that Macs are way overpriced compared to similarly configured PCs. It’s not necessarily true. Besides there are rumors of new Macs this fall. Saying you’re giving up now and calling Apple “a train wreck,” which is demonstrably false, makes me feel you’re just trolling for trouble. Please take that trouble elsewhere. Thank you.


      • pat Fisher says:

        Hi Gene, thank you for your response. I have a great deal of respect for you over the the last 20 years of so, because you have been fairly critical of Apple (when deserved).

        I want to reiterate and respond. I would appreciate not being labeled a troll after having my whole family up to their necks in Apple products over the last 3 decades. I still use Apple products, but less and less and their services are still terrible and are not non-proprietary and simple, like Google Music and Photos.

        I use a Mac now, and if you see my comments, there is less of the value for price.

        I outlined in more than one comment our family has with Apple which is worse than before. Please, go ahead and call me a troll, but is of no value. You should counterpoint my comments.

        I have loved Apple, but it’s becoming a shadow of its former self. And I did mention, in another post, that it sounds like their phones will be awesome, and if they applied the same to their computers, they would be great.

        Okay, I’m a troll if I find a $100 Chromebook as good as my 2009 Macbook or our 2015 MacBook retina. The comment that the myth lives is not true. The myth that Apple is not worth it more and more is true more and more each day.

        Gene, please, tell me as a troll, why a $1300 MacBook Retina is worth more than a $100 Chromebook? For the majority of users?

        I have always fought they myth with PC users for decades, but Apple now continues to sell $1800 computers with 512 SSD, which my 2009 Macbook has. Apple has less value now, regardless of how rock solid it is, for more users. Times have changed over the last 40 years.

        Apple is falling behind. I am not a troll for not following Apple follower rule to follow the party line. I was truthful in how I felt about the situation.


  7. gene says:

    Your claims that you can’t understand why a MacBook isn’t distinguishable from a cheap Chromebook, which doesn’t even have a Retina-style display, is outrageous.

    That’s why I cannot take you seriously.

    Have a nice life.


    • pat Fisher says:

      I bought a MacBook Retina last August. $1300. It was laggy when opening several browser windows. Screen nice. Weight nice. Screen nice. Laggy. Keyboard was nice, and I defend the keyboard even though others complained about it. I do defend it for its strengths. Then $79 for a freaking adapter, but I bought one for $15 or so from Monoprice for the USB to USB C.

      I traded the computer with my daughter and took the 2009 MBP and upgraded the SSD with 512 and 8 GB of RAM. Works as good or better than the retina.

      I then bought a Chromebook, that for my purposes, or most peoples’, is a far better value proposition, than spending far more.

      That is my point. I recommend the Chromebook to most people.

      I would love to own a MBP Rentina 512, but at $1799 is too much. Crazy expensive. That is my rub with Apple.

      I don’t know why our bee is in a bonnet. I’ve respected your site since forever for being critical. Why am I critical? I don’t want to spend almost 2k for a computer and Apple needs better value. The phone is a great value, but the laptops should be better.

  8. gene says:

    Whether it’s laggy or not depends on the sort of work you’re doing. Reviewers don’t call the MacBook laggy.

    If you want to say the MacBook is in any way the equivalent of a cheap Chromebook, you’re out to lunch.

    If you want to say a Chromebook can handle online access and email, and perhaps light word processing with Google Apps, sure. Otherwise, you’re out to lunch.

    The value proposition depends on the work you want to do. If you need a professional notebook, the MacBook Pro is not “crazy expensive.” Not compared to premium notebooks from Dell and HP.

    Your 15 minutes are up.


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