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  • The MacBook Pro and Questions and Confusion

    November 2nd, 2016

    Typical of any new product, there will be questions and criticisms. So the Late 2016 MacBook Pro costs a lot more than its predecessor. Is that a good idea, considering that Mac sales have been dropping in recent quarters? Is Apple looking for short-term gains, are there development costs to recover? To add to the confusion, Apple VP Philip Schiller says Apple does not produce products to a price — something that’s hard to believe — but that they are sensitive to the issue.

    But maybe not sensitive enough.

    Now lest we forget, the first iMac with 5K Retina display retailed for $2,499. Today, a similar 2015 model, with enhanced color, retails for $1,999. So Apple reduced the price by $500 in a single year; there’s also a $1,799 model with slower parts, and a regular hard drive, rather than the Fusion Drive.

    What this indicates that a refreshed version of the iMac with a state-of-the-art display became 20% cheaper in a single year. That happened at a time when Mac sales were still increasing, ahead of a declining PC market. So it didn’t happen just because Apple needed to sell more computers. Apple found a way to make them cheaper, and passed the savings along to customers.

    So there is a prediction that the MacBook Pro, particularly the versions with Touch Bar, will come down in price by the fall of 2017. How much? Well, perhaps the prices will come close to the former level. But does that mean that people who buy them now are paying an early adopters tax?

    I will assume there are two years of development costs to recover, plus building up mass production of new components. But I’m making no guesses about profit margins, nor on whether Apple really and truly wants to gouge customers who can’t wait another 12 months or so.

    Another argument is that these MacBook Pros are using last year’s Skylake processors, the six generation parts, rather than the new Kaby Lake processors. However, the quad-core processors aren’t shipping yet, so that explains why Apple didn’t use them in the high-end model. Would it have made sense to use the dual-core Kaby Lake chips on the 13-inch MacBook Pro? Possibly not, since it’s not that they are so much faster as to make a real difference to most users, except those obsessed with benchmarks.

    Yet another complaint is the revelation that the two Thunderbolt 3 ports on the right side of the smaller MacBook Pro run slower than the left side. A secret plot on the part of Apple to cheat customers? No the limitation of the dual-core Skylake processors, which support 12 PCI-e lanes, thus explaining the side-to-side difference. The quad-core chips on the 15-inch MacBook Pro supports 16 PCI-e lanes, meaning that the Thunderbolt 3 ports on both sides run at full speed.

    The choice of chips also explains why Apple supports LPDDR3 memory, resulting in a maximum of 16GB RAM on the new models. Schiller has explained that using any other RAM technology to allow for 32GB RAM would result in reduced battery life. But that doesn’t differ from previous models. Pros who expect 32GB on a MacBook Pro will have to wait for a future generation that natively supports LPDDR4.

    These limitations, dictated by the chip architecture, can be used as ammunition that, not only is Apple overcharging for its new notebooks, but it’s deliberately limiting performance. As you see, that’s not quite true.

    What is obvious is that Intel’s ongoing delays in releasing new processors in quantity has certainly hurt Apple’s progress  in updating Macs. As to the Mac Pro, Apple might be waiting for new chips there too. So far, the Kaby Lake version of the Xeon, E3 1200 v6, has only been announced in four-core versions, and Apple wants 8-core and 12-core. So even if a refresh is coming, it may not arrive until the spring. So far, nothing has been announced about the Mac Pro’s future.

    In fact, it may be that there will be another series of Mac updates to accompany the Mac Pro, including the Mac mini, iMac, and the MacBook. It’s very possible the latter will benefit from the third year of production, and take a $999 retail price, thus becoming the true replacement for the MacBook Air. That was sort of obvious when it was first announced, but it was too expensive.

    Don’t forget that the MacBook Air cost several hundreds more when it first came out. In 2010, a 13-inch MacBook Air was priced the same as today’s Macbook — $1,299, and that represented a substantial price reduction from its predecessor.

    There’s also a published report about alleged tepid demand for the new MacBook Pros. That might be true, but if you buy one of the models equipped with a Touch Bar, as I write this, prepare to wait four to five weeks, compared to two to three weeks right after last week’s announcement. That changed in just six hours, so somebody is ordering them. Sure, nobody outside of Apple and its manufacturing partners know how much stock is available, or whether there are problems ramping up production. But slipping delivery dates, meaning you may have to wait until early December to get one, seems promising for its ongoing success.

    Moreover, in a recent interview, Schiller said, “And we are proud to tell you that so far our online store has had more orders for the new MacBook Pro than any other pro notebook before. So there certainly are a lot of people as excited as we are about it.”

    But if I had any interest in buying one to replace my 2010 17-inch MacBook Pro, I’d definitely wait till next fall to check the prices of the 2017 refresh.



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