Getting Realistic About Mac Upgrades

December 27th, 2016

Apple has received its share of attacks this year, and some of it appears to be deserved. But I won’t dwell on the possibilities except for the device that used to be its most important product — the Mac. Up until the past year, you could usually depend on annual product refreshes.

The usual setup was to launch a major upgrade — a new case design and other hardware features, such as the Retina display — every few years, after which there would be roughly annual refreshes with faster parts. But the latter depended on Intel’s product roadmap after the 2006 processor switch, and that state of affairs has become less and less dependable.

So at one time, you could be assured of a new Mac with a decent speed bump from year to year. If performance was important to you, it was worth investing in the new model every two or three years. You could verify the improvements in benchmarks published by Macworld and other tech publications.

Over time the famous Moore’s Law — about doubling the number of transistors per square inch in an integrated circuit every year — began to hit the wall. What’s more, Intel appeared to be more interested in boosting battery life than than boosting performance in its processor upgrades. Integrated graphics were also enhanced to the point where you could usually depend on being able to watch HD (and now 4K) movies and experience mostly usable performance from gaming without the need for discrete parts.

In recent years, it appeared as if the annual improvements were so modest as to represent only a few percentage points on a benchmark. When it came to real work, most users — Macs and PCs — would probably not notice the difference. What happened was that even the lower-end machines delivered perfectly acceptable performance for most people, and only the power users cared about every percentage point improvement. So you could hang onto your computer for several years and depend on acceptable performance before it was ready to pass down to another member of the family, or retire.

Apple’s notebook product separation was pretty well defined until recently. You had a MacBook for consumers, and a MacBook Pro for professional users who needed near-desktop power on the road. With the arrival of the MacBook Air, the distinction appeared to blur. These days, you have the MacBook, which is strictly entry-level when it comes to performance, but at $1,299, it sits way above the MacBook Air, which benchmarks as noticeably faster. But the MacBook has a Retina display and the MacBook Air doesn’t.

This fall, Apple reduced the MacBook Air lineup to the 13-inch model, unchanged from last year. The MacBook appears destined to take its place as soon as the price becomes sensible. That could happen in 2017, although this is not a prediction I’d depend on.

With the desktop lineup, Apple has merely confused customers. Throughout 2016, nothing was changed, not that it would have mattered much for the Mac mini and the iMac. As I said, year-over-year processor upgrades from Intel haven’t been significant of late, and power savings doesn’t matter much for a desktop computer that’s already quite power efficient.

The Mac Pro is another breed of cat. Three years in, improvements in Intel Xeons and graphics processors should have been significant enough to fuel a decent upgrade. As it is, you are basically paying the same money for a three-year-old computer, and it’s understandable customers are upset. Just what is Apple up to and why wasn’t anything done in 2016?

According to a published report, Apple only plans minor refreshes for the MacBook, MacBook Pro and iMac in 2017. Well, that might make sense. I would also expect to see the iMac inherit the USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 ports early next year, when Intel’s Kaby Lake processors are available in sufficient quantities. Otherwise, I suppose there’s no harm in keeping the current form factor that is fronted by the 27-inch model with that amazing 5K Retina display. Maybe Apple will boost graphics to manage two similar external displays.

On the other hand, it’s not that the 2017 iMac would necessarily be much faster than its predecessor, the 2015 model, except for speedier SSDs. But what about the Mac mini and the Mac Pro? The former is easily updated with the latest parts from Intel. The latter? That very much depends on Apple’s commitment to building a professional workstation. Leaving it alone for three years doesn’t seem to indicate much interest, and there’s that published report about Apple’s 2017 plans that do not mention the two “headless” Macs.

But what about Tim Cook’s recent promise about the desktop roadmap? Part of a message to Apple employees, Cook was responding to published reports that Apple was neglecting the Mac. While there were no specifics, Cook referred to “desktops,” and not “desktop,” meaning it involves more than a single model. But since there’s no timetable, not even a reference to 2017, only Apple knows when. It would have been far more reassuring for Cook to mention something about future Mac desktops during the October media event where the MacBook Pro was introduced.

As I said, it doesn’t seem terribly difficult to upgrade the entire Mac desktop lineup this coming spring, even if the changes aren’t significant. Other than the curious Microsoft Surface Studio and the spread of 2-in-1 Windows notebooks, personal computers haven’t changed all that much in recent years. The concept of a touchscreen PC is nothing new either.

Indeed, the Late 2016 MacBook Pro wouldn’t be regarded as a significant upgrade either were it not for the Touch Bar. Just making it thinner and lighter is otherwise not all that important.

Long and short, it’s probably unrealistic to expect major upgrades to Macs — or PCs for that matter — every single year. Apple doesn’t have to invest a whole lot of resources to continue to refresh Macs on a regular basis, assuming Intel cooperates with new parts. And that’s the major problem. Intel has been running later and later with its processor improvements, leaving Apple adrift to some extent. And, no, I do not expect to see ARM-powered Macs anytime soon — or ever. But it is possible the use of an A-series chip for support tasks, such as the Touch Bar, will increase going forward.

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3 Responses to “Getting Realistic About Mac Upgrades”

  1. DaveD says:

    I can understand a Mac with a 4K/5K display for the professional content creators. But, for consumers a 4K display is overkill. I find watching a 720p HD movie on an iPad mini with Retinal display is just as enjoyable as on a MacBook Air without the Retinal display. Hooking up the MacBook Air to HDTV provides good viewing. I find the push for 4K movies and TV is just another gimmick.

    It is hard to find anything new for the personal computers especially for the desktop ones. Apple has made the new MacBooks Pros, faster and one does not have to look at the plug orientation when plugging in. I can’t see a touchscreen iMac and there is no doubt the MacBook takes over the MacBook Air spot. I do agree that dropping the base 4GB-RAM, 13-inch MacBook Air was the correct decision. The RAM minimum should be 8GB for OS X Yosemite, macOS Sierra, and beyond.

  2. Costa K says:

    Well written.

    And from memrory everyone complained how there was a new iPad every year. But now that has slowed everyone is complaining that it’s too old!

    It seems that in the tech industry it’s damned if you and damned if you don’t.

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