If early estimates for the likes of Gartner and IDC are correct, Mac sales appear to have stabilized during the holiday quarter. This came after a decline for several quarters, possibly because of the overall erosion of PC sales, and no doubt partly because Apple has apparently been stingy about upgrading these machines.
Or maybe not.
Now it’s not as if Apple can do much to overcome overfall industry trends. More and more people rely on smartphones and tablets in place of traditional PCs. In some countries, larger smartphones — phablets — serve the dual purpose of mobile phone and tablet. It is the only computing device for many people.
In recent years, improvements to personal computers haven’t been that extensive. Intel introduced an UltraBook reference platform channeled by many PC makers. It was heavily based on the MacBook Air, but with the Windows PC penchant for using notebook displays as touchscreens. Thus the 2-in-1 notebook that appears to be the sole category where reasonable growth is being seen.
Overall, businesses and consumers are keeping their computers longer. Incremental improvements year to year are relatively modest. Intel’s processor roadmap is more about power efficiency than number crunching. So you may expect better battery life, but the benchmarks don’t show much of a change. So if there are no fancy new features to speak of, why upgrade?
I’ve seen this in the people I’m in touch with. They are more inclined to hang onto their Macs until they drop, more or less. Although some confront hardware issues, Macs traditionally rate among the most reliable computers on the planet, so you can probably expect many good years of service. It helps that macOS Sierra supports all Macs from 2010 and some from 2009. The latter includes the iMac and MacBooks. My 2010 17-inch MacBook Pro runs Sierra perfectly; the strange installation problem about requiring an update to the non-existent Server software was easily overcome.
Now if I bought a new MacBook Pro today, the closest equivalent would be the 15-inch model with the Retina display and Touch ID. My computer is an entry-level model that sold for $2,299 when it was released, which is just $100 less than the entry-level equivalent in the current lineup. When I’m ready to replace my Mac — and that’s a ways off for many reasons — I’ll have a very different replacement. In addition to the somewhat smaller display, 15.4-inches compared to 17-inches, the Late 2016 MacBook Pro has a Retina display, a stock SSD (I added one to my 2010 computer two years ago) and the controversial Touch Bar.
For this model, Apple offers a major revision, a mostly compelling upgrade for anyone who bought a MacBook Pro, or a different notebook, in recent years. Some might complain about the high price, but it’s not so high if you look at what Apple charged for its top-of-the-line notebooks in 2010, not to mention 2012, when the original MacBook Pro with Retina display was launched.
For iMac owners, the 27-inch model with 5K Retina display arrived in 2014, and it was enhanced with superior color rendition in 2015 and received a decent price cut. While I am not predicting what Apple might deliver in this year’s upgrade, other than Kaby Lake processors and USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 ports, it shouldn’t be a sea change. If you have a 2013 or older iMac, it might be a good time to consider a replacement. Otherwise no.
I’m not altogether sure what Apple may have in mind for the aging Mac Pro. I suspect anything they deliver will be a suitable upgrade from a 2013 or earlier model. Will it be a simple refresh, a redesign, or silence? Tim Cook’s optimistic claims about the Mac’s desktop roadmap imply more than one model, so there’s hope.
The Mac mini may not be a huge seller, but it’s such a sensible machine that it hardly makes sense for Apple to ignore it. Maybe it’s waiting for Kaby Lake too, to produce a somewhat more energetic upgrade. Maybe Apple wants to redesign the case again, although the current form factor is good enough aside from the questionable design to remove the ability to upgrade RAM. But if you have a Mac mini from 2013 or 2014, Apple would have to deliver a real compelling upgrade to make it tempting to buy anything new.
I suppose Apple could look to the HP Z2 workstation as a potential guidepost. It would come the option for higher-performing parts that could turn it into a low-end Mac Pro replacement. Maybe. But having endless upgrade choices might go against the grain for Apple, which would be more inclined to put that energy into the Mac Pro, if they even want the high-end market anymore.
One reason cited for lower Mac sales is the slow upgrade path. In large part, Apple is constrained by Intel’s processor roadmap. The MacBook (first introduced in 2015) and the new MacBook Pro represented huge changes for models that otherwise would have only sported slight changes.
Was it enough to spur Mac upgrades — or Mac switchers? If reports that sales increased somewhat in the December quarter are correct, maybe. Will the 2017 changes be near as compelling, or at least distinctive? That remains to be seen. Meantime, my MacBook Pro works just fine. When it is no longer compatible with the OS, I might want to consider my options. But the earliest that might happen is this fall. Right now, I have other priorities.
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