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  • The Mac is Really Back at Apple

    June 8th, 2017

    Let’s not forget that Apple Inc. used to be known as Apple Computer Inc. But in 2007, with the launch of the iPhone, the word “Computer” vanished. What changed?

    It’s not that Apple suddenly stopped making Macs, or didn’t built other products over the years. Don’t forget that the original PostScript printer, the Apple LaserWriter, along with Aldus PageMaker, upended an industry. But, beginning in 2001, a brand new gadget sort of snuck in and began to demonstrate Apple’s future direction.

    The iPod at first appeared to be little more than a costly indulgence on the part of Steve Jobs. The promise of 1,000 songs in your pocket was certainly a neat idea, but its $399 price tag seemed a bit much. Sure, there were other MP3 players then, but they had awful user interfaces, and transferring tracks to those devices was a slow process.

    The iPod — which used iTunes to manage the downloads and your playlists — caught on. But it really soared when Apple decided to share the joy with Windows users and offer a PC version of iTunes.

    Over the years, Apple beat back all comers, even Microsoft.

    But the best iPod arrived in 2007 as part of a tiny personal computer known as the iPhone. It didn’t take too many years before a smartphone became Apple’s most successful product. While Mac sales by and large continued to increase, to some it became little more than a legacy product, receiving mostly modest updates to keep up.

    It got really bad in late 2016 when, after only one other Mac got an update — a simple MacBook refresh that spring — a controversial refresh of the MacBook Pro arrived. I suppose a basic update of the existing model with new parts might have been less polarizing. But the upgraded model was slimmer and lighter, with a short-travel keyboard in the spirit of the MacBook and the Magic Keyboard. But it had a controversial feature, the Touch Bar. A single OLED touch strip replaced the traditional function keys. Apple opened up the technology to third parties, so they could build their own custom keys. It should have been a good thing, too, but…

    For some reason, customers decided that the MacBook Pro should have supported 32GB of RAM, even though previous models — and the Microsoft Surface notebooks — topped out at 16GB. Apple’s worst transgression was not using the latest Intel silicon, code-named Kaby Lake. Ignored was the fact that the quad-core chips that Apple uses in its high-end notebooks hadn’t shipped yet. And did I mention that the new models cost several hundred dollars more?

    Some Mac users felt Apple was paying lip service to the platform, despite the fact that developing the Touch Bar couldn’t have been an easy thing to do. Indeed, it meant there was a second OS and processor onboard, derived from iOS with an ARM-based system-on-a-chip based on the one on the Apple Watch.

    Despite the complaints, Mac sales, which had been flagging through much of the year, increased slightly. But it wasn’t just pent-up demand for the MacBook Pro, because sales continued to grow during the March quarter. At the same time, sales of the Microsoft Surface — which the critics continue to demand that Apple imitate — fell by 26%.

    But what about the Mac Pro, which hadn’t received any updates since 2013?

    Half-hearted assurances that Apple loved pros didn’t help. In early April, they summoned a handful of carefully selected tech reporters to its Cupertino headquarters for a roundtable. Yes, Apple planned to release a brand new modular Mac Pro, but not this year. It would also be joined by a new display. This year, there would be an iMac with pro options, and even the tiny Mac mini appeared to have the love.

    Ahead of the WWDC, rumors appeared that the MacBook Pro would receive an update months ahead of the usual timetable. There would also be updates for the MacBook and perhaps the MacBook Air.

    But that wasn’t the half of it.

    During the WWDC, the volume Macs got plenty of love. As predicted, the MacBook Pro and its brethren received the expected upgrades. Kaby Lake CPUs were also added to the MacBook; the MacBook Air got a minor update of the Broadwell processor it was already using. Even more interesting, early reports of benchmarks indicate that the newest 15-inch MacBook Pro may be up to 20% faster in multicore tasks than its predecessor.

    The real surprise was the announcement of brand new iMacs, with the expected processor upgrades. The model with pro features ended up being a whole new line, dubbed iMac Pro, in which the guts of what you’d expect to see in a Mac Pro workstation were stuffed inside. Apple had to build an upgraded thermal system with 80% greater capacity to support an 18-core Xeon, AMD Radeon Pro Vega graphics, and up to 128GB of costly ECC RAM.

    As you  might expect, the iMac Pro, expected in December, will be an expensive beast. The entry-level model will start at $4,999, although Apple claims that PC workstations with similar capabilities would generally cost over $7,000. Optioned to the hilt with those 18 core Xeons, maxed out RAM and graphics, plus 4TB of SSD storage, an iMac Pro will cost well over $10,000.

    And, Apple is still promising an even more powerful Mac Pro for next year.

    The next macOS, code-named High Sierra, will offer beefed up support for Metal graphics and other features, along with a modern file system sporting higher performance and enhanced security. The better to serve the needs of Mac professionals.

    The Mac mini? Well, maybe later in the year, maybe not. There was hope in Apple’s brief statements about it during that April roundtable.

    Even more interesting, iOS 11 will offer enhanced multitasking for iPads. It will feature a Mac-like dock and a Files app that appears to be the equivalent of putting a macOS Finder on Apple’s tablet. What this means is that Apple now realizes that, to make an iPad more productive, it needs to adapt some Mac features.

    But does an iPad Pro with Smart Keyboard combine to become Apple’s answer to the 2-in-1 PC? Is it a true merger of a toaster oven and a refrigerator that actually makes sense?

    So the Mac is getting the love, and the iPad is being influenced by the Mac. Long-time Mac users must be smiling from ear to ear.



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    6 Responses to “The Mac is Really Back at Apple”

    1. DaveD says:

      Still digesting the long WWDC keynote that had plenty of hardware announcements. Was quite pleased to see product refreshes of iMacs and MacBooks which likely account over 95% of Mac sales so I can understand why no Mac minis for now. But, I do wonder with the request for a notebook having 32 MB of RAM maybe Apple should bring back the true professional 17-inch MacBook Pro.

    2. Shameer Mulji says:

      @DaveD

      Apple seems firm on using LPDDR RAM (for obvious reasons) for its MBP line-up. Until Intel releases a mobile chipset that supports 32GB LPDDR RAM, we won’t see 32GB RAM in MBP. From the looks of it, that will probably happen this time next year

      • Peter says:

        Agreed. Personally, I’m waiting on it.

        It’s a legit argument. Either use LPDDR3 RAM and get more than 16GB but have worse battery life or use LPDDR4 RAM, be stuck at 16GB, but get good battery life.

        Personally, I’d rather have more RAM. But my laptop is mostly “transportable”, so it doesn’t get much use without being plugged in. But it’s a legitimate argument for sticking at 16GB–there are plenty of people who depend on having good battery life in their laptops and don’t need 32GB of RAM.

    3. Peter says:

      One concern that I have with the iMac Pro is whether or not Apple is, once again, designing for the now and not the future.

      Looks great! 18 cores! Whoo-hoo! But what happens when Intel releases new Xeons in March 2018? Will they rediscover the “thermal envelope” and end up in the same boat they got in with the Trashcan Mac Pro?

      I mean, I’m not spending $5000-$10000 on a computer which doesn’t have the latest and greatest. That was one of the painful things about the Mac Pro–premium prices for a computer whose innards were 4 years old.

      • gene says:

        I’m going to assume Apple is acquainted with Intel’s processor roadmap and will be able to upgrade the iMac Pro as new silicon is released, same as the regular iMac.

        Peace,
        Gene

    4. KiraK says:

      The Mac refreshes are a step in the right direction. But Apple still has much to do, and needs to focus on making its products more easily repairable, updatable, and expandable. You know, like its devices were back in the day. It’s okay to make some products as closed boxes, but at the very least all pro models should have these three features. It’s good for the environment. Good for the wallet. And good for maximum power and flexibility. With macOS, we will have to wait for its release. The OS has been on a steady decline for years now in a number of important ways.

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