The Mac Upgrade Report: Boring?

July 6th, 2017

For a while, many Mac users felt abandoned by Apple. The critics said that, since Apple makes roughly 60% of its revenue from iPhones, other products are being given short shrift. It would seem to mean that Apple didn’t care about 40% of its business.

But is that even remotely true?

Certainly there’s no evidence that Apple is ignoring the Apple Watch. Apple TV? Well, it seems curious that the current model doesn’t support 4K, although it’s also true that there is no 4K content on iTunes. But Apple is behind the curve there, because more and more low-cost TV sets are available offering the higher resolution screens, and models with enhanced color, HDR, are also spreading through manufacturer product lineups.

The iPad is another story, and the multitasking changes in iOS 11, and the new iPad Pros, may help jump start the lineup.

When it comes to Macs, after very little action, other than a very modest MacBook refresh last year, Apple introduced a brand new MacBook Pro lineup in the fall. While mostly in the spirit of previous updates, with a somewhat slimmer and lighter form factor, Apple was attacked for failing to deliver a proper pro notebook.

The most controversial decision was to replace the seldom-used function keys with the Touch Bar, an OLED display that’s configurable. Developers would be able to craft shortcuts for key functions. Forgetting the technology, that would seem to be worth the effort, except for the fact that these new notebooks were several hundred dollars more expensive than their predecessors. I’ll forget the arguments about why Apple didn’t offer 32GB of RAM, because they never did. Microsoft Surface notebooks also max out at 16GB.

At any rate, however controversial, it appears that Apple was correct in reporting high demand, because Mac sales were up for two quarters after dipping slightly.

But what about the rest of the lineup?

Well, as you know, Apple issued the closest to a mea culpa you’d expect from the company during a reporter roundtable in early April of this year. So the Mac Pro, touted as the next insanely great thing in 2013, was a misfire. Apple misjudged the direction of the market, and ended up with a product difficult to upgrade. Why it took from 2013 to 2017 to realize this is a huge question mark.

Maybe the Mac product team was sleeping at the wheel, or taking extended naps during product planning sessions. Regardless, a new Mac Pro and a new display are coming, probably in 2018. The promise of an iMac with pro features will be fulfilled when the iMac Pro arrives in December at a starting price of $4,999.

Today, you can buy a new MacBook, a new MacBook Pro, and a new iMac, all of which are faster than you’d expect from a normal processor refresh. The 13-inch MacBook Air received a slight processor upgrade, and we know that Apple likes the Mac mini. But not enough to deliver an upgrade, at least not yet.

If you’ve read most of the product reviews, you’ll see benchmarks indicating double digit improvements almost across-the-board. The 27-inch iMac’s marvelous 5K display is even more marvelous.

As product upgrades go, this is certainly more than you’d expect. Even that costly iMac Pro may not be expensive when compared to the competition. Apple boasted that similarly equipped PC desktops cost over $7,000, but some people managed to configure build-it-yourself PCs that are within a couple of hundred dollars of the iMac Pro. But they aren’t all-in-one designs; they are towers plus displays, which would at least make them easier to upgrade.

Regardless, it’s clear that Apple has delivered credible upgrades to most Macs. The promise of a $5,000 iMac may seem curious in light of the company’s usual approach to professional workstations, but the all-in-one desktop has always been an Apple thing.

Despite that, I read a piece recently suggesting the iMac refresh was boring. A yawner, and thus the reviewer isn’t going to bother to cover it. Why?

Well, I suppose a brighter display with better color reproduction is unimportant. Double-digit performance boosts are also unimportant, as is the ability to upgrade to 64GB and order up SSDs of up to 2TB. All, right a fully decked out iMac costs over $4,000, coming closer to its forthcoming big brother, but this is one powerful beast.

Why is it boring?

If a huge improvement to an existing product is boring, just what is exciting? Aha! Well, to the writer in question, it must be a touchscreen, as typified by the $3,000 Microsoft Surface Studio.

Having a collapsible touchscreen may have some value to certain users, but it doesn’t seem as if people are lining up to buy them in great numbers. Surface sales were down 26% in the March quarter. People who insist Apple should be somehow emulating Microsoft need to explain how a product that isn’t selling so well should be regarded as a source of inspiration.

This isn’t to say that Apple’s objection to touchscreens always makes sense. Just take an iPad Pro, equip it with a Smart Keyboard — or a third-party equivalent — and you’ll see what I mean. This is particularly true if iOS 11 delivers on the promise of making these tablets more credible as productivity devices.

As far as I’m concerned, the Mac refreshes aren’t boring, and the same goes for the iPad Pro and iOS 11.

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