I’ve been on a mission of sorts. Apple has delivered some great Macs, but the design team has made a decision that is doing little more than inconveniencing customers. It’s not a new decision, since it dates back to the very first Mac, and it’s about the inability to upgrade RAM on most models.
And I don’t like it!
Now in the days when personal computers had very little memory in the scheme of things, that might have made some sense, but it didn’t take long to add expansion capabilities to Macs. Today it’s all about slim and slimmer, and only two Mac desktops, plus a legacy notebook, allow you to swap out RAM. For the desktop, it’s the 27-inch iMac and the Mac Pro. For notebooks, there’s an old MacBook Pro that remains in the lineup. It also contains an optical drive, something that no other Mac provides except as an external USB device.
What this means is that the most popular Macs are hostile to users in a way that forces you to make a more expensive buying decision when you place your order. Since you won’t be able to upgrade RAM, the general suggestion is get as much as you can now at a higher price than a third-party would offer. Well, if upgrades were allowed.
Now with the MacBook, the only upgrade offered is to a faster processor. You get 8GB memory regardless. But other models may or may not give you such an option. It’s no longer available on the 13-inch MacBook Air, because Apple believes the standard 8GB, a recent addition, is sufficient. With the 11-inch model, you can upgrade from 4GB to 8GB for $100 extra. If it were possible to do the upgrade yourself — and you can’t since RAM is soldered to the logic board — you’d pay half as much from one of many memory vendors.
You can upgrade a MacBook Pro with Retina display from 8GB RAM to 16GB for $200. Models that already offer 16GB cannot be upgraded.
Now if Apple maxed out the memory as standard issue on these models — and the real cost to them wouldn’t be that high — it would make sense from a practical standpoint. There would be nothing to add; well, perhaps you can upgrade storage. But since the larger iMac and the Mac Pro appeal to professional users, having the ability to upgrade memory is important. On the other hand, Apple could add that same capability to all Macs without it without sacrificing very much in the way of thinness or weight. The additional cost shouldn’t be worth shouting about except to bean counters who are concerned about the impact of every single penny of additional build expenses.
Apple might argue that only a small percentage of Mac users take advantage of the ability to upgrade RAM. That’s no doubt true, but not everyone can afford to buy a maxed out version — where it’s offered — when buying one. Even the cheapest Mac, the $899 MacBook Air, is apt to be a stretch for many people. Coming up with that extra $100 can be difficult, and it may take a little time to set it aside.. Maybe Apple executives need to come off their ivory towers and realize how best to serve customers.
Now on this weekend’s episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE, Kyle Wiens of iFixit joined us to give the results of teardowns of some of the very latest tech gear. During this segment, he discussed Apple’s 2016 MacBook, and whether, aside from minor hardware upgrades, it differs much from last year’s model. He also presented the results of the teardown of the iPhone SE, the latest smartphones from Samsung and LG, and some virtual reality headsets. He also reminded you about the poor repair rating of the Microsoft Surface tablets.
You’ll also heard from Stephen Baker, Vice President for Industry Analysis at the NPD Group. He explained why he feels Mac sales dropped so much in the March quarter; he suggests some of Apple’s notebooks are long in the tooth and need major refreshes. He also talked about the impact of the iPhone SE, and whether there’s a big market for smaller smartphones. The discussion also focused on 4K TV, and where the new format is going. What price points are most popular, and what about getting more genuine 4K content to watch? Stephen also mentioned the contribution of Android Auto and Apple CarPlay to the infotainment systems of a growing number of motor vehicles.
On this week’s episode of our other radio show, The Paracast: Micah Hanks, of The Gralien Report, joins us to talk about a host of topics of interest to us today. First, we look at UFOs, and why old classification systems, in a world of drones and digital imagery, may need to be revamped. Refreshing our mindset about UFOs, Hanks also discusses what evolution may have to do with the way such things are perceived, and even why some may be prone toward a skeptical mindset about them. Also of interest, particularly in an election year, is the subject of secret groups and organizations, and the way they influence current events and world happenings.
Apple’s critics have a lot of meat and potatoes in the March quarter financials to enjoy. For the first time since 2007, iPhone sales were down by double digits, and Mac sales also dropped by a fairly significant degree.
The iPad? Well, the decrease wasn’t as much as in previous quarters, but it doesn’t look as if many of Apple’s products are growing. But it’s the first March quarter for the Apple Watch, so there’s no trend. Moreover, Apple’s services business is increasing by the double digits, so the suggestion that it’s a complete slowdown just doesn’t wash.
Clearly, so-called industry analysts are looking at the situation and are finding reason to be worried. Some of the reasons might make sense, and I’ll get to those. Others don’t. So one article I caught online presented this piece of utter illogic, “According to a new note from Mark Moskowitz and his team at Barclays, the analysts now expect iPhone sales to decline in the next two quarters, in part because of they don’t see many significant upgrades coming to the flagship model.”
But why would expectations for the next iPhone make people less inclined to buy the current one if it’s not compelling? You’d think it would be the reverse, since there would be fewer reasons to wait for a product that may not catch fire.
Of course, Apple hasn’t confirmed any of the rumors about the iPhone 7, or whatever it’s to be called. So we don’t know what “must-haves” might be offered. Besides, the people who are most likely to upgrade would be using an iPhone 6, the 2014 model, something older, or an Android handset, so it may not take as much much to get them to place an order.
The other question is what sort of improvements Apple might need to offer. Some suggest moving to an OLED display, already used by some handset makers on the Android platform. But that decision wouldn’t necessarily guarantee better picture quality, though I think it would provide for a brighter image in sunlight. But Apple isn’t apt to add something just because it’s someone else’s thing to do, or it sounds good. Apple has clearly invested huge sums of money developing displays. Crafting such features as 3D Touch to work with a touchscreen wasn’t easy either.
That said, I have no idea what Apple should be adding to the next iPhone; well, other than how the display reacts to sunlight. That is a real problem. I suppose Apple could add support for the True Tone display scheme that debuted on the 9.7-inch iPad Pro earlier this year. It does help a little in the Arizona sun.
There will be incremental improvements to the rest of the hardware, from the processor to the antenna, camera and perhaps the fingerprint sensor. Perhaps more sensors can be added to allow HealthKit to keep tabs on your physical condition. It has, though, reached a point where there is only so much improvement to the hardware until or unless some major new technology appears. The rest may have to come from advances in iOS.
The wireless carriers in the U.S. have largely abandoned traditional two-year contracts, replacing them with the direct purchase or leasing of phones. So when you pay them off, your monthly bill drops accordingly. Customers finally realize the added cost and might opt to put off an upgrade for an extra year, if they can, to save some money. This is particularly true if the handset they already own, the one paid in full, is still in good shape.
I know I continue to receive offers from AT&T offering to upgrade my wife’s iPhone 5c, which was acquired in 2013. She hasn’t complained any, although today’s iPhone SE isn’t so expensive. It’s about good enough, and that might apply to more and more people. The situation already exists in the iPad and Mac space.
Admittedly, economic headwinds in China aren’t helping, since that country has been a major growth center for Apple gear.
The other open question is what caused Mac sales to drop so much? Are people beginning to prefer convertible PC notebooks instead? Are today’s Macs not compelling enough compared to the hardware people already own? That was one theory the NPD Group’s Stephen Baker presented on The Tech Night Owl LIVE the week. He may have a point, since product refreshes have been relatively minor in the last few years for most of the products. Even the 2016 MacBook is only slightly different from last year’s model.
I do not see any large changes among Windows notebooks, however. Improvements mostly consist of the usual hardware upgrades, but most still look pretty much the same, and I expect many upgraders did so because the hardware they own is just so old. It’s not that Windows 10 is such a compelling upgrade, except to Windows 8/8.1 users. Still, Microsoft is hoping for a promised major Windows 10 refresh this summer to restart stalled growth.
But while the critics are happily fear-mongering about Apple’s impending doom, a down quarter or two shouldn’t reflect a long-term trend. But the smartphone market is saturated, except for some developing countries. Personal computers are still largely yesterday’s news for most computer makers. Apple knows this and is clearly working on new stuff, and even continued growth in services can leverage the existing one billion Apple user base for substantially higher revenues. The company still makes big profits from its sales. If financial and industry pundits would only learn to look at long-term trends, rather than short-time bumps in the road, they’ll have to admit that Apple isn’t going away.
THE FINAL WORD
The Tech Night Owl Newsletter is a weekly information service of Making The Impossible, Inc.
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