• Newsletter Issue #884

    November 7th, 2016


    I’m surprised that the Late 2016 MacBook Pro remains so controversial. Or maybe I shouldn’t be, which is why I’ll be discussing that topic in my featured column for this issue.

    In the meantime, on this weekend’s episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE, we featured Josh Centers, Managing Editor for TidBITS, and author of “Take Control of Apple TV” and other titles. Josh talked extensively about the controversial MacBook Pro, and its tentpole features, including the Touch Bar and Touch ID. Did Apple overprice this new computer? What about Apple’s desktop Macs that haven’t been upgraded in quite a while? Gene suggested a potential replacement for the Mac Pro, a souped up iMac with eight-core processor and dual SSDs. You also heard about the forthcoming TV app for Apple TV and iOS. Josh focused on the missing services, including Amazon Instant Video and Netflix, and moved on to the proposed merger between AT&T and Time Warner.

    You also heard from Bryan Chaffin, co-founder and co-publisher of The Mac Observer. Brian also talked extensively about the MacBook Pro, the Touch Bar, and whether prices might come down after the first year, similar to other Macs in recent years. What about the future of the Mac Pro? Does Apple give it a decent burial, or deliver a refresh in 2017? Gene brought up his mythical professional iMac, as the discussion moved to the twin processor design of the MacBook Pro, which has not just an Intel processor but an ARM processor with a slimmed down version of watchOS that powers the Touch Bar. Should Apple consider wholesale move to ARM on the Mac platform? There’s also a brief discussion of the AT&T and Time Warner merger.

    Now when it comes for my expectations, or hopes, about future Macs, I am concerned that Apple has essentially abandoned the Mac Pro. This doesn’t mean it won’t be updated some time in the future, but for now it’s moribund. The price is unchanged, but the parts are more than three years old. Even allowing for the usual speed bumps for Intel chips, you have to expect that performance is measurably inferior compared to current parts. So is it fair for Apple to charge the very same price? Well, maybe Intel isn’t cutting prices that much on older chips, but lopping off a few hundred dollars in the various configurations would restore faith in Apple. At least until a new model arrives.

    If the Mac Pro dies quietly, however, will Apple attempt to replace it, at least in part? That’s why I thought about a special 27-inch iMac configuration that might allow for a fairly easy migration from at least some Mac Pro users. You see, when the Late 2009 iMac arrived, it was possible to have it configured to be powerful enough so many users of Apple’s costly workstation could switch. I did, and I was able to sell off a large display and a Mac Pro and have enough change to buy a backup drive and pay a couple of small bills.

    So it would be possible to offer a special configuration iMac, with more pro-grade features, such as Intel’s 8-core i7 processor and a pair of SSDs? The latter ought to be quite possible, since you can already buy an iMac with a Fusion Drive, a model that contains a regular hard drive plus an SSD. So why not? Even a maxed out configuration of this high-end iMac would cost thousands less than a Mac Pro, and might help replace it for many users who’d otherwise feel abandoned. But I’ll have more to say on the subject in the next article.

    On this week’s episode of our other radio show, The Paracast:  Gene and Chris present research associate and sonic sculpturer Michael Esposito. Chris and Michael collaborated on an album titled Medea last year, have worked together on various haunted site investigations in three states since 2005, and were involved in the 2006 documentary Dead Whisper that Chris co-produced with Ronald James. Over the years, under the Phantom Airwaves Institution, Michael has participated in hundreds of paranormal investigations all over the world. He has conducted extensive research at many active locations and has developed a great deal of unique theory and devised many unique experiments within the field of Electronic Voice Phenomena (EVP). You’ll hear some of these exclusive recordings, and the full collection will be made available exclusively to subscribers of The Paracast+.


    Apple customers are a passionate lot, and company decisions about new or changed products and services are going to receive lots of discussion. This is particularly true when there’s a controversial decision, such as removing a feature or ditching hardware.

    Apple has been killing older Mac ports since the 1990s, when the first iMac appeared. It was a consumer machine, mostly using parts derived from PowerBooks. But it also came without a floppy drive, or support for ADB, for input devices, LocalTalk, for printers, or SCSI, for external drives and other devices. Instead, Apple went to USB, which seemed a curious decision at the time since it ran much slower than SCSI. At least then.

    Indeed, when SCSI was first removed from Power Macs, a market developed for add-on SCSI cards, so you could continue to use your external gear with perhaps a special driver. It usually worked for as long as it lasted. The lack of a floppy drive could be dealt by using an external USB drive of some sort. Again, it was just a temporary crutch. Apple knew where the market was going.

    So FireWire arrived, and was replaced with the faster and more efficient Thunderbolt. With the Late 2016 MacBook Pro, Apple settled on a Thunderbolt 3 port, which uses the USB-C reversible connector. It also supports several protocols, so, with a dongle, it can be all-purpose, or almost all-purpose. Apple went all in, rather than keep a legacy port or two, and thus Mac users are freaking.

    Now some suggest Apple should have followed the approach taken with the iPhone 7, and the loss of a headphone jack. So they included a free headphone jack to lightning adaptor, which would otherwise cost $9. Instead, Apple simply continued its previous approach to Macs when ports vanished, which was to make such dongles optional. They didn’t offer free external floppy drives or USB SuperDrives either when both devices were removed from Macs.

    However, the outcry has been intense, so Apple came up with a compromise. So if you order a USB-C or Thunderbolt 3 adaptor from Apple between now and the end of the year, you’ll get a 20% to 40% discount, even if the dongle comes from a third party. Just as important, if you’ve already ordered one of these cables, the discount will be credited to your account.

    I suspect that discount may not expire at the end of the year. It will just establish a new price floor for such adapters.

    Apple is also offering a 25% discount on 4K and 5K displays from LG. These are the displays with nondescript designs that were designed with Apple’s assistance. It’s designed to make it easier for customers who need external displays to deal with the higher prices for the MacBook Pro. Indeed, the savings for the 27-inch 5K display, which discounts from $1299.95 to $974, essentially covers that price difference.

    Again, the sale will last until the end of the year, but maybe it’ll be continued, although I suspect Apple is simply selling the displays at cost to help encourage people to buy MacBook Pros with fewer qualms.

    This move, which may, in part, boost the prospects for Mac sales this quarter, may also pave the way for full price reductions when the Late 2017 refreshes arrive. Don’t forget that Apple cut the price of the 27-inch iMac with 5K Retina display in two stages within a year after it was first introduced in the fall of 2014. Previous versions of the MacBook Pro and the MacBook Air have received price reductions of up to several hundred dollars, so this is a move that is not at all unusual.

    If past is prologue, the next MacBook may indeed sell for $999 or $1,099. That will make it the true MacBook Air replacement. The MacBook Pro may cost $300-$400 less.

    Will it be sufficient to boost Mac sales in a declining market? I wouldn’t care to guess. Such considerations are way above my pay grade; it has to help some. But what about the rest of the Macintosh lineup? Apple has said nothing specifically about future upgrades to the Mac mini and the Mac Pro. But I do expect there will be an upgrade to the iMac when the next Intel processor family, Kaby Lake, is available in quad-core form in quantities sufficient to meet Apple’s needs. That should happen by the spring of 2017.

    Is there a possibility for a “pro” configuration of the iMac in the form I suggested in the previous article? That’s a really good question that I am also not prepared to answer. It would not take a lot of development expense, or any major change in the internal configuration, to allow for twin SSDs and an eight-core i7. The former would seem to be a no-brainer. The latter would depend on how well the high-end i7 chips manage chores that are usually the province of a Mac Pro. Don’t forget that only a small number of apps really need — or substantially benefit from — more than four cores. Since the eight-core chips usually run at a lower clock speed than their four-core counterparts, performance will otherwise be slower when the extra cores are unused.

    For the time being, Apple is at least paying lip service to the promise of an ongoing commitment to the Mac platform. The decision to unexpectedly lower the price for the new LG displays, and USB-C and Thunderbolt 3 adaptors, demonstrates that Apple is taking customer objections seriously.

    Will it be enough to really goose Mac sales this quarter? That answer will probably not come until late January of 2017, when the December quarterly financials are revealed. But if the MacBook Pro remains back ordered, that will be cause for optimism despite the controversial reception to the new notebook line.


    The Tech Night Owl Newsletter is a weekly information service of Making The Impossible, Inc.

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