The MacBook Airs are currently the most advanced portable Macs that Apple is shipping. Utilizing the latest, energy-efficient, high-performance Intel Haswell CPU coupled with PCIe flash (SSD) storage, these units are a leap above every other model Apple currently offers with the exception of the iMacs, which got their refresh a few weeks ago. Even so, this doesn’t make the MacBook Air the current ‘high end’ of the line-up.
Many people, especially those who need the additional connectivity and storage offered by the MacBook Pro range, view the MacBook Air as the entry-level laptop; they prefer the MacBook Pro for its additional power and connectivity. But it’s now October 2013, and updates to this range are well past due. For example, where is the 2013 MacBook Pro with Retina display? When will we see the update of the MacBook Pro (non-retina) to the new Haswell platform? And what about the Mac mini? All of these machines could use a serious refresh.
By my count, right now we’re looking at over 14 months since current Retina and non-Retina MacBook Pros came to be, and a solid year since Mac minis were updated. Meanwhile, we know what the new Mac Pro is, and we expect it to arrive in the next 4 to 6 weeks, but there’s not a hint regarding pricing. Perhaps all will be revealed at the upcoming Apple Event on October 22?
Even if all these long-overdue upgrades show up this month, it is still very disappointing how Apple seems to have substantially slowed the pace of its Mac hardware evolution and product introductions. Apple was the first major computer producer to adopt USB and was at the forefront with USB 2. But then, in taking a clear lead with Thunderbolt, Apple seemed to delay native USB 3.0 by more than a year – perhaps to help support the Thunderbolt cause. I can understand that logic, but it’s really only recently that Thunderbolt products are becoming more widely available and somewhat more reasonable in cost, meanwhile Mac users initially lost out on the benefits that USB 3.0 provides. On the other hand, Apple has taken the lead by being the first to implement PCIe direct SSD storage devices. I’m certainly not suggesting Apple doesn’t lead and innovate, but it also can be selective and not to the user’s benefit on the when and how.
Apple’s next round of updates will be very telling. In 2012 Apple killed off the 17” MacBook Pro — I regularly receive user emails and comments expressing this complaint. The lack of any supported upgradability in the MacBook Pro Retina and MacBook Air not only limits a user’s options after purchase if they didn’t opt for the factory maximums (we highly recommend selecting the maximum memory offered in these models. If you don’t – because it’s soldered/SMT – there is no practical upgrade later). But what’s even worse than that is the long-term serviceability. Even the best components can fail. While the percentages are very low, if it’s your system – that doesn’t matter. Three years from now, if a memory module fails – you can easily, in your home, very inexpensively replace that module. But not in the case of the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro Retina; the machine is effectively “bricked”, and the cost to repair may range from several hundred dollars to even more than $1,000.
Not only do these newer, closed-design systems lock you in to the initial factory configuration, they have far more limited lifetime serviceability. Where I am going with this? The non-Retina MacBook Pro is currently the only laptop that Apple still makes that supports user-upgradeable memory and storage. It also is the last model that retains an optical drive that can easily be replaced with a second drive for more storage and/or performance.
Let’s look at some of what we have right now, how they got here, and where we are heading:
Mac Pro. The 2010/2012 Mac Pro (and even the 2008 model is still great!) remains an amazing powerhouse even today. A new 2013 Mac Pro is finally on the horizon — a machine that will edge out the aging (three-plus years!) chipset/processor design on which the preceding Mac Pro was built. But come on… couldn’t Apple have at least added USB 3 and a Thunderbolt port a year ago? My take: the 2013 Mac Pro will be a technological wonder, but even with the lack of updates, the prior generation is not obsolete by any means. The new Thunderbolt-only strategy for I/O expansion will make things interesting, and in my estimation give owners of 2010/12 machines a bit more reason to consider one more round of upgrades before biting the bullet. The good news – all Mac Pros prior to the new 2013 have PCIe slot. So, with the exception of Thunderbolt, just about any other technology desired (USB 3, SAS, PCIe SSD, video capture, faster GPU, you name it) can be added with ease.
iMac. Again, the main disappointment is the lack of at least some interim updates that are about function, not just a new form. To really be blunt: I think the new 2012 iMac design looks cool, but that coolness sacrificed functionality and, from the front at least, it still looks a lot like the old iMac — regardless of the slimming design from the back and side views. Worse, the form-factor diet took away functional options, initially delayed the unit’s availability, and did little or nothing to make OS X run any better. OK, it does look slim from the side now.
MacBook Pro. The MacBook Pro (non-Retina) is the last in the line of Apple laptops that can carry some serious storage inside. The Retina has a current max of 768GB and the Air 512GB — but you pay a significant premium for anything over the base 256GB or 128GB configs offered by Apple. The cost of this upgrade is even harder to justify versus a move to a 1.5TB internal HDD. I really hope Apple doesn’t kill off these MacBook Pro non-Retina models, and I especially hope they also give them a refresh too vs. just letting the existing design linger on. In an even better case – we’ll see a 17” model return… but I’m not holding my breath on that one. I do hope the current optical/HDD drive bay arrangement is carried forward – or maybe that Apple ditches the optical bay in favor of stock PCIe flash (SSD) drive storage and a 9.5mm HDD for additional capacity that the user can still add to.
SSD or HDD? Increasingly, Apple is adding SSD as an option for new machines. I am a huge fan of SSD/flash; it’s the secret sauce that lets these systems really show off their true capabilities. For me, an HDD for main boot just doesn’t make sense any more. Not just for new Macs, either: put an SSD in a machine from seven years ago and you’ll see it keeps up amazingly well. A point was reached years ago at which the performance of our Macs was actually more impacted/limited by the I/O capabilities of the boot drive and less so by the processor. While faster processors are definitely beneficial, a fast SSD with an older/slower processor often provides an overall benefit that exceeds that provided by even the latest systems still chained to a hard drive. There are processor-intensive tasks where a fast SSD offers only marginal improvement, but a significant part of most workloads is drive-bound. SSDs will get bigger but, for what they cost, it’s not practical to carry along 1.5TB of SSD — even when it is an option from the Apple factory. If Apple’s next generation of Macs ditches all internal, platter-based storage —or largely so— it’s going to be a serious burden for people that need to haul around a lot of data.
Final thought: We already offer up to 2TB of SSD for today’s Apple MacBook Pro. My tip: use the SSD for boot/OS/apps and swap space; the HDD is best and more than fast enough for static data. We can only hope that this will be maintained as a possible option in the new Macs we expect to see next week.