Apple came to my home turf this past Tuesday, following up its iPhone-focused September event with iPad and Mac announcements. Some were welcome, some were surprising, some were long overdue. Some thoughts on what was announced follow:
New MacBook Air—Somewhere, something went terrible wrong in Apple’s notebook lineup. The MacBook Air arrived in 2008 as an impossibly thin albeit expensive and underpowered notebook that basically kickstarted the “ultrabook” category that makes up an increasing number of all laptops. Over the years it grew cheaper and faster, ultimately replacing the MacBook as the “consumer” segment of Apple’s consumer/pro laptop dichotomy. If you were a prosumer who needed extra power, you got a MacBook Pro; everyone else got a MacBook Air and liked it.
When the retina MacBook came out, I assumed it would follow a similar trajectory, with this new model eventually replacing the MacBook Air. The retina MacBook (also called the MacBook One, the MacBook Adorable, or confusingly just the MacBook by Apple itself) was impossibly thin, expensive, and underpowered. However, more than three years later, the retina MacBook remains $1299, and its limitations haven’t gone away. More confusingly, Apple kept a MacBook Air mostly unchanged since 2015 as a “zombie” product in its lineup, while introducing a MacBook Pro model that featured MacBook Air internals for a higher price.
I and many were hoping Apple would finally address this mess of a lineup on the low end, and the new MacBook Air partially does. It’s a slimmer version of the MacBook Air of old, with a retina screen and some tech updates. However at $1199 (with the zombie non-retina MacBook Air still hanging on at $999) and the retina MacBook and MacBook Pro “Escape” still existing, buying choices are still a muddle.
My opinion: Apple should just dump the MacBook. It’s more expensive than the new MacBook Air model while simultaneously being more limited (the only points in its favor are more flash storage standard and half a pound of weight.) While the new MacBook Air seems like a solid product, who it’s for is confused with a bunch of un-updated machines littered around it.
New Mac mini—The poor Mac mini has labored unchanged since a rather poorly received 2014 update; now a good four years later, it finally gets a substantial update. Surprisingly, Apple decided not to make it a small puck to take on the Intel NUCs and smaller PCs that have cropped up since the mini started existing, instead orienting it more towards pro functions. That shows in its new higher $799 price, but on the plus side, there’s no “zombie” $499 legacy option still kicking around. The new models have twice the RAM and a much faster SSD replacing the 5400 RPM spinning drive of the outgoing options; while it hurts to have to pay more, I think Apple is better off offering a good entry level model rather than one whose only virtue is it hits a price point.
In addition to powerful quad and hex-core i5 and i7 processor options, the Mac mini also returns to user-replaceable (albeit not easily accessible) SODIMMs, although the flash storage is soldered to the board and controlled by the bespoke T2 chip. The machine also keeps legacy USB-A and headphone jack while adding Thunderbolt 3 ports. Keeping more advanced features while adding back in ones that were stripped out was very much not to be expected. A surprise, but a welcome one.
New iPad Pros—The iPad Pros got the iPhone X treatment, shedding a lot of non-screen real estate and getting thinner while adding Face ID, more powerful processors, a redesigned pencil, and USB-C. The ditching of Lightning for USB-C makes a lot of sense for an iPad pitched as a replacement for a classic PC; ditching the headphone jack on such a machine makes far less sense. That and the camera bump notwithstanding, these look like pretty impressive updates that will make people happy, but that happiness will again come with a substantial price tag.
Odds and Ends—The iMacs were not updated at this event, perhaps surprisingly. They are now, with the release of the new Mac mini, the only machines Apple sells that still have spinning boot drives, so hopefully that will be addressed and we can embrace a much nicer all-flash future, more than eight years after the original MacBook Air showed us what was coming.
Mentioned briefly and taking the “it’s a product in our lineup” spot away from the Mac mini was the iPad mini; I suppose this bodes well that it will eventually be upgraded from its circa 2014 internals. (Another product still sporting an A8 processor from that era: the iPad touch. I wonder if it will be bumped to newer guts again, or just killed entirely.)
Not mentioned whatsoever was the Mac Pro, still slated for 2019. It’s encouraging to see the Mac mini as evidence that Apple understands elements like upgradable RAM are important, less encouraging to see proprietary flash storage connected to proprietary SSD controllers as a harbinger of a more locked down system. I expect at this point we won’t hear about the machine until WWDC in June; there haven’t been any new details on Intel Xeons that would work for the Mac Pro (let alone refreshing the iMac Pro) so it doesn’t seem like we’ll get a quicker turnaround.
A consistent trend of the event was new products at higher prices—the MacBook Air, Mac Mini, iPad, and iPad accessories such as the pencil are all more expensive than the models they replace. In some ways, this is justified; on the other, aside from a few notable exceptions (the $329 iPad introduced at the Apple Education Event earlier this year, for example) Apple has been consistently creeping up prices on all its products. The motivations for this are obvious—now that most product categories have reached saturation, the alternative if you want to keep making money is raising the average selling price—but it doesn’t feel any less of a jerk move. This especially extends to the build-to-order upgrade prices; upping your Mac’s storage from 128GB of flash to 256GB (really the base comfortable storage option if you have any number of apps and documents) costs $200, the same price as four years ago despite the decreasing cost of SSDs. It comes off as unnecessarily predatory. Unfortunately I don’t see this changing any time soon until the market decides it can’t bear it, but it feels like Apple is hastening the Mac’s own demise by making it a niche item for more and more people with the means to actually afford a decent product from them.