Apple’s Ideal Mac Lineup
Apple’s product lines used to be pretty straight forward. Each category only had a few of each type of product because Apple was really good at making products that fit the needs of a lot of people. That’s changed a little bit.
I think that product line differentiation is one Apple’s major changes post Steve Jobs. Over all I think this strategy is a net positive. More and more of our lives are dictated by technology, and people need more specific devices that fit their specific needs. But this strategy only works if each part of the product line is given the attention it needs. This is evident in the fact that half of the Mac line hasn’t received a major update in several years. The Mac Pro hasn’t been updated since 2013. They introduced a new design and then never touched it in 4 years.
The Hackintosh community has had a real upswing in the past several years, due largely to parts of the market that Apple is no longer serving. These include Pros who haven’t seen a new platform update in several years, people who want a cheaper Mac with capable specs, and those who simply like to tinker and built their own machines. While the third category is one that Apple has never really filled, the first two are ones that Apple filled very well in the past.
This new Mac lineup would have three different categories: Laptop, All-in-One, and Desktop. Within each category there would be a Pro and a general consumer version.
Apple’s use of the “Pro” moniker has always struck me as inconsistent. One one hand, you have machines like the iMac Pro and Mac Pro with Xeon CPUs and ECC memory. These machines can easily be considered pro because they contain dedicated and differentiated pro components. The MacBook Pro, Apples most popular line, doesn’t seem pro in a lot of ways. It just seems like a more powerful MacBook. But it seems like most people think they need that power. The price point shows this as well. Instead of lowering the cost of the MacBook Pro to make it more accessible for more people, they need to make the MacBook more capable.
The Macbook Line
Currently, Apple has the MacBook, the MacBook Pro, and the MacBook Air. While the Air is one of the most popular Macs, it is sorely out of date and the MacBook fills many capabilities better, except for price. But I now think that the MacBook could hit a price point where the MacBook Air wouldn’t be necessary. This would also mean that every Mac is finally retina.
The current MacBook is a fantastic machine and could cover basically everyone’s day to day computing needs. There’s a problem today where the default seems to be that people buy a MacBook Pro when they aren’t anywhere close to being a pro (they just want to run chrome). The MacBook should be enough to cover them.
But it’s biggest problem is that its just not powerful enough for 85% of people.
And it so close
I think Apple has three ways to improve the MacBook to where it needs to be:
- Wait for Intel to make chips that are powerful enough
- Increase the thickness to be the same thickness of the MacBook Air
- Switch over to ARM
Out of all these options, I think 1 is more likely in the near term and 2 is least likely. I’m confident that we’ll eventually get 3, and I’d also bet the the MacBook will be the device to lead the ARM transition. It would be pretty easy to build a MacBook as powerful as the current model with current ARM chips, while it might be harder to make a Mac Pro.
I think the MacBook’s near future has upgraded Intel chips, the addition of Thunderbolt 3, and maybe a Touch Bar. Adding a second port would also increase the machine’s audience. All of Apple’s current laptops are having serious keyboard issues, so I’m sure this will have to be addressed as well.
The MacBook Pro has a huge identity crisis. Many people think they need a Pro device because they just assume that they want that much power. This has led to the MacBook Pro selling better than any other Mac. So when Apple designs new ones, they have had to make a model that appeals to general consumers instead of actual pros. Actual pros get a device that feels like extra performance was shoved into a design that wasn’t meant to handle it. At the same time, Apple markets the new Pros as more powerful than ever to get general consumers to upgrade.
With the MacBook upgraded to where it needs to be for most consumers, Apple can once again design the MacBook Pro with real pros in mind. The largest problem with Apples current MacBook Pros for pros is their reliability. The keyboard has a track record of being unreliable and breaking easily under very normal use cases. The recent redesign was performed so that the machine could be made even thinner. While thinner is definitely a desirable end goal, the costs are much more impactful for pros than regular consumers. Pros need heavy performance, large amounts of I/O, and long battery life. These are direct tradeoffs when trying to make devices as thin as possible.
Apple should redesign the MacBook Pro to be thicker. While some might see this as a move backwards, they can overshadow this narrative with how much power and capability the machine will have. And by thicker I don’t mean as thick as some gaming laptops. Rather it would only have to be as thick as the last generation of Retina MacBook Pros, or maybe a little thicker. This size increase would add thermal, battery, and I/O capacity that the current machines lack. The 13” could become a quad core machine and the 15” could become a hexacore. Intel Coffee Lake CPUs with Radeon VEGA graphics would be a perfect fit for the 13”, while the 15” would really benefit from dedicated VEGA graphics.
If Apple really wanted to please Pros as much as possible, then they’d add Nvidia GPUs as an option to their machines again. Whatever beef they have with Nvidia, it is clear that they are providing the leading GPUs on the market right now. Sure Apple has done a lot of work to extract as much compute and graphics power from AMD chips as possible, but just imagine if they put that same effort into Nvidia.
The iMac Line
The iMac has become Apple’s most popular desktop. When people think of an Apple desktop, they think iMac. They are bought by people ranging from novice computer users to pros, and have configurations to match all these users. With the recent addition of the iMac Pro, they are filling the pro market even better, especially while people wait for the new Mac Pro. I would argue that the iMac lineup has the least wrong with it at the moment. The current machines strike a good balance of cost, performance, and features without making any real compromises.
The iMac is the desktop for everyone. It comes in two different screen sizes and starts as low as $1100, which gets you a pretty solid computer (besides the archaic 5400RPM hard drive that comes with it). The only changes that I would want to see to the iMac this year would be
- No more hard drives or fusion drives, only SSDs
- Upgrade to 6-Core Coffee Lake CPUs
- VEGA GPUs from AMD
- FaceID on the Mac
- A redesigned casing with less bezel
- User installable VESA mount
The iMac (and the iMac Pro) have had the same form factor since 2012, and it has held up remarkably well for 6 years. I believe the only thing that makes it feel out of place in 2018 are the front bezels. While so many devices are loosing their bezels, the iMac still has some of the largest on the market. There is no reason why they can’t make them much smaller.
The iMac Pro is a new product category for Apple, and fills a void while the Mac Pro hasn’t been updated. Apple has also pointed out that many pro users love the iMac form factor since certain pros value an all in one form factor over upgradeability (plus the iMac has the best display on the market). Since the iMac Pro is so new, there are no real updates needed for it, besides the reduced bezels I mentioned for the iMac.
The Mac Line
The Mac line is Apples traditional desktop line. The machines don’t come with a display, and normally don’t come with a keyboard or mouse. They have either relied on people having existing peripherals, or are marketed at people who already have strong opinions about what peripherals they want.
The Mac mini has filled in a large part of this category at Apple. It’s their lowest cost Mac, and is marketed as a plug-and-play solution for those who want to switch from another OS. However, due to its form factor it’s also filled a variety of other roles in the market. The Mac Pro has traditionally been Apple’s most performant Mac. It’s designed to be what pros need. However both of these lines haven’t been updated in years, and therefore are the place where Apple could innovate the most, and more importantly, show critics that they still care about more traditional computing form factors.
The Mac Mini essentially serves three roles: a home media center machine, a server, and a cheap Mac for people to get into the ecosystem. The first role has been covered by the Apple TV. Most of the people who are still buying Mac minis for servers after 4 years are buying them because they have to. And most people coming into the Apple ecosystem are now buying either MacBooks or iPads. That means that the previous roles for the smallest desktop app have changed.
I think there is a large part of the market that currently owns an iMac that would rather have a traditional desktop. But they’ve been forced to buy an iMac since thats the more powerful and modern desktop Mac there is. If there was a moderately spec’d small Mac desktop, many people would buy it over an iMac.
This Mac would need to scale from a cheap, low end machine, to a relatively powerful little desktop. The current iMac does this well, and a new “Mac” desktop could basically take an iMac guts and out it in a little aluminum box,
The Mac Pro has been the poster child for critics who say that Apple has abandoned the pro-computing market. However much of this criticism has been hushed with the recent release of the iMac Pro and the imminent modular Mac Pro. These two lines, plus the investments Apple is making in macOS High Sierra show that they are really taking the Pro market seriously.
The Mac Pro should be Apple’s poster child for the Pro market. It should be the most powerful Mac, which will be hard to do with the 18-core option in the Mac Pro. Traditionally, the Mac Pro has had an option for dual processors in a more traditional form factor. I think that many Pros would appreciate a more traditional form factor with upgradable parts and expansion slots. If Apple re-used the same form factor as the previous generation Mac Pro, they could equip it with:
- Dual 18 core xeon processors
- 256GB of ECC DDR4 memory
- Four 12TB Hard Drives
- Any number of SSDs
- Dual Vega 64 GPUs
These specs would put into a class of supercomputer that the Mac has never been in, and would really benefit people in certain workflows, such as scientists and engineers. For most this configuration would be overkill, but the whole point of the Mac Pro is to enable crazy performance. Plus users would be able to upgrade much easier over time.
I think that Apple has been trying way too hard with certain parts of the Mac lineup in certain years. For a lot of Apple’s products, it makes sense for them to ignore what features people are telling them they want and instead develop features that they think will be the best for consumers. But when it comes to the Mac, many of these features are ones that people aren’t asking for while ignoring features that people need to get work done. Plus, these features often mean that Apple skips basic updates that people really want. The Mac would be a much stronger platform if Apple can give it the constant attention it once had and deserves.