The October 30th Apple event resulted in significant product updates for neglected platforms. The MacBook Air and Mac Mini have been dramatically renewed and are first-class citizens of the ecosystem once again. We have been using the new entry-level MacBook Air as our daily driver for portable compute and have been astonished by the overall experience. The third generation keyboard alleviates concerns over the potential for an untimely keyboard failure. While a 7W “Core i5” may sound somewhat under-powered in the Windows ecosystem, macOS coaxes rather respectable performance while driving a vastly improved (when compared to the prior MacBook Air) 2560×1600 display using integrated Intel graphics. Apple’s demonstrated commitment to USB-C (and Thunderbolt for macOS platforms) provides an acceptable path toward future expansion and upgrades. We’ll be taking delivery of a BTO Core i7 Mac Mini tomorrow and will be putting it through its paces this week.
The sheer horsepower and capabilities of the revised iPad Pros appear to be held back by their reliance on iOS. While Apple has done well with enhancing multi-window and multitasking capabilities of iOS for large-screen platforms, the discussion and demonstrations provided by Leo Laporte and Jason Snell on Episode 182 of The New Screen Savers allows astute observations to be made. In an 11 or 12.5″ form factor, the concept of the dock more closely matches the desktop experience. Concerns that were raised around getting to the desired app as quickly as possible without a more traditional interface device are valid. The speed with which app switching occurred highlights how powerful the Apple-designed solutions have become. When Apple finally pulls the trigger on converting from Intel x86 offerings to their A-series solutions, we’d expect it to be introduced in the following waves:
Wave 1 – The MacBook, MacBook Air, and iPad Pro conundrum becomes a thing of a past. A singular category device replaces all three of the aforementioned products. The most significant problems with supporting touch and traditional inputs simultaneously may be something that results in an innovative solution. Like the new MacBook Air and iPad Pro, Wave 1 will consist of portable devices that offer fewer customized configurations. You’ll get the current-generation A-series processor with all of its enhancements, multiple flash storage configurations, and the potential for cellular connectivity. The default Apple apps will just work, but some products that are bound to an x86 architecture will require time to be ported, re-written, or replaced by something superior.
Wave 2 – The Wave 1 approach extends to the Mac Mini. Additional maturity in the conversion/translation space will exist. The “and one more thing” would involve a new Apple display which contains “storage” for the new Mac Mini in its base. If all expansion can be suitably addressed externally via Thunderbolt or USB-C, the new display could be made paper-thin since cooling for internals is no longer required on the rear of the iMac. While the iMac may have its sales cannibalized by the tandem of Mac Mini and custom monitor, the impact to Apple’s margins may not be significant. A fully loaded 2018 Mac Mini is $4,199. A fully loaded 2017 iMac is $5,299. Neither price includes input peripherals. Paired with a matching monitor that conceals the Mac Mini in the base, the potential for less waste in the long run while enabling consumer to cosmetically match all elements may be realized.
Wave 3 – This is when the Mac Pro comes into the fold. Virtualization and software would need to be ready for this type of transition. The largest issue at hand stems from the fake gesture from the fine folks at Intel. In 2017, the licensing fees for Thunderbolt 3 were supposed to disappear in an effort to drive adoption of this standard. Fast forward to today and we’re in a situation where Thunderbolt 3 on a PC is the functional equivalent of finding Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster. The liars over at Gigabyte sold a Threadripper motherboard with the hopes and dreams of a future upgrade for Thunderbolt 3 support. Excluding Intel’s newest NUCs that contain integrated AMD graphics with high bandwidth memory, the majority of the cookie cutter systems on store shelves and the myriad of motherboards available for system builders contain no trace of increased adoption of Thunderbolt. Without the PC moving in lockstep with this interface, it will continue to remain primarily within the domain of the Mac. How Apple will continue to leverage Thunderbolt on a non-x86 platform may be a valid concern which will require significant engineering efforts and a sizable dose of courage.