The new MacBook Pro: Will it solve the Apple laptop shopper’s dilemma? – CNET

One of the most common emails I get from CNET readers is a variation on: “When will product X get updated?” And, more often than not, the product in question is one of Apple’s MacBook laptops.

With their distinctive aluminum bodies and (sometimes) glowing Apple logos, MacBooks are a familiar sight everywhere people compute on the go, from coffee shops to airports to college campuses.

But if it feels like you’ve been seeing the same MacBooks floating around for a while, you’d be correct. The current iterations of most MacBooks have been around for longer than many competing laptop lines, and the lone non-retina-display 13-inch MacBook Pro is still on sale in 2016 with the same basic configuration it’s had since 2012. (Yes, Apple still sells a computer with a DVD drive.)

That’s an outlier, but it’s emblematic of a larger issue: The pace of design innovation on the Mac platform has slowed considerably. The last truly new model was the 12-inch MacBook in 2015. Apple’s other laptops, the MacBook Air and the MacBook Pro, haven’t seen anything other than minor spec bumps — stuff like newer Intel chips, faster Wi-Fi, more memory — in the past several years. In fact, the only “new” Mac in 2016 has been the refreshed version of that 12-inch MacBook — again, just a faster chip dropped into last year’s body.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

If you’re looking for the latest and greatest in the never-ending race toward newer and better system specs, that might be important. New technologies, including the latest Core i-series Intel processors, USB-C ports, OLED displays, PCIe solid-state drives and new graphics chips, are regularly turning up in new laptops from Dell, Lenovo, HP, Samsung and others. For the most part, MacBook owners have been left out of many of these innovations.

MacBook Pro

The latest from the never-ending Apple rumor mill is that a new line of MacBook Pro laptops are coming later in 2016. Besides thinner bodies, these new systems will purportedly replace the familiar function key row with an OLED touch strip, which may also include a fingerprint reader. New AMD graphics options are also part of the current speculation. Most of these rumors have been floating around for months, but Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman, who has an excellent track record for these things, recently indicated that this MacBook Pro update is coming later this year.

For the MacBook Pro, that would be the first real system update since May 2015. But, the actual look and feel of the current Retina-display MacBook Pro 13 and 15-inch models really dates back more than four years. Except for the CPU and a few other component and port tweaks, the Retina-screen MacBook Pro you’d buy today is essentially the same as the one you’d buy in 2012.

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Sarah Tew / CNET

That means if you’re planning on buying a MacBook Pro anytime soon, it might be a good idea to wait for the updated models. Except that, according to Gurman and others, we won’t see these new MacBooks at Apple’s expected early September iPhone 7 event. Instead, they may debut at a separate showcase in October or even November. (Or, they could simply quietly go on sale in the middle of the night, although Apple usually makes a bigger deal of major laptop design changes.)

For a new MacBook Pro, it seems like waiting it out is a smart idea, although you may be waiting one month or three. But, for the rest of the Apple laptop lineup, the picture isn’t quite as clear.

MacBook Air

For a very long time, I referred to the 13-inch MacBook Air as the single most universally useful laptop you could buy. In some ways that’s still true, and it remains a favorite for students, as the 13-inch model can usually be found for under $900, is practically indestructible, can run smoothly for four or more years and has marathon-worthy battery life that puts most other laptops to shame.

That said, this classic design is stuck in the past in a few ways. Today’s Air still looks very much like the first model introduced in 2008, and current physical design has remained almost entirely untouched since 2010. In computer terms, that’s roughly forever.

On the other hand, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The design of the Air’s body approaches a certain perfection. That’s why manufacturers of Windows PCs have been copying it for years. However, newer competitors such as the Dell XPS 13 and HP Spectre are actually making some headway, going even thinner and lighter and — more importantly — incorporating higher-resolution screens.



Sarah Tew/CNET

That’s because the 13-inch MacBook Air’s 1,440×900 display resolution is its biggest weakness. Even budget Windows laptops now have full-HD 1,920×1,080 screens, and many mainstream models have QHD or even 4K displays (that’s 2,560×1,440 and 3,840×2,160, if you’re not up on screen resolution acronyms). Surrounding that (non-touch) screen is a thick silver bezel, far beyond what one would expect in a premium 13-inch laptop today, especially considering Dell’s nearly bezel-free XPS 13 starts at an even lower price.

And yes, Mac fans can choose either a MacBook Pro or 12-inch MacBook if they want a gorgeous Apple high-res Retina display. But both are pricier, and the Pro is considerably heftier.

MacBook

The simple name of this laptop, “MacBook,” without any Pro or Air modifiers, accurately reflects its strictly enforced minimalism. Even in its second generation, the 12-inch MacBook has a single USB-C port, a single 12-inch display option, and only two configurations — Intel Core m3/256GB or Core m5/512GB (plus a few color options — something that may eventually filter to other Macs).

Despite this, or perhaps because of it, I recently declared that it was my current overall favorite laptop. That’s because its small size, relatively long battery life, and optimized combination of OS X and multi-touch touchpad controls, were perfectly suited for my mobile computing needs — which basically means hanging out in coffee shops and writing a lot. Even its shallow keyboard didn’t deter me, although that required a short adjustment period. (And some folks can never quite make the transition.)

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Sarah Tew/CNET

As I mentioned above, this is the only MacBook with a 2016 refresh so far. So if you’re interested in it, you might as well go and pull the trigger now, or you’ll be waiting six months or more.

Where we stand

Put together, we have an Apple laptop lineup bookended by one very new product, the 12-inch MacBook, and one very old product, the non-retina 13-inch MacBook Pro (possibly one of the last 13-inch laptops in the universe with an optical drive). In the middle, the aging MacBook Air looks increasingly likely as a candidate for the old product retirement home, while the Retina-display MacBook Pro is weeks or months away from a major revision, even as current models hold their own. It’s also worth noting that old or new, MacBooks and Mac desktops will be making the switch to MacOS, which is replacing the old OS X naming convention, when the free Sierra update — with Siri in tow — hits later in 2016.

Aside from the “When will product X get updated?” question, the other very frequent question I get is “Why won’t Apple make exactly the laptop I want?” In most cases, that means a MacBook Air with a Retina display. I’d argue that Apple has already effectively made that product — it’s the 12-inch MacBook, which is intended to become the new default Apple laptop.

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The 12-inch MacBook meets the 13-inch MacBook Air.


Sarah Tew/CNET

Sure, it doesn’t have as many ports, and you might end up with a pocket full of dongles. That can get legitimately annoying (although we all said the same thing when Ethernet ports started disappearing from laptops). But over the past year alone, USB-C has gained great traction, and some of my favorite Windows laptops (such as the HP EliteBook Folio G1) are also going with very limited ports. Check back in another year or two, and having one or two USB-C ports on a laptop, and nothing else, will probably feel like the new normal.

The real reason you probably don’t think the new MacBook is the Retina version of the Air you’ve always wanted is simple — price. The 13-inch Air is $999 in the US (and you can often find it for less), while the MacBook starts at $1,299. That’s a big jump (though, remember, you are getting double the storage), and flies in the face of the current laptop trend of offering more for less (as in this great budget Dell Inspiron 7000).

I think the real frustration is that what you’re really looking for is not a MacBook Air with a Retina display, but rather a MacBook Air with a Retina display that costs the same as the 5-year-old Air you’re replacing. You may not ever find it, but for what it’s worth, I’d line up to buy that, too.

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