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What Apple’s MacBook Lineup Should Look Like

Complaints about the new MacBook Pro models abound, centering on the 16 GB RAM limit, the keyboard, the need for numerous adapters for its Thunderbolt 3 ports, and the lack of a MagSafe charging connector. (Many people have concerns about the Touch Bar too, but those are largely hypothetical; we won’t know whether it was a good addition until developers add support for it and users can see how well it works for them.) There are good explanations for why Apple made each of these design decisions, but they all come down to optimizing for size, weight, and battery life.

Going beyond 16 GB would have required a power-hungry chipset that would have reduced battery life significantly or called for a much larger and heavier battery. The keyboard feels the way it does — which some people hate — in part to take up less vertical space so the MacBook Pro can be thinner. And while Thunderbolt 3 has great technical specs, some of its appeal to Apple is also its use of thin USB-C ports that occupy less space — probably externally and internally — than a varied collection of ports.

In his closing talk at last week’s MacTech Conference, the inimitable Andy Ihnatko hit the nail on the head when he pointed out that despite the different names, the MacBook, the MacBook Air, and the MacBook Pro are all really just variants on the MacBook Air concept. They’re thin, light, and relatively expensive for what they offer in terms of performance and connectivity. That’s fine, but not everyone wants the smallest and lightest Mac laptop. For some, price is paramount, and for others, performance matters most.

A more compelling line of Mac laptops might look like this:

  • MacBook: The canonical MacBook should be rugged and inexpensive, with low-end performance and connectivity options. Remember the white and black plastic MacBooks? A machine worthy of the MacBook name should channel those design goals and be ideal for a high school student. Size and weight are somewhat important, but price should be the driving factor, ideally starting around $500 for a 13-inch non-Retina model with 4 GB of RAM and 128 GB of flash storage. Give it two USB-A ports, a MagSafe charger, and a Mini DisplayPort jack — there’s no need to raise the cost with USB-C or Thunderbolt. Let’s see Apple innovate on price for once.

  • MacBook Air: The ideal MacBook Air would be much like today’s 12-inch MacBook, with two Thunderbolt 3 ports instead of a single USB-C port because… duh. Size and weight are supreme with this machine, and while performance doesn’t need to be stunning, it should be comparable to or better than the proposed MacBook. The price can go up, and options for 16 GB of RAM and larger SSDs should be available. The target market for such a MacBook Air is the busy executive who travels constantly but doesn’t need much beyond email, Web, and Microsoft Office. Pricing might start at $1200.

  • MacBook Pro: For power users, Apple should optimize the theoretical MacBook Pro for performance and connectivity, worrying about size, weight, and battery life secondarily. A 13-inch model might have similar performance specs to a tricked-out version of the proposed MacBook Air but with an industrial design that offers more ports: MagSafe, Thunderbolt 3, Thunderbolt 2 port, USB-A, HDMI, Ethernet, and an SD card slot. Its price might start around $1500 and go up with additional CPU and storage. For those who need the ultimate power, the 15-inch model could support amounts of RAM above what laptop chipsets can generally handle, along with a plethora of build-to-order options that could push its price from a starting point of maybe $1800 into the stratosphere. Such specs would reduce battery life and increase weight but would enable mobile professionals to rely on a single machine.

The core problem is that Apple no longer seems to understand how Mac users choose their machines. Right now, it’s nearly impossible to figure out what Mac laptop to buy, because the three key differentiators of price, size, and performance are difficult to tease out, with all the models converging on the MacBook Air’s focus on size at the expense of price and performance.

Plus, as Andy Ihnatko also pointed out, Apple has become a design and manufacturing company, not an engineering company. Unsurprisingly, the only Mac for which design and manufacturing matter more than anything else is the canonical MacBook Air, which needs to be magically small and light and is willing to compromise on price and performance.

The prime directive of an engineering company is to provide products that solve users’ problems. It’s all about helping users achieve their goals with the least amount of wasted time and effort. That used to describe Apple to a T.

Nowadays, Apple is ignoring the desires of many Mac users and focusing on making gorgeous objects that are possible purely because of the company’s leadership in advanced manufacturing techniques. That has a place with an iPhone or iPad, but who cares if an iMac is thin? You look at the front, not the edge! We don’t mind if our Macs are carved from single blocks of aluminum and feature chamfered edges, but that design won’t make us more productive. (For more on why Apple is doing this, see “Understanding Apple’s Marginalization of the Mac,” 21 November 2016.)

When it comes to Macs, form should follow function, not force us into uncomfortable compromises.

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