Mac Musings

MacTablet Could Run Both Mac OS X and iPhone OS

Dan Knight - 2009.07.30 - Tip Jar

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It seems very likely that Apple will be introducing a new OS X machine sometime between now and the end of January. All indications are that it will be a tablet Mac with a 10" touchscreen.

Beyond that, speculation is rampant. Will it have the same Cortex A8 CPU found in the iPhone (and just announced at 1 GHz)? Will it adopt an Intel XScale CPU? What about the Atom CPU found in today's netbooks? Or might Apple have a new CPU designed in-house by PA Semi?

possible MacTablet design
Possible MacTablet design.

I can't envision an Apple tablet being less powerful than the iPhone and iPod touch. If anything - if Apple hopes to compete with netbooks and small Tablet PCs - it needs to have at least as much processing power as today's better netbooks. That means a 1.8 GHz or so Atom CPU, since the alternatives seem much less powerful.

Underpowered Netbooks

Microsoft goes so far as to set hardware maximums for computers that use the netbook version of Windows. Right now that means an Intel Atom or comparable single-core CPU with a top speed of 1.8 GHz. And it means just 1 GB of RAM, a 160 GB hard drive or 32 GB solid-state drive (SSD), and a 10.2" or smaller display. Anything beyond that, and the manufacturer has to use a more expensive version of Windows.*

And you wondered why most netbooks had such similar specs! Now you know why Linux-based versions of the same netbook often have more RAM or higher capacity SSDs. That's the kind of control Microsoft exerts over its hardware "partners".

No the Apple Way

However, we're talking about Apple. Apple won't make a netbook because of the compromises - including processing power. Apple, who has only made one single-core model since moving to Intel CPUs in 2006, and that model (the 1.5 GHz Mac mini Core Solo) was universally panned as underpowered. I honestly can't conceive of Apple offering a tablet that doesn't have roughly the same power as the entry-level MacBook (2.13 GHz).

My best guess is that the MacTablet will use the same 1.86 GHz CPU found in the MacBook Air, combined with Nvidia GeForce 9400M graphics, just like every portable Mac made today. Only a dual-core CPU is going to provide the power to comfortably run a true multitasking operating system, and I don't think it's going to run anything less than Mac OS X 10.6 "Snow Leopard".

Yes, I think it's going to be a real Mac, not an overgrown iPod touch.

Virtualization at Work

That said, I can't imagine Apple not leveraging the technology found in the iPhone and iPod touch. The MacTablet will have 802.11n WiFi, Bluetooth, and should have a built-in 3G (or even 4G) chip for connecting to existing 3G (or 4G) networks.

The MacTablet should be able to run iPhone OS 3.x. At startup, the user could choose Mac OS X or the iPhone OS. And using virtualization technology, there's no reason it couldn't run the iPhone OS concurrently with Mac OS X, much as virtualizers allow running Linux or Windows on today's Macs (or include an iPhone emulator). The power is there.

Maybe there will even be a "switch and hide" option for users who don't want to see or interact with Mac OS X when using iPhone apps but want to be able to switch operating systems on the fly.

Other Hardware

I'm guessing the MacTablet will have 2 GB of RAM and a 64 MB solid-state drive (SSD) - more storage than any iPhone or iPod touch, but less than the MacBook Air. The whole thing will be fairly rugged with a scratch resistant display. The enclosure may be carved from a block of aluminum, but my guess is that Apple will use the same type of polycarbonate found in MacBooks.

In terms of ports, I would bet on more than the single USB 2.0 port offered by the MacBook Air. Two or maybe three USB 3.0 ports would make it one of the first USB 3.0 devices on the market. FireWire would be nice - especially for migrating programs, files, and user data from your existing Mac - but I wouldn't hold my breath. Migration Assistant should work just fine with WiFi, although older Macs with slower WiFi could make it a long, slow process.

Ethernet? Almost zero chance. Built-in modem? Nuh-uh, although Apple's external USB modem dongle will work. ExpressCard? No. SD Card? Definitely, and hopefully recessed so it won't catch on anything. And there will probably be some sort of dock connector to hold the computer and charge it when you're at your desk - maybe even two, so you could dock it in vertical or horizontal mode. The dock will have USB ports for a keyboard, mouse, and printer at the very least. Ethernet is a possibility for the dock as well.

I don't think it will have a built-in keyboard - not even a pop-out one. I'm pretty sure it will include a virtual onscreen keyboard adapted from the iPhone. Apple may well offer a Bluetooth keyboard/trackpad combo that can be used with the MacTablet. Regardless, some third party will undoubtedly design a keyboard that can dock to the MacTablet.

While using your fingers works okay, there should be a stylus option for more precise control. Remember, it's going to run the Mac OS, which assumes pixel-level cursor control, not just the iPhone version of OS X.

Like all the current unibody MacBooks, it will have an integrated battery offering 6-8 hours of work in the real world. It will very likely have a 10" or so 1280 x 800 display, matching the resolution of the MacBook Air, MacBook, and 13" MacBook Pro. It will be less than 1" thick and weigh less than 4 lb., more likely 3.5 lb.


My guess is that Apple could retail such a unit at $799, with Verizon, AT&T, or Sprint offering a $200 or better subsidy with a two-year 3G/4G data contract. As options for power users, Apple could offer 128 GB and 256 GB SSDs, a 2.13 GHz CPU, and 4 GB of RAM, each providing Apple with additional profits.

If the MacTablet runs both operating systems, Apple will create new markets for its Mac apps and its iPhone apps.

Rather than competing with low-end netbooks, Apple would be creating a new category of computer - a mid-sized tablet designed to run two operating systems. And there's always the option of adding Windows or Linux to the mix with virtualization software.

Just as the iPod turned the MP3 player market from low capacity flash-based devices to one where gigabytes of storage, an intuitive user interface, and great software for interfacing it with your computer became the norm, a MacTablet could change the face of the netbook and Tablet PC markets.

The MacTablet will sell like hot cakes, and maybe someday Apple will introduce a 7" tablet that sits between the MacTablet and the iPod touch. Then those who loved the Newton for its size will finally have a worthy successor - and perhaps the ideal ebook platform as well.

* Microsoft is upping the maximum specs for netbooks running Windows 7 Starter. They can have a 2.0 GHz single-core CPU, 2 GB of RAM, a 250 GB hard drive or 64 GB SSD, and a screen as large as 12.1".

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Dan Knight has been using Macs since 1986, sold Macs for several years, supported them for many more years, and has been publishing Low End Mac since April 1997. If you find Dan's articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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