Mac Musings

Tomorrow's Macs

Dan Knight - 2010.10.18 - Tip Jar

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Speculation has been rampant for months: Apple is going to replace the MacBook Air - introduced in January 2008 and last updated in June 2009 - with a smaller, lighter, more affordable alternative. This could be the week Apple announces it.

Back to the Mac invitation

Apple's "Back to the Mac" event, scheduled for Wednesday, October 20, will preview Mac OS X 10.7, which is generally believed to be code-named lion (based on the image used in Apple's invitation). What else will Steve Jobs unveil? Time will tell.

The most likely candidate is a new MacBook Air, followed by a new consumer MacBook. These are Apple's only notebooks not based on Intel's current "i" series of CPUs, and the i3 CPU is just waiting to be used at the low end of the MacBook spectrum.

My guess is that Apple is going to introduce an 11.6" MacBook Air (MBA) using the same aluminum unibody construction it pioneered with the first MBA, and that it will be smaller, thinner, and lighter without sacrificing a full-size keyboard. That's all doable with an 11.6" widescreen display.

Looking Ahead

Let's try to look further down the road. What technologies is Apple likely to embrace in the near future? What changes might we see in the product line in the year ahead?

Retina Display Macs

One of my thoughts is that we'll begin to see Retina display technology come to Apple's notebook line. As screen resolution and pixel density have increased, it has become more and more difficult to read what's on the display. What if Apple were to move to a very high density display, on the order of 200 pixels per inch, and have the OS and existing apps us it at half the resolution?

The current 13.3" MacBook, MacBook Pro, and MacBook Air use a 1280 x 800 display with a density of 113 pixels per inch (ppi). The 15.4" and 17" MacBook Pro's standard screens are in the same area (110 and 117 respectively), and the high-density displays boost that to 128 and 132 ppi. (For comparison, current iMacs have 102 and 109 ppi displays).

Going to a high-ppi display would be an industry first. Nothing with a 9" or larger display has a higher density than 150 ppi. Samsung's Galaxy Tab has a 7" 171 ppi display, but in general the larger the screen, the lower the pixel density.

That said, 200 ppi isn't at all uncommon on smaller displays, the it's feasible, although production costs would be high initially and yields could be low. But we're talking about Apple, which has become a driving force in the portable computing industry. Apple single-handedly created display shortages for its competitors due to the popularity of the iPad, for instance.

I don't know how quickly Apple could get to 200 ppi, but that should be its goal in the portable range. At typical working distances, this should provide the same "you can't distinguish the individual pixels" experience at the iPhone 4 and 4th generation iPod touch. On the desktop, I suspect that 150 ppi would do the same thing.

There would be a fundamental disconnect between your working (virtual) resolution - which might be 72 ppi, 96 ppi, or something else - and the actual screen resolution, which might range from 110 ppi to 200-plus at some point in the future. If you're using 12 point text in Word or Pages, it would display using your virtual resolution, so there would be more pixels used to display type, making reading much easier. Graphics, such as file icons and images viewed in iPhoto or Photoshop, would take advantage of the full resolution of the display.

Just as we're now seeing iOS apps written to take advantage of the Retina display, some day we'll see Mac OS apps written to take advantage of Macs that use different working and display resolutions.

Apple's QuickDraw technology has had the ability to do this kind of thing since the late 1980s, and now that it's made its debut on the iPhone, and it's only a matter of time until we see it on Macs.

Who knows, maybe the new MacBook Air will be the first, giving Apple a real leg up on its competitors.

Good-bye to Optical Drives

The PowerBook 100 (1991) was the first Mac without a built-in floppy drive, and the original iMac (1998) was the first desktop Mac without one. No Mac introduced since then has had a built-in floppy drive.

The original MacBook Air (2008) was the first Mac without an optical drive since CD-ROM drives became standard across the board over a decade ago. Eliminating the built-in optical drive is the logical next step for Apple in making its MacBook line slimmer, adding room for even bigger batteries, and reducing production costs by leaving out what has long been a standard feature.

Just as Mac owners now buy an external floppy drive if they ever need to access floppy disks, optical drives will soon become external peripherals for Apple's entire notebook line. Optical drives have by-and-large been displaced by USB flash drives for moving data, and the iTunes Store can replace the DVD (and Blu-ray disc, which Apple has never embraced) as a source for video content.

If you need to rip a CD, watch a DVD, or burn a disc, you can buy a $99 external SuperDrive, something MacBook Air owners are already doing.

Power

It's time for Apple to embrace one of the wireless charging technologies for its notebooks, its iPods, and its iOS devices. No more need to plug the device in to charge it - just lay in on its charging mat. On the Mac side, is should be possible to use wireless power for a wireless mouse and wireless keyboard. It's a technology that is on the brink of taking off.

USB 3.0

Apple is overdue, and as a premium brand, it should have been the first to offer the ten-times-as-fast USB 3.0 in its computers across the board.

The Next MacBook

My best guess is that the MacBook as we know it is on its last legs. The next generation MacBook will still us a unibody polycarbonate design, but it will be based on the new 11.6" MacBook Air. No internal optical drive. Smaller, lighter, and a bit less expensive. And we'll see even more MacBooks on college campuses as the new size puts them in direct competition with netbooks, which will be seen for the underpowered things with scrunchy keyboard and low resolution displays that they really are.

$300 to $400 for a 10" netbook or $800 for a real Mac notebook? No brainer. Only the terminally cheap will continue to buy Windows and Linux netbooks.

Apple will make a killing selling $99 external SuperDrives, since most people remain convinced that they actually need them. They may be right, but in many cases they'll simply gather dust alongside those USB floppy drives we had to have a decade ago.

The MacBook Pro

I suspect Apple will continue to make a 13.3" MacBook Pro, but that it will become more similar to the 15.4" and 17" models in terms of technology. (Until now, the 13" MacBook Pro has shared most of its design with the 13" MacBook, but if that model disappears, Apple will want to leverage the "Pro" technology.)

Built-in optical drives will be history by the end of 2011, battery life will increase by another hour or two, prices will continue to inch downward, and Apple will continue to own the premium notebook market.

The Mac mini

Maybe this week or, more likely, early next year, the Mac mini will be redesigned around Intel's i3 CPU, just as today's iMac already uses it and the MacBook is expected to embrace it. It will probably retain the optical drive for another year or more, as it's widely used as a media center computer.

The iMac

Resolution independence. The optical drive may last another year here, but its days are numbered. Since the iMac has an all-in-one design, we might see an optical drive bay where a SuperDrive could be installed.

The Mac Pro

This is a real cash cow for Apple, and with anywhere from four to 12 cores, it's far beyond what most mere mortals will ever need. Expect Apple to continue using the same design in the years ahead. Optical drives will remain a standard feature, USB 3.0 will become standard, and it will continue to grow ever more powerful.

A Midrange Mac?

As much as many of us would love to see it, I don't think we'll ever see a desktop Mac that's got expansion slots and drive bays that isn't a Mac Pro. I love my G4 Power Macs, which have been upgraded time and again, and I would love to be able to buy an Intel Mac with the same capabilities for far less than $2,500, but Apple doesn't seem at all interested in this market.

My options: Buy a Mac mini and limit myself to one internal hard drive and its built-in graphics but be able to use it with a wide range of displays or buy an iMac, limit myself to one internal hard drive and its built-in graphics and be limited to whatever display was built into it at the factory.

Not the only options I want, but geeks are not a core market for Apple. My next Mac will be Intel-based, and it will more likely be an iMac than a Mac mini, as there's no economical way to use my 22" Apple Cinema Display with its ADC connector on any modern Mac.

But that's down the road. Until the economy recovers, there's no money, but I'll continue to dream of what my next Mac might be and the technologies Apple will embrace in the future.

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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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