Mac Musings

More Air: Expectations for Future MacBook and MacBook Pro Models

Daniel Knight - 2008.07.08 -

Intel officially makes the Centrino 2/Montevino notebook CPU chipset available on Monday, July 14. It's widely speculated that Apple will take this opportunity to overhaul its notebook line, particularly the MacBook Pro line. The 15" and 17" MacBook Pro share designs with their 15" and 17" PowerBook ancestors, a design that is over five years old.

Frankly, I can't see much room for improvement. Like many of you, I'd love to see a smaller MacBook Pro, perhaps a 12" widescreen model with 1280 x 800 resolution - at the very least, a slimmed down 13.3" model to complement the consumer MacBook. On the top end, Dell, Acer, and others are offering 18" to 20" notebooks, but I don't see any reason for Apple go to there - if you need a 20" screen, haul around an iMac!

This isn't to say that there isn't some room for improvement. The keyboard introduced with the MacBook two years ago has received widespread praise, and it's widely expected to be part of any new MacBook Pro design. And it wouldn't hurt to add one or two more USB ports, reducing the need for a hub. (While Apple is at it, why not make all of the USB ports full power and license Toshiba's technology of supplying power to ports when the computer is sleeping, very useful if you're charging your iPod.)

I can't see Apple ever offering a multimedia card reader, as is common in the Windows world. Most people never use more than one or maybe two of those sockets, and USB card readers are cheap. Much better another USB port than a built-in card reader. Besides, all of those exposed slots look ugly, and Macs are always elegant.

The most generally accepted theory is that the next generation MacBook Pro will include the larger trackpad that debuted with the MacBook Air, and they may adopt a sloped design as well - thicker in the back, thinner toward the front, also copied from the MBA.

I can't see Apple moving away from aluminum for the pro line, and it would be sweet to see them offer black anodized aluminum. After all, if some people are willing to pay a $200 premium for a black MacBook, Apple might be able to sell black MacBook Pros at a premium price as well.

The MacBook

I can't see a whole lot of room for improving the MacBook. Apple could probably reduce its footprint a bit, maybe closer to 12" x 8", by reducing the space around the display and keyboard. The MacBook could also adopt more of a wedge shape, thinner at the front, especially if Apple eliminates the internal optical drive.

The Montevino platform support Intel's GMA X4500 graphics processor, which is claimed to be three times as fast as the GMA 3100 found in the current MacBook. And speaking for graphics processors, maybe the time is right for a video card slot on the MacBook, which would allow users to add a dedicated video card, something that's increasingly common on the Windows side of things.

I would love to see Apple offer a larger MacBook to complement the 13" model, perhaps one using the same 15.4" display found in the MacBook Pro. With prices starting at US$1,999, there's a $900 difference in price between the entry-level 13.3" MacBook and the 15" MacBook Pro. At 15" MacBook would be a bit larger than the MacBook Pro and would probably retail for $1,499 (white) and $1,699 (black).

Something New

Much as we'd love to see a tablet MacBook or a tiny MacBook (something with a 7" to 10" screen), I don't see Apple offering a completely new form factor at present. Maybe next January at the Macworld Expo....

Already Nearly Perfect

The next generation of 'Books may be a bit slimmer and lighter, but for the most part, the MacBook and MacBook Pro designs are nearly perfect. There are only so many configurations for a notebook display, keyboard, and trackpad. There are only so many places where you can put ports and an optical drive. Apple has been honing this design since the first PowerBooks, which introduced the now standard notebook layout of putting the pointing device (then a trackball) in front of the keyboard.

Maybe the Pro line will gain easy access to the hard drive and memory slots, one of the clever ideas introduced with the consumer MacBook. Maybe the slot-loading SuperDrive will move to the side or become an optional accessory. Maybe a slimmer, tapered design will only allow for 9.5mm thick notebook hard drives and no longer have room for the 12.5mm ones - which would be a real shame for a "pro" notebook. Maybe there will be a second internal hard drive bay so you can have Time Machine backups without carrying an external drive.

I don't anticipate Apple jumping into the world of 16:9 ratio notebook displays, and the current 15.4" and 17" sizes are perfect for most users. Couple that with a smaller footprint model (12" or 13"), and those holding on to their 12" PowerBooks might be tempted to go Intel.

Yeah, we'll see the usual faster CPUs, better graphics processors, faster system bus, and hopefully a higher RAM ceiling than the current 4 GB limit. We might see some new hard drive options - higher capacity, more 7200 rpm drives, and maybe even a Solid State Drive option.

More Air

Expect Remote Disc to be standard on all future MacBooks, even if Apple doesn't make optical drives optional. After all, those drives sometimes break.

Maybe we'll see Wireless USB come to Apple's portable line, which takes the "air" idea one step further.

There's a new technology coming from Fulton Innovation (located 5-1/2 miles east of here in Ada, Michigan) that could eliminate power bricks for many electronic devices - and perhaps eventually for all of them. Billed as "intelligent wireless power", the eCoupled technology uses two magnetic coils - one in the device that needs power (iPhone, notebook computer, power tool, even a Foreman grill) and one nearby, perhaps in a desk or countertop. The device that needs power only has to be within inches of the transmitter.

The beauty of the eCoupled system is that it can adapt to different types of devices - the same transmitter could power a Foreman grill for making dinner and also recharge your mobile phone despite the fact that these two devices have significantly different energy requirements. The transmitter and receiver communicate, so the transmitter knows what level of energy the device needs.

This could eventually mean the end of the power brick if the same transmitter can charge your mobile phone, iPod, notebook computer, electric razor, digital camera, etc. It could also mean the end of AC cords for desktop computers, external hard drives, powered speakers, your coffee maker, and who knows what else.

At the start, you'll need to buy a transmitter, and you'll probably want one for travel as well, but eCoupled hopes to eventually see them built into desks (Herman Miller is a licensee) and countertops. High-end hotels will probably be among the early adopters, and we could see them become popular in WiFi hotspots. Imagine the ease of use: your iPhone charges whenever it's on your desk, and you don't have to unplug anything to answer the phone if it rings.

And it's not going to accidentally come unplugged, which happens too easily with MagSafe.

I can see Apple embracing ePowered and helping to establish it, as Apple has done so often in the past with computer technology: SCSI, CD-ROM, USB, FireWire, 802.11b WiFi.

Can you imagine how uncluttered things would be with wireless USB and wireless power? In my office, I have two computers, two printers, a monitor, 3 external hard drives, a couple USB hubs, a cable modem, an 802.11g router, powered speakers, a wireless keyboard/mouse combo, a charger for my Bluetooth headset, a AA battery charger, a clock radio, an air conditioner, a charger for my Palm Zire 31, and a coffee warmer all plugged into AC at the moment. (The mobile phone charger is in my wife's office.) I have two power strips, two small UPSes, and one large UPS to provide the outlets I need and protect my work system from a power failure.

I have 8 external USB ports on my Power Mac: two built-in USB 1.1 ports plus 2-port and 4-port USB 2.0 cards. Cables go from these to printers, hubs, the receiver for the wireless mouse and keyboard, one of the UPSes, an iPod dock, a flash drive, and a USB mouse (for when batteries in the wireless mouse need to be recharged).

Then there are the powered speakers and FireWire hard drives.

Wires everywhere.

On top of that, it's a pain trying to keep all of those power bricks straight. A few actually have the same brand on them as the devices they work with, but most of them have names like Jentech Technology or Hon-Kwang, and a few just say "Made in China". (Hint: Get a silver Sharpie and mark the AC adapter so you know what it works with.)

We're not just talking about reducing cable clutter with eCoupled, but also the headache of myriad AC adapters, each with a different tip and voltage. The day of wireless power can't come soon enough!

Thinking Ahead

Imagine some of the possibilities of wireless power. An external SuperDrive or hard drive could be powered anywhere there's a transmitter, eliminating the current draw required by the MacBook Air's SuperDrive. With readily available charging sources, we could even see external SuperDrives and hard drives that use rechargeable batteries so they don't need to drain your notebook when you're away from power sources.

Imagine taking a trip and packing one device to use in your hotel room: a wireless power transmitter for your mobile phone, your iPod, your MacBook, your electric razor, etc. Imagine carrying a notebook case with a built-in power transmitter - find an AC outlet, and all of your devices have power without draining their batteries.

And imagine being able to print to your printer without connecting any wires - no ethernet, no USB - and print at the same speed as a USB 2.0 cable provides. Or being able to do backup not over 802.11n WiFi with its 74 Mb/sec. throughput ceiling, but with closer to Hi-Speed USB performance.

Unfortunately, although Wireless USB has been a standard since 2005, it has not yet caught on - much the same situation USB 1.1 was in when Apple unveiled the original iMac in 1998. Apple once again has the opportunity to embrace a promising but languishing technology and make it popular. It may even prove to be a superior technology for mice and keyboards, eliminating or at least reducing the lag often noticed with Bluetooth devices.

The other drawback is that at present Wireless USB doesn't seem to be providing the expected throughput. Rated at 480 Mb/sec. at 10' (3 meters), the same as Hi-Speed USB, reports from the field indicate it only provides about one-third of that. Regardless, that still puts throughput ahead of 100Base-T ethernet and 802.11n WiFi (perhaps 50% faster than 802.11n), and it could also be one more way to transfer data between your Mac and Apple TV.

Apple has the market presence to make wireless power and Wireless USB popular standards, and it has the reputation for innovation that leads us to believe Apple is the right company to do it.

I'm looking forward to a future where notebooks won't ever need to be wired to AC adapters or peripherals, where iMacs look more elegant because they have less wires connected to them, where the Mac mini doesn't need a big external power supply, and where I don't need a dock to power my iPod or sync it with my iTunes library.

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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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