The Mac’s Mid-Life Crisis

I’m writing this from the new MacBook Pro with the Retina display. It’s a thing of true beauty. I’m watching myself type these letters and I can’t believe they’re this crisp. It’s like I’m professionally printing these words in realtime.

Anyway, this isn’t a review of the new MacBook Pro. I’m in the middle of playing around with it and I’ll write my full thoughts sometime later this week. Instead, I simply wanted to think out loud for a bit about the future of the Mac, and my future with it.

For the past couple of years, I’ve been a full-on MacBook Air guy. I have a three-year old iMac that sits on my desk and is my media hub, but the vast majority of my traditonal computing is done on a 13-inch Air (and I say “traditional”, of course, because I actually use my iPhone and increasingly my iPad more than any of my Macs — but that’s another topic). In many ways, I view it as the pinnacle of personal computing. It’s thin, light, powerful enough, and the battery seems to last forever. This is the computer I dreamed about just 5 years ago. It’s a reality. And I love it.

That made today interesting for me. During the WWDC keynote this morning, Apple showed off the aforementioned MacBook Pro with the Retina display. It’s not just the screen. It’s the power. The battery life. The new technology inside (USB 3, faster flash drive, faster RAM). I’m now very, very tempted to buy one to use as my everyday machine (the one I’m typing on is a loaner).

I’m at a crossroads: do I stick with the Air or go back to a Pro (which I used as my primary machine before the Air)? And it actually seems like Apple’s entire Mac division (which has been driven by the laptops for some time now) is at a bit of a crossroads too.

For example, why do the non-Retina MacBook Pro models still exist? There are technically four non-Retina models: two 13-inch versions and two 15-inch versions. Apple updated each of them today while at the same time quietly killing off the 17-inch version. But why?

John Gruber argues that it’s about the price. The entry-level MacBook Pro is $1,000 cheaper than the entry-level Retina MacBook Pro. But one is 13-inches and one is 15-inches. A more fair comparison is the 15-inch entry-level Pro versus the entry-level Retina Pro. Here the price difference is only $400.

That’s still a lot of money, but with it, you get the incredible screen upgrade, a substantially slimmer and lighter machine, a much faster (though smaller capacity) hard drive, twice the amount of RAM, and twice the amount of video RAM. It’s a good deal.

Sure, you lose an optical drive, but that’s meaningless — they’re all but dead at this point. In my mind, the 15-inch Retina MBP versus the 15-inch non-Retina MBP is a no-brainer.

Likewise, on the other end of the spectrum, the 13-inch MacBook Pro models versus the 13-inch MacBook Air models also seem like a no-brainer in favor of the Air. The two models of each are perfectly aligned in price. With the Pros, you get faster chips. But with the Airs, you get significantly thinner and lighter machines with much faster flash hard drives. And the screen is actually higher resolution on the Air.

Again, it’s a no-brainer for most consumers. Go with the Air in that situation.

So why did Apple make the moves it made today? My best guess is that they’re in an awkward evolution mode. Obviously, the Retina displays are going to spread across the entire line. But they had to start somewhere. And the 15-inch MacBook Pro was the obvious choice.

I actually laid out why last November:

The current Air models are more than fast enough for most consumers. And I’m not sure why anyone would buy a 13-inch Pro unless they really want that optical drive.

Maybe it’s time to separate the Pro line by doing something like a super high resolution screen and maybe insane battery life (10+ hours).

Or maybe the 15-inch thin MacBook is meant to be a hybrid of a Pro and an Air. Maybe it has more ports, better battery life, and a higher price — but loses the optical drive. It’s dead anyway.

I was wrong about the battery life, but the rest was essentially correct. This Retina screen is certainly a way to distinguish the Pro line.

But again, this makes the move to also update the non-Retina Pros all the more confusing. I would have guessed that we’d see a 15-inch Retina, the end of the 13-inch Pro, and a mild upgrade to the 17-inch Pro (until it was ready to get a Retina display down the line). Such actions would cede the (literally but not in terms of sales) smaller part of the market to the Air. A more natural evolution, no?

I also imagined Apple dropping the “Air” appendage and resurrecting the “MacBook” brand once again in the name of simplicity. But that clearly isn’t happening either. At least not yet.

So the Mac line, like myself, is in this awkward in-between stage. I love my Air, but I want this new Pro. Meanwhile, I need to replace my iMac, and based on the rumors, I thought I was going to be able to do that today. But, well, nope.

Maybe I ditch my iMac in favor of this new MacBook Pro. I like the idea, but I will miss the larger monitor. I could buy a Cinema Display but — incredibly — it’s actually lower resolution than this new Pro screen. What would be the point of that? (And you know that upgrade is coming down the line as well.)

It sounds like the iMac may not get an upgrade until next year now. And the Mac Pro? If there’s a Limbo in the tech world, it’s in it.

I get asked all the time by people what MacBook I would recommend to buy. It used to be an easy answer, but it got a lot more complicated today. (Aside from everything I said above, do you dare buy a new Air when a Retina one must be in the works?) That’s not necessarily a bad thing, we just happen to be at the beginning of a transition of the Mac into its next phase. In some ways, this is a mid-life crisis.


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