Unless you were on another planet or spelunking in a distant and deep cave, you probably paid attention to the Apple Spring Forward event yesterday. Perhaps the biggest non-Watch news to come out of the event was the introduction of the newest MacBook. This MacBook makes the MacBook Air seem chunky by comparison, coming in at a lightweight 2 pounds (.9 kg) and just .5 inches (13.1mm) thick at its thickest point. Most people were awed by the looks of the new MacBook, which comes in gold, space gray or silver. But upon closer examination, the MacBook becomes a bit of an enigma.
The MacBook definitely doesn’t compete with the much more powerful and weighty MacBook Pro. With a 1.1 GHz Intel Core M system on a chip (configurable up to 1.3 GHz), a standard and non-upgradeable 8GB of RAM, and either 256 GB or 512 GB of flash storage, the MacBook doesn’t exactly appear to be a speed demon (although we’ll have to see what benchmarks show us for real life conditions). It has exactly one port – a single USB-C connector – and a headphone jack. There’s no more MagSafe adapter, no Thunderbolt or Thunderbolt 2 connector, and not even an SD card reader.
Those who need more storage, RAM and speed are going to continue to go with the MacBook Pro. Anyone who needs multiple ports for connections to external monitors, Thunderbolt drives, or to grab photos off of SD cards will pretty much need to consider the MacBook Pro or MacBook Air. But wait, if the new MacBook is so light, won’t it eliminate the big selling point of the MacBook Air?
Probably not. Sure, the new device has the fancy Retina display, although that’s even somewhat controversial. Rather than providing the standard big-screen HD aspect ratio of 16:9, the MacBook has an oddball 16:10 aspect ratio. Watching a 16:9 movie or video on this display will leave a black gap at the top or bottom. That odd aspect ratio is shared with the 13-inch MacBook Air and the Retina MacBook Pros; at least the 11-inch MacBook Air uses a standard widescreen HD aspect ratio.
At an entry price of $1,299, the MacBook provides that relatively slow processor, a Retina display with an odd aspect ratio, no upgradeability path, and a single non-standard (at least at this point in time) port. For the same $1,299, you can purchase a 13-inch MacBook Pro with a much faster (2.7 GHz) Intel Core i5 system on a chip, a slightly larger Retina display with the same weird aspect ratio, a possibility of buying an upgrade to 16 GB of RAM, and slightly less (128 GB vs. 256 GB) flash storage. That same MacBook Pro comes with two Thunderbolt 2 ports, two standard USB 3.0 ports, an SDXC card slot, and an HDMI video output port.
So who is the new MacBook targeting? It’s certainly not power laptop users who would prefer the speed and expandability of the MacBook Pro. Likewise, the MacBook doesn’t have that much of a weight advantage over the MacBook Air, just a scant .38 pounds (172 grams) less.
I’m conjecturing that Apple is targeting people who have tried – unsuccessfully – to use a Retina iPad and external keyboard as a laptop replacement, because that’s what the new MacBook most resembles in terms of speed and ports. Now there are certainly some people who are able to use an iPad as their sole computer; blogger Federico Viticci at MacStories.net is famous for using an iPad Air for everything. I’ve tried, but found that in many cases I absolutely cannot live without a Mac OS X device for things like screencasting, video or audio editing, handling huge photo libraries, and so on. Why? I need the speed of a very fast processor and the accuracy of a touchpad.
If that is the target market, that’s not that big a target. Now Apple isn’t going to build a new laptop just for a small group of people, and my guess is that their research has shown that there are many people who need the light weight and thin profile of an extremely portable machine, don’t do any video or audio editing, don’t have large photo libraries, and just do email, word processing, social media work, and perhaps the occasional spreadsheet or presentation — all stored in the cloud. For those people, one port – used for charging – is enough. Wireless connectivity through Wi-Fi or personal hotspot does the trick for everything else, and the Retina display and fairly good battery life makes the new MacBook perfect for that market.
Will Apple get rid of the MacBook Air? Probably not, at least right now. At $899 for the 11-inch base model, it makes a great computer for students. If Apple is able to get the unit cost of manufacturing for this new MacBook down to the point that they can sell it for as little as $999 or so, I would begin to think that the MacBook Air would eventually disappear.
This is all my pure conjecture, but I’d love to hear what the readers here at the Rocket Yard think. Will the MacBook Air survive in the future? Can you survive with only a single port on your laptop? Leave those comments below.
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