I wandered into a local Apple store this week to check out the latest goodies. Afraid that my resolve might be even weaker than my bank account, I left my wallet in the car. But I needn’t have worried. We’ve arrived at a point in time for Apple users where the shear number of ongoing transitions and uncertainties in the entire desktop/laptop product line has overwhelmed the possibility to make a wise decision for most ordinary consumers like me.
This state of confusion first surfaced ahead of Apple’s annual developer conference this year when the rumor mill got itself into quite a lather. Apple would use its keynote to introduce new laptops, new desktops, a new iPhone, a revolutionary television operating system — pretty much every product in Apple’s line up except the iPad, which was just revised in March, was possibly about to be reborn. In the end, there were new laptops and a minor desktop upgrade but on the whole, not quite the tsunami Apple storm some wanted to see.
The rumor mill has alway had a pretty mixed track record but it’s interesting how broadly the rumors stretched ahead of the 2012 WWDC. I think it offers an important window, pardon the metaphor, into our current extremely transitional state of computing. And with a few too many transitions in full swing, it’s time for almost all consumers to step back and wait. Each member of the current line up of Macs is fatally compromised in one way or another for us ordinary users.
What’s the big transition? It’s not just one. After a decade of tablet computers going no where, the iPad has created an insanely fast growing new niche that is clearly taking usage time — and sales — away from traditional laptops. Even smart phones are getting so powerful and capable that they are displacing traditional computers to some degree. Both call into question long-established conventional wisdom about the need for portable computers. Displays are shifting to high detail more quickly than apps. The nearly three decade run of the PC’s spinning hard disk is also coming to a close, though the new generation flash memory is still very expensive (try pricing one of the new Macbook Pros with 512 GB of storage). Optical spinning drives, too, seem to have quickly passed into a state of decline with Apple at the lead pushing DVDs into early obsolesce. The standards for moving your data around seem a mess as well — a new, much faster flavor of Wifi called “Gigabit Wifi” or 802.11ac is just around the corner but not available yet while Apple’s once favored wired port, Thunderbolt, seems dead in the water and retread USB 3.0 is suddenly making a comeback.
At the same time, progress on a number of other critically important fronts has stalled, at least as far as users are concerned. Yes, yes, Intel’s new generation of CPUs dubbed the “Ivy Bridge” line is sooo much better than what came before. Well, sort of, kind of. Science fiction author and longtime tech reviewer for Byte magazine Jerry Pournelle used to say it’s not time to upgrade your computer until you’ll get twice the performance. Anything less than 100% improvement would barely be noticed after a few days by ordinary users in the real world. Maximum speeds topped out years ago below 4 GHz and chip designers seem more focused on adding little tricks and treats to squeeze out a little bit more performance or lower battery consumption than dramatically improving all-around speed. Meanwhile, graphics performance is actually slipping backwards as fewer Mac laptops include discrete, high performance video cards instead relying on so-called integrated chips built into CPUs and lacking their own high speed memory. Battery life is remaining steady only because Apple is putting more battery into its newest model at the expense of weight. That’s hardly progress.
So with all that in mind, consider the new and much hyped 15″ MacBook Pro with retina display I just checked out at the Apple store. As I first played around with the Safari browser, I was duly impressed by the super sharp display. But then I opened a common app used by almost everyone, Microsoft Word, and typed a few sentences. The text looked horrible, with jagged edges and visible color alterations around the anti-aliasing. I tried several fonts and ran through all five available resolution settings for the MBP to no avail. Maybe Word required some kind of update but surely Apple’s Pages app would look good. Nope — equally horrible. Here’s a top of the line, super professional machine and text looks like crap.
(UPDATE: A few months after this post was written, Microsoft updated its Office apps for the retina display. Then in December, Adobe updated Photoshop.)
Not to mention the lack of innovation in battery technology means the new unit weighs only a pound less, or about 20%, than the DVD-toting prior version. A heavier pack was needed to avoid shortening battery life (UPDATE: actually, battery life is considerably shorter than the previous Macbook Pro 15″, according to Macworld). For comparison, the 13″ MacBook Air weighs 34% less than its 13″ Pro counterpart (and it also gets less battery life).
What about the rest of the new line? New MacBook Airs and Pros have USB 3 and the latest Intel CPUs but no retina displays and the same old battery life and wifi chips. And who thinks the MBPs with their dual, dead weight spinning drives will remain in the line up for much longer?
New Mac Pros have, well, nothing (technically they have slightly faster CPUs but barely noticeable). Even Apple seems to be a little ashamed and removed the “new” badge that had initially adorned the Mac Pro icon in the Apple online store. New iMacs and Mac minis? There weren’t any, so they have no USB 3, no retina display and not even the “Ivy Bridge” processor upgrade.
All of this confusion and transition has also undone some of the conventional wisdom for buying computers in recent years. Laptops had become capable enough that many Mac consumers were forgoing buying a desktop at all. Apple’s combo docking station/monitors made that a great choice. But now there’s no retina display monitor so docking means giving up the fancy new graphics if you buy the top of the line model.
So what you really should do is wait for the next iteration of Mac updates — MacBook Airs with retina displays and broad third-party retina app support. Better batteries and wifi would help justify upgrading, too. Desktop Macs should be arriving with USB 3.0 and multiple Thunderbolt ports soon, too. Hey, at least our budgets will be happier.
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