Thoughts on a Big MacBook Air

Yesterday Chance Miller published an opinion piece at 9to5 Mac on the need for a 16-inch MacBook Air. Stephen Hackett has been talking about the same idea on the Mac Power Users for months now. The idea would be that Apple has two laptop models (consumer (Air) and pro) along with two sizes for each model (small and big).

We’ve got two sizes on the MacBook Pro. Why not have that on the MacBook Air as well? Stephen suggested 13 and 15 inches. Chance is arguing for 16 inches. I would probably tend toward 12 and 15 inches. Regardless, having a larger screen consumer-grade MacBook would be an excellent idea. Because of the significant differences in pricing between the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro, it’s unlikely a larger MacBook Air would cannibalize sales for the 16″ inch MacBook Pro. If anything, I think it would cause more people to upgrade from the smaller MacBook Air than downgrade from the big MacBook Pro.

I also just like the symmetry of it all. You go into an Apple store and answer two questions:

  1. Consumer or Pro?
  2. Small or large?

Now that Apple has sorted out the Mac and is making excellent laptops, this would be the next logical step in my mind.

Rumored New MacBook Air

Mark Gurman is back, this time with a rumored new MacBook Air design in the works for later this year or next year. The goal is thinner and lighter with a smaller bezel. The MacBook Air is already pretty thin and light, but it really isn’t that much lighter than the 13” MacBook Pro. (2.8 vs. 3.1 pounds).

Either way, it appears the Macintosh Renaissance is in full swing. If you are thinking about getting a new Mac, but in no particular hurry, I’d recommend waiting a year. I expect the entire line of options will be different a year from now.

The Imminent M1

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It took me a few hours to figure out what new MacBook I actually wanted and my initial ship date wasn’t until next week. Now it’s jumped up tomorrow and I’m tickled. It’s been a long time since I was so eager to get my hands on some new Apple hardware. I expect if units are shipping to folks tomorrow, we may also get the review drop, which should give us a lot more data about the differences between the various M1 Macs and further details. This week should be fun.

M1 MacBook Air vs. MacBook Pro

Yesterday I purchased a new M1 MacBook. I want to have something running Apple Silicon to experiment with and cover here and on the podcasts. The question was, which one?

Both the new MacBook Air and MacBook Pro feature the same M1 chip. But are they? Apple said nothing in the keynote to differentiate the chips themselves. There was no explanation of clock speeds or chip yields. Does the MacBook Pro only get the very best of the crop of new M1 chips so they can run them faster than those that make it in the MacBook Air? We don’t know. The only thing covered in the keynote was the inclusion of a fan in the MacBook Pro vs. the MacBook Air’s fanless design. With an active cooling system, I’m sure Apple will feel more comfortable pushing the M1 in the MacBook Pro harder. I expect that once we do get benchmarks, they’ll show that the MacBook Pro can do longer operations faster, like encoding video.

I wish Apple had done a better job of differentiating the two computers, but I suspect that when the benchmarks arrive, we’ll find that there isn’t that much difference between them. It is, after all, the same chip driving both machines.

Apple explained it would take two years to complete the transition to Apple Silicon Macs and what we got yesterday was only the first step. Even though it looks like the M1 will be a beast compared to other chips on the market, it will also be the lowest power M-series chip ever released. I can’t help but think that sometime next year, we’ll get a different Apple Silicon chip that will be even more powerful than the M1 for use in the 16 and 14(?) inch MacBooks Pro. Put simply, Apple is just getting started. I expect if you are looking for a pro workflow machine, the Apple Silicon Mac you are really going to want isn’t out yet.

So getting back to my decision as to which MacBook to buy, I was considering the pluses and minuses when my daughter came into the room to show me a video she made for a class using Final Cut on her very-much-not-top-of-the-line Intel MacBook Air. It was five minutes long and moved boxes of video contributed from seven different UCLA drama school students. There were visual and audio effects, and the non-M1 MacBook Air was doing it all without breaking a sweat. That was the moment where I realized all I need is a MacBook Air.

I have such fond memories of the first wedge-shaped MacBook Air from ten years ago. I used one for three years before giving it to my daughter, who used it for an additional five years. I do all of my production heavy lifting on an iMac Pro. The idea of a thin, light, fanless laptop that is wicked fast and can run iPad and iPhone apps sounds perfect. So I ordered a MacBook Air. (I did upgrade the RAM and storage. I am MacSparky after all.) I’ll have it in a week or two and report back once I receive it.

One additional point is Apple’s buyback program. I’m selling my existing laptop back to Apple as part of the purchase. I made some price comparisons with other reputable vendors, and Apple had the best price. I know I could make more selling the machine through eBay, but every time I try that, the buyer turns out to be a bozo. Selling it back to Apple is painless.

The Updated MacBook Air

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In addition to new iPads, yesterday Apple released an update to the MacBook Air. A few thoughts:

  • SCISSOR SWITCH KEYBOARD! I’m so pleased the butterfly keyboard is now down to just the small MacBook Pro. Hopefully, we get that one updated real soon.

  • 256 GB Minimum Storage. This solves another pain point with the previous iteration. 128GB was ridiculous.

  • $999 for a respectable base model. This same spec a few days ago (with a slower processor and far inferior keyboard) was $300 more.

The MacBook Air is once again a computer we can recommend to our friends and family without reservation. I can’t help but reflect on how the second iteration of the original MacBook Air was the one that got nearly everything right. With the Retina MacBook Air, again we are getting something much better with the second time again.

10 Years of MacBook Air

Stephen Hackett made a great little video celebrating ten years of the computer that Steve Jobs pulled out of an envelope. I was in the building that day at Macworld, but I couldn’t get into the Keynote. In these days of thin MacBooks and iPads, it’s easy to lose track of just how revolutionary the MacBook Air was. For early adopters, it was rough going with a very slow spinning disk (unless you paid a mint for the SSD) and a slow processor but even then it was clear Apple was rowing in the right direction. The original MacBook Air even had a hinged door for the USB port, making it feel more like a tiny spaceship than a computer.

The New MacBook

It has been a week since Apple announced the new MacBook and the reality distortion field has dissipated enough for me to write about it.

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I’m hardly the first person to make this observation but the introduction of this new MacBook feels a lot like the original MacBook Air. A lot of the same words apply: new, constrained, underpowered, future-thinking.

A lot of ink has been spilled over the original Macintosh quadrant Steve Jobs explained when he came back to Apple. At the time, computer manufacturers (including Apple) had so many different products that consumers faced decision paralysis when they went to buy a new computer. Steve wanted to simplify. Specifically he wanted to have two types of computers, desktop and laptop, with two varieties of computer in each type, consumer and pro.

For the longest time Apple stuck with this quadrant system. That’s how we got the MacBook and the MacBook Pro. As the technology evolved and Apple got even better at making things, they started to explore how to make an ultralight Mac laptop. I can imagine the engineers lusting about the idea of building a laptop with portability as the primary design priority. That is what led to the first MacBook Air.

This wasn’t an attempt to replace the consumer MacBook. Apple explained this laptop was all about portability. The new MacBook Air was something altogether different. I was at Macworld Expo when they announced the original MacBook Air and we all went nuts. Within minutes of Steve Jobs pulling it out of an envelope, they had demo units on the floor in the Apple booth and none of us could believe how light it was

I think one of the important takeaways is that the introduction of the MacBook Air added a third box to the above matrix. No longer were there just consumer and pro laptops. Apple added ultralight to the mix.

I think it was much more obvious to us back then that an ultralight Mac came with sacrifices. One of the big deals at the time was the optical drive, which almost sounds funny in 2015. But looking back, that original MacBook Air was also RAM constrained and saddled with the slowest hard drive that had shipped in a Mac for years. 

There was much wringing of hands over why the new MacBook Air didn’t make sense. Nevertheless, the third category was introduced and a lot of people did buy the new MacBook Air. Within a few years, the MacBook Air got a substantial redesign and became the Apple consumer laptop and the “MacBook” got taken to a farm in the country. Or so we thought.

I look at the introduction of last week’s new MacBook as another temporary introduction of a third category Apple laptop. The MacBook Pro ticks the pro laptop box. The MacBook air is the consumer laptop and the new MacBook is the new ultralight. I think a lot of the new MacBook’s critics don’t realize that this third box has been added to the matrix and are judging an ultralight Mac as a consumer grade Mac. I also think the success of the MacBook Air and the march of technology makes it harder for us to accept the sacrifices required for portability in 2015 than it was in 2008 with the original MacBook Air. 

Again, I don’t think the return of the ultralight category is a permanent fixture in Apple’s lineup. The use of the name “MacBook” signals that Apple has every intention in the next few years, with a bit more iteration, to do away with the MacBook Air line and leave this new design MacBook as the consumer Apple laptop once again. 

Not surprisingly, this new computer raises many questions. Are people willing to pay the price (both in higher cost and lower performance) to have an ultralight computer? I suspect the answer, again, will be for a number of people, “yes”. This is literally the same conversation we had when the original MacBook Air shipped. It’s funny how, as geeks, we all get very personal about these decisions. Is this the computer for everybody? No. Is this the computer for some people? Yes. I don’t think this new MacBook is going to supplant the MacBook Air (yet) but it is going to find a home with a lot of users. 

Apple has this reputation for being a secretive company but in a lot of ways their intentions are obvious if you look in the right places. The Apple vision for the future of laptops is the new MacBook. Over the next few years, the technologies and design choices made in the new MacBook are going to make their way across Apple laptop line and, ultimately, across the entire laptop industry. That also happened with the original MacBook Air.

So, getting a bit more practical, who is the right customer for this first iteration of the new MacBook design?

1. The Road Warrior

This is an ideal machine for someone that travels a lot and does not need a lot of power. If you spend your days on the web, email, and other low bandwidth computing tasks, this may very well be the computer for you. I know people are concerned about the new USB-C making it more difficult to share data. I think we’re going to be flooded with USB-C devices in the very near future. If there isn’t already a manufacturer ramping up a thumb drive with both standard and USB-C connectors on it, I’d be shocked. Moreover, even non-geeks are much more savvy about cloud storage now than they were even just a few years ago. (A few weeks ago I had a 74-year-old friend “offer” to teach me about Dropbox.)

2. The Early Adopters

I have several friends that bought the original MacBook Air just because of its revolutionary design. They knew it had flaws and they knew it was going to cause them some grief but they didn’t care. They just loved living in the future. There is nothing wrong with this. Early adopters, I get you.

3. The Retina Snobs

There are two camps over the retina screens. One group can’t tell a difference or explain that the difference is not significant enough to matter. The other group completely lose their mind over retina screens. I’m in that second category. I’ve got a three-year-old MacBook Pro with a retina screen. It was Apple’s first retina screen laptop and I still catch myself gazing lovingly at the text on this screen … after three years. I simply love these displays.

A little over a year ago a friend offered to sell me her used 11 inch MacBook Air. She really just wanted to get rid of it and was offering it to me at a price that was ridiculously cheap. When I told her I wasn’t sure how I’d use it, she let me borrow it to see if I had an 11 inch MacBook Air sized hole in my heart. I loved the portability of it and found all sorts of places I’d take it where I would have left the 15 inch MacBook Pro at home. However, I ended up giving it back to her. I could not get over the non-retina screen.

My lesson from that experience was that I simply cannot use a non-retina screen on my Macs anymore. The retina MacBook Pro ruined me. I’m not alone and I’m certain there will be people looking for something less than the MacBook Pro but absolutely require a retina screen. This new MacBook will suit those people nicely.

4. The Second Computer

All of the MacBook’s power and expansion problems go away if this new MacBook is your second computer. If you’ve got an iMac or MacBook Pro that you keep docked somewhere and just want a Mac you can carry around with you for classes or client meetings, I suspect this new machine will serve nicely.

If you find yourself in one of the above categories, the new MacBook is a perfectly acceptable option. For me, the big take away is that the introduction of this new MacBook once again represents Apple carying three categories of laptops. This makes my own decision process slightly more interesting.

I am interested in the new MacBook. My existing laptop is three years old and it is about the time I usually start pining away for a new one. Moreover, my own laptop requirements have changed significantly. Up until a few months ago, I needed my large MacBook Pro because it was my full-time computer as I commuted back-and-forth to my day job. Now I spend a significant amount of my time working on my retina iMac at home. My laptop is no longer my main computer but instead the thing I take along for client meetings, speaking gigs, and other road trips.

This work does not require the power of a MacBook Pro and with this new retina screen MacBook, I suddenly find myself with an alternative. Nevertheless, I still have questions. The new keyboard could be my deal killer if it doesn’t work for me. Likewise, I’m a bit concerned about heat. I think the idea of a fanless MacBook is a good one but I don’t know how hot it will get. I’m going to need to see the reviews on the devices come out and spend some time in the Apple Store but I have not ruled out the possibility of selling the big laptop and buying a small one.

Regardless of what you think of the new MacBook, I believe it is the future consumer line Apple laptop. It’s only a question of time before Steve’s quadrant is restored.