Monday, April 18, 2016

Waiting for the 2016 MacBook

I am very interested to what Apple will do with the new MacBook, also known as 12" MacBook or Retina MacBook, as it might tell us something about where their laptop lineup is moving. As of this writing, the new MacBook is expected to:
  • Be released by the end of April, which, would be in the next 2 weeks.
  • Come with newer CPUs, compared to the 2015 MacBooks. Those new CPUs have already been launched by Intel in Q3 2015, and are expected to be:
    • For the low-end model: Core m3-6Y30, succeeding the Core M-5Y31.
    • For the mid-range model: Core m5-6Y54, succeeding the Core M-5Y51.
    • For the high-end model: Core m7-6Y75, succeeding the Core M-5Y71.
  • Be about 25% faster, judging from the single-core Geekbench score, comparing the old high-end to the new high-end CPUs. Those scores look good (maybe too good), and would make the new high-end CPU just 5-10% slower than a 2013 Core i7 MacBook Pro.
When Apple introduced the 12" MacBook in 2015, it was in the ultra-portable category: it was a designed to be light and small, but compromising on performance, the availability of ports, and the price. And this is fine, because ultra-portables aren't designed to be entry-level machines; they are not expected to be used by, say, high-school students. Instead, ultra-portables are laptops typically used in addition to another machine, either a desktop or a more powerful but also more bulky laptop. The ultra-portable is the laptop you take with you when go to a coffeeshop, to a meetup, to a conference, on your vacation, on a business trip, or your couch at home, when you don't need anything more powerful.

In short, the 2015 12" MacBook was an ultra-portable, and not a replacement for the MacBook Air. But I have reasons to think that Apple has plans to expand the role of the MacBook, and have it progressively take the place of the MacBook Air as their new entry-level laptop:
  • The name – In 2015, Apple didn't call it the MacBook Something, with Something wisely chosen to evoke "ultra-portable". Instead, Apple just called it MacBook. This makes sense if you have in mind a lineup where you have the MacBook (for entry-level users), and the MacBook Pro (for power-users).
  • The small size of the market (pun intended) – The ultra-portable category exists because there is a market for it, but it is a small market, compared to entry-level and professional laptops. (For PCs, there is a fourth category: gaming laptops, also a smaller market.) I think that in 2015 Apple introduced an ultra-portable not to enter into a new category but as a way to develop more expertise in building lighter and thinner machines, with the idea that this technology would then be used on its entry-level and pro laptops. And isn't this exactly what they did with the MacBook Air? Remember how, when it was introduced, the MacBook Air was so expensive and slow, but so thin?
  • The shrinking size of the market – The new MacBook Pro is expected to be announced this summer, and to be much thinner. This will make the MacBook less appealing to MacBook Pro owners, as more of them will will consider their new MacBook Pro to be small enough.
Will Apple reposition its 2016 MacBook as more of an entry-level laptop? Here are some signs I'll be watching for:
  • A lower entry price – The 2015 MacBook started at $1,299. There is no way Apple will lower the price all the way to $899, the level of its least expensive MacBook Air. But they could move in that direction. (This also tells me that the MacBook Air will stay, at least for one more year, so they can keep a product at this price point.)
  • An additional USB-C port – One port is fine for a machine you mostly use away from your desk, but a second USB-C port, on the other side of the machine, like on Google's Pixel, would allow it to better compete as an entry-level laptop.
Will Apple do anything to move the MacBook towards being more of an entry-level laptop? Or do nothing special, and keep the MacBook firmly in the ultra-portable category, for at least one more year? Or do something completely different? We'll see. Hopefuly, very soon.