You probably know Apple has introduced what it calls the next generation of Macs. The new MacBook Air, 13in MacBook Pro and Mac mini share common architecture based around an Apple-designed M1 chip – a (presumed) relative of the A-series chips that powers its mobile devices. During the most recent Apple event, the company threw Bezos charts and figures around with merry abandon; but even though they lacked scales and tangible reference points, what we could glean from them was exciting.
Unless Apple had ramped up a fib machine to max, these M1 Macs are blazingly fast and efficient. Apple talked of 3.5× CPU and 6× GPU increases over previous models. And even though digging into the details suggested the reference systems Apple was using weren’t always stellar performers, there’s no misunderstanding statements like “M1 is faster than the chips in 98 per cent of PC laptops sold in the past year”.
This comes alongside huge increases in battery life (up to 20 hours in the MacBook Pro) and claims that these new Macs allow video editors to scythe through 4K or even 8K footage without skipping a frame. It’s therefore hardly surprising Apple believes the M1 “transforms the Mac experience” – and that’s just as well, because Apple doesn’t seem to have transformed anything else about these new Macs.
Put an M1 Mac next to its predecessor and the two computers look identical. For the MacBooks in particular, this leaves Apple with brand-new laptops that on the surface look oddly archaic. The bezels are whoppers compared to sleek equivalents on rival PCs. There’s no cellular option – nor touchscreens, despite macOS Big Sur’s design looking decidedly finger-friendly. Face ID frustratingly remains absent, forcing you to authenticate with a digit rather than your beautiful visage.
Because of this, Apple faces arguments it’s being stubborn in believing ageing designs are best, that it lacks the courage to unleash something radical, and that it’s disappointed legions of Mac users who were eagerly expecting something revolutionary. But the answer as to why this has all happened is very simple: Apple likes being in control.
Being in control doesn’t mean you don’t take risks – but it does mean you take care. Transitioning chip architecture is one of the biggest risks you can take on a computing platform – an awful lot can go wrong. Under those circumstances, it’s a reasonable approach to move slowly and not break things. Hence these Macs utilise tried-and-tested components Apple knows work, allowing the company to put the majority of its efforts into focusing on the new architecture.
All this shouldn’t come as a shock. If you are unaware Apple prizes meaningful but incremental change, you haven’t been paying attention for the past 20 years. Apple is rarely about the flashy gesture, which explains the lack of iPads that fold in half, iPhones with multiple displays that can be configured into a T shape, or Macs that transform into tablets while keeping a beady eye out for evil Decepticons. Only occasionally in recent history have Apple products become design playgrounds – notably, the iPod nano.
That doesn’t mean M1 Macs will remain frozen – even for long. This is step one in a two-year transition, and it begins with consumer products. Despite Apple’s striking claims regarding the sheer power these units offer, remember that these are the slowest M1 Macs the company will ever release. To start this journey, Apple took what works and made the most meaningful changes it could; but soon, pro-oriented next-gen Macs will arrive.
By then, the M1 will have bedded in and Apple will turn its eye to refining the designs of the MacBook Pro, iMac and Mac Pro. Face ID will arrive, along with a host of other goodies. Elsewhere, Apple’s need for control might expand to Apple-designed displays in laptops and iMacs. After all, through owning hardware and software – and now the chips that power its Macs – Apple can do vertical integration like no other computer manufacturer.
Gaining even more control over components reduces reliance on third parties and eliminates risk. For the flip side of this, recall how Apple’s reliance on PowerPC resulted in a dead-end where new laptops weren’t viable; and it’s found itself broadly the same cul-de-sac with Intel.
There are more cynical takes where people draw alternate conclusions regarding Apple’s current decisions: Apple wants two bites of the cherry, first releasing old Macs with new chips and then later fully redesigned Macs! Apple is foisting prototypes on the masses! These aren’t so much next-gen Macs as public beta Macs! And it’s easy to understand the frustration of people who for years have clamoured for MacBooks to at least gain Face ID and cellular capabilities.
But Apple’s first next-gen Macs don’t have Face ID and everything else not because Apple is incapable of adding them; they lack these things because this company understands how to cautiously prioritise what matters. So, by all means make accusations that Apple is not being bold. But remember boldness comes through making strong decisions at the right time. To argue you should throw everything into the mix at once is mistaking boldness for recklessness (hello, Samsung Galaxy Fold) – and that’s not Apple at all.
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