The age of Apple’s Mac lineup has become a topic of frequent conversation (slash punchline) among tech journalists and commentators lately. The oft-referenced MacRumors Buyers Guide has been a constellation of big, red “DON’T BUY” labels for months, and it’s because we’ve only gotten one Mac update since October of 2015.
That’s all set to change on Thursday when Apple takes the wraps off its new Macs at an event in Cupertino. Events at Apple’s Cupertino campus tend to be smaller and more focused than the big blowouts at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium or Apple’s other favored off-campus venues. So you can bet that the company is going to talk about the Mac and nothing but the Mac for at least an hour.
As is often the case, rumors from reliable sources have given us plenty of information about what to expect.
The MacBook Pro
This one’s a lock. We’ve been hearing about new MacBook Pros from various sources all year, and Apple just leaked images of it in a new macOS update earlier this week. It looks like a major update that adds some all-new stuff and brings in a few iPhone innovations to boot.
The biggest change will be a long, thin OLED strip across the top of the keyboard that will replace the standard row of function keys. Its purpose will remain the same, but developers will allegedly be able to display different “keys” in that row to provide different shortcuts for different apps. It’s a way to begin melding the flexibility of a software keyboard with the comfort of a hardware keyboard, something Apple seems to be interested in lately. An Apple-designed co-processor could be used to drive the display, according to some reports.
Apple is also planning to implement a version of its Touch ID fingerprint sensor in the new laptops. This will be the first time the Mac has a biometric authentication option. The feature will be used to support Apple Pay in Safari in macOS Sierra, a feature that currently requires an Apple Watch or iPhone with Apple Pay configured.
The laptops’ design is also said to be getting an overhaul for the first time since getting Retina in 2012. Apple has used advancements in display and battery technology to make the MacBook thinner and lighter than the MacBook Air. We expect the company to use many of the same technologies to the same end in the Pro lineup.
Replacing the MagSafe, USB Type-A, and Thunderbolt 2 ports with smaller USB Type-C and/or Thunderbolt 3 ports will also help save space—older supply chain leaks show a machine with four ports instead of the Retina MacBook’s one, which would definitely help the laptops maintain their “pro” appeal. And a move to wide-color displays that use the DCI-P3 color gamut—à la last year’s iMacs or the 9.7-inch iPad Pro—seems like a safe bet.
Finally, the CPUs and GPUs are supposed to get an upgrade. Recent reports point to dedicated GPUs from AMD’s “Polaris” family as well as CPUs and integrated GPUs from Intel’s Skylake family. Most rumors haven’t differentiated much between the 13- and 15-inch Pros, but it seems safe to bet that dedicated GPUs and quad-core processors will remain exclusive to the 15-inch model. The smaller laptop just doesn’t have the room for the fan and heatsink that those more powerful components need. If the 13-inch Pro comes with an Iris GPU, though, we’re still looking at a particularly big graphics boost—Skylake Iris GPUs added 64MB of eDRAM to the processor package, a large cache that nearly doubles graphics performance relative to the Broadwell Iris GPUs that current models use.
The Pros are expected to go on sale shortly after they’re announced, possibly even on the same day. Sometimes Apple waits a few days or weeks between announcing a new thing and letting you buy the thing, but you shouldn’t need to wait long to get one of these laptops.
The MacBook and MacBook Air
Here’s where things start to get muddled. By all accounts, Apple is planning to introduce a third new laptop alongside the 13-inch and 15-inch Pros. Three new Mac model numbers were registered in the Eurasian Economic Commission’s database earlier this week.
What the rumors can’t agree on is the form that third laptop will take. According to some, it’s a refresh of the 13-inch MacBook Air that will use USB Type-C and/or Thunderbolt 3 instead of the current model’s mix of MagSafe, Thunderbolt 2, and USB Type-A. Others claim that it will instead be a 13-inch version of the MacBook. And the 11-inch MacBook Air could disappear entirely.
If I had to guess, I’d say a MacBook Air-esque laptop is more probable than a new, larger Retina MacBook. The Air is Apple’s entry-level workhorse. Its six-year-old design is long overdue for either a retirement or an overhaul, and its display is downright mediocre next to everything else Apple ships. But it still serves a purpose as the entry point to Apple’s laptop ecosystem. The Retina MacBook commands a premium price. Although Apple could lower the price of the MacBook lineup to replace the Airs, that doesn’t seem likely less than two years after the MacBook’s introduction.
In any case, do expect a third laptop, probably something on the low end of the spectrum. We just won’t know exactly what it looks like for a couple of days yet. A new 12-inch MacBook with new Kaby Lake CPUs from Intel is also theoretically possible. But given that the existing MacBook is only about six months old, it’s not super likely.
Listing image by Andrew Cunningham