Why the Macbook Air might spell the end of con­fig­urable Macs

Ap­ple’s ap­proach to ipads and iphones may dra­mat­i­cally change how we shop for Macs in the fu­ture.

Macworld (USA) - - Contents - BY JA­SON SNELL

There’s been a lot writ­ten about the po­ten­tial merg­ing to­gether of the soft­ware that runs (and runs on) the Mac and the ipad. 2019 is shap­ing up to be a huge year, as Ap­ple’s de­vices get closer to­gether than they’ve ever been be­fore.

But while the fo­cus on Ap­ple’s smoosh­ing to­gether of its plat­forms has been pri­mar­ily about the soft­ware (IOS apps run­ning on the Mac) and hard­ware (the po­ten­tial of fu­ture Macs run­ning Ap­ple-de­signed ARM pro­ces­sors), the new Macbook Air got me think­ing about an­other way Ap­ple’s ap­proach to ipads and iphones may dra­mat­i­cally change how we shop for Macs in the fu­ture.

AS LONG AS IT’S BLACK

The new $1,199 base-model Macbook Air

comes with a 1.6GHZ dual-core Core i5 pro­ces­sor with Turbo Boost up to 3.6GHZ. If you max out all of its specs, on the other hand, you’ll walk away with a $2,600 com­puter… with the very same 1.6GHZ pro­ces­sor. Ap­ple will let you ex­pand stor­age (to 1.5TB) and mem­ory (to 16GB), but the pro­ces­sor you get is the pro­ces­sor you get.

On ev­ery other Mac model Ap­ple sells— even the 12-inch Macbook!—you can choose from dif­fer­ent pro­ces­sor op­tions. (Okay, on the base-model non-retina 21.5-inch imac you can’t, but there are other 21.5-inch imacs avail­able.) In con­trast, Ap­ple doesn’t sell dif­fer­ent ver­sions of the same prod­uct with dif­fer­ent pro­ces­sors any­where else in its prod­uct line. The new ipad Pro comes in a sin­gle pro­ces­sor op­tion, the A12X. The iphone XR and XS are pow­ered by the A12. That’s it.

And it got me think­ing: This feels like the fu­ture of the Mac, cer­tainly on the con­sumer end of the prod­uct line. With the new Macbook Air, Ap­ple has picked a pro­ces­sor and stuck with it. Would any of us be sur­prised if it did the same with a fu­ture up­date to the Macbook? Or lowend imacs?

Look­ing a bit fur­ther into the fu­ture, if Ap­ple starts build­ing Macs with ARM pro­ces­sors, is it go­ing to want to of­fer dif­fer­ent classes of pro­ces­sors within those mod­els? On IOS, Ap­ple has stead­fastly re­fused to do this. Ev­ery model-year of a given model is gen­er­ally pow­ered by the same pro­ces­sor across the board.

It’s con­ceiv­able that Ap­ple might roll out a new ARM pro­ces­sor across sev­eral Macs and have each one have a dif­fer­ent clock speed or num­ber of cores—but even then, I have a hard time imag­in­ing that Ap­ple will let cus­tomers con­fig­ure what pro­ces­sor goes in what Mac when they or­der them. It seems more likely that Ap­ple will of­fer what it feels is the right pro­ces­sor con­fig­u­ra­tion for a model—and if you want a more pow­er­ful pro­ces­sor, your op­tion will be to buy the next model up.

It’s an open ques­tion about how Ap­ple will ap­proach this for pro­fes­sional Macs. As long as In­tel is Ap­ple’s chip sup­plier and In­tel is of­fer­ing a va­ri­ety of dif­fer­ent, com­pat­i­ble chips, Ap­ple will al­most cer­tainly keep of­fer­ing choice. But the mo­ment that ARM en­ters the pic­ture, all bets are off.

WHAT CHOICES ARE LEFT?

On the IOS side, buy­ers are given very lim­ited op­tions for cus­tomiza­tion. The pri­mary dif­fer­en­tia­tors are stor­age and screen size. (Other than screen size, the two iphone XS mod­els and two ipad Pro mod­els are iden­ti­cal.) On the ipad, you can also add cel­lu­lar con­nec­tiv­ity for an ex­tra fee—and while I’d be thrilled if a move to

ARM pro­ces­sors co­in­cided with Ap­ple mak­ing a cel­lu­lar-ca­pa­ble Mac lap­top for the first time, I’m not hold­ing my breath.

There can be some vari­a­tion in RAM on IOS de­vices—the new ipad Pro mod­els have 6GB of RAM, rather than 4GB, if you or­der them with 1TB of stor­age. But Ap­ple doesn’t talk about it or mar­ket it, and un­less you read sites like this one you’d never know. As with the pro­ces­sor, RAM feels like a con­fig­u­ra­tion op­tion that might very well dis­ap­pear when Ap­ple makes the move to ARM. In­stead, Ap­ple will pick a RAM con­fig­u­ra­tion that feels right for a given prod­uct, and stick with it.

What does shop­ping for a Mac look like if all you can choose is how much stor­age and how big your dis­play is? A lot like shop­ping for an ipad. That’s not nec­es­sar­ily a bad thing, es­pe­cially when you con­sider that Ap­ple is cur­rently mak­ing six dif­fer­ent lap­top mod­els. Even if it cuts that num­ber down a bit, it’s quite likely that the com­pany will of­fer choices. Even if the Macbook Pro were to end up with an ARM pro­ces­sor, I’d imag­ine that Ap­ple will do what it does now—namely, of­fer a few dif­fer­ent vari­a­tions with a mix of fea­tures at var­i­ous price points. You may not be able to con­fig­ure a faster pro­ces­sor in a fu­ture

ARM Macbook Pro, but Ap­ple may just of­fer a faster model for a higher price.

Is the Macbook Air’s sin­gle pro­ces­sor op­tion the fu­ture of the Mac? I’m not sure even Ap­ple knows for sure—after all, it sure feels like Ap­ple wasn’t even plan­ning on bring­ing the Macbook Air back be­fore a year or two ago. But if I had to guess, I’d pre­dict that the days of con­fig­ur­ing which pro­ces­sor you want in your new Mac are num­bered. ■

Ex­cept for size, the iphone XS and iphone XS Max are the same phone.

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