Tech Guide

There's still lots of mystery around Apple's upcoming Macs

Key Points
  • Apple is reportedly planning to launch a new low-cost MacBook with a Retina display and a new Mac Mini Pro.
  • But adding a Retina display to the MacBook Air would almost certainly increase its cost beyond the current MacBook, so there's mystery on what sacrifices will be made.
  • Apple typically launches its new Macs in the fall.

Earlier this week, Bloomberg reported Apple will launch a new low-cost MacBook and and updated version of the Mac Mini for professional users sometime later this year.

But there's still a lot of mystery surrounding the new computers.

It's unclear, for example, how Apple will price what's supposed to be a refresh to the 13-inch MacBook Air, and what it will include in the professional version of the Mac Mini, a computer that hasn't been refreshed in years. I'm not the only one who's confused on how these Macs will play out. Apple watcher John Gruber recently posed the same question about the MacBook lineup.

Apple's Mac lineup has been in flux for the last few years. Professional users have complained that Apple has been slow to update its pro line of Mac desktops. And there have been a lot of complaints with the MacBook Pro's redesigned keyboard and lack of ports.

As Apple gears up to refresh its Mac lineup again this year, it's still unclear how the new computers will fit in. Let's take a look.

The low-cost MacBook conundrum

The MacBook Air has long served as the cheapest MacBook you can buy, with a starting price of $999. It's beloved by users, which is probably why Apple hasn't changed much — save for upgrading the processors — over the past several years.

One feature MacBook Air consumers have asked for is a Retina display, one of Apple's screens that make text and images noticeably sharper. It's the sort of display Apple includes on its more expensive MacBook and MacBook Pro, but its omission from the MacBook Air has been one way Apple has managed to keep the price below $1,000.

The regular 12-inch MacBook starts at $1,299. It has some premium features the MacBook Air doesn't, like newer stereo speakers, a larger trackpad and a Retina screen. But it has fewer ports — just a single USB-C port instead of a full-size (albeit aging) USB port and an SD card slot, which are both offered in the MacBook Air. At $1,299, it even has a modest Intel Core m3, which is less powerful than the MacBook Air's Intel Core i5 chip.

In other words, a new $999 MacBook Air with a Retina display with the same internals it currently has would be a better computer than the $1,299 MacBook.

I don't think Apple is going to do that. There needs to be a hardware sacrifice to justify the lower price. I'm just not sure where.

It's possible Apple moves its $1,599 Core i5 MacBook down to the $1,299 price that the entry-level costs, and then eliminates the Core i5 chip from the entry-level MacBook Air and moves to a lower-powered Core m3 chip

At least in that situation, the MacBook would remain the better computer at $1,299 and there would be room for a $999 MacBook Air with a Retina display. I hope it adds multiple USB-C ports, too.

The Mac Mini 'Pro'

Bloomberg didn't provide any information on what Apple will include in the so-called Mac Mini Pro. Apple hasn't ever offered a "pro" version of this computer — a small box that doesn't ship with a display — but I think there's demand for one. Oddly, Apple hasn't updated the Mac Mini since 2014, but still sells it for $499. Bloomberg said the new model will cost more because of bumps in processor and storage options.

A "pro" computer should have at least Intel's latest eighth generation Intel Core i5 chip, or even the more powerful Core i7 model. The current Mac Mini still relies on older 5,400 rpm hard drives on the lower end, too, so Apple will likely bump up to faster solid-state hard drives, but maybe at the cost of storage space. (Expect 128GB in the entry-level model instead of 500GB, for example.)

I suspect Apple will also upgrade to Thunderbolt 3 USB-C ports, which are newer and used in its other computers and would allow the computer to support several 4K displays at once. This is speculation based off of what Apple includes in its MacBook Pro laptops, and might make sense since the Mac Mini is small and doesn't have a lot of room for more advanced hardware, like high-end graphics cards, which you find in larger computers like the iMac Pro.

Confusing things even more, Apple has said it plans to launch a new, high-end Mac Pro desktop in 2019. That's different than the Mac Mini Pro. So it's unclear what Apple will do to set those two devices apart.

Apple tends to launch new Macs in the fall, so it's likely we'll hear a formal announcement from the company soon.

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