Apple listened to its most loyal customers and fixed its laptop problems from the last five years
- Apple's new MacBook Pro models, announced on Monday, conspicuously lack many of the least popular features from the 2016 design.
- They include ports for connecting cameras and displays, and the return of Apple's MagSafe charger for laptops.
- There's no Touch Bar touchscreen on the new Macs. It's replaced by traditional function keys that can control screen brightness, media playback, and a big escape key, which is important for programmers.
Before Monday, the last major redesign for Apple's larger MacBook Pros came in 2016, with several features that looked to the future.
The 2016 MacBook Pros sported universal USB-C connectors that could power displays and peripherals, a "butterfly" keyboard that allowed the devices to become even thinner, and a long, narrow touchscreen at the top of the keyboard called "Touch Bar," in a device powered by an Intel processor.
Apple's new MacBook Pro models, announced on Monday, conspicuously lack all of those features.
The MacBook Pro is strategically important for the company, because programmers can only make iPhone apps on a Mac, and picky programmers often choose the most powerful machine they can get. But Apple's pro laptops are pricey, starting at $1,999 with some configurations costing more than $6,000.
The new machines address longstanding user complaints, revealing that Apple does listen to user feedback, especially from programmers and other professional users.
It turns out, Apple's last redesign for the MacBook Pro wasn't popular among picky users, leading to a period between 2017 and 2020 with eight out of 10 quarters of flat or negative annual growth in its Mac business.
It didn't take long for problems to crop up with Apple's pricey laptops after the redesign in 2016.
- Users complained they needed pricey adapters to plug in mice or thumb drives, and missed Apple's older MagSafe connector, which ingeniously disconnected if someone tripped over the power cord.
- The butterfly keyboard was unreliable, with keys getting stuck due to crumbs or dust. Apple is still repairing butterfly keyboards for free, and even faced a class action lawsuit over them.
- The Intel chips insider Apple's MacBook Pros ran hot, making them uncomfortable to use on your lap.
- Users and developers never embraced the Touch Bar, and touch typists complained you needed to look at it in order to pick a button.
The laptops that Apple announced on Monday look more like the pre-2016 MacBook Pro:
- The new MacBook Pro models still use USB-C connectors, which have become an industry standard. But the three Thunderbolt USB-C ports also have an HDMI port alongside them for connecting monitors, and a SD Card slot for downloading photos from a professional camera. It now uses a magnetic MagSafe connector to charge.
- They use Apple's Magic Keyboard, which is a more traditional design that's deeper and has garnered positive reviews.
- Apple is no longer using Intel chips in its newest laptops, instead opting for its own silicon, which is designed to be power-efficient and not waste energy by giving off heat. The new design also has feet to prop up the laptop and improve airflow.
- There's no Touch Bar on the new Macs. It's replaced by traditional function keys that can control screen brightness, media playback, and a big escape key, which is important for programmers.
The biggest advancement from Apple's perspective is the chip inside the new 16-inch and 14-inch MacBook Pros. They use Apple's own M1 chips, either in "Pro" or "Max" configurations, instead of the same Intel or AMD chips Windows PCs use.
Apple's chips have led to improved battery life in computers they've shipped in, like the 13-inch MacBook Pro and the MacBook Air. While the ultimate laptop processor speed crown is contested, it's clear that Apple's chips are good enough to send emails, browse the web, and even get some light gaming in.
But users who care less about the guts and specs inside their computers may find the new design — which does not depend on technological improvements over the past half decade — to be more convincing reasons to upgrade than the number of transistors in the M1 Max (57 billion, for the record).
Since Apple began to update its laptops with new keyboards and chips, the Mac division has been on a roll, selling $26 billion worth in the most recent three quarters, which Apple CEO Tim Cook says is the company's "three best quarters ever" in the Mac's nearly 40-year history. Even before Apple released its new MacBook Pros, sales were up nearly 33% annually over that period.
That sales boost was partially due to the pandemic. But it was also partially driven by releasing new computers that had reliable keyboards and strong battery life. On Monday, Apple extended that strategy to its higher-end computers, and extended it by bringing magnetic charging and a port for connecting displays back.
Improvements aside, the 2021 MacBook Pro could still arouse controversy among Mac loyalists. The computer comes with a "notch" or an iPhone-like cutout to house the laptop's improved 1080p webcam — a controversial design move that could distract users.
Expect Apple to continue to revamp its laptop lineup, especially in the lower-cost, higher-volume models. The MacBook Air and 13-inch MacBook Pro have Apple's M1 chip, but neither current model has a magnetic charger or HDMI port, and the 13-inch MacBook Pro still comes with a Touch Bar.