A hardware update that matters

Last Wednesday will be remembered as a milestone for the introduction of Mac OS X 10.7 Lion, and indeed Lion was at the centre of everyone’s attention; the increase in chatter in my Twitter stream was remarkable and keeping up with the various bits of Lion-related information was exhilarating. Many have stressed how important Lion is, and how its changes and new features are going to have a serious impact in the way we interact with the operating system. But with my brief observations here, I want to focus on the new hardware that’s been introduced along with Lion, for I think there are some details worth emphasising.

The new, faster MacBook Air

Basically, only the case remains unchanged. Inside, the new 11″ and 13″ MacBook Air are all new: faster CPUs (1.6 GHz and 1.7 GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 processors, with the 1.8 GHz Intel Core i7 as BTO option), a Thunderbolt port replacing the previous Mini DisplayPort, backlit keyboards, new graphics chip. Looking at some preliminary benchmarks conducted by Bare Feats, ‘faster’ isn’t just marketing speak — these little buddies are indeed snappy. 

In just a couple of iterations, Apple has managed to neutralise the somewhat negative image customers had of the first-generation MacBook Air: slow, not enough powerful to perform ‘pro’ tasks, not really cost-effective (many felt they were paying a considerable sum just to have a very light, very slick Apple laptop). I also remember how last year there were people claiming that the MacBook Air line was doomed just because Apple wasn’t refreshing it as frequently as the other MacBooks (more than 16 months passed between the mid-2009 MacBook Air and the late-2010 11″ and 13″ Airs).

Rest in peace, white MacBook

Not only is the Air not doomed, it has finally killed for good the white MacBook, and now the $999/€949 11″ MacBook Air with the 64 GB Solid-State Drive and 2 GB RAM is the new entry-level model. The whole Mac family of desktop and portable products is even more streamlined and, I’d say, chromatically coherent, since it’s all aluminium/black. Some people asked me why, in my opinion, Apple has decided to discontinue the white MacBook instead of, say, keeping it but at a drastically reduced price (e.g. $649 or even $599); keeping its tech specs unaltered, with its ‘old’ 2.4 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo and at that price it would make for a hell of a netbook, no?

Well, no. Remember, when you say netbook Apple replies with tablet. Look at the prices of the iPad 2 models: $499/$599/$699 for the 16/32/64 GB Wi-Fi version, $629/$729/$829 for the Wi-Fi + 3G version. There is no space for a cheap MacBook. Not in Apple’s view, at least.

The new Mac mini

The Mac mini, too, got its ‘Thunderbolt refresh’ like the MacBook Air, sports a faster processor and costs $100 less than the previous mid-2010 model. But the real screamer is the new Mac mini Server, whose processor upgrade is more than a mere speed bump. The previous model had a dual-core 2.66 GHz Core 2 Duo CPU — the new one has a 2.0 GHz quad-core Intel Core i7 with 6MB on-chip shared L3 cache. Again, I remember time ago, in some forums and mailing lists I used to follow, how some considered the Mac mini — just like the MacBook Air — another ‘doomed’ Mac with no interesting future ahead of it.

Where do I put the DVD?

Actually, what seems to be doomed here is the optical drive. With the discontinuation of the white MacBook and the new Mac minis that don’t have one, if you want a Mac with a built-in CD/DVD-RW SuperDrive, your cheapest option is either the 13″ MacBook Pro or the 21.5″ iMac. In this article by Jim Dalrymple you can read what Apple’s executives have to say regarding the elimination of the optical drive:

A new Mac mini was also released with faster processors, and surprisingly to some people, no optical drive. Apple said the popularity of the Mac App Store helped with that decision.

We found that the majority of customers don’t use the optical drive on a regular basis,” said Moody. “Things are changing. The Primary use for the optical drive was to install software, but the mac app store provides a more efficient method for doing that.”

You can still purchase an external SuperDrive for the Mac mini if you like or you can use the optical drive sharing function built-in to Mac OS X.

John Gruber, reporting this article, commented: Optical drives are the new floppy drives. While it’s hard to deny such an observation, I only want to point out a couple of things.

  1. People use the optical drive for many other things, not just for installing software. To watch their movie collection on DVDs, to make small backups of essential documents on a support that’s more durable than a hard drive or a USB memory stick. Sure, Apple will tell you that now you can rent or purchase movies from the iTunes Store, that watching movies streamed via the Internet is the future, but this may be easier for customers in the USA. The ability of renting/purchasing a movie from iTunes has been only a recent introduction in non-US iTunes Stores, and at least from here in Spain, I still can’t purchase episodes of my favourite TV Series — I watch them on DVD.
  2. I know there are workarounds. Trade-offs usually beget workarounds. I know I can add an external SuperDrive, or share the SuperDrive of another Mac in the household, or rip some of my DVDs on a SuperDrive-equipped Mac and transfer them to the drive-less Mac mini, but, at least in the mini’s case, it kind of defeats the purpose of having such a compact, living-room media-centre friendly Mac that can’t read DVDs directly. After the announcement, a friend of mine who was holding off the purchase of the mini hoping in a refreshed lineup, emailed me a bit disappointed and told me “For my media centre project, I’ll try to get a previous-generation mini, at this point. I’ve more than 450 movies on DVD, I’m not going to start ripping stuff now. Being able to just insert the DVD and watch is much easier”. Can’t really argue with that either.

The importance of the new Apple Thunderbolt Display

This is an amazing device. Yes, device, because calling it just a monitor is a bit of an understatement. In my view, the only flaw is that it’s basically a huge expanse of reflective glass. Were it matte, I’d be in line to buy one instead of an iPad. Also, it’s the perfect companion for the new MacBook Air. Connection-wise, it’s impressive, it has all the ports the MacBook Air has not, and then some: Three powered USB 2.0 ports, FireWire 800, Thunderbolt, and even a Gigabit Ethernet port. Plus, as its predecessors, it can recharge the MacBook Air/Pro with its MagSafe cable, so you won’t need to use your MacBook AC Adapter. The combination of the display and a MacBook Air makes for a very capable workstation. Don’t forget the Thunderbolt factor: it’s not just for the video signal, you can daisy-chain different devices like external hard drives or even another Thunderbolt Display (the MacBook Pro can handle two), and all with the benefit of the fast speeds the Thunderbolt technology can deliver. 

There should be more of these

With this kind of flexibility, I believe that Apple should add at least another, smaller Thunderbolt Display to the family. Earlier I was musing on Twitter that not everybody has the space or the need for a 27″ display. Adding a smaller model — a 21.5″ display, for example — I think would be a great move and I would gladly buy one. For my work I have to read and write for hours and hours, and a 27″ display on my desk would be too impractical to work with comfortably, but a display in the 20″-23″ range would be perfect. I hope Apple will offer more choices for this kind of monitor.

Conclusion

So why do I think that this hardware update matters? Well, it’s one of those updates which clearly demonstrate the direction Apple is taking. The line of portable Macs is reshaped and simplified. The MacBook Air, the very machine many derided in the past for being slow and underpowered, is now given a more prominent role (and much more power and flexibility). The lack of optical drive in the new Mac minis is an unmistakable signal of the next thing Apple will remove from most (if not all) of its Macs. The new Thunderbolt Display redefines the importance of the external monitor — no more a simple extension, or just a peripheral, but a powerful docking station which makes the MacBook Air a complete desktop machine, with a sort of interoperability and versatility that more than vaguely reminds me of the good old PowerBook Duo line. Mac users are indeed living in interesting times.

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About Riccardo Mori

Writer. Translator. Mac consultant. Enthusiast photographer. • If you like what I write, please consider supporting my writing by purchasing my short stories, Minigrooves or by making a donation. Thank you!