WWDC 2013: the hardware

The new MacBook Air

The MacBook Air page on Apple’s website gives you all the details on the new hardware inside the latest iteration of the MacBook Air. Nothing has changed on the outside: some were expecting new Airs with Retina Display, but that is premature. Also, in my opinion, unless Apple finds a way to offer a very power-efficient Retina Display MacBook Air, my guess is we won’t see such an upgrade so soon. Apple may very well decide to keep Retina as a pro option, and the very long battery life as a prerogative of the lightest, thinnest laptops in the family.

The big feature of the refreshed MacBook Air is the increased autonomy on a single charge. The 11″ model now lasts four more hours than before (9 instead of 5), and the 13″ model goes from 7 to 12. This is impressive, especially when you consider that these values are conservative. In its review of the 13″ MacBook Air, PC Magazine writes (emphasis mine):

The system’s new 1.3GHz Intel Core i5-4250U processor with integrated Intel HD Graphics 5000 is nominally clocked 400Mhz slower than the 1.7GHz i5-3427U processor in the last MacBook Air, but both will turbo up to 2.6GHz if needed. The lower base clock speed no doubt helps the system stretch out battery life. The new MacBook Air 13-inch lasted a staggering 15 hours 33 minutes on our battery rundown test.

In his review, Nilay Patel of The Verge writes (emphasis his):

13 hours and 29 minutes. That’s all you really need to know — that’s how long the new MacBook Air running Safari lasted running The Verge Battery Test, which cycles through a series of websites and images at 65 percent brightness. Run time in Chrome was shorter, at 11 hours and 29 minutes, but both are still ridiculously impressive. In fact, it’s the record for a laptop running our test without an external battery.

So, the new MacBook Air is all for power-efficiency: the fundamental ingredients to achieve such astounding a performance are a larger, more powerful battery (54 WHr on the 13″ model, versus the 50 WHr of the previous generation model) and the new Intel Core architecture. The 4th-generation i5 and i7 processors are as powerful as the ones they replace but use less power.

Other things to like: dual stereo microphones instead of mono; more flash storage for the entry-level 11″ model (128 GB instead of 64), which retains the same $999 price tag; faster flash storage, which guarantees a faster response time when you wake the computer, but also faster access to files and applications, and that will undoubtedly contribute to the general ‘feel’ of improved performance. And then of course the faster 802.11ac Wi-Fi protocol, which Apple claims to be ‘3x faster’ than the Wi-Fi technology in the previous Air models.

With these improvements, there isn’t much left to comment on. What’s not to like? The subtitle of The Verge‘s review says Apple builds the ultimate coffee shop computer, but it doesn’t do justice to the new MacBook Air, which I’d characterise more as to be the ultimate travel computer. It’s like having some sort of ‘iPad pro’, a device you charge overnight and then you bring it with you throughout the day without having to worry about finding a place to recharge it. As someone who frequently carries his MacBook Pro or PowerBooks to work out of office, a long-lasting battery is much more important to me than a Retina display. If I could afford one, there’s no doubt that I’d purchase a new 13″ MacBook Air right away.

The new Mac Pro

If memory serves, the last desktop computer to be introduced by Apple with such fanfare was the PowerMac G5 (remember this ad? And look at the Promo video too). Well, the highly cinematic ‘sneak peek’ introduction of the new Mac Pro at the keynote was absolutely justified, given the sheer amount of power, features and technologies inside of it, not to mention the whole design rethinking. It was a great surprise, and I hadn’t felt so stunned by the unveiling of a new Apple product since the iPhone back in 2007.

Again, what’s not to like? I’m not part of the audience the Mac Pro targets, but considering the mere technical specifications, considering the expansibility, considering the feat of engineering and design this entirely new machine is, I don’t see how it can disappoint. (Although I’m sure there are a few old-school pros out there who would have preferred the old tower design with internal expansion, because they don’t want a pile of external devices amassed on their desks.) Even though I’m not interested in purchasing one when it’s available, I’m still curious about its final pricing and configurations. If Apple were to price it in a similar price range as the current Mac Pro family, it would almost be a bargain given the kind of performance it delivers.

As regards to the design, what really struck me during the introduction was this image:

Mac Pro old and new

The new Mac Pro is ridiculously small compared to the old workhorse. It has a diameter of 6.6 inches (16.7 cm) and it’s 9.9 inches tall (little more than 25 cm). This means it can be easily placed on your desk, and not half-hidden under it, but also that it’s definitely more portable in case you need to work off-site. Professional musicians will be happy, I imagine.

The new AirPort Extreme Base Station

Let me be absolutely frank: there may be innovation inside this thing, but the design is just horrible. When I first saw it, I swear I thought it was the image of a badly photoshopped Mac mini. I understand it had to have a tall, tower-like form factor because of the new ‘beamforming’ antenna design, but now I really do miss the original UFO-shaped base stations. Another thing I dislike of this new æsthetic is that the status light keeps getting smaller. What’s wrong in having bigger, more readable lights? I have read all the relevant information on Apple’s website, and I do understand the design choices and the advantages this new base station offers. I just don’t like the result of the process.

(While we’re talking about AirPort stations, even though it has already been introduced — exactly a year ago, by the way — let me reiterate how the new design of the AirPort Express base station is, in my opinion, worse than the previous AirPort Express also from a functional standpoint. As I said in Briefly, on the new AirPort Express:

Now the AirPort Express must be placed somewhere on a horizontal surface, because they changed the way the base plugs to get power. Perhaps some people won’t be bothered by the change, but I’ve always thought that one of the best features of the old AirPort Express was that you could just plug it in a wall plug: no cables dangling around, no need to look for horizontal surfaces like a shelf, a small table, etc. This was excellent for cramped spaces or corridors, where you could place a second AirPort Express to extend the Wi-Fi network. […] I think that losing the ability to just plug the base anywhere without worrying about cables and surfaces, partially defeats the purpose of this ‘portable’ base station.

But, yes, I’m digressing).

Conclusion

As I already said, it was a great keynote. The opening video, the hardware and software that has been introduced or anticipated, the attitude of the various executives on stage, everything contributed to deliver a strong message: This is how we work: we work at our own pace to deliver great products. If you like it, cool. If you don’t, we couldn’t care less. And frankly, I’m surprised that this attitude comes as a surprise for some. Because this has always been the company’s way to be under Steve Jobs. I was amused when, two days after the keynote, The Guardian published an article titled WWDC wrapup: iOS 7, iTunes Radio’s value, and a newly confident Apple. The newly confident bit was what amused me. Apple has never lost its confidence, only in the fantasies of the international tech press during Apple’s extended silence. As John Gruber aptly remarks: [During these nine months of silence] No new products, no new designs. And the business and tech media lost their shit over this, declaring an end to Apple’s ability to innovate.

And that is all, I think.

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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!