Mac case designs: Nirvana achieved?

When I first saw the “new” MacBook Pro models Tuesday, my initial reaction was one of indifference. That indifference wasn’t due to the features of the new models, which seem like well-thought-out and beneficial improvements, but rather, because the new machines look exactly like their predecessors. After many years with the same look for the PowerBook G4, er, MacBook Pro, I was really hoping for something new in the machine’s appearance—especially after seeing what Apple can do with a fresh sheet of paper, as evidenced by the MacBook Air. Alas, it was not to be—the new cases are identical to the old, as far as I can tell from the images on the Web.

But then, I came to a startling conclusion: it seems Apple has perfected the design of its Mac cases. (The MacBook Air was the final step required to achieve this state of case design nirvana.) Consider each machine in the lineup as it appears to a consumer making a purchase decision while window shopping (ie looking at the outside of the machine):

  • Mac mini: Unchanged since its January 2005 introduction.
  • iMac: The 2007 update brought us an aluminum skin and a reworked monitor section, but the basic design is the same as the January 2006 model.
  • MacBook Air: Totally new design, and amazingly well executed—even if I disagree with some of the tradeoffs that Apple made in achieving that design.
  • MacBook: The Intel-powered MacBook replaced the iBook G4 (October 2003) in Apple’s lineup. It featured a new flat-finish case material, glossy screen, and more rounded design. But if you place an iBook and a MacBook side by side, there’s really not a big difference between the case design of the two machines. However, let’s give Apple the benefit of the doubt here, and call this an all new design as of its May 2006 introduction.
  • MacBook Pro: The MacBook Pro is the Intel-powered successor to the PowerBook G4. Its current design has been used basically unchanged — the MagSafe power adapter might be the biggest change — since the April 2004 introduction of the PowerBook G4 family.
  • Mac Pro: The Mac Pro is the Intel-powered evolution of the Power Mac G5, and its case is basically the same as when it was launched in June of 2003. There are a couple more ports on the front, and a second CD drive slot, but that’s about it.

Excluding the MacBook Air, every other Mac is built around a case design that’s approaching at least two years of age: two years for the iMac and MacBook (as of May 2008); three for the mini; four for the MacBook Pro; and an amazing five (as of June 2008) for the Mac Pro. In “computing time,” a period of two years is an eternity. Most case designs will have changed several times in two years, and who knows how many times in five years—especially in a desktop model. But not Apple. Its designs have held up well over time.

And that’s not to say that Apple’s case designers have had the last five years off. In addition to working on little side projects like the iPhone, iPod touch, and iPod nano, the company has been busy tinkering with the insides of its Mac case designs. As an example, although the cases of my PowerMac G5 and Mac Pro look nearly identical from the outside, they look nothing alike inside. The hard drives are much simpler to change in the Mac Pro; the cooling system has been completely reworked for the cooler-running Intel chips; and the memory chip section has been reworked as well. But it’s apparent that Apple feels the external design of their cases has reached a point where major changes aren’t necessary.

This has benefits for Apple, of course. It doesn’t need to retool its production lines to create the new case designs. It has years of expertise building each design. The original design costs for the case designs have long since been recovered. So there’s a pretty strong financial incentive not to change just for the sake of change. And given that we’ve not seen substantive changes in most of the Mac products, Apple clearly feels there’s nothing much lacking with any of its case designs.

In many ways, I agree with Apple here—its cases are exceptionally well engineered, and make those from other manufacturers look busy and poorly thought out. However, that doesn’t mean there’s not room for improvement. As but one example, I was hoping to see some of the MacBook Air’s sleekness “trickle up” into the new MacBook Pro; I like the current design a lot, but it feels and looks just a bit too much like a small pizza box. Alas, it was not to be, and it looks like we’ll have this case design with us for at least another year or two.

But how about you? How do you feel about brand new machines being wrapped in case designs that are many years old? Do you think there’s room for improvement in the MacBook Pro’s case—or in any other Mac’s case, for that matter? Or has Apple really achieved case design nirvana, and nothing more than small tweaks are required from here on out?

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