What will the ARM Mac line-up look like?

Chip transitions give Apple an opportunity to make major changes, like a redesigned iMac and more consumer laptops.

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For a company with a reputation for sudden bursts of industry-shaking creativity, Apple’s pretty conservative most of the time. The company has a years-long product pipeline, and while we’re beginning to anticipate the 2020 iPhone, its hardware engineers are finishing work on the 2021 model while its component designers are pondering the chips and sensors that will power the device into the mid-2020s.

For so many of Apple’s product choices, a decision now is likely to be a decision that sticks for years to come. Think of how many years it took for the company to backtrack on the butterfly keyboard in the MacBook line, even after it was obvious that it had made a mistake. More to the point, consider the continued existence of the low-end, two-port version of the 13-inch MacBook Pro, which is largely the consequence of a failed attempt to replace the MacBook Air with the 12-inch MacBook and the low-end MacBook Pro.

Some fairly strong news reports suggest that in 2021, Apple’s going to being a major reset of the Mac product line, thanks to its transition from Intel processors to its own ARM chips. After a decade and a half in which Mac product designs were often constrained by the Intel processor types that were available, Apple’s got a chance to build a Mac product line exactly as it envisions it—right down to the right chips for the right computers. It’s not an exaggeration to suggest that this will affect the shape of the Mac for the next five years, if not more.

What is Apple likely to do? I’ve got some ideas, informed by my observations of the last two transitions, a sense of where the Mac is today, and maybe a little bit of wishcasting.

The comfort of the iMac

I don’t expect Apple to sweep away all familiar Mac models in 2021 just because it’s changing the processors that power them. Done right, the transition to Apple-designed processors should be barely a blip on the radar screen of the general public.

imac imac pro 2019 Apple

iMac Pro (left) and iMac

When Apple transitioned to Intel from PowerPC, the first product to make the transition was the iMac. The new Intel iMac looked more or less identical to the G5 iMac that it replaced. If you weren’t aware that there was a chip transition underway, you might have missed it entirely. It took three years for Apple to truly redesign the iMac case, taking it from white plastic to silver aluminum.

What’s different this time is that the iMac hasn’t had a major design change in a long time, which suggests to me that this might be the perfect moment for Apple to change both the inside and outside of its iconic desktop Mac. It’s possible that there will be an ARM iMac in the same case as today’s models, but I don’t think I would bet on it.

What does seem sure, though, is the continued existence of the iMac. It’s been a core part of the Mac for more than two decades. The iMac changes with the times, but it stays with us.

Stability of the professional Mac

mac pro 2019 Apple

Mac Pro

It would stand to reason that the high end of the Mac product line will be the hardest spot for Apple’s new chips to reach. Conventional wisdom is that Apple will start the transition with consumer tech and only spread to pro models later on. I’m inclined to agree with that assessment, at least for the first wave of new Macs. Keeping Intel compatibility and stability available to Apple’s most demanding pro customers seems like a good idea.

The iMac Pro is getting a bit long in the tooth and could use a speed boost, but not a rethink. The Mac Pro just came out and seems to be built for the long haul. It’s hard to see these models jumping to ARM soon. I’ll throw the Mac mini in this category, too. While I’d love to see a reimagined Mac mini that’s tiny and powerful and cheap, I suspect that the 2018 revision of the Mac mini will have to hold us for a few years to come.

Mystery of the MacBooks

That brings us to the big question: Once it’s free from the constraints of Intel’s various mobile processor lines, will Apple rejigger its laptops?

I have to think that Apple will take the opportunity to do just that. It hardly needs three different 13-inch laptops. (Four, if you count the 12.9-inch iPad Pro when connected to a Magic Keyboard.)

So let’s draw a four-square grid, Steve Jobs style, with smaller and larger laptops for consumers and professionals. (Both groups could use some variety in terms of size, don’t you think?)

4grid macbook Jason Snell

Steve Jobs I'm not, but imagine a simpler Mac laptop lineup.

On the consumer end, let’s consider two new forms of MacBook or MacBook Air. A smaller 12-inch model takes the form of the old MacBook, but this time it’s much more capable of running well without any fan. A larger model, perhaps a version of the 13-inch Air currently on sale, offers more robust cooling and a larger screen.

The A13 Bionic chip that powers Apple’s current line of iPhones has six processor cores—two optimized for power and four optimized for energy efficiency. A chip with a similar configuration would instantly become the first six-core consumer Mac laptop ever. (Let’s also not forget Apple’s built-in GPUs, which will probably put Intel’s built-in graphics to shame.) In low-energy operation, these chips would sip power and maintain battery life, but when called upon, they could crank up those two “performance cores.” It’s hard to imagine that these laptops wouldn’t be faster than the current MacBook Air, and with dramatically better battery life.

Then there’s the MacBook Pro. As with Apple’s pro desktops, I suspect that Apple’s pro laptops will not make the move as quickly as the consumer models. But the path forward is pretty clear: a 14-inch laptop that’s redesigned in the same way that the 16-inch model replaced the 15-inch last fall. And then, ultimately, a new 16-inch model that’s powered by a next-generation A-series chip that is truly capable of handing professional workloads. If the iPhone can have a six-core processor, what’s to stop the MacBook Pro from having four or even six performance cores to go with four or six efficiency cores?

I’ve got no rumors or media reports to back up this particular supposition. I’m just looking at the imbalance in Apple’s laptop line—one consumer laptop and three pro models. But while I’m dealing in pure speculation, I’ll throw out one final bit before I go.

Every time Apple has made a Mac processor transition, it’s taken the opportunity to rename a portion of its product line. The PowerPC transition ushered in the Power Macintosh, replacing the Quadra. The Intel transition converted all Power Macs into Mac Pros and PowerBooks and iBooks into MacBooks.

So I’d like to suggest that 2021 might be the perfect time to retire the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro brand names and replace them with something simpler. How about MacBook and PowerBook? (We can reserve iBook for the iPadOS-based laptop.)

Perhaps that’s a bridge too far. But chip transitions are funny things. They’re an opportunity for Apple to take stock… and change course. I can’t guarantee that anything I’ve written here will come to pass in 2021, but I can guarantee that change is coming, and some of it will take us all by surprise.

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