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The Exciting Future of Apple’s MacBook Line

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In 12 months, Apple’s (s aapl) notebook lineup will be so different, we’ll barely recognize it. Physically, the computers may look the same, but the teaser that is the MacBook Air makes very clear the changes we can expect to see rolled out across the entire MacBook line.

“MacBook Air. The next generation of MacBooks.”

This is Apple’s tagline for the new MacBook Air. I believe it means everything that’s good about the Air will make its way into the MacBook and MacBook Pro within the next year. Let’s look at what’s next for Apple’s notebooks.

Battery Life

The older Air I own has a claimed battery life of five hours, but I never see more than three and a half with brightness all the way down and Wi-Fi off. The new Air claims seven hours of battery life in Apple’s “Web-test” which, according to the company’s performance page, “measures battery life by wirelessly browsing 25 popular websites with display brightness set to 50%.”

We can expect this new test to become the standard for how Apple measures battery life specs across the board going forward and I expect seven hours to be the new minimum standard for the rest of the lineup. Most Macs meet this now, in fact, so 10-12 hours may be a more realistic expectation from next year’s MacBook Pro, as long as Intel (s intc) continues increasing the efficiency of its chips at the current rate.

SSD As a Standard

Solid State Drives (SSD) enable quick booting, instant on and faster launch times of applications. I believe every new MacBook Pro sold will come standard with an SSD, with an option to drop down to an HDD for $200 less if you just needs lots of storage (500GB+). For most users, 256GB is all they’ll ever need, and for huge media libraries, an external drive is always an option.

SSD is great, and it’s finally achieving a price point where Apple can include it as part of a base configuration. Remember, only a little over two years ago, a 128GB SSD add-on for the MacBook Air cost an additional $999. Now, the $1699 model comes with a 256GB drive standard.

Sorry, No Optical

I’ve talked to a lot of people in coffee shops, at conferences and even my less-techie friends and they all come to the same conclusion: Optical drives are kind of pointless. If all software manufacturers provided direct downloads or flash drives for physical installs, there’s be absolutely no issue.

The optical drive, as far as Apple is concerned, is dead. The company has the largest collection of digital media available for sale, and with the Mac App Store, Front Row and Apple TV, why would you ever need to burn content to a disc? The external Air Superdrive is still available, and it’ll probably gain compatibility with the rest of Apple’s notebooks as the internal drives disappear.

Thinner and Lighter

SSD and the lack of an optical drive will mean thinner cases across the board. The MacBook Air’s logic board in 2008 was a thing of beauty: smaller than the length of a pencil, and it powered the entire computer. I think the move to SSD flash storage that’s soldered to the logic board, paired with removing those gigantic optical drives, will mean most Mac laptops will slim down. We’ll see this in new revisions that come out in 2011.

Higher Resolution Displays

As I said in July’s post about iPhone 4’s Retina Display, Apple will be beefing up the resolution of all of its displays, starting with notebooks. The MacBook Air already has an improved display; the MacBook Pro is next. How high a resolution is too high? We’ll see how Apple navigates the line between display quality and the concerns of users with weaker vision or older eyes. Unlike on the iPhone, you can always change the resolution on your Mac if it makes for a better reading experience.


I’ve always been sure that the MacBook Air was a test bed for innovation, and a peek at what’s to come from Apple portables. Cupertino’s clearly gone “all in” techs like flash storage and battery improvements that it pioneered with the Air, and it’ll be genuinely exciting to see those developments trickle down to the rest of the line.

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15 Responses to “The Exciting Future of Apple’s MacBook Line”

  1. Patrick B.

    I have been looking at the new Mac Pros and Mac Air to replace my recently stolen black Mac.

    Considering the benefits of the flash storage drive for application start up, battery life and responsiveness and reliability. Would it not make sense to the average consumer to replace the HDD drive in the macbook or macbook pro with a flash drive? From a cost and benefit, you have the internal optical drive with the benefit of increased performance due to the flash drive within increased performance over the original battery life and processing speeds with the 4GB of Ram vs 2GB (Air) and higher processor 2.4GHz vs 1.8 (Air).

    And the cost to do so is less then the 13″ Mac Air with 256GB flash, 2GB RAM and 1.8 GHz processor…am I missing something?

  2. I agree with the switch from HDD to SSD and dropping the optical drive, since its not worth it having to carry that extra weight if so few people use it and you can just plug one external drive in.

    However, I am kind of disappointed in the lack of ethernet (many people still use ethernet) but even more so in the lack of USB ports. One just isnt enough, except you use your macbook air as a secondary machine (e.g. as a netbook).

    I would get an air right away, but I kinda have the need for at LEAST two USB ports. Otherwise the macbook air will be regarded as just a netbook for most users
    I am sure there are some who can live with just one USB port, but I think its not uncommon for someone to plug in an external HDD drive + something else like a mobile phone, ereader charging or whatever. I would not really feel comfortable having to plug in an external USB hub just for using an extra USB port.

    Having said that, I think the macbook air is one USB port away of becoming a true macbook replacement (i.e. being able to be the primary machine for many many users)

  3. There will be no HDD option in future MacBooks, because they can’t afford to reserve the space for one. Instead SSD will be soldered to the logic board and that will be the end of it. They’ll probably shoot the DVD drive in the head, but only for the 13 inch MB (the bigger ones are marketed as devices for professional multimedia authoring use and will have to support optical drives for a bit longer, that’s why there are still FireWire on those things today).

    I’m also kinda disappointed the new Air still doesn’t have a built-in 3G option. Kinda seemed like a good idea.

  4. Funny how they forecast the death of the optical drive, yet as far as I know the only was to get an OS upgrade, or for that matter a copy of iLife 2011 is on DVD. Does this mean the death of the OS upgrade too?? I certainly hope not. I am not in the habit of replacing computers on a yearly basis, and no optical drive = no buy for me! Even apple agrees that iLife is too big to be downloaded and requires and optical drive:

    • Tim – it’s a good point about iLife, however you’ll notice that it’s available on the new Mac App Store, therefore you won’t need it on disc. Any new MBP or MB that is optical drive-less will come with iLife pre-installed anyway, and 10.7 which will allow you access to the App Store, so no problem.
      And since they’re now supplying the OS for the new Airs on USB stick, there’s no reason to suggest they won’t do so from now on – so who needs optical storage?

      On a related note – they’ve just made the jump to Flash storage, and are conceivably going to roll that out across the line. Am I the only one thinking that as soon as ARM processors are able to match speeds (and cores etc) with conventional processors they’re going to go there too? After all, they’re much lower power, and they’re not far behind physical processors at the moment. The iPad is on a 1GHz (presumably single core) ARM processor now. The latest Air is on a 2.something GHz dual core, and there are multi-core ARM processors scheduled for release within the next 12 months, so we’re not far off.

      That would probably require a re-write of the OS, since presumably they’ll be facing the same issue as supporting PPC and x86 within a single OS, so my bet is to see that in 10.8 or 11 or whatever comes next – 2-3 years down the line. You can bet they’re working on it now though…

  5. laughingboy48

    I think a 250 GB drive is the most I need on a mobile device. I’ve got a 320 in my MacBook Pro and I’m really not using very much space at all. Maybe about 160 GB. I just don’t need very much portable storage. Even with a BootCamp partition, Parallels Desktop with Windows XP and Windows 7 Ultimate, Microsoft Office, iLife, video and music files. I’d be happy with a 256 GB flash drive.

  6. steffenjobbs

    The reason the cost of flash memory being as high as it is probably is because there isn’t as much demand for it yet, so there aren’t as many factories making it. Eventually if enough computer manufacturers use it, the cost should be driven down. In time, maybe enough to compete with hard drives. I don’t know too much about how hard it is to make flash memory, but I’d figure a piece of silicon would be a lot less trouble to build than all the moving parts in a hard drive. Any breakthroughs in the manufacturing of flash memory could be a push that sees rotating hard drives disappear for good.

    I’m not ready for optical drives to disappear since all of my archived stuff is on DVDs. I wouldn’t care if optical drives disappeared on my mobile computers because as long as they put some USB port or preferably an SDHC port, I would just move whatever files I needed to a thumb drive or SDHC card temporarily for playback. I might view the change as a nuisance for now, but eventually I’d get used to whatever changes Apple makes and deal with it. To me, a flash drive makes more sense on a mobile computer due to shock problems and battery life inefficiencies of a current hard drives.

    I don’t know why tech-heads make such a big deal out of change when the industry is changing constantly. Whether the MacBook Air becomes somewhat mainstream will depend on whether consumers like the idea of flash memory drives or not. I don’t care. As long as I can afford the newer flash drives, storage space is storage space and flash will do me just fine even if I have to pay more to get it. And if there is an improvement in speed and battery life, all the better.

  7. James Katt

    The Optical Drive in future MacBook Pros will probably be external drives connected via USB. This will allow them to be optional. This will lower the weight of the MacBook Pro.

    The MacBook Air does not have a glass screen. This is to lower weight. However, the glass screen is a nice feature on the MacBook Pro and may continue since it gives the MacBook Pro a hardier, scratch resistant, more luxurious feeling screen.

    The use of SSDs across the computer line has been coming for a long time. It already is an option in MacBook Pros. It will still probably be a standard SSD which can be upgraded, rather than the custom part on the MacBook Air.

    Without the Optical Drive, there is space for a SECOND SSD. This would be fantastic since it can be linked to the first SSD in RAID-0 configuration. This can then double the speed of the SSD, further increasing the MacBook Pro’s speed.

    Battery life is definitely going to improve. Apple is good at further miniaturizing components and improving energy efficiency. 10-12 hour battery life would be fantastic. The additional space obtained by leaving out the optical drive can be used for more battery capacity.

  8. Steve Jobs is right – one day, all notebook computers will be like the MacBook Air… One day, when optical media is truly dead (and I don’t see that happening for a long time), and when you can buy large capacity SSDs relatively cheaply. Only then will the users who have a notebook as a desktop replacement be satisfied.

    I fall into the category of owning a notebook-as-desktop-replacement. Sure, I’d like an ultra thin MacBook Air with an SSD, but unfortunately I need at least 500GB of storage and an optical drive because I still buy CDs (and will continue to do so until Apple sells ALAC on the iTunes Store).

    At the moment you can either have an ultra portable but low(ish) powered notebook, or a powerful less portable notebook, but not both in one, and I don’t see that changing in the next MacBook refresh, or the one after that, or the one after that. Give it another couple of years and we’ll see larger capacity SSD prices start to drop significantly (you can think the MacBook Air for making that happen a little faster now), and THEN maybe it’ll start to become viable. But the segregation of both different types of notebooks (targeted at two very different groups of users) will continue for a fair few years yet, I believe.

  9. I think you are wrong about the hard drive option. There won’t be no option. Current Air has 4 chips of SSD (both in 11″ and 13″, kinda sad that they offer no 256GB option for the 11″). I suspect the new Macbook line will have 128GB, 256GB and 512GB option. The 128GB might be drop down option. It also might not be. Expect to pay more than $150 for 512GB upgrade :) Don’t you wonder why the Macbook Pro lines maxes out at 500GB? There has got to be higher capacity options out there (though I never researched this). It must be planned so the 512GB SSD max does not seem like a downgrade.

    Unless you tell me how a hard drive can fit on the same 8 chips, I don’t think you can convince me the Macbook Pro will have a hard drive option :) Until a few days ago I was considering a hybrid option (as in the iMac, except with 64GB SSD for installed software and OS) but it is increasingly looking like we are looking at all SSD and North Caroline cloud.

    And I sure hope you are wrong about the optical drive. (But I recognize he might not be.) I am an Air user. Have version 3 SSD model. I will definitely be buying the next Air as soon as it gets the Sandy Bridge treatment. And I love the preview we just got. But my upgrade will probably be next summer when Lion comes out in the middle of Back to School. But my father is wedded to CDs. And I’ve been telling him to hold off until they put a non-last generation CPU into the Macbook Pro 13″. He is already gonna kill me for the expensive 512GB option (which he needs for all his music). No CD would kill him :)

  10. You need at least one computer at home with an optical drive. But if you do have a desktop with optical, then also having one on your laptop is overkill (for many people).

    As is I have a total 4 optical drives between various machines. The next one we get can definitely be without one.

  11. The original ‘air was the sneak peek at future macbooks, even though it was not spelled out at the time. It had the unibody, but Apple did not trumpet that fact until the current notebook line was introduced.

  12. On optical drives… Your statements are contradictory:

    “Optical drives are kind of pointless.” Then in the next paragraph you state: “The external Air Superdrive is still available, and it’ll probably gain compatibility with the rest of Apple’s notebooks as the internal drives disappear.”

    So if the drive is so pointless and nobody sees a need, why would it gain in popularity?

    • I think what Adam meant was the idea of optical drive being part of the macbook itself is pointless.
      I don’t think we are at the point in time where we can just dump all CD/DVD and go all digital content. People are still buying CD/DVD’s. Yes there are definite signs of decline but we are not reaching the point where very few are using CD/DVD. Therefore, if optical drives do get the boot, the external superdrives will be an essential for the immediate future.

  13. Michael V.

    I love all of the new developments that the Air can bring to the MacBook line, but I have an issue with no optical drive. I still purchase CD’s (and thus import them) and occasionally will watch a DVD on my MacBook, I really don’t want to have to get a peripheral optical drive to do those things. The optical drive certainly isn’t dead to me.