Predicting Apple's New Laptops

It seems very likely that Apple will introduce new laptops at WWDC on June 11. The timing aligns nicely with the release of new processors from Intel, and credible rumors have made the rounds of late. I've been thinking of replacing my 2009 15" MacBook Pro, so the new laptop release holds extra interest for me. Meanwhile, trends in laptop design make the upcoming release both exciting and a bit hard to predict. Nonetheless, I'm going to give it a shot.

Air or Pro?

Right now, Apple sells two types of laptops: the heavier but more powerful MacBook Pro, and the lighter MacBook Air. The Pro models come in 13", 15", and 17" sizes, while the Airs are available at 11" and 13". All the Pro models contain optical (CD/DVD) drives, feature glass screens by default, and the 15" and 17" models have quad-core processors. The Airs lack optical drives, use non-glass screens and dual-core processors, and generally give up power in order to be extremely slim and light.

The existing 11" and 13" MacBook Airs will almost surely get a modest processor upgrade. Otherwise, they'll probably change very little. The interesting question is whether Apple will introduce a larger version of the Air, and what will become of the MacBook Pro line. Given the power consumed by quad-core processors, it seems very unlikely that Apple will be able to put them into the very slim MacBook Air case while maintaining adequate battery life. Nonetheless, they can't drop quad-core CPUs altogether; lots of people want the kind of power that comes with the bigger MacBook Pros. Some rumors suggest that they'll remove the optical drive from the MacBook Pros, slim them down some without moving to the wedge shape of the Air. That makes room for a bigger battery, which could drive the more powerful processor.

My guess is that Apple will split the difference. They'll introduce a slim, wedge-shaped 15" MacBook Air with a dual-core processor and place it at the top of the MacBook Air line. At the same time, they'll proceed with the slimmed-down Pro line, perhaps at only 15" and 17", letting the 13" MacBook Pro fall by the wayside. The new MacBook Pros would be both more powerful and lighter than the current models, albiet not as light as the Airs. It would lead to a bit of overlap between the Air and Pro lines, but in time that could change as low-power, high-performance CPUs become available.

Retina Display

Another rumor making the rounds is that Apple plans to introduce Retina screens to the Mac. These would be very high-resolution displays similar to the ones used on the iPhone and iPad. It's a big leap, but most of the evidence suggests Apple is ready to take the plunge. If they do, look for Retina screens to be included across the board and without an additional charge. When Apple introduced the Retina display on the iPhone 4 and the most recent iPad, they did it without increasing prices. There's no option to get a cheaper iPad without a Retina screen, unless you buy last year's model. Apple clearly believes this high-resolution technology is the future, and I don't expect them to wait around.

Marco Arment recently wondered if Retina screens would really be an upgrade at first:

I suspect that adoption of Retina assets among Mac apps will be slower than we saw with Retina iOS devices, and more importantly, Retina graphics for websites will likely take significantly longer.

Since non-Retina graphics look worse on Retina screens than on older screens, Retina MacBook users would have significantly worse-looking web browsing for a while — probably years, not months.

Marco's concern is valid, but I'm not sure it would be as big a problem as he suggests. Well-written Mac apps will be able to take advantage of automatic scaling of native UI elements. As for the web, well, it looks pretty great on the new iPad. Sure, some of the graphics are grainy, but that will change in time. On the whole, I feel like my web browsing experience is better on the iPad's Retina display, and I expect the same would be true on a Retina-screen Mac.

Price

Rarely does Apple increase prices on the machines they make. Although there's somewhat more wiggle room with computers than with iPads and iPhones, I think it's likely prices will stay about the same. The pattern in recent years has been to hold prices mostly constant while adding features and thus, value.

Choices, choices

This is one of those updates where I find it hard to gauge which model I'll want to buy after they're announced. I'd really like to buy another laptop with a 15" screen, so assuming I'm right about Apple introducing both and Air and a Pro version of a 15" laptop, I'll have a decision to make. There's also the possibility that neither machine really hits what I'm looking for, in which case I might wait it out another cycle. One way or another, June 11 should be pretty interesting.