By Dan Moren
October 19, 2021 8:51 AM PT
By all accounts, Apple’s MacBook Pro announcements this week have been a home run: the return of a veritable smorgasbord of ports, fantastic new displays, and more power than you can shake a log at.
But even though what Apple did announce seemed to strike a chord with its audience, the event left a few head-scratching questions about what Apple chose not to do. It seemed like there were a few opportunities that the company decided not to move on—but, as always, there’s probably a rationale at work, even if it’s not immediately obvious.
Exit, Center Stage
While the addition of a 1080p webcam on the MacBook Pro is a welcome improvement from the piddling 720p version in previous models, it’s still a far cry from the 12 megapixel front-facing camera that Apple’s been adding to its latest iPhones and iPads—heck, even the $329 iPad has that ultra wide lens with Apple’s innovative Center Stage1 feature. So why not the fancy new Apple silicon-powered MacBook Pro?
Round up the usual suspects: space, logistics, and money. While the new 14-inch and 16-inch MacBook Pros are undeniably thicker, at .61″ and .66″, than the svelte .25″ of the latest iPad Pros and iPad mini (and even the .25″ thickness of the ninth-generation iPad), we don’t yet know exactly how thick the lids of the new MacBooks are, nor what else Apple had to cram in there to accommodate the new mini-LED display.
On the logistics front, it seems clear that these models were destined to arrive earlier this year, back when Center Stage was exclusive to the latest iPad Pros. We don’t know the relative development cycles of MacBook Pro versus iPad Pro, but given that the new notebooks are a much more substantial redesign than the latest iPad Pro, it’s quite likely that its been in development for a longer period, and that the camera module was already locked in at 1080p even as Center Stage was still being finalized.
And, of course, you can never overlook good old fashioned money. It’s possible that Apple simply made a cost-benefit analysis and decided that the extra amount it would cost to put in those camera modules just didn’t make sense.
Or it could be some combination of all of those factors. Most interesting to me will be whether the next iteration of the MacBook Air that’s already been rumored to appear next year will incorporate a Center Stage-compatible front-facing camera. This will be the second iteration of Air to arrive since the Apple silicon transition has begun, and seems like a more plausible time for this newer technology to make the jump to the Mac.
Color me bad
Setting aside the colors on the latest iPads and iPhones, Apple made a big splash with the new 24-inch iMacs earlier this year, dousing them in a variety of bright colors. But the MacBook Pro is available in the same old staid silver and space gray that it’s sported for years. What gives?
To my mind, there are two major possible suspects here: our old pal logistics, or Apple’s own design decisions. The former follows the same pattern as the webcam issue—even though the MacBook Pro was appearing later than the iMac, it’s possible that the company was just out of sync enough in its development cycle that the new colors weren’t ready for the MacBook Pro line.
But also possible—and perhaps more likely—is that Apple has decided that pro models don’t get those fancy colors because these are serious machines for work. The iPad Pro, iPhone Pro, and even high-end Apple Watch all come in only a few muted tones, even though I wouldn’t necessarily call them all “professional” devices. Moreover, one could easily argue that adding colors to the line-up doesn’t necessitate the removal of the more subdued options (case in point, the silver 24-inch iMac).
The real indicators will probably come with the next stage of Apple’s silicon transition. Will the larger iMac come in the same colors as its smaller sibling, or will it eschew the pastels in favor of the more boring options of the MacBook Pro? The next MacBook Air, meanwhile, is rumored to come in colors more like the iMac’s, but it’s also a more consumer-focused machine. And what of the Mac mini?
Yes—what of the Mac mini?
Gettin’ mini with it
There was a lot of speculation that this week’s Apple event would not only see a MacBook Pro redesign, but also a replacement for the Intel Mac mini, which remains a product in Apple’s lineup. But when the 50-minute event came to a close, the Mac mini was left woefully untouched, with nary even a mention in the company’s press releases.
Looking at the M1 Pro and M1 Max chips that Apple rolled out this week, it seems likely that the company could have probably plugged those into the existing Mac mini chassis and had at it. But I can think of two potential reasons why the company may have held off.
The first is that perhaps the company is rethinking the Mac mini. That could mean a variety of things. Perhaps Apple wants to do a more thorough redesign, à la the iMac and MacBook Pro. It doesn’t necessarily mean bright colors (see above), but perhaps a refinement to the industrial design, some adjustment of ports, a new form factor—who knows? The Mac mini may not be the most lauded computer in Apple’s lineup, but it fills a valuable niche, and Apple is definitely aware of that, even if it only revamps the computer every few years or so. But perhaps this is the time it’s going to give the Mac mini some love.
On the other side of the coin, we’ve been hearing for a while that the next Mac Pro revision may be smaller than the current hefty model, and could provide a greater degree of customization, both upwards and downwards. Could the mythical mid-range desktop Mac in fact be happening? It’s possible that, given its forthcoming Mac Pro plans, Apple has elected to replace the mini’s niche with a smaller version of its high-end desktop, leaving the mini itself as a more entry-level option (a role it was initially intended to fill back when it was first introduced).
I’m not sure I buy this, personally: the Mac mini, as I said, has a lot of value in its small size and versatility. Like the Mac Pro, however, it may not be the most popular desktop Mac.
And that’s where my second—and, I think, more likely—theory comes into play. We’ve already seen the Apple silicon-based MacBook Pros arrive later than expected, and, unless you’ve been living disconnected from the Internet for the last year2, you’re aware of the substantial problems currently impacting the global supply chain. Based on what I’ve heard so far from folks ordering MacBook Pros, ship dates have already slipped pretty far, with many models not arriving until December.
So I think Apple gauged its ability to roll out multiple computers models powered by scant supplies of its M1 Max and M1 Pro chips and decided that it wanted to prioritize sales of the MacBook Pro, which are both more popular and, I’d presume, higher margin products. There was a lot of pent-up demand for the new MacBook Pro as it was, and probably far more customers who were going to be disappointed if they couldn’t get one than those waiting on a higher-end Mac mini. Just your classic triage situation: put as many of your supply-limited processors as you can into MacBook Pros, then update the Mac mini when it’s convenient.
If that reasoning does prove true, I wouldn’t expect to see a new high-end Mac mini until next spring at the earliest—possibly alongside the launch of the new larger iMacs. Granted, that all depends on what shape the world is in by that point—and if this past year is any indication, it could be a bumpy ride.
[Dan Moren is the East Coast Bureau Chief of Six Colors. You can find him on Twitter at @dmoren or reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. His latest novel, The Aleph Extraction, is out now and available in fine book stores everywhere, so be sure to pick up a copy.]