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Six Colors

by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Stephen Hackett

The Hackett File: It’s… Complicated

I feel like there are fewer clear answers with Apple advice these days.

For several years after Steve Jobs’ return to Apple, the company made just four products, arranged in a grid:

If you were a professional, you just had to decide if you wanted a portable or not. If you were into desktops, you just had to choose how much money you wanted to spend and how much power you needed.

Things have changed a little. Last year, Tim Cook made this comment to The Washington Post:

We’re a bit larger today, so we can do a bit more than we could do 10 years ago or even five years ago. But we still have, for our size, an extremely focused product line. You can literally put every product we make on this table. That really is an indication of how focused it is. I think that’s a good thing.

To be fair, he’s not wrong. Apple’s product lines are still far less complex than those of their PC-making competitors. Their products have names that make sense, and there are clear lines between them, but picking the right computer is harder than its ever been.

On the notebook side, there’s the $999 MacBook Air at the bottom of the price sheet. It’s the cheapest Apple notebook on the market, and it shows. It doesn’t have a Retina display, and sports generations-old CPU and GPU options. It’s a budget purchase, and a far cry from the laptop’s glory days of yesteryear.

Slightly up-sheet is the MacBook. Despite the non-Air name, it’s both smaller and lighter than its cheaper cousin. It starts at $1299 for twice the storage of the base Air, but a m3 processor that can be downright pokey at time. It has just one port, but it packs a Retina display into its ultra-thin chassis.

For people picking a consumer notebook, they need to consider the ports they need, and if Retina is important to them.

The MacBook Pro is a little simpler in and of itself. You can skip the Touch Bar and save some money on an entry-level 13-inch model. The 15-inch models all come with it, and with more powerful GPU options, conforming to the “bigger is better” product strategy.

But then there’s the $1999 last-generation MacBook Pro that’s still for sale. The one so many Mac nerds still love. At $400 less than the cheapest 15-inch Touch Bar model, I assume it’s still for sale to hit a price point.

The new-style MacBook Pros come with a lot of baggage. In addition to a one-way ticket to Dongletown, they come with keyboard that are proving unreliable for many users, and are generally more expensive than their predecessors.

In the past, if someone needed a Mac notebook, I would tell them to get a MacBook Air unless they needed more power. Then, it was just down to picking a screen size and choosing storage and RAM options.

Today, I’m hesitant to suggest the new MacBook Pro to most power users. They are pricey, require lots of accessories and are expensive when they break, and they break easily. That $1999 model is a good option, but it comes with slower internals than the Late 2017 and Mid 2017 models do.

On the consumer end, it’s just as confusing. The MacBook Air used to be great, but the current offering is super old, and I think that $999 price tag is starting to look steep for what you get. The MacBook is an engineering marvel, but its speed can be an issue for some users. It uses the same Butterfly keyboard found on the Pros, but with just one dongle-attracting port.

(If you’re looking for a desktop, for now, the answer is easier. Buy an iMac, and get an SSD in it. The other two desktop Macs don’t ever get updated. Not that I’m bitter.)

Jobs’ Grid of Four is no doubt dead. I don’t mind that, but I wish there were more clear options for customers looking for a new Mac notebook these days.

[Stephen Hackett is the author of 512 Pixels and co-founder of Relay FM.]

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