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by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Jason Snell

Brooklyn event impressions: Love for the Mac

“People love the Mac,” said Apple CEO Tim Cook, kicking off Tuesday’s Apple event in Brooklyn. And Cook—who has always seemed to bring more enthusiasm to his discussions of the iPhone and iPad—proceeded to spend several minutes on stage testifying about the Mac’s relevance and importance. (I wondered aloud to the person sitting next to me if Cook had lost a bet.)

Still, it’s good to hear the CEO of Apple profess his love of the Mac and back it up with some stats, like 100 million Macs in the active installed base, a growing number of first-time Mac buyers (especially in China, a favorite market of Cook’s). And most importantly, the Mac ranks number one in Tim Cook’s favorite statistic, customer satisfaction. Or to put it another way: Yeah, people do love the Mac!

Oh, and Apple introduced two brand-new revisions of old Mac favorites. And they’re apparently made out of the shavings left over when Apple’s done making iPads and iPhones? That’s a detail that will launch a thousand metaphors about Apple’s priorities.

Anyway, here’s a quick take on the Mac news from Tuesday’s event.

MacBook confusion not resolved

I was really hoping that Tuesday’s event would be the final item in Apple’s slow-moving revision of its entire laptop line into something that’s simple and clear. That didn’t happen! In fact, things might be messier than ever.

There’s a new MacBook Air, which is quite a turnaround from the introduction of the MacBook (and later, the MacBook Pro “Escape” model), both of which were sort of pitched as replacements for the MacBook Air. The MacBook Air continued to exist, largely because of its $999 price, and it just kept selling.

So now there’s a new Air, plus the MacBook, plus the MacBook Escape, plus the 13- and 15-inch MacBook Pro with Touch Bar, and the old $999 MacBook Air is still being sold! The MacBook and Escape didn’t get updated, either. Things are clear as mud.

This new MacBook Air is cheaper than the MacBook, but it’s also larger and more capable, with two Thunderbolt 3 ports as opposed to the MacBook’s single USB-C port. The processor is likely superior, though it seems like it may be from the same low-wattage family as the one in the MacBook, which means this Air is not necessarily going to be as impressive a worker as the old Air was. (For that extra power, you’ll have to go up to the MacBook Escape, which remains a product in Apple’s line-up.)

So the real question is, why did people keep buying the MacBook Air all this time? Was it that $999 price? Was it the design? The size? The fact that it was the last Apple laptop without the new butterfly keyboard design?

Apple’s about to find out, because this new Air costs $1199, has that new keyboard style, but retains the design and size of the old model.

Welcome back, buddy

Continued confusion about the laptop line aside, can I just say how I’m glad that the MacBook Air didn’t die after all? This is a deathbed reprieve of the best kind.

I have used the MacBook Air since the very first model. It turned into Apple’s best-selling laptop (and maybe Mac?) for a good reason—it offered great performance and good value in a tiny package. We still have three different MacBook Airs in use in my house. The old model lingered so long on Apple’s price lists that I began to wish for a mercy killing, but this is even better. It’s back, baby!

The moment I got my hands on one after the event on Tuesday. I closed it and picked it up. I looked at the hinge. I flipped it over and looked at the curved underside with the four little feet. Yes, this is a very different device—Those USB-C ports! That retina display! That black bezel!—but it’s still absolutely a MacBook Air. (Except it was gold! That’s weird.) This is the next-generation Air that I wished Apple had made in 2015. It didn’t then, but here it is now.

The addition of Touch ID to the Air is really interesting. It’s the first Mac to get Touch ID without also getting the Touch Bar. I’m not quite sure what the future of the Touch Bar is, but this is clearly a vote of approval for Touch ID on the Mac. At this point I’d expect every new Mac laptop design to have Touch ID, which means every new Mac laptop will have the T2 processor or a successor.

I’m a little surprised that Apple hasn’t brought Face ID to the Mac yet, but perhaps that will be an upgrade that hits the MacBook Pro models first. (It also makes the most sense for desktop Macs—perhaps in an updated iMac and a standalone 5K display?—because desktop Macs don’t have built-in keyboards that have room for a Touch ID sensor.)

Anyway, that butterfly keyboard. I don’t hate it but I certainly don’t love it. My daughter uses her MacBook all the time and doesn’t complain, so apparently it doesn’t bother her? And Apple probably has a bunch of user research that shows that most people don’t care. But if you hate that keyboard—and it seems to be a more polarizing design than the last one—it means you have no good options on the Mac right now.

Regardless of what you think of the butterfly keyboard, you’ve got to chuckle at least a little at Apple’s breathless promotion of how the keyboard offers unprecedented precision and key stability. Was anyone complaining that the keys on their laptop were unstable and imprecise? What a strange thing to single out. I typed hundreds of thousands of words on the MacBook Air keyboard without once thinking that the keycaps should be a little more stable. Oh well—that keyboard’s gone. It’s the butterfly way or the highway for the foreseeable future.

Comet Macmini returns

Like a comet, the Mac mini appears in the spotlight briefly and then vanishes from view for years. This was the first time in four years since the Mac mini got love on stage, and that last update was completely underwhelming. This one’s waaaaay better. In fact, I have to say that it pretty much checked every box I wanted it to check. This is the Mac mini Apple should be making.

First, the look: Uh… they took the old case and made it Space Gray? I like Space Gray just fine, but I don’t entirely understand Apple’s apparent enthusiasm for it. It’s just dark silver? I’m a little surprised Apple didn’t design a new and smaller case, but instead they apparently redesigned everything on the inside of that 100% recycled aluminum case. That’s fine.

Let’s check the boxes: A four-core processor by default, with built-to-order options up to a six-core model. Keep in mind, in 2014 Apple removed the four-core option that had been previously available for the Mac mini. I guess they got the message?

On the memory side, it can take up to 64GB, and it’s on two 2666MHz SO-DIMMs that are apparently user replaceable. (Apple recommends you get a professional to do the upgrade, though. As someone who has disassembled and reassembled a Mac mini and broke a bunch of stuff along the way, I think this is good advice.)

The storage story is also good. Spinning hard drives have been sent to the cornfield at last, and the new high-speed SSD storage is controlled by the Apple-built T2 ARM chip. This is the way of the future. It enables not only improved security, but fast storage, speedy video encoding, and a bunch of other features. It’s hard to imagine Apple doing any new Mac designs that don’t eject spinning disks and replace them with SSDs controlled by a T2 (or successor).

Then there are the ports! Apple’s go-to move is simplification—fewer ports, fewer buttons, the works. On the new Mac mini, it’s gone the other way, giving all us nerds exactly what we were clamoring for. Hello, four Thunderbolt 3 ports, plus two USB-A ports, plus HDMI, Gigabit Ethernet (upgradeable to 10GB Ethernet!) and a headphone jack. What is this, 2015?

In what is very definitely a trend with Apple, the Mac mini is also more expensive than before. It starts at $799 and goes up rapidly from there. But I’ve got to say that this doesn’t bother me as much, because this is Apple building a much more capable Mac mini. The days when the Mac mini was a bridge for switchers to use to replace their PCs seem… almost quaint now? The Mac mini serves a different purpose. In reality, it’s probably been serving that purpose for a long time. Apple has finally caught up. I know I’m ordering one.

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