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by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Jason Snell

What changes might be coming to new Mac hardware?

macOS Big Sur
macOS Big Sur is a big software change. Will the hardware follow?

This week on Upgrade, Myke Hurley and I had some fun envisioning what features Apple might have been waiting to add to Macs until the switch to Apple-designed processors.

When the Intel transition happened, Apple was extremely restrained. The first Intel Macs were more or less the existing PowerPC Macs, but with Intel processors inside. The message was clear: Steady as she goes, no need to be concerned, these Macs are the same ones you loved, but with a different kind of chip inside.

I suppose Apple could play that game again with this transition, but I don’t think it will. Part of it is my guess that Apple’s been champing at the bit to roll all sorts of iOS features into the Mac for years, but has been limited by Intel’s architecture. What the Mac has gotten is the stuff that was enabled by the T2 chip—biometric ID, better camera control, secure storage, and security features. But there are plenty of features that haven’t come over from the iPhone and iPad, and now might be the time.

Then there’s macOS Big Sur. If Apple intended to send a message that this fall is all part of a simple, orderly transition that won’t affect users and will keep the Mac we all know and love chugging away, it would release a boring OS update with some new features and some bug fixes. Big Sur is the opposite. It’s a new interface design, and on Macs with Apple silicon, it will be paired with the ability to run unmodified iPad and iPhone apps.

Take a look at Big Sur’s rounded corners, spaced-out menus, and expanded Control Center and tell me that there isn’t going to be some dramatic new Apple hardware to go with this dramatic new operating-system release. I can’t see it. Big Sur is the start of a new Mac era, and the hardware designed to run on it will be new and exciting and different, at least a little bit.

Myke and I ended up coming up with nine features that Apple could bring over from iPhone and iPad to next-generation Macs. Here they are, in a rough order of most likely to least likely of appearing on a Mac in 2020:

Rounded screen corners. The original Mac display had rounded corners. The iPad Pro screen has rounded corners. The iPhone screen has rounded corners. Every single interface element in macOS Big Sur has rounded corners. Gee, do you think that the next wave of Macs will have rounded corners?

Touchscreens. Apple has steadfastly refused to make Mac with touchscreens, but times have changed. macOS Big Sur’s interface has been influenced by iPadOS, and maybe all the changes are is an attempt to create more of a family resemblance, but it sure feels like Apple is making an interface that’s a little more navigable via touch. But the clincher here, to me, is the arrival of iPad and iPhone apps on the Mac. Yes, you can drive those apps via keyboard and mouse—especially iPad apps that have been optimized for it—but they were designed for touch. No, the Mac is not likely to ever be a touch-first device, and it shouldn’t be. But just as the iPad accepts keyboards and trackpads and the Apple Pencil as secondary input methods, the Mac can handle touch.

Face ID. I don’t know why Apple doesn’t have Face ID on Macs already, but it’s long past time. Windows Hello has allowed users to log in with their faces for ages now. Apple’s already built a face-authentication system for iOS, and it’s time to bring it to the Mac—especially to the iMac, which can’t take advantage of Touch ID. Along the way I’d assume we’d also get a better webcam in the iMac, which I can heartily endorse.

No more tapers, and super thin. Myke thinks that Mac industrial design is going to take its cue from the iPad Pro and go flat, and thin, without a lot of the tapered edges we see today. I can see it, at least on some products, if not all of them.

Apple Pencil. If you’re going to add touch, why not add Apple Pencil? It all comes down to ergonomics. Apple Pencil support on the Mac only makes sense if Apple is going to change up the ergonomics of the Mac. But that’s something Apple absolutely could do.

New desktop ergonomics. Microsoft’s Surface Studio got our attention a few years ago because it’s a take on how you’d make an iMac that could be lowered to a more ergonomic position for touch and pen input. Apple’s best iMac design was a floating display attached to a base by an adjustable arm. After seeing the clever way Apple designed the iPad Pro Magic Keyboard, is there any doubt that this company could build an iMac that would work great in traditional keyboard and mouse mode, but also could lower down like a drafting table to allow touch and pencil input? I’d love to see that iMac.

New laptop ergonomics. For years, there have been PC laptops that let you get the keyboard out of the way in order to focus on touch or pen ergonomics. So why not a convertible or two-in-one MacBook? Such a Mac is never going to be an iPad, because on the iPad touch comes first and keyboard and pointer come second. On a convertible MacBook, keyboard and pointer would come first and touch would come second. It doesn’t mean there isn’t a market for a product like that.

ProMotion. The iPad Pro has benefited from a display with a 120Hz refresh rate for a few years now, and it’s spectacular. While making scrolling smoother might seem like a minor feature, in practice it really makes the entire interface sing. The Mac could similarly benefit from a high refresh rate, especially if the Apple Pencil is involved.

Cellular modem. It’s frustrating that you’ve never been able to configure a Mac laptop with a cellular modem, given that you’ve been able to do it on the iPad from the very start. I wouldn’t buy an iPad without a cellular modem at this point, in fact. Still, part of the story here is that macOS isn’t as good as it should be at being able to change its networking behavior based on what kind of connection it’s on. I expect cellular Mac laptops to finally happen—someday. But not until Apple’s making its own 5G modems, which won’t be this fall.

The chances that all of these things happen in 2020, or even in 2021, are almost zero. But I really do think that we’re going to see Apple import a bunch of features from its other products that have been waiting in the wings for just this moment. The next couple of years promise to dramatically change the Mac in all sorts of ways. With macOS Big Sur we’ve gotten some clues about how the software is changing. It’s hard to imagine the hardware won’t be doing the same.

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