Jun 14 2012

Is the New MacBook Pro Refresh a Compromise?

The company’s latest upgrades include significant hardware and software improvements but split the Pro line in two.

In the latest chapter of the Apple story without Steve Jobs, Tim Cook and Apple execs took to the stage on Monday to unveil a refreshed line of MacBook Pros.

For MacBook Pro enthusiasts, there was good reason to cheer. But, interestingly, Apple went for an evolution rather than a revolution of the MacBook Pro line.

Fans of the current crop of MacBook Pros will feel right at home with the 13- and 15-inch versions, which received upgraded quad-core Intel Core i7 processors, new NVIDIA graphics processors, Thunderbolt ports and a 512GB SATA solid-state drive.

But in addition to the refreshed MacBook Pros, Apple debuted a new branch in the MacBook Pro family tree: the MacBook Pro with Retina Display.

Unlike the aforementioned MacBook Pros, the Pro with Retina Display takes a more radical approach to portable computing. Gone are the Ethernet and FireWire ports and the optical drive. Ethernet and FireWire can be used, if desired, through peripherals and adapters that plug into the two Thunderbolt ports on the device.

In exchange for this sacrifice, users get Apple’s Retina display, which means 2880x1800 screen resolution and a lighter weight (under 4.5 pounds). Also, MacBook Pro with Retina Display owners get the much-sought-after HDMI port, which means notebook owners can plug their devices directly into their HD televisions or projectors.

Is a Half Step the Right Step?

By splitting the MacBook Pro line in two, Apple is essentially using the current line of devices as a transitional step while pushing computing conventions with its MacBook Pro with Retina Display.

MG Siegler, a columnist for TechCrunch and a venture capitalist, points out on his blog Massive Greatness, that the dual line shows Apple is in a bit of a midlife crisis. There’s no question where Apple wants to go with its notebook line. But convincing its users of this vision seems to be something Apple wants to take its time with.

The bigger question: Where does the MacBook Air begin and the MacBook Pro end? With this latest refresh, Apple has brought similarities between the two even closer. The MacBook Pro with Retina Display is nearly as thin as the MacBook Air, and it has all-flash storage, just like the Air. At this point, the main advantage the Air has over the Pro is its signature teardrop form factor and its compact 11-inch version. A Retina display upgrade for the Air is inevitable, because Apple has been working its way through its product lines with the feature since it debuted the industry-leading display on the iPhone 4 back in 2010.

It probably would have made more sense if Apple had left its previous MacBook Pro line untouched but still for sale while forging ahead with the MacBook Pro with Retina Display. With the current setup, the company now has a bit of a naming conundrum on its hands. But Apple clearly isn’t worried about wonky naming conventions, since it went from the iPad to the iPad 2 and back to the iPad for the third-generation version of its tablet.

Does Apple’s MacBook Pro refresh strategy seem more like a smart chess move or a hedge?


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