Last year’s hardware, next year’s promises

Apple did a lot in 2018 to modernise its range of Mac hardware, with new MacBook Pro, MacBook Air and Mac mini models, but disappointed many by not even announcing the next iMac or Mac Pro. The one consistent message which it sent is that the T2 chip is now at the heart of all new Macs – even the most basic.

As we enter 2019, most new Macs now contain a T2 chip. The only models which don’t are the most basic MacBook Pro, which is still stuck in 2017 but at least offers an i7 processor option, the MacBook, iMac, and Mac Pro 2013. Yes, that last model has now turned five years of age. If there’s one easy forecast to make for next year’s Macs, it’s that all new models will at least contain a T2 chip.

The new Mac mini and MacBook Air are important and very promising, but have had their features carefully limited so as not to tread on the sales of other models.

The MacBook Air 2018 is stuck with one processor option, Intel Core i5, unlike its predecessors which have offered the option of a Core i7. Their graphics card, an Intel UHD Graphics 617, is another significant constraint. This keeps clear water between the Air and the MacBook Pro, with its Core i7 and i9 processor options and range of Radeon Pro graphics cards.

Where the MacBook fits into those remains far from clear. With its single USB-C port and no Thunderbolt it looks like an outdated precursor to the new MacBook Air, but with processor options that span from Core m3 to i7. Of Apple’s three laptop models, it now looks favourite to be left in limbo, as happened in late 2011.

The biggest surprise with the new Mac mini was its lack of external redesign. In the eight years since introduction of the current case, many major PC manufacturers have launched small modular computers of this class, progressively reducing their size and extending their options. Apple’s 2018 offering is by comparison unimaginative, a word I seldom use of Apple.

Its processor choice is the most impressive part: offering from Core i3 with four cores up to six i7 cores, but no i9, it has impressed on benchmarking. Until you come to graphics, of course, where its Intel UHD Graphics 630 leaves a great deal to be desired. You can add an eGPU, but that isn’t the budget option that most mini users would like.

That brings me on to Apple’s desktops, including the jaded iMac models which haven’t been improved in 18 months, and the still absent new Mac Pro.

For over three years, the iMac 27-inch has been the only widely-available computer with a 5K display, as far as I can see. Even 4K all-in-one models are relatively uncommon, although Apple’s iMac 21.5-inch seems to lead those too. There have been many disgruntled ‘pro’ users who have announced that they’re switching from Macs, but none has yet identified a good substitute for the iMac 27-inch.

This coming year, probably at WWDC in early June, I expect Apple to release new iMacs with processor options similar to the latest Mac mini, T2 chips, and a choice of 21.5 inch (4K) and 27 inch (5K) displays. The problem that Apple is perhaps wrestling with, and the reason for the iMac’s delay, is how to refresh its design. The current ‘thick monitor’ model goes back over 14 years to the iMac G5, when we were still impressed with a PowerPC processor running at 1.8 GHz.

The iMac Pro seems to have been a useful and powerful stopgap between the high end iMac 5K and the Mac Pro 2019. Its only real design innovation over the old iMac is its colour. Whether it will survive in a year’s time, with the advent of new iMacs and Mac Pros, I doubt.

It’s at the top end that I think Apple hopes to draw gasps, with a Mac Pro to be announced at WWDC but not available until the autumn. It should offer updated specs comparable to the iMac Pro, but in a modular system. I wouldn’t be surprised to see its GPU go external too.

Apple’s biggest problem in hardware next year is not in computers as such, but displays. There are plenty of larger screens than the current 27 inch 5K, but few that even reach 4K for their size. If Apple is going to sell its new Mac Pro, it will also need high quality 4K and 5K Thunderbolt 3 displays to match it. Maybe it will bring those back under its own badge again.

I’m sure that there will also be updates to Apple’s most lucrative Mac, the MacBook Pro.

There are two outstanding hardware issues. The first is whether Apple tests the water with any of its ARM-based Macs this year. In the same way that it did with the Developer Transition System in June 2005, Apple needs to give developers early access to pre-production systems. My feeling is that this is unlikely in 2019, when the changes coming in macOS 10.15 including its 64-bit only architecture, and switch to App Store or notarized apps, could be more than enough to cope with.

The other is whether Apple intends more innovative input devices inspired by experience with the Touch Bar. If Macs aren’t going to have touchscreens – a very wise choice as far as I am concerned – there remains plenty of scope for touch-based devices which go beyond current trackpads. I would be very exciting to see innovation in this area.

So my summary targets for new Mac hardware reads:

  • WWDC, June 2019 – launch of new iMacs with processor specs similar to new Mac minis, T2 chips, and hopefully a more distinctive design.
  • WWDC, June 2019 – announcement of new Mac Pro with processor specs similar to iMac Pro, T2 chips, and a modular design possibly with a range of eGPUs.
  • WWDC, June 2019 – new displays to match mini+eGPU and Mac Pro, possibly Apple-badged.
  • Autumn 2019 (or possibly Spring) – revamped MacBook Pro.
  • Candidates for discontinuation in 2019 are the MacBook and iMac Pro.
  • Wild cards are more Apple custom chips like the T2, and novel input devices.

But please, don’t laugh when I’m proved wildly wrong.