Last Week on My Mac: Who needs a desktop Mac?

My biggest near-disaster with a portable computer occurred at Washington Dulles Airport one evening just over thirty years ago. Even then security checks required those carrying on computers to demonstrate that they worked by powering them up. As I hurriedly shut down my Macintosh Portable and went to rush through to Departures, my grip slipped on the 7.2 kg (16 pounds) beast, propelling it towards the security guard who had just waved me through. Mercifully it didn’t deliver its hefty kinetic energy to her soft tissues, I regained control and returned to the UK without any charge of assault.

Over those thirty years I’ve been a staunch critic of portable computers, even those that don’t require regular bodybuilding sessions. Whenever anyone has suggested buying a laptop, I’ve pointed out their shortcomings compared with a desktop model of similar cost:

  • small display,
  • short battery life,
  • poor performance,
  • design compromises,
  • overheating leading to a shorter working life,
  • poor keyboard,
  • dreadful input device, such as a miniature joystick nipple,
  • limited memory and storage.

And I could and did go on.

By comparison, I’d say that desktop computers had features that no laptop could ever compete with, such as

  • expansion slots,
  • multiple storage devices,
  • multiple large high-quality displays.

Over those years, portable and desktop computers have inevitably changed, as have their users. From the heyday of ‘cheesegrater’ Mac Pro models stuffed with four spinning hard disks, expansion slots have come to mean just a graphics card, with the remaining slots empty. Faster ports have made it preferable to add external disks. Recent notebooks, as Apple refers to its portable Macs, have gained better displays, keyboards and trackpads. But the fundamental compromises of battery endurance, performance, capacity and heat have remained.

Not that I haven’t bought any Mac (or PC) notebooks, but I’ve stuck steadfastly with a highly unportable desktop as my main production system, currently an iMac Pro.

The last few weeks have blown away thirty years of sage advice in a single sixteen-inch M1 Pro equipped MacBook Pro. With the sole exception of those now largely unused expansion slots, every item in my lists has been overturned.

I’m now in a quandary. My iMac Pro is getting on a bit, and will soon be three. Do I replace it with an Apple Pro Display XDR and my M1 Pro, or wait for Apple’s M1 successor to the 27-inch iMac? I’d always thought the Pro Display an unwarranted extravagance, but in terms of cost there’s likely to be little difference between it and that new iMac by the time the latter has been equipped with sufficient memory and storage.

There will still be plenty who have good reasons for sticking with a desktop Mac, but computers have now moved on with Apple’s M1 series chips. For the great majority of users, a MacBook Air or Pro should surely be their first choice. Buying a desktop system now makes the biggest sacrifice, in that you can’t take it with you whenever you wish.

M1 Macs are the current stage on a journey which Apple started almost 31 years ago when it joined with Acorn Computers and VLSI Technology to form ARM. Today’s M1 MacBook Pros are part of an even longer and more momentous journey which Apple began back in 1986 when it started designing the Macintosh Portable. Putting that “portable’s” weight in context, the Pro Display XDR weighs less than half a kilogram (half a pound) more, and the top-range M1 Max is little more two kilograms (under five pounds) in all.

For the great majority of people, look first at an M1 notebook. Only if your needs really can’t be satisfied by one of that range should you consider a desktop. That’s today’s revolution.