MacBook Pro with Retina Display running Final Cut Pro

MacBook Pro with Retina Display running Final Cut Pro

In early May I wrote about how Apple was going to make use of Intel’s latest processors in this years generation of Macs. At the time no Macs had been updated during 2012 and the iMac amongst others was looking long in the tooth, although that was nothing compared to the Mac Pro. As WWDC approached it became clear that other than a focus on software Apple would give some significant attention to the Mac.

Notably missing in my piece on Ivy Bridge Macs was any discussion about the direction of the MacBook Pro and any predictions about Apple’s use of Retina displays in Macs.

Now WWDC has passed we can see how Apple’s Mac roadmap is shaping up and whilst Apple certainly surprised me with some of the the updates they delivered the majority of the news out of San Francisco earlier this month was in line with expectation. I wrote up the details of Apple’s new MacBook Pro with Retina Display after the keynote and the minor changes to the rest of the MacBook Pro lineup and the MacBook Air, I’ll cover that briefly and then move on.

MacBook Pro with Retina Display

MacBook Pro with Retina Display running Aperture

Starting with Apple’s new Mac known officially as the MacBook Pro with Retina Display (MBPwRD) or far more colloquially called the Retina MacBook Pro. The headline feature of Apple’s new high-end portable Mac is of course the display that rocks in at 15.4-inches with a resolution of 2880 x 1800 pixels for a total number of pixels exceeding 5 million.

Inside Apple spared no engineering prowess and made the first MacBook Pro with a fully flash-based architecture. Rocking Intel’s latest Ivy Bridge quad-core processors and NVIDIA’s Kepler graphics, all models come with SSDs (up to 768GB), no optical drive and as standard 8GB of RAM (configurable up to 16GB). The speed improvements continue outside the machine as well with two Thunderbolt ports, a HDMI connection and for the first time in a Mac USB 3.0 ports—two of them.

This was the machine I avoided talking about when I was writing my predictions for this year’s Macs. I suspected that if Apple was to move in this direction then it’d take the whole MacBook Pro line that way not simply add to it—although product numbers are unchanged with the demise of the 17-inch MacBook Pro. Apple has clearly decided that cost is a factor with this new machine and that it’s too soon to not be able to buy a Mac notebook with an optical drive and a 1TB hard drive.

Additionally I couldn’t work out how Apple would keep the raw power of the MacBook Pro lineup and cram it into a smaller enclosure without some serious heat issues. It’s still a bit early to tell how well Apple has dealt with the sheer heat output of Intel’s quad-core Ivy Bridge processors and a reasonably powerful GPU but so far reports look positive. Some careful engineering of air movement and newly designed asymmetric fan designs are aimed at cooling the machine more efficiently whilst generating less noise.

So Apple has kept the 13- and 15-inch MacBook Pro models around, they still have optical drives, they can have an SSD or up to a 1TB hard drive. Along with some healthy upgrades to Intel’s Ivy Bridge and some updated graphics the MacBook Pro also got USB 3.0.

MacBook Air (Mid 2012)

MacBook Air (Mid 2012)

Just like the MacBook Pro the MacBook Air fell more in line with expectations getting a modest update, Ivy Bridge processors from Intel made their way into the MacBook Air delivering significant speed increases. Coupled with Ivy Bridge was the inclusion of USB 3.0 connectivity. What I didn’t write about back in May was the potential changes to SSDs within the MacBook Air, apart from being able to configure a MacBook Air with up to 512GB of storage the type of SSD Apple is now using is also notably faster. AnandTech has a detailed write up about the changes to SSDs in the new MacBook Air line.

The Mac Pro also got an update, but not an impressive one. After over two years without a refresh the Mac Pro retains the same look and basically the same innards. Instead of sticking in Intel’s latest processors Apple decided to use older generation chips, the same applies to the mediocre graphics options. Unlike its portable brethren the Mac Pro didn’t get any Thunderbolt ports or an upgrade to USB 3.0. The fallout from this insulting update was handled by Apple in an extraordinary way with the company all but announcing a significant and worthy update to the Mac Pro next year.

Unsurprisingly but in a change to Apple’s usual ways the company clearly opted to focus on its mobile Macs. Apple sells more notebooks than desktops and clearly with the advent of high resolution displays desktops are slowly on there way out in the consumer sphere. This is different because Apple’s iMac usually leads the pack when it comes to refreshes, however this year the iMac languishes behind.

Apple left two Macs without an update this month: the iMac and the Mac mini. Both are relatively easy to predict in terms of direction. All that was said in the original Ivy Bridge Mac predictions holds true, the Mac mini is unaffected by the movement towards Retina displays and the iMac won’t see such a development for 12-18 months.

Once the iMac and Mac mini move over to Ivy Bridge, presumably sometime in July this year, that’ll likely be Apple’s Mac lineup to take us through the back to school period and into the holiday season until it begins again next year.

So what happens in 2013?

It’s easy to see which direction Apple is heading with its Macs and that is towards Retina displays. Ryan Block did some number crunching when it comes to how Apple will decide what resolution display to put into its future Macs.

As Block explains Apple just doubled the resolution of the 15-inch MacBook Pro to get to the resolution in the 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display. This is the same as Apple did with both the iPhone and iPad, yet this solution would probably not be ideal for the 11- and 13-inch MacBook Air. The 13-inch Air actually shares the same resolution as the 15-inch display as the MacBook Pro with a resolution of 1440 x 900 (127 PPI) and the 11-inch has a bizarrely high resolution display for its price with 135 pixels per inch.

Apple has decided that based on the distance that a notebook is used that the PPI needn’t be as high as that on the iPad or iPhone and simply doubling the resolution of the MacBook Air models would give needlessly high resolution displays. As Block writes, it is wise to base the 13-inch Airs display on the doubling of the 13-inch MacBook Pro display which would yield a 2560 x 1600 for a PPI of 227.

For the 11-inch Air, Block doesn’t simply double the resolution which would deliver a display with a higher PPI than the iPad 3 and instead he shoots for a 220 PPI range and comes out with a potential resolution range of 2200-2300 x 1200-1300.

Early-2011 iMac Family

Early-2011 iMac Family

The 27-inch iMac which is unlikely to see a jump to Retina displays at the same time as the MacBook Air would see its enormous display pushed to a resolution of 5120 x 2880 (217 PPI), the 21.5-inch iMac presents more of a dilemma as doubling its already low 1920 x 1080 would mean a lowly 205 PPI display. Block speculates that in this case Apple would do more than double the resolution.

Let’s condense that:

  • 15.4-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display – 2880 x 1800 (220 PPI)
  • 13-inch MacBook Air/Pro – 2560 x 1600 (227 PPI)
  • 11-inch MacBook Air – 2200-2300 x 1200-1300 (220 PPI)
  • 27-inch iMac/Thunderbolt Display – 5120 x 2880 (218 PPI)

In 2013 Intel will also move away from the Ivy Bridge architecture into the era of Haswell (get used to that name). In line with Intel’s tick tock principle next years generation of Haswell will remain 22nm as the current generation of Sandy Bridge (tick generation of Sandy Bridge was Sandy Bridge and tock was Ivy Bridge, easy right?). The Haswell roadmap of features is still being kept as closely guarded as possible but some of the headline features that are rumoured include a focus on quad-core processors, 256KB L2 data cache per core and up to 32MB L3 cache shared by all cores, 15W TDP processors, continued advances in power management, and native support for dual channel DDR3.

The question on everybody’s minds though is how will Apple proceed with the MacBook Pro line. The current Retina MacBook Pro is expensive but not all of that expense is in that high-resolution display, a lot of it is in the engineering costs and expensive flash-based innards.

It’s too early to tell whether next year Apple will kill the 15-inch MacBook Pro with the optical drive, or even the 13-inch for that matter. But the writing is on the table.

It’s rumoured that the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display will come before this year is out. That seems likely and with a better yield on the Retina displays Apple will finally be able to push them into the cheaper MacBook Air line and have conditioned consumers to accept that optical drives are a thing of the past which coupled with rapidly decreasing SSD prices will see a complete Retina lineup for MacBooks in 2013.

What are your predictions for the future of Macs? Tweet me @alexbrooks or @worldofapple.