Apple Silicone cures its midlife crisis
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The Mac, formerly the more austere Macintosh, turns 40 today, putting Apple’s longest-running product squarely in middle age. But like someone who sees the back half of their life approaching and gets in marathon-runner shape, the Mac is in the strongest place it’s been for decades. Mac sales fell precipitously from a revenue standpoint in 2023. This was after four years’ growth, likely due to pent up demand for an upgraded Mac lineup.
In 2020, Apple finally started delivering on that, thanks in large part to Apple Silicon arriving in the Mac, ushering in the era we’re in now. While the Mac was on shaky ground prior to Apple Silicon, it would now be pretty silly to suggest the Mac won’t make it to its 50th birthday. That wasn’t always a given, though. While the Mac is Apple’s oldest product, it’s also gone through numerous moments where it appeared to be on the brink of irrelevance or complete disaster. Through most of the ‘90s, before CEO Steve Jobs returned to lead the company he had founded, the Macintosh was a mess.
It was too expensive for the power it delivered, Apple’s product lineup was confusing and cluttered and Windows PCs now had both the GUI and performance to make the Mac a poor choice for most people. The G3 and G4 were still behind the PCs, even after Jobs’ return and the introduction of the iMac and iBook lines while revitalizing Power Mac and Powerbook. Ironically, the move to Intel in 2006 helped make the Mac more relevant, even as it held Apple back a decade later, as the company chased thin and light laptop designs with “innovations” like the Touch Bar and butterfly keyboard that held it back while letting its power languish.
But in 2014, Mac turned 30 and was in a pretty decent place. Apple had focused on the iPhone, then the iPad in recent years with former CEO Steve Job — an implication that the iPad would be the more mainstream car for most people. The Mac was a compelling laptop, at least in terms of price. The MacBook Air was finally what Jobs wanted when he pulled the laptop out of an envelope in 2008 on stage. The MacBook Air was a thin and light laptop that was reasonably powerful and affordable. The spillover effect of people buying iPhones and iPods helped make the MacBook Air ubiquitous in coffee shops, college campuses, and other public places. The MacBook Pro was marketed to creative professionals and had a great display, many ports, and enough power to make it a mobile studio.
If you look closely, the lineup has many weak points. The Mac Pro’s strange saga was perhaps the most obvious. For years, Apple’s tower-style computer had gotten more and more expensive, clearly priced out of the range of most consumers. That wasn’t a bad thing on its own, but Apple failed to recognize what its target market was looking for when it released the cylindrical Mac Pro redesign in 2013 — and then failed to meaningfully upgrade it for years. Between the lack of updates and a design that limited expandability, the Mac Pro was a bit of a joke in Apple’s lineup for the better part of a decade.
Apple made a similar disastrous change to the MacBook Pro 2016 Let’s count the ways Apple messed up with this laptop generation. The first thing to note is that Apple has failed to deliver on this generation of laptops. Unreliable butterfly keyboardApple made these laptops thin and light by removing the ports. There were also ports that were useful like HDMI, USB A and an SD slot removed in favor of four USB C / Thunderbolt, of which one was needed for charging. There’s also the Touch Bar, a thin OLED strip on the keyboard that dynamically changed depending on what app you were using. The Touch Bar was a neat idea that didn’t gain much traction among developers or users. Users were also confused by the lack of an escape key.
While the MacBook Air languished for years, with only minor updates and a low-resolution display and design that quickly became uncompetitive. The iMac, Mac mini and other desktop machines were still available. However, choosing a Mac laptop was a compromise that required paying for a product that did not meet all of your needs.
Apple’s new tower-style Mac Pro, which offers more expansion options, showed signs of a turnaround in 2019. Apple reversed the disastrous butterfly keyboard and brought scissor-style key back to the MacBook Pro (which was updated with a Retina Display and more current Intel Processors). Apple made the incredible decision to make the Redesigned 16-inch MacBook Pro thicker and heavier than the one it replaced, something that showed the company was moving away from thinner and lighter at all costs, especially in products like this where it just didn’t make sense to chase a smaller form factor at the expense of performance.
However, the Mac really rebounded in late 2020, when Apple released the first Macs running on the company’s own custom silicon. Apple has been designing chips since 2010, when the A4 was first used in the iPhone 4 & original iPad. The combination of efficiency and power that the company had mastered had proven to be an advantage for the company. And the first round of Macs running Apple Silicon included some of Apple’s most popular models, like the MacBook Air and 13-inch MacBook Pro.
The improvements were immediately obvious — , we said the M1-powered MacBook Air “redefines what an ultraportable can be.” The combo of huge performance gains alongside wildly impressive battery life made the MacBook Air a no-brainer. Mac mini is a great desktop computer if you are looking for a cheap one.
Apple announced that the next major upgrade for Macs will arrive in late 2021. MacBook Pro issues are resolvedIt was introduced with the 2016 version. The completely redesigned MacBook Pro 14-inch and 16-inch models brought back many ports that Apple had removed initially, banished Touch Bar and used new M1 Pro chips and M1 Max that improved the multicore performances of these laptops beyond their Intel-based counterparts.
Apple’s Mac Studio, introduced in March 2022, was the last major piece. The Mac Pro was still powered by Intel chips, but the new Mac Studio offered a compromise between the Pros and Minis. The $2,000 version included the M1 Max processor, which can be found in MacBook Pros if you are willing to spend the money. But the $4,000 version essentially strapped two of these chips together to create the M1 Ultra. The M1 Ultra, which replaced it, has a 76 core GPU along with a 24-core CPU. Plain and simple, it’s the kind of power Apple hadn’t offered in its computers for a long time.
Apple has been mostly in a refinement mode since 2022. Most Macs are now using the M3 architecture. But there are a few places that could still use an overhaul — the Mac Pro moved to Apple Silicon late in the transition to these new chips, only arriving this past June. It has a tower-style expandable case and runs the same M2 ultra that you can get with the Mac Studio, but costs $3,000 more. There’s a pretty big opportunity for Apple to put in an even higher-end workstation-class — maybe it can just bolt two of the M3 Ultras that are surely coming together to further separate the Mac Pro from the Studio.
Apple has recently taken another step to make Mac gaming a thing. The company is bringing popular mainstream titles like Death StrandingThe following are some examples of how to get started: Resident Evil 4 To the platform. But the company still isn’t in the same realm of gaming on Windows, despite the massive power Apple Silicon offers. If the company can figure out a way to make porting games easier, developers could have a whole new market to sell to — and Apple would have another feather in its cap. If the company has any ambitions of really pushing past PCs the way the iPad came to dominate the tablet market, they’ll need to push even harder to get big games on the Mac.
And, of course, we’re just a week away from Apple releasing its first new platform in almost a decade, the Vision Pro. While it’s launching as a wildly expensive, standalone device, it’s not hard to imagine the market expanding if the form factor catches on. If that happens, it’s possible that we will see a Vision that runs Mac applications natively and not just view them. Apple has long held the belief that its platforms should stand on their own, though — witness the futile calls for a touchscreen Mac or a version of MacOS for the iPad Pro. But in this case, maybe we’ll be talking in 10 years about how spatial computing was the next thing to move the Mac forward.