With KGI suggesting that we could see new MacBook models as early as the first half of the year, I thought it would be a good time to expand on the suggestions we made in our 2016 roundup and speculate in a little more detail on what we might expect from those machines.
There is rather a lot of speculation involved, for a couple of reasons. First, while we tend to see a number of leaks and rumors for the iPhone – not least from our own Mark Gurman – there are notably fewer for Macs. We’ll likely see some nearer the time, but we could as yet still be six months out.
Second, it’s easier to predict what Apple is likely to do with regard to the MacBook range than when it might do it. I’ve argued before that we can at some point expect Apple to drop the MacBook Air label, leaving two ranges known as the MacBook and the MacBook Pro. But whether that will happen this year or next is, I think, harder to guess.
But let’s start with what we know about the technology available to Apple this time around …
Apple currently uses a mix of Broadwell and Haswell processors in its MacBook Air/Pro range. This year, Intel will have 6th-gen Skylake chips available in time for a June launch.
Skylake will offer a significant speed bump over current chips. We’re likely to see gains in the 10-20% range in the CPU, and rather better from the graphics, where improvements of up to 40% are possible.
Skylake chips are also notably more power efficient than current-generation processors, offering power savings in the 15-30% range. Apple could use this improved efficiency to boost battery life, reduce battery size or a combination of the two. I’ll share my thoughts on this shortly.
The latest kid on the block in terms of ports is of course the USB-C standard which Apple used in the 12-inch MacBook. Since then, Intel gave USB-C a new capability: incorporating Thunderbolt into the chip.
Finally, Skylake incorporates a couple of new wireless communication standards, WiDi – Wireless Display – and WiGig, short-range high-speed wireless data of up to 7Gbps. Future versions of the chip will also support wireless charging, but those won’t be available in time for a June launch. These features may influence Apple’s decisions on future monitors and accessories (wireless Thunderbolt Display and external drives, for example), but won’t have any immediate impact on the machines themselves.
So, that’s the technology Apple has to play with – what do I think it will do with it?
Across the range
Apple has to adopt Skylake: it would be silly to launch any new Mac without taking advantage of the sixth-generation Intel chips. For me, the only question here is whether the new MacBook Air gets a full-powered Skylake chip, or the much lower-powered Core M version. More on this when we look specifically at the Air.
It’s also a no-brainer that Apple will add USB-C to both MacBook Air and MacBook Pro machines – and given that USB-C now incorporates Thunderbolt, Apple will undoubtedly drop the standalone Thunderbolt port. The only question here is whether Apple will retain any other legacy ports.
There’s another piece of technology Apple has had for a while now but not yet added to the Mac: Touch ID. With many of us used to logging in to our iPhone and iPad with our fingerprint, it feels rather clunky to have to type a password when we login to our Macs. Apple first patented fingerprint login to Macs way back in 2007, but adding the hardware to MacBooks is not the only approach it could take.
Apple could take a Continuity-style approach and allow us to use Touch ID on our iPhone to login to our Macs. There are already third-party apps that allows us to do this, so there’s no technical barrier to Apple going this route.
But one way or the other – hardware or software – I think 2016 is the year Apple needs to allow us to use Touch ID on our Macs. This would not only allow fingerprint login, but would also be a far more convenient way to access the secure Notes facility introduced in OS X 10.11.4, and to add Apple Pay as a payment option on the apple.com website.
Finally, I’d expect at least the Air – and possibly also the Pro – to mirror the color options of the 12-inch MacBook, offering a choice of silver, space gray and gold. Just my take.
So now let’s talk specifics …
2016 MacBook Air/MacBook
I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that this will be the year in which Apple drops the Air suffix, so I’m going to use the label MacBook for the machine currently known as the MacBook Air.
It would be silly to launch a 12-inch machine only to retain an 11-inch one, so I think we can safely say that the 11-inch MacBook Air will not be replaced. We’ve also heard rumors of a 15-inch MacBook Air, which would give us 12-, 13- and 15-inch models. (My only question here would be whether there’s really a need for both 12- and 13-inch machines? Could Apple instead drop the 13-inch model?)
If I’m right about the label, then we can expect the larger machine(s) to adopt the design of the 12-inch MacBook. This will, I suspect, include the single USB-C port (incorporating Thunderbolt).
Which brings us back to the Skylake power efficiency question I posed earlier: will Apple boost the battery-life or reduce the battery size? At least where the MacBook range is concerned, I think it will reduce the size to match the much sleeker proportions of the 12-inch model. And, for good or bad, I think that also means we can expect Apple to use the ultra-low-profile butterfly keyboard on the 13- and 15-inch models.
There is another messiness in the current MacBook/Air range: the 12-inch model has a Retina display, the current 11- and 13-inch machines don’t. That too needs to be tidied-up, and other manufacturers are using high-resolution displays in their ultrabooks, so I strongly suspect that we can expect Apple to use Retina screens across the entire range.
The final question, then, is whether the MacBook range gets the full-fat Skylake processors I expect to see in the MacBook Pro, or the cut-down Core M version whose predecessor was used in the 12-inch machine. This is a very tricky one, as it really depends on how well the 12-inch machine has sold. If it appears to have a niche market only, then the larger machines will probably get the real deal when it comes to their Skylake processors. But if sales of the 12-inch machine have demonstrated that most non-pro buyers are all about the portability, and never mind the power, we could see Core M CPUs across the MacBook range – which would also serve as a strong differentiator between the MacBook and MacBook Pro ranges.
2016 MacBook Pro
The 13-inch MacBook Pro currently has Intel’s Broadwell chipset, but the 15-inch has the previous-generation Haswell. The blame here may lay with Intel rather than Apple, but either way Apple definitely needs to set things right by ensuring the new machines get the new Skylake chips with beefier Iris Pro graphics to match.
It would be nice to imagine that Apple would also double the entry-level RAM from the present 8/16GB (depending on model) to 16/32GB, but the company has not historically been generous with RAM, so I’m not expecting to see an increase here.
SSDs have been falling dramatically in price, so it would also be pleasant to think Apple might bump standard storage capacity from 128/256/512GB on the 13-inch model to 256/512/1TB, with the 15-inch getting 512GB/1TB. But Apple’s thinking of late seems to be that our data should be in the cloud rather than on our machines, so I’m again not optimistic.
Apple has form when it comes to getting well ahead of the curve where legacy technology is concerned, dropping first the floppy drive and later the optical drive well before any other mainstream manufacturer. It also didn’t hesitate to drop legacy ports from the 12-inch MacBook.
The MacBook Pro is of course aimed at a different market – one where many users do connect a number of peripherals at any one time. For this reason, I definitely don’t expect it to go the same single-port route as the MacBook, but I do expect it to standardize on USB-C.
I’ve already mentioned that there’s no longer any need for a separate Thunderbolt port now that USB-C incorporates it, and I suspect we can also wave goodbye to HDMI when either an adapter or AirPlay to Apple TV will do the job.
To me, the only questions are whether the MBP retains any USB 3 ports and the SDXC card slot. Users with multiple USB 2/3 devices would undoubtedly by annoyed by Apple losing these ports, but I do suspect that after some initial grumbling at the need to buy and carry adapters, most of us would get over it. And with many of today’s cameras offering Wi-Fi connectivity, Apple could make a case for losing the card slot too.
One strong possibility, then, would be to lose all ports bar the headphone socket, replacing them all with four or five USB-C ports and relying on adapters for everything else.
I’d personally love to think that another differentiator between MacBook and MacBook Pro ranges would be battery-life. Use the improved power efficiency of the Skylake processors to deliver a sleeker form-factor in the MacBook via smaller batteries, but retain the battery sizing in the Pro to deliver longer battery-life. But once again, I’m not optimistic.
I’d instead expect Apple to reduce the battery size in the MacBook Pro to deliver a slimmer, sleeker machine – perhaps partially borrowing the wedge shape of the MacBook range.
I’ll end on a wildcard: with Apple having seemingly moved from the 11-inch MacBook Air to a 12-inch MacBook, there is the possibility of a move from 13- and 15-inch machines to 14- and 16-inch, without any increase in the overall dimensions. If Apple did that with the MacBook Pro only, it could further differentiate the ranges.
As ever, please take our polls and share your own thoughts in the comments.