Apple has long been about simplicity and minimalism. Steve Jobs’ philosophy was effectively that usability trumps choice. Sure, you lose the ability to customize your iPhone or iPad in the way you can an Android device without jailbreaking it, but what you gain in return is a device that is both more reliable and a lot more secure.
Jobs applied that same philosophy to Apple’s product range. When he returned to Apple in 1997, one of the first things he did was to rationalize the company’s product lineup, paring it back to the essentials. In 2008, he proudly told Fortune that “Apple is a $30 billion company, yet we’ve got less than 30 major products.”
Apple has, for the most part, maintained that approach ever since, famously saying ‘no’ to a thousand product ideas for every time it says ‘yes.’ But I still think there’s a little more work to be done in terms of rationalizing the company’s MacBook lineup …
Apple currently offers two MacBooks (both 12-inch, but distinguished by processor and SSD), four MacBook Airs and six MacBook Pros – for a total choice of 12 models. Custom-build options then add further to the options.
(The company also offers eleven different desktop Macs, but I think I’ll leave discussion of those for another day …)
Now, I get that there’s a certain amount of inevitability to this. There are different types of Apple customers, and one size (and spec) doesn’t fit all. But I think the line-up is a little messier than it needs to be – in part due to Apple being a little stingy on specs.
I’ll use the 13-inch MacBook Pro as an example to make my broader point. Apple offers four models there. At the very bottom end, it still offers a single non-Retina model with a spinning metal drive. It’s sufficiently embarrassed about that one that it doesn’t mention it at all on the main MacBook Pro page, and hides it away at the bottom of the ‘buy‘ page – but it’s still there.
Back when the Retina machines were brand new and very expensive, it made sense to hang onto the non-Retina models as a cheaper alternative. Both SSDs and Retina screens were new technologies at the time, and production costs were high. Apple needed to charge a significant premium for them, so kept the ‘classic’ models around for those unable or unwilling to pay the higher price.
But things have changed. I can go on to Amazon right now and pick up a 256GB SSD for around $60. Now sure, Apple is using the very latest (and fastest) PCIe drives, but it is also buying them in the millions. There is no reason these days for Apple to be putting spinning metal drives into any of its machines.
The same applies to Retina screens. Hi-res displays have fallen dramatically in price since then, 4K monitors fast becoming the norm. There’s no reason next time around for Apple to sell any of its Macs with non-Retina displays.
Sure, there will still be those on a budget who still want to enter the Apple world, but that’s what the entry-level MacBook Air is for: a perfectly capable machine at a relatively affordable price. I’ll talk about that shortly.
But even if we look at the next 13-inch MBP up – the bottom of the Retina range – that’s a machine which, frankly, shouldn’t exist. Apple is, in 2016, selling a MacBook Pro with 128GB of storage. Sure, I know other manufacturers do that, but Apple is selling at the premium end of the market, and this is a pro model. No amount of talk about this being the age of cloud storage justifies a professional machine with 128GB on board. It’s the equivalent of the 16GB iPad or iPhone.
Remove both the classic and the 128GB model, and you then have just two 13-inch MacBook Pros: a good, and a better. That, in my mind, is how it should be. There should be no ‘barely adequate’ Mac in Apple’s lineup.
I’m fine, by the way, with ‘best’ requiring a custom machine, as it does now. There should always be an option for those who want the no-expense-spared model that would be overkill for most. I’m less ok with the 13-inch ‘better’ model getting a less powerful processor than the 15-inch model. Just because someone wants a more portable machine doesn’t mean they want a less powerful one.
And of course I’d expect better specs next time around. We should see Skylake processors all-round, and I’d like to see the ‘good’ model get 512GB while the ‘better’ gets 1TB – along with 16GB RAM.
Step up to the 15-inch model, and Apple already takes the two-model approach. There’s no classic, and no 128GB model. The only change I’d like to see here, then, is to step up the specs for both.
There is, though, one other thing I’d love to see with all the MacBook range: take the same approach as the 12-inch MacBook and squeeze an extra diagonal inch of screen size into pretty much the same size casing as now. So that would give us 14- and 16-inch MacBook Pros. Do that, Apple, and I’ll stop going on about reintroducing the 17-inch model.
Which brings us to the MacBook/MacBook Air. I lump these together because, as I’ve argued before, I’m certain the three-pronged MacBook line-up is a temporary affair, and we’ll soon end up with just the MacBook and MacBook Pro.
Right now, Apple can sell that ultra-portable 12-inch MacBook as a premium device, but as production costs fall, that form-factor will replace the MacBook Air. Once that happens, I’d again like to see that ‘good’ and ‘better’ two-model approach, but here I see a bigger gap between the two.
The reason? Because the MacBook Air has always done two very different jobs: acting as the entry-level machine for those on a budget, and the sleekest machine for those who value portability above all else. The MacBook that replaces it needs to do the same.
So I think what we need here is a low-end MacBook hitting the same price-point as the existing entry-level 11-inch MacBook Air, plus a premium model that squeezes in as much power as is compatible with a fanless design. Again because portability and power should not necessarily be an either/or choice.
I think Apple could quite happily lose the 11/12/13-inch choice. The 12-inch MacBook is a good compromise between the two, offering even more compact dimensions than the 11-inch MBA despite the larger screen size.
That, then, would give us an entry-level MacBook replacing the bottom-end 11-inch model, and an ‘executive’ model with as high a spec as possible in the space. Anyone who wants more power than that, or a larger screen size, can then be pointed to the MacBook Pro.
The full range, then, would look like this:
- Entry-level 12-inch MacBook
- Exec-spec 12-inch MacBook
- ‘Good’ 14-inch MacBook Pro
- ‘Better’ 14-inch MacBook Pro (same spec as 16-inch model)
- ‘Good’ 16-inch MacBook Pro
- ‘Better’ 16-inch MacBook Pro
This would halve the range from 12 models to 6, losing the embarrassing models Apple shouldn’t be offering today – and still offering custom-builds for those who want ‘best’ rather than ‘better.’
Do you agree this makes more sense than Apple’s current line-up? Or would you rather stick with what we have now? Take our poll, and please share your thoughts in the comments.