Looking forward at Mac hardware

Last month at WWDC, Apple announced a new MacBook: The MacBook Pro with Retina display. Specs can be found in my WWDC 2012 post or on the Apple Specs page. But what could we broadly expect Apple’s behaviour on future Mac hardware design to be?

Until recently, Apple’s portable range have been mostly like other laptops. Open them up by unscrewing screws and unclasping plastic clips. Inside you’d find the battery, hard drive, optical drive, and logic board. You could reasonably identify the CPU and RAM too. This is true of the old PowerBooks and iBooks, as well as the white MacBooks and MacBook Pros. Apple’s desktop range was similar. The Power Mac/Mac Pro are tower computers where you can see everything that most other computers have. Even the Mac Mini looks familiar inside.

Nowadays Apple hardware is somewhat different. Trying to get inside it is the first hurdle. I guess it really started with the iPod, a device that was not a computer, merely an MP3 player. The most obvious first example, though, was the MacBook Air. The Air has its RAM modules soldered onto the logic board, the battery is non-replaceable, it lacks an optical drive and many ports. If you can get it open, the inside is quite alien, with the battery modules taking up a fair chunk of the machine. The flash modules for storage aren’t in a conventional chassis, and the RAM modules could easily be missed amongst the other chips scattered about the logic board. There is a lack of an optical drive and it is sparsely populated with ports. Looking at the new “The next generation MacBook Pro”, dubbed the Retina MacBook Pro, Apple has acted using the same, integrated approach. Everything that needs to be there is there, somewhere!

From its creation, the iMac has been an unconventional form factor (though you can definitely see the roots from the original Macintosh). The current iMac squeezes an awful lot of power into a beautifully thin box. Access to the RAM modules is through a small hatch in the bottom, access to the rest of the machine is through the screen which is fastened to the case using ultra strong magnets! That said, once you are inside you can spy the optical drive, the hard drive, RAM modules, and so on. The same is true of the Mac Mini.

I believe Apple are moving away from making computers, they have never liked too much hardware variation (not compared to the Windows market). Apple want to create appliances. Think about it, most people don’t mod your washing machine to go faster, or your oven to cook hotter, or attach LEDs to the inside of a fridge to make it look cool(er), these appliances are not usually maintained or repaired by their users, a person competent in the appliance will come and look at it. Computers are similar, many people don’t mod them, many people require a helping hand to maintain and repair them. Apple is catering for these people. The people who don’t want to be bothered by hardware, who only care about how long their apps will run on the kit. These are the people who buy Apple gear.

With that in mind, I expect that the Mac Mini, and probably the iMac will follow suit. The MacMini will lose the swivel base and user upgradable RAM. The hard drive will become flash storage which will be soldered onto the logic board for space saving reasons. The same thing could happen with the iMac. While this would severely reduce user customisation, if Apple pitch upgrades at the right price, I don’t think it will be an issue. People have lapped up the MacBook Air, and people will do the same with the new Retina MacBook Pro.