Apple's massive run of success over the past decade has been built on the success of its iOS mobile devices, and we've already taken an in-depth look
at what we expect to see from Apple in that space in 2016. However, its Mac lineup continues to make a strong contribution to both Apple's bottom line, as well as a towards Apple's wider overall eco-system. As 2015's 12-inch Retina MacBook shows, the company still produces innovative and beautifully designed Macs. Most of Apple's Mac line up got a refresh in 2015, but some models have now been around for a while in their current form. Read on to see what we would like to see from the Mac side of Apple in 2016.
The mainstay of the Mac line up these days is its MacBook Pro range. It was last updated in March 2015, with the 13-inch models picking up Intel's fifth-generation "Broadwell" dual-core chips, along with their improved Intel integrated graphics. Both the 13-inch and 15-inch models also picked up Apple's innovative Taptic Engine-based Force Touch trackpad, which first debuted on the new 12-inch MacBook in early 2015. The 15-inch model missed out on upgraded Intel chips, continuing with Intel's older fourth-gen "Haswell" Core architecture -- which was entirely due to major delays that with Intel's mobile quad-core "Broadwell" parts. The 15-inch model did, however, pick all-new AMD discrete graphics as an option, which gave it a much-needed boost.
While the 13-inch and 15-inch Retina MacBooks still look great, their current shape was first introduced as far back as mid-2012. They were the first MacBook Pros to drop a built-in optical drive, with a focus on all-solid state system architecture that was much faster, as well as much thinner and lighter, than the previous generation. Apple has also been quite quick to introduce the fastest I/O technology on its MacBook Pro line up as well, fitting them with Thunderbolt 2 and USB 3.0 connectivity, and the fastest wireless technologies as well. The early 2015 update also brought with it faster PCIe-based flash, around twice as fast as previous SSD storage. That said, there are some strong signs that Apple is set to overhaul the current design with an all-new MacBook Pro design in 2016.
When Apple introduced the all-new 12-inch MacBook in the first half of 2015, it made a clear statement that it represented the future of Apple's approach to MacBook engineering and design. It featured many "firsts" for Apple: it was the first MacBook to introduce an all-new keyboard (with new butterfly mechanism, larger keys and more accurate backlighting), a USB 3.0 Type-C connector, a terraced battery design, a Force Touch trackpad, an ultra-thin Retina display panel that used 30 percent larger apertures for a 30 percent power savings, and all all-aluminum and glass construction. We would like to see, and fully expect, that Apple will bring some, if not all, of these features across to the next MacBook Pro. We also think that a next-gen MacBook Pro could make an appearance sooner, rather than later.
If Apple can make any of its products thinner and lighter, it will. The arrival of the USB 3.0/3.1 Type-C connector, which is its much narrower, reversible, port, means that there is every chance that Apple will drop all of the current ports (except for the standard 3.5mm headphone jack -- and even that could be on the chopping block) for USB Type-C connectors. This will allow it to make the MacBook Pro even thinner than before.
If you are concerned that this means the end of Thunderbolt support from Apple, you needn't be -- Intel's latest Thunderbolt 3 standard also uses the new USB Type-C connector as its standard connector, meaning that Apple can get rid of the wider (and non-reversible) DisplayPort connector that it uses for Thunderbolt 2 ports on the current MacBook Pro. Whether all of the USB Type-C ports Apple chooses to fit to the next-generation MacBook will support ThunderBolt 3 remains to be seen, but there is a good chance that it will have at least two that do. It will be interesting to see if the much-loved MagSafe power connector remains, especially given that the company dropped it on the 12-inch MacBook with USB-C's ability to support both charging as well as data transfers and video.
The innovative terraced battery design in the 12-inch MacBook allowed Apple to make it both thin and light, but still deliver nine hours of battery life. This would be well-suited to a new, thinner and lighter MacBook Pro. It was also able to give the 12-inch MacBook excellent battery life, despite introducing a higher pixel density Retina display to the ultraportable form factor for the first time. It did this by increasing the size of the pixel apertures by 30 percent, which let 30 percent more light through, for a corresponding reduction in power consumption. You can expect to see Apple introduce this technology on the Retina display panel it fits to a next-gen MacBook Pro, particularly if it looks to make it thinner.
The question that MacBook Pro fans will be asking is whether Apple introduces exactly the the same style of keyboard found on the 12-inch MacBook with its all-new, but short-travel, butterfly mechanism. Although we have become quite accustomed to it on our 12-inch MacBook, its ultralow profile may not be quite as necessary on the next-gen 13- and 15-inch MacBook Pros. There is little question that the current MacBook Pro keyboard needs to be updated, as its chiclet-style keys are relatively small targets compared with the 30 percent larger and much more stable keys on the 12-inch MacBook. An alternative option, and almost as stable, is the new keyboard found on the new Magic Keyboard. It has a redesigned scissor mechanism with larger keys, but more key travel that MacBook Pro users will likely prefer.
While none of the above is guaranteed for the next MacBook Pro, what is guaranteed is that Apple will at least give the MacBook Pro an update to Intel's new sixth-generation "Skylake" silicon. Only time will tell whether this appears in a modest MacBook Pro refresh, or an all-new MacBook Pro design. Either way, we are certainly looking forward to what is next in stall for the MacBook Pro in 2016.
The 11- and 13-inch MacBook Air models have remained very popular with customers, particularly as the 11-inch model is one of the cheapest complete entry points into Apple's Mac range. It is also one of the oldest designs in Apple's Mac lineup, with its current shape dating all the way back to June 2010. Apple gave the MacBook Air line up a huge shot in the arm in March 2015, when it refreshed them with fifth-gen Intel "Broadwell" ultra-low voltage chips (with their improved integrated graphics) and added Thunderbolt 2 to the range.
A lot of people seem to be expecting a MacBook Air redesign as a result; however, we have our doubts about whether Apple will do this. It would be unusual for Apple to expend the resources and energy in redesigning the MacBook Air when it already has a completely redesigned ultraportable, in the form of the all-new 12-inch MacBook. As its fundamental design remains attractive and functional, it seems more likely that Apple will continue to give it internal upgrades.
The additional power of its chips over the Intel Core M chip powering the 12-inch MacBook, coupled with its more affordable pricing, means that it will certainly stay around for a while longer though. While a Retina display on the MacBook Air would be great, at the very least we would like to see Apple finally dispense with the ancient TN-type display panels that currently grace them, and which you typically find on bargain-basement PC notebooks, and replace them with IPS panels.
Retina 12-inch MacBook
The 12-inch MacBook is one of the best new products to come out of Apple in 2015. It is packed full of the latest engineering solutions to come out of Cupertino. The key to many of the design decisions underpinning it are actually the result of lessons Apple's engineers have learnt in making compact mobile devices with very tight packaging. Of course, it still has its detractors who point to its single USB Type-C port, its short keyboard travel, and the performance of the Intel Core M chip at its heart. It certainly isn't for everyone, but for those who are looking for a compact and light package that runs full OS X (and Windows 10 via Bootcamp) and all the flexibility and power that this entails, it is hard to go past.
As an all-new model that hasn't even been on the market for a year, we can't see the 12-inch MacBook getting any design tweaks in the foreseeable future. A near-term refresh is most definitely on the cards, however, with the latest suitable Intel silicon already shipping in the ultraportables from PC makers. This time, Intel has altered the branding slightly to allow users to more easily determine the clock speed of the model chosen. It seems likely that the entry-level 12-inch MacBook will pick up the Intel Core m5 chip (clocked at 1.1GHz) and the higher-end model will score the Core m7 version (clocked at 1.2GHz). Both are based on Intel's "Skylake-Y" architecture, and offer a significant performance boost over the "Broadwell-Y" chips in the currently shipping model.
The iMac range is arguably Apple's best 'bang-for-your-buck" line up in its Mac range. With a 21.5-inch model loaded with a 4K P3 Retina display starting from under $1,500, and a 27-inch model with a 5K P3 Retina display starting from under $1,800, there's not a lot of all-in-ones on the market that come close to matching the performance and price of the iMac. When you look at the market for 4K and 5K standalone monitors, for example, the best ones with comparable displays to those on the iMac start at around the same prices -- but without the computer.
The only downside for iMac owners is that the internal components are all but un-upgradeable, so you will need to update your whole computer, including display, when it is time for your next upgrade. Only the 27-inch iMac has RAM that is user upgradeable, but for how much longer?
The current iMac shape has been around now for around three years, so it is getting to the point where Apple could produce an all-new design for 2016. However, we wouldn't expect to see all-new iMacs until late in 2016 (if it crops up this year at all), as it only recently updated the iMac range with new sixth-gen Intel "Skylake" chips, and upgraded AMD GPUs in the 27-inch model. The current models are just 5mm thin at the edges, but bow out in the middle, though giving the illusion that they are almost flat from front and even when viewed from angle.
It's pretty clear that Apple is looking to make the iMac as thin as possible, as it does with just about every one of its products. However, in doing so, not only has the optical drive been banished, but it also fits its iMacs with mobile-class GPUs. Although mobile GPUs are getting quite powerful these days, the recent arrival of the Oculus Rift (and other VR solutions coming soon) that use more powerful desktop cards means that iMac users look like they are going to be left out in the cold as far as having enough power to drive them.
One possible way around getting the GPU horsepower necessary for iMac users to enjoy VR tech will be via the connectivity options Apple will almost certainly include on an a future iMac. Like Apple's MacBooks, you can expect the next-gen iMac to feature USB Type-C ports, at least some of which could sport Thunderbolt 3 as well. Thunderbolt 3 over USB Type-C has been far more readily adopted by PC makers than previous generations.
Some, like Razer, have already announced external Thunderbolt 3-powered GPU docking stations that support full desktop GPUs. These can be plugged into Windows-compatible notebooks, so at the very least, it looks like iMac users could run VR in Windows on Bootcamp, if third-party vendors (or Apple itself) does not release similar Mac-compatible solutions.
The Mac mini
The Mac mini has long been an Apple fan favorite, at least until recently. Many Mac users often have at least two Macs on-the-go at once; one for the desktop at home, and one for talking with you. If you're like me, you will opt for a powerful iMac, and one of Apple's ultraportable MacBooks. Or, you might opt for a high-end MacBook Pro, and either dock it when at home, or get yourself a Mac mini. Mac minis are also popular with Windows switchers, as well as Windows users who want to dabble with OS X.
One of the nicer aspects about the current chassis of the Mac mini, when it was first released in 2010, was that Apple designed it in a way that allowed users to upgrade the RAM themselves. More advanced users could also swap out the hard drive (but at the cost of voiding their warranties). However, in its last iteration in 2014, Apple not only closed this option off, but also stopped offering a quad-core model.
Although the 2014 fourth-gen Intel "Haswell" update brought faster single-core performance over the mid-2012 third-get Intel "Ivy Bridge" range, the high-end quad-core model from 2012 remains faster to this day than the current high-end Core i7 model. This is because Apple is now only offering the current high-end model in a dual-core configuration only, causing its multi-core performance to drop off considerably.
While there was a minor reduction in price, there was also a drop in overall system performance -- although Apple did upgrade the I/O to offer support for USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt 2 for much faster data transfer speeds. However, in terms of raw performance potential, the Mac mini now offers potentially the least bang-for-your-buck in Apple's Mac lineup, even if it is still a capable little machine.
What we'd like to see from Apple in 2016 for the Mac mini is an all-new design, assuming Apple decides to keep the model around moving into the short to medium term -- it has, after all, been around in its current shape for half a decade, so its future is not guaranteed. Apple's upgrade cycle for the Mac mini is quite long in general terms, with just three updates in the five years it's been around.
Again, with the new USB Type-C port starting to roll out, it would be a good time for Apple to given the Mac mini a full upgrade -- thinner ports provide a good opportunity to make the design even more "mini." Whether the next Mac mini update gets "Broadwell" or "Skylake" architecture will determine whether it also gets Thunderbolt 3, with only the latter supporting the new I/O tech. We would also love to see a quad-core configuration make a comeback, although we are not holding our breath.
The Mac Pro
The Mac Pro was given a complete overhaul in late 2013, with Apple introducing a radical, extremely compact cylindrical design built around a unified thermal core. Instead of a dual CPU socket configuration, Apple went with a single socket CPU paired with dual GPUs where one is assigned to non-graphics processing duties for additional processing grunt. GPU processing performance gains have far outstripped CPU performance gains over the past few years in certain tasks, and Apple opted to tap into this via OpenGL for its all-new Mac Pro design. Fundamentally, it is a very fast design, and addressed a lot of concerns at the time among Apple's fan base that the company was abandoning its Pro user base in favor of the more profitable consumer base.
However, while it is less than one-eighth the volume of the previous tower-style Mac Pro that it replaces, it has been criticized for its lack of internal expandability. Apple's modular approach to the design of the Mac Pro instead relies on six Thunderbolt 2 ports and four USB 3.0 ports for external expansion (which can start to get unsightly with external cabling and devices hooked up to it). Its greatest strength, however, is that Apple ensured that it's overall system bandwidth has been built on the fastest available components at the time. That said, Pro users are always looking for the latest and greatest components available to save valuable production time when undertaking heavy processing tasks.
It's now been a tick over two years since the Mac Pro was released, and potential new Mac Pro buyers are eagerly awaiting an update to the Mac Pro. Thanks to the quirks of Intel's CPU development cycle, the Xeon E5 chips powering the Mac Pro were already slightly dated in terms of CPU architecture, even though they were the latest Xeon chips available to Apple at the time of launch. While most of Apple's iMacs have already moved to Intel's sixth-gen "Skylake" architecture, would be Mac Pro customers only have Xeon's based on Intel's mid-2012 third-gen "Ivy Bridge" to choose from.
It's unclear what Apple is waiting for in terms of upgrades to the Mac Pro (a simple speed bump was possible six months ago), but it could be that it was waiting for chipsets from Intel with native support for external 4K and 5K monitors that can connect over upgraded Thunderbolt 3 ports, and these were available in late October of 2015.
Thunderbolt 4K or 5K displays?
Which brings us to the question that many of us have been asking – where are Apple's updated 4K and 5K Thunderbolt monitors? The current 27-inch Thunderbolt monitor started shipping in late 2011 for $999, and continues to sell for the same price. Not only has its 2560x1440 (2K) resolution remained unchanged, it hasn't even picked up some of the innovations added to Apple's non-Retina 27-inch iMacs that featured the same display panel.
This means there is still a noticeable gap between the glass and the panel, which was eliminated in the iMac a few years ago, while it also misses out on the laminated glass that reduces glare by around 70 percent on the newer iMacs fitted with it. Worse, it still only supports USB 2.0 and Intel's first-gen Thunderbolt tech, which is no faster than USB 3.1.
When Apple introduced the 4K-capable Mac Pro in late 2013, many thought that Apple would also release a 4K-capable monitor to accompany it. However, updating the existing Thunderbolt monitor to support 4K over Thunderbolt is not quite as straightforward as it might at first seem. The Mac Pro supports a 4K monitor, or TV over HDMI 1.4, and up to three 5K monitors over DisplayPort 1.2.
However, Thunderbolt 2 is not capable of supporting 4K, because it does not have the necessary bandwidth for that particular purpose. A Mac Pro could support a Thunderbolt 2 4K or 5K display, but would require two Thunderbolt 2 cables attached to a hypothetical Thunderbolt 2 display that accepted dual Thunderbolt 2 inputs. That, however, is far from an ideal solution and incurs a performance penalty, and goes a long way to explaining why we have not seen a 4K or 5K Thunderbolt monitor from Apple at this point in time. That said, it could have released a standalone 4K monitor, but only with a DisplayPort 1.2 input (or a second Thunderbolt 2 connector, which is again, ungainly).
The arrival of Intel's new series of chips and Thunderbolt 3 changes the equation, and should give hope to Apple's customer base looking for a genuine replacement for Apple's ancient, and now well and truly overpriced, 27-inch Thunderbolt Display. A 4K or 5K Thunderbolt 3 monitor might even turn up alongside an overdue upgrade to the Mac Pro with the latest available Intel Xeon silicon, new AMD FirePro GPUs, and support for Thunderbolt 3, as well as HDMI 2.0.
A single Thunderbolt 3 port can support up to two 4K monitors simultaneously. Given the current Mac Pro can support six of Apple's current 2K Thunderbolt monitors, a more powerful Mac Pro with six Thunderbolt 3 ports could theoretically support up to 12 4K monitors (on the proviso that its silicon is powerful enough to support them). While that seems a stretch, the good news is that there is a realistic possibility, if not probability, that we will finally see 4K and/or 5K Thunderbolt monitors from Apple in 2016.
All things considered, 2016 could be a huge year for Apple in the Mac space. It promises to deliver something for iMac and Mac Pro users alike, helping to satiate its long-time Apple Mac user base, upon which it founded its enormous success in mobile. Time will tell, but we are optimistic!
-- Sanjiv Sathiah