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Speculation on the next MacBook Pro

Given how awesome the new MacBook Air is, I’m interested to see what Apple does with the other laptops in the lineup.

I’ve had three 13” laptops (including the first-generation and current-generation Airs) and two 15” laptops, and I’ve previously been torn between these two sizes: the 15” always felt too bulky, and the 13” always felt like too little screen space.

But the new Air changed the game. The original was extremely slow and limited, but the new generation is much faster and more versatile. Most importantly, the 13” Air now has the screen resolution of the previous-generation 15” MacBook Pro. These improvements made the 13” good enough for a lot of former 15” buyers — and many former 13” buyers are now in love with the new 11” Air for maximum portability.

Last week, rumors started circulating that existing stock of 13” and 15” MacBook Pros was dwindling, which usually indicates an imminent update. So what should we expect?

I don’t foresee major changes to the 17” MacBook Pro. It’s an aircraft carrier made for maximum performance, maximum capacity, and rarely-used hardware features (like the ExpressCard slot) to sell to people who actually need them, such as people operating portable recording setups. When Apple wants to remove features from the rest of the lineup, they can usually appease most of the “We’re still using that!” crowd by keeping it in the 17” for a few more generations.

And that’s where I think Apple’s going to shove the optical drive: the 17”, and the $999 plastic MacBook. That’s it.

Furthermore, the removal of optical drives and the awesomeness and low price of the 13” Air will leave little reason to buy the 13” MacBook Pro, so I’m guessing it will be eliminated from the lineup.

And I’m guessing that the 15” will undergo its most significant change in a very long time: it will adopt the wedge shape of the Air, losing its thick, uncomfortably sharp front edge. Removing the optical drive will free up a lot of space inside, leaving room for a rearrangement that can enable the wedge shape without giving up a significant amount of battery volume.

Ideally, this would come with two other major changes:

I’m predicting the next 15” to be, effectively, the halfway point between the current one and what you’d expect a 15” Air to be.

I have little doubt that this is the future of the 15”, but I do think it’s risky to predict it now. Apple always kills off old technology and moves forward a little too soon for some people’s comfort (which usually works out very well), but this is a major change, and it might be too much at once.

I see two major problems with this direction, if it’s taken: the hard-drive-or-SSD question from above, and what to do about the big ports. It would be very difficult to fit Ethernet and Firewire ports into the sides of a wedge-shaped case. Apple could conceivably ditch both for the 15” and keep them in the 17”, but that’s also a very ballsy move that would anger a lot of pro buyers. I don’t think Apple would make proprietary tiny ports with dongles for Ethernet or Firewire, and neither can be operated well through USB2, so to adopt the wedge, they’d probably need to drop both.

The wedge requires a lot of tradeoffs to get thinness, a more comfortable front edge, and a likely-significant weight reduction.3 The result would be an incredibly compelling laptop for most buyers wanting more screen space and performance than the 13” Air, but its omissions would push a lot of power users to the 17” to get the ports and capacities that they need (which they wouldn’t appreciate at all).

Or they could keep approximately the same shape, thickness, and weight of the current 15”. But then there’s so much free space inside that they could easily keep the optical drive and 2.5” hard-drive bay as well, so they might as well just keep the exact same design and just update the boring core components unceremoniously. And this might be a good enough stopgap to kill some time until most people stop needing wired Ethernet and Firewire, and SSDs are big and cheap enough to give most people enough space at reasonable prices. I’d argue that those have already happened, but just barely.

So the new laptop lineup might look like this:

Or it might look almost exactly like the current lineup4, which would be disappointing but justifiable.

  1. “Where are my files? Where do I save this? Why does this say my hard drive is full when I have 500 gigs free? Why were none of my photos backed up?”

    As much as I’d love a hybrid solution to get lots of cheap space and a small, fast drive where it counts, the OS and applications just aren’t ready to make this easy enough for most people. I have the dual-drive setup myself on my Mac Pro and it’s irritating even to me. ↩︎

  2. Apple sells a $29 USB Ethernet adapter for the MacBook Air (although it works with all Macs and probably even Windows PCs), but because of USB limitations and overhead, it maxes out at 10/100 and can never do Gigabit. Gigabit transfer speeds are one of the biggest reasons why people would still want wired Ethernet today in a pro laptop. ↩︎

  3. The current glass 15” MacBook Pro is about 5.6 lbs. I’d estimate that replacing the glass with glossy plastic and dropping the optical drive, keeping the battery size relatively unchanged, could bring it down to around 4.8. That may not seem like a big difference, but the 13” MacBook Pro is 4.5, and that feels like a significant reduction. ↩︎

  4. Except new CPUs, but who cares? CPUs are the least exciting (and usually least relevant) upgrades in modern mass-market personal computers. ↩︎