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Predicting the next Mac desktops

Intel’s roadmap is generally a very strong predictor of when new corresponding Macs will be released.1 But after the complete update of Apple’s laptop lineup at WWDC, the Mac Pro and iMac were untouched, despite suitable new Intel CPU families being available for both.

Then an email from Tim Cook confirmed that new Mac Pros are coming “later next year”, and Apple PR strongly implied that new iMacs were coming later this year.

Why did Apple just release new MacBook Airs, MacBook Pros, and a Retina MacBook Pro, but no new iMacs or Mac Pros? And why are the iMacs probably being updated this year while the Mac Pro update won’t happen for 12–18 months?

As usual, I have some guesses.

My core theory: Apple believes that Retina displays are the only way to go from this point forward, and they’re waiting to update each family until it can be Retina-equipped.

Now, an obvious question: why were the MacBook Airs and Pros just updated without Retina displays? My best guesses:

But the iMac has higher margins, sells in far lower quantities, and is under less competitive pressure to keep an aggressive update schedule. It’s plausible that Apple can start selling Retina iMacs in a few more months. And since the iMac is often bought for shared family use, it’s a great product to release right before the holiday shopping season.

I’m guessing, therefore, that we’ll see new iMacs with Ivy Bridge CPUs, and probably with Retina displays, in October or early November.

But the Mac Pro is very different. It’s sold separately from its display, its customers will pay whatever Apple wants to charge for it, and it can be updated whenever Apple feels like it because it’s not targeted at mainstream consumers. So why is it delayed until “later next year” despite perfectly good Xeon E5 CPUs being available today?

Interestingly, that’s probably far enough in the future to skip the Xeon E5 entirely and use Haswell Xeons. But I bet that just decides which month they get released in, not which year. UPDATE: Responders have pointed out that the Xeons usually trail the mainstream CPUs by one process generation, and since the E5 series is Sandy Bridge-based, next year’s Xeons are likely to be Ivy Bridge-based, with Haswell Xeons probably not appearing in 2013.

I bet the Mac Pro update is being held up until “later next year” because a standalone (27-inch?) Retina Display can’t be released until then, and Apple wants to release them simultaneously to capture a lot of buzz and profit in the pro market.

Why a standalone Retina Display can’t be released until then is also worth asking. My guesses help solidify the theory:

Thunderbolt is probably going to get its first speed upgrade “in late 2013”. That’s pretty convenient timing.

So I’m guessing we’ll see a new Mac Pro in late 2013 with Haswell Ivy Bridge Xeons, faster Thunderbolt, and available standalone Retina Displays.2

UPDATE 2: I’ve now heard from multiple sources that while an iMac update is indeed coming this fall, it will not have Retina displays. Oops. Can’t win ‘em all.

  1. The big exception is the Mac Mini, which Apple doesn’t update regularly or with any strong correlation to Intel’s roadmap. I don’t even try to predict Mac Mini updates. ↩︎

  2. Such Retina Displays probably couldn’t even work with Macs with the “old” Thunderbolt ports. Presumably, the other Mac models would see corresponding faster-Thunderbolt updates around the same time, probably as they’re all updated to Haswell CPUs.

    It also wouldn’t surprise me if the Haswell MacBook Airs are the first Airs to have Retina displays. ↩︎