NoticeSunday, Oct 30, 2016 · 800 words · approx 4 mins to read
I listen to Accidental Tech Podcast, a weekly show about technology, mostly centred around Apple and its products. In the run up to this week’s event, where Apple announced new MacBook Pro models with a new physical design, modern internals and an opinionated take on what modern I/O should be on a laptop computer, a major criticism from the hosts has been Apple’s lack of desire to keep pace with component updates from their major suppliers.
Intel and AMD release new processors and GPUs at their own cadence, and because Apple use those processors and GPUs in their products, the argument is that Apple should refresh the products that use those components in line with their availability. Almost every other vendor in the PC space takes the opportunity to refresh or launch new products when Intel have a new processor line ready to go, but Apple release new Macs on their own timeline.
That timeline has stretched in recent years, and the Mac Pro, Apple’s high-end workstation computer, is the poster child for the argument. The 2nd generation Mac Pro was released in December 2013, almost three years ago now, and hasn’t seen a single update since release. The Intel processors used at launch were pretty much new at the time of writing, released in September 2013, just a few months before the Mac Pro. Still, criticism of the Mac Pro says that the internals haven’t aged well compared to what’s available today, and yet the price of the machine hasn’t moved in the almost three years it’s been on sale.
Fair on the face of it, since it’s hard to justify selling three year old internals for the original asking price. The same thing applies to other Macs in the product line. The Mac Mini hasn’t had an update in two years. The current MacBook Air is a year and a half old. The iMac is over a year old, although at the time of writing Intel hasn’t released a new processor platform that product could take advantage of. The basic idea is that Apple lets the Mac linger, while other personal computers come out a more regular cadence with internal updates that better reflect the possibilities of available performance and features.
The thing is, you could take pretty much any computer on sale today and as long as you kept what could connect to it the same — things like the input devices, displays and so on — I bet you that if it was possible to swap a majority of the internal components, you could do so to the previous generation stuff and you’d possibly never notice, except maybe if you played a lot of games.
You could buy a brand new 5K iMac today, specced to the gills with all of the best options, and in the middle of the night I could come in, clone the disk contents to a specced to the gills 5K iMac released the year prior, and I think it’d take you quite a long time to notice, if you even noticed at all. You’d still think it was an excellent computer with fantastic performance and that display.
So what’s the real need for Apple, or any computer vendor for that matter, to constantly keep pace with every platform or component change released by the component vendors? It’s really not performance. Yes, a new processor line might be a bit faster, but does it really matter? I posit that the only honest compelling reason to keep pace with whatever’s available is for connectivity feature updates. And that’s at best.
The issue really for Apple is the uncertainty about whether certain products will ever get refreshed with new technology again. Is the Mac Pro actually dead as a product line? Will there ever be another Mac Mini? It’s hard to see the iMac going away, but because of the Mini and the Pro, people worry.
Selling a computer that doesn’t have the latest processors and GPUs, though, is mostly fine. You’d probably never notice if it somehow got swapped for the stuff they sold the time before, and if Apple supported external GPUs, almost all of the complaints about the Mac product line not keeping pace with other PCs and laptops would go away.
Things don’t change that quickly in PC land for prompt component updates to matter, as long as customers can have confidence something new will show up eventually.