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Ihnatko offers his thoughts on the new Mac Pro and other Apple developments
Continuing my commentary on Apple’s WWDC keynote:
It wouldn’t have been an Apple keynote without an opening video that gave us a tour of the company’s latest landmark store.
The new location in Berlin looks authentically gorgeous. It reminded that Apple had a hidden goal when they made their mad plans to start building and operating their own shops: to establish “embassies” for Apple all over the world that would act as safe houses for the faithful, and magnets for the curious.
This is how Apple can justify the markup on so many of their products: you’re buying into a huge and impressive global system that includes beautiful places where you can go and have someone explain to you why you’re having trouble wirelessly pairing your iPhone to the portable speaker you bought for college in 1989.
Yes, I disdain the stereotype of the American tourist who travels halfway around the world and eats at the Outback Steakhouse in Beijing. Nonetheless, I will eagerly check out the Berlin store if I ever happen to be in that city.
“Tens of thousands of schoolkids have picked an Apple Store as the destination for their annual field trip,” Tim said, with obvious pride. He said it in front of a photo of kids sitting around an iconic Apple Store table, inside Boston’s Boylston Street store, I think.
The statement made me just a trifle sad. Those kids could have picked any place for their one shot at a field trip…and they chose a store?
I couldn’t help thinking about how Steve Jobs lured Pepsi’s John Sculley to Apple by mocking his job as “selling sugared water to kids.” That Apple Store is just a few blocks away from Boston’s Public Garden, the oldest public horticultural park in the country. Kids can learn about its carefully-curated collection of trees, see some beautiful sculpture from some of the greatest artists our nation has ever produced, and they ride around a lagoon on a barge propelled by a college student pedaling a giant swan.
There are also ducks and squirrels who are endlessly patient and forgiving, particularly if you bring food to share.
The Apple Store is fantastic, but it’s just a store. And kids need to learn to love what the technology can do for you…not the logo.
That’s maybe not the most trenchant observation to take from this part of the Keynote, but it was on my mind. Well, who knows: if the Apple Store lets kids spend the afternoon making art and music, then it’s probably an OK tradeoff. God knows that they don’t get to make those things in school any more.
New MacBook Airs
Apple released new versions of the 11″ and 13” MacBook Air today. “All-day computing” is the marquee new feature of the updates. When I clarify that even the 11” model — you know, the one without much room for batteries inside it — will run as long as nine hours between charges, and that the 13” model runs as long as a freakin’ iPad (twelve hours!), you’d better be impressed. Or else I will be very upset with you.
Part of that performance is likely due to new power-management techniques offered in the next edition of the Macintosh operating system. But I expect that most of that boon comes courtesy of Intel’s fourth-generation Core CPUs. “Haswell” processors deliver a whitewater of performance while consuming a trickle of power. These new Airs give you an inkling of how the Haswell family is going to transform all forms of mobile computing…including notebooks that don’t fly the Apple flag. It’s likely that by this time next year, the concept of an ultra-slim, powerful notebook that lasts a hella-long time on battery will no longer be synonymous with “MacBook Air.”
The new Airs also include WiFi radios with the fast new 802.11ac spec. This new standard can transact wireless data at speeds up to three times faster than the old one, although naturally you’ll need to be connecting to an 802.11ac router.
(Which Apple now sells: they also announced two new AirPort base stations.)
Apple’s done something with the Air that few people would have foreseen back in 2008, when the first generation model was released. I know that I sure didn’t. I used that Air as my main Mac for a while (including a week at a busy conference) and I felt the pain of limited storage, ports, and CPU power. The first Air fell far below what I would have expected from a laptop that cost almost two grand.
But what was once the “stylish” MacBook is now, emphatically, the mainstream model. It has all of the ports that most users need, and in quantity. The price of the 13” model dropped after 2008, and at WWDC it dropped again, to a midrange-friendly $1099. Cloud services and a slimmer Mac OS have reduced the hurt of limited flash-based storage…and today your Air comes with much more storage, besides.
With the models shipping today, the Air, in addition to being one of the fastest-feeling Macs you can buy, is also the one that allows you to pick whatever damn seat in the coffeeshop or airport gate area you please. There’s no need to prepare for a knife (TSA-friendly) fight with your fellow business travelers over ownership of lone exposed power outlet.
The most stylish Mac in the product line is now also the VolksMac in every way but price. Even there, it’s hard to claim that the Air is in any way overpriced; it’s well within the range of what you’d expect to pay for a notebook of this quality, regardless of the make.
That’s why I was relieved to find that this new generation lacks the Retina displays of the latest-generation MacBook Pros. It was an unlikely feature from the start; those components are power-hogs, and it seems foolish to trade off so much as 10% of an Air’s battery life for super-high resolution. But a conventional display also keeps the cost down.
New Mac Pro
Now this — this! — is the Apple I know and love! It’s the company that, every now and then, releases a product that unites an entire audience in a single, immediate, and profound reaction, namely:
No, that’s a good thing, I swear. The new Mac Pro is no Twentieth Anniversary Mac, designed as a “show computer,” to be admired instead of relied upon. Instead, it’s more in the tradition of the second-generation iMac.
This iMac was undeniably one of the most stylish desktops ever made. And yet it was also among the most practical. Its LCD screen floated in midair, and adjusted to any comfortable height or angle; you could even use it while standing at your desk. And it was supported by a gorgeous chrome arm that doubled as a safe, secure carrying handle.
And now there’s the 2013 Mac Pro. The most powerful Mac on the planet — and judging from its specs, one of the two or three most powerful desktops you can buy that are sold as a preconfigured SKU — is about the same size and shape as a five-pound bag of flour. Imagine it as a cylinder of pure, glossy black, and there you have the new Mac Pro.
Like all radical designs, it’s a bit of a risk. The needs of a high-end user are peculiar ones and Apple could have been forgiven for giving up that end of the market. And for sure, the company is giving up on a certain kind of high-end user: the type who needs internal drive bays and a card bus, which are the expected niceties of a conventional tower design.
Deleting features isn’t an issue, so long as Apple has a ready explanation for why that decision won’t really affect the user. The function of bays and slots is “expandability.” The Mac Pro has that job covered, via an delightfully vulgar number of ports: six 20Gbps Thunderbolt 2 ports, supporting up to 32 external devices…plus four USB 3.0 ports, and two Ethernet connectors.
Thunderbolt hasn’t turned into any kind of a challenger to USB for conventional peripherals (meaning, the stuff everyone needs, and which everyone can find at Best Buy). But the standard has become a quiet success for the high-end, high-speed production gear that one normally associates with internal cards. I chatted with a bunch of high-end users about the new Pro, and while some of them grumbled about not being able to just move all of their existing cards from their old Mac Pros into this new one, they weren’t bothered by the reliance on Thunderbolt. They all agreed that they can still cut their films, mix their albums, and conduct their research very well with this Mac, using the Thunderbolt gear that they either already have or were planning to buy in the next few years anyway.
Internally, the 2013 Mac Pro’s specs paint it as a screamer. A Xeon E5 CPU with up to twelve cores, FirePro workstation graphics, and all of the architectural specs that suggest that this Mac will have no problems moving numbers between its storage, system RAM, CPU, and external devices without flagrant bottlenecks.
Tech tech tech, blah blah blah. “Really impressively hella wonderfully fast” is a reasonable expectation. The new Mac Pro will be twice as fast as the current model, and it has enough graphics horsepower to support not one, but three displays running at 4K (aka “freeze-frame on a medium shot and count the eyelash mites on the actors”) resolution.
Apple clearly hasn’t designed the new Mac Pro as merely aspirational product or a stylish one. It’s designed to do the kind of work that few desktops can even handle. Computers like this one, available in a pretty retail box at a mall store, are the reasons why password encryption schemes thought to be invulnerable just five years ago are now considered highly breakable.
The physical form is radical, but functional: it’s essentially a cooling chimney with three sections of hot hardware tiled around it. The only downside I can see is that you can’t just stick this thing under your desk, like an ugly tower. The new Mac Pro’s desktop footprint is no issue at all (it’s just 6.6 inches in diameter) but those pretty looks are likely to be buried among a mass of cables running in and out of it.
Annnnnd I’m wondering how long that glossy black finish is going to stay clean, given that a fan is going to be moving dusty office air through it 24/7.
Its unveiling at WWDC was defined as a “sneak preview.” Apple didn’t announce a shipping date, and didn’t even hint at a price. For the former, expect it to arrive this year. As for the latter… based on the parts list alone, this is going to be a Ferrari in price as well as looks and speed. This will be a computer that you happily pay thousands of dollars for, because it’ll help you complete a job that’ll pay you tens, or even hundreds of thousands.
“‘Can’t innovate any more’, my ass!” Apple VP Phil Schiller said, during the unveiling of the new Mac Pro. Yeah, Apple has been hit with that complaint a lot over the past year, and it’s never made any sense to me: it implies that Apple is required to knock us on our butts on a schedule, not when it’s the appropriate time to do so.
Apple certainly showed us something on Monday. With this new Mac, they showed us that they’re still the company that regularly makes us think “What the hell is that?”…and then provides us with an answer that we like.
Read part one of Andy’s recap here.
Above: The new Mac Pro. Photo by Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images