MacBook price cut and spec refresh welcome, but Haswell CPUs are coming

Sections: Features, Laptops, MacBook Air, MacBook Pro, Macintosh/Apple Hardware, Opinions and Editorials

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Apple’s MacBook price cut and specification upgrade of its Air and Retina MacBook Pro models yesterday was a logical stopgap to shore up slumping MacBook sales until a more substantial refresh featuring Intel’s next-generation “Haswell” Core i processor family is ready for release later in the year.

Mid-February isn’t traditionally when we would expect a MacBook upgrade, but Mac system sales dropped from 5.2 million in Apple’s fiscal 2012 first quarter to 4.1 million units in the company’s Q1/13, a 22% decline year-over-year and a much sharper sales slump than the global average decline of 6.4% for the PC sector overall. With laptops accounting for the (Mountain) lion’s share of Mac system sales these days, that indicated a worrisome reversal of trajectory for Apple’s formerly high-flying laptop lines, obliging Apple to take some action to boost sluggish MacBook sales.

Why has the market apparently soured considerably on Apple’s laptops? With the global economy continuing to struggle in general, it can be assumed that consumers are becoming increasingly price-conscious, and Apple notebooks are perceived as being expensive. PC Ultrabook prices are dropping, with $599 the lowest I’ve seen cited to date, while the entry-level 11.6-inch MacBook Air goes for $999 with a tiny 64 GB SSD.

Apple hasn’t addressed that, but has significantly sweetened the value of its 13-inch MacBook Airs and both 13-inch and 15-inch MacBook Pros with Retina display.

As Arnold Zafra reported for AppleTell Wednesday, the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display now starts at $1,499 with a 128GB SSD – a $200 price cut, or $1,699 for a a 13-inch rMBP speed-bumped with 2.6 GHz Intel Core i5 dual-core processor and 256GB of SSD storage.

The base 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display also gets speed bumped to a 2.4 GHz quad-core processor, while the top-of-the-line 15-inch rMBP gets a 2.7 GHz Core i7 quad-core processor and its standard (non-upgradable) RAM configuration has been doubled to 16GB of memory.

The 13-inch MacBook Air with 256GB of SSD storage capacity also gets a price reduction to $1,399. All revised models are available immediately.

Meanwhile, the still-available (but probably for not much longer) non-Retina 13-inch and 15-inch MacBook Pros are unchanged in either price or specification. My expectation is that they’ve received their ultimate refresh, and will likely be discontinued altogether with the release of Haswell-powered MacBook Air and rMBP models, possibly in June, but more likely in the summer or fall.

That raises the question of whether we can anticipate further price reductions on the Air and rMBP models when the non-Retina MacBook Pro machines take their final curtain. Currently, the base 13-inch MacBook Pro starts at $1,199, which is still $300 cheaper than the base 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro after the price cut. That will amount to a pretty hefty hike in Apple’s entry-level Pro laptop price, which would seem the wrong direction to be headed these days (the Retina screens’ impressiveness notwithstanding) if Apple holds the just-revised price points.

Aside from lower-end price competitiveness, another area where Apple has fallen behind its Windows PC market rivals is touchscreen displays. Personally, I don’t find that a serious shortcoming, but Intel will make touchscreen support a mandatory Ultrabook specification requirement with Haswell-powered models. Consumer sentiment being what it is, Apple will be increasingly seen as lagging in a key feature. Presumably, part of the reason for holding back is that Retina displays are already expensive, and Retina touchscreens would be even more so. It will be interesting to watch how that plays out.

Speaking of Haswell, while the price cuts and specification upgrades announced Wednesday represent significant and welcome value-enhancement, prospective MacBook Air and rMBP purchasers might be well-advised to consider holding off a few months for the new CPUs, which will be significantly less power-demanding than the current Ivy Bridge Core i chips, as well as presumably somewhat faster.

On the other hand, if you want a new MacBook with a traditional hard disk drive offering affordable 500 GB or greater storage capacity, upgradable RAM, a full range of legacy I/O ports, and an internal optical drive, better grab one of the non-Retina MacBook Pros while the getting is still good.

MacBook pricing details, technical specifications, configure-to-order options and accessories can be found at:

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