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Where is the Haswell MacBook Pro?

Sections: Laptops, MacBook Air, MacBook Pro, Macintosh/Apple Hardware, Originals

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In his latest LarrysDesk blog, OWC founder and CEO Larry O’Connor notes that the mid-2013 MacBook Airs released in June are currently the most advanced portable Macs one can buy. The Airs are the only Mac laptops thus far powered by Intel’s  latest, energy-efficient, high-performance Intel Haswell fourth-generation Core i CPUs in tandem with PCIe flash (SSD) storage. Meanwhile, the high-end MacBook Pro lines are still shipping with Intel third-generation Ivy Bridge family CPUs. This is some four months after the nominally entry level MacBook Airs got their Haswell upgrade ,and about 16 months since the MacBook Pros were upgraded (save for the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display, which was released just short of a year ago).

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O’ Connor observes that this is a frustration for Mac laptop users who need the additional connectivity and storage offered by the MacBook Pro range, which is overdue for a refresh across the board. I also expect that the lag in bringing the MacBook Pro’s engineering spec up to date has more than a little to do with the precipitous Mac system sales fall-off that was noted in third quarter 2013 sales reports issued by market research number-crunchers at Gartner Inc. and IDC.

The long and short of it is that anybody who pays attention to personal computer hardware specifications is not going to upgrade to a 2012 spec MacBook Pro if they can possibly postpone the purchase until the Pro models are shipping with Haswell technology aboard. I’m personally in the hunt for a new Mac laptop upgrade, with my current unibody MacBook now well into its fifth year of reliable service, and have not categorically ruled out getting an Apple Certified Refurbished mid-2012 model, but I’m not going to pay full retail for 2012 level technology when we’re little more than two months away from 2014. With the MacBook Air, this value equation has also been complicated by Apple dropping the prices of the mid-2013 MacBook Airs by $100 while substantially upping the technical specification with Haswell, PCIe, and faster WiFi.

OWC’s O’Connor notes that even if the long-overdue MacBook Pro upgrades show up this month, as many suspect they will, it is still very disappointing to Mac fans that Apple seems to have substantially slowed the pace of Mac hardware evolution and product introductions. He observes that Apple was the first major computer producer to adopt USB, and was at the forefront with USB 2. But then, while pioneering the ultra high speed Thunderbolt interface in personal computers, Apple made Mac fans wait for native USB 3.0 support by more than a year—possibly to help advance Thunderbolt adoption. But it’s a flawed strategy due to the minimal availability and slow rollout of  Thunderbolt peripherals. Consequently Mac users initially lost out on the benefits that USB 3.0 provides.

He acknowledges that Apple has taken the lead by being the first to implement PCIe direct SSD storage devices, but only thus far on the MacBook Airs and latest refreshed iMacs.

Speaking of which, O’ Connor allows that the October 2012 iMac design looks cool, but the design sacrificed functionality, and that from the front at least, it’s a case of “here’s the new iMac; same as the old iMac looks a lot like the old iMac”—notwithstanding some slimming in the back and side views. Worse, he laments, the form-factor makeover eliminated many functional options, initially delayed the unit’s availability, and did little or nothing to make OS X run any better. But it does look slim from the side now.

Back in laptop space, he notes that the non-Retina MacBook Pros are the last Apple laptops that can accommodate serious internal storage capacity. The Retina MacBook Pro currently maxes out at 768GB, and the Airs at 512GB, but you pay a wallet-siphoning premium for anything over the base 256GB or 128GB configs offered by Apple.

Consequently O’Conner says he really hopes Apple doesn’t kill off the MacBook Pro non-Retina models. I agree, but, unhappily, it’s not a very lively hope, and and I’m apprehensive that the current Ivy Bridge powered mid-2012 models will be the last Mac laptops to support conventional hard disk drive storage. Indeed, as much as I would appreciate the speed of a SSD—whether PCIe or old-school—if a an upgraded 13-inch non-Retina MacBook Pro with Haswell power and the 1440 x 900 display that comes in the 13-inch MacBook Air became available, that would almost certainly be my pick.

O’Connor would also like to see a 17” MacBook return, but realistically notes that he’s not holding his breath on that one. As a former 17-inch PowerBook user, I concur with him on that as well, but I have to concede that my next MacBook will almost certainly be a 13-inch model.

Larry O’Connor hopes that if Apple does upgrade the non-Retina MacBook Pro, the current optical/HDD drive bay configuration will be continued, or a more innovative alternative—ditching the optical drive in order to fill its internal space with a modestly-sized PCIe flash boot drive and a 9.5mm HDD for additional storage capacity. That would be cool, too, and since I have a good external USB optical drive, I might opt for the SSD/HDD tandem setup if that was an option.

O’Connor affirms that he’s a huge fan of SSD/flash, which is what he says is “the secret sauce” that lets these Intel Core powered systems really strut their stuff. He says that for him, an HDD as main boot drive just doesn’t cut it any more, and notes that if you put an SSD even in a machine made seven years ago, you’ll observe that it keeps up with the newer stuff amazingly well, and that a point was reached years ago where performance was actually more impacted and limited by the I/O capabilities of the HDD boot drive and less so by the processor. While faster processors can certainly be beneficial, a fast SSD with an older/slower processor often provides an overall benefit that exceeds that provided by even the latest systems still chained to a hard drive (although, for processor-intensive tasks, a fast SSD offers only marginal improvement).

However, a significant proportion of most workloads is drive I/O speed limited. The downside of SSDs is, of course, their unattractive cost/capacity profile if you need more storage than a 256 GB SSD provides. If Apple does ditch internal, platter-based storage on all of its MacBooks, it’s going to create a serious burden for users who need to carry a lot of data with them in a laptop.

O’ Connor says OWC offers replacement/upgrade SSDs of up to 2TB for Apple’s current non-Retina MacBook Pro. If you decide to swap out your optical drive for a SSD, he suggests assigning the SSD to handle boot/OS/apps and swap space, with the stock HDD being best and more than fast enough for storing static data, and that we can only hope that provision for this dual-drive capability will be maintained as a possible option in the new Mac laptops we expect to see this coming week.

You can read Larry O’ Connor’s “Where Are The Macs? blog at blog.macsales.com.

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