Time was, differences between Apple’s “consumer” and professional laptops were unsubtly obvious. Think of the Pismo PowerBook and the original clamshell iBook, the Titanium and aluminum PowerBook G4s and the white iBook, the original MacBook Pro and the polycarbonate MacBooks. There was a wide disparity in specification, power, features, connectivity, and price.
Today, not so much. Take the 13-inch MacBook Air and 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro for example. At their respective entry levels, both machines have dual-core Intel Core i5 Haswell processors, come with 4GB of essentially non-upgradable (after manufacture) RAM, 128GB solid state storage drives (also not upgradable in practical terms), no internal optical drives, no built-in Ethernet, and only a $200 difference in price (or $250 in Canada where I live).
Of course, part of the reason for this is that the MacBook Air sort of backed into the role as Apple’s price-leader laptop. The original MacBook Air that Steve Jobs unveiled during his keynote at the 2008 Macworld Conference & Expo was more of a boutique device targeted at higher-end users wanting the novelty of the thinnest, lightest laptop computer available at the time. It was expensive, compromised in performance with a custom engineered, downsized Intel Core 2 Duo Merom CPU 40 percent the size of the standard chip package, and in storage capacity with a standard iPod-spec 1.8-inch 80GB hard drive or optional 64GB SSD. While a full-fledged Mac, it was outperformed by the then-available white polycarbonate enclosure 13-inch MacBook.
On the other hand, the current form factor MacBook Air, originaly released in October, 2010, is a workstation-worthy machine capable of serving as an “only computer” offered at a more reasonable price, but with higher screen resolution, a bigger battery, and flash storage instead of a hard drive. The line expanded with a new, even lower priced 11.6″ model which, eight months later, became Apple’s entry-level consumer laptop when the white MacBook was discontinued for all but education sales, and the base 11.6-inch MacBook Air with a 64GB SSD dropped in price to the MacBook’s psychologically significant $999.00 price point. The white MacBook was subsequently discontinued altogether in February 2012, with education-spec MacBook Air models (and to some degree, the iPad) replacing it.
There are some substantive differences between the current 13-inch MacBook Air and Retina MacBook Pro to be sure, the respective display resolutions being an obvious one. The Retina MacBook Pro comes with a faster clock speed i5 CPU, even more powerful Intel Iris integrated graphics instead of the MacBook Air’s Intel Graphics HD 5000 IGPU, and can be ordered with a maximum 16GB of RAM as opposed to the MacBook Air’s maxing out at 8GB. I can certainly see the $200 better value there if you need the extra power.
You’ll have to pop another $100 for the 8GB RAM upgrade and an additional $200 in order to start out with a marginally reasonable amount of on-board storage capacity, but the same applies with the MacBook. It does, however, take your nominally $1,300 computer up to $1,600 plus whatever taxes will accrue where you live, which begins to feel like serious money. Although, for some perspective, it’s less than I paid back in 1996 for a remaindered PowerBook 5300/100 with a 100 MHz PowerPC 603e processor, 8MB of RAM, a 500MB hard drive and a 9.5-inch 4-bit grayscale passive-matrix display.
This year, I considered getting a 13-inch MacBook Pro, but settled on a 13-inch Haswell MacBook Air with a 256GB storage drive but the standard 4GB of RAM, bringing the total damages to $1,299. I’m using the iPad more and more these days, and didn’t think I could justify paying more than that to update my laptop.
However, the 13-inch MacBook Pro Retina was at least thinkable price-wise this time, which is the point here. Two-hundred dollars difference (or $250 in Canada) just doesn’t seem like an unbridgeable gap. So, is there really a rational case for keeping the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro lines separate any more, especially if the Air gets a Retina display with its next round of updates as many continue to predict despite being disappointed on that hope last June? Both MacBook families having Retina panels would further blur the line separating Air and Pro.
Another wild card is the persistent 13-inch iPad rumors that keep emerging from the Southeast Asia OEM patch. Some suggest that a 13-inch iPad might even displace the 11.6-inch MacBook Air as Apple’s entry level portable computer. I’m still somewhat skeptical as to the smaller Air being on the bubble, but the MacBook Air is due for a redesign this year, so who knows? It’s at least conceivable that Apple could drop the 11-inch Air, merge the 13-inch Air with the 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro, and simplify their notebook lineup to just various permutations of two MacBook models, letting a 13-inch iPad take up the slack on the low end.
That wouldn’t be my ideal outcome. I like having a range of choice. However, it won’t surprise me greatly if something like that unfolds. How about you?