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Apple’s Missing MacBook Pro Hides An Awkward Problem

Updated June 7; article originally posted June 5.

With Apple’s WWDC 2021 happening next week, there’s been a growing anticipation that Apple will deliver two new MacBook Pro machines for developers. But those developers could be facing an awkward problem. Do they buy this week’s new MacBook Pro, or do they wait? …because the significant update to the ‘large MacBook’ family may not be happening until October.

Update: Monday 7 June: While many were expecting Apple to launch two new MacBook Pro machines during today’s Worldwide Developer Conference, Tim Cook and his team announced a raft of software changes and updates, but no new hardware.

All eyes will now be looking at an October update that will feature the M2 processor and new screen technology talked about here, but that leaves developers looking to purchase a new MacBook Pro in a tricky bind. Because their choice now is to wait another six months, presumably with their out-of-favor macs powered by Intel’s x86 architecture, or purchase one of the current Apple Silicon machines in the knowledge that they represent the lowest tier of each class and they will be superseded, perhaps spectacularly so, before the end of the year.

Waiting for October seems the best option, but that’s going to leave developers out in the cold for half a year.

The details are tucked away in the latest Digitimes report on the availability of the mini-LED equipped MacBooks. Sami Fathi reports:

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“According to the report, the smaller 14-inch MacBook Pro will enter “volume production” in the fourth quarter of this year, while the larger 16-inch model is aimed at the first quarter of next year. However, despite mass production for the laptops starting later in the year and next year, DigiTimes still reports that Apple will announce them in the second half of 2021.”

As for the talk about Apple announcing new MacBook Pro laptops at the upcoming Worldwide Developer Conference… Reading the runes of Cook is never a precise art, it’s notable that the ‘late 2021’ Macs are all expected to come with the mini-LED technology in the screen; this offers more vibrant colours, deeper blacks, and more efficient power usage.

There would be nothing to stop Apple offering new MacBook Pros at WWDC built around the older existing designs, while preparing the way for a significant update one year after the launch of the Apple Silicon laptops.

In fact, this feels much more like the Apple way. With the x86 based Macs, Apple was always reliant on Intel’s production and developmental timescales. That stood in opposition to the tick-tock rhythm of its own Axx processors for the iPhone and iPad, which were in step with the update and release cycle of the smartphone and tablet.

Now that Apple has the Mxx series of chips under its own control, I fully expect Apple to move to an annual cycle. If that’s the case (and assuming Taniyama-Shimura) then the first significant update to the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro family will come in late October early November this year, twelve months after the M1 machines disrupted the laptop market. These will be the machines that ship with the mini-LED screens, and potentially the new chassis design.

So what would that leave for this week’s WWDC announcement? Assuming that there is an announcement (those runes again), there are two obvious gaps in the MacBook portfolio, and one piece of information that has yet to be announced. 

In the case of the former, the current 16-inch MacBook Pro is only available as an x86 Intel model. Over the last few years Apple has created two pools of MacBook Pro machines, a lower more affordable set, and a more powerful but more expensive set. The latter is the talk of an uprated M1 processor presumptively called the M1X and featuring more cores for increased power and capability.

Apple is a traditionally conservative company, and taking an intermediate step to an M1X chip for the higher specced MacBooks would be in keeping with that. After all apart from the addition of the M1 chip, last year’s Apple Silicon powered MacBook Air, MacBook Pro, and Mac mini machines were identical in design to the previous models.

With talk of supply issues on the mini-LED MacBook Pro machines pushing significant availability of the laptops into early 2022, the allure of faster Apple Silicon MacBooks for developers, an intermediate step to the M1X, and the imminent WWDC 2021 creates an attractive proposition for Apple.

Assuming you want to go for a new MacBook Pro right now. If there’s a new design, mini-LED technology, and the second-generation M2 processor going to be announced at the end of the year, maybe you might want to think about waiting.

Now read the latest MacOS and iOS headlines in the weekly Apple Loop column…

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