Wednesday, February 22, 2023

Why Not a Smaller MacBook, Too?

Dan Moren:

Once upon a time, Apple offered its lightest notebook in two sizes: the 13-inch it sells today and a smaller 11-inch model. Alas, only the good die young, and the 11-inch Air was discontinued in 2019—the same year that Apple discontinued its other small laptop (and putative Air replacement), the 12-inch MacBook.

Nowadays, the smallest Mac laptop you can get is that 13-inch Air and while it’s shrunk down to be a bit closer to the 11-inch in many dimensions, it’s still larger and heavier than both of those discontinued models—and that’s a shame, because a small, light laptop has a lot going for it.

To me this is the biggest surprise of the Apple Silicon transition. A lot of people expected something like this right out of the gate. Aside from the butterfly keyboard, the knock against the 12-inch MacBook was that was too slow. The M1 processor, or even one of the recent A-series ones, would seem to be the solution. Apple kept saying that making their own processors would let them make Macs that were not possible with Intel. Yet, after years of 11- and 12-inch MacBooks with Intel processors, we’ve seen two generations of Apple Silicon MacBook Airs that start at 13 inches.


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I guess it depends on how much smaller you can go without it being impractical.

That article shows the 11-inch MacBook Air. You can see from the image that it had a huge bezel, and that the gap between the keyboard and the edge was less than an inch. According to Mactracker, the thing was 11.8" wide, so that got me curious.

My 14-inch MBP is 11.97" wide, so not that much more — but it has a screen with much smaller bezels, so it makes much more use of the space. (What about other specs? I'm leaving out thickness, because I find that annoyingly hard to compare, with the taper. Depth compares 8.71 to 7.56, so the Pro does go 15% longer. More importantly, it's 47% heavier at 3.5 pounds vs. 2.38.)

Then there's the 13-inch M2 Air. Exact same 11.97" width (interesting), but only 8.46" deep. 12% difference. And only weighs 2.7 pounds; just 13%. (Dan calls this difference "almost half a pound less", and I think that's… a bit misleading?) So the new "regular"-sized Air is actually quite close to the old small one.

So for 11-inch fans, I say just get the Air that already exists today. It's barely bigger and heavier, and it offers so much more.

There was, of course, the 12-inch MacBook, at 2.03 pounds, 11.04" wide and 7.74" deep. That's a fair bit less, but at what cost? It presumably had the butterfly keyboard not because someone thought it was great but because that's what would fit in there.

So the big question, given how controversially the 12-inch was received, is whether Apple wants to give it another shot. Have the circumstances changed enough? One problem was that Intel's "Core M" strategy failed; in contrast, Apple could easily put an A16 in there if the M1 is too heavy. But another big one was simple physics, and I'm just not sure there's enough for a market for an Apple laptop with a very compromised keyboard.

@Sören I think they just liked the butterfly keyboard. They put it in the 15-inch, too. The current keyboard is fine and not much thicker, and there are other thin keyboards that aren’t compromised.

I know the widths are similar, but the 11-inch and 12-inch definitely feel a lot smaller than the current 13.

I want a successor to the 11" Air as well. As @Sören said, shrinking bezels have caught up with that design, but I suspect that the culprit is:

1. They can only produce so many chips due to COVID / supply chain constraints
2. Modern apple doesn't do redesigns very often

I wouldn't be surprised if we see a smaller laptop in a future iteration when they have enough capacity to produce chips for less popular models.

The MB 12" is actually my favorite notebook ever, including the full-size butterfly keyboard (for some reason that 1st generation didn't seem to have the issues of the later deployments in MBPs? It still works!). So light, so practical. I would pay premium for an M1 version (same like for an iPhone Mini Pro).
With the i7 it wasn't even that slow anymore and it would rock w/ even just a baseline M1. Which seems to work just fine in iPads. I think the latter is the issue, it would directly cut into iPad space, especially iPads with those heavy keyboard attachments.

The key is portability, and now it is possible with the new ARM-based Apple silicon chips. Apple should make a light (400 to 600 g) Mac, as small as possible and whih whatever form factor (clamshell, slider or tablet). The true compatible device with the desktop Mac (sorry, iOS or iPadOS is not!). Great for Keynote and PowerPoint presentations. The Mac in your pocket. Always. Even without battery, working from mains.

I wrote an article on the subject a month ago, when I first learnt that there were rumours of an upcoming 15-inch MacBook Air. I like 11 better than 15.

Apple wants you to buy an iPad, so if you want a smaller screen from Apple, that's what you're stuck getting.

I'd love an updated 12" Macbook, but why would Apple want to sell you that when they can sell you an $800 iPad along with a $300 keyboard?

@Goz: Because I'm absolutely willing to pay $1.5k...$2k for that, i.e. more (and I won't be buying the iPad+keyboard in the first place, because it doesn't solve a problem I have).

I don't find this surprising at all. We're 32 months after they announced a "two-year transition", and you can still buy a brand new Mac with a 4-year-old Intel CPU. Clearly, not everything is going according to plan. (Apple's previous "two-year transition" took 14 months from announcement to completion.) It's perfectly reasonable that they're all-hands-on-deck to get the transition completed, before they start to explore new design ideas with existing product lines.

At this point, even declaring that mini-towers are dead and that the Mac Studio is the future of high-performance Macs -- disappointing as that would be -- would be better than letting the transition drag on into a 4th year.

As someone who thinks the 12" PowerBook was one of the best machines Apple ever made, I agree it's too bad that they don't have a modern tiny laptop -- but I recently bought my first non-Mac desktop computer in 15 years because of the Mac Pro situation. I don't see anybody switching away from Macs today because MacBooks are an inch or two too big. On the contrary, laptops are currently one of Apple's greatest strengths.

@Alan Well, the context for this post was that before completing the transition they are introducing a new MacBook Air in a new larger size. So they are exploring new design ideas, just different ones.

Regarding your second paragraph, the current rumors are that the Mac Studio may be dead, or at least that it will never get upgraded for the M2. Perhaps this is because they are focusing on the Mac Pro or because they want to make it look better in comparison.

I absolutely loved the 12" MBP. At the time I bought it to complement the work issued MB Pro, and if it had power on par with M1, I would do everything on it.

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