Thursday, December 7, 2023

The MacBook Air Gap

Joe Rosensteel:

Why do I care about the “Pro” chip so much? Despite the name the Pro is really the middle chip, but there’s no middle laptop for it. The base M2 and M3 can be configured with more RAM (to a point) but they can’t be configured with extra ports, or even drive more than one external display. They’re not like pokey Centrino chips — they do have the ability to perform — but they are inflexible for certain workflows that require additional connectivity, like dual displays.

It’s pretty easy to argue that dual displays is a high-end feature, and thus demands a $1999 or more computer, but that wasn’t true of Apple’s Intel-based laptops. It has always felt like a regression to me since the introduction of the first M1 chips, and it’s not something apple wanted to correct in the M2 or M3.


If the base M chips could work with dual displays in clamshell mode it would be a no-brainer and I would get the 15” MacBook Air.


That means there’s a price umbrella between $1499 (15” M2 MBA 8/512 GB) and $2499 (16” M3 Pro MBA 18/512 GB). A thousand dollars where the only thing that can fill that gap is custom RAM and SSD sizes, no chip variation at all.

Mike Rockwell:

My recommendation for almost anyone that wants a desktop Mac now is to get a Mac Mini and an external display. You could get a Mac Studio or a Mac Pro, but if you’re the kind of person that needs the additional performance or connectivity, you already know that the Mac Mini isn’t enough for you.

Unlike the iMac and MacBook Air, even the base Mac mini can support two large displays. And the Mac mini also has an option for a Pro processor.


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”Unlike the iMac and MacBook Air, even the base Mac mini can support two large displays.”

Well, that IS pretty logical since the base M chip only supports two displays and unlike the Mac mini they both have one internal display to start with.

@Adrian It’s logical for the iMac, but one might expect the MacBook to support two displays in clamshell mode.

When Apple introduces a new product category it's usually just one product, just by itself.
As it matures it often get a pair, like a Pro or Max, basically a different size or different level. But very mature product lines get a matrix. Which most of the time is not complete, and those missing part of matrix often create phantom craving in users.
And the typical matrix is something like 3 by 3, Pro line with Small, medium and large, Mid-tier (often called Air these days), and basic, usually without name appendix.
Since most of the time basic tier gets only one size, that's more accepted. The most upsetting unrealized products is in pro sizes.

For example full matrix for MacBooks could look like this:
MacBook 11", 13" and 15"
MacBook Air 11", 13" and 15"
MacBook Pro 12", 14" and 16"
Ok, that's unrealistic, maybe they can have one size of MacBook proper,
two sizes for MacBook Air, but 3 sizes for Pro.
Same thing with iPhone:
1-size SE, iPhone and iPhone Plus, then iPhone Pro mini, iPhone Pro and iPhone Pro Max.

All these would be cherished by pro users, and might not get huge sales numbers, but does Mac Pro, yet that one exists, and iPhone Pro mini, iPad Pro mini and MacBook Pro 12" do not.

"And the Mac mini also has an option for a Pro processor."

But the M2 Pro Mac mini is way too expensive. Configured with 32GB unified memory and 2TB SSD storage it's $2,599. For the exact same amount you can buy a Mac Studio with M2 Max and the same 32GB unified memory and 2TB SSD storage.

@Philipp Yes, at some point you should just get a Mac Studio, but the Mac mini with M2 Pro starts at $1,299.

>It’s logical for the iMac, but one might expect the MacBook to support two displays in clamshell mode.

I don't know this for a fact, but I surmise this is for hardware reasons; that in the laptops, one display controller is hardwired to the internal display and the other to USB-C (which, in the case of the 14-inch MacBook Pro with M3, is then followed by an internal USB-C-to-HDMI adapter). So clamshell mode doesn't gain you back an additional display because the wiring isn't there.

@Sören That makes sense, but Intel Macs including e.g. the MacBook 2019 weren't limited to one external display.

If you need a Mac, multiple displays and find the Pro options too expensive, you could always jump on the used or refurb market. But even with that said, the limit on displays does seem pretty arbitrary.

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