Apple’s Mac hardware experiments just confuse people

Consumers and pros alike should take a long, hard look at the new MacBook Air, Mac Studio and Mac Pro models – here’s why

Apple is offering several different new Mac models to mainstream consumers and seasoned professionals alike, but the company’s confusing choices make choosing one more difficult than it should be. (Image: Apple)

It should be obvious to everyone by now that Apple’s WWDC 2023 was about the Vision Pro mixed reality headset first and foremost. Everything else was unveiled without much (or any) fanfare despite the fact that, in terms of actual value, what the company’s latest operating systems bring to the table was way more important to billions of people. But there’s another thing that has become apparent as reviews of the new 15-inch MacBook Air, the new Mac Studio and the new Mac Pro hit the Web: not only is Apple going through the final stages of its transition to its own silicon in a somewhat awkward manner, but it’s also doing some weird and wild experimenting with its Mac hardware.

Under different circumstances, this would have actually been a good thing. It is unfair, after all, to often whine about Apple not being bold enough or innovative enough with this and that, only to keep on whining when the company decides to shake things up a little. The problem is that all this experimenting is done in a way that’s sending mixed messages to almost all prospective Mac customers, from mainstream consumers and power users to creatives and industry professionals. Let’s break it all down, shall we?

The 15-inch MacBook Air is cool… as long as it’s the base model

Since it’s been rumored for so long, we’ve had plenty of time to ponder on it and, well, it’s exactly what it was supposed to be and what people expected: a MacBook Air based on the same M2 chip the current Air models were already using, but with a larger screen. That’s all. It’s got slightly better sound and a larger trackpad than the smaller version, but the 15-inch MacBook Air does not offer longer battery life (the larger battery is offset by the energy demands of the larger screen), nor does it offer substantially better thermals for meaningfully higher performance (its cooling system is the same so in demanding tasks it throttles just like the 13-inch M2 MacBook Air does).

What’s the point of getting a MacBook Air that’s only offering a larger screen, then? Two obvious answers would be (a) “a more enjoyable entertainment experience”, which is certainly true, and (b) “more desktop real estate for productivity”. That’s where things start making no sense: people into productivity or content creation would most probably need at least 16GB of system memory in the long term (Apple silicon Macs’ RAM can’t be upgraded) and 512GB of storage (so as not to hold back the onboard SSD’s performance). But these upgrades push the cost of a 15-inch M2 MacBook Air so close to the 16GB/512GB 14-inch M2 MacBook Pro, a superior laptop in almost every way, that – at just $150 more – it makes way more sense to get the latter instead of the former.

A lot of consumers have been asking for a MacBook Air with a larger screen for years, but does the one Apple is offering them make much sense? It all depends, unfortunately. (Image: Apple)

In essence, because Apple is overcharging for these upgrades, there’s no point considering any other configuration than the base one for the new MacBook Air. Which is confusing because Apple is offering more impressive upgrades than ever for this laptop, seemingly thinking that consumers attracted to this particular model will never even consider a MacBook Pro 14 or 16, both of which cost just about as much as a generously-specced 15-inch MacBook Air (while offering more). It’s oh so thin, yes. But people parting with almost two grand for a laptop don’t usually do it so they can marvel at its thinness. Why Apple seems to be so comfortable with the overlapping of its laptop lines in terms of pricing is anyone’s guess.

So where does Apple’s choice leave the new, sexy 15-inch laptop? In a rather unusual place, that’s where: people have to know, before purchasing one, exactly what to expect of it in its default hardware setup and be aware that they’ll not be able to ask of it anything more than that for the entire lifetime of the device. At $1299, it’s an absolutely amazing laptop in its base 8GB RAM/256GB SSD configuration for everyone looking for a general purpose machine to do mainstream, ordinary, everyday stuff with: e-mail, Web browsing, office applications, content streaming, photo or audio or even video editing on a basic level, even some light gaming. The new, larger MacBook Air will be able to handle all that easily enough. But that has to be it forever and it’s highly likely that a lot of consumers are not aware of this. At all.

The curious case of the M2-based Mac Pro

It’s not just mainstream consumers that may be getting confused by Apple’s choices regarding Mac hardware, though. Even power users or seasoned professionals may be having a hard time making a purchase decision between the company’s new desktop machines, which look totally different at first glance but ultimately prove to be much more similar than they probably should. It’s about the new M2 Ultra-based Mac Studio and the new M2 Ultra-based Mac Pro, obviously: these offer practically the same user experience and processing power, but the Mac Pro costs almost twice as much as the Mac Studio spec-for-spec… without offering all that much in return.

One would be forgiven for thinking that Apple just took the same “cheese grater” design of the previous Mac Pro models and shoved an M2-based compute module in there without giving it much thought… because that’s exactly what happened. More or less. (Image: Apple)

Despite both being based on the exact same hardware – their cooling solutions are different but they keep the M2 Ultra from throttling in the same effective manner – the Mac Pro’s huge tower case and the Mac Studio’s impressively compact desktop one would suggest at least a small gap in performance. In practice that gap is either not there or it’s so small that it doesn’t matter in everyday use. Because of its size, the Mac Pro offers two advantages that the Mac Studio doesn’t: its storage is upgradable via additional SSD modules sold by Apple, plus there’s a number of PCI slots for expansion cards of different types. These can be video capture cards, digital audio processing cards, networking cards or storage cards among others. Apple seems to believe that industry professionals – video editors, musicians, producers etc. – will have a specialized need for those PCI slots, so they’ll go for the tower Mac rather than the desktop one.

It’s only when one delves into the technical details of the Mac Pro that discovers some serious limitations. For one, all those expansion card slots share the same low number of PCI Express lanes and total bandwidth, so installing more than e.g. two or three such cards will inevitably slow down every single one. For another, the speed of the Apple-provided SSD modules is not greater than what third-party vendors are already offering with their own PCI cards or even external Thunderbolt SSD drives. If the new Mac Pro’s inability to utilize any kind of additional graphics card, internal or external, is taken into account – Apple silicon is supposedly designed to work with its own internal GPU blocks only – it’s easy to see why so many pros seem confused by the company’s choices regarding what had always been the most powerful and versatile Mac around.

A number of Apple’s recent choices regarding its new professional Mac models may point to a company that would rather have consumers buy its new, compact machines (like the Mac Studio) instead of the old, hulking ones (like the Mac Pro). That would make sense, actually. (Image: Apple)

Power users and professionals have expressed their disappointment online in no uncertain terms ever since WWDC 2023, which is – frankly – understandable: Apple seems to have barely made an effort with its first next-generation Mac Pro, essentially keeping the design and construction of the case, the expansion system, even the power supply unchanged from the previous Intel Xeon-based model. It’s almost as if the company built this large, tower-shaped Mac Pro half-heartedly, secretly wishing that most pros or power users will go for the Mac Studio instead. This, in turn, is enough to make any prospective Mac Pro customer feel rather reluctant towards this new, Apple silicon-based one and possibly reconsider such a purchase. That’s something that Apple itself most probably knows already. But if that’s the case, then why build this ultra-niche, ultra-expensive Mac Pro anyway?

Interested in buying Apple hardware right now? Give it some thought first.

Each one of Apple’s choices mentioned earlier could probably be labeled as overly ambitious or rushed or even forced if assessed on its own… and maybe be dismissed as unfortunate. But assessed as a whole, these choices could easily be interpreted in a different way: the company either had different plans regarding the transition to Apple silicon (and those were derailed by the pandemic and the global chip shortage) or it had no solid plans at all regarding the positioning of many of its products in the context of that transition. The case of the Mac Pro is particularly telling, as in no way is this the kind of professional computer hardware one would expect from Apple.

So now consumers interested in these new Apple products have a decision to make: invest in them regardless of what the company’s future plans actually are or wait and see how the whole situation unfolds? For people who actually need these Mac models for work right now, there’s no point – or maybe the luxury – in waiting: these M2-based machines are very good and will serve them well for the foreseeable future. Any such decision, though, will also have to be taken within the context of Apple’s own, widely-known, roadmap: every single one of these new Mac models will be updated to M3-based hardware within the next 12 months. The M3 is expected to be a substantially faster and/or more efficient processor than the M2 and almost certainly a better one compared to the M2 than the “stopgap” M2 processor was compared to the M1. If the M2 line of processors had just come out, things would be different. But that is now over a year old and we’re fast approaching Apple’s M3 phase, so this must be taken into consideration as well.

The transition to Apple silicon is now complete for every type of Mac, but that does not necessarily mean that Apple has everything figured out about every Mac line yet. People who can afford to wait before getting a new model, maybe should do just that. (Image: Apple)

Whatever the case may be, Apple’s experimenting with different Mac models also seems to be putting some of the responsibility for their commercial success on consumers’ shoulders. If pros do not deem the Mac Pro worth investing in, maybe Apple will take this as a sign that this target group is not into hulking, internally expandable tower computers anymore. If the 15-inch MacBook Air does not prove to be all that popular and profitable for Apple, it might be axed too at some point down the line. That would be fair if Apple had done an absolutely amazing job with these and consumers simply didn’t respond to them as the company hoped. But that’s not what’s happening here, certainly not with the confusing choices Apple has made, so it will be interesting to see where all this experimenting ultimately leads.

Steve Jobs’ Apple liked easily understandable product lineups and clear competitive or comparative advantages. This is a different time, a different Apple with a different mindset and a different set of goals, yes – but maybe, just maybe, it wouldn’t be a bad idea for Cook and his lieutenants to take a fresh look at what that approach did for the company’s success in the first place.


Kostas Farkonas

Veteran reporter with over 30 years of industry experience in various media, focusing on consumer tech, entertainment and digital culture. No, he will not fix your PC (again).

Veteran reporter with over 30 years of industry experience in various media, focusing on consumer tech, entertainment and digital culture. No, he will not fix your PC (again).




Let us keep you up to date with the latest in tech and entertainment