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Apple already in its iPhone phase with its newest Macs

Apple already in its iPhone phase with its newest Macs

Modest, predictable updates over the previous models officially the name of the game, so what are consumers to do?
Apple did not deem the release of its newest most powerful computers as impressive enough to deserve a press event and, well, the company is sadly right. (Image: Apple)

As it was widely expected to do, Apple recently announced new processors, new MacBook Pro models and a new Mac Mini (most based on said processors) via a simple press release. The Cupertino company did the same thing in October with the new iPad/iPad Pro models for the exact same reason: the new products do not offer significant upgrades over their predecessors — certainly not significant enough as to deserve a press event of their own, so a press release for each let everyone know that these products will be out soon. This is not a figure of speech: many consumers would literally have a hard time noticing that new MacBook Pros or a new Mac Mini are gradually replacing the models already available. Hence these announcements.

Essentially, it all comes down to a couple of new chips powering three new models. These are the M2 Pro and the M2 Max, of course — succeeding the M1 Pro and M1 Max respectively — promising an uplift of around 20% in CPU performance and around 30% in graphics performance compared to their predecessors. This is more or less in line with what the new M2-based iPad Pro models offer over their M1-based equivalents and, quite frankly, not an impressive enough step forward. It will take specific tasks in specific use cases to discern a meaningful difference in performance between these M2 Pro/M2 Max computers and the M1 Pro/M1 Max ones — and even then, that difference will probably not be enough to justify an upgrade for the vast majority of people.

The M2 Pro and M2 Max chips are based on the same manufacturing process the equivalent M1 chips are based on, so gains in performance or efficiency leave a lot to be desired. (Image: Apple)

Apple chose to stick with the 5nm manufacturing process for these chips, so its executives are already aware of all this: we know, and they know, that it’s the 3nm process the one that will deliver the leap in performance demanding Mac users will be impressed by (especially when it comes to professional apps and use cases). But the company is in the habit of testing the waters of a new manufacturing process with simpler versions of its chips before proceeding with the more complex, more powerful ones, so the time gap between the M1 Pro/M1 Max and the M3 Pro/M3 Max would have ended up being toο great. Hence this M2 Pro/M2 Max stopgap of sorts, which is inevitably underwhelming.

The M2-based MacBook Pros: more of an update than an upgrade

Adding insult to injury, in a way, Apple kept almost everything else about the new MacBook Pro 14 and 16 unchanged: the general dimensions, weight, colors, design, screens, cameras and storage options are all identical to what the current models offer, so using the M2-based variants will feel more or less the same. There are some notable improvements: consumers can cram up to 96GB (!) of RAM into the M2 Max-based model, both models support Wi-Fi 6E, battery life has been increased by about an hour and, for the first time, resolutions up to 8K/60 and 4K/240 for external displays are available through the HDMI 2.1 port.

The Mac Mini got just a modest update too — compared to the already available M1-based version — but the new base model is surprisingly affordable by Apple’s standards. (Image: Apple)

These are all welcome but they do not change the fact that the new MacBook Pros are just updated, not seriously upgraded, versions of their predecessors. The same goes for the refreshed Mac Mini, but Apple made an interesting choice there: its price. The new entry-level, vanilla M2-based Mini costs just $599, even going as low as $499 if an educational discount is applied, making this the most affordable Mac built around Apple silicon ever released (the closest we’ll ever get to an iKeyboard maybe?). Given the fact that five hundred bucks don’t buy students a good graphics card nowadays (let alone a whole PC), this can be a great all-around, general-purpose computer and an excellent gateway to the world of Mac software for people already owning a monitor, keyboard and mouse.

To consumers that like the compactness of the Mini but need more power, Apple is offering a new model built around an M2 Pro chip: that one supports up to 32GB of RAM, 8TB of storage and up to 3 high-res displays at once, which can be a good option for e.g. a home office workstation. It would have been great if demanding users were not asked to pay through the nose for any necessary upgrades, as the base M2 Pro-equipped model starts at $1299 for 512GB of storage and 16GB of RAM and gets way more expensive quickly. But the same applies to the new MacBook Pro models or any other such product coming from Apple, so…

Apple silicon already entering the iPhone phase is just too early

What anyone can tell based on the above is that Apple seems to have already entered the iPhone phase with its computer silicon. This means that, after the impressive start of the M1, the company seems to be letting everyone know that we should not be expecting as great a leap from one generation of Apple computer chips to the next. Just like with the yearly iPhone models, most of which are iterative compared to their predecessors, Mac computers will be following the same pattern. There will be some models offering serious performance improvements, some others offering new features, but most will be just marginally better versions of the Macs they’ll be replacing. It’s the Apple Way of doing things, designed to extract as much money from as many consumers as possible, and it should be regarded as such by everyone involved.

It took Apple over 10 years to settle into the rhythm of iterative updates with the iPhone we are all accustomed to, but only 2 years to do the same with the Mac. That’s not good. (Image: Apple)

It’s not easy to say with any kind of certainty whether this was Apple’s plan all along or whether the pandemic, the semiconductor shortage, the Zhengzhou situation and other factors derailed the smooth transition to Apple silicon, resulting in stopgap chips like the M2 or glaring no-shows like the Mac Pro. It might have just as easily been the one or the other. But it’s important to note that the iPhone went through a whole decade before becoming a largely iterative product, while we’re witnessing the very same thing with Apple-silicon-based Macs already during this second generation of these chips. It’s too early for that to be happening and, frankly, it’s disappointing.

Since this seems to be the name of the game now, then, it’s worth pointing out that Mac computers are not iPhones: the former are intended to be used for much longer than the latter, very often for professional work, so they are more of an investment. They are not meant to be replaced in two or even three years’ time like most smartphones (including iPhones) are. So owners of any M1-based MacBook or Mac Mini should just skip these M2-based models and wait for the M3-based ones at some point in 2024. Those are widely expected to be meaningfully upgraded models over their M1 and M2 equivalents.

Yes, the new MacBook Pro models may look compelling on paper but there’s only one, highly specific type of consumer that should go ahead and buy one of those. None other. (Image: Apple)

People still owning Intel-based MacBooks or Mac Minis, on the other hand, can safely make the transition to Apple-silicon-based Macs (now that most of the software kinks have been ironed out) with these M2-based models. Yours truly thinks that those consumers should also be on the lookout for any really good offers on M1-based Macs or MacBooks right now, as retailers try to move current stock quickly and make room for the new models. The 2025 M4-based machines will be an amazing upgrade to those!

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