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Thoughts on the future of the MacBook Pro and MacBook Air

The current MacBook Pro models are showing their age. True, they have the nifty new Intel Core i7 processor, a worthy upgrade over the last model for power users (see buying suggestions).

But the truth is that Apple has done next to nothing of any real significance for years in the MacBook Pro line. In fact, functionality has been removed (e.g., the ExpressCard/34 slot in the 15" model). Improved, yes, but no leap forward anywhere, for years.

There are several areas in which the MacBook Pro and MacBook Air fall flat—

  • Max memory of 8GB (MacBook Pro), and 4GB (MacBook Air) put a hard limit on performance for working with large files or multiple programs;
  • Two CPU cores limit computing power to half that of the slowest desktop;
  • Severely impaired external drive performance. USB 2.0 and Firewire 800 are performance dinosaurs, and the ExpressCard/34 slot in the 17" model can’t even run fast enough for a single SSD, yet even faster SSDs are due this year. Even the internal SATA ports are still 3 Gb/sec, not 6Gb/sec.
  • An unimaginative design in which a huge chunk of the case of the MacBook Pro is devoted to an optical drive that many users never need. That space could be used for all of the above (memory, CPU, another drive or two).

Apple loves to be on the forefront of technology, but lipstick on a pig can only take you so far. A gorgeous case and a nice screen are great, but where’s the beef?

So in 2011, I hope we will see these breakthroughs, in order of decreasing probability, with some realism mixed in with a dollop of hope:

  • Elimination of the internal optical drive in the MacBook Pro;
  • Addition of LightPeak for fast external connectivity (I doubt that USB 3.0 will see daylight). It would be classic Apple to move to a cool new technology like this, because it offers multiple benefits.
  • 6Gb/sec internal SATA ports. I expect some good things to happen this year in the SSD world, and 6Gb/sec SATA is important.
  • Up to 16GB memory in a MacBook Pro.
  • Option for dual internal drives in a MacBook Pro. Steve Jobs hates complexity, but a mirrored internal drive adds reliability, and that’s Cool.
  • Quad-core CPU option. Maybe, but at a poky clock speed, making it pointless.

If we get most of these, bye-bye desktop for some users.

Which brings me to the form-over-function MacBook Air (see review)— the current model is lovely, but a hopeless tortoise in terms of getting data in or out (e.g. downloading fast CompactFlash cards, backing-up, no real ethernet, no phone network support, etc). And the 4GB memory limit is an ouch. So 2011 ought to bring a model with 8GB memory and LightPeak, and then I’ll be a buyer.

The portable market badly needs a new connectivity standard. USB 3.0 is a consolation prize, and I suspect that it will not gain critical mass. The fly in the ointment? It’s unclear if LightPeak is ready for prime time.

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