The new MacBook Air

Todd Haselton | CNBC

Apple has spent a lot of time and effort over the last year revamping and refining a product line that accounts for just 9% of its sales.

Apple dropped the “computer” from its name more than 12 years ago, but the Mac product line that predates the iPhone has received a lot of attention from Cupertino recently.

Mac desktops and laptops are essential to Apple even as the company sells far more iPhones and iPads. That’s because the only way to write software for an iPhone or iPad is on a Mac, making many Mac users one of Apple’s most important kinds of customers: software professionals.

On Tuesday, Apple updated its MacBook Air laptop with a higher-quality “TrueTone” screen and dropped the price to $1,099, making it Apple’s least expensive laptop. It also revamped one of the 13-inch MacBook Pro models, adding a touchscreen strip to the keyboard called Touch Bar.

Apple also discontinued the MacBook, a thin-and-light machine with a name that confused many Apple customers, and the older MacBook Air that didn’t include modern USB-C connectors.

It’s a total cleanup of Apple’s laptop lineup.

Apple’s attention to its laptops comes as Mac sales dropped 5% in terms of unit sales in 2018, according to an IDC estimate. However, the entire PC market declined 3.7% during that year, according the same estimate.

“Overall, it is a tremendous simplification of the entire MacBook lineup, and that’s a good thing,” closely followed Apple watcher John Gruber wrote Tuesday.

A regular refresh cycle

Apple CEO Tim Cook (L) and Apple chief design officer Jony Ive (R) look at the new Mac Pro during the 2019 Apple Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC) at the San Jose Convention Center on June 03, 2019 in San Jose, California.

Justin Sullivan | Getty Images

The refreshed models also underscore Apple’s new commitment to a regular refresh cycle for its Mac computers, so that customers don’t worry that they are buying years-old technology.

People who use Mac computers for work want to know when they’re buying a new computer, often for thousands of dollars, that they’re not getting years-old technology or previous-generation Intel chips.

The best way to determine this is by the number of days since the last release or refresh, since Apple doesn’t usually talk about upcoming products and doesn’t provide an update road map.

The update for the MacBook Air was its first since last October, or about 252 days, according to MacRumors’ Apple release tracker. Before that, the last update to the Air was in March 2015, or 567 days before last fall’s redesign.

Headed into the fall, all of Apple’s Mac products have been recently updated. The iMac got new chips in March, most MacBook Pro laptops were updated this summer and the updated fan-favorite Mac Mini was unveiled last fall.

For people who need high-end, extreme-performance workstations — animators, programmers and designers — Apple revealed a new Mac Pro desktop tower in June. It starts at $6,000 and some speculate that a fully maxed-out version will cost around the price of a new sedan.

The Mac Pro isn’t available in stores yet, but when it goes on sale this fall, it will be over 2,000 days since it was last updated. That’s a six-year gap that many Apple fans vocally complained about.

New software features

Apple Music will replace iTunes in macOS Catalina this fall.

Apple

Apple is also supporting the Mac with new software features.

For example, when Apple Arcade, the company’s gaming subscription, launches this fall, it will support Macs, not just iPhones, iPads and Apple TVs.

The latest version of MacOS, called Catalina, is also seeing major changes and Apple resources dedicated to cleaning up old software that hadn’t been given a lot of attention in recent years.

For example, the next version of MacOS won’t have iTunes, which had gotten bloated with lots of excess features over the years. Instead, it will have separate apps for music, podcasts and TV. You’ll also be able to sync your iPhone directly with your Mac without using iTunes.

Apple also introduced a new feature that enables users to have a double-screen setup on the go by pairing an iPad to act as a MacBook’s second screen.

Developers said at Apple’s conference in June that they were excited about a software development tool called Catalyst, which allows software developers to write code once and have it run on both iPhones and Macs, with the hope that some apps that were previously exclusive to the iPhone could be ported, creating a richer software ecosystem.

Keyboard problems

The keys on the keyboard take some getting adjusted to.

Todd Haselton | CNBC

One issue hanging over Apple’s Mac turnaround is the keyboard it uses on MacBooks. In 2015, Apple introduced a thinner kind of keyboard design, called the butterfly keyboard, which is now included standard on all Apple laptops.

Critics say that the keyboards are unreliable, and prone to breaking when confronted with crumbs or dust. Apple said earlier this year that the “vast majority of Mac notebook customers are having a positive experience with the new keyboard.”

While plugged-in TF Securities analyst Ming-Chi Kuo previously predicted that Apple would release a new MacBook Air with a redesigned keyboard, the devices announced on Tuesday still have butterfly keyboards, although they are a recent version that should be more reliable than earlier models.

That may not be enough for Mac users who are waiting for a redesigned keyboard. In fact, the new MacBooks released on Tuesday have already ended up on a list that says which MacBook models can get an out-of-warranty repair for a balky butterfly keyboard.



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