Apple’s new MacBooks are the future — and the past

After years of reinventing the wheel, Apple's back to just building really good ones.

new macbook

Apple brought back the ports.

Photo: Apple

The 2015 Pro was, by most accounts, one of the best laptops Apple ever made. It was fast and functional, and it had a great screen, a MagSafe charger, plenty of ports, a great keyboard and solid battery life. If you walked around practically any office in Silicon Valley, you'd see Pros everywhere.

Many of those users have been holding on to their increasingly old and dusty 2015 Pros, too, because right about when that computer came out was when Apple seemed to lose its way in the laptop market. It released the 12-inch MacBook, an incredibly thin and light computer that made a bunch of changes — a new keyboard and trackpad design chief among them — that eventually made their way around the rest of the MacBook lineup. Then came the Touch Bar, Apple's attempt to build an entirely new user interface into a laptop.

But on Monday, Apple gave users something neither altogether new nor altogether different: a new MacBook Pro in the spirit of that 2015 model. The new Pro comes with either a 14- or 16-inch screen. It's fast and functional, has a great screen, a MagSafe charger, plenty of ports, a great keyboard and solid battery life. Executives praised an all-new design, but the new MacBook Pro even looks quite a bit like the old model. Except for the notch in the display, where Apple put a better webcam, which is one of the few distinctly 2021-era choices the company made.

Most of Apple's launch video was dedicated to the chip inside the new laptops: the M1 Pro and M1 Max, which at least by Apple's measurements, practically lap the field of other laptop processors. A day after Intel's Pat Gelsinger announced his intentions to win back Apple's business by building "a better chip than they can build themselves," Apple made plain exactly how difficult that's going to be. In addition to the chips, Apple touted the new webcam, the ditching of the Touch Bar and the Pro's apparently excellent new battery life.

The whole thing felt like the kind of love letter to power users that Apple only offers once every few years or so. (The most recent instance came when Apple ditched the trash can Mac Pro for a better-looking machine that could actually fit on racks again.) It also made clear that Apple increasingly sees whiz-bang innovation as beside the point on devices like these.

The pandemic has brought new life to the PC market, with millions of people needing a way to work from the couch, the bedroom or the garage. Tim Cook said that the past year has been the Mac's "best year ever." While Microsoft continues to try to build multi-hyphenate devices out of its Surface lineup — Chief Product Officer Panos Panay often refers to supporting "the five senses of input," including touch, voice, keyboard, mouse and pen — Apple is content to let the iPad be its shapeshifter. The Mac line, if anything, is going back to basics: They're meant to be central hubs for other devices to connect to and borrow from. They are devices for pros to work on, and those pros don't want wacky new ideas about input or new keyboard designs. They want computers that work.

Thanks to the M1 chip, Apple also doesn't need to build devices that do everything. The M1 is a unifying factor, one that could over time break down many of the barriers between iPad and Mac. Already, Craig Federighi said, there are 10,000 universal apps that run on both operating systems. Going forward, users might choose their device based on personal preference and work style instead of feature list. Those who like touch and portability will choose iPads; those who want power will choose Macs. (Even in the MacBook line, the Air is the portable one and the Pro the powerful one, and that line is much clearer than before.) And if you want it all? Apple's happy to sell you two devices that work together.

The new devices were heavily leaked, and going into Monday's event there was more anticipation around the tech industry than typical for a laptop refresh. After Apple finished announcing the new devices, the response seemed to be nearly unanimous: finally. After years of trying things, Apple had gone back to giving the people what they want.

Except for the notch. The people aren't sure if they wanted that yet.


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