Without Haswell, why bother buying a new Mac?
If you're in the market for a MacBook Air, times are great. Apple's new machines, updated in June with Intel's fourth-generation Core processor, are better values than ever. But if you need a MacBook Pro, iMac or Mac mini, the current crop of computers from Apple is looking long in the tooth. Is there any point in buying a new Mac until Apple completes the Haswell transition?
What's the big deal?
At its Worldwide Developer Conference in June, Apple took the wraps off a new crop of 11 and 13-inch MacBook Airs. The computers look almost unchanged from their predecessors, but under the hood it's a very different story. The new Intel Core processor, widely known by its code-name "Haswell," is considerably more power-efficient than the processor it replaces. The net result is that both machines see dramatically improved battery life - the 11-inch MacBook Air went from five to nine hours of use per recharge, according to Apple's tests; the 13-inch jumped from seven hours to 12.
MacBook Airs don't have discrete graphics processors - they're dependent on the integrated graphics processor (IGP) that's built into the CPU in order to render graphics. And Haswell delivers there, too - it's up to 40 percent faster than the chips which powered Apple's last MacBook Air.
The improvements to the MacBook Air don't end just at the Haswell chip. Apple's also taken the opportunity to upgrade the MacBook Air's wireless networking performance with 802.11ac. Also known colloquially as "Gigabit Wi-Fi," 802.11ac provides dramatically faster transfer speeds when paired with 802.11ac-compatible Wi-Fi routers like Apple's new AirPort Extreme and Time Machine.
The MacBook Air also relies on flash-based storage, and Apple didn't skimp there either. The company changed the way the MacBook Air's flash storage works - instead of using Serial ATA (SATA), the interface hard disk drives use to communicate, Apple migrated the MacBook Air to PCI Express (PCIe)-based storage instead. The net result is a 45 percent speed improvement over the previous-generation MacBook Air.
In the end, benchmarks for the new MacBook Air show that it lasts longer on a single charge and works way faster than the system it replaces. All told, it's a much better value for the same money you would have paid only a couple of months ago. But it also casts a shadow over the rest of Apple's product line, which is suddenly looking old and tired. (The Mac Pro is the one exception, as that's due for a complete redesign that's coming later this year.)
MacBook Pros show their age
The MacBook Pro is the Mac model most in need of a Haswell makeover. The standard MacBook Pro, equipped with non-Retina Display, hard disk drive and SuperDrive, last saw a refresh in June of 2012. The 13-inch MacBook Pro, priced at $1199, is one of Apple' most popular models.
Yet there's very little to recommend the 13-inch MBP over its MacBook Air cousin. It has an optical drive, if you're still dependent on such media, and it has a large hard drive, but it's hampered by the slower integrated graphics of the previous-generation Intel chip and could certainly use some power efficiency and longer battery life.
The 15-inch MacBook Pro escapes the graphics issue by incorporating a discrete graphics processor that provides some oomph when it's needed (say, running games, Photoshop or even Flash content), but it's been too long since the last update.
Apple's Retina Display-equipped MacBook Pros are also sorely in need of an update. They were last bumped in February, after being introduced in October 2012, but they're still hampered by slower, less efficient technology. Rene and I both have noticed that our 15-inch MacBook Pros with Retina Displays are particularly awful when relying on their integrated graphics; a 40 percent boost in graphics performance would be welcome there.
And we haven't even gotten to the other innovations present in the MacBook Air, like 802.11ac Wi-Fi support and PCIe-based Flash storage. All told, it's very, very hard to justify a MacBook Pro purchase before Apple overhauls the line with new processors and other enhancements.
The desktop dilemma
While it's Apple's least expensive machine, the Mac mini doesn't usually skimp on features. Apple's able to keep costs low by using a common component base for the Mac mini - it uses many of the same parts you'll find inside Apple's MacBook line. So I expect that once the MacBook Pro line gets the Haswell treatment, the Mac mini will follow shortly thereafter. At least if it doesn't, it's safe to guess that it's a marketing decision on Apple's part, not an engineering problem.
Both the Mac mini and the iMac were last updated in October of 2012 (though the 21.5-inch iMac got a mid-stream refresh with a faster high-end option earlier this year). Apple tracks a more-or-less annual upgrade cycle with those systems; sometimes they'll come out in the summer, sometime in the fall, but eventually they'll come.
But apart from 3D graphics improvements, computationally, Haswell microprocessors don't do much to differentiate themselves from their third-generation Intel Core counterparts. The Mac mini relies on integrated graphics, so a Haswell boost will help there. But the iMac uses discrete graphics, and Haswell's power efficiency is largely a non-issue for either desktop model.
Apple's going to incorporate faster Wi-Fi into its next desktop systems, for sure, but what else will it do? I don't see a major redesign of the iMac in the cards any time soon, especially after Apple's trouble with the last major redesign last fall, which caused enormous production problems as Apple's manufacturers struggled to get the display panels right.
Waiting is the hardest part
It's inevitable that new computers are going to come out, so you'll always benefit from waiting until there's a system that meets your needs. Some people don't have that luxury and will have to buy sooner, because they need a system for work or school or because they're replacing a computer that's just bit the dust, or for a million other reasons.
But right now, if you're in the market for a Mac laptop, it's worth taking a second or even third look at the MacBook Air even if you've ruled it out, because the MacBook Air is the sweet spot in Apple's product line between price, performance and efficiency.
Otherwise, bide your time and wait for Apple to make the Haswell jump. It'll be worth it.
Are you waiting for Apple to replace its current MacBook Pro and desktop lineup with Haswell-based systems? Or is it not that important to you? Let me know in the comments.