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Where are the desktop Macs?

Apple's current desktop lineup includes iMac, updated to Intel Skylake and a P3 5K display at the end of 2015, Mac mini, updated to Intel Haswell in late 2014, and Mac Pro, redesigned in 2013. None of them received any updates in 2016, though. Is that a sign Apple's abandoning the Mac desktop, the way they abandoned dedicated Mac servers? Is it a sign they've had their attention elsewhere, and that less popular, legacy products like desktop Macs and iPods simply get updated less frequently now? Or is it a sign of something else entirely?

What makes the current lack of desktop Mac updates so painful for customers is that Apple's previous updates turned desktop Macs into appliance computers. When you take away a customer's ability to upgrade on their own, to swap in new and better storage, graphics, memory, and more, you take on absolute responsibility to do it for them. Especially in the desktop market, where performance is key, if you seal a Mac Pro up, the version you sell has to always be the latest and the greatest. It can't be outdated by a year, never mind three.

Tim Cook, on Apple Web, via TechCrunch:

The desktop is very strategic for us. It's unique compared to the notebook because you can pack a lot more performance in a desktop — the largest screens, the most memory and storage, a greater variety of I/O, and fastest performance. So there are many different reasons why desktops are really important, and in some cases critical, to people.The current generation iMac is the best desktop we have ever made and its beautiful Retina 5K display is the best desktop display in the world.Some folks in the media have raised the question about whether we're committed to desktops. If there's any doubt about that with our teams, let me be very clear: we have great desktops in our roadmap. Nobody should worry about that.

Apple Web is informal and what Cook wrote absolutely reads like he wrote it himself, rather than having Apple's PR or product marketing write it for him, and he does't come off as man who is careless with his words. That does, however, leave a lot to unravel.

Cook mentions that you can pack the largest screens into a desktop. The only Mac desktop packed with a screen is the iMac, at least right now. No one is packing a large display into a Mac mini or Mac Pro, they're connecting those machines to external displays. And, despite working extremely closely with LG on LG's new 5K panel, there's no Apple-designed casing or logo anywhere on that display.

Cook does say great desktops, plural, though. That could mean multiple sizes of iMacs or it could mean multiple products including the iMac.

John Gruber, writing for Daring Fireball:

I'll note that Cook only calls out the 5K iMac — no mention of the Mac Pro.

iMac is still fairly modern, though, with Skylake and a DCI-P3 Retina 5K display, Mac mini and Mac Pro were last updated several years ago and, as such, would have been hella awkward for Cook to mention:

"The current generation Mac Pro/Mac mini are, um, the most recent versions of those desktops and, ah, have processors and graphics from a couple years ago."

Ouch. Better to say nothing at this point, which is what Cook chose to do.

Mark Gurman, writing for Bloomberg:

Apple designers are already exploring standalone keyboards with the touch strip and a fingerprint reader for desktops. Apple will decide whether to release these based on how well the features do on the MacBook Pro.Mac fans shouldn't hold their breath for radical new designs in 2017 though. Instead, the company is preparing modest updates: USB-C ports and a new Advanced Micro Devices Inc. graphics processor for the iMac, and minor bumps in processing power for the 12-inch MacBook and MacBook Pro. Cue the outrage.

Apple's is damned if they do, damned if they don't here. A spec bump is exactly what the iMac needs. It already has a Retina 5K display. Moving to Kaybe Lake, if Intel has suitable chips, especially for the 21.5-inch, upping the AMD graphics. adding in the ridiculously fast new storage controllers, and going USB-C / Thunderbolt 3, makes the best consumer all-in-one on the market even better.

Personally, I'd love a redesign as well, but after the reaction to the last one — Thinner? It's a desktop! And why's the SD card slot so hard to reach?! — and the recent MacBook Pro redesign — Thinner? It's a pro! And where the hell is the SD card slot?! — the spec and port bump feels like the best go-to-market approach right now. In a perfect world, I think we would have gotten it back in October.

As to a new Mac Pro and Mac mini, there's certainly been work done on them over the last couple of years but, obviously, nothing has shipped. Apple could decide to ship updates next year or could decide headless desktops are a market the company no longer wants to be in, like Xserve or Thunderbolt displays.

Customers by far — by FAR — prefer notebooks to desktops these days. When we vote with our wallets, what Apple hears is more notebooks, please; no more desktops, thanks. It's overwhelming.

But to Cook's point on Apple web, it's not about the numbers. It's about the Mac, and about what only a desktop Mac can do — including the ones without built in displays.

Like I mentioned in The Horn Effect:

As profit centers go, displays and routers and their ilk are likely less than a rounding error for Apple. They also pull focus. Part of Apple's success, though, has been the halo effect — once you start buying something Apple, you keep buying more things Apple. Once you get the device, you get the accessories. The opposite — a horn effect? — would be buying non-Apple accessories leading to buying non-Apple devices.A few more small yeses help support the bigger yeses. Mind share is invaluable and that makes it feel like key accessories, niche or not, are something Apple should absolutely still be in.

If you force people, even the tiny but influential percentage that make up high-end creative professionals, to move to Windows and PCs, you start to erode the Apple ecosystem.

And the cost of that could be far greater than the cost of continuing to deliver niche products.

There are a lot of talented people at Apple working really hard on the design and production of new Macs right now. Unfortunately, the only thing that matters to customers — and is supposed to be key to Apple's culture — is shipping.

Rene Ritchie
Contributor

Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.

27 Comments
  • "There are a lot of talented people at Apple working really hard on the design and production of new Macs right now" You wouldn't get that impression from the Bloomberg article. And people keep harping on about Kaby Lake. Kaby Lake CPUs are only 6% to 10% faster vs their Skylake counterparts. Hardly earth shattering and the vast majority of users won't notice the difference. With Windows 10 now being ported to ARM SoCs, don't be surprised if Apple shifts their Mac line to their custom-designed ARM SoCs.
  • Kaby Lake appropriate for the MacBook Pros weren't shipped by the time Apple released those machines, and it takes a few months for Apple to work with Intel on getting everything from sleep to power nap working perfectly. So, yeah, the Kaby Lake stuff earlier this year was a bit silly. Apple will use it as soon as they can.
  • I agree with what you're saying. The point I was trying to make is that the performance difference between Skylake and Kaby Lake is so small that it isn't a big deal if Kaby Lake Macs ship next year.
  • I agree that the latest CPUs are unlikely to make a massive difference, but the latest SSDs would do. The drives in Apple's latest laptop are about 3 times quicker than those in their supposed top of the range desktop, and many times quicker than the Fusion drives in the Mac mini. For most tasks a 3 times improvement in drive performance is likely to be very noticeable. So I think it would be a big deal if new Macs ship next year, although I agree that it won't be because of Kaby Lake. There is also a lot of headroom for GPU improvement, but that isn't usually at the top of Apple's priorities...
  • Good point about SSDs
  • This is funny. It takes Intel a few months to implement Apples requests every time they release a chip? Where is that information supplied from? Let me guess, umm Apple. I find it very hard to believe considering that the silicon isn't 'that' different that Intel needs to be baby sat to implement an Apple feature request that they have already done many times before. Stop buying their nonsense Rene and do some real digging..
  • It has nothing to do with belief. Take. look at the feedback, including Paul Thurrot's, about early-day Skylake in the Surface book. Apple doesn't use stock parts. Not every manufacturer is willing to accept what Intel ships on day 0 either.
  • I believe you that Apple has requests for alterations on Intels chips. I just don't believe that it takes months to implement. Why hasn't Apple just designed their own processor for the Mac?
  • Because it's harder than they thought. According to Tim the A10X is desktop slass, shows you how much bunkum he talks.
  • "You wouldn't get that impression from the Bloomberg article."
    Because Bloomberg speaks the truth, and who dares to go against them? "And people keep harping on about Kaby Lake."
    Again this stupidity? Stop reading MSVerge, the versions for Kaby Lake are not ready for wattages the MBP uses. On the other way there are desktop Kaby Lake, and the Surface Studio doesn't use them, buy nobody talks about it. "Kaby Lake CPUs are only 6% to 10% faster vs their Skylake counterparts."
    Ask Intel, not Apple.
  • Apple's lack of attention to the Mac and its platform has angered me nearly to the point of no return. I've stuck with Apple since its inception, but trying to force me to purchase closed boxes or buy into the clearly inferior iOS platform is not going to work. Not going to do it, Apple. You're alienating me and many other prosumers, power users, and professionals. I cannot be more succinct than this.
  • Me and you both. Last two computer purchases;
    Surface Pro 4 - in place of iPad Pro/MacBook.
    LG Ultrawide - in place of the monitor they don't sell.
  • Anytime time Apple touts numbers that are faster, it's usually a significant amount: 40%, 50%, 100% faster. Never 10%, at least not that I've seen. And no, I don't agree that 10% faster is a significant amount. Not enough to warrant a yearly update. "Kaby lake SHOULD be in the MacBook pro, as well as the availability of 32 gb of ram" You will see 32GB in the MBP as soon as Intel releases a chipset / CPU that supports up to 32GB LPDDR4 RAM. No sooner. Right now, that's looking like 2018, at the earliest. As for desktops, the 27" Retina iMac supports 32GB RAM and the Mac Pro supports 64GB RAM.
  • The current 5K iMac supports up to 64Gb of RAM, albeit unofficially. Bloody expensive though!
  • Perhaps this will help - http://laptopmedia.com/news/exclusive-first-intel-core-i7-7700hq-benchma... I doubt it is 10% faster but anyway that is relative when it comes to the speed at which the computer arrives at an answer.
  • I wish they'd release a new Mac Pro already.. I resorted to building a PC recently just so I can continue to use Adobe CC on my triple 4k monitor setup. It's fine, but I miss using MacOS and would be more than willing to pay a premium to get to use a Mac for work again. And no, I don't want to use a "new" Macbook Pro for work.
  • No chance for a new Mac Pro until the Skylake Xeons are ready. Currently they are not available from Intel. Without the newest Xeons, you don't get Thunderbolt 3. Updating the MP with just TB2 is non-starter at this point. They should have released an update a year ago with updated Xeons, TB2 and updated GPUs. But they didn't and now they are stuck waiting on Intel--again.
  • Thats not rigth Intel's AlpineRidge Thunderbolt 3 controllers are compatible with any system with at least 2 lines PCIe3 bus available (ideally 4 lines), Xeons E5v4's Broadwel allows dor 20 PCIe3 lines for peripherals as GPUs (16 or 8 each) SSDs (2/4) and Thunderbot 2-3 controllers (2/4), there are available Gygabyte motherboard for intel C610 loaded with Thunderbolt 3. The major delay factor with the updated Mac Pro TrashCan ][ is the GPUs since Apple insists on a kamikaze agreement with AMD instead to include much loved (by users not by apple accountants) nVidia Pascal based GPUs (more poweful, versaltile and efficient). Further Apple sould offer a Single GPU on the Mac Pro a single Pascal GP100 delivers 5x the performance of both D700 GPUs on the same combined TDP, and leaves 16 PCIe3 lines available, plus enable all this graphic/compute power to all applications since very few apps benefit with current dual gpu setup due macOS restrictions, also enable developers to taked advantage of CUDA, the best crossplatform GPGPU technology. Also the remaining 16 PCIe lines are available for 3 Thunderbolt 3 headers (6 ports) plus 2 SSD/NVMe, not accounting the remaing 8 PCIe lines available for more TB3 and MGbit Ethernet (5-10 GBps wired ethernet). But Cook/Federigi evil game with AMD has Doomed the Mac Pro.
  • The thing I'm dreading is that they have "great new Macs" and raise the prices significantly, as they have since the 5k iMac came out. I really want a new Mac but I doubt I'll be able to afford one the way it's going.
  • That's a consequence of new technology, often cutting edge, expensive technology. Apple's prices are almost always the same: cost + ~33% margin. Sometimes they cut into that margin to help push a product, much to Wall Street's displeasure, but usually any price increases are the direct result of more expensive parts being used.
  • The thing is, with the pressure on PC makers, the cutting-edge technology is quite cheap these days. A SMOKIN HOT PC desktop, very nicely configured (quad i7 and current-gen video card) will be $2K CDN. I can afford that but there is no comparable Mac. It's only a pathetic dual-core Mini or a much more expensive 5k iMac... I'm more than willing to pay a bit extra for the Apple quality but it is looking more and more like I have to pay PC *retail* + ~33% margin.
  • Not really an issue. The use of a XEOn style chip doesn't guarantee andy better performance than using the standard Intel architecture. Server chips don't present any advantage to their desktop counterparts. Apple's current iMac can run rings around a Mac Pro in most tasks. It has nothing to do with the chipset and more to do with the way that execution threads are coded into software. Media pros who want faster and more powerful machines don't
    rely on server side instruction sets to get their work done. Creative Suite is not optimized for execution threads, it's optimized to take advantage of modern GPUs that support CUDA instead of openCL. The only media software that sees any advantage is FCP and then the differences are minuscule..
  • Skylake Xeons are expected at 1H2017. It would be meaningless to use the actual Xeons, because Skylake Xeons will require a different board design. Given the actual implementation of Thunderbolt 3 and NVMExpress SSD, expected Polaris 12 and Vega 10 from AMD, an update to Mac Pro is just maturing.
  • "It would be meaningless to use the actual Xeons" What do you mean by actual Xeons? Skylake Xeons are actual Xeons based on the Skylake architecture. On a side note, there are two camps regarding what Apple will do with the Mac Pro. One camp thinks Apple will update the Mac Pro while another camp thinks Apple will discontinue the Mac Pro and come out with a higher-end iMac targeted specifically at "high-end" Pros - for argument's sake we can call it iMac Pro.
  • http://www.pcworld.com/article/3142046/hardware/intels-latest-xeon-chips... http://wccftech.com/intel-skylake-xeon-v5-processor-lineup/ An iMac cannot be a substitute to a Mac Pro, because the Mac Pro is built on a substantially different architecture, called "Thermal Core", that defines also its trash can design. The iMac in turn is partly built with mobile components because of the heat barrier and its fundamental all-in-one design.
  • One of the articles you linked to mention AMD's competing platform (Naples) based off its Zen architecture. If the performance of these new processors is all that it's cracked up to be, it'd be interesting to see if that opens the door for AMD to take Intel's place in the Mac lineup.
  • René, don't you think the argument about staffing and being able to produce a product is just a little disingenuous? What most of us want can be built with off the shelf parts. If you can build a quite functional hackintosh for around $1500, why can't apple build the same machine and charge me $3000, which I would gladly pay. The idea that the resources just aren't there is just crazy. You don't need 300 engineers to build a modern computer. By the way, did you see the new Dell laptop that was leaked this morning in preparation for CES? It's the Macbook Pro we all wanted.