The week before last, Apple introduced their new MacBooks, and unlike most iPhone and Watch events, with even more controversy. I’m not here to rehash previous conversations on USB-C dongles or the need for 32GB of RAM for video editors or higher-performance CPUs and GPUs. I do want to talk about other features Apple could have added to MacBooks, the benefits they could have brought, and why Apple may not have added them.
8 Gbps AirDrop, 4K AirPlay, and Wireless Display
AirDrop is a useful feature today inside the Apple ecosystem that provides a direct P2P (peer-to-peer) link between iPhones, iPads, Macs and Apple TV to transfer videos, pictures and any kind of file format Apple supports. Like many Apple features, it just works. AirDrop uses the fastest available wireless transport available across Bluetooth and WiFi and circumvents the router thus eliminating unwieldly WiFi router passwords or latency. AirDrop’s maximum throughput is governed by the fastest WiFi AC link at an 867 Mbps transfer rate.
AirPlay is Apple’s proprietary feature to stream 1080P videos and music over the network or P2P to an Apple TV. AirPlay, like AirDrop, just works. Today, I can use my MacBook, iPhone or iPad and basically “stream” content to a TV or display via an Apple TV. The video resolution is limited to 1080P output, the maximum output of the Apple TV. 4K AirPlay would increase pixel density by 4x.
Wireless display is a derivative of AirPlay, but would need to display images without latency at the maximum resolutions of LG’s external displays at 4K and 5K.
WiGig, or Wireless gigabit Ethernet is the key to an 8 gig AirDrop, 4K AirPlay and wireless display. WiGig can operate at 8Gbps, or about 10 times faster than AirDrop’s and AirPlay’s maximum transfer rate. WiGig silicon has been available from Qualcomm and Intel for years now and the two companies have agreed on interoperability standards. There is a new WiGig certification process, too, announced October 24th.
There are a few reasons why Apple may not have wanted to include 8 Gbps AirDrop, 4K AirPlay or wireless 5K display. The first is Broadcom, from whom Apple buys most of their WiFi chips. Broadcom, unlike Qualcomm and Intel, has trailed in the development of WiGig years and still has not announced any WiGig chipsets. This could mean that Apple may have to look at current vendors like Intel and Qualcomm and others. I don’t see the WiGig interoperability infancy as an Apple issue as AirDrop and AirPlay are Apple-proprietary. Another reason for not doing WiGig could be that you need WiGig end points for everything to work together. For example, iPhone, iPad, Mac and Apple TV would need WiGig for everything to work together. My counter would be that you must start somewhere. One of the devices needs to be first and given the Mac has the historically longest refresh cycle, I would have liked to see this included.
External, higher-performance GPU
It was nice to see Apple use discrete graphics on the MacBook 15”, but the AMD Radeon Pro is a lower-power and hence lower performance discrete notebook GPU, not intended for workstation or higher-end gaming capabilities. The great thing about ThunderBolt 3 is that you can use an external, more powerful GPU. With an external GPU, users could have their cake and eat it, too, with the option to play the highest-performance games and workstation apps.
A few vendors have done external graphics in the Windows world like Microsoft with its Surface Book Base and Alienware’s Graphics Amplifier over external PCIe graphics. ThunderBolt 3 should be an easier albeit younger implementation. To me, Apple should lean into this, but they, of course, cannot lean on the Windows implementation and need to create their own drivers and integration into OSX. Given the priority of the MacBook compared to iPhone and iPad, this may just be too expensive and not a priority. There are rumors of an Apple display with an integrated GPU so I am keeping that door open.
The first generation of notebook wireless charging was thick and clunky. The second-generation of this is not, however. It is much thinner, adding a minimum of 1.6mm with the WiTricity solution, and I’ve seen prototypes of thin notebooks from notebook ODMs and OEMs. It’s not a huge cost burden either and I estimate that at Apple’s volumes, you are look at less than $10. If the MacBook had wireless charging and WiGig, it could have removed all wires. It would have been the first notebook to be completely wireless. Imagine if you could charge your iPhone, iPad, Watch at the same time (given that is added to those devices)!
Wireless notebook charging is in its second generation but just may not be baked technologically or thin enough for Apple. They may want to bring it out after they add the feature to the iPhone and iPad. But as I noted with WiGig, MacBooks have a longer lifecycle and new features should start with the Mac. Wireless charging does add a few (1.6mm+) millimeters to the design, and given Apple’s design trajectory, thin is their north star. But how thin is thin enough?
The whole concept of a wireless charging mat may also be giving Apple designers heart palpitations. The MacBook would need to charge by sitting on a charging mat, either in sight or out of sight. The visible mats may just be too clunky or ugly for Apple designers, and installing them underneath the desk or table could be an issue for Apple as well.
Edge to edge display
Dell has had edge to edge displays in its XPS line for over a year with the XPS 13 and XPS 15. Edge to edge displays allow you to put a very large display in a smaller chassis and seems to me like what the future holds for all devices. The tradeoff right now is that you need to put the camera in the bottom of the display, where in my case, highlights my double chin.
VR and AR
VR and AR are the talk of the industry with Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Samsung, Dell, HP, Intel, NVIDIA, AMD, leading the charge, but not Apple. This one is easy to understand. Apple doesn’t go public with Alpha or Beta projects that they believe aren’t ready for prime-time. And Apple doesn’t feel they have a consumer-grade solution yet, so they’re not announcing it. We all know they’re working it given recent VR and AR technology acquisitions Metaio, FlyBy Media, Faceshift and PrimeSense, but a real solution must not be ready for primetime.
1 Gig LTE
The new MacBooks are very thin, powerful and mobile. The exception to this mobility is that they don’t support integrated LTE. This has always been a head-scratcher for me when you consider Apple’s iPads do. The new MacBooks are the most expensive notebooks on the market and therefore cater to a premium audience who want it all. 1Gbps LTE could literally give wireline-speed to users. Qualcomm has been shipping X15 chips for a while now, OEMs are integrating them and services are starting to spring up, too. I wrote that about here.
I don’t buy the argument that users can just use their smartphone if they want. Otherwise, why would iPads have LTE options? Adding LTE does add some extra time for homologation, but not more than it does on an iPad. LTE does add antenna complexity, but certainly no more than an iPhone or iPad which has much less antenna routing real estate. Additionally, having integrated LTE would also be more secure than using public Wi-Fi or a Wi-Fi hotspot.
Intel Kaby Lake processors
Apple chose to go with Intel’s 6th generation processors, Skylake, not 7thgeneration, Kaby Lake. Kaby Lake added a much better media engine for its first, true end-to-end hardware-based 4K pipeline and could have added benefits to the new MacBooks and 4K workloads. Intel says that Kaby Lake provided 3x better local 4K UHD playback, 1.75 improved battery life with VP9 video, and support for multiple 4K video streams.
Apple’s lack of support for this can be explained in terms of schedule, but is a shame given the video-centricity of Mac users. Dell’s XPS 13 is offering Kaby Lake across their entire line.
Conservative MacBook approach
The new MacBooks announced the week before last were conservative except for the new Touch Bar. Don’t read conservative as easy. We must at the same time acknowledge, though, that like the iPhone 7, Apple changed almost everything with the new MacBooks. So how can you change everything and be conservative? Aside from Touch Bar, we had seen the Trackpad, keyboard, WiFi, Bluetooth and display core technologies in prior products and Intel’s Skylake notebooks have been shipping over a year.
Apple isn’t one to bet on anything that isn’t solid and while I believe Apple considered many of the above technologies, they didn’t feel they could deliver a good enough experience or the trade-offs were too high. The other thing to consider is the risk-benefit tradeoff with MacBooks versus, let’s say, iPhone and iPad. What credit does Apple get if they take a bunch of MacBook risks. What price do they pay if they take a risk and it doesn’t pay off?
The other thing to consider is strategy. What does Apple gain by adding many whiz-bang features to the MacBook? Does it get the industry more excited in the personal computer platform and is that good for Apple where the center of the universe is smartphones followed by tablets? Whatever the rationale, Apple, unlike the first MacBook Pro and MacBook Airs have left a very wide hole for Dell, HP or Lenovo to run through. The new MacBooks already have fierce competition from notebooks I have extensively tested like the Microsoft Surface Book, Microsoft Surface Pro 4, Dell XPS 13, Dell XPS 15, HP Spectre 13, and the HP EliteBook Folio G1. I expect even more improvements from the PC crowd at CES 2017. I’m looking forward to using the latest MacBook myself, and in particular, using the Touch Bar. I’ll also weigh in on Touch Bar versus Windows 10 touch.