The MacBook Air Gap

The range of default configurations for 15" and 16" Apple MacBooks.

Apple silicon is fantastic. Performance per watt is off the charts (actually it’s very much on Johny Srouji’s charts.) However, I keep putting off upgrading from Intel to an M chip because the cost is eye-watering, and the Apple laptop line-up didn’t seem particularly predictable in its release cadence or feature set.

The MacBook Pro has been refreshed three times so far, twice this year alone. The MacBook Pro 13” finally kicked the bucket, but prices didn’t really come down on any of the models with Pro chips, they still start at $1999, and $2499 for a 16” screen. We finally got the MacBook Air 15” this spring, but it’s only a low-end config. There’s no way to spec a MacBook Air with a M2 Pro or M3 Pro chip.

Why do I care about the “Pro” chip so much? Despite the name the Pro is really the middle chip, but there’s no middle laptop for it. The base M2 and M3 can be configured with more RAM (to a point) but they can’t be configured with extra ports, or even drive more than one external display. They’re not like pokey Centrino chips — they do have the ability to perform — but they are inflexible for certain workflows that require additional connectivity, like dual displays.

It’s pretty easy to argue that dual displays is a high-end feature, and thus demands a $1999 or more computer, but that wasn’t true of Apple’s Intel-based laptops. It has always felt like a regression to me since the introduction of the first M1 chips, and it’s not something apple wanted to correct in the M2 or M3.

I freely admit how important dual external displays are is colored by my need to use them, but then again, this is my blog, so deal with it or close the tab.

I need those displays for my work, and no my employer doesn’t pay for my machine or subsidize it in anyway. I connect to a workstation with remote desktop software and I do the actual performance crunching on that computer. My machine just needs to display things. If the base M chips could work with dual displays in clamshell mode it would be a no-brainer and I would get the 15” MacBook Air.

Intel Pro to M3 Pro

I have a 2018 15” MacBook Pro with 2.6 GHz 6-core Intel Core i7, crap Intel UHD Graphics 630, 16 GB of 2400 MHz DDR4 memory, and a 512 GB SSD. I bought that in 2018 for $2799. I have held on to this machine for an eternity in Apple years because I paid so much money for it. The 15” MacBook Pro I had before this was $1699 (I think, I can’t find the exact receipt) and that was similarly held for 4 years.

The battery performance on the 2018 is shot to hell, but the prospect of going into a store and spending money on the battery isn’t appealing. The revised butterfly keyboard has been mostly fine because I don’t generally use it as a laptop, but now the “o” key sometimes inserts “oo” which is also not a lot of fun.

The price equivalent model, the middle config, is the $2899 M3 Pro 12-core CPU, 18-core GPU, 36 GB of unified memory, 512 GB SSD. The one down, is $2499 and has half the RAM.

Doesn’t seem like we’ve made much headway with storage in 5 years! The build-to-order bump to 1 TB is $200 for either model, which would give me a $2699 or $3099 machine. I’m hovering at 153 GB of free space on my current drive, so despite my efforts at optimizing it does seem likely that I would cross the 512 GB barrier, or dedicate more of my time to file management, offline storage, and fighting cloud services to really please keep that file I used seven days ago.

While a lot has been written and said about how Apple’s chips are more efficient with RAM and storage than Intel, people don’t expect to buy exactly the same storage, or lower, than their current laptop. It’s not user upgradable, so it’s not the kind of thing one can try to use and just adjust later if they guessed 18 GB instead of 36 GB. You’re stuck.

Someone might be asking why I don’t consider the 14” MacBook Pro because it can be had for less than 16” models. It’s display is too small. I do really need a larger display for the times that I take my computer away from my desk. I do not, however, need it to be as beautiful and luxurious as the Liquid Retina XDR display. While that is definitely a wonderful screen to have, it is not essential.

To Air is Human

What I had been really jazzed by, before it was announced, was the 15” MacBook Air. There were rumors it would ship with the M3 chip, so maybe that one chip revision would drive two displays? Naive, of course, for multiple reasons.

The 15” MacBook Air, configured with 16 GB of RAM and a 1 TB SSD is $1899, $800 less than a 16” MacBook Pro with similar storage. Without a M2 Pro or M3 Pro chip it’s not much of a discount, because I can’t use it for my work.

Maybe Apple would sell more 15” MacBook Airs if they had a more capable one?

Let’s ignore the 13” and 14” laptop models, because they muddy the pricing, and if someone is shopping for a large screen, they are not considering those. We really only have one configuration of 15” MacBook Air. They do sell two at the Apple Store, but the only difference is 256 GB (shame!) or 512 GB of storage. There is no other M-chip configuration at all.

That means there’s a price umbrella between $1499 (15” M2 MBA 8/512 GB) and $2499 (16” M3 Pro MBA 18/512 GB). A thousand dollars where the only thing that can fill that gap is custom RAM and SSD sizes, no chip variation at all. That money gets you a larger battery, a fan for cooling, a much better display, and more connectivity with HDMI, SD cards, and additional lightning ports. It’s not like it’s $0 for those, but if those are less important to a shopper then they might gravitate towards the Air, if only it had at least one config with a more capable chip.

Honestly, I understand that the Pro chips run hotter than the base M chips, so they need a fan, and there isn’t a fan in the current 15” MacBook Air, but can we under-clock it? Throttle it? Something? Can we turn off some more cores on the Pro chip? Look, I’m not Johny Sirouji, but there has to be some way to have an additional display driver in a laptop under $2499.

Changing the design to disable the internal display in clamshell mode, and use both external display drivers for external monitors, doesn’t seem to have any appeal to Apple, so why not disable a bunch of a cores and charge a bunch of money? You guys like money?

What the 15” MacBook Air is, as it exists, is a good low-end laptop with a middle of the pack price tag. The 16” M3 Pro MacBook Pro is a very good high-end laptop with a high-end price tag, and the 16” M3 Max MacBook Pro is a ludicrous laptop. There’s no real middle, and that price gap shows it.

Some people think the gap is covered by the 14” M3 Pro MacBook Pro, but again, I assert that people are not cross shopping screen sizes like this. We are unlikely to ever get a cheaper 16” MacBook Pro, unless they put the vanilla M3 in it, and I don’t see that solving anyone’s problems at all.

Clock’s Ticking

Eventually, my machine will no longer be able to serve it’s function, either from hardware failing over time, the OS not supporting it, or some accidental damage or loss. Entropy isn’t going to wait for me because I’m cheap.

If I absolutely needed to buy a Mac right now, it would probably be the 16” MacBook Pro with 18 GB of RAM and the upgraded 1 TB storage. Then I would hold on to that for 5-6 years to try and eek out every penny. If I don’t have to upgrade though, then I won’t. As beneficial as it would be, perhaps there’s some configuration around the corner that will be more balanced to my needs, or at the very least, maybe Apple will bump their storage above 512 GB.

2023-10-31 14:15:00

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