Permanent Unicorn

The reason Apple needs a cheap MacBook in its lineup right now is simple: It always needs a device in its lineup that costs less than you expect, but does more than it needs to.

By Ernie Smith

If you want to understand exactly why there’s a possibility that a “cheap” MacBook might finally emerge on the market after years of rumors, look no further than this review from YouTuber Jerry Schulze.

In it, Schulze compares the base model M1 MacBook Air, which came out in 2020 and is widely seen as the “Goldilocks” machine for many, with a base-model Microsoft Surface Laptop Go, a device that is literally brand new, only coming out a few weeks ago.

The Surface Laptop Go is the exact kind of machine you could see Apple releasing to fit this “cheaper” niche. On paper, the MacBook Air is the more expensive machine, but if you do any amount of looking online, you will find it priced for the same amount or even cheaper than the new Surface laptop.

The MacBook Air uses an old design, is capped at 8 gigs of RAM and has a relatively low amount of storage. It’s also three years old. (Disclosure: I’m using one right now.) And yet, compared to the machine it’s competing against, it’s not even close. The Mac has a faster processor, better screen, better speakers, faster connectivity, and even better performance in most games. The Mac makes modest compromises on some things (no active cooling, for one), but it has a backlit keyboard, something Microsoft’s device does not have. Apple has been building for this market without even realizing it.

The 2020 MacBook Air was the moment a lot of things finally clicked for Apple on the laptop side—where things that the company had been working towards for many years were no longer compromised by bad performance, bad thermals, or bad design decisions. It’s no wonder than this machine still looks so much better than the competition three years later.

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But there’s something happening elsewhere in the Mac ecosystem that shouldn’t be ignored: The possibility that a lot of older users, who don’t upgrade so often, are going to be left without a modern version of MacOS. During the first half of the 2010s, Apple was making devices at a high level, so high that these machines have remained in common sight when you’re out and about. A big reason they’ve stuck around comes down to a combination of upgradeability and ingenuity: These machines are very common, and users have gone out of their way to keep them alive.

The ever-creative vintage Mac community has even gone so far as to start taking upgrades in their own hands, patching new versions of MacOS so that they continue to work on machines more than a decade old. With the right hacks and a trusty friend who knows their way around a soldering iron, it is now possible to hack a 2012 MacBook Pro to run an eGPU.

Unfortunately, this model seems like it’s about to fall apart, and the reason comes down to the fact that Apple wants to get everyone on Apple Silicon. It seems like Apple could start dropping MacOS updates for Intel-based devices as soon as next year, and that could leave a whole bunch of silent-majority customers out in the cold. Apple needs an onramp to get these users onto Apple Silicon so that they can benefit from their continued patronage for their services businesses.

Put another way, Apple needs a Mac SE. No, not like this Mac SE. Like the iPhone SE—just good enough to keep casual users in the ecosystem, and nothing more. They need something like an iBook in spirit, so cheap-yet-good that people will run over one another to get it.

Up to this point, the 2020 MacBook Air has served this role admirably for Apple, but other companies cover this market a lot better, and it’s becoming clear that the company needs to get people off the fence, to create something that gets those 2015-era MacBook Pro users to upgrade, finally.

They basically need a permanent unicorn—a Mac Mini, but portable. They need a device that recreates the feeling of the original 2020 M1 MacBook Air every single year, that does more than you expect—that is intended for regular people, but doesn’t feel like it will get crushed the second you load up a video editor.

And while there’s a high-end market that is more than willing to buy the high-end stuff, let’s admit it—that part of the market has a ceiling, and the people spending real money on those machines are enterprise customers who aren’t pulling out their checkbooks every day of the week.

At its heart, Apple has always been a consumer company, and it needs a device that feels like it’s for regular people. For years, the company thought the answer was the iPad—something reflected by the entry-level iPad’s too-good-to-be-true starting price for many years, which the most recent version finally brought back to reality. However, that product line is getting messy and difficult to follow, and as a result, it’s increasingly becoming clear that the actual answer is the same one as it’s always been—the Mac.

Apple has done a great job of making the iPhone an ecosystem where even the old models continue to create value for them years later. It has done less well at this with the Mac, which has led users to take matters into their own hands.

I think a revival of the 2015 12-inch MacBook, or an even cheaper take on the 2020 MacBook Air, is the first step towards Apple rebuilding a Mac ecosystem that builds upon itself. I just hope it doesn’t extinguish the Mac enthusiast community’s ingenuity in the process.

Not-So-Hyper Links

We need more things like Faircamp.

Kate Micucci, one half of Garfunkel & Oates and a consistently great character actor, has a bop about grocery stores which I’ll cosign as being pretty freakin’ good.

Breaking my no-NYT rule to share an excellent Ezra Klein takedown of Marc Andreessen, which succeeds because it takes Andreessen’s recent essay seriously. Klein is the best NYT opinion section hire in many years; mostly a podcaster, it’s a shame he doesn’t write more.

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Ernie Smith

Your time was just wasted by Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

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