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Apple silicon was supposed to save the Mac desktop. Instead, it’s killing it

Sunday April 14, 2024. 09:28 PM , from Mac 911
Macworld

With the release of the M3 MacBook Air about a month ago, Apple’s laptop lineup became up-to-date, with each MacBook sporting some version of the M3 chip, the latest in Apple silicon. So, now it should be time for the other shoe to drop: the updates to the desktop Mac lineup.

But of the four models in Apple’s desktop Mac lineup, only one has an M3 chip, the iMac. That update came five months ago after a two-year wait, and we don’t even know if the rest of the lines are going to get an update before the M4 arrives. So, what’s going on with Apple’s desktop Macs? Only Apple knows for sure. But we can look at the state of the desktop Mac lineup based on each model and try to come to some understanding as to what Apple is thinking.

Mac mini

The lack of a M3 update to the Mac mini is confounding when you consider its past release history. When Apple introduced the M1, the Mac mini shared the spotlight with the first Apple silicon machines. Then when the M2 Pro arrived, Apple added a higher-end model with an M2 Pro chip as a lower-cost performance machine. Both times the Mac mini was at the forefront of the launch of a new chip.




It seems fitting for Apple to update the Mac mini (left) and Mac Studio in 2024, but it’s not a certainty.



It seems fitting for Apple to update the Mac mini (left) and Mac Studio in 2024, but it’s not a certainty.Roman Loyola/IDG

It seems fitting for Apple to update the Mac mini (left) and Mac Studio in 2024, but it’s not a certainty.Roman Loyola/IDG


Roman Loyola/IDG

However, things have changed this year. Apple released the M3 and M3 Pro chips at the Scary Fast Mac event in October, so it would make sense that the M3 and M3 Pro Mac mini would follow. That hasn’t happened and there aren’t any rumors to indicate a new model is coming soon. Apple’s update history before Apple silicon with the Mac mini is sporadic at best, but there’s no excuse anymore to keep the Mac mini on an older chip unless Apple plans to skip a generation or two.

iMac

In case you missed it, Apple updated the iMac with an M3 chip (as well as with Wi-Fi 6E and Bluetooth 5.3) last fall. It’s a nice upgrade from the M1 it replaced, but since Apple introduced its current design in 2021, it’s now in the incremental update phase where new iMacs will focus on performance and not much else. Apple didn’t even introduce a new color as it did with the M2 MacBook Air and M3 MacBook Pro.

That’s not to downplay the importance of each iMac update going forward, but incremental chip updates are somewhat predictable. Also, it looks like Apple’s cadence with the iMac is to update it every other chip generation, which means we’re not getting another iMac until the M5 chip–likely in 2026 or 2027.

Apple could spark the iMac lineup by releasing a larger pro model, but it doesn’t look like that’s coming either. Apple said specifically that a 27-inch iMac is not in its plans (even as rumors of a 32-inch iMac Pro have been floated) but unless Apple is being coy, the 24-inch model is the one we’re stuck with for a while.




A lot of Mac users are hoping an iMac Pro revival is in ssthe works.



A lot of Mac users are hoping an iMac Pro revival is in ssthe works.Dominik Tomaszewski / Foundry

A lot of Mac users are hoping an iMac Pro revival is in ssthe works.Dominik Tomaszewski / Foundry


Dominik Tomaszewski / Foundry

Mac Studio

Apple surprisingly unveiled the Mac Studio alongside the Studio DIsplay at an event in March 2022. It represented a speedy desktop machine that was more powerful than a Mac mini but less expandable than the Mac Pro with an extremely small footprint.

The Mac Studio got M2 Max and M2 Ultra chips less than a year ago, so an update doesn’t yet feel overdue even though high-end MacBook Pro models already have an M3 Max. Conceivably, Apple could update this Mac at WWDC in June with a new chip, since we don’t expect Apple to redesign it for a while, if ever. But it also feels like a generation could pass us by without an update.




Considering how Apple has handled Mac Pro upgrades in the past, it won’t be surprising if the company doesn’t update it in a meaningful way for a long while.



Considering how Apple has handled Mac Pro upgrades in the past, it won’t be surprising if the company doesn’t update it in a meaningful way for a long while.Foundry

Considering how Apple has handled Mac Pro upgrades in the past, it won’t be surprising if the company doesn’t update it in a meaningful way for a long while.Foundry


Foundry

Mac Pro

Apple introduced the first Mac Pro back in 2006 as an ultra-high-end machine and today it’s less relevant than ever. For one, the Mac Studio is thousands of dollars cheaper and just as fast. For another, the biggest selling points—upgradeable graphics and memory—went away when the M2 Ultra model was announced last June. The only thing that separates the Mac Pro from the Mac Studio is the design, a few extra ports, and upgradeable storage.

So the question remains: Does anyone really care if Apple upgrades the Mac Pro or not? The Mac Pro has always catered to a particular niche, so it doesn’t generate a large number of sales. It’s also a group of users who don’t upgrade their Macs as frequently as Mac mini or iMacs users do.

Like the Mac Studio, Apple could easily skip the M3 Ultra and wait for the M4 in 2025. It’s waited years between updates before—a full six years passed between the cylinder (2013) and the lattice tower (2019).

So what about the M4?

According to a recent report from Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman, the M4 may arrive before the end of 2024, just 12 months after the M3 made its debut. He says the chip will have several variants, code-named Donan (M4), Brava (M4 Pro and Max), and Hidra (Mac Pro). Specifically, he says Apple “is looking to beef up” the Mac Pro with support for 512GB of memory, a massive increase over the current 192GB limit but still far below the previous model’s 1.5TB maximum.

Gurman doesn’t mention performance or efficiency improvements, but we can assume the usual 20 or so percent. More importantly, the new chip family will have an AI focus to help run the software features expected to arrive at WWDC as part of macOS 15. That likely means a major improvement to the neural engine, which arrived on the Mac with the M1 chip.

AI is the latest tech buzzword but it appears to be here to stay. And all of that algorithm crunching takes a ton of CPU power. Apple silicon has a massive advantage here due to its incredible efficiency and Apple’s desktops may get new life as AI infrastructure machines, particularly the Mac Studio and Mac Pro. But that could leave an even larger hole in the consumer desktop lineup as Apple shifts its focus to the ultra high end.

Is there any hope for the desktop?

If Apple releases new desktop Macs at all in 2024, the Mac mini and Mac Studio are the most likely candidates, but even those minor updates don’t feel like a sure thing. We know Apple will update the MacBook Air and Pro with a new chip every generation, and a new iPhone and Apple Watch arrive every year, but desktop Macs are far less certain.

With Apple silicon, desktop Macs should be on th e same cadence as Apple’s laptops, but it’s clear that desktop Macs have taken a backseat. Granted, Apple probably doesn’t need to update them as frequently as MacBooks, but a longer cadence should at least bring some more innovation. We waited two-plus years for the smallest of iMac updates and the long-awaited Mac Pro with Apple silicon took away features compared to the Intel model it replaced.only

Apple didn’t even change the design of the Mac mini or Mac Pro when they got their Apple silicon upgrades. There had been rumors of a smaller Mac Pro and a thinner mini with new colors, but instead, we have the same old cases Apple has sold for years. Even the iMac, which did get a significant design overhaul with Apple silicon, is more derivative than new and lacks the wild creativity it once had. And we’re willing to bet it won’t be much different a decade from now if it exists at all.




The iMac is nice, but the new design could have been so much more.



The iMac is nice, but the new design could have been so much more.Foundry

The iMac is nice, but the new design could have been so much more.Foundry


Foundry

Then there’s the price confusion. A Mac mini maxed out to match the Mac Studio’s storage and RAM ends up costing the same price even though the Studio has a better processor. The Mac Pro with the same M2 Ultra chip, memory, and storage as the Mac Studio costs $3,000 more for a couple of extra USB-C ports and a larger case. And the Mac Pro doesn’t offer any higher-end processor options than you get in the Mac Studio despite persistent rumors of an “Extreme” chip.

While the M3 MacBooks offer a clear mix of features and options, Apple seems to sell a variety of desktop Macs because it has to, not because it’s carefully considered what consumers need. Apple doesn’t sell a MacBook Air with an M3 Pro chip, yet the Mac mini has a high-priced M2 Pro option. The Mac Studio is great, but either it or the Mac Pro is unnecessary. And Apple refuses to give iMac buyers what they really need—a larger screen.

Desktop Macs take a backseat to the MacBook lineup because laptop sales dominate the market and people generally don’t upgrade desktop Macs as frequently. It appears that Apple has determined that the seat is now farther back than before. You need to look no further than the Vision Pro with Mac Virtual Display—soon enough your entire Mac will be housed in a headset with a 100-foot virtual monitor and you won’t need a $1,599 Studio Display plugged into your $1,999 Mac Studio. That’s awesome, but the same innovation should be coming to Apple’s desktop Macs.

For Apple fans who like to see the company’s highest-end desktop Macs have the latest and greatest technology, it’s disappointing. Apple’s current desktop lineup offers great designs and features, even if it’s mostly comprised of M2 chips that are relatively dated, but when you see that, for example, the M2 Max offers the same CPU performance as an M3 Pro, it makes customers hesitant to buy a Mac mini or even a Mac Studio and inevitably pushes them toward MacBooks, where the value and choice is much greater.

Apple still makes desktop Macs, but the waiting game for updates is longer and more uncertain than ever. And with very little on the horizon, it’s just a matter of time before they’re gone forever.

Mac
https://www.macworld.com/article/2287174/apple-silicon-m3-m4-desktop-mac-mini-studio-pro-imac.html

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