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Why it's a big deal that Apple is finally updating its computers

Rob Pegoraro
Contributing Editor

A computer company will announce new desktop and laptop computers Tuesday. That would be an unremarkable moment for the computer industry in general, but this company is Apple (AAPL).

And the Apple that makes computers hasn’t looked much like the one increasingly centralized around making iPhones—the source of 56% of its $53.3 billion in third-quarter revenue. The Cupertino, California, firm has let its Mac lineup grow stale, especially on the desktop, and its sales have finally begun to suffer in response.

That makes this event—scheduled for 10 a.m. EDT at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in Brooklyn, N.Y., and also likely to feature new iPad Pro tablets—more important than usual for the company.

It also matters for Mac users who have held off updating their hardware: Instead of having to pay 2018 prices for 2015 designs, they may finally see new models. In the best case, these overdue updates would not only incorporate current processors but allow unlocking by fingerprint or facial recognition, and, in the case of laptops, permit recharging via industry-standard USB-C.

A fully assembled Apple I computer with a homemade wooden computer case. Ed Uthman/Flickr

(Disclosure: I’m typing this on a nine-year-old iMac, although one of its core components is much newer.)

What to expect when you’ve been expecting for years

As outlined by TF International Securities analyst Ming-Chi Kuo, long one of the most accurate Apple forecasters and backed up by hints in Apple regulatory filings overseas, Tuesday’s event will involve a new, affordably priced laptop—likely a replacement for the long-ignored MacBook Air—as well as updates to the MacBook, iMac and Mac mini.

All of those computer lines desperately need updates, but none more so than the Mac mini. As the Buyers Guide tracker at MacRumors details, that compact desktop will have gone 1,475 days without an update as of Tuesday morning—without any price cuts to compensate for its obsolescence.

The iMac all-in-one desktop, the MacBook and the MacBook Air laptop will all have gone 512 days without an update—although the basic configurations of the single-port MacBook and the low-cost Air essentially date to 2015.

CHINA – 2018/03/04: A Macbook pro shown in Apple store. It is reported that Apple is preparing to launch a new cheaper MacBook Air in the second quarter of 2018. (Photo by Zhang Peng/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Only the MacBook Pro—Apple’s most expensive laptop line—has seen advances this year, in the form of updated processors, a better screen and a tweaked keyboard design (which apparently remains fragile and near-impossible to repair).

Apple’s tablets, however, have suffered from some of the same attention deficit: While it’s only been 216 days since the iPad’s last revision, the iPad Pro series hasn’t been revised since June of 2017 and the iPad mini’s design dates to September of 2015.

The slowing evolution of Intel (INTC) processors has meant Mac buyers haven’t necessarily missed out on major advances in speed and battery life by running hardware a generation or two behind. “Those things don’t matter all that much,” said NPD Group analyst Steve Baker in an e-mail.

The mini and the Air have, however, suffered from sitting out recent advances in connectivity and security.

Neither includes a high-speed, can’t-plug-it-in-the-wrong-way USB-C port. In the Air’s case, that also rules out shopping outside Apple if its convenient but proprietary and expensive MagSafe power adapter breaks. And neither supports Apple’s Touch ID or Face ID biometric unlocking.

Hopefully, the new models unveiled Tuesday will remedy some of these oversights. However, Apple being as persnickety as ever about design, we can’t rule out the firm also doing something customer-hostile like removing the headphone jack from the new low-end laptop.

Customers have choices

The suspended animation of Apple’s computers—something that grew exasperating two years ago—has been especially baffling looking at the rest of the company.

It updates the iPhone lineup every year with mechanical regularity and usually with impressive results, and its macOS system software also sees significant annual updates.

Customers have been willing to look past this situational neglect. NPD’s Baker, for example, noted that the Air still does well as an entry-level laptop, making up about a third of Apple’s laptop volume.

The Air had constituted some 40% of that business before the MacBook Pro’s late-2016 relaunch; Baker added that some prospective Air buyers had instead gone with an iPad Pro.

Apple no longer breaks out desktop and laptop sales, but in its fiscal year 2018 third earnings quarter it announced that total Mac sales dropped 13% from a year ago, falling from 4.29 million to 3.72 million. Mac revenues, however, only dropped by 5%, from $5.59 billion to $5.53 billion.

Desktops, then, represent Apple’s weakest link. Baker said he estimated iMac sales through 2018 are down by about a fifth over the same period last year, while Mac mini sales have collapsed by a third relative to the 2016-2017 period.

Uncertainty is not a good product

Baker sees Apple’s conduct as understandable in the context of defending its profit margins—which it projected in its last quarterly filing would be between 38% and 38.5% overall in its fourth-quarter earnings, due Nov. 1.

“These are entry level products, and they are always going to be slower to upgrade because they are trying to hit a price,” he said. “That is how Apple makes the margins they need at these prices, and the customers for these don’t want to pay big prices for current technology.”

But a computer company’s product isn’t just a box and a list of specifications. It’s also the implicit assurance that the firm sees your business as worthy of continued attention. If the company no longer regards that as interesting, you should consider your options.

In my own case, that led me to replace my aging Air with an HP (HPQ) Spectre x360 two-in-one laptop. I’ve immensely appreciated the ability to fold its screen all the way back to use the device as a touchscreen tablet, but I haven’t been so happy to see that Windows 10 can be a lot more brittle than macOS.

My 2009-vintage iMac, however, remains in service, thanks to my replacing its sluggish hard drive with a solid-state flash-memory model—a transplant that involved undoing 14 Torx screws and seven ribbon cables.

That’s breathed new life into the old machine, and now I may finally be able to replace it with a new Mac mini or iMac. Should that come to pass, I’ll have two questions for Apple: What took this so long? And what do I owe you?

Email Rob at rob@robpegoraro.com; follow him on Twitter at @robpegoraro.

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