With the introduction of the iPad Steve Jobs announced the beginning of what he dubbed the “Post-PC” era; a phase of computing in which a full form computer was no longer the focus of all activity. His words have proven to be accurate as iPad sales have skyrocketed and competitors have scrambled to try to bring viable products to market. The iPad has practically killed the once-touted netbook, and with the right accessory for the task there’s little the iPad can’t do as well as a laptop.
There’s another, quieter trend evident in what was omitted from Apple’s recent WWDC Keynote- there was no coverage of Apple’s desktop line, not even the recently upgraded (albeit modestly) Mac Pro. Is Apple killing off yet another icon of computing?
Only time will tell, but intuitively I think the answer is both Yes and No. There are undeniably some tasks that are best suited for a desktop environment, ones that require more screen real estate, more varied inputs (camera, scanner, specialized audio equipment, etc.), better sound output, additional storage capacity and so on. The MacBook lineup provides powerful architecture to rival most desktop towers (even the latest MacBook Air has some muscle with its i5 and i7 “Ivy Bridge” processors), but how can they compete with the screen of the iMac? The answer lies in two new Apple offerings.
The first is the Thunderbolt port included in all new Macs. The new portal offers the fastest input and output speeds available and is fully bidirectional, providing a virtual two-lane highway for simultaneous inbound and outbound data. Apple is releasing a number of adaptors for Thunderbolt: ethernet (the new MacBooks lack a dedicated ethernet port), VGA, DVI, HDMI, even Mini Display Port. These last few provide a perfect way for all MacBooks, even the diminutive 11″ Air, to take advantage of whatever size display your heart desires. The Mac lineup is capable of running in “clamshell mode”, meaning they can closed and in effect operate as an ultra-thin PC tower. Should you need dual monitors just run your laptop with both the external and built-in display simultaneously. The MacBook’s Bluetooth offers an easy way to accessorize inputs, whether you need a full-sized keyboard or gaming mouse.
The second is Apple’s Thunderbolt Display. While you can use any monitor for extra screen space, the Thunderbolt Display doesn’t need an adaptor and provides some extra functionality- three USB 2 ports, a FireWire 800, gigabit ethernet, and an additional Thunderbolt Port so that you can daisy chain any other Thunderbolt accessories. The display also features Apple’s iSight camera and 2.1 speakers, further mimicking the functionality of an iMac. As with all other Apple products, the Thunderbolt Display was designed to work seamlessly with Macs: the Thunderbolt cable divides to include a magsafe power input so that one cord provides all the connection your MacBook needs. Toss in a stand like the Twelve South’s BookArc and you have all the benefits of a desktop with the ability to go portable at a moment’s notice.
Much like the optical drive, I don’t expect Apple to rush to the discontinuing of a platform that is still in demand. Instead, you’ll likely see the gradual transition from the existing to what Apple considers to be the future, much like their slow abandonment of traditional hard drives in favor of solid state ones. While the MacBook lineup can’t quite compete yet with desktops for graphical muscle, that may be changing soon too. The tech specs of Apple’s new Retina Display MacBook Pro (the base model has a quad core i7 processor, eight gigabytes of ultrafast RAM, and dual integrated Intel HD 4000 (for less intensive, power-saving rendering) and NVIDIA GeForce GT 650M hardware graphics with 1 gigabyte of memory (for when you need some serious muscle) rival all but the most powerful consumer desktops.
While I love my current iMac (easily the best desktop I’ve owned), I may follow Apple’s vision when the day comes to upgrade. My trusty iPad handles portable computing tasks like a champ, but there are times I’d love to be able to take my Steam game library with me. The combination of Thunderbolt Display and MacBook Pro are a very tempting duo, bank account permitting.