The Mac turns 40: How Apple Silicon cured its midlife crisis

The Mac, formerly the more austere Macintosh, turns 40 today, putting Apple’s longest-running product squarely in middle age. But like someone who sees the back half of their life approaching and gets in marathon-runner shape, the Mac is in the strongest place it’s been for decades. From a revenue perspective, Mac sales declined precipitously in 2023, but that came on the heels of four years of growth that was likely the product of pent-up demand for an improved Mac lineup.

In 2020, Apple finally started delivering on that, thanks in large part to Apple Silicon arriving in the Mac, ushering in the era we’re in now. While the Mac was on shaky ground prior to Apple Silicon, it would now be pretty silly to suggest the Mac won’t make it to its 50th birthday. That wasn’t always a given, though. While the Mac is Apple’s oldest product, it’s also gone through numerous moments where it appeared to be on the brink of irrelevance or complete disaster. Through most of the ‘90s, before CEO Steve Jobs returned to lead the company he had founded, the Macintosh was a mess.

It was too expensive for the power it delivered, Apple’s product lineup was confusing and cluttered and Windows PCs now had both the GUI and performance to make the Mac a poor choice for most people. And even after Jobs returned and introduced the iMac and iBook while revitalizing the Power Mac and Powerbook lines, the G3 and G4 still lagged behind PCs in most tasks. Ironically, the move to Intel in 2006 helped make the Mac more relevant, even as it held Apple back a decade later, as the company chased thin and light laptop designs with “innovations” like the Touch Bar and butterfly keyboard that held it back while letting its power languish.

But in 2014, when the Mac turned 30, it was in a pretty good place. Apple had spent the recent years focusing on the iPhone and then the iPad, with former CEO Steve Jobs famously comparing PCs to trucks — an implication that the iPad would be the more mainstream car for most people. But at least as far as laptops go, the Mac was fairly compelling. The MacBook Air had finally become what Jobs had wanted when he pulled it out of an envelope on stage in 2008. It was a thin, light and reasonably powerful laptop with a reasonable price, and the spill-over effect from people buying iPods and then iPhones had helped the MacBook Air become ubiquitous in coffee shops and college campuses. The MacBook Pro, meanwhile, was well-suited to the creative professional Apple marketed towards, with a great screen, plenty of ports and enough power for it to be a compelling mobile studio.

However, there were plenty of weak spots in the lineup if you looked closely. Perhaps the most obvious was the strange saga of the Mac Pro. For years, Apple’s tower-style computer had gotten more and more expensive, clearly priced out of the range of most consumers. That wasn’t a bad thing on its own, but Apple failed to recognize what its target market was looking for when it released the cylindrical Mac Pro redesign in 2013 — and then failed to meaningfully upgrade it for years. Between the lack of updates and a design that limited expandability, the Mac Pro was a bit of a joke in Apple’s lineup for the better part of a decade.

Apple then made a similarly disastrous change to the MacBook Pro in 2016. Let us count the ways Apple dropped the ball with this generation of laptops. First, the unreliable butterfly keyboard, which existed seemingly only so Apple could make these laptops as thin and light as possible. Then there was the removal of useful ports like HDMI, USB-A and an SD card slot in favor of just four USB-C / Thunderbolt ports, one of which was needed for charging. There’s also the Touch Bar, a thin OLED strip on the keyboard that dynamically changed depending on what app you were using. A neat idea, though one that failed to gain much traction with developers or end users, and the lack of a physical escape key baffled users for years to come.

Finally, while Apple managed to make the 13- and 15-inch MacBook Pro models much thinner and lighter than their predecessors, it came at a performance cost. Plenty of users experienced overheating and CPU throttling, as if the extremely thin enclosure combined with the powerful chips was a bad combo.

Meanwhile, the venerable MacBook Air was left to languish for years with minor updates and a design and low-resolution screen that were quickly becoming uncompetitive. The iMac and Mac mini chugged along as solid options for users looking for a desktop machine, but picking a Mac laptop at the time was an exercise in compromise and paying for something that probably did not check all the boxes.

Things showed signs of turning around in 2019, when Apple introduced a new, tower-style Mac Pro with increased expansion options. But more significantly, Apple reversed course on the terrible butterfly keyboard and brought back scissor-style keys to the MacBook Pro and, a few months later, the MacBook Air (which had since been updated with a Retina display and more current Intel processors). Amazingly enough, Apple made the revamped 16-inch MacBook Pro thicker and heavier than the one it replaced, something that showed the company was moving away from thinner and lighter at all costs, especially in products like this where it just didn’t make sense to chase a smaller form factor at the expense of performance.

However, the Mac really rebounded in late 2020, when Apple released the first Macs running on the company’s own custom silicon. Apple had been designing chips for years, ever since the A4 first arrived in the iPhone 4 and original iPad in 2010, and the combo of efficiency and power the company had hit on had proven to be a big advantage for the company. And the first round of Macs running Apple Silicon included some of Apple’s most popular models, like the MacBook Air and 13-inch MacBook Pro.

The improvements were immediately obvious — when we reviewed it, we said the M1-powered MacBook Air “redefines what an ultraportable can be.” The combo of huge performance gains alongside wildly impressive battery life made the MacBook Air a no-brainer. Meanwhile, the Mac mini provided a ton of bang for the buck if you were looking for an inexpensive desktop computer.

The next big move for the Mac came in late 2021, when Apple fully fixed the MacBook Pro issues it introduced with the 2016 model. The totally redesigned 14- and 16-inch MacBook Pro models brought back a lot of the ports that Apple initially removed, banished the Touch Bar and utilized new M1 Pro and M1 Max chips that boosted the multicore performance of these laptops far beyond their Intel-based predecessors.

The last major piece of the puzzle came into place in March of 2022, when Apple introduced the Mac Studio. While the Mac Pro lingered on with Intel chips, the new Mac Studio represented a middle ground between the Pro and mini. The $2,000 model included the M1 Max chip, which you can also get in a MacBook Pro if you were willing to pony up the cash, but the $4,000 model basically strapped two of those chips together to make the M1 Ultra. That monster processor had up to 64 GPU cores, while the M2 Ultra that replaced it lets you get up to a 76-core GPU to go along with its 24-core CPU and 32-core Neural Engine for machine learning tasks. Plain and simple, it’s the kind of power Apple hadn’t offered in its computers for a long time.

Since 2022, Apple has mostly been in a refine, upgrade and iterate mode, with many Macs moving on to the M3 architecture. But there are a few places that could still use an overhaul — the Mac Pro moved to Apple Silicon late in the transition to these new chips, only arriving this past June. And while it has an expandable tower-style case, it runs the same M2 Ultra that you can get in the Mac Studio but costs a whopping $3,000 more. There’s a pretty big opportunity for Apple to put in an even higher-end workstation-class — maybe it can just bolt two of the M3 Ultras that are surely coming together to further separate the Mac Pro from the Studio.

On a more consumer-focused level, Apple has recently made another stab at making Mac gaming a thing, with the company bringing popular, mainstream titles like Death Stranding and Resident Evil 4 to the platform. But the company still isn’t in the same realm of gaming on Windows, despite the massive power Apple Silicon offers. If the company can figure out a way to make porting games easier, developers could have a whole new market to sell to — and Apple would have another feather in its cap. If the company has any ambitions of really pushing past PCs the way the iPad came to dominate the tablet market, they’ll need to push even harder to get big games on the Mac.

And, of course, we’re just a week away from Apple releasing its first new platform in almost a decade, the Vision Pro. While it’s launching as a wildly expensive, standalone device, it’s not hard to imagine the market expanding if the form factor catches on. If that happens, we might see a Vision device that runs Mac apps natively, instead of just viewing them. Apple has long held the belief that its platforms should stand on their own, though — witness the futile calls for a touchscreen Mac or a version of MacOS for the iPad Pro. But in this case, maybe we’ll be talking in 10 years about how spatial computing was the next thing to move the Mac forward.

This article originally appeared on Engadget at 

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