Back to the Mac 017: Mac hardware is healthy again [Video]

It wasn’t that long ago when I had to ask myself the unthinkable question: Is it time to start looking seriously at Windows machines? Indeed, the state of Mac hardware was that bleak just a few years ago. What a difference a few years makes.

Thankfully I never had to follow through with such an unfortunate decision. That’s because the state of Mac hardware, just a few years later, is at its healthiest level in years. How did we get there? Watch our latest episode of Back to the Mac for the details. 

Started from the top

For as much grief as people gave Apple’s executive team about the poor direction of Mac hardware, it would be wrong to not also give credit to the team who orchestrated the turnaround.

First and foremost, Apple had to admit it was wrong, which is never an easy thing for a proud company to do. These hardware changes just didn’t sprout out of thin air, but they’re the result of leadership recognizing their mistakes and taking action.

This line of thinking was well illustrated in April 2017, when, in an unprecedented move for the company at the time, it invited journalists to a roundtable to discuss the future of Mac hardware.

Also discussed were some of the mistakes that Apple had made, plans to address the issues, and it even went as far as to pre-announce hardware. Again, this was unheard of at the time.

To be clear, Apple still has a ways to go, but the company has taken big steps toward improving its perception among Mac faithful.

Back to the Mac 017: Mac hardware is healthy again!

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Before any new hardware was released, the eGPU was the first tangible indication that Apple was trying to put the Mac back on the proper course. Initially, external graphics chassises needed workarounds to gain support in macOS, but eventually native support for eGPUs began to roll out.

Over time, Apple has lended more support for external graphics in macOS, and even has a support page where it outlines which eGPUs are recommended for macOS. Eventually, Apple began carrying two eGPUs in its stores, the Blackmagic eGPU and the Blackmagic eGPU Pro.

External graphics support continues to grow in macOS. You can now force applications to prefer external graphics, and apps like Final Cut Pro X feature preferences that allow you to specify which GPU will be used for rendering and export.

iMac Pro

eGPUs are nice, but it was the the iMac Pro that solidified Apple’s desire to get back into the good graces of Mac users. The iMac Pro, though released at the end of 2017, remains one of the best Macs that Apple sells today, and is one of the best Mac machines that Apple has released in the last decade.

Apple took the exact form factor of its popular all-in-one iMac, and upgraded the internals with Intel Xeon CPUs, Radeon Vega graphics, ECC RAM, and lots of fast solid-state storage.

But my favorite thing about the iMac Pro is just how incredibly quiet it is. Thanks to a completely redesigned internal cooling system, it’s much quieter than the regular 5K iMac.

2018 MacBook Pro

The MacBook Pro is Apple’s most popular desktop computer, so imagine how happy Apple fans were to finally have a laptop with a serious hardware upgrade. While the 2018 MacBook Pro didn’t address the terrible butterfly keyboard switch issues — that would come a year later in 2019 — it did provide a much-needed processing and graphics boost. The 2018 MacBook Pro also made it possible to configure more than 16GB of RAM in a MacBook Pro for the first time.

MacBook Pro Review

Faster MacBook Pro releases

After the release of the 2018 MacBook Pro, Apple pushed spec bumps, like the 2019 refresh that brought an 8-core CPU to the MacBook Pro for the very first time.

2018 Mac mini

It seemed almost like a dream when it was released, but after four years of waiting, we finally got a refreshed Mac mini near the end of 2018. The 2018 Mac mini, while retaining the same form factor as its predecessor, came with a new space gray exterior, and featured significantly upgraded internals. In fact, at the time of its release, I called it the most versatile Mac that Apple sold. That title has since been claimed by the Mac Pro, but the Mac mini is a much more affordable machine for the general consumer.

What I love about the new Mac mini, besides its 10GbE and 6-Core i7 CPU build to order options, is its inclusion of four Thunderbolt 3 ports. Like the iMac Pro, the four Thunderbolt three ports on the Mac mini give it amazing versatility and the ability to work with a plethora of external Thunderbolt 3 devices. For the money, it’s probably the best bang for the buck in the whole Mac lineup.

2018 MacBook Air

Like the Mac mini, the MacBook Air was on hiatus for several years, and like the Mac mini, it returned to action in late 2018. Its biggest feature, the addition of a Retina display for the very first time, brought a much-needed upgrade to the popular laptop line.

Another first for the MacBook Air was its adoption of Thunderbolt 3. The Air scored not just one but two Thunderbolt 3 ports, adding plenty of external upgrade potential to Apple’s most affordable laptop.

With only one available processor — a power-sipping 7W 1.6GHz dual-core 8th-generation Intel Core i5 — the MacBook Air isn’t the laptop meant for powering through massive video editing projects, 3D modeling, and the like. However, it’s probably the best Apple laptop for most casual users in need of a machine to handle basic tasks like word processing, web browsing, etc.

And thanks to its external expandability via Thunderbolt 3, it can handle even more intense workloads when paired with an eGPU.

2019 iMac

Last March Apple finally updated both its 21.5-inch 4K iMac and 27-inch 5K iMac with new CPUs, including new quad-core, 6-core, and 8-core options. Higher end iMacs also gained access to faster Radeon Pro Vega Graphics.

As I noted in my five takeaways from an iMac Pro user post, the 8-core 5K iMac featured impressive iMac Pro-like CPU performance. For half the price of a $5,000 base model iMac Pro, you get CPU performance that goes toe-to-toe and even beats the iMac Pro in some areas.

The 27-inch iMac can also accommodate up to 128GB of RAM, which can be upgraded by the users via a convenient access port on the rear of the machine. We published a tutorial shortly after the release of the updated 5K iMac with instructions showing how to upgrade to 128GB of RAM.

Sadly, Apple gimps the base 2019 iMac with a Fusion Drive, which can negatively affect performance. If you’re considering an iMac, avoid the Fusion Drive if at all possible. Apple also continues to sell a non-Retina iMac, the only device in its entire lineup without a Retina display.

2019 MacBook Pro spec bump

In mid-2019, Apple released a spec bump update to the MacBook Pro headlined by an 9th-generation 8-Core Intel i9 CPU in the 15-inch model, the first time we saw an 8-core CPU in an Apple laptop. This update addressed one of the primary complaints with the 2018 MacBook Pro, that of heavy throttling with the CPU.

2019 entry-level 13-inch MacBook Pro

Later in 2019, Apple released a brand-new, entry-level MacBook Pro, replacing the model that had lingered in the lineup since 2017. Although on paper, the new entry-level 13-inch MacBook Pro seems anemic from a performance perspective, the 1.4GHz Quad-Core CPU powering the machine is actually quite capable.

The great thing about the new base MacBook Pro is that it starts at the same $1,299 price as its predecessor, but comes with a quad-core CPU this time, and features the Touch Bar alongside a very handy Touch ID fingerprint sensor.

Although the 2018 MacBook Air, which starts off $200 less than the MacBook Pro, is more affordable, it might be worth considering the upgrade for the added CPU capability.

16-inch MacBook Pro

Apple’s first 16-inch edition of the MacBook Pro finally provided a long-awaited fix to the failed butterfly key switches, outright replacing the key switches with a more traditional scissor switch mechanism.

Besides the keyboard fix, the 16-inch MacBook Pro featured a slightly larger display with higher resolution, an option to configure up to 64GB of RAM and 8TB of storage — both firsts for an Apple laptop, wide stereo six-speaker sound, and more.

Although Apple still has a long way to go in order to fix the keyboard issue that plagues all of its other laptops, I see the release of the 16-inch MacBook Pro as the symbolic end of Apple’s disastrous period for Mac hardware that began in 2016.

Mac Pro

If the 16-inch MacBook Pro capped off the end of a once disappointing Mac era, the 2019 Mac Pro lays out new beginnings and an exciting future for the Mac. After all, this is the machine that was talked about during that first meeting where Apple publicly acknowledged that it had made some poor decisions regarding the direction of the Mac.

The Mac Pro is everything and more that it was hyped up to be. As I noted in our hands-on, first-look video, this isn’t the Mac for most people, and its cost, especially when upgraded during the build-to-order process, can be quite prohibitive.

But if you can put a machine like the Mac Pro to good use, you’ll find an insane amount of power and capability on tap. The CPU, for instance, can be configured up to a 24-core monster, while users with especially deep pockets can add a pair of Radeon Pro Vega II Duo MPX Modules, which individually Apple touts as being the world’s most powerful graphics card.

My favorite thing about the Mac Pro, however, is the sheer amount of upgradeability. As a Mac user in the Thunderbolt 3 era, I’m used to being able to take advantage of all sorts of interesting external upgrades, but this is the first time that we’ve had a machine that can do both external and internal upgrades on a wide scale.

Thanks to PCIe access, users can add graphics cards, super-fast PCIe SSDs, internal capture cards, etc. And Apple also allows you to upgrade the RAM to a massive amount — up to 1.5TB for higher-end CPU configurations.

All of this coupled with the plethora of external Thunderbolt 3 hardware makes the Mac Pro the most upgradable Mac ever. Simply put, it’s a dream machine for Mac users, but it’s also overkill for the majority.

Pro Display XDR

Speaking of overkill, the Pro Display XDR is a dream display for creative professionals. The true 6K display features outstanding contrast ratio and brightness ability beyond anything in its class.

Worth mentioning is the Pro Display XDR’s amazing build quality, with the optional $999 Pro Stand, which puts every other monitor that I’ve ever used to shame — even Apple’s beloved Thunderbolt Display.

The 32-inch glossy display does a great job of rejecting reflections, but it also comes with a nano-texture glass matte option that takes light rejection to the next level. Of course, the nano-texture glass option will cost you an extra $999.

Needless to say, this is the type of display primarily aimed at creative professionals who edit video or render 3D models all day. The 6K resolution gives you an enormous amount of flexibility for post-production, and the extreme dynamic range, which provides insane contrast, color, and brightness capabilities, is like no other display within the ballpark of its price range.

I’m super-happy that the Pro Display XDR exists, because it shows just how seriously Apple is taking professional Mac workflows. That all being said, it’s admittedly overkill for the average user, and like the Mac Pro, its price is downright prohibitive for most consumers.

9to5Mac’s Take

Although Mac hardware is at its healthiest level in years (perhaps ever?), there are definitely some areas that I’d like to see Apple address going forward.

First and foremost — don’t release the throttle. The Mac got in the bad shape that it did a few years ago because Apple got complacent, and focused too much on iOS to see how bad the Mac had eroded. Please never let that occur again. Keep pushing our periodic updates, no matter how mundane they may seem. Customers appreciate not having to buy outdated hardware, so continue to push out regular spec bump updates as much as possible.

Second: Listen to customer feedback. If Apple would have just listened to the outpouring of complaints about the original 12-inch MacBook keyboard, it would have known how seriously flawed the butterfly switch keyboard was. It thus (hopefully) would have never migrated such a terrible keyboard it to its most popular Mac lineup.

Give us more affordable hardware. I love the Mac Pro, the iMac Pro, and the Pro Display XDR, but realistically, they are often beyond the means of the most die-hard Apple fans. As such, we need things like:

  • A brand-new affordable Thunderbolt Display with great build quality, perhaps in a 5K resolution
  • A cheaper Mac Pro iteration with PCIe and Memory access

In the meantime, I’d also like to see the return of the 12-inch MacBook sans butterfly keyboard, and of course, I’d like to see every Mac laptop ditch the butterfly switch keyboard in due time.

Needless to say, the future of Mac hardware seems very bright. Rumor has it that we’ll see both a refreshed Mac mini and a refreshed iMac very soon, and of course, we should see other models in Apple’s MacBook lineup receive updates as well.

What do you think about the state of Mac hardware in 2020? Do you think Apple has done a good job over the last few years to correct the mistakes and missteps that it made in the past? How are you feeling about the future of Mac hardware? Sound off down below in the comments section with your thoughts and opinions on the matter.

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Jeff produces videos, walkthroughs, how-tos, written tutorials and reviews. He takes pride in being able to explain things in a simple, clear and concise manner.