The Future of the MacBook Stands at a Crossroads


Right now, Mac fans stand on the edge of a precipice. Not only are we about to jump headlong into the Apple Silicon era, but there are strong rumors afoot that Apple is on the verge of bringing back one of its most divisive products ever: The 12-inch MacBook.

Yet those whispers have not yet been firmed up, for there is another distinct possibility that is being talked about. Apple could bring out an entirely different 12-inch device in the form of a reimagined MacBook Air. The option Apple chooses could have huge implications for the future of its Mac lineup, and I know exactly which path I hope the company will take.

Bringing the MacBook back from the dead

Apple MacBook-review-kybrd1
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

The original 12-inch MacBook was one of Apple’s boldest experiments — an incredibly lightweight, totally fanless laptop with just a single USB-C port and an all-new butterfly keyboard design. While interesting, these features led to all kinds of problems. You always needed a thousand dongles to connect your peripherals. Sure, it was silent, but its performance had to be dramatically pared back to allow for its fanless design. It was way too expensive and way too niche. And we all know about the problems with the butterfly keyboard.

The way I see it, reviving the 12-inch MacBook and outfitting it with an Apple Silicon processor will only solve one of those problems. Apple’s new chips are based on an ARM architecture, and other ARM chips are known to be incredibly power efficient. Apple itself has said its new processors will marry excellent performance with low power consumption. Kicking out the low-powered Intel chips from the 12-inch MacBook and replacing them with Apple’s own designs would undoubtedly help performance, but it will not be anywhere near enough.

That is because a revitalized 12-inch MacBook would almost certainly still have the butterfly keyboard and just one port. Why? Because being insanely thin and light was key to the 12-inch MacBook’s identity, and the slimline keyboard and single port were supposedly necessary sacrifices to achieve that. Kit it out with the thicker Magic Keyboard from the latest MacBook Pro, for example, and you have a very different device.

And that is all before we come to what a mess the resuscitated 12-inch MacBook would make of Apple’s Mac roster. Remember back in 2018 when we had both the 12-inch MacBook and the MacBook Air? It was confusing. Which was the entry-level model? “Air” always signified Apple’s lightest devices, so why was the 12-inch MacBook lighter? The last thing we need is a return to that jumbled laptop lineup.

Change is in the Air

Macbook Air (2018) Review
Riley Young/Digital Trends

So, what is the other option? My hope is that Apple leaves the 12-inch MacBook where it belongs — in the cold, cold ground — and instead refreshes the MacBook Air with a new design. This may be a long shot, but it makes a lot of sense. Bear with me here.

We already know that Apple wants to slim down its MacBook bezels. The MacBook Pro 15 got this treatment when it was recast as the MacBook Pro 16, and there are strong rumors that Apple is working on a 14-inch MacBook Pro to replace the 13-inch version.

Why should Apple stop there? When the company sees what it believes is the future, it goes at it full pelt and brings it to all the devices in that range. Over the years that happened with USB-C ports, the Retina display, and the Force Touch trackpad, and it is sure to happen to screen bezels too. That means slimmed down screen edges are likely to come to the MacBook Air sooner or later.

It also fits in nicely with the Air’s history. While these days it only comes in the 13-inch size, in years gone by, you could purchase an 11-inch MacBook Air if you wanted something a little lighter. Apple’s bezel purge makes sense here: From 15-inch Pro to 16-inch Pro. From 13-inch Pro to 14-inch Pro. And from 11-inch Air to 12-inch Air. In each case, the device’s footprint has stayed the same, you’ve just got more screen space for your money.

Revitalizing the Air in this way would enable Apple to avoid seeming to take a step backwards, something the company hates. It detests being wrong because it so strongly believes in its own innovations. Going back to a product it previously killed off — complete with butterfly keyboard, which it also killed off — would be humbling. Redesigning the MacBook Air? Apple could call it progress.

Keep it simple

Back when Steve Jobs was at the helm, his famous “Mac quadrant” ruled: a laptop and a desktop each for professionals and consumers. No more, no less. While Apple’s desktop lineup is all over the place, its laptop offering is still serenely simple. A new size of MacBook Air would not disrupt the professional/consumer division in the way a revived 12-inch MacBook would.

Despite all that, I am worried Apple is going to try to make another go of the 12-inch MacBook. I hope I am wrong and that Apple chooses to look to the future instead of to the MacBook past. Either way, we are going to find out soon, as Apple is due to release its first Apple Silicon Mac before the end of the year. Let’s hope it’s a good one.

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