Retina & Apple’s new fixed-component computing standard

With the new MacBook Pro Retina Display, Apple is ushering in a new era of computing. Or really, apple is expanding on what they started in 2009. This is not a post extolling the virtues of the new best thing from Apple. This is, rather, a commentary on the “fixed-component” computing standard newly set by Apple.

The new MacBook Pro Retina Display is a superb machine. The tests are out and the results are clear: this notebook is faster, crisper, more fun, and of course more expensive than its siblings. What is not being discussed is the fact that with the Retina notebook, Apple quietly, with (understandably) no fanfare, introduced a product unlike any before, a product that cannot be upgraded. For the first time in Apple notebook history, the RAM in the Retina MBP is soldered to the logic board. The Solid State Drive, however, is replaceable (see a later post for SSD discussion). The battery (like MacBook Pros since 2009) is not replaceable. And there is no built-in optical drive — for that, Apple suggests you purchase a CD/DVD Super Drive that works only with Retina MacBook Pros and MacBook Airs. So, what does this all mean?

Well, in effect, it means that you’re stuck with whatever you buy. The old days are gone — no longer can we buy a functional amount of RAM memory and Hard Drive storage space with the intention of upgrading with third-party components a year or two down the line. We now have to buy in high, trying to anticipate the life of the machine and our future needs. For instance, 8GB or RAM is workable for a Mac running Mac OS X 10.8 (Mountain Lion). In the old days, I’d buy a new machine with such a level of RAM, knowing that in a year or two I’d probably spring for an upgrade, when RAM got cheeper and my needs grew. Now, I would think twice and seriously consider 16GB of RAM (this is the maximum offered? Really, Apple?), and, I would think about getting the maximum amount of solid state storage being offered (768GB at present for the base Retina model). At the time of posting, these two upgrades alone add USD $1,200 to the base price of a Retina MacBook Pro. On the old upgradable machines, these upgrades could be done for USD $300 or less, a quarter of the price. Apple has in effect created a monopoly on Macintosh computing components — Apple now smugly says under its breath, “Buy everything from us (because it’s built-in and not replaceable), or look elsewhere!” Hum. And of course, we hear this is all to improve the user experience. Right. But what about the fact that Apple gets all the revenue from memory and storage sales? And further, we will likely be pushed to upgrade sooner (here “upgrade” means “purchase a whole new computer”), as built-in components become obsolete and cannot be replaced or are too expensive to justify having replaced by Apple certified technicians.

Will most of us really make use of the Retina display in the end anyway? Do we do a lot of image or movie manipulation? Most website text will look more crisp and clear, but many website images will appear grainy on the new display, as imaged for web distribution are often scaled down for quick loading. The Retina display has so much more resolution than the standard display that many website images will look jagged.

Jason Snell at MacWorld sums it up:

[The Retina MacBook Pro] is in many ways the 15-inch answer to the MacBook Air. Gone is the optical drive, spinning hard drive, FireWire port, and Gigabit Ethernet jack of past models; instead, it’s all solid-state storage, Thunderbolt and USB 3 ports, and HDMI.

An apple store employee told me last month that he’s started budgeting a new machine every 2 years and 9 months, and selling his old machine on Craigslist or eBay, and getting a few hundred dollars more than he otherwise would because it is still under warranty. This seems to make a lot of sense in the new era of fixed-component Macs. Upgrading will now mean buying everything anew. What does this say about Apple’s carbon footprint?!

Of course Apple is still offering non-Retina MacBook Pros, which are a great machines, and cheeper, and of the old upgradeable persuasion (though they are bulkier). To get the slimmest, newest, best thing, we have to embrace change, change that comes at a higher cost than advertised. What will be your next machine?