Forget The New MacBook Pro, Apple Has Something Better

Updated November 19: article originally posted November 18.

With the launch of three MacBook Pro laptops running the M3 Apple Silicon, Apple hopes consumers looking for a new MacBook Pro will decide on the entry-level M3-powered laptop rather than wait for a MacBook Air. This is curious because Apple has already demonstrated what the M3 MacBook Air will offer—you just need to look inside the smallest MacBook Pro to find it.

Update: Sunday November 19: As Apple continues through the updates to the Mac line-up with the new M3 family, the professionally focused machines will offer far more performance and potential. That will leave the M3 MacBook Pro looking inadequate with its “Pro” moniker.

Writing for Bloomberg, influential reporter Mark Gurman confirms that Apple is working on an M3 Ultra processor. This is likely to appear in a new work-station level Mac Studio for desktop users and drive the highly desirable Mac Pro during 2024, although I would expect these to arrive in the second half of the year.

Looking further out, the M4 family and the Axx chipset series found in the iPhone and iPad will move to the more efficient 2nm fabrication process. Given Apple’s ability to lock down much of the raw materials needed for 3nm chipsets, it would not surprise anyone in the industry if Tim Cook has already placed the prospective order to help kickstart the rush to 2nm.

But for now, it’s trying to sell the M3-powered MacBook Pro. And those looking for a new laptop must consider the offering carefully.

Apple has traditionally launched its new Apple Silicon family with a new MacBook Air. The entry-level consumer-focused laptop delivers the refreshed macOS experience to the largest audience possible. This was true when Apple switched to the ARM-based M1 and the subsequent M2. With the launch of M3 last month, hopes were high that Tim Cook and his team would continue this pattern and set up the perfect Christmas laptop for the faithful.

As Macbeth would say…this was not to be. Three new MacBook Pro laptops were launched alongside a new iMac, with the M3, M3 Pro and M3 Max chipsets. But no Air.

If you take a step back from the Mac platform and look at the broader Apple ecosystem, the decision makes logistical sense. The M3 chipset is built on 3nm fabrication technology, and the raw materials are in short supply. The iPhone 15 Pro and 15 Pro Max’s A17 Pro also use 3nm technology, and with the best will in the world, these will sell a lot more units than the MacBook Air or any MacBook Pro.

If the iPhone is going to stay as Apple’s primary product, it must have priority over the supply chain. With no MacBook Air on sale to consumers in vast numbers, there are more 3nm supplies to go around. While the MacBook Pro and iMac hardware also use 3nm, these will not sell as many units as a MacBook Air, leaving more for the iPhone.

Launching M3 with the MacBook Pro puts less of a strain on Apple’s supply chain and ensures the iPhone can deliver its traditional spike in sales during the last quarter of the calendar year.

Apple launched a new MacBook Air in June—the first 15-inch MacBook Air—at its Worldwide Developer Conference. Powered by the M2 chipset, it complemented the 13-inch options on sale. Returning to the MacBook Air community and saying that the M2 laptops are a generation behind would not be a welcome presentation just four months after the 15-inch model arrived.

Launching a new MacBook Air in October would damage Apple’s reputation with many existing customers.

Yet… there might not be a laptop with the MacBook Air logo, but the entry-level MacBook Pro running the M3 chipset is unlike the other 14-inch or 16-inch MacBook Pro laptops running the M3 Pro or M3 Max chipsets. As teardown and repair specialists iFixit noted, the M3 MacBook Pro has just a single fan, substantive changes (primarily by omission) on the main circuit board and a larger heat sink to keep everything running a bit cooler and squeezing a bit more power out of the M3 chipset.

If you know your MacBook hardware history, this is the same pattern as the M2 MacBook Pro compared to the M2 Pro and M2 Max laptops and the same pattern as the M1.

And if you look closer at these patterns, the “vanilla” M1 MacBook Pro looked more like a MacBook Air with an extra cooling fan to find around 20 percent more power over the fanless MacBook Air. If you remove the cooling fans, the M1 and M2 MacBook Pros were little more than modded MacBook Air laptops.

We’ll have to wait until the back half of Q2 2024 to find out the exact makeup of the M3 MacBook Air, but right now, I think we’ve seen all we need to see. The M3 MacBook Air might not be on sale, but it’s ready to buy. Apple has continued with this awkward halfway house of a laptop. It just had to make sure it said “MacBook Pro” on the outside and commanded a price that matches the status of the name

Well played, Tim Cook. Well played.

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