The Sandy Bridge update to the Air line has been enough to make some feel the lightweight laptop is ready for prime time (I’m convinced, personally), but it’s still not enough for some. MacBook Pro users are accustomed to more storage, more screen real estate, and a greater number of ports. If rumors are to be believed, the best of both worlds might be on its way, with Air-style design making its way to the Pro line.
The sources are obscure, referred to only obliquely (MacRumors “has learned” and TUAW is “hearing”), so take this with a grain of salt. But even sans source, it makes sense, while leaving room for plenty of speculation. What will the compromises be?
For one thing, the optical drive will almost certainly be eliminated. Luckily for Apple, that particular item is not a priority among their users. iTunes and the Mac App Store are popular, and Apple Stores themselves are increasingly bereft of boxed software.
Furthermore, Thunderbolt presents an extremely easy way to add a high-speed peripheral. No optical drive? No problem: $100 external drive operating with no loss of speed compared to the wired-in original.
Storage is a bit more complicated. As popular as streaming solutions are, local storage is still very important for editing media, something Apple has been pushing on consumers hard with the iLife suite — though pros may be jumping ship after the poor reception of Final Cut X. 256GB of flash storage is nice, but people want terabytes. Yet 2.5″ laptop drives are still too thick to include in an Air-like body. Or are they? Some laptop drives with a terabyte of space are coming in at under 10mm thick. You couldn’t fit that at the sharp end of the Air but there might be room for a 2.5″ right at the top right edge, where the optical drive would go. Apple is happy to customize PCBs to optimize space.
Only a spinning HDD would mean a performance hit, though. So I’m guessing they’ll ship with a hybrid SSD-HDD volume, with system, applications, and temp kept on SSD and bulky media kept on HDD. It’s not so hard to segregate data like that, and as Apple likely can’t commit to only one storage type or another, they’ll have to do something interesting with both.
Let’s not forget the ports. Apple will want to push Thunderbolt, and while shipping with only that port might be a daydream of theirs, my guess is they’ll go with two Thunderbolt and two USB ports. 2.0 or 3.0? I wouldn’t put it past Apple to limit their USB capabilities in order to make Thunderbolt accessories more enticing. And as other have pointed out, Thunderbolt-connected I/O hubs will handle USB 3.0 speeds with ease, though the ports on the new Cinema Display are indeed only 2.0.
A holiday release (as suggested by TUAW) would prevent them from adding a next-gen processor (coming in 1Q12), but to complement the Air styling they’ll probably want to market long battery life as well, and switching from the old Core i7s to Sandy Bridge might have been enough for Apple’s purposes. Want the latest hardware? Get a PC (I did).
So: no optical drive, hybrid SSD/HDD storage, and 2xTB, 2xUSB ports (and an SD slot and Ethernet, of course). Maybe something more for the 17″, but I don’t think these specs sound at all unlikely.