Apple's rumored 12" MacBook Air may aggressively target mobility with USB 3.1 Type-C

Posted:
in Future Apple Hardware edited February 2015
The latest rumors of a new 12-inch MacBook Air model describe an ultra-thin laptop that drops nearly all of its physical ports for a single audio jack and USB 3.1 Type-C connector, features that were first revealed last April and further detailed in specifications documents released by Intel, with significant contributions by Apple, in September.

2014 KGI roadmap

Year-old rumors of a stripped down MacBook Air

Apple has been rumored to release a 12-inch MacBook Air for a long time now; last April, KGI analyst Ming-Chi Kuo predicted that the company would release an "all new," "ultra slim" 12 inch MacBook Air with a new fan-less design sporting a "click-less" trackpad as well as fewer physical inputs and outputs.

That prediction was made alongside a series of other largely correct predictions of Apple's roadmap, including the release of new 4.7- and 5.5-inch iPhones; two sizes of a new Apple Watch; an iPad Air and iPad mini update; and a lower cost iMac refresh.

However, the 12 inch MacBook Air didn't materialize as predicted last fall. By June, the rumor had been pushed back to "early 2015," ostensibly due to chip delays from Intel.

Apple's 2014 still had some other surprises that weren't predicted by KGI; an Apple TV upgrade didn't appear, while the firm's roadmap also missed Apple's 5K Retina Display iMac, which was announced last fall and immediately became available for sale.

In December, rumors from DigiTimes described for a new MacBook Air with Retina Display to arrive in the first calendar quarter of 2015.

Will MacBook Air lose MagSafe & Thunderbolt?

So little real news floated at CES this week that the entire trade show was overwhelmed by the release of a freshened up version of the KGI report, by 9to5Mac. Citing details from "sources within Apple, who have used internal prototype versions of the upcoming computer," the bundle of rumors were depicted in an artist's conceptual renderings.

The report embellished KGI's expectations for the new MacBook Air with predictions of much slimmer margins around the keyboard (more like Apple's former mini-laptop, the 12-inch PowerBook), with keys spaced closer together and the removal of the current MacBook Air'sSD Card slot, dual USB ports, MagSafe power connector and Thunderbolt (which serves as both DisplayPort and a rapid, external PCIe data bus for connecting a chain of hard drives or other peripherals), all replaced by a single USB 3.1 Type-C connector, which was first detailed back in September.

USB 3.1 Type-C


The rumors prompted lots of controversy about whether Apple would actually ship a new notebook without MagSafe, which serves as both a useful feature that prevents cord-tripping accidents, as well as a lucrative patent-protected licensing business for Apple, one that has effectively erased any market for third party MacBook power adapters.

The idea of Apple removing Thunderbolt also raised eyebrows, as Apple and Intel have worked hard to bring the standard to market and develop adoption for it over the past four years. Thunderbolt first appeared on MacBook Pros in February 2011, and spread to the MacBook Air that summer.

Thunderbolt essentially embellished DisplayPort--which Apple began adding to its notebooks staring in 2008--with the rapid data throughput features and host-to-host connectivity of Firewire, all features missing from USB 2.0.

Thunderbolt

Cheaper prices for higher volumes

The removal of both MagSafe charging and Thunderbolt initially might seem unlikely moves for an Apple notebook, particularly given the premium nature of Apple's offerings. Conversely, the rumors of a stripped down MacBook Air prompted Tom Warren of The Verge to speculate that the new MacBook Air was likely designed to be cheaper, presumably in order to compete with Chromebooks and other cheap netbooks.

Apple has indeed been shaving down the price of Macs across 2014, trimming the price of MacBook Air and Pro models, as well as introducing cheaper iMacs and Mac minis.

Those lower prices have helped stoke a significant jump in demand. In Q3, Apple sold a record 5.5 million Macs, eclipsing the previous record of 4.9 million units set in Q3 2011.

However, Macs are still nowhere near the cutthroat prices of cheap netbooks. In that price range, Apple markets a range of iPads. Actually, the fact that Mac sales didn't set any records between 2011 and 2014 is likely attributable to iPad sales. Apple sold over 197.3 million iPads over the past three years, compared to 53.4 million Macs (that's nearly 3.7 times as many tablets as its conventional computers).

Apple's focus on what consumers want has devoted a lot of attention on the company's iOS-based tablet models--at prices ranging from $250 to $829, it's easier to sell iPads than Macs, which (apart from the $499 Mac mini) range from $899 to north of $3,000.

iPad 2014

USB 3.1 Type-C could make MacBook Air better at the same price

Apple's mainstream iPad (also branded "Air") is focused on mobility with a super thin profile and light weight. Any new MacBook Air design is likely going to be aimed at similar price targets to its predecessors, rather than suddenly shifting into a budget netbook category that would push the MacBook Air into direct competition with iPads.Any new MacBook Air design is likely going to be aimed at similar price targets to its predecessors

Instead, Apple appears most likely to enhance the MacBook Air the same way it recently enhanced its iPad Air 2: with a lighter, thinner and even more battery efficient design.

To make today's MacBook Air lighter and thinner, Apple needs to address the fact that the current model's ports are all relatively large. Apple also has a lot of real-world data on how buyers use their Macs, and what features and qualities actually attract consumers, trigger purchases, and leave them satisfied with their purchase.

There are some real tradeoffs in getting rid of today's MagSafe, dual USB ports, SD Card slot and Thunderbolt. However, as brisk sales of iPads have demonstrated, most buyers care more about price and utility (including mobility) than they do about hooking a light, thin mobile device up to a RAID array, an external HD display or even multiple USB peripherals.

With AirPrint, AirPlay, AirDrop, Bluetooth, iCloud and other wireless networking features, wired ports are becoming less and less necessary, particularly as 802.11ac WiFi wireless speeds begin to compete with USB cables.

WiFi is currently no match for Thunderbolt in either displays or for connectivity with external high speed devices. However, Apple and Intel have worked together to develop both Thunderbolt and the latest USB 3.1 specification. Details in the latest USB spec indicate that Apple does indeed plan to use the new, smaller Type-C port to replace other ports, reaping exterior space and internal volume savings and reducing confusion for users.

9to5Mac render, 2015 MacBook Air

USB 3.1 Type-C spec indicates mobility, not price, is Apple's primary motivation

Part of what makes that possible is that USB 3.1 is designed to support much faster data speeds than existing USB (while remaining backwardly compatible with existing devices): starting at 5Gbps (Gen1) and eventually reaching 10Gbps (Gen2). That's achieved over 8 conductors via faster clock timing and more efficient data signaling.

In addition to being faster, USB 3.1 also introduces a new 12-pin Type-C port design, with significant input from Apple engineers (there are 18 Apple employees listed as contributions in the specification, more than any other computer maker and three times as many as Samsung). "Newer platforms and devices are reaching a point where existing USB receptacles and plugs are inhibiting innovation" - USB 3.1 Spec

The spec itself describes the point of creating a new adaptor. It notes the "trend toward smaller, thinner and lighter form-factors," and states that "newer platforms and devices are reaching a point where existing USB receptacles and plugs are inhibiting innovation, especially given the relatively large size and internal volume constraints of the Standard-A and Standard-B versions of USB connectors."

Unlike previous USB cables, "the mechanical characteristics of the USB Type-C receptacle and plug do not inherently establish the relationship of USB host and device ports." That means the new port can be used to connect two supported hosts for networking, rather than being port specific to only connect a dedicated peripheral (such as a printer) to a host system (such as a PC).

USB 3.1 Type-C supports 5K DisplayPort screens, high watt power charging

USB 3.1 Type-C also supports "USB alternative modes," which essentially enable a different, non-USB signal to be sent over the same physical port. This will explicitly support up to four lanes of DisplayPort (including 1.3 HBR signaling for up to 32.4Gbps of bandwidth), as well as providing compatibility with standard HDMI, VGA and DVI signals.

As a report by Ryan Smith of AnandTech noted back in September, DisplayPort 1.3 HBR3 has the bandwidth to support a 5K display at 60Hz with 24bit uncompressed color. That's something today's Thunderbolt can't yet do.

DisplayPort 5K


Apple introduced mini DisplayPort back in 2008; USB 3.1 Type-C effectively merges the port with USB signals the same way that Thunderbolt combined fast PCIe data with DisplayPort signals, essentially making Type-C a "Thunderbolt light" well suited for lower end, highly mobile devices like MacBook Air.

Additionally, USB 3.1 Type-C also supports the new "USB Power Delivery 2.0 specification," which allows a host to deliver far more power than today's USB; even more power than Thunderbolt.

The new spec not only allows the new jack to provide power to, for example, a hard drive without requiring a separate transformer and power cable to the device, but also enables the port to be used to power the device itself. This was also first detailed last fall.

Being able to deliver a maximum of 100w (compared to the 10-12w chargers that power today's iPad) could make USB 3.1 Type-C a suitable alternative to standalone MacBook style power adapters. However, unless Apple provides a MagSafe link somewhere between the new jack and its power adapter, users would lose the easy-to-disconnect feature.

This would make charging the new MacBook Air more similar to charging an iPad or other iOS device) via Apple's Lightning connector (which like USB 3.1 Type-C has a reversible, blade style connector without a MagSafe-style connection). While iPads are designed to be used without a power cord, Apple's MacBooks perform significantly better when they are plugged in; operating off the battery triggers low power modes where the system scales back performance for efficiency.

A new MacBook Air could feature advanced power management that enables it to perform acceptably when used like an iPad, reducing the disadvantage of shedding MagSafe.

While it might seem that loading DisplayPort, USB, fast data and power all on one port would negatively complicate usability and introduce a lot of new limitations, the benefit of the smaller port and its expanded features could indeed make it an effective way to differentiate a mobile-oriented new MacBook Air from higher end MacBook Pros featuring more ports and the faster throughput and convenience of having standalone Ethernet, Thunderbolt and USB interfaces.
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Comments

  • Reply 1 of 227
    irelandireland Posts: 17,547member
    [quote]Any new MacBook Air design is likely going to be aimed at similar price targets to its predecessors.[/quote]

    [I]Likely[/I] is proof of nothing.

    I cannot fathom why type-C USB is designed the way it is. It makes a ton more sense to have the receptacles on the internal surface of the port over an added internal piece to accommodate them which takes additional space. By virtue of this design they are making the port bigger than they would otherwise and they are complicating the physical design.

    And I wish Apple was more aggressive about killing old models so they could focus more on pushing the prices of their best products down. There's no way they should be still shipping a non-Retina MPB at this stage. And if the renders on 9to5 are accurate they should reduce the bezels more by sticking a 13" Retina display in this tiny computer while concurrently killing both existing 11 and 13" Airs upon its release. Shipping this machine with just one port and a 128 GB SSD for $999. Thus forcing the choice of $999 for really really thin and light but with one port or $1,299 for a rMBP will all its ports.
  • Reply 2 of 227
    Magsafe is excellent, if they loose that it's a major step back
    USB 3.1 (type C) would not provide the safety that magsafe does

    The whole 12" concepts being shown are a major step back and I suspect not many people would like them

    Replacing the USB 3.0 with USB 3.1 (type C) would be acceptable, even dropping the SD card slot is OK (as you can always connect a card reader via USB)

    I'd prefer Magsafe 1x Thunderbolt 2 2x USB 3.1 (type C) ports

    Thinness is not everything, they should keep the thickness and increase battery time
  • Reply 3 of 227
    irelandireland Posts: 17,547member
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by PJWilkin View Post



    Magsafe is excellent, if they loose that it's a major step back

    USB 3.1 (type C) would not provide the safety that magsafe does

     

    True, but if its gets something crazy like 15 hours of battery life charging while using it won't be much of an issue as people will simply charge it at night as it won't be dying during daily use.

     

    Quote:

     I'd prefer Magsafe 1x Thunderbolt 2 2x USB 3.1 (type C) ports


     

    And Thunderbolt and magsafe are too large to fit in the side of this machine.

     

    If you want a whole hots of ports just go pro. The rMBP is very thin and light anyway.

  • Reply 4 of 227
    irelandireland Posts: 17,547member
    And it looks like Ming-Chi Kuo is more full of crap than people have realised. Proving it quite difficult to predict Apple's roadmap. So people posting outlooks for the year should be viewed with utter scepticism.
  • Reply 5 of 227
    Quote:

    Originally Posted by PJWilkin View Post





    Thinness is not everything, they should keep the thickness and increase battery time

    With the amount of USB devices I have and use, among which, the iPhone 6+ and iPad themselves... Not buying this.

  • Reply 6 of 227
    irelandireland Posts: 17,547member
    Quote:

    Originally Posted by lightknight View Post

     

    With the amount of USB devices I have and use, among which, the iPhone 6+ and iPad themselves... Not buying this.


     

    So you're saying this product is not for you. Interesting.

  • Reply 7 of 227
    Quote:

    Originally Posted by Ireland View Post

     

     

    So you're saying this product is not for you. Interesting.


    I'm saying that *like me* a lot of Apple users will have very new (my iPhone 6 + is not even a month old) devices that require USB.

    I may of course be totally wrong about this, but I can't see tremendous amounts of people preferring a marginal amount of mobility gain over flexibility. There is of course the option of carrying some kind of adapter, but you'd lose the mobility gain and add clunkiness.

     

    Besides, I've always chosen mobility in devices, from Thinkpads to MBAs and iPads, which kept me in a relatively small fringe of the computer users in my very high tech inclined entourage, so if *I* say this is not for me, I'm quite convinced it's representative of the general "mobility" population...

  • Reply 8 of 227
    rogifanrogifan Posts: 10,669member
    I hope this is a well thought out product and not just marketing using it to upsell people to 13" rMBP. Obviously if you add retina to the current MBA it does get closer and closer to rMBP and one can argue too much overlap. Maybe this will be marketed as a super lightweight and thin laptop with portability most in mind and geared towards people who need OS X but don't need a lot of I/O. I wonder if there's a large market for that.
  • Reply 9 of 227
    Quote:

    Originally Posted by Ireland View Post

     

    If you want a whole hots of ports just go pro. The rMBP is very thin and light anyway.


    I quite agree with this, except the rMBP doesn't have the kind of graphics card I'd need in my job anyway, which forces me to have both a station and a mobility device. I run an iPad and a MacBook Air, on top of an iMac and a Mac Pro (trashcan model). The rMBP is massively over-expensive as a solution to "enough USB ports".

     

     

    I wonder though if Apple might come out with another product line here? It might be that some high end people want a very small MBA at a really high price?

  • Reply 10 of 227
    Where does my USB memory stick go?
  • Reply 11 of 227
    rogifanrogifan Posts: 10,669member
    I quite agree with this, except the rMBP doesn't have the kind of graphics card I'd need in my job anyway, which forces me to have both a station and a mobility device. I run an iPad and a MacBook Air, on top of an iMac and a Mac Pro (trashcan model). The rMBP is massively over-expensive as a solution to "enough USB ports".


    I wonder though if Apple might come out with another product line here? It might be that some high end people want a very small MBA at a really high price?

    I wonder if this product kills the current MBA line? Of maybe Aple will keep around one of the existing MBAs at a reduced price?
  • Reply 12 of 227
    Quote:

    Originally Posted by Rogifan View Post





    I wonder if this product kills the current MBA line? Of maybe Aple will keep around one of the existing MBAs at a reduced price?



    Exactly my point. If it kills the MBA line, I really need to upgrade to the latest MBA with all options. Mine anyway is close to three years old now.

    If they keep one around, then it depends on which one they keep ^^

  • Reply 13 of 227
    ash471ash471 Posts: 705member
    What makes the most sense is to have a MagSafe on one side and usb-c on the other. The power in Usb-c could go either way depending on whether power is connected and what's connected to usb-c. Can't wait to get one.
  • Reply 14 of 227
    Why would they go for USB 3.1 Type-C?
    1. Lightning is similar size, with a wonderful accessories ecosystem
    2. Next next gen Intel CPU doesn't come with USB 3.1
    3. I would think they would just move the connectors to the back side of the machine, with MagSafe 1 USB 1 headphone plug maybe one thunderbolt
  • Reply 15 of 227
    crowleycrowley Posts: 5,738member
    Quote:

    Originally Posted by Ireland View Post



    I cannot fathom why type-C USB is designed the way it is. It makes a ton more sense to have the receptacles on the internal surface of the port over an added internal piece to accommodate them which takes additional space. By virtue of this design they are making the port bigger than they would otherwise and they are complicating the physical design.

    Same reason previous USB ports are designed the same way, the contacts in the port are static, and the contacts in the cable have the spring that ensures contact is made.  Since those spring contacts are the part that moves, are therefore under a certain amount a repetitive stress, are and one of the most likely parts to fail, there is an argument that it's better to put them in the easily replaceable and relatively cheap cable, than the port on the $1000 computer.

  • Reply 16 of 227
    crowleycrowley Posts: 5,738member
    Quote:

    Originally Posted by happywaiman View Post



    Why would they go for USB 3.1 Type-C?

    1. Lightning is similar size, with a wonderful accessories ecosystem

    Really?  Compared to the USB accessories ecosystem of external hard drives, mice, keyboards, printers, and other desktop/laptop accessories that are in wide circulation?

     

    There's a fair amount of Lightning stuff out there, but most of it wouldn't even be useable with a MacBook Air (I can't fit my MBA into my B&W sound system dock) and I can't see that most of the rest would have a whole lot of use.

  • Reply 17 of 227
    Apple gives themselves more money by making their products smaller and lighter all while asking the same price.

    How, you may ask?

    By not having to pay as much money to ship lighter products. They make more money from saving on shipping. That is the conclusion that I have come to. As long as they can make their products lighter and smaller, they will not have to raise their prices. As soon as they aren't able to do that then we should be worried.

    If they don't have to ship a power brick with the laptop then that is probably almost a third to a half of the weight of the box. Translate that into saving a third to a half of the shipping cost times a million units, you make that much more money.

    I'm not saying they are getting rid of it, just for reference. I'm sure they are heavily involved in making smaller and lighter power supplies like the MIT switching power supply or the one that was announced at CES. That is a lot of weight in the total shipping cost.
  • Reply 18 of 227
    MacProMacPro Posts: 18,012member
    Ok was puzzled there for a moment ...'click-less trackpad' ? I had to stop and think for a moment, what is a clickable track pad? I never use the click-ability on my MBP's track pad and had forgotten I ever did, I'm sure few ever do since double tap ... but wait ... I do use it without thinking when I click and drag DUH! So ... how would you click and drag? Or is there already an alternative with gestures I missed?

    As to the ports... well it is certainly a typical Apple move to do the radical long before the PC sheep eventually follow, so can see where the ideas are coming from ... the past. However It would seem a shame to me for there not to be a Thunderbolt connector on there. I have found TB to be absolutely invaluable, versatile, fast, reliable and tiny! By all means throw in a USBc but why drop TB?

    As an aside, I have never found any iteration of USB any use for intensive data transfers in video editing compared with whatever Apple's connection de jour was. From SCSI to FireWire 400 to FireWire 800 and now Thunderbolt, Apple's solutions always proved by far and a way the best in my experience especially when using RAID.
  • Reply 19 of 227
    MacProMacPro Posts: 18,012member
    Apple gives themselves more money by making their products smaller and lighter all while asking the same price.

    How, you may ask?

    By not having to pay as much money to ship lighter products. They make more money from saving on shipping. That is the conclusion that I have come to. As long as they can make their products lighter and smaller, they will not have to raise their prices. As soon as they aren't able to do that then we should be worried.

    If they don't have to ship a power brick with the laptop then that is probably almost a third to a half of the weight of the box. Translate that into saving a third to a half of the shipping cost times a million units, you make that much more money.

    I'm not saying they are getting rid of it, just for reference. I'm sure they are heavily involved in making smaller and lighter power supplies like the MIT switching power supply or the one that was announced at CES. That is a lot of weight in the total shipping cost.

    I suspect you are over simplifying. Yes of course less materials cost less but ... the shipping?

    Firstly I don't think Apple folks sit down and think, 'how can we make more money ... Oh I know let's make products lighter ... we'll save on shipping!'. I suspect there are far more important and scientific reasons such as the heat and energy savings in scaling as just one example.

    Secondly, as an Amazon Prime member, I have seen for myself that shipping costs are far lower than I ever imagined when a massive company ships in huge volumes.
  • Reply 20 of 227
    rogifanrogifan Posts: 10,669member
    I wonder if the clickless trackpad would utilize the force touch technology on ?Watch?
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