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2012: The Year Ahead In Apple Portable Computers – The ‘Book Mystique

Having been by far Apple’s most successful year ever in portable computers (a category in which I follow market analyst firm Canalys’s lead in including the iPad as a PC), 2011 will be a tough act to follow, but barring a complete global economic recession, I think 2012 is shaping up to be even better.

It’s also likely to be tumultuous and challenging for Mac veterans like me, what with anticipated increasing convergence of the OS X and iOS platforms, and a continued shift toward smaller, lighter machines, especially laptops. The MacBook Air already accounts for about 50 percent of Apple laptop sales, and with the likelihood of the MacBook Air line being expanded to include a wider variety of model choices, such as possibly a 15″ Air, I anticipate the Air taking an even larger slice of Apple’s notebook sales.

It is rumored that every Apple hardware product will receive substantial upgrading in 2012, and the MacBook Pro lineup in particular is arguably due for a major overhaul, so I’m inclined to think that we’ll see new Pros debut sometime around Apple’s traditional spring notebook update window from late March to early May; if I had to nail down a guess I would say late April. But more on that in a moment.

First I’m pretty confident that we will see an iPad 3 first. A rumor making the rounds this week suggests that Apple may pick February 24, which would have been Steve Jobs’ 57th birthday, for the iPad 3 rollout. Sometime around then seems likely whether that commemoration is observed or not.

Manifold reports from the southeast Asia manufacturing zone are saying that iPad 3 component production is intensively underway, with several key iPad suppliers like Foxconn and Catcher having even cut the Lunar New Year off-work holiday short for some production workers. That bodes well for inventory stockpiles being large enough buy late February to avoid the sellouts and long waits (for me it was five-six weeks) prospective iPad 2 purchasers experienced last spring.

I think it’s also a reasonably safe bet that iPad 3 will have a higher resolution, “Retina” type display. I’m not personally convinced, that iPad needs a higher-res. screen, but it seems Apple thinks it does. The current 1024 x 768 resolution suits me just fine, and top of my wish list would be a USB port and Flash video support, not that I realistically expect either. I am expecting a better camera than the mediocre one in iPad 2 — 5 or even 8 megapixels.

As for the quad-core A6 processor some prognosticators are predicting, I’m skeptical. I don’t want to declare that iPad 3 will ship for sure with the dual-core A5 CPU that powers the iPad 3 and iPhone 4S, but I’m inclined to think that’s more likely than not. The A6 is definitely coming, but I think not yet. Why? Well, the A5 CPU is respectively speedy, will only be a year old come late winter, and one of the major business/Apple blogosphere pre-Christmas news stories was that A5 processor production has just been shifted to Samsung’s huge new 1.6 million square foot, $3.6bn (closer to $9bn, according to Austin Chamber of Commerce) fabrication facility at Austin, Texas. I’m thinking that it’s highly doubtful that Samsung would’ve tooled up their big new chippery to make A5s if Apple was planning a shift to A6 silicon in the immediate future, and With iPad 3 component production and stockpiling already underway.

Anyway, we should know inside a couple of months now.

Moving along, next on the agenda should be the next MacBook Pro, for which one marquee feature is virtually certain to be power by Intel’s next-generation Ivy Bridge Core family of CPUS, which are expected to be available in Ultra Low Voltage (ULV) rated at 17W TDP, and M-series Standard Voltage processors with 35, 45 and 55W TDPs

Available clock speeds will be 2.7GHz and 2.6GHz Core i7 quad cores – a 400MHz increase compared with the current Sandy Bridge Core mobile processors offerings, and a 2.9GHz.dual core Core i7, plus a pair of dual cores Core i5 CPUs clocked at 2.8 and 2.6GHz respectively and supporting DDR3 memory speeds of 1600MH across the board which Sandy Bridge based mobile CPUs don’t.

The rumored Ivy Bridge release date is somewhere in April or May, so that could influence Apple’s plans for a new MacBook Pro release, pushing it farther into the year than it might have been. It’s hard to imagine that Apple would not wait for ivy Bridge.

Aside from the faster, more efficient processors, it is widely anticipated that the next MacBook Pro will incorporate design themes from the MacBook Air, with a thinner, more angular form factor, but still retaining the internal optical drive.

Speaking of the MacBook Air, the picture is a bit murkier. The Air’s second generation form factor will be two years old come October, and while that’s not a particularly long model run for an Apple laptop design by historical standards, increased competition from a plethora of Air-apeing PC Ultrabooks could impel Apple to raise the bar again with a third-generation MacBook Air and feature set overhaul.

A 15-inch MacBook has been widely rumored, although I do wonder if there may be some confusion there with a redesigned MacBook Pro. On the other hand, with the MacBook Air reportedly now accounting for half of Apple’s notebook sales, which are at an a ll-time record high, it would be logical for Apple to expand the appeal to users who prefer or require a display larger than 13 inches.

On the software side, it’s a bit early to look for OS X 10.8 in 2012, but toward year end it’s likely that at least early alpha builds of the next Mac operating system will be seeded to developers, which will give us some idea of where Apple plans to take the OS. Based on deduction, it would be very surprising if the road taken is not greater convergence with the iOS. Microsoft is expected to have Windows 8 out by mid-year, also with a touchscreen user interface called “Metro,” although also with the facility to switch back to a conventional mouse cursor driven file directory UI in the same OS.

Given that the greater convergence of which I speak seems pretty much a sure thing, I would like to see a similar capability with OS X 10.8 (that is provided Apple elects to continue the OS X line (for one thing they’ve run out of likely cat names), rather than adopting entirely new nomenclature for a hybrid OS that can be used on both personal computers and touchscreen devices a la Windows 8. We’ll see.

Which brings me to the matter of whether Apple is fixing to launch an ARM A-series powered notebook computer with a touchscreen in 2012. One has to think that such a device is inevitable, eventually, and with the aforementioned quad-core A6 CPU expected to make its debut appearance in 2012, the minimum necessary computing power threshold for ARM chippery to support acceptable laptop performance may finally arrive.

In summary, it looks like an eventful year shaping up with Apple portable computers. In a more subjective context, early 2012 would normally be time for my tri-annual main system upgrade, as my late 2008 aluminum MacBook will be three years old in March. However, the now middle-aged MacBook has yet to miss a beat, having never even hiccuped reliability wise, and while the 2.0 GHz Core 2 Duo CPU isn’t anywhere near up to even Sandy Bridge Core i power standards, the trusty MacBook is still satisfyingly sprightly in my frame of reference, the 160 GB hard disk is getting filled up, and I haven’t been persuaded to commit to upgrading (?) to OS X 10.7 Lion yet. That, I think, will now have to wait for the new Mac.

My shortlist of candidates remains the same; it will most probably be either a 13-inch MacBook Pro or a MacBook Air of some sort – also likely with a 13- inch display, and preferably an Apple Certified Refurbished unit in either case. My last two systems have been ACR machines, and have given me absolutely no reason to not go ACR again, except for the waiting bit until new models enter the channel. Will Ivy Bridge be enough to coax me to make a move earlier. Good question.

On the tablet front, increasing use of my iPad is also taking some of the urgency out of making a system upgrade move. I’m highly doubtful that I’ll even seriously consider moving up to an iPad 3 this year, but for folks with original A4 powered iPads, I think it will be time.

Happy New Year!

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