Apple, Yet Again, Is Missing An Ultraportable Laptop In Its Mac Notebook Computer Lineup

EDITORIAL: 07.19.19 Prior to the decision made by Apple earlier this month to retire the thin and light MacBook model with a 12-inch retina display, the Cupertino, California-based company offered, as it sporadically has done in the past, an ultraportable Mac model and in its wake has left a huge void (crater?) in the tech giant’s notebook computer lineup.

There’s just something about an ultraportable notebook computer that is undeniably irresistible. It packs a lot of power into a small package. And,, other than being light, portable (of course), and taking up less space on your desk, it is very drool worthy and attracts people’s attention (especially if it’s got an Apple logo on it)!

In the land of small Mac notebook computers, 13-inches appears to be where Apple keeps skating towards, as evidenced by its current offerings, but, although on the smaller side, is still a little bit too big for some users’ tastes. 12-inches seems to be the sweet spot for an ultraportable while 11-inches — the smallest form factor to date used by Apple — is even more compact, portable, and just the perfect size in my humble opinion. (Sounds just like the Goldilocks and the Three Bears story!).

Long, long ago, Apple sold a sub-notebook computer that sported an even smaller screen than the 11 / 12 / 13-inch variety! We have to go back into the past, all the way back to 1997, when Apple released its first ever ultraportable Mac with the debut of the PowerBook 2400c. That machine sported a 10.4-inch screen (though the bezel made its display housing bigger than the screen itself) and weighed a hefty 4.4 lbs (considered light for its time). It would be discontinued only a year later in 1998.

An Apple print ad from 2003 showcasing its new aluminum PowerBook G4 family of notebook computers, which, in particular features an ultraportable 12-inch model, left, alongside the larger 15 & 17-inch models to the right. (Photo: Courtesy of Apple)

While Apple first offered its 12-inch notebook computer in 2001 with the release of the iBook G3 (Snow, dual USB model), it followed suit in 2003 by releasing an even smaller, lighter, and more powerful machine with its cousin, the ultraportable PowerBook G4 12-inch. Later on in that same year, the iBook G3 model would get a processor upgrade to a G4 chip and gained a larger sibling with a 14-inch model but the iBook G4 12-inch was still slightly bigger than its ultraportable counterpart.

Apple made the transition from the PowerPC G4 processor to the Intel-based chipset in 2006 and as a result, would replace the ultraportable PowerBook G4 12-inch and its cousin, the iBook G4 12-inch, with the original MacBook which had a 13-inch display. Also getting the shaft in the process was the larger sibling of the iBook G4 12-inch, the 14-inch model. The new screen size and form factor of the MacBook was a middle of the road compromise for its previous 12 /14-inch offerings but despite the MacBook with its 13-inch display being the smaller offering (alongside the larger offering, the original MacBook Pro with a 15-inch display, which replaced the corresponding model of the aluminum PowerBook G4)? It was not a fitting replacement for the PowerBook G4 12-inch and, for a while, its notebook computer lineup was devoid of an ultraportable Mac.

As part of that transition to Intel, the product line initially went from the five models available in 2003 — two consumer models (iBook G4 12 / 14-inch) and three professional user models (PowerBook G4 12 / 15 / 17-inch) — down to only two in 2006: the MacBook for consumers and the MacBook Pro for professional users.

Back in December 2007, I wrote a commentary — similar to this piece – on PowerBook Central (the sister site of MacPrices which went defunct in 2015 but was merged with this site last year), writing why Apple needs a pro ultraportable again and Apple would answer that call the following year — months after the debut of the original MacBook Air — but not in the form factor that I (and many others) was expecting.

To be fair, when Apple unveiled the original MacBook Air at the Macworld Conference & Expo in 2008, it, once again, technically had an ultraportable Mac in its notebook computer lineup, albeit one with a 13-inch display, which fell in line before the MacBook followed by the MacBook Pro models. It was absolutely stunning to behold (remember the late co-founder and former Apple CEO Steve Jobs during his keynote, pulling the MacBook Air out of a manila envelope?) and was the most thinnest and lightest Mac that Apple had ever created at the time. But, in comparison to the full featured ultraportable PowerBook G4 12-inch, whose many fans — like myself — compared the original MacBook Air to, it was a toss up as to which model of the two was king.

Then, in October 2008, with the introduction of the then new aluminum unibody form factor and design, Apple chose to discontinue the white and black polycarbonate versions of the original MacBook and replaced it with a single aluminum unibody version. The following year, in June 2009, Apple reversed course, electing to bring back the original white polycarbonate version (the black stayed discontinued) and rebranded the updated aluminum unibody version as the new MacBook Pro 13-inch model which joined the ranks of its larger 15 / 17-inch siblings. Months later, Apple would give the original white polycarbonate MacBook yet another redesign with a new polycarbonate unibody form factor, also in white, similar to its aluminum unibody cousin of the same size.

What was significant about that move was that now (then), Apple, once again, had a complete notebook computer lineup for its professional users with a small, medium, and large offering (just as it did when it introduced the aluminum PowerBook G4 family in 2003). However, the smaller of the three, the aluminum unibody MacBook Pro 13-inch, was still slightly bigger than the ultraportable PowerBook G4 12-inch that it replaced (although, some would argue that the true replacement had already been released in the form of the original MacBook Air).

My colleague at the time, the late Charles W. Moore (former columnist at PowerBook Central and then writer for MacPrices until his untimely passing in September of last year), writing for another website — one that since that time has changed its name — posited the question of whether the aluminum unibody version of the MacBook was a worthy successor to the ultraportable PowerBook G4 12-inch (his piece was written in February 2009, five months before Apple would rebrand the former of the two models with the Pro moniker).

“If you’re the sort of user who found the old 12′ PowerBook an ideal compromise between size, weight, features, and price, and have been waiting for Apple to replace the 12′ PowerBook G4 with a corresponding MacIntel model, wait no longer — it’s here for all intents and purposes.”

Those words would be short-lived! But to give Moore credit (God rest his soul), he did echo rumors floating around the Mac news web circuit at the time of Apple quietly working on the so called “MacBook nano” to take on the PC netbooks. And? He was right!

The dreams of the ultraportable Mac user would finally come true in 2010 when the MacBook Air received the aluminum unibody treatment and would split into two models: the original 13-inch and its new 11-inch sibling. The aluminum unibody MacBook Air 11-inch brought with it the advent of a super compact and even more ultraportable Mac compared to its predecessor, the PowerBook G4 12-inch (and would last twice as long, the former for six years versus the three years of the latter).

Then, in 2015, Apple debuted the all-new MacBook with a 12-inch Retina display — resurrecting the product line after the discontinuation of the previous model in 2011, the aforementioned white polycarbonate unibody MacBook with a 13-inch display — and it was the newest ultraportable Mac notebook computer to be offered, which, for a time would exist side by side with the two aluminum unibody MacBook Air models. This MacBook was so thin and light (also with an aluminum unibody enclosure) that it appeared that Apple was going to kill off the entire MacBook Air line altogether. It seemed that the 13-inch model of the aluminum unibody MacBook Air was hanging by a thread when its smaller sibling, the ultraportable 11-inch model, was discontinued a year later in 2016.

If anything, Apple should have retired the small but nominally bigger 13-inch model of the aluminum unibody MacBook Air and kept the two ultraportables: the smaller 11-inch model alongside the MacBook with a 12-inch retina display. Now we have neither one and no ultraportable Macs in the notebook computer landscape.

Here we are in 2019 and we are currently in the same scenario (slump?), with Apple repeating history, discontinuing an ultraportable Mac and whittling its product lineup down to just two sizes, similar to what it did back in 2006: a 13-inch model with two versions, one oriented for the consumer and the other for the professional user, and a larger 15-inch model designed for the pros.

Which brings us to square one and the reason Apple needs an ultraportable notebook computer in its product lineup in order to replace the now missing link. (And? 13-inch models need not apply!).

On the flip side? For those on the opposite end of the spectrum, the big hole in the Mac notebook computer lineup is not an ultraportable, but rather, the larger offering designed primarily for professional users: the aluminum unibody MacBook Pro 17-inch model which was discontinued in 2012.

Its predecessor, the PowerBook G4 17-inch, which debuted in 2003, did not initially make the transition over to an Intel chip in 2006 and it seemed that Apple had dropped the model for good when it changed processors. However, months later — after the initial release of the original MacBook and MacBook Pro (the 15-inch model) — the 17-inch model eventually surfaced. In 2009, it would receive an aluminum unibody makeover before being put out to pasture, so to speak, three years later.

Fore professional users clamoring for a larger, desktop computer class screen, those people are waiting with baited breath to see if the rumors of a new MacBook Pro, with either a 16 or 16.5-inch display, become a reality later this year.

I think a great, modern, all-star lineup today would have been an 11-inch MacBook Air on the low end, a 12-inch MacBook in the midrange, and a 13-inch / 15-inch / 17-inch MacBook Pro on the high end. That, once again, would give everyone — like Apple offered back in 2003 — something to choose from and you’d have two consumer offerings and three professional user offerings with both categories having a range of different sizes (two of which would be ultraportable Macs!).

But, alas, three of the models on that fantasy all-star lineup are, sadly, no longer offered by Apple and it doesn’t look like it will produce anything similar to those models ever again.— (Or will it?).

And to think that Apple used to offer only one model of its Mac notebook computer that came only in one size!

As for where I stand on the spectrum, I’ve owned many different Apple notebook computers over the years — six to be exact — from my very first ever, a PowerBook G3 (the 2000 model, a.k.a. The “Pismo”) with a 14-inch display, to my second to last, an original aluminum unibody MacBook Pro 15-inch (Late 2008). However, being a huge fan of the ultraportable Mac, my two favorite models of all (Though the “Pismo” will always hold a special place in my heart, being my very first Apple notebook computer ever) have to be my second notebook computer, a PowerBook G4 12-inch (2005), and the very last, an aluminum unibody MacBook Air 11-inch (Mid-2011).

So how did the two ultraportable Macs stack up against each other? Size-wise, while the 11-inch model of the aluminum unibody MacBook Air was thinner and lighter than the PowerBook G4 12-inch, it was a tad bit wider, ironically making it somewhat bigger. (And in terms of the MacBook with a 12-inch retina display, unfortunately, I am not able to compare the most recent ultraportable offering from Apple to the other two ultraportable models because while I have touched and felt one at an Apple Store — for those who do not already know, I am visually impaired and have been completely blind since 2013, so I have never actually seen how one looks like either — I have never owned or used one).

If I ever decided to upgrade to a more modern ultraportable Mac, my only options right now would be to search places like eBay for used machines and, first, buy a later generation of the 11-inch model of the aluminum unibody MacBook Air, or, the second best bet — the last hurrah from Apple — a much newer MacBook, both of which are obsolete. Or, if I was feeling nostalgic, my last choice would be to go vintage with the PowerBook G4 12-inch a second time around (regretfully, I sold the one I previously owned shortly after I got my MacBook Air).

Hopefully, maybe, just maybe, Apple will dazzle its users and release sometime in the near future, another smaller notebook computer in its product lineup, one that is a worthy successor to its past ultraportable Macs (and isn’t 13-inches!).

Before that day comes, however, for anyone looking for a smaller Apple notebook computer moving forward — short of going obsolete or vintage — will have to wait until the tech giant releases its next big thing in the ultraportable arena, something that it needs and is glaringly absent from its product lineup today.

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