Some Exciting Changes Are in Store for the 2021 MacBook Pro Lineup

13inch MacBook Pro Credit: emre topdemir / Shutterstock
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As we’ve suspected for a while now, it looks like 2021 is going to be the year that Apple’s MacBook Pro gets reinvented for a whole new decade, and now reports from two reliable sources are giving us a peek at exactly what that may look like.

For all intents and purposes, Apple’s overall MacBook Pro design has remained largely unchanged since the first Intel MacBook was released back in 2006 — and in fact, some could even argue that it leaned heavily on the prior PowerBook design — although Apple has certainly iterated on its design over the years.

This included things like slimming the MacBook Pro down by removing the optical drive, followed by the introduction of the somewhat controversial Touch Bar back and the elimination of everything except for a set of USB-C ports back in 2016. And while Apple also debuted a darker Space Grey colour option at that time, if you looked at a closed MacBook Pro in the standard silver colour it would still be pretty hard to distinguish a 2013 model from a 2019 model without a closer look.

However, we’ve been expecting a big redesign since early 2019, when rumours of a new 16-inch MacBook Pro began to circulate.

Those were followed by reports of a 14-inch MacBook Pro early last year, although the hopes that either of these new designs would arrive in 2020 were quickly dashed as Apple released its new M1-powered MacBook lineup in November, all of which featured the same staid design that Apple has been relying on for the past four years or so.

Of course, it’s understandable that Apple’s priority here was getting its new insanely powerful M1 chip out the door as quickly as possible, and not only would a redesign have perhaps delayed its arrival, but there was also a clear marketing advantage here; by avoiding a major redesign of the MacBooks themselves, Apple made sure that the focus of the lineup would be on exactly what it had accomplished with its Apple Silicon chips — and it quickly became obvious exactly how important that was as benchmark after benchmark continued to run circles not only around competing Windows laptops, but also Apple’s own Intel-equipped Macs.

To be clear, however, there’s no doubt at all that even better MacBooks are coming, and this is going to be the year that we see a major shift in Apple’s MacBook Pro lineup.

What’s New for the MacBook in 2021?

Veteran Apple analyst Ming-Chi Kuo released a note to investors this week (via MacRumors) revealing that Apple has some pretty significant design changes in store for the entire MacBook Pro lineup, and while we’ve been hearing that from Kuo for a couple of years now, he’s gotten a lot more specific.

First up, Apple will reportedly be borrowing the flat-edge design language from the iPad Pro and iPhone 12 lineup to take most of the curves out of the MacBook Pro unibody design. This alone will make for the most significant design change that Apple has brought to its MacBook Pro lineup in almost two decades, as curved edges have been a classic Apple design since the first aluminum PowerBook debuted back in 2003.

Apple is also reportedly preparing to nix the OLED Touch Bar from the new lineup entirely. This will be disappointing for those few folks who actually liked the Touch Bar, but it would also be a tacit admission by Apple that as cool and revolutionary as the idea was, it ended up being a niche feature that never really caught on in among mainstream users.

According to Kuo, the new lineup will also see a return to MagSafe charging, although it’s a bit hard to know exactly what that means, since Apple has used USB-C ports exclusively for the past four years, and returning a proprietary charging connector seems like it might be a step backward, however Kuo also suggests that Apple could be adding back more ports to avoid the need for users to purchase USB-C adapters for things like video output.

By contrast, pre-2016 MacBook Pro models featured not only a MagSafe connector, but also two USB-A ports, a 3.5mm headphone jack, two Thunderbolt 2 ports, an HDMI port, and even an SDXC card slot. While it’s unlikely that these would return, at least some of them are still conspicuous omissions for many users.

Naturally, all the new MacBook Pro models will feature Apple Silicon chips, with no Intel variants available, but of course that should come as absolutely no surprise to anybody. Apple is done with Intel.

The Return of MagSafe

Following Kuo’s report, Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman also weighed in, confirming much of what Kuo shared, but also offering a few more details in some areas.

Most significantly, Gurman confirmed that the shift back to MagSafe is exactly what you would expect it to be — Apple is putting the old charging connector back onto this year’s MacBooks, with an aim toward supporting faster charging speeds than are possible over USB-C, while also offering the trip-proof magnetic connection. The design of the port may change slightly — it wouldn’t be the first time Apple has redesigned the MacBook MagSafe port — but it’s said to look very similar to what came before. It’s also unclear whether Apple will continue to use the name “MagSafe” considering that it’s now been co-opted for the new iPhone 12 magnetic charging system.

However, Gurman also emphasized that USB-C will continue to be the norm, with two USB-C ports located on each side, but he didn’t have anything to add about whether other ports would be included.

The Bloomberg report also had additional details to add on the new displays that would be included, and while Gurman didn’t say anything about the much-rumoured Mini-LED technology, he did note that they’re expected to include “brighter, higher-contrast panels.”

Gurman’s information did differ from Kuo’s in a couple of areas, however, noting that they’ll feature only “minor design changes” and that it’s also not a foregone conclusion that the Touch Bar will be going away. Instead, Gurman notes that the new Macs “will look similar to the current versions,” and that Apple has been testing variants that remove the Touch Bar, but has yet to make a final decision.

Lastly, it looks like Apple also has a redesign in the works for the MacBook Air, but according to Gurman that’s not coming for a while — until “long after the next MacBook Pros,” so likely 2022 at the very soonest.

Ultimately, it looks like Apple may be attempting to backtrack on some of the most controversial changes on its MacBook Pro, which wouldn’t be entirely surprising considering that it already ditched the beleaguered butterfly keyboard design last year, despite having stubbornly stuck with it for four years prior.

The elimination of MagSafe was another controversial move that seemed to have been done entirely in the name of design, and the Touch Bar was something that many found enigmatic, and there’s an argument to be made that this was also done more for design than any real practical application.

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