Last fall, Apple brought its extremely powerful new M1 chip to its MacBook Air lineup and the entry-level MacBook Pro, but it’s also become apparent that the company has much bigger things in store for this year, from even more insanely powerful Apple Silicon to some major redesigns.
In fact, it’s becoming apparent that Apple wanted the first round of Apple Silicon MacBooks to echo the previous designs so that the new M1 chip would get all the attention. Now that we’ve seen exactly how mind-blowing they are, however, it’s time for Apple to start wowing us with some other changes, so it’s likely that 2021 will be the year that the MacBook Pros get the long-rumoured redesigns that we’ve all been waiting for.
However, we’ve also heard recent reports from a reliable source that Apple could be taking a step back from its sole commitment to USB-C ports on this year’s MacBook Pro lineup, potentially returning to include a more versatile arrangement of ports.
Back in January, renowned analyst Ming-Chi Kuo, who has a pretty good track record of being right about Apple’s plans, suggested that the MagSafe charging port would return, and now he’s doubling down on that with the prediction that Apple could bring back even more of the ports that were lost in the 2016 transition to a USB-C only configuration.
More Connectivity Options
To be clear, USB-C ports are quite versatile, supporting charging, video output, and standard USB communications. They’re also some of the slimmest ports you’ll find, which appeals to Apple’s desire to make its MacBooks as thin and light as possible.
The downside to USB-C ports, however, is that adapters, or “dongles,” are required to hook up many accessories. Even many flash drives still use USB-A, and of course if you walk into a conference room you’re likely going to find that the projector uses a standard HDMI plug. This means that anybody who wants to use their MacBook Pro for more than personal use is likely going to find themselves toting around several adapters for various purposes.
Although most of these adapters aren’t expensive, they are something else that you have to make sure you have on-hand, and in fact this was one of the biggest criticisms regarding Apple’s MacBooks when it made the switch to USB-C back in 2016.
Of course, Apple has never shied away from making unpopular decisions when it comes to removing ports and other features, especially if it believes that doing so will have a positive long-term effect. Apple was the company that famously killed the floppy drive, was the first to remove optical drives from its laptops, and of course nuked the iPhone’s 3.5mm headphone jack a few years ago. In almost every case, Apple led the way into the future, and others eventually followed, ultimately validating Apple’s decisions as simply being ahead of the curve.
This was arguably also the case with the 2016 MacBook Pro lineup, which ditched a wide array of different ports in favour of four USB-C ports, on the assumption that these could do everything anybody would really need. Before then, the MacBook Pro had included a dedicated MagSafe power connector, two USB-A ports, a 3.5mm headphone jack, two Thunderbolt 2 ports, an HDMI port, and an SDXC card slot.
However, it was a change that may have been too much, too soon for many people, so it’s possible Apple is willing to make concessions by walking at least some of those changes back. While it’s unlikely we’re going to see a return to all the same ports that were there several years ago, here’s what Kuo suggests will be making a return later this year:
While USB-C should provide all the charging capabilities most people need, Apple’s original MagSafe technology — not to be confused with the new iPhone 12 system — was brilliant in its ability to save MacBooks from the disastrous scenarios where someone tripped over the power cable, sending the attached MacBook crashing to the floor.
While USB-C also disconnects fairly easily, it doesn’t do so at every angle the way MagSafe did. Kuo also suggests that the return of MagSafe could also bring faster charging speeds than USB-C is capable of.
It’s fairly trivial to connect an external monitor with an inexpensive USB-C to HDMI adapter, but of course, you have to buy the adapter separately and have it handy when you want to use a larger screen or conference room projector. A built-in HDMI port could make this easier.
Note that there are actually three sizes of HDMI connectors — the standard one that you’re probably already familiar with, plus “mini” and “micro” variants. While the smaller of the two would fit more easily into the slim profile of Apple’s MacBook Pro design, they’d also arguably be about as useful for compatibility as the existing USB-C ports — most users would still need a dongle anyway.
This means that if HDMI makes a comeback, it’s going to require the thickness of the MacBook Pro to increase by at least a few millimetres. While this sounds antithetical to Apple’s usual design ethos, it’s not completely out of the question, especially in the midst of a redesign that may adopt a more squared-off profile that’s similar to the iPad Pro and iPhone 12.
It’s also conceivably possible that the HDMI port may only make a return to the larger 16-inch MacBook Pro — Kuo doesn’t really specify — in which case Apple would have more wiggle room in terms of the overall thickness, since that’s not considered nearly as portable of a machine.
SD Card Reader
The last addition that Kuo is predicting is an SD card reader, which would obviously be a huge boon to the photographers and videographers who make up a big part of the Mac’s target audience.
An SD card slot would likely be pretty easy to fit in, and seems like it would offer the greatest practical advantage, since for many professionals in the field it’s not about the expense of dongles, but merely the hassle of having to deal with them while on the go. Popping an SD card into the side of a MacBook is far simpler than having to fish out a dongle from your bag, and many photographers routinely swap cards in their cameras in the middle of a shoot to get one batch uploading while shooting or filming another.
Notably, last month Mark Gurman of Bloomberg also predicted the return of the SD card reader and the MagSafe adapter, although he didn’t weigh in on the question of the HDMI port. Instead, he noted that USB-C would continue to be the norm, while also suggesting that the design changes to this year’s MacBook Pro lineup would be more minor.
The Touch Bar
Both Gurman and Kuo have also noted that Apple is considering eliminating the somewhat controversial Touch Bar from this year’s MacBook Pro, although according to Gurman it’s not yet a foregone conclusion that it will be going away for good. Instead, Apple is said to be testing models both with and without the Touch Bar, suggesting that it could go either way, or perhaps Apple may simply offer it as an option on its higher-end MacBook Pros.
Notably, the M1 MacBook Pro still includes the Touch Bar right now, so it would seem odd for Apple to remove it from the higher-end models right away; it’s always been positioned as a premium feature, and ironically the entry-level MacBook Pro didn’t even see it added until the middle of 2019.