WWDC 2013 – My hopes and predictions for hardware

by davidnielsen

Tomorrow is Apple’s big annual developer event, it is mostly going to be about iOS and OS X but the rumor mill is also predicting some hardware changes in the product line up.

The Macbook Air

It seems clear that we will see Macbook Air and Macbook Pro updates to Intel’s newly released Haswell chip. I would predict that these new models will be available either immediately at WWDC or right afterwards. Intel has a good push going for Haswell and I bet they have their fabrication ducks in a line to keep yield up to allow Apple to roll these out without any of the delays that last years iMac updates saw.

The Macbook Air is already pretty much as thin as we can make them with the technology and materials currently available.

I also doubt that Apple will be able to pull off putting a Retina display in the Air models this year as much as I would love to see it happen. I doubt they can keep the battery life without having to add more and/or better batteries into the form factor. They did do this to deliver the 3. generation iPad with a Retina display but I doubt it is possible for them to do just yet. There is also the problem that it would likely significantly raise costs and likely there would be a shortage of displays which would cause rollout delays Apple are likely keen to avoid after the iMac fiasco.

I predict the Macbook Air will stay non-Retina for another year and that it will stay in the same form factor. Due to the improvements Haswell brings to the table though it will be more powerful and likely last longer on battery.

The Macbook Pro

That leaves the which the Macbook Pro to make changes to. With last years introduction of the 15“ and 13” Retina models the line up now looks very visually distinct which is not really in Apple’s usual style. I predict they may want to unify these machines over time, likely to use the 15" Retina form factor.

If Apple decides to drop the discrete graphics from their Retina Macbook Pro machines they would likely to able to push in that direction. It seems likely that they could make those models slimmer and if that is the case I bet they will take the time to unify the look and feel. We are likely see going to see non-Retina models simply to keep affordable models in the line up but it is clear that Retina is the way Apple is going and the rest of the industry is following.

Any such change would depend on Apple being willing to trade off graphics performance by replacing the current generations discrete Nvidia chip with Intel’s new Iris integrated GPU. They would save power and while the new Intel chip is good, it still is not powerful enough to compete on the same level as the chip Nvidia currently supplies them with. It is however quite close in a number of places and even surpasses it in a few.

As a result gaming performance would go down but I expect that desktop performance would be close enough to the current generation to make no real difference.

I suspect Apple will be willing to make that tradeoff, they always had a thing for making thin, light and powerful machines. With an all Intel solution they would be able to deliver such an experience across their lineup (within reason on graphics performance) while completely removing the complicated and error prone graphics chip switching which happens in the current model to save power by changing from the Nvidia to the built in Intel.

The Mac Pro

I don’t think we will see the promised new Mac Pro, unless Apple replaces the Xeon style chips they traditionally have put in these machines for Haswell chips. That would mean a lower memory limit and the loss of dual CPU sockets. I am betting that they are holding out to deliver something later this year as soon as the needed hardware is available. Apple has also hinted that the Mac Pro upgrade will be completely different, and it is likely the machine that they will be assembling in the US.

The AppleTV

There has been much debate in the community on what Apple intends to do with their AppleTV hobby project. It currently has sold 13 million units and it is in my own experience a fantastic device. I personally love the remote to death and I have caught myself enjoying the feel of it in my hand more than is healthy.

The long term play with the AppleTV is likely going to be towards braod home entertainment but it would require more powerful hardware, developer access in the form of a SDK and a new controller (if they want to encompass gaming which I believe they do).

iOS is by the numbers one of the largest gaming platforms in existence already, and one can bring the iPad and iPhone screen to the TV via AirPlay over an AppleTV. This is though encumbered by a significant delay and isn’t really suitable for gaming.

To get gaming running I suspect Apple would need to beef up the AppleTV by adding more storage and more processing power for both graphics and processor. The Ouya shows us that ARM technology can support a console, though a fairly underpowered one compared to the Xbox One and Playstation 4.

The model Ouya espouses is yearly hardware upgrades at a 99$ price mark. This is currently what the AppleTV costs and being able to entice consumers to upgrade yearly with newer and faster models is very in line with Apple’s other businesses.

This would also allow Apple to iterate towards technology that is powerful enough to drive current AAA titles without having to spend years in development of a console that will have to last 5–8 years the way competitors do.

They already have an OS that is proven to be solid, performant and has a wide selection of games, many of which could likely be scaled to work with a separate wireless controller on the Apple TV. Add to this that the AppleTV also already has excellent media handling and a mature digital distribution channel in the form of the iOS App Store. Apple has on its hands a device that already has all the powerful media partnerships that its competitors are building and it has an existing gaming ecosystem as well as the service needed to drive it in Game Center.

So I think we might see an AppleTV model with increased storage, a quad core A6 derived chip and a bluetooth connected wireless controller (which will be sold separately at say 49–79$). I think these hardware increases are likely to mean that Apple will have to raise the price, but not by much, the device on its own could be a mere 149–179$ and still net Apple a handy profit.

Such a device would be significantly less powerful than the next generation consoles like the Playstation 4 that have been announced this year but it will be quite close to the current generation consoles so it is by no means crippled.

Apple will also be able to have quite a number of launch titles if they announce it now and have availability starting in a couple of months or if they have managed to sneak models out to selected developers in the past few months who have all kept their mouth shut. This is quite possible as we have just seen with the Xbox One and Playstation 4, both of which have significant titles announced without leaks. Apple are if anything even better at containing such leaks than Microsoft and Sony so it would not surprise me if they could pull that off.

Apple have also been hiring a lot of graphics chip designers which seems to indicate that they are aiming for some specialization in that area. On a console device one could deploy such technology with fewer concerns about power usage than on the iPhone or iPad, so I suspect over time we will see Apple deploying their most powerful hardware in the AppleTV in the future and working on scaling it to their portable devices from there.

I hope that we will indeed see an AppleTV upgrade at WWDC along with the release of an SDK for developers. Current AppleTV devices will likely be left out of the new world of apps and games, but such is life. A 149–179$ range upgrade will set things right and current AppleTV owners have never been promised anything except what we have been happy with uptil now. I know I would happily jump on the wagon immediately.

I think Apple can pull this off and it would certain broadside its competitors, as well as generating a new stream of income. All the pieces are there and the execution would be fairly classic Apple. It would also be a sign that Apple still can keep a secret and stun the world.

I do not believe the rumored iTV exists, it doesn’t make much sense compared to doing a home entertainment system like this. Convincing people to upgrade a home entertainment box yearly at <200$ is a lot easier than convincing them to do the same with a 2500$ TV. I also don’t believe Apple needs to make a TV to reinvent it or finally make it useful and less buggy. My own Phillips “smart” TV is certainly not without problems and nice as it is, it is far from smart – something the addition of my AppleTV makes up for.

The only question in my mind currently is if this will be a WWDC announcement or if they will hold a separate event for it. WWDC is a developer centric event and it will be packed with other announcements. This would also be so big that it would make sense to have a separate event dedicated to it.

The heart says WWDC, the brain says separate event but in the near future.

The iWatch

I think Apple have a wrist worn device in development. I also think that Tim Cook is right when he says that it has to have broader appeal than a current generation smart watch or any of the currently available wrist devices like the FitBit Flex or the Nike+ Fuelband which are essentially single purpose display less exercise aids to get people wearing them. Only a minority of the population wears a watch these days and convincing them to put something on their wrists will require it to be sensational.

I do not think we will see such a device at WWDC. The technology required for something as ambitious as the iWatch would have to be simply doesn’t appear to be quite there yet. I think this year belongs to the AppleTV, the iWatch I think is a surprise that will have to wait till next year at least.