Apple Said to Plan First Pro Laptop Overhaul in Four Years

Apple Plans to Overhaul the MacBook Pro
  • Slimmer MacBook Pro to get keyboard with thin digital screen
  • Company finds consumers take longer to buy or replace iPads

Apple Inc. is preparing the first significant overhaul of its MacBook Pro laptop line in over four years, according to people familiar with the matter, using one of its older products to help reverse two quarters of sliding sales.

The updated notebooks will be thinner, include a touch screen strip for function keys, and will be offered with more powerful and efficient graphics processors for expert users such as video gamers, said the people, who asked not to be named. 

The new computers have been in advanced testing within Apple since earlier this year, said one of the people, who didn’t want to be identified discussing products before their release. The MacBook Pros aren’t likely to debut at an event currently scheduled for Sept. 7 to introduce next-generation versions of the iPhone, according to one of the people. Apple spokesman Bill Evans declined to comment.

Apple co-founder Steve Jobs heralded tablets as possible laptop replacements by calling the iPad a "post-PC" device after it launched in 2010, but products like the MacBook Pro have shown surprising resilience. Sales of Macs, including the Pro line, rose 6 percent to $25.5 billion in the last fiscal year, while iPad sales fell 23 percent to $23.2 billion.

This year’s MacBook Pro overhaul is aimed at increasing notebook sales at a time when consumers are taking longer to buy or replace iPads. Apple research suggests customers upgrade iPads roughly every three years, while they buy new iPhones every 18 to 24 months, according to a person familiar with Apple’s strategy, which helps explain why iPad sales numbers have fallen from a peak in 2013.

The most significant addition to the new MacBook Pro is a secondary display above the keyboard that replaces the standard function key row. Instead of physical keys, a strip-like screen will present functions on an as-needed basis that fit the current task or application. The smaller display will use Organic Light-Emitting Diodes, a thinner, lighter and sharper screen technology, KGI Securities analyst Ming-Chi Kuo said earlier this year.

Apple’s goal with the dedicated function display is to simplify keyboard shortcuts traditionally used by experienced users. The panel will theoretically display media playback controls when iTunes is open, while it could display editing commands like cut and paste during word processing tasks, the people said. The display also allows Apple to add new buttons via software updates rather than through more expensive, slower hardware refreshes.

The new top-of-the-line MacBook Pros will be slightly thinner than the current models but are not tapered like the MacBook Air and latest 12-inch MacBook, one of the people said. The new MacBook Pros have a smaller footprint than current models and the casing has shallower curves around the edges. The pressure-sensitive trackpad is also slightly wider, the person added.

An option for a version featuring a higher-performance graphics chip from Advanced Micro Devices Inc. will be available, another person familiar with the matter said. It’s unclear which provider Apple will use for the main processor, but Intel Corp. has supplied this in the past. 

Apple is using one of AMD’s "Polaris" graphics chips because the design offers the power efficiency and thinness necessary to fit inside the slimmer Apple notebook, the person said. The new graphics card is more than 20 percent thinner than its predecessor, AMD said earlier this year. AMD declined to comment, referring inquiries to Apple.

The new design will include USB-C technology, a multifunctional type of port that can handle charging, data transfers, and display connectivity, one of the people said. Apple has also considered bringing gray, gold, and silver colors to the new line, as it has done with other products like the iPhone, iPad, and the 12-inch MacBook, a person said. It’s unclear whether colored Pro laptops will be available when the new line is released.

Fingerprint Scanners

Apple is planning to bring over its Touch ID fingerprint technology from the iPhone to the new MacBook Pro line. Apple has tested versions of the upcoming laptops that integrate the scanner beside the new function key display, according to one of the people. The sensor would allow users to log in more quickly and theoretically authenticate Apple Pay purchases. Like with iPhones, the new Pro laptops will encrypt fingerprint data so it can’t be removed from the devices.

Apple will also release a new version of its Mac operating system named Sierra this fall that brings Siri, new messaging and photo-management features, deeper iCloud integration, and more efficient file storage to Apple’s desktops and laptops, the company said in June.

Apple’s shares have begun to recover after tumbling to as low as $90.34 in May amid concerns of slowing iPhone sales. They are up 3.4 percent now for the year to $108.81.

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