The Mac in 2019: Mac Pro, magic keyboards, Catalina and more

Best of Mac 2019

I think 2019 will best be remembered as a transitionary year for the Mac. It won’t be remembered as a revolutionary year, anyway. Apple refreshed the non-pro iMac and MacBook Pro in the first half of the year, improved the MacBook Air and made it more affordable, then later rolled out the 16-inch MacBook Pro and the Mac Pro. It also introduced macOS Catalina, which added some great features and functionality to the Mac while also creating some headaches for developers and users.

Desktop and laptop Mac bumps

iMac 2019Apple refreshed the 21.5 and 27-inch iMacs in March. Retina 4K and Retina 5K systems were bumped with 9th-generation Intel Core processors and optional Radeon Vega graphics, with prices starting at $1,299.

The $4,999 iMac Pro languishes without any sort of refresh. With a beefier Retina 5K selling for less than half the iMac Pro and the new Mac Pro in the world, it’ll be interesting to see what Apple does with the iMac Pro in 2020.

Apple also passed the Mac mini by for any sort of refresh, though that model was only a few months old when 2019 rang in – and Apple’s previous refresh of that model was four years prior.

Apple refreshed both higher-end 13 and 15-inch MacBook Pros in May with new 9th-gen Intel hardware and other changes. The entry-level 13-inch model got a bump in July. Apple also improved the value of the MacBook Air by using a better display and dropping the price $100.

Outside of the early refresh to the iMac and the mid-year MacBook Pro and MacBook Air refresh, we had to wait almost until the holidays before we saw any movement in Apple’s Mac hardware efforts.

16-inch MacBook Pro

16-inch MacBook ProWithout question, the 16-inch MacBook Pro took center stage when it was introduced in November. It’s exceptional for a few reasons: the super-bright wide-gamut 16-inch screen provides significant additional real estate and much more realistic imagery, and it’s a lot faster and a lot more powerful than its predecessor. The headline for the 16-inch, however, is its keyboard.

Apple’s been fighting a losing PR battle for years to convince customers that its “butterfly switch” keyboard is a design worth keeping. Apple created the keyboard switch to help keep the MacBook Pro extremely low-profile and thin.

But reliability problems abounded through multiple evolutions of the butterfly switch, so much so that Apple has a standing service order covering all Mac laptops with that keyboard design, even if their warranty has expired.

So when the 16-inch MacBook Pro debuted with a “Magic Keyboard” instead, the Internet breathed a collective sigh of relief. Magic Keyboard is Apple’s nomenclature for its popular desktop wireless keyboard, standard issue for the iMac and Mac Pro. People have been happy with the new keyboard, even though it’s added a slight bit of thickness to the MacBook Pro for the first time in a long time.

While the 16-inch MacBook Pro is well-suited for a lot of different tasks, Apple has distinguished a few features for digital creatives with special requirements. For example, it’s the first Mac laptop with an adjustable video refresh rate to help match the frame rate of the video you’re editing. Apple’s also beefed up the RAM capability of the machine to 64 GB, answering a complaint of buyers of the previous-generation MacBook Pro.

Looking forward to 2020, I expect to see the Magic Keyboard make its way next to the 13-inch MacBook Pro, whenever that might appear.

Mac Pro

Mac Pro and Pro Display XDRGoodbye trashcan, hello cheese grater (again). Like the butterfly keyboard, the 2013 Mac Pro was a design that Apple was a lot more in love with than its customers. After selling modular, tower computers as Power Macs and Mac Pros for decades, Apple reimagined the Mac Pro a computing appliance in 2013, a black turbine built for quiet speed, but with negligible internal expansion and no modular functionality save a backplane filled with fast I/O ports, leading to exploded spaghetti messes of cables for some setups.

Apple went back to basics in 2019, previewing a new Mac Pro at WWDC in June that it promised (and delivered) by the end of the year – people started ordering them and getting them in December, in time to get new projects started before the holiday break.

The new modular Mac sports eight PCI Express slots, 12 easily accessible RAM slots, high-powered MPX graphics modules and Afterburner, an Apple-designed accelerator card aimed at film and video editors. At $5,999 to start, the Mac Pro is Apple’s highest-priced base model Mac. It’s also a brutally efficient and fast machine built with more specialization in mind than most Macs. DIY resource iFixit is usually pretty salty about new Apple designs, but it’s extremely complementary about the new Mac Pro, calling it a “masterclass in repairability.” It disassembles with very few tools and can be easily repaired in the field.

Apple’s paired the Mac Pro with its first new monitor since the late Thunderbolt Display: The Pro Display XDR. Casual observers might scoff at a 32-inch display priced at $4,999, but the Pro Display XDR isn’t your run of the mill display. In fact, Apple’s positioned it to go toe-to-toe with studio reference monitors used by film and video editors which cost several times more. That’s right, the Pro Display XDR is actually bargain-priced. The same can’t really be said for its $999 aluminum stand, though its ability to pivot from landscape to portrait orientation is cool.

macOS Catalina

The other big Mac story in 2019 was macOS 10.15, “Catalina.” Announced at WWDC in June and available as a public beta almost immediately thereafter, Catalina officially rolled out in October, a few weeks after Apple introduced iOS 13. Catalina tears up some long-held Mac conventions to pave its way for the future.

That starts with the elimination of iTunes. iTunes had become increasingly bloated and anachronistic and out of step with the user interface conventions Apple normalized in iOS. Apple Music, Apple TV and Apple Podcasts now exist as three independent apps, still providing easy access to local content from the old iTunes library, but tuning the Mac in much better with the streaming content reality of 2019.

Catalina also gave rise to Catalyst, technology baked into the latest version of Xcode to make it easier for iPad developers to bring their apps to the Mac. Apple gave macOS Mojave users an early peek at the technology last year, when it added Home, Voice Memos, News, and Stock. Refined and improved, Catalyst is now in the hands of third-party developers like Twitter, which released a Mac version of its client software for the first time in years.

The Twitter Catalyst app, like many others, has been criticized for failing to follow Mac user interface conventions and for being less robust than even the Twitter web client. That appears to have as much to do with the underlying differences between iPadOS and macOS and the different user interface conventions as it does with anything that Twitter is responsible for. So far there’s only a small library of Mac Catalyst apps to choose from, as well – this is very much a work in progress.

Apple’s Handoff technology has been a hallmark of Mac use for years. Apple’s goal is to seamlessly blend devices into your continuous workflow so it doesn’t matter if you’re using an iPhone, Mac, or iPad, you’re still able to get everything you need done. Another Catalina innovation, Sidecar is another great example of this philosophy at work.

Sidecar turns your iPad into an extension of your Mac. You can mirror or extend your Mac’s display on the iPad and even use the iPad as a writing, sketching or illustration tool for your Mac using the Apple Pencil. It stops short of being the two-in-one device that people envious of the Microsoft Surface might like. But Apple’s thoughtful workflow in Sidecar has enabled both the iPad and the Mac to be greater than the sum of each other.

Catalina also has a number of innovations aimed at making the Mac more accessible than ever, like Voice Control – improved dictation and richer text editing while using comprehensive voice commands makes Catalina a lot easier to use for folks with limited dexterity.

Apple’s march towards progress with Catalina means the end of the road for apps that only support 32-bit memory addressing. After years of warning Mac users that old, out of date apps would have to be updated to continue working, Apple finally went 64-bit only with Catalina. That’s created some discomfort for users who suddenly find themselves without necessary apps unless they pay for upgrades or find replacements for apps that haven’t stayed with the times.

Apple’s desire for greater data protection and security also meant lots of under-the-hood changes in Catalina. The entire boot volume has been protected as read-only to keep rampant software from messing things up. Gatekeeper anti-malware protections have been bolstered and after pushing back the deadline for months, Apple is poised to require developers to adhere to new code-signing rules if they want their apps to run on the Mac.

What’s more, Catalina also forces apps to request your permission to make you aware of how they’re accessing data and services on your Mac. It’s well-meant and it’s good info, but it’s also frustrating and annoying for many Mac users, who reflexively give approval and wish the prompts would just go away.

Parents can already set up time limits for Catalina apps and schedule downtime to force kids away from the keyboard via Screen Time. Soon they’ll be able to bracket who their kids can talk with, as well, once Catalina gets iOS’s new Screen Time communication limits features – coming with a spring update.

Looking ahead to 2020

I’ve already peppered my look back on the Mac in 2019 with my thoughts on what’s to come, but here’s a few other prognostications and hopes to throw in for good measure.

I’m expecting iterative improvements to the iMac Pro, if not a full-on redesign of the aging chassis. Apple hasn’t touched the iMac Pro since introducing it in 2017, and it’s time to create some separation and value for people who might otherwise consider a Mac Pro.

Speaking of the Mac Pro, I’d love to see Apple’s modular Mac Pro design language make it into a smaller, less expensive Mac with a less specialized focus. I’m one of those folks who’s been agitating for an xMac/mid-tower Mac for many years, and I would be delighted to see Apple offer such a system.

I firmly believe Apple will eventually move the Mac away from Intel processors and onto its own silicon. Apple’s been teasing us for years with stories about how fast its A series processors are compared to laptop processors, so they’ve primed us to expect this. Wouldn’t surprise me to see Apple dust off the MacBook moniker (again) for such a beast. Don’t know if it’ll happen in 2020, but it’ll happen one of these days.

With Catalina sloughing off 32-bit app support and tightening up security and data protection, I look forward to Apple’s next macOS to have even more future-looking functionality. I’m hoping that Apple will improve Catalyst in 2020. Because as it stands now, it’s a workflow that produces Mac apps that few Mac users actually want.

How about you? What stood on the Mac from 2019, and what are you imagining for 2020? Let me know in the comments.