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5 ways Apple can make the next MacBooks better than ever

Apple has gone all-in on pro users over the past year. Now it’s time for some updates for the rest of us.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The next Apple product launch is locked in for Sept. 12. New iPhones and Apple Watches are a near certainty -- convincing photos of both have been leaked -- and a new iPad Pro with a big Face ID redesign seems likely too. With all of that, will Apple even have time to showcase the new MacBook laptops and desktops that are rumored to be waiting in the wings, too? Or will the company follow-up with a smaller Mac event in October, as it sometimes does -- or maybe even just opt for a "no stage event" release, as it did with the recent MacBook Pro updates?

The short answer: We don't know. But looking at the Mac lineup, the high-end is in pretty good shape, and it's the laptops for the rest of us that need serious attention.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

The company has followed through on its promise to address the needs of pro-level users. Even if video editors, photographers and animators didn't get everything they wanted, the latest MacBook Pro laptops, released in July, offer Intel Core i9 processors, True Tone screens, and new RAM and storage options. The iMac Pro desktop is barely 9 months old, and Apple has already pledged a new replacement for the "trashcan" Mac Pro in 2019.

But for the rest of us, things are a jumble of outdated and confusing options. The "entry-level" products aimed at average consumers have been untouched since early 2017 or earlier. The once-mighty $999 MacBook Air was the go-to laptop on college campuses and coffee shops for years, but today it lacks a truly modern screen and processor. Macs have never been budget laptops, but that doesn't mean Apple can't show the rest of us a little love.

To that end -- whether these updates come on Sept. 12 or later -- here's my five-point plan for making the MacBook mainstream again.

Bring the latest keyboard fix to everyone

People have mixed feelings about the super-flat keyboards currently on every Mac laptop (except the old-school MacBook Air), and the issue with small debris causing stuck or broken keys are real – we've seen it in action. The latest MacBook Pro laptops stealthily added a thin membrane under the keyboard to block crumbs and dust. But it's only on the most expensive laptops that were just updated for 2018, not the cheaper, no-Touch Bar Pro or the 12-inch MacBook. So if we're sticking with this keyboard design, roll out the fix across the board.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Get flexible on ports

Now that Apple is no longer selling its one pre-2016 15-inch MacBook Pro, only the ancient Air and Mac desktops now have USB-A -- the old-school rectangular USB port -- HDMI and other legacy ports. Everyone else is stuck with USB-C, which has many positive attributes (it's small, reversible and can handle power, data, video and accessories), but can also be a gigantic pain point for those of us living in the real world, where you sometimes run into a USB memory stick, a mouse with a USB connector, or a display or TV set you need to connect to via HDMI. I say this every six months or so, but I hope Apple considers sneaking a USB-A or maybe even an HDMI port back into the mix. A microSD slot would also be welcome -- and would definitely fit on slim Apple laptop bodies where full-size SD wouldn't.

Banish low-res screens (and giant bezels)

The 13-inch MacBook Air is still a pretty great laptop. The keyboard and touchpad are excellent, the size and design mostly hold up, and even the older processor isn't a big deal for everyday computing. But that low-resolution 1,366x768 display, surrounded by a huge silver bezel, is a major eyesore in today's world of nearly bezel-free 4K screens. For a thousand-dollar laptop, it's unconscionable.

It's fine if upgrades like True Tone are reserved for the Pro models, but Apple needs to have Retina screens across its entire computer line -- period.

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On the right, the lower-resolution MacBook Air screen and its thick bezel.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Embrace the $999 consumer

The current laptop options for mainstream MacBook buyers aren't always pretty. There's the aged MacBook Air, which has been stuck in a time loop for years, but at least is still available for under $1,000. After that, it's the entry level (non-Touch Bar) 13-inch MacBook Pro or the 12-inch MacBook, both of which start at $1,299, despite being very, very different machines. That means, unless you're cool with a low-res screen and old processor, there's basically nothing in the MacBook line for high school/college students, starving artists or everyday folk who could stretch their budgets for a great $999 laptop, but just can't justify $300 more. If the rumors of an updated MacBook Air (or Air-like) laptop with a Retina screen, updated design and newer components, all for the same price as the classic Air -- are true, it's hard not to imagine that being a gigantic hit.

Meanwhile, a refreshed 12-inch -- newer Intel chips and a second USB-C port, please -- could keep its $1,299 price, since paying a premium for ultra-portability makes sense. And if that new $999 model has enough decent upgrade options -- spend up for more RAM, bigger SSDs -- maybe that single no-Touch-Bar Pro model just fades away. (It always felt like that should've been the MacBook Air successor, anyway.)

Take the plunge on touch

It may never happen, but I still say adding touchscreens to MacBooks is a winning idea. The technology has already become standard in even budget Windows laptops, where it's a genuinely useful extra. It's also a generational thing. Every kid I know instinctively reaches out to MacBook screens and wonders why nothing happens when they tap or swipe. And Apple already has a touchscreen on some Macs -- it's the Touch Bar on the MacBook Pro. It may only be 60 pixels high, but it's a color OLED touchscreen in all but name. The touchscreen barrier on MacBooks has been broken, so you might as well go all the way.

Bonus idea: Hit reset on the Mac Mini

For a product that hasn't been updated in four-plus years, the humble Mac Mini may be Apple's secret weapon. I see these small desktops in recording studios, home theaters and many other places you'd need to run audio or video software without the bulk and expense of an iMac or MacBook Pro. And at $499, it's the least expensive way to get MacOS access. But, dated hardware and old ports mean it isn't as useful as it once was. A recently rumored update to a more powerful, more flexible, and maybe even smaller Mac Mini would be welcome news to podcast producers around the world, to name just one group that would love a modern Mini option.

MacBook Air 2018 rumor roundup: Everything we've heard so far.

Everything Apple could announce on Sept. 12: iPhones, iPads, the whole shebang.