MacBook Air and Pro with M1 opens the door to 5G. It can't come soon enough

Commentary: Apple's newest M1-enabled MacBooks don't offer a huge amount of changes. A move to 5G would be a huge upgrade.

Roger Cheng Former Executive Editor / Head of News
Roger Cheng (he/him/his) was the executive editor in charge of CNET News, managing everything from daily breaking news to in-depth investigative packages. Prior to this, he was on the telecommunications beat and wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal for nearly a decade and got his start writing and laying out pages at a local paper in Southern California. He's a devoted Trojan alum and thinks sleep is the perfect -- if unattainable -- hobby for a parent.
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  • SABEW Best in Business 2011 Award for Breaking News Coverage, Eddie Award in 2020 for 5G coverage, runner-up National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Award for culture analysis.
Roger Cheng
4 min read

The MacBook Pro will get the M1 treatment in a new update. 

Apple/Screenshot by Sarah Tew/CNET

Apple on Tuesday spent 45 minutes breathlessly describing the benefits of the custom-designed chip, the M1, powering its newest Macs. Craig Federighi, senior vice president of software engineering, talked up the power-saving benefits, which allow for the longest battery life ever for the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro . He also talked up how quickly the computers would boot up and run programs, such as on the Mac Mini

Yet it's what Apple spent no time on that could hold the most promise for this new line of Apple silicon-based Macs: 5G

Cellular-connected laptops have been around for years, but they've largely been a niche category serving corporate road warriors. Then along came the coronavirus, which has changed, like so many other things, the way we've seen connectivity and how we all work. Pair that with a 5G network that's starting to mature, promising higher speeds and better coverage in the coming years, and the idea of a constantly connected MacBook Air or Pro sounds attractive. 

"Given that remote work is going to be a permanent fixture in enterprise in one way, shape or form, 5G notebooks could become an enterprise mainstay," IDC analyst Linn Huang said.

Because Apple's chips are based on the Arm architecture of mobile processors that power all smartphones and tablets , they're already extremely comfortable with cellular radios. Specifically, these types of processors know how to balance the power management issues that come with a persistent cellular connection, so adding these radios is a snap. 

So why no 5G MacBook yet?

This marks the first generation of Macs running on Apple silicon, and the company likely didn't want to take a flyer on relatively new technology since it had so many other fundamentals to take care of, like processor speed, app compatibility and power management. The hardware and feature set are identical to previous Macs, so Apple wasn't taking any chances. 

An Apple spokesman wasn't immediately available for comment.

Adding 5G -- a feature that customers aren't clamoring for yet -- makes little sense at this point. 

"Apple's stellar Mac results last quarter certainly suggest that the lack of cellular connectivity is not holding Apple back," said Avi Greengart, an analyst at Techsponential. 

The company's sales of Macs accounted for 7.7% of the total market for PCs, a notch up from a year ago, according to Gartner

Apple also just finished unveiling its family of iPhone 12 handsets, where 5G plays a marquee role. The company was more than a year and a half behind the competition when it came to putting out a 5G phone, so it likely isn't in a rush to add it into yet another category of devices. 

With 5G networks still in their nascent stage -- nationwide coverage is disappointingly slow and the super-high speeds are only found in small pockets of major population centers -- the immediate tangible benefits of connectivity are still pretty limited. 

But analysts believe 5G will play an increasingly important role in laptops at some point -- think one or two generations from now. Carriers will be keen to offer yet another product they can connect to their networks. And while you may loathe the idea of yet another addition to your wireless bill, it could be an option for your employer outfitting you with a connected laptop. 

Watch this: Apple silicon Macs: Don't get them yet

The idea of opening up your laptop virtually anywhere and getting a connection without searching for a Wi-Fi hotspot, after all, is pretty appealing.   

While Apple uses Qualcomm modems for its iPhones, the company has been quietly working on its own modems. The company, after all, spent $1 billion to acquire Intel's cellular radio business and talent. 

Your IT manager probably likes the idea too. A 5G connection is more secure than a public Wi-Fi network. Paying for 5G service on a Mac is a lot cleaner than trying to figure out how much a company should chip in for your home broadband connection, Huang noted. With the coronavirus lockdown forcing companies to rethink how and where their employees work and as being remote becomes an enduring norm, 5G could offer your corporate IT a lifeline. 

Apple's event to show off the new Macs is its third big product unveiling in as many months. Going that route, rather than announcing them in a press release or quiet briefing with the media, shows the company thinks these Macs, and where it wants to drive their evolution using Apple silicon, are a big deal. 

There's a strong likelihood that evolution will take a path that finds its way to 5G in the coming years.