Sometimes I like to spend the morning working at my local coffee shop. The atmosphere is nice, the owner always greets me with a sincere, “Hello my friend, it’s good to see you!” and it’s a lot warmer than my garage office at home.
The problem is, the internet connection isn’t great. The streaming background music in the shop acts as an audible network connection monitor—every so often you’ll hear it stutter and pause as a sign that the connection has gone wonky. When that happens, the Wi-Fi in the shop stops working—most of the time, it’s just for a moment, but it’s a flag that gets raised and it means I need to be aware of something I shouldn’t have to pay attention to.
Free Wi-Fi isn’t too difficult to find in places like San Francisco, but free reliable Wi-Fi is. Even paid/registration-required Wi-Fi (like at a hotel) is flaky. We can’t do anything to fix it other than complain to people who already know, but there is something we can turn to as an alternative: the cellular service we already subscribe to on our iPhones, iPads, and Apple Watches.
But there’s a problem with that too: the Mac is missing from that list. It’s about time for Apple to change this, and with the rumored redesign of the MacBook Air seemingly imminent, I hope we start to see Apple equip its laptops with the overdue ability to connect to cellular networks.
Tethering is not an optimal option
When Wi-Fi is not available or is unreliable, you could turn to your iPhone and use tethering—known as Personal Hotspot—to get your Mac online. In case you’re unfamiliar with tethering, how it works is that you can set the iPhone to act as a Wi-FI hotspot that other devices connect to as if it was a regular Wi-Fi network. Apple actually calls tethering on the iPhone “Personal Hotspot” and you can turn it on (if you mobile plan allows for tethering) in Settings > Personal Hotspot.
Tethering is a solution, but not an optimal one. The Mac is connected to your iPhone through Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, or USB, and isn’t directly connected to the cellular connection. So tethering is relatively slow—even when doing something as simple as checking email, loading a webpage, or accessing shared storage, there’s a lull before anything really happens.
And then there’s the hit on the iPhone’s battery. Doing demanding tasks on a hotspot can take its toll on the battery—I wince at the thought of watching a video or uploading large files on a tethered connection. And obviously it also uses up your iPhone’s data if you’re not on an unlimited plan.
Is a solution on the way?
Why hasn’t Apple offered cellular connectivity on MacBooks? It would obviously be the most optional solution, especially with 5G becoming more of a regular thing. All of Apple’s newest iPhones and iPads have 5G options—even the $399 iPhone 5G—but the Mac still has no way to connect to anything other than Wi-Fi. But even if Apple doesn’t deliver a modem with its upcoming M2 MacBooks, there could be a glimmer of hope for the future.
In 2019, Apple acquired Intel’s modem business, with the purpose of making its own modem, just as it has done with CPUs. A few months ago, a report stated that Apple’s first modem (which is being designed in-house) won’t go into production until 2023. And while it’s obvious that Apple will use its own modems in iPhones and iPads, we’re hoping Apple will decide to put it in the Mac, too.
There could be a holdup on the Mac debut, though. Apple’s modem may ship at the same time as the iPhone 15’s A17 processor, but rumors say the first-generation modem likely won’t be integrated into the system-on-chip. Since Apple’s M-series chips are derivatives of the A-series, that probably means the M3 processors in 2023 won’t have an integrated modem, either. Due to space, heat and battery issues, Apple will probably won’t design its laptops for a standalone modem, so we might see it until 2024 at the earliest.
So we’ll have to wait for 5G on a Mac. But if we’re lucky, Apple will decide, “The heck with it, let’s do this 5G Mac thing now” as part of the MacBook Air redesign this year and use one of Qualcomm’s modems. Then I can go to my favorite coffee shop and when the music starts to stutter, I won’t have to give it a second thought.