Thoughts on the New Things

23 March 2019

It’s been a busy week. Catching us all by surprise, Apple spent three days launching some hardware updates via press releases ahead of its big software-focused event on Monday. In another reality, a keynote could have been devoted to the products that landed last Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday; but this time, Apple wants the brightest spotlight on its next big thing.

Don’t be fooled by the quietness of these recent debuts — they are all significant entries into Apple’s larger product line and serve to flesh out the gaps between price points and spec sheets. You could call them “boring” updates, sure. But boring updates are a sign that a company has its head on its shoulders, that it knows what it’s doing. And boring updates are exactly what people want and need.

Apple has essentially rescued three products from their graves. Of course, no one expected the iMac or AirPods or iPad to die, but they were all trapped in the convoluted mist of uncertainty, the time in their product cycles when rumors of their next iterations had begun to stir and purchasing them would be a terrible decision. Before this week, you should not have bought these devices for the sole reason that their replacements were on the way. Now, those replacements are here.

Let’s go in Apple’s order of unveilings.

Monday: iPads Air and mini

By now you likely know the gist of these devices, so I’ll dispense with the recap. The biggest mistake I see people making when analyzing and reacting to this iPad announcement is that their expectations are too high. These are midrange tablets. Apple quite literally went to the iPad junkyard to assemble these — not just for their capabilities, but for their physical bodies and other components. You should not expect them to have all the bells and whistles of the latest iPad Pros.

Here’s what I mean. The main complaint I’ve noticed about the Air and mini is that they only have compatibility with the original Apple Pencil and not the improved second-generation model from the iPad Pros. I can think of two major reasons why this is the case:

• For the new Apple Pencil to work with the iPads Air and mini, they would need flat edges. This would require an all-new chassis design and the associated supply chain costs (although I am unfamiliar with the manufacturing process, I know that it takes much more of an investment to create entirely new designs, molds, and the like). Apple most likely could not have made these iPads if they did not keep the existing bodies of the previous iPad Pro and the iPad mini 4: they had the necessary items still left over, so they just had to start making them again.

• They’re midrange devices. Tough luck. You shouldn’t expect a $399 tablet to have all the features of a $799 tablet. If in 2021 the iPad mini is still incompatible with the second-generation Pencil, sure, that’s a different story. But the Pros deserve to have significant differentiation from their lower-end siblings.

To sum it up, Apple is not a deity. They don’t have the power to make whatever product pops into their heads; they’re a business, and they have to analyze the level of investment it takes them to do… well, anything. So they didn’t just have a meeting where it was decided, “We can let the Air and mini use the new Pencil, but we won’t because we’re mean”; they had to weigh whether it was worth the time, effort, and resources it would take. Apple doesn’t select features at its leisure like it’s making a grocery list.

The iPad line is stronger than it’s been in a long time, maybe ever. Its price points and feature sets span virtually the entire tablet market — and computer market. It is without competition among its peers, and its last standing obstacle to domination over users’ computing lives is the perception that iOS is less powerful than it should be. I think the iPad is already good enough for the majority of people to use as a primary computer, but iOS 13 should put much of the controversy to rest.

Despite the healthy status of the product line, it can be somewhat confusing to see the wider-than-ever array of iPads Apple now sells. It doesn’t have to be.

Here’s how you should think about the iPad:

• iPad Pro, a single product in two sizes

• iPad Air/mini, a single product in two sizes

• iPad, the cheap one you can probably ignore

Apple essentially sells three iPads. Just as the iPad Pros are identical apart from size, so too are the iPads Air and mini. Apple hardly helps make this easy to tell, however, because the two have separate pages on Apple’s website. This makes them seem more separate than they truly are — it would be much simpler to call them the same thing (not necessarily “Air”; what does Air even mean anymore?) and offer that one iPad in two sizes.

Apple could pare things down very easily without changing the iPads themselves at all. I’m not even sure how negatively the slight confusion will impact consumers’ purchase decisions, if at all; but there’s no good reason the nomenclature shouldn’t be clarified.

The last thing I’ll mention about the iPad line is performance.

Apple, understandably, never wants its products to look bad. So it frames all its product lines, where applicable, as a set of good, better, and best.

The iPad Pro runs on an A12X processor, the iPad Air and mini run on A12 processors, and the iPad runs on an A10 processor. It’s easy enough to tell that the Pro is the fastest, and the Air and mini are the middle ground, and the iPad is the slowest. But that’s where Apple stops drawing helpful comparisons. It’ll tell you the iPad Pro is n times faster than the previous generation, or the iPad mini is n times faster than the iPad mini 4, but those numbers are useless. All you really know is that everything’s fast but some things are faster than other things.

And by Apple’s descriptions of what you can do with the different iPads, you’d think they were all equally powerful. Apple constantly references what I’d call “performance buzzwords”: editing 4K video, making presentations, experiencing augmented reality, playing graphics-intensive games — and it all jumbles together to be a good descriptor of what any iPad can do, but not of what each iPad can do. Without a basis for comparison, superlatives and grand illustrations of power are meaningless.

Apple should provide consumers with some kind of numerical benchmark to show exactly how much faster the iPad Pro is than the iPad Air, and so on. They should not stop at “This one’s faster.” Maybe they could coin their own measure of performance to make it more understandable to the average consumer.

Anyway, I don’t know how heavily performance impacts people’s iPad purchase decisions. The gist of what I’m saying, though, is exactly the same as with the naming scheme: there’s no good reason not to make it clearer.

Tuesday: iMac

I have little to say about the refreshed iMac line. For the most part, I think the updates are solid. I’m certainly more enthusiastic about the inevitable retirement of the seven-year-old iMac case design and its replacement with something sleeker, but that’s not an essential right now.

My real complaint is that Apple continues to sell any iMac models with spinning hard drives. This is completely unacceptable. I’m not saying Apple should make the SSD models cheaper; I’m saying that balance of quality and price is not a slot Apple should try to occupy. Computers with spinning disks are crummy. From a business standpoint, Apple should not want anyone to know the Mac as having crummy options available; and the people who buy these spinning-disk iMacs will know the Mac as crummy. Apple simply should not sell cheap iMacs if cheap iMacs are bad.

If people want a more affordable yet severely compromised computer, Apple shouldn’t sell it to them. It’s better that they ship these relics of the past off to an uncharted island than sell them to people whose quality of life will be poorer because they bought one. Apple’s philosophy should be only to make lower-end products if they’re still good — and those iMacs, put bluntly, are not good computers. Do not buy them.

Apart from the flawed segment of the line, the iMac seems to be in great shape. If you push the specs to the high end, you might hit thermal ceilings and hear fans spinning more often, but for most people I don’t think that’s a major concern.

Basically, the iMac is doing fine, and if you’ve been putting off an upgrade, now is the time. No other comments.

Wednesday: AirPods

I bought a pair of first-generation AirPods halfway through January. When I made the purchase, I knew a refresh was on the horizon, but I was willing to accept the risk of obsolescence when the second models hit. I do not regret my decision: though the updated AirPods are very good, nothing compels me to upgrade or makes me feel disappointed about missing out; and the past two months with my AirPods have been blissful.

Hey Siri support is nice to have but non-essential, as I don’t speak to Siri very often. Extended talk time is good, but I rarely take phone calls, so it’s not important to me. Wireless charging is convenient, but it would be stupid of me to get a Qi charger when my iPhone 7 couldn’t support it.

Basically, what I’m saying is that Apple has done a fine job with this refresh, and people who have been waiting upwards of a year for new AirPods will be satisfied. But I’m content to hold onto mine until the next product cycle rolls around. Maybe even longer than that.

So it’s nothing against the new AirPods — they’re great — but I’m sitting this one out. I love my AirPods enough that I recommend the new ones without having used them.

Final Thoughts

2019 is shaping up to be a great hardware year for Apple. If this trend of calculated, “boring,” helpful, non-revolutionary updates continues, I will be very happy. This is a year for straightening things out, filling in holes in product lines, and solving old problems (I’m looking at you, butterfly keyboard). The naysayers will cry out for innovation, but novelty should never jeopardize quality.

This also makes me wonder whether Apple is getting its act together with its “traditional” product lines before the next big thing takes the stage. On a smaller scale, that’s exactly what Apple just did: it spouted a bunch of hardware updates to put the spotlight on Monday’s services event. On a larger scale, maybe we’re seeing Apple prepare for the further future. Augmented reality glasses come to mind.

Anyway, the point is that massive, earth-shattering products don’t need to happen every year. We’ve been dying to see an Apple that keeps its cool and doesn’t try to do everything at once. This is that Apple, and I’m a fan.

The revolution can wait.