Sour Apples

Putting the premium into pricing

Apple has been raising prices across all of its product lines, most famously with the iPhone X last year, the first smartphone to sell for $999 ($1349 Canadian). This year’s “budget” phone, the iPhone Xr sells for $749 ($999 Canadian).

Other products that have seen significant price increases since 2016:

  • MacBook Pro
  • MacBook Air
  • Mac mini
  • Apple Watch
  • Apple TV
  • iPad Pro

The only product to see a substantial price drop is the base model iPad, which went from $499 to $329 after Apple reverted a lot of the improvements found in the iPad Air 2 to better differentiate the iPad from the iPad Pro. Technically the Mac Pro (see below) has also seen a price drop, but it is dead hardware.

If you look at the above list, you may be wondering what is missing? Here’s the short list:

  • MacBook
  • Mac Pro
  • iMac Pro

The MacBook has not seen any upgrades other than minor processor updates since it debuted in 2015. It has not been updated in over a year.

The Mac Pro was released in 2013 and in 2017 Apple admitted its design was “thermally constrained” (it overheated) and promised a new model…in 2019.

The iMac Pro was introduced a year ago and has seen no updates since then.

Older iPhone models also get discounted, but these are, well, old phones. Apple can’t sell them at the same price as current models, so their hand is forced here.

The argument can be made that Apple is justified in that many of these products have seen more than just incremental updates. The iPad Pro, for example, has smaller bezels and Face ID. The MacBook Air now has a high resolution display. And so on.

But other companies regularly improve products without significantly increasing prices. And a lot of these upgrades are simply Apple catching up to the current market.

The Mac mini, left untouched (including its price) for more than four years was upgrade this year, with the base model sporting an unimpressive Core i3 CPU, a measly 128 GB SDD and at least, mercifully, 8 GB of ram. But these specs rank it is as merely average for a desktop PC, even slightly below (most desktop PCs start with Core i5 CPUs, unless they are specifically budget models, which the Mac mini is absolutely not). Where the base price of the mini was once $499 it has skyrocketed to $799 ($999 Canadian). It’s not a bad system, but it’s a terrible value. Unless you are absolutely wedded to macOS, it makes little sense to buy it.

The Apple watch this year got a 30% larger display…and a 20% increase in price. What was once $519 Canadian is now $649 Canadian.

The so-called Apple Tax has been around nearly as long as the company itself, the idea that you pay a premium price for premium products. Given Apple’s record revenue and profits, it would seem people are happy to pay these premiums. But Apple is now pushing pricing to ever-higher levels, often with little to no justification. The new MacBook Air finally has a high definition display, catching it up to…the entire rest of the laptop market. And for this Apple now charges $200 more ($350 more Canadian). Some people will keep paying, no matter the price increase, because they value Apple’s devices so highly.

But the last year has seen sales of Apple devices either go flat (iPhone), decline (iPad) or decline sharply (Mac). When this happens to a company that wants to keep its revenue steady, they generally do one of two things:

  • cut prices, hoping to boost sales sufficiently to make up for lower revenue-per-unit
  • raise prices, hoping to boost revenue-per-unit enough to offset the lower sales

The first is basically hoping to turn around flat or declining sales, the latter is accepting the declines and trying to make more money from your remaining customers. Apple is taking the second approach, and this is one of the few times I think people saying “Steve jobs would never have done this!” are actually right. He would not have raised prices to simply maintain revenue. He would have pursued new products and product lines. Apple is doing this, to an extent–rumors persist that an Apple car is still in development, for example, but the company seems to be moving away from things to services and counting on them to help keep revenue up. The services range from iCloud storage to Apple Music and the iTunes store. And this part of Apple is growing.

So maybe Apple is content to squeeze as much as they can from their hardware sales, knowing that the established base of devices (100 million Macs, over a billion iOS devices) is sufficient to keep services growing for a very long time.

These apples cost too much

For me, though, everything is just too damn expensive now. I was originally thinking about upgrading my Series 2 Watch to the Series 4, or getting one of the flagship phones. But the prices are just too high. I’ll keep and continue to use the devices I have, but when it’s time to replace what I have, I think it will be easier than expected to extract myself from the hallowed Apple ecosystem.

Here’s a current-gen list of replacements. The ones in bold I already have:

Apple device Non-Apple replacement
iPhone 8 Google Pixel 3
Apple Watch Series 2 Garmin Forerunner 645
MacBook Pro without touch bar Lenovo Thinkpad X1 Carbon
Apple TV 4K Xbox One
iPad Pro 10.5″ No replacement
Apple Music Spotify
iCloud storage/Photos OneDrive

In most cases the replacement either costs less (eg. Pixel 3) or does more (eg. Xbox One). Without even trying, I am already partly ready to make the jump.

Why do I have no replacement for the iPad Pro? Android tablets have never really established themselves (a lot of this can be blamed on Google not pushing the form factor more or doing more to get developers to make tablet-specific apps) and the market has largely been ceded to the iPad. When my iPad Pro is ready for replacement, I’d consider buying a refurb, used or waiting for a sale (not from Apple itself, of course). But everything else is ready for the switch and in a way I’d look forward to it, not just because Apple’s stuff is so expensive now, but because I’m growing increasingly weary of the limitations Apple imposes as it insists it knows better than its users. iOS is particularly bad for this, letting you do things like use different browsers, then having all web links open in Safari, anyway. I’m tired of getting a second-rate experience because Apple wants so much control over my experience. All they do now is largely get in the way.

And the iPad Pro is wonderfully adept hardware, shackled to what is still essentially a phone OS. They added a USB-C port to the newest models, but plug in an external drive to copy files and nothing happens. Apple doesn’t support that, unlike any other tablet out there. It’s silly. And fir this they want you to pay ultrabook laptop prices.

Is the future pear-shaped?

It will be interesting to see where Apple is in a year. During its last quarterly report the company announced it would no longer report unit sales. The tech market, already going bear, did not react well, and Apple’s stock has shed much of its value and has yet to recover.

Some dismiss the decision to not report unit numbers, as Apple is again expecting record revenue in the next quarter, but really, there is only one reason to start hiding the numbers–it’s because they expect them to go down. And they will. I am curious to see where the declining sales and higher prices intersect, and how Apple will react if and when they get to that point. It’s hard to imagine them cutting prices, but it’s happened before. It’s entirely possible Apple will ride out their flat or declining sales with ni major impact to the company’s bottom line. I don’t think that will be the case, though.

We shall see.

iPad Pro update correction

9to5Mac has an article speculating on a possible October event by Apple in which they might reveal updated iPad Pros. I noticed one error in the article and have corrected it below.

You may accuse me of being cynical, to which I would offer:

  • The pricing of the MacBook introduced in 2015
  • The pricing of the redesigned MacBook Pro in 2016
  • The pricing of the iPhone X in 2017
  • The pricing of the iPhone XS Max in 2018 (also candidate for Worst Smartphone Name 2018)

All of these products saw hefty price increases or were introduced at high prices.

You might counter with a few examples, like:

  • 2017 iPad dropping from $499 to $329 vs. previous gen iPad Air 2
  • AirPods at $159 being priced competitively with other true wireless ear buds
  • Apple Music for $9.99 a month
  • Mac Pro got improved specs at the same price in 2017

To which I would counter:

  • The iPad was cost-reduced to create an artificial distinction between it and the “Pro” line of iPads, with several features made worse than the previous $499 iPad Air 2, notably the 2017 model being heavier, thicker and with an inferior display. The base line iPad may cost less now, but it’s also worse than what Apple offered as the base line previously.
  • AirPods is valid. I think Apple really wanted to carve out market share here. They will offer upgraded AirPods in 2019, with an upgraded price. The original model for $159 will go away.
  • Prediction: In two years Apple Music will be $11.99 per month, eventually rising to $14.99 in five years. Every other streaming service will match Apple’s prices.
  • The Mac Pro is still overpriced and outdated

The rumored improvements to the iPad Pro seem to be extremely thin bezels and Face ID. I don’t find the bezels overly big now on my iPad Pro 10.5″, but sure, make them a littler slimmer if you insist, as it makes the display larger without bumping up the physical size of the unit. They’re also said to be adding Face ID. This also seems like a step backward. On the iPhone I rarely unlock it without also holding it up. I often unlock my iPad when it is laying flat on a desk, a situation that will not work with Face ID.

And that really seems to be about it. Neither of these will dramatically change what an iPad Pro (or any iPad) can do. It’ll still have the same OS, the same limited multitasking, the same everything else, just a little faster and shinier than before. And I fully expect this to cost at least $100-$150 more U.S. I would be willing to bet the iPad 10.5″, rumored to be morphing into an 11″ device with the slimmer bezels, will go from a base price of $869 Canadian to a starting price of $1099. Maybe more, especially if they dump the 64GB model and start at 256GB.

As the total sales volume of iPhone and iPad have flattened (or in the case on the Mac, declined significantly), Apple is shoring up its revenue by raising prices across the board, offering lower prices only where they are deliberately seeking to gain market share or to further justify price differentials between lines, as is the case with the iPad and iPad Pro (the iPad pricing can also be seen as Apple trying to make inroads to the education market and an attempt to shore up a shrinking iPad market). As I mentioned when the iPad Pro was first introduced, this is not sustainable, as Apple will reach a point where people will not buy. The danger there is if they go too far–even by just a little–they risk having sales plummet as people look elsewhere and begin removing themselves from the Apple ecosystem. This wouldn’t happen quickly, of course, but it has the potential to upend the company.

Mostly I don’t mind paying a premium price for a premium product, but I think Apple is starting to trade a little too much on the supposed Apple tax. They don’t need to make that much money. Some would say “let them charge what the market will bear” but the problem with that is a lot of people fundamentally lack common sense. Yes, that is cynical, but the evidence is abundant. I wish it weren’t.

If Apple raises the price of the iPad Pro 10.5/11 inch model by “only” $100 Canadian I will make a new post loudly proclaiming I AM WRONG AND ALSO A BAD PERSON.

Watch: me run

I recently updated my Apple Watch to the latest version of watchOS. It includes a feature where it will detect if you are starting a workout activity and ask if you want to start recording the workout.

Tonight it asked if I wanted to start recording an indoor run.

I was playing air guitar at the time. While sitting in a chair.

May need a little tweaking.

(Either the watch software or my air guitar technique. I’m not sure which.)

Copy editor replaced by dust mote extracted from MacBook Pro keyboard at engadget?

This is the current feature story on engadget. (Yes, I’m picking on engadget yet again, but it’s almost unavoidable now. I swear!)

Speculation: The “Android table” is furniture that connects to the internet so you can shop/surf/post while having dinner. Good on Samsung innovating in ways that Apple never would!

I have a very large microphone, would you like to see it?

I decided to give voice dictation/speech recognition a serious try for my writing, to see if it actually works as well as its advocates suggest.

I didn’t want to use my gaming headset because I didn’t really want to wear a headset at all, if possible, so I looked into desktop mics.

I picked up a Blue Yeti USB microphone during Amazon’s Prime sale, both due to its sale price and its generally stellar reputation. I can use it for dictation, podcasts (if I had anything to talk about) and karaoke (if I want to annoy others and embarrass myself, or perhaps become the next Justin Bieber, except older, with better legs and fewer run-ins with the law).

This thing is gigantic. And it’s heavy enough to use as a weapon. A lethal weapon. But set up is dead (ho ho) simple and initial testing confirms it’s working just dandy. If I get some quality alone time this weekend (voice dictation is not something you want to do with others around, because it’s likely to bug them and make you look a little weird, to boot) I intend to give this thing a shot, probably starting off with Google Docs, as it has integrated speech. If I am convinced of its worth, I may move onto getting some flavor of Dragon Naturally Speaking (and how naturally does a dragon speak, anyway?)

From there I would also consider an app for the phone to record when I am out and aboot, or even get a digital voice recorder, which could later be played back into the appropriate software in order to transcribe my recordings.

It’s kind of exciting because it’s an approach I’ve never done before, but it could always be one of those crazy things that just doesn’t work for me, like touch typing, swimming or programming. I’ll find out soon.

Quest for a new laptop, Part 4b: Quest complete (again/still)!

After chatting with a Lenovo rep, I found out my credit card had triggered an alert and their system automatically canceled the order for the ThinkPad Carbon X1, with no verification or anything else happening after the fact. It might be because the card is new and I think I only used it once before this purchase, which may have made the order look a bit shady. The rep pushed the order through again, so if everything doesn’t get nuked a second time, I should have my first full-blown Windows laptop in anywhere from a few weeks to a month (the shipping is free, not fast).

In the next few weeks I’ll do the follow-up task of logging out all appropriate accounts on my MacBook Pro, wiping its SSD, then selling it (to a buyer or back to Apple for a gift card/credit) as I have no real use for multiple laptops. I will miss typing on the MacBook Pro the same way I might miss bapping my fingers against a hard plastic surface.

Quest for a new laptop, Part 4: Quest complete! (For now)

Today I finally made a decision on a laptop, after Lenovo put a bunch of their models on sale again for Father’s Day.

I went with the ThinkPad Carbon X1, with the following specs:

  • 8th Generation Intel Core i5-8250U Processor (1.60GHz, up to 3.40GHz with Turbo Boost, 6MB Cache)
  • Windows 10 Home 64
  • 14″ FHD (1920 x 1080) IPS anti-glare multi-touch, 300 nits
  • 8 GB LPDDR3 2133MHz (Onboard)
  • Integrated Intel® UHD Graphics 620
  • Black
  • 720p HD Camera with ThinkShutter and microphone
  • Fingerprint Reader
  • UltraNav (TrackPoint and ClickPad)
  • 256GB Solid State Drive PCIe-NVME OPAL2.0 M.2
  • 3 cell Li-Ion 57Wh
  • 65W AC Adapter (2pin) – USB Type C
  • Intel Dual Band 8265 Wireless AC (2 x 2) & Bluetooth 4.1 with vPro

I’ve highlighted the most relevant specs. The one not shown is the keyboard, which has 1.8 mm of travel, an absurdly luxurious amount compared to many laptops these days (my MacBook Pro has a measly 0.8 mm of travel, which explains why it is so clicky, loud and awful). It was the primary deciding factor.

Well, that and the 25% discount making the price reasonable. Without that discount it would have cost even more than the MacBook Pro I bought in late 2016 and at that premium I would have considered other options.

In terms of what I’m trading into, the MBP comes with a faster processor (2GHz vs. 1.6GHz), but it’s also a generation behind and the 8th gen Intel CPUs have gone quad core, seeing the first significant speed boosts in awhile. And while I could have gotten a 2K display to again match the MBP, I stepped down a bit to a 1920×1080 in order to get a touchscreen. I won’t use it a lot, but it will be handy to have when I do.

The battery life should be even better and the ThinkPad is about a half pound lighter.

It includes Thunderbolt 3 ports, as well as USB 3.0, HDMI and mini-SD, so it works with both current peripherals and is still equipped for when USB-C really hits the mainstream.

It even includes a fingerprint reader for logins, something that Apple only offers on models that cost a whopping $670 more (granted these models also offer faster CPUs and more TB3 ports, but come on).

What I’m looking forward to the most, though, is that keyboard. In the weeks since I’ve semi-retired the MacBook Pro I’ve been using my Surface Pro 3 instead and its keyboard is so much nicer to type on. And I don’t have to worry about footing a $700 out-of-warranty repair if one of its keys stops working.

As for the MacBook Pro, I’ll miss the trackpad, but really that’s all. macOS is nice but it doesn’t make my socks roll up and down anymore than Windows 10 does. It has things I like, things that bug me, just like Windows 10. I’ll be happy to get away from the horrible (for me) typing experience, the need for adapters and the lack of touch. I’ll probably be taking the MBP to the Apple store and trading it in for a gift card that will likely go to a new Watch, iPad or phone. Basically anything except another Mac. :P

And unless Apple abandons its butterfly keyboard design–and I don’t think they will–I will never buy another Mac laptop again. I’m not sure why anyone would these days. There are better options available, no matter what your criteria is–price, port selection, display options, battery life. About the only area where the MacBook Pro is ahead now is in class action lawsuits.

UPDATE: I just received an email informing me that the order for my ThinkPad Carbon X1 has been cancelled, with no explanation as to why. I’ll try using Lenovo’s chat on their site on Monday or call their 1-800 number, but this is a bit puzzling, to say the least. I guess my laptop quest may continue after all.

In which I tell Microsoft what to do with its Surface line

Fix the Surface line-up. Here’s how (you can find other posts similar to this around the internet–I don’t claim to be original, but this is my take). It’s mostly about adding Thunderbolt 3 ports and current processors, nothing too demanding. And then a few “I’m feeling a smidgen entitled” requests for good measure.

Surface Pro

  • round the corners a bit. It’s not ugly, exactly, but it’s not handsome, either
  • add a Thunderbolt 3 port
  • 8th generation Intel CPU
  • INCLUDE THE TYPE COVER AT NO ADDITIONAL COST

Microsoft has actually advertised the Surface Pro as a laptop, the first to apparently not include a keyboard. It’s time they make it standard with every model and eat the cost in doing so.

Surface Laptop

  • add two Thunderbolt 3 ports and keep the USB 3.0 port
  • 8th generation Intel CPU
  • faster SSD
  • offer a version that acts as a 2-in-1, with a 360 degree hinge

Surface Studio

  • lower the price by $1000. It’s stupidly overpriced.
  • give it a proper desktop CPU (Intel 8th generation)
  • Thunderbolt 3 ports
  • offer a smaller 24″ model
  • include the pen and dial

Surface Book

  • find a way to make the hinge gap smaller
  • this is one laptop where making it thinner is not about sacrificing functionality, it’s pretty bulky compared to most
  • better battery for tablet mode
  • Thunderbolt 3 ports
  • include a stronger power supply–it can’t do some tasks while plugged in without the battery being hit due to how weak the included power adapter is

Why you don’t write iOS articles on iOS devices

This is an excerpt from a Forbes opinion piece posted shortly before Apple’s WWDC event on June 4th. I can’t actually verify that it was written on an iOS device, but the crazy autocorrect suggests…a definite possibility.

Maybe iOS 12 will support a Siri command to run a grammar check on a document.

Smells Right Interns is the name of my etc. etc.

Hey Siri, hire an editor (lol?)

Quest for a new laptop, Part 3

Two months since my last post and I have…not yet purchased a new laptop.

I have been using my MacBook Pro a lot less. I’ve updated my Surface Pro 3 and have used it a few times. I like having the touchscreen for certain tasks and the keyboard is so much quieter and weirdly nicer than the MBP.

A few updates on my previous picks, which I ranked thusly:

  1. Surface Laptop – best all-around mix of features
  2. HP Spectre x360 – same as above, but dimmer display, less battery life–but 2-in-1 versatility
  3. Lenovo Yoga 920 – keyboard might be an issue, heavier, bulkier
  4. Dell XPS 13 – no touchscreen option but solid otherwise (webcam is a non-factor for me)
  5. Surface Book 2 – powerful and strong in most respects, but big, heavy and expensive

Yep, I’ve eliminated the Yoga 920. It gets a lot right, but after using the keyboard for a bit in a Microsoft store, I don’t think I would be happy with it. It has more travel and spring than the MacBook Pro’s keyboard, but it still feels shallow and too light. The Surface Pro 3’s detachable Type Cover’s keys feel better. So it’s off the list.

Oddly, though, another Lenovo laptop has come onto the list, the ThinkPad X1 Carbon. I hadn’t considered it before because it’s a business laptop and normally quite expensive, but it’s discounted on Lenovo’s site until the end of May.

Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon

Pros:

  • best in class keyboard
  • long battery life
  • excellent 2560×1440 display, especially the HDR version
  • touch is an option
  • includes USB-A and USB-C (Thunderbolt 3) ports
  • includes an HDMI port (!)
  • includes standard fingerprint reader
  • some configurations support Windows Hello with the camera
  • fast SSD
  • quite light at 2.5 pounds
  • rugged

Cons:

  • small trackpad
  • the weird TrackPoint nub still weirds me out (this isn’t really a con)
  • so-so audio
  • mediocre webcam
  • normally quite expensive

For writing, this machine hits several of my critical requirements, with an excellent keyboard, display and long battery life. I’m almost at the point where I’m going to go for this, I’m just mulling configuration options and seeing if anything else catches my eye in the next week.

I’d put the revised list like so:

  1. Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon – excellent keyboard, display and battery life
  2. Surface Laptop – best all-around mix of features
  3. HP Spectre x360 – same as above, but dimmer display, less battery life–but 2-in-1 versatility
  4. Dell XPS 13 – no touchscreen option but solid otherwise (webcam is a non-factor for me)
  5. Surface Book 2 – powerful and strong in most respects, but big, heavy and expensive

I pulled every key off a keyboard, just to watch it die

Actually, I did it to put sound-dampening o-rings under each key cap. I think it was 88 keys total and yeah, it took a good long while. I don’t recommend it as a hobby, unless you’re trying to learn patience and plenty of it.

I did this on the Cooler Master Masterkeys S keyboard I recently bought. It has red switches, which are allegedly quiet, but they are more “quiet” in practise, because while they don’t have the loud (and strangely satisfying CLACK) of blue switches, they definitely do make a distinct click when bottomed out. And my typing involves a lot of bottoming out. And the clicking has a vaguely unpleasant hollowness to it. I experienced some regret over the purchase, but decided to order a full set of o-rings after some testing with a set of six and now that I’ve cushioned all the keys, I can state a few things:

  • the o-rings definitely have a significant effect on sound. The keys still click, but it’s much more quiet
  • the o-rings also eliminate most of the hollow feel of the keys
  • it’s still a mechanical keyboard and the keys feel very solid, though the 8 key is curiously shifted slightly up from the others:
As you can see, the F5 through F8 keys adjust the speed of the keyboard, allowing the user to type at dangerously high velocities.

I like it, but I’m still adjusting to it and honestly, I think I may prefer the CLACK of blue switches. The feel is just so weirdly nice.

So my keyboard kaos has settled down for the moment, but there may be one more keyboard in my future…

It’s 2015 (or 2014 or 2013) forever in the Apple store

In an Ars Techinica guide on building a custom PC, the section on storage features this comment:

Looking at the Tech Specs for the Mac mini on apple.com yields this under storage:

On the one hand you have a guide to building a PC published in May 2018 that acknowledges the ascendancy of the Solid State Drive (SSD) over the traditional spinning platters of a hard disk. It refers to slower 5400-rpm drives as hideous. Then, hopping over to Apple’s web store, you find the base model of the Mac mini and lo, just like those scurrilous OEM vendors, the Mac mini comes with a 5400-rpm hard disk. This is perhaps not surprising when you consider the Mac mini listed has not seen a change in price or specification since October 2014 (as macrumors.com notes, that was 1297 days ago).

This isn’t even Apple’s most outdated computer. The Mac Pro (which the company has promised will see an update in 2019) was launched in December 2013. Even if the new model ships in January 2019 it amounts to a minimum of just over five years between hardware updates. They did it at least cut prices in April 2017. The base model for this vintage machine is now a mere $3499 Canadian.

The MacBook Air, the “affordable” Mac laptop, received a minor processor speed bump in 2017 that was likely due to the slower processor no longer being available in bulk anymore. Other than this–and that CPU bump did not change the actual model of CPU–the Air has not been updated since March 2015, when it was updated to a 5th generation Intel processor (they are on the 8th generation now).

These three models represent distinct segments in the market:

  • Mac mini: affordable, entry-level Mac
  • MacBook Air: affordable, entry-level Mac laptop
  • Mac Pro: high-end professional workstation

By refusing to update any of these machines, Apple has demonstrated it doesn’t care about these segments. By continuing to sell them for years without updates is both an embarrassment for the world’s richest company and a sign that leadership is not managing the product line in a healthy manner. It also shows a certain level of contempt for the customer. I mean, they could at least drop the prices. They did for the Mac Pro, but even at the reduced prices, it’s a poor value for a pro workstation, given design issues and now obsolete expansion (Thunderbolt 2, etc.). But a semi-obsolete Mac mini at half its current price would at least seem palatable.

But even when you look at the product that makes over half the revenue for Apple–the iPhone–you see the same creeping inability to cull older products. Apple might argue that they are covering different price segments, but other companies actually build products for each segment instead of just continuing to sell old hardware. Even Apple has done this–the new iPad is only $329 U.S. because Apple reverted back to the cheaper iPad Air for much of its design and hardware. But the iPhone line is an array of eight models going back to 2015.

What I’m saying is Apple is doing very well for being so indifferent, sloppy and lazy with so many of its products. I’m kind of jealous.