The Wall Street Journal published a column today by Joanna Stern in which she reports that Apple’s butterfly keyboard used on its MacBook, MacBook Air and MacBook Pro laptops is still having issues three generations in. This prompted Apple–currently facing a pair of class action lawsuits over the design–to offer an apology of sorts:
“We are aware that a small number of users are having issues with their third-generation butterfly keyboard and for that we are sorry. The vast majority of Mac notebook customers are having a positive experience with the new keyboard.”
Apple didn’t say they were sorry for first or second generation butterfly keyboard owners, likely because every one of those keyboards is guaranteed a free keyboard replacement up to four years after purchase.
Apple has effectively admitted there are issues with all three generations of the butterfly keyboard. I have gone from hating the feel of the keyboard (mine is the dreaded first generation) to tolerating it. I’d prefer to have more travel on the keys and have them be quieter/less clicky, but could otherwise adapt to them. The third generation, with its silicone membrane is apparently a little less noisy, but I’ve yet to test it out in a quiet-enough environment to notice a difference. Also, the membrane apparently contributes to heat build-up, creating a new avenue for issues to arise.
All said, what John Gruber calls “the worst products in Apple history” are perhaps hopelessly flawed. I mean, if issues are still coming up after multiple fixes, maybe it’s time to move on to another design entirely?
The MacBook is overdue for a refresh. If Apple doesn’t kill it, the next version of it may show if Apple is staying all-in on what appears to be a fundamentally broken design, or gives up and goes for something else, like adapting the low-profile scissor switch design used in their external keyboards for their next generation of laptops.
I’m leaning toward the latter at this point, mainly because of today’s apology. It feels like the beginning of the groundwork to kill the butterfly design and bring in something butterfly-like, but with none of the fragility.
And while reading about this today, I came across PCWorld’s The 10 Worst PC Keyboards of All Time. The butterfly keyboard isn’t on the list, as it dates all the way back to 2007. Still, it’s a fun–and horrifying–read. It’s kind of amazing how many computer keyboards didn’t have a backspace key.
Today Apple quietly announced two sort-of new iPads: the iPad air and the iPad mini. Both of these have already existed, the Air reaching version 2, the mini reaching version 4.
The mini was badly in need of an update, having last seen hardware improvements in 2015–par for the course with the current Apple, neglecting its products for years on end (the Mac Pro is still the reigning champ, now sitting at 5+ years without a single update, though Apple has promised a new version this year).
The reason I call Apple’s vision for the iPad kooky is because I don’t think it was planned, it’s still a bit of a mess, but it is, finally, a kind of actual plan and presents a clearer vision of the iPad line-up.
In 2010 the iPad line-up was simple. There was the iPad, selling for $499. That was it.
In 2011 Apple brought out the iPad 2 for $499 and that was it. The same philosophy continued through successive models:
The New iPad (2012). This was an improved version 2, with the dumbest iPad name ever.
iPad (4th generation, also 2012). Basically The New iPad, but with a lightning port.
iPad Air (2013). This featured a lot of improvements–a better display, thinner, lighter (hence the name), but still kept the $499 price.
iPad Air 2 (2014). Like the Air, but with refinements.
In 2012, when the fourth gen iPad appeared, Apple introduced the iPad mini. This was the first time buyers had a distinct choice of what iPad to get, but it was still pretty clear: get a big iPad, or get a small one. In terms of specs, they were very similar.
In 2015 Apple mixed things up again by bringing out the first iPad Pro. It had a whopping 12.9 inch display and similarly whopping price. Again, the difference between the three models was clear–size (and price, with the Pro model).
In early 2016 Apple added the 9.7 inch iPad Pro and here things got confusing. The smaller Pro sold for $599, only $100 more than the Air 2. It had Apple Pencil support, a faster processor, generally enough improvements that people might be tempted to spend that extra $100. Apple was now in a position where it would cannibalize its own sales–but not in a good way.
Apple “fixed” the issue in 2017 by coming out with both a new iPad (again just called iPad, this being the sixth generation), killing off the Air 2 and bumping the specs of the 9.7 inch Pro to a 10.5 inch model. They sealed the deal by increasing the price of the Pro to $649 and decreasing (!) the iPad price to $329. Apple also made a lot of compromises with the iPad and its tech, essentially reverting it back to something more akin to the original iPad Air.
Now the gap between regular and Pro was clear: price! The smaller Pro cost almost twice as much.
This continued into 2018 when Apple introduced the third generation of Pros, with the now 11 inch model selling for $799 vs. the still $329 iPad. The 12.9 inch model started at $999.
But now Apple had a problem of their own making. The iPad and iPad Pros could both do all the same things, run all the same software. In 2018 Apple even added Pencil support to the cheaper model. The current Pros are great tablets–provided you don’t need a headphone jack–but the price difference was now so stark that most people wouldn’t even consider the Pro models, unless they had an extremely compelling use case or simply didn’t care about the cost.
Thus, today’s additions.
The revived iPad Air (not called iPad Air 3, just iPad Air, but at least it’s not New iPad Air) does three things: it cements the return of Air branding (started when the MacBook Air was refreshed–finally–in October 2018), further underlines Apple moving away from version numbers (only the phones and watches persist) and most importantly, provides a product in-between the cheap iPad and the ludicrously expensive iPad Pro. And the price?
In reality, the new iPad Air is essentially the just-discontinued iPad Pro 10.5 inch. It was selling for $649, so the Air is significantly cheaper. There are some features cut, like the 120 Mhz refresh rate Apple calls Promotion, but all of the important stuff from the 10.5 inch Pro has been kept, just at a lower price.
The mini is in a weirder place. I thought Apple was going to go the cheap iPad route, and revert the min back to the iPad mini 3 era of design–thicker, heavier, non-laminated display and so on, to keep the price down. Instead, they went the opposite, actually improving the specs. The display is even better than before, it adds Pencil support and so on, without changing the price, which remains $399. There is one downgrade–the mini 4 was reduced to one configuration with 128 GB of storage. The new one starts at 64 GB, so the cost is the same, but storage is now halved, though one might argue the improvements make up for it. I bought my mini 4 in late 2016 and back then I paid $499 Canadian for a 32 B model. I can now get the new 64 GB version for $529, a modest (for Apple) price increase that reflects the drubbing the Canadian dollar has taken over the last two years.
The iPad mini, then, is sort of a semi-pro, so Apple must be counting on people wanting the smaller size being willing to pay for it.
And now, for the moment, the iPad line and its vision are complete. There is a low end model, a smaller model, a mid-range model, and a pair of high end models. Prices start reasonable (for apple) and progress up to through-the-roof. And for the first time in a long time, all of the models are current. None are year-old models sold for less (or the same price, as the 10.5 inch Pro was).
This may help Apple keep iPad sales from stagnating, by tempting more people into spending what used to be the old iPad price of $499 to get the nicer specs. I wonder how it will affect the Pro models, though. Face ID and slimmer bezels are nice, but not hundreds of dollars more nice. For me, at least.
And for me, I’m content to stick with my iPad Pro 10.5 inch. It still works great as it nears its two year birthday and the new Air would only be an upgrade in terms of the processor boost–but the 10.5 inch has never felt slow.
(Also, congratulate me for not making a single penis joke after typing out 10.5 inch so many times.)
My iPad mini, now over two years old, is suffering worsening battery life. It will run itself all the way down in just two days of idling, so I have to charge it every other day instead of just once a week. I’m not keen on having to replace it, but at least when I do I won’t be paying much more (or maybe not more at all if I wait for a sale), and I’ll be getting some nice improvements, as well.
Probably the dumbest move Apple has made recently in regards to the iPad is calling the second generation Apple Pencil…Apple Pencil. See this Verge article for more.
Since I started writing with Ulysses again, I’ve been forced to reacquaint myself with my 2016 MacBook Pro sans Touch Bar. This is the one that an Apple executive (maybe Phil Schiller?) claimed would make a nice alternative to the MacBook Air when it debured, neatly ignoring that it cost $700 Canadian more than the Air (ironically, the updated 2018 MacBook Air, combined with a 128GB version of the MBP, has resulted in the price difference now being only $230).
There were no great revelations in going back to the MBP. I still liked the things I liked before, and still disliked the rest. So let’s recap:
The haptic trackpad is still the best I’ve ever used. It’s a tad bigger than it needs to be, but that isn’t a real issue, and being able to click anywhere on it is great. And the clicks are smooth, not, uh, clicky.
The display is terrific. High resolution, bright, and without using the “skinny” 16:9 ratio. It’s not as tall as a 3:2 display, but it gives more headroom than 16:9, something I find important in a laptop.
Versatile Thunderbolt 3 ports.
macOS is still pretty solid.
Backlighting is spiffy.
Save about $670 over the next tier of MacBook Pro, and get bonus real function keys in the process.
Only two Thunderbolt ports. One for charging, the other for…everything else. And both on the same side.
Actual performance varies. It’s never bad, but sometimes it doesn’t feel as tight as what you’d expect for a “pro” machine.
Headphone jack (ya) is on thee right side, which, given the design of nearly every wired set of headphones in existence, makes no sense.
macOS is still pretty solid, but the Finder still kind of sucks.
Styling is getting dated.
All-aluminum design is slippery as all get-out. Every time I pull it out of my knapsack it feels like it’s going to squip out of my hand. And it doesn’t even feel that nice. It’s metal and cold. Meh!
Even though it only weighs about three pounds, it somehow feels heavier.
Battery life is only average vs. other Ultrabooks.
Display bezels are pretty big in 2019.
You can’t upgrade anything post-purchase.
Any repairs are difficult and costly.
The keyboard still sucks.
I can tolerate the keyboard, but I still don’t really like it. It’s just too shallow and clicky, like a scissor switch keyboard imitating a mechanical keyboard. It just doesn’t feel right. And I have less than two years before a potential repair bill of $600+ awaits, should even a single key fail. Given Apple’s flailing in trying to make the keyboard more reliable, I’m very interested in seeing what the next MacBook Pros look like. I doubt they’ll retreat to what they had before, but I think there’s a decent chance they will do something different, instead of continuing to tinker with the current design. Hopefully they won’t present something even worse still, but I wouldn’t rule it out.
Overall, this is a laptop that doesn’t stand up to the best Windows laptops anymore. The only thing that really separates it from the competition is the trackpad, but the deficiencies like the keyboard, battery life and repairability, lag behind many other notebooks. Still, it’s a competent machine and I can muddle along with it for writing. Every other Mac laptop now comes with the same butterfly switch keyboard (even if current models feature a newer, quieter version of it), so it’s not like switching to another model of MacBook will make much difference.
On a scale of 1 to 10 Think Differents, the 2016 MacBook Pro without Touch Bar rates 6 Think Differents.
Last week, after about three days of non-use, I went to put on my AirPods and found that, despite being on the charger, they were only at 77% charge. I’ve had an intermittent issue with the left AirPod where it doesn’t make a solid connection in the charging case and drains instead of charging. This is a tad inconvenient.
Usually I can resolve this by removing the AirPod, checking/blowing on the bud and inside the case, then re-inserting it, at which point the power light turns orange, indicating charging. Five minutes’ worth will give me about an hour of playtime. Not bad.
But this did not happen. I put on the AirPods and confirmed the left one would not play at all, as expected. I fiddled with them for a bit, then went into the Bluetooth settings on my iPhone and chose Disconnect Device. It disconnected.
It would not reconnect.
Lacking any other options, I then chose Forget This Device. It forgot it.
And that was the last time my AirPods interacted with the phone at all. I get a blinking green power like that pulses three times when I pop the case open, then nothing. They are effectively dead.
But this is not the grand flaw I speak of, it’s a roundabout introduction to the actual flaw.
I looked up when I purchased the AirPods: October 2017. They were out of warranty. I looked up repair costs on Apple’s site:
It’s possible the left bud is fine and it’s a flaw in the case itself that is to blame, in which case I’d be looking at a $69 repair cost. This is high, but not completely outrageous–AirPods cost $219 Canadian. But it would still leave me with 16-month old batteries. If I got those replaced I’d be looking at a total bill of $207. Pretty much the cost of a new set.
And here’s where the grand flaw of true wireless earbuds comes in. The beauty of AirPods and similar earbuds is that there are no wires to tangle with. Having to switch back to wired buds in the last week reminded me what an annoyance that is. The extra cost of the AirPods was worth the convenience.
That convenience comes at a price, though. Because there are no wires, the battery must be contained entirely within the ear buds themselves–and they are tiny. And like all rechargeable batteries, they will degrade over time. When the batteries are this small, the degradation can have a major impact on battery life. Rated at a maximum of five hours, people who bought AirPods in 2016 when they debuted are now reporting that they are getting anywhere from 30 to 60 minutes on a full charge now.
This is normal behavior, though you will not find anything official about this in Apple’s site. That means that when the batteries deteriorate to the point that they are no longer usable, you have two choices: pay $219 for a new set, or pay $138. Neither of these is very appealing. If you go the latter route of battery replacement and imagine they need to be replaced every two years (ie. out of warranty), you are looking at a yearly cost (not counting the original $219 investment) of $69. Is paying $69 every year to keep using your AirPods reasonable? They’re not sold as a subscription service, so I’d say no.
But if you asked someone, would you pay $5.75 per month to always get your AirPods batteries refreshed so they never die, I’d bet a surprising number would say yes. That works out to $69 per year, of course.
So I am now left wondering what to do. The repair will be expensive and will only extend the life a few years. Replacement will cost another $219. Waiting for a new model will require going without–and Apple’s trend over the last four years is to jack up the prices on any new version of anything.
For now, I’m just going to ponder, both on what to do, and about how we seem to have entered the era of ongoing costs for something (headphones, earbuds) that never had any real ongoing costs before, without even realizing it.
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:
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:
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:
Google Pixel 3
Apple Watch Series 2
Garmin Forerunner 645
MacBook Pro without touch bar
Lenovo Thinkpad X1 Carbon
Apple TV 4K
iPad Pro 10.5″
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.
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.
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.
There’s probably several hundred million reviews out there for Apple’s true wireless earbuds known as AirPods, so I’m not going to go on at length about them. But here are a few thoughts after having them for several months.
Setup on my iPhone 6 was effortless. Bluetooth devices often have trouble pairing and Apple aimed to fix this with a custom W1 chip that makes pairing with an Apple device painless. And it works.
I got my AirPods after a critical software update that expanded the actions you could take by tapping the pods, as well as allowing separate actions for left and right. For me I chose Pause and Next Track for left/right as they are the most common options I use, other than volume control (which is not an option). I skipped the “Hey Siri” integration because if I want to talk to Siri, I’ve always got my watch with me. While having controls on the AirPods themselves is nice, the reality leaves something to be desired. More on this later.
The fit is nearly identical to the existing EarPods and really, apart from the long “stem” these could easily be mistaken for the same. It’s a bit disappointing that Apple didn’t try to push forward more on the design. Luckily, the EarPods fit well in my ears, so the AirPods stay in securely, too.
This is important because one of my regular uses of the AirPods is when jogging. Because they aren’t sealed, they allow other sounds to be heard (traffic, marauding bears, my wretched gasping breath, etc.) In the times I’ve used them on runs I’ve never felt them budge and the freedom of going true wireless is great. I’ve also done workouts on elliptical trainers and treadmills with the music on my watch playing through the AirPods, no phone needed, and again it’s great to have music for workouts without any wires.
The sound quality is not great but it’s perfectly decent. I have lousy ears but to these lousy ears the sound quality seems a little better than the EarPods. They won’t replace a pair of good quality headphones but for their size they do a good job of pumping out music without noticeable distortion, even if the overall presentation is slightly flat.
The battery life is perfectly fine for my usage. Apple promises five hours and I generally don’t use the AirPods for more than an hour at a time before they go back into their handy and compact charging case. The case is small enough to easily carry in a pocket and does a good job of boosting the battery life by proxy. It’s rare that I put the AirPods on with them charged below 100%. Being able to see the charge by flipping open the case near my iPhone is nice, too (it pops up an animated card similar to the one you see when pairing the AirPods).
I’ve worn them a few times when the weather has been a bit misty and while others report no issue wearing them in the rain, I’m hesitant to do so, simply because they cost $200+ rather than the $35 of the EarPods. I’ll probably get braver as they get older because going wireless is so much better when running.
On the downside, the controls are fussy. You double-tap to invoke an action and I find, especially when jogging, that the AirPods happily ignore the taps. I can be rapping on them like an insane woodpecker and they do nothing in response. I discovered you can tap the back of your ears to activate the controls, but sadly, this is also somewhat inconsistent. The inconsistency means that if I want to skip a track I usually just hold up my watch and tell Siri to skip to the next song. The lack of volume control is also a major omission. While I can use the watch for this, it’s not as easy to do while running as an actual physical control on the earbuds would be.
They have dropped connection a couple of times, but only briefly. Otherwise the connectivity has been very solid, something I really never expect with a Bluetooth device. It’s been a pleasant surprise here.
Recent rumors suggest Apple is developing new AirPods that can work with hands-free Siri (no interest) or offer actual water resistance (very interested). The latter is rumored for 2019, though, to which I say boo.
Overall, I’m surprised at how much I like the AirPods. I have come to terms with the weird look of them, which is mitigated partly by their increasing proliferation, but wouldn’t object to a tweak to the stems to make them shorter or…something.
On a scale of 1 to 10 Steve Jobs Cooing Over the iPhone 4 On Stage, I rate the AirPods 8 Steve Jobs Cooing. There is room for improvement here but they are a very solid version 1.0 product.
+ Things I Like:
– good fit (for my ears, anyway)
– comfortable (for the lengths of time I wear them)
– perfectly decent sound quality
– quick, painless Bluetooth pairing
– almost never lose connectivity
– very good battery life for true wireless earbuds
– charging case is compact and insures the AirPods always have some charge in them (assuming you periodically top up the charging case itself)
– automatically stops playing music when you remove one from your ear
– Things I Don’t Like:
– controls are flaky and unreliable
– no volume control
– you can get them in white, white or white
– they still look kind of funny
– no water resistance limits their use for outdoor activities (unless you’re willing to risk it)
– reasonably priced for the product category but expensive in Canadian dollars (currently $219)
In the interest of keeping to a complaint-free lifestyle, I’ll emphasize again for Bad Design I am doing a couple of things:
pointing out the bad design as a way to highlight how something should not be done, even if it seems logical or a popular way to go, in the hope that it encourages others not to repeat what I feel are mistakes in design
offering a solution or alternative design that addresses the flaws
And I only pick a lot on Apple because I own and use a lot of Apple products (which I will address in another post) and because as the world’s largest, richest company, they have the power to influence a lot of others (see Samsung and its weird and lawsuit-attracting tendency to follow Apple’s designs very closely).
And with that, I present:
The iMessage fireball
For those unfamiliar with Apple’s message app, it works like most text messaging apps and allows people to send and receive messages across Apple devices, including the iPhone, iPad, Watch and Mac. If you send a message to a non-Apple device, it shows in a green bubble as a regular text message. If you send a message to an Apple device, the bubble turns blue and it becomes an iMessage, sent through Apple’s servers.
With iOS 10 Apple revamped the Message app, expanding what you can send.
When you are in the Message app, tapping on the App Store icon presents a small black window that you can doodle and do other things in (it defaults to this, though tapping the icons to the left or right of the heart will allow you to use stickers from other apps, search for images and more):
By tapping on the horizontal gray line above the window it expands to give you more room and also exposes a small information icon in the lower-right corner that, if tapped, presents an explanation for the various actions you can perform:
The Heartbeat option only works if you are wearing an Apple Watch, as it includes a heart rate monitor.
The first option is Sketch and it seems pretty straightforward. Draw with one finger.
The next option is Tap. What is a tap? There is no explanation.
The fourth option, Kiss, puts a pair of lips in the window.
Let’s go back to the third option, Fireball. This puts an orange fireball-like blob in the window and as long as you keep pressing you can move it around. As soon as you release, the Fireball message sends.
Bad design #1:
Some actions send the message instantly, others require you to tap a send button to send it. This is inconsistent and can result in messages being sent prematurely.
Bad design #2:
There is no explanation for what a Tap is. The others are straightforward, but what is a Tap? It’s a ring that dissolves. If you do a bunch of taps in succession you can send multiple rings–er, taps–but if you pause too long the message auto-sends. I am unsure as to why anyone would ever want to send a Tap.
Bad design #3:
The Fireball and how it is invoked. Like the Tap, I’m not sure why you would send someone a Fireball. It looks more like a glowing orange ball than an actual fireball and it also auto-sends. The worst part, though, is that to invoke it you press your finger on the screen. You might think this is the same thing you do to make a Sketch, but there is a subtle difference. The difference is so subtle that you may find yourself sending off fireballs when you meant to start a sketch, and you may receive fireballs for the the same reason. In fact, since iOS 10 launched I have only sent two fireballs deliberately. The first was to see what it looked like, the second as a joke. Pressing the screen is a very basic gesture and it shouldn’t be tied to a fairly obscure action that few people would seemingly ever use.
Bad design #1: Require tapping the Send button for all actions before the message is sent. Give options to edit or cancel the message.
Bad design #2: Rename Tap to Rings. Change text to “Tap with one finger to place one or more rings.”
Alternate solution: Remove this option altogether if it is seldom-used.
Bad design #3: Change the action required to invoke the Fireball to something that is not likely to be used accidentally, like tapping with three fingers.
Alternate solution: Remove this option altogether.
My personal feeling is the Tap and Fireball options could be removed. I have no evidence to back this up, but based on anecdotes and my own experience, neither is used much at all and the Fireball is almost exclusively used unintentionally.
Today is the 10th anniversary of the MacBook Air, so it is perhaps appropriate to take stock of Apple’s product line as we look back at the debut of the laptop that ushered in many of the design choices (thin, light, etc.) Apple still follows today.
In recent times Apple has faced criticism from a couple of fronts: neglecting certain devices, abandoning standard ports, raising prices to new extremes, introducing “gimmicky” tech and so on. Are the criticisms fair? In some cases yes, in others it’s more complicated.
Here’s a breakdown of where every Apple product is at.
Disclaimer: I am not an industry insider, Apple evangelist, tech guru or even a love guru. I’m just someone who has long been fascinated by Apple and its products, decisions and impact on the world of consumer technology.
I’ve gone from owning a single Apple device–an iPod Classic–to the following (I’m excluding obsolete devices like my iPod nano, may it rest in peace):
Phone 8 (just acquired)
iPad Pro 10.5″
MacBook Pro without Touch Bar (2016 model)
Apple Watch Series 2
Apple TV 4K
Basically I own nearly everything Apple currently sells. I don’t have a Mac Pro, but I do have a 2011 iMac 27″ from work I use for PD.
On to the products:
As expected, Apple killed off the iPod nano and Shuffle last year, leaving the iPod Touch as the only iPod (which got its last significant hardware update in July 2015). I will boldly predict the Touch will get the axe in the next year or so, finally ending the iPod line.
The bulk of Apple’s revenue continues to come from the iPhone, now over a decade old. I remember when we had fuzzy 3.5″ screens–and we liked it!
Last year Apple made the controversial move to eliminate the headphone jack from the iPhone 7, even as the rest of the phone was just an iterative design on the previous 6s, which was an iterative design on the 6. Some phone manufacturers have followed suit with the jack removal, notably Google with the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL. It remains to be seen if the rest of the industry follows through. My prediction is the headphone jack will be a scarce thing on most smartphones within two years.
Meanwhile, Apple released three new phones last September. The iPhone 8 and 8 Plus are again iterative designs, with some tweaks, like glass backs to allow for wireless charging, along with the usual processor and camera improvements. More attention was given to the iPhone X, a near bezel-free design that forsakes the home button and Touch ID for Face ID, introduces an OLED display and, of course, adds animated poop in text messages. The most controversial part was probably the price–$1,000 (over $1300 in Canada with exchange rate).
Scuttlebutt suggests the X sold very well in the first month, with sales falling off notably after, mirroring what happened with the original iPhone in 2007. Back then Apple responded with a price cut. Would they do it again? There’s certainly enough of a gap between the 8 and X to allow for one. Apple hasn’t been cutting prices much lately, though.
Also, the iPhone line-up is a bit bonkers right now. Apple is selling:
iPhone 6s and 6s Plus
iPhone 7 and 7 Plus
iPhone 8 and 8 Plus
No iPhone SEX yet, though.
That’s still eight models to choose from. I expect the 6s and 7 to be culled when the next phones come out in September. There are rumors the SE will be updated, which seems entirely plausible.
I think Apple will forge ahead with its iPhone plans regardless of sales for the next year or two. Price cuts are possible, but I think they’ll only happen if sales begin to fall off significantly.
Last year Apple made the difference between the regular and pro versions of the iPad more distinct, by introducing an iPad (called…iPad) that was in some ways better than the iPad Air 2 (faster processor) but in some ways worse (the screen, size and weight are closer to the original Air). The big change, though, was the price. Instead of the usual $499, it now sells for $329. Apple refreshed the iPad Pro 12.9″ and ditched the 9.7″ Pro, replacing it with a 10.5″ model that is only slightly bigger, thanks to slimmer bezels. The Pro iPads can in some cases equal the performance of decent laptops. The refreshed 2017 line-up saw the first increase in revenue and sales in years, though the difference between revenue and sales gains suggests more people were buying the $329 model.
The overall line-up has been simplified, too, down to four:
iPad mini 4
iPad Pro 10.5″
iPad Pro 12.9″
For the first time, each iPad offers a different size.
I don’t anticipate any dramatic developments for iPads this year, though Apple will continue to push the Pro models as replacements for laptops. I’d say there’s a 50/50 chance the mini will get killed, It hasn’t been updated since 2015.
Apple introduced a 4K version of the Apple TV last year, alongside the current model. It costs a little more and is the priciest Apple TV to date. Unless you’re deep into the Apple ecosystem and have a lot of media purchased through iTunes, there remains little reason to pay the premium when other streaming devices can do what the Apple TV can at much lower prices.
The app store is somnolent. Not dead, exactly, but not particularly alive, either, but it is Apple TV’s biggest differentiating factor compared to other streaming boxes.
The watch went from an ill-conceived fashion accessory to a fitness-focused device and in the process has claimed most of the smartwatch market, setting companies like Fitbit back on its heels. Last year Apple introduced the Series 3, which includes LTE, making the watch more independent of the iPhone. Overall, the Apple Watch has found its niche and is doing well after a slow start.
I don’t expect any big changes this year, but a redesign is a small possibility. Additional sensors may be added, but I’d expect those to come in 2019 or later.
Originally scheduled for December 2017, it’s been bumped to early this year. Many are already declaring it a failure in the making, overpriced ($349) compared to the competition and saddled with inferior voice recognition (Siri vs. Amazon’s Alex or Google’s Assistant). I tend to favor this view. I think the demand for a premium speaker with voice activation is even more niche than something like the watch. It’s kind of like Apple TV–you’ll pay more but if you’re deeply invested in Apple products, the high price might be worth it.
I’m hedging on a prediction here, but leaning toward flop, with a retooling within the year or quiet exit from the market. Then Apple will buy Amazon. :P
And the Macs:
First, my one BOLD Mac prediction: Laptop Macs will support touch no later than 2021.
Nothing has changed since my last overview in August 2016. These aging machines are still selling at the same prices as they did when they were actually new, an embarrassing low light in a line-up that has mostly seen updates over the past year. Apple’s made vague comments indicating support, but nothing more.
I’d say there’s a 50/50 chance the Mac mini will be killed off in the next year. If not, I’d wager on a radical redesign (even smaller and completely sealed).
Last year Apple admitted the “trashcan” Mac Pro was a mistake–a cool-looking design that was self-defeating because it couldn’t properly dissipate heat. So not so cool after all. They have promised a new modular Mac Pro, but so far no specs or release dates have been forthcoming. The current Pro has seen price reductions but it still isn’t exactly cheap.
Apple made a few improvements to the iMac line last year, updating processors, displays and including new options in some standard configurations, such as a dedicated graphics option for the 21″ model and fusion drives as standard for the entire 27″ line. The core design remains unchanged and was last updated in 2012.
I’m not expecting any big changes this year, but I am reasonably confident that sometime before the end of 2019 the iMac will get a full redesign–and be even less user-accessible as a result.
Who wants a $5000 all-in-one? Apple thinks professionals will, so they’ve stuffed professional-grade components into the standard iMac case. It’s only been out for a month, but one retailer has already offered a $1,000 discount, which seems a bit ominous for a new product. Also, unlike other iMacs, users can’t upgrade the ram themselves, it now has to be done by a dealer.
This seems very much like a stop-gap until the revised Mac Pro debuts. I predict the iMac Pro will never see any updates and will be killed off sometime after the new Mac Pro debuts (in Apple time this could still be years).
MacBook Pro (non-Retina)
This was finally killed off, long after it had become outdated. This was the last Apple laptop to ship with an optical drive.
(Old) MacBook Pro (Retina display)
Only the 15″ model survives, the last Pro with a non-butterfly keyboard. I expect it to be axed from the line-up within the year, joining its 13.3″ brethren in the Mac graveyard.
Still the only Mac available in four colors. Get your Rose Gold fix on here. Not much has changed with the MacBook, though it got an improved version of the butterfly keyboard. A processor update and optimizations added another hour of battery life.
I don’t expect any changes in design, though processor updates seem to be happening on a yearly basis, provided there is an appropriate CPU available. This will be the eventual MacBook Air successor (see below).
MacBook Pro (2016/2017)
In October 2016 Apple introduced an all-new design for the 13.3 and 15″ MacBook Pro. The changes:
dropped all legacy ports in favor of USB-C
added an OLED Touch Bar to replace the function keys on all but the base 13.3″ model
changed the keyboard, using an updated version of the butterfly mechanism featured in the MacBook, with firmer keys and very little travel
the usual display and processor updates
thinner and lighter
touch pads the size of the landing deck of an aircraft carrier. In the case of the 15″ model, two aircraft carriers.
Both models were refreshed less than a year later with newer processors, but no other notable changes.
The revamped models have been controversial. The Touch Bar has its advocates, but seems underwhelming 15 months after its introduction. The new keyboard mostly inspires love or hate (I find it strangely unsatisfying to type on–not bad, just kind of joyless).
Apple is unlikely to retreat from any of the design choices made (USB-C, for example, is now on nearly all notable PC laptops, albeit often with a legacy port or two still included), though dissatisfaction with the revised keyboard, as well as production problems plaguing both the 2016 and 2017 models may lead Apple to further revise the butterfly mechanism.
The Touch Bar may live on, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it gets quietly dropped in a few years.
Today, the MacBook Air is 10 years old and it’s been almost that long since its last update, ho ho. It did get a minor speed bump last year (some believe this only happened because the slower CPU Apple was using was no longer available), but has seen no significant updates since 2012. Most assume it lives on in the line-up as the “affordable” MacBook.
It will likely linger on until Apple is willing to drop the price of the MacBook. The difference is currently $999 vs. $1299. It seems unlikely Apple will reduce the gap soon. Maybe by the end of 2019? There’s also the possibility Apple will just kill off the Air and force people to move to the $1299 MacBook (or $1299 base MacBook Pro).
There are no strong rumors regarding other new Apple products, though they continue to work on Augmented Reality and the retooled car project (shrunk down from an entire Apple car to merely making other cars more Apple-ish).
Summary Apple updated a lot of their devices through 2016 and 2017, to the relief of the faithful, but many of the updates came with controversy and some products still linger around as reminders of the bad old days (hello Mac mini).
Apple’s next quarterly call is coming in a few weeks and while they should report record revenue and profits, it seems likely it will come in the shadow of slowing iPhone X sales. Apple has raised the prices of almost all of its devices–the iPad Pros cost more, the phones cost more, the new MacBooks cost more, the iMac Pro requires you to sell body organs–leaving me to wonder how sustainable it all is, especially when there are indicators that people will scoop up more affordable Apple offerings (the new iPad) while largely staying away from ones that offer poor value vs. the competition (Apple TV).
My hunch is that Apple is poised for a downturn. Nothing like the near-bankruptcy that preceded Steve Jobs’ return in 1997, but something significant enough to prompt the company to react. How it will do so–or if such a downturn even happens–remains to be seen.
Apple’s AirPods work like some other true wireless Bluetooth earbuds in that you operate the controls by tapping on the earbuds directly. iOS 11 allows for different controls for the left and right bud, though the controls themselves are limited to only:
You don’t necessarily have to tap right on your AirPod to use the double tap gestures. Many people prefer to tap softly on the back of an ear instead. It’s a little less audibly jarring and it works just as well.
I verified this on my run today and it is entirely weird to control music by bapping on your ear. It was a tad inconsistent, which no doubt made for a strange sight to others on the trail (“Why does that man keep hitting his ear?”) but the same can be said for the controls in general, they just seem a lot harder to execute when jogging.
Still, the novelty of hitting my ear to skip to the next track may never grow old. Or at least not until I remember I can just tell Siri to do it instead.
The iPad Pro is still a bit if a mystery in how it will play out but I think its high price will keep it from breaking out and becoming a huge seller. And people considering a Surface Pro are probably still more likely to get a Surface Pro, if only to overcome the limits of iOS that the iPad Pro still has to contend with (some would argue–as I would–that Windows 10 is a better operating system for productivity than iOS 9).
Rumors are circulating that Apple will reveal its next revision of the Apple Watch at a March 2016 event–about three months away as I write this– and the event may also reveal the follow-up to the iPad Air 2. If this turns out to be accurate, it will be interesting to see what the next iPad will look like and if the delay in updating it is due to product drift and uncertainty or because Apple is poised to bring some truly new features to the iPad.
Having an iPad Air myself, I admit I wouldn’t mind the lighter Air 2 but given the differences between the two models, I can’t justify the expense of upgrading. I’m curious to see if Apple can talk me into parting with my money in 2016.
Addressing each paragraph some 15 months later:
analysts have suggested that the iPad Pro models comprise about 7% of total iPad sales, so my thought here seems to have panned out
there was no follow-up to the iPad Air 2. Instead, Apple introduced the 9.7″ iPad Pro. With a few extra features, it had a much higher selling price than the Air 2–$599 U.S. vs. $399 for the iPad Air 2. The Pro retained everything from the 12.9″ version save for coming with a slightly slower version of the A9x processor and less ram. It did improve on the 12.9″ in terms of color support and a higher-resolution camera.
I did get an iPad in 2016, but it was the iPad mini 4, to replace my now-dead (and officially discontinued) mini 2.
Did the iPad Air 2 replacement finally come out in March 2017? Yes…sort of.
The new iPad (yes, it’s just called iPad, the whole Air line is dead now) improves on the iPad Air 2 in two ways: it has a brighter display and a faster A9 processor. It is the same as the iPad Air 2 in most other ways, save for these:
it is thicker and heavier, matching the specs of the iPad Air
it does not have the Air 2’s laminated, non-reflective display
it costs $329 U.S. vs. the (now discontinued) Air 2’s price of $399
As the price of the entry-level iPad Pro 9.7″ model remains unchanged at $599, there is a now-even-larger gap in price between the two of $270.
This is not the first time Apple has introduced a product that combined old and new tech at a lower price, as they used the same tactic when they brought out the iPhone SE last year. I think they’re trying to do the same thing now, creating a good entry-level tablet that can compete with a lot of the cheaper (but not insanely cheap) Android tablets, and also act as an enticement for people with iPads dating back to the first through third generations (2010-2012) to finally upgrade.
The lower price also makes the Pro models “look” more pro. This seems to be Apple’s strategy going forward. Where once there was one iPad for all and you just chose between wifi/cellular and storage sizes, you now choose between those things as well as weighing the additional features of the Pro line–the smart connector, Pencil support, better sound and so on.
In other words, Apple has eliminated the standard iPad in favor of a low-end and high-end line, similar to how they bifurcated their laptops into MacBook and MacBook Pro, and their phones into the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus (currently).
The question is, while the strategy has worked for the laptops and phones, can it work for tablets? Remember that figure I quoted above where only about 7% of all iPad sales are for the Pro models? I don’t think that’s going to change much without price drops. Those may come in time (Apple did reduce the pricing on the 128 and 256 GB versions of the Pro) but until that happens, if it happens at all, Apple seems to be pinning hopes of reviving the iPad’s sales by switching to a model of high volume and (relatively) low pricing, an unusual strategy for the company to make with one of its flagship products.
I suspect this isn’t going to work all that well. The lower-priced iPad will definitely pique interest with some but it’s fundamentally the same thing Apple has been making for seven years, just a bit cheaper now, and the iPad Pro models remain incredibly expensive in comparison, doomed to remain niche products, especially since the extra features they offer are poorly utilized by iOS (perhaps that will change with iOS 11, but I wouldn’t count on it).
If Apple went a bit further with the pricing–say, dropping the iPad to $299, that might help goose sales, as would dropping the 9.7″ Pro down to the original iPad price of $499. In the end, it’s not just the price that holds people back from buying, though, it’s what the product offers, and for many, the iPad simply doesn’t offer enough compared to a larger phone or smaller laptop. And Apple, which has tied iOS to both the iPhone and iPad, has done little to allow the iPad to stand apart as a unique device.
A rumor suggests a 10.5″ (or so) iPad is due out this year that will sport a nearly bevel-free design and a virtualized home button. While these features are intriguing, they don’t suggest the fundamental experience of using the device would be any different (and as a likely replacement for the 9.7″ Pro model it will probably be even more expensive). Again, Apple seems content to fiddle with the hardware and to an extent, the pricing, while ignoring the software side.
If they want people to buy more iPad Pros, they have to reduce the price. It’s that simple.
If they want the iPad as a whole to bounce back in sales and thrive (as much as any tablet can nowadays), they need to do more–a lot more–on the software side.
The new iPad will snare some people hanging onto old iPads, but it’s not going to turn around the overall decline of the line. Perhaps such a task is impossible, but Apple’s multi-faceted approach to solving the problem is missing at least one essential facet.