The new Mac Pro wheels

The internet is aflutter over the announced price for adding wheels to the new Mac Pro. They cost $400 ($480 Canadian). The jokes, of course, write themselves.

Could these $400 wheels on a $6,000 computer turn out to be a surprisingly reasonable value?

No, of course not. They’re wheels. I’m pretty sure the fourth wheel will start wobbling in a few years just the same as any cart-like wheels would.

The only weird part is these ludicrous transportation units or whatever Jony Ive might call them (if he still worked at Apple) stand out against some actual reasonable things Apple has done recently, like upgrading the 15 inch MacBook Pro to a 16 inch model without raising the price (though it ain’t exactly cheap to start with), and actually dropping the price of this year’s equivalent to the iPhone XR while improving the specs.

The price doesn’t actually bother me as the Mac Pro is very much in the “maybe if I win the lottery” category and it probably still sucks for gaming. But given Apple’s track record with Macs (inconsistent at best, a disaster of neglect and quality control issues at worst), if I were one of those so-called pros who wants a pro-level machine, I’d be casting back to 2013 when Apple released the last Mac Pro.

It didn’t receive any updates in 2014.

Or 2015.

Or 2016.

Or 2017.

Or 2018 or 2019. It was, in fact, never updated. Apple essentially killed it the day it was released, they just never formally announced its death until four years later, then they continued to sell it for two more years before finally re-inventing a basic, modular PC that optionally comes with $400 wheels.

What I’m saying is if you want to get a new Mac Pro, keep in mind that what you unbox may be the exact same thing you might unbox in six years. And it will be the same price, too.

So will the wheels.

Bad Design: Apple’s iOS Photos app

The Photos app Apple has is roughly the same on all of its devices, if you are on the latest version of the device’s OOS–in this case I refer to iOS 13.x, iPad OS 13.x and macOS 10.15x (Catalina), but for this post I am specifically referring to the iPhone version.

Generally for looking over your photos, sharing them with friends, cursed social media or other apps, the Photos app works well enough. iOS 13 even adds a surprisingly robust set of editing tools, so the typical user will never need to use another app to apply hideous, Instagram-style filters. Smiles all around, as they say.

But let’s say you want to do something like duplicate the photo, because you want to keep two copies–the original, and the version you have applied hideous Instagram-style filters to. Let’s take this image of me holding a bottle of delicious Clubhouse La Grille Signature Steakhouse marinade. This marinade is so good I want to, I don’t know, add stars to the image or something. So I tap on the square with the arrow pointing up. This opens the share sheet, which gives you options for sharing the photo (and lots of other stuff).

And here you can see some share options (I have obscured two AirDrop contacts in keeping with Apple’s much-ballyhooed privacy). This is mostly a list of other apps. Where’s the ability to copy, duplicate or do other things? They are not here. I am very sad.

But wait, those options are actually here. Do you see the sliver of white at the bottom of the screenshot, with the rounded corners? That’s the rest of the interface, almost completely obscured from view. In fact, if you wiggle the page slightly you can make that small visible portion completely vanish, while still showing everything above it. This is bad design.

If I swipe down I get so many additional options I have to swipe again to see all of them. This is what the first swipe gets me on an iPhone 8:

This is a perfectly clear, usable list of options. Apple has listed everything in plain text with a little icon for easy visual scanning. This is all really nice–if you actually scroll down and find it.

Obscure UI is something that has been discussed a lot with the touch interfaces used on phones and tablets. Without the “traditional” scrollbars, arrows and so on, a lot of the options you may have at your disposal are effectively hidden like treasure, waiting to be uncovered by swiping or long-pressing or tapping x number of fingers on the screen, or something else entirely. Some suggest that Apple’s own 3D Touch (or Force Touch) was removed on the 2019 phones (replaced by “Haptic Touch”, which is just a long press with a bit of vibration attached to it) because no one knew it existed. Most discovered it by accident–by pressing harder than needed for a long press and invoking the 3D Touch pop-up.

3D Touch is pretty handy once you know to look for it, but even then it’s not a system-wide feature. Apps don’t have to support it, and since Apple always sold phones that didn’t include it, a lot of app developers ignored it. And now it’s gone, with a lot of people never knowing it existed.

But back to the Photos app–burying a long list of options at the bottom of a page is not a bad thing in itself. Where Apple fumbles here is not giving the user any concrete visual clue that the options are even there. A few obvious fixes come to mind:

  • Add a “More options…” button to the initial photo screen. Currently there are three choices: Share sheet, Favorite and Trash. They could squeeze in another icon here.
  • Another choice would be to add it after tapping the Share sheet icon. And look! Do you see at the top where it clearly says Options already? You might think that’s where you would find all of these extra options. But instead it’s where you find exactly two options concerning sending the photo as “automatic”/an individual photo/iCloud link and whether to include location/all photo data. The additional options could simply be added here. But this has two problems of its own: it adds an extra tap to get to the options, and it doesn’t necessarily address the original issue, which is the options not being clearly visible.
  • A third choice, then, is to make the additional options more obvious. One way would be to turf the AirDrop contacts, since there’s already an AirDrop button and I suspect people are not AirDropping photos all over the place, anyway (I could be wrong). This would leave enough room for the list of other options to be more visible.
  • A fourth choice would be to provide a visual indicator that there are more options available if you swipe up. This could be done several ways:
    • Adding a scroll bar. This will never ever happen.
    • Adding a floating arrow pointing down to indicate you can swipe to see more. This has the advantage of being something that could be used universally, much like scrollbars.
    • Some other visual indicator that I haven’t thought of. Let’s face it, I’m not a UX/UI designer, I just know bad design when I see it.

I have no expectations that Apple will move away from the “obscure gesture” interface. One need only look at iPad OS to see how, if anything, they have embraced it even more. There are now large swathes of the iPad interface that most people don’t know about–and never will. This is in part due to obscurity, but also in part due to questionable interface choices. But that’s a whole other post. Soon™.

Mac mouse mayhem: More and then no more (for the moment)

I don’t actually have a Magic Mouse 2, I just love pictures of them being charged. Image is courtesy of geek.com.

A small but persistent annoyance in writing on my Mac mini is the way the mouse cursor behaves. Or in this case, misbehaves.

I noticed it when I connected my Logitech Marathon 705 via USB wireless receiver. Mouse movement would seem okay, but on closer inspection there is always some glitches in the form of the cursor jumping ahead or stuttering. I installed the Logitech drivers and found no change.

I then switched to a Logitech M720, which connects via the same receiver. The erratic mouse movement was even worse. I tried using both mice directly on my desktop, no mousepad. No improvement. I tried various things like software updates, restarting in safe mode and so on and again, no change. Jiggly mouse syndrome persisted. I did not want jiggly mice.

Searching for troubleshooting tips largely produced results that were obvious and unhelpful (“check to see if there is gunk in your mouse”) or obscure enough to make me wonder if Macs are just really bad with third party mice.

Since both tested mice are wireless and using the same receiver, I decided to try a different approach. I unplugged the receiver and plugged in my old wired Steelseries Rival 300 mouse. When I used this mouse with Windows, I quite liked it and only replaced it when I went wireless (with the Logitech G700, which I adore, save for somewhat short battery life). After plugging in the Rival 300 I waited a few moments, then moved the mouse. It moved exactly as intended. No jumps, no jiggles, no erratic behavior. It was super slow, as is always the case with the default mouse settings on a Mac (why this is so is a question left for the ages). I bumped up the tracking speed and voila, it is working just fine.

So now I wonder, is it the wireless receiver? Is it a Logitech thing? Would this happen with a Bluetooth mouse? I am okay with using the Rival 300 as a stopgap but given the Mac mini and PC share the same desk, I really prefer wireless for both. I’ll probably try digging out my old Microsoft Bluetooth mouse and see how it fares, as soon as I remember where it is. In the meantime, I accept a tail on a mouse to end the mouse mayhem on my Mac.

Also, to paraphrase Phil Schiller, as others have done a billion times or so already, “It just works, my butt.”

Apple September 2019 event: My middling warm take

Here’s my middling warm take on the Apple keynote today, in handy list form:

  • Little in the way of surprises, though there were a few small ones (see below)–this is pretty standard now for Apple events, where all major details leak months in advance
  • iPhone Pro is a dumb name. Apple is good at coming up with dumb names. Is iPhone 11 Pro Max better than iPhone XS Max? Kind of a draw.
  • People will at least stop calling the LCD model the “ex-ar” now that it’s just iPhone 11
  • I’m going to be talking about price for 6 of the next 8 bullet points
  • The price went down for the iPhone 11 from $749 to $699–a good sign that Apple is counting on this phone to shore up flagging sales and is willing to cut the price (and margin) to entice more to buy it
  • Pricing on the “Pro” phones remains ludicrous, even excluding Canadian pricing ($1379 and $1519 if you were curious)
  • The “affordable” iPhone 11 starts at $699 U.S. or $979 (!) Canadian. I did an exchange rate comparison and $699 U.S. works out to about $920 Canadian. Hmm, I say. Hmm.
  • Unless you want the improved cameras and are sticking to iPhones, I can’t think of a compelling reason to buy any of the new phones, unless you have something old, in which case the iPhone 11 makes sense (or get the still-being sold Xr for even less)
  • Prices stayed the same for the U.S. but some products went up in other countries (like Canada). I guess we’re paying for the tariffs (lol)? Example:
    • Series 4 Apple Watch 44mm with GPS + Cellular: $649
    • Series 5 Apple Watch 44mm with GPS + Cellular: $699
  • I want a Series 5 Watch, but I don’t want it for $699. Or even $569 (GPS only). So I’ll stick with my Series 2 (Apple will give me $60 for trade-in if I change my mind).
  • Always On Display for the Series 5 Watch was an actual surprise. It’s nice, but I suspect it won’t push many people into buying who didn’t already have other reasons.
  • Arcade and Apple TV+ pricing are decent and about what I expected
  • Apple giving away a year of Apple TV+ with new Apple devices seems to be both a good idea (it creates a huge, instant audience) and also a sign that they may not have faith in the service to survive on its own
  • iPad: Nice, but kind of meh. Looks like Apple is trying to squeeze maximum value out of the original generation Pencil and smart keyboard cover that debuted with the 10.5″ Pro in 2017. Recycling is good for the environment, why not for peripherals, too?
  • Watching game demos is never not painful for me
  • If you removed all of the adjectives from the presenters, the keynote would have been 30 minutes shorter

Kind of boring overall, which makes the “By innovation only” tagline look even more silly.

Lousy keyboards of yore

UPDATE, November 13, 2019: Apple today announced the long-rumored 16 inch MacBook Pro. It’s a direct replacement for the 15 inch model (it’s still the same price, even), but the most interesting part is the keyboard. This is the first Apple laptop since 2016 to not use the butterfly switch mechanism. And it’s probably just the first of what will eventually encompass the entire MacBook line: the 13 inch Pros, the Air and, well, not the MacBook. Because they did kill it, after four years (of which it received refreshes for only the first two).

Here’s how Apple describes the new keyboard. Yes, it’s Magic, which might be Apple’s word for “reliable.”

The 16-inch MacBook Pro takes workflow efficiency to a new level. The new Magic Keyboard features a refined scissor mechanism with 1 mm travel for a responsive, comfortable and quiet typing experience.

Original post:

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.

Apple’s kooky new iPad vision starts to take shape

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?

Yep, $499.

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.

MacBook Pro 2016 revisited

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 Great:

  • 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.

The Good:

  • Speedy SSD.
  • 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.

The Meh:

  • 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.

The Bad:

  • 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.

The grand flaw of true wireless earbuds

UPDATE, October 12, 2019: I still haven’t replaced the AirPods and have been using the EarPods that were a pack-in with my iPhone 8 instead. In a sense the EarPods are more convenient, as the controls are on a cable that is easy to reach while running, and the cable mostly stays out of the way. It’s also fantastically cheaper and about the same in terms of audio quality.

Here’s a good article from The Washington Post on how it is impossible to replace AirPod batteries and why they are bad for the environment: Why AirPods can’t be fixed

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, which 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 of AirPods, or pay $138 to replace both buds. Neither of these is very appealing. If you go the latter route of bud/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.

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.

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.