This is interesting news for the motion graphics community that I missed over the holidays. Red Giant makes the universe of After Effects plugins that are pretty much essential, such as Particular and Form, along with the random and niche, like Psunami. Maxon, of course, is the company behind the very popular 3D program Cinema4D. Perhaps most interesting is this isn’t an acquisition, like how Maxon acquired Redshift earlier this year, but a merge. I wonder what this will all mean in the near future, if anything.
After six years since the last revision, two years since Apple admitted they whiffed on said revision, and six months since they unveiled it at WWDC, Apple’s new “Wrath of the Cheesegrater” Mac Pro is available for order. You can spec it out to an eye-watering $50K, although I imagine most setups will be south of $10K. Since RAM and extra SSD space (via PCIe cards) can be purchased from third-parties, the gulf between the price Apple offers and speccing a machine yourself is vast.
As is, the higher-entry level price—it went from $3000 base price to $6000—makes it pretty hard to justify buying for me. But I’m hopeful that the Mac Pro gets back to a regular update schedule and marks a return to Apple fighting for the high-end business. It’s a beautiful machine, and I hope—unlike like its diminutive predecessor—it’s not a one-off.
Bloomberg has a piece out today that suggests the iPad version of Adobe Photoshop is coming soon, and profoundly disappointing in its featureset:
Adobe has been testing Photoshop for iPad under the codename Rocket with a small group of beta testers since earlier this year. Participants have told Bloomberg News that some beta versions don’t include well-established features they expected to be part of the release. They complained about less advanced or missing features around core functionality like filters, the pen tool and custom paintbrush libraries, vector drawing, color spaces, RAW editing, smart objects, layer styles and certain options for mask creation. Their disappointment about these limitations stems from Photoshop’s established reputation as a leading professional photo-editing program on the desktop.
To be fair to Adobe, Photoshop is an ancient program that is the bedrock of a huge chunk of all media production on the planet. You can’t easily replicate that featureset in a 1.0 release on a platform with a different user interface paradigm.
But Adobe is also nearly a decade late to the party here. After the success of the iPhone and the instant success of the iPad, it should have been obvious which way the wind is blowing in computing, and Adobe was still trying to keep a dead platform limping along rather than embrace the future. Since Adobe hasn’t stepped up, smaller developers have made very nice programs that are great in part because they are designed for the iPad first.
I’m starting to wonder if Adobe is paving the path for its future ruin by its relative inaction. The switch to a subscriber revenue model and the power of the interconnected Creative Cloud synergy between applications is not to be trifled with, but while some parts of Adobe CC have no real peers, that’s not the case with Photoshop. A lot of work will continue to be done on the “real” computers of yesteryear, but if Adobe can’t demonstrate that it can produce a first-class tablet experience, it’s basically ceding the market and the mindshare of an emerging generation.
The use of Google Trends to document interest in topics is well-understand, but using Wikipedia for the same purpose is less common. To be fair, Google Trends exposes far more details about search terms—where people were looking, and what other searches were paired—but Wikipedia offers an interesting extra detail given that it’s very often the end-result of those Google searches. The result is that it can often tell you more granular insights than Trends can provide. Let’s look at some examples:
League of Legends is the most popular multiplayer online battle arena (or MOBA) video game out there, followed by Dota 2, the official sequel to the grandaddy of all MOBAs. The Google Trends graphs gives you an indication of both game’s ebbs and flow:
But Wikipedia via the Pageviews analysis tool surfaces some more interesting details:
The peaks in August of each year show spikes in traffic to Dota 2, which correspond with their yearly International tournament—still the biggest prize pool in eSports. What isn’t clear from Google’s graphs is there are similar constituent spikes for League as well for its own yearly tournaments in October and November, but it’s dwarfed by Dota‘s spikes—during those months, Dota is more popular—sometimes much more so—than League, despite being less popular overall the rest of the year.
While just like Google Trends, you’re not necessarily mapping popularity per se but discovery and surfacing of key words, in some ways I find Wikipedia’s trends more useful because Google tells you inputs—what people are searching for. Wikipedia has the advantage of telling you what people landed on, at least on the site (which is a limited view, but given that Wikipedia is the fifth most popular site on the planet, isn’t nothing either.)
It may be hard to remember, but before the iPhone and the modern era of Apple1 Apple made computers not of highly recyclable BFR-, PVC-, and beryllium-free, low-carbon aluminum and glass, but of that boogeyman of our more environmentally-conscious world, acrylic plastic. It was with acrylic that Jony Ive first made his mark at Apple, and it was acrylic that ultimately saved the company entirely.
The first hints of what was to come were found in small touches across Apple’s product line in the late 90s. The Power Macintosh 8600/9600 and successor Power Macintosh G3 all had small translucent plastic touches; more heavy usage was found on the eMate and LCD display. Perhaps most infamously, there was the G3 All-in-one or “Molar Mac”, which in many ways feels like the Postosuchus to the iMac G3’s Coelophysis—superficial cousins, but an evolutionary dead end. The Molar Mac was heavy and unapologetically still a Platinum-era Mac, despite its translucent shroud.
(Image by Stephen Hackett)
Then the Bondi Blue iMac came along, and everything changed.
(Image by Rama, CC-by-SA)
With the iMac’s success, Apple quickly moved to a completely different design language, but it was expressed in different flavors. The first short phase I’d call “smoky”. This was expressed in the original iMac and Blue & White G3, which were less translucent and more understated compared to what was to come.
The second phase was “clear”, and it was exemplified by the more transparent, more saturated colors of the later iMacs, along with the introduction of the Apple Studio Display and PowerMac G4 in 2000. The pro Macs were more restrained in colors (the early G4s had a pinstriped, vaguely blueish-grey called “graphite” that changed to a more neutral “quicksilver” in 2002) and used clear plastic prominently for handles and accents, while the iMacs went through a total of 13 variations, including the still-bananas Flower Power and Blue Dalmation, before settling down. The iMacs introduced in 2000 did have a harbinger of the next phase of Apple’s products, however—the white “Snow” color.
(The “snow” iMac G4s. Image by Omega21, CC-by-SA)
After this exuberant use of acrylic, Apple began a slow migration away from it. The PowerBook, which never got a clear acrylic makeover, was the first to switch in 2001 to an opaque grey metal-and-plastic enclosure—first titanium, and then the now-omnipresent aluminum. The PowerMac line would follow with the G5 “cheesegrater” in early 2003. What followed was the “opaque” phase, where Apple’s products became defined by opaque white plastic and/or aluminum across all their computers, monitors, and peripherals. In retrospect, this period seems less a serious design era on its own, and more a slow evolution to where Ive and the rest at Apple really wanted to go. The iMac added aluminum in 2007 and became fully jacketed in 2009. The Mac mini followed in 2010. The iPhone became glass-and-metal with the iPhone 4, and the final vestige of the plastic era was the polycarbonate MacBook, which was discontinued in 2011.
(Though ultimately a failed product, the Power Mac G4 Cube was perhaps the apotheosis of Apple’s acrylic Macs. Photo by BinarySequence, CC-by-SA)
In retrospect, the acrylic era really only lasted roughly five years as the predominant look of Apple’s products, but that timeframe was the key turning point for the company. It saw Apple kill its old products and start over with the simplified 2×2 product matrix, the introduction of the iPod and the very start of Apple’s iTunes empire, and the creation of the “digital hub” strategy that would define Apple until the success of the iPhone. And it might just be nostalgia speaking, but those computers still look great. While some PC makers have in recent years gotten much closer than ever before to getting close to Apple’s fit-and-finish with metal or carbon fiber computers, no one has touched Apple’s use of acrylic in the nearly twenty years since they showed what could be done, and it’s entirely possible no one ever will.
What is the modern era of Apple at this point? It’s easy to use Steve Jobs’ death as a marker, but now we’re nearly eight years out from that moment—Jobs’ passing is closer to the release of the iPod in 2001 than the present. With Ives’ departure, it’s possible we’re entering a new epoch of Apple history—but like with all history, it’ll be a while before we can truly see the differences.↩
The big Apple news of last week was ruminating over the announced departure of Jony Ives, Apple’s longtime chief designer. John Siracusa opined that no one save for Steve Jobs himself was more instrumental in Apple’s renaissance in the late 90s and early 2000s, and I’d agree. While his designs have always been occasionally divisive, there’s no one in the 21st century who has had as large a role in shaping the look and feel of technology everyone uses—because where Apple goes, most other manufacturers follow.1
From the outside-in it’s incredibly hard to say how much this really matters, but I’m inclined to think “not much.” While Apple clearly didn’t want to dwell on this news—you don’t drop it late in the week for no reason—they also clearly have a plan in place for Ives’ departure, and there has always been a team of talented designers at Apple who have had to realize Ives’ visions, and who now have a better shot at realizing their own.
The punditsphere is of course filled with contradictory takes of “Jony Ive was hurting the company” smashed together with “…and Apple is doomed,” but I feel like neither approaches the truth any more than they can harmonize. Ives was ultimately responsible for design under his watch, and Apple put out some lemons—but they *always* have, and every criticism that can be thrown at Apple’s current lineup can be thrown at the Jobs-Ives golden era as well. Stripping legacy ports? Ill-advised miniaturized machines without internal expansion? Chasing thinness to the point of leaving out old features? They’re all there in Apple’s history.
Leaving aside the problems with Apple’s recent crop of keyboards (which are certainly serious, from a public relations perspective if not in terms of absolute numbers)2 I’d say that Ives will be leaving an Apple doing better than it has recently during his tenure. A large number of Apple’s deficiencies recently were in operations and strategy (a confusing lineup of products) and software (buggy yearly releases) whose connections to Ives are not directly clear. Even if they were caused by Ives, they’ve been getting steadily better. While I’m still not convinced yearly MacOS updates are a good thing, there hasn’t been a problem like borking your networking in quite a while.
More than anything, I’m excited rather than fearful. Apple is or should be too big for any one departure to irreparably harm it, and invariably you need new voices to have a chance of keeping things fresh.
Speaking of Apple’s woes, they’ve been addressing a lot of them recently. The biggest was simple: not updating their Macs. 2018 and 2019 has seen the revival of previously neglected models, as well as welcome minor spec bump and refreshes that make getting a new Mac feel like a good deal rather than fretting over when you might actually get a new product to buy.
Today was another welcome stitch in that pattern, as well as dealing with one of the most frustrating elements of Apple’s recent Mac strategy: a confusing mess of old ‘zombie’ products and overlapping offerings. Apple killed off the old MacBook Air, updated its retina replacement while dropping the price, and in one fell swoop removed the Retina MacBook Pro without Touch Bar (or MacBook Escape) as well as the one-port, ultraportable Retina MacBook (or MacBook Adorable.) Last fall there were three Macs around $1200–1300 to buy, and none of them were great—the MacBook Escape hadn’t been updated, the MacBook Adorable was underpowered (and also hadn’t been updated), and the MacBook Air was expensive compared to what you got for the money versus just buying said outdated MacBook Escape. Now, with a lower $1099 starting price, the MacBook Air carves out a better niche, and the Touch Bar model drifts down to the $1299 line instead of being a more expensive feature locked away (some people probably prefer the physical function keys, but I wager far more care about TouchID to unlock their Macs.) Given that the Air was less than 12 ounces heavier than the MacBook Adorable but more powerful and featured, its loss is not keenly felt unless you were a road warrior who absolutely prioritized size above everything. The end result is that with the new Mac Pro at the high end and cheaper portables at the low end, the Mac lineup is finally starting to shape up and feel vibrant in a way it really hasn’t since 2012.3
There’s still issues, to be sure—while the higher-end flash storage options also got a welcome price cut, getting 256GB of storage still costs $200 extra, so that’s basically a $200 increase to all Apple’s low-end products to make them decent machines for most users.4 The iMac, meanwhile, still has spinning 5400RPM hard drives standard (and the entry-level model is now the only device Apple sells without a retina display.) But it’s heartening to see that, even as its steward of the past twenty years departs, Apple seems to be course-correcting its way out of the reefs.
It’s hard to imagine what phones would look like today without the success of iPhone, or laptops without the PowerBook 100. It seems obvious they’d end up where they are, but that’s just it—they are so successful because they felt like obvious designs in retrospect.↩
John Gruber has gone so far as to say the MacBook keyboards are Apple’s worst product ever. I’m not sure I buy that, but given Apple’s massive reach these days it’s possible that it’s one of Apple’s costliest mistakes. The first-generation MacBook Air or Titanium PowerBooks all had their issues, for example, but they simply didn’t sell in the volumes of current MacBook Pros.↩
That year gave us the retina MacBook Pro and the last solid update to the Mac mini until four years ago, as well as the last (minor) revision to old cheesegrater Mac Pro.↩
This stubborn resistance to boost base storage on their machines reminds me of Apple’s similar stubborn resistance to boosting their iOS devices’ storage past 16GB.↩
If you were to use a word to describe Apple’s 2019 Worldwide Developers Conference keynote, I’d pick “breakneck”. The event lasted two hours and change, but new features and huge updates were touched on briefly or thrown up on a slide in order to move as fast as possible. Aside from starting the event to tout Apple’s upcoming services and show a trailer for Ron D. Moore’s upcoming Apple TV series, the pace was relentless and the focus laser-sharp. “Here’s a bunch of new features that will make your software better, or your user experience using this software better.” Shots were fired at Google and Facebook. Long-awaited features were finally announced. And then, in the middle of it, they dropped the new Mac Pro.
Next to nothing leaked about the Mac Pro prior to its unveiling, but I wouldn’t hesitate to say that the realized product is nearly completely at odds with what I expected Apple to produce. In the wake of the much-maligned “tube” or “trashcan” Mac Pro, which suffered from thermal constraints and required all expansion to be done with Thunderbolt, I (and many others) expected Apple to walk their decision back a bit—perhaps bringing back standard PCIe slots, but making a smaller, more refined version of the earlier “cheesegrater” towers that had defined pro Macs since the PowerMac G5 way back in 2003.
Instead, Apple doubled-down on the cheesegrater.
The result is a Mac Pro that is unabashedly higher-end than previous models. Whereas the last model of Mac Pro started at $2999, the new Mac Pros start at an eye-watering $5999. This isn’t just a shift in pricing; it’s a shift in ethos. Apple had previously in its modern history never made a high-end workstation tower. The previous cheesegraters were bulky and had lots of room for expansion, but they didn’t carry the highest-of-the-high-end processors, could barely support more than one GPU, and had only four PCIe slots for expansion. In comparison, the new Mac Pro is slightly larger than its elder model, comes with a whopping eight PCIe slots, twelve DIMM slots for RAM, and a 1500-watt power supply to match. The entire visual design of larger, layered holed aluminum and stainless steel supports is wholly alien to Apple’s more reserved style as of late (also curiously absent: the space-grey paint job sported by Apple’s other prosumer/professional-focused computers, the Mac mini and iMac Pro.)
The downside of this is that after seemingly narrowing the space between the Mac mini and the Mac Pro with the mini’s prosumer-focused update (shifting it ever-so-slightly more to the mythical ‘xMac’ dream), the new Mac Pro dramatically widens the gap again. A fully-loaded Mac mini configured by Apple costs $3599; this makes the gap between it and the Mac Pro step-up pretty dramatic even when compared to the rest of the lineup (where certain BTO configurations of the iMac can actually surpass the entry-level cost of the iMac Pro.) If you want a headless desktop machine with greater graphics power and you aren’t doing lucrative work with your machine to make the high cost of the Mac Pro worth it, your only real option is a Mac mini with the added bulk, cables, and complexity of external GPUs or storage added on after the fact.
As someone who would be in the market for a $3000–4000 Mac Pro to replace my old 2010 cheesegrater but is decidedly not in the market for a $7000+ machine when configured (to say nothing of the equally eye-watering prices for Apple’s new 6K display) the announcement of the new Mac Pro was a bit disappointing. It’s even further away from the mainstream power that the line originally represented in its PowerMac days, and a pivot back to the 90s ultra-expensive IIfx and its brethren. On the other hand, time will tell if Apple’s concerted effort to get back in the good graces of high-end professional computing works. There were tons of professionals clamoring for Apple to make a tower again, and now they have it. How the market receives their effort, and where the Mac line goes in the future, remain up in the air.
- Compared to the Mac Pro news, the software news mostly was leaked or predictable. MacOS Catalina will have some nice features, but as the current owner of a (old) cheesegrater, I’m locked out of the update, with an uncertain update path.1
- A deferred update also means I’ll defer saying goodbye to iTunes, which is splitting up into three applications. By most indications Music will keep most of iTunes intact, and you’ll still be able to sync old iPods through the Finder. But as someone who is decidedly old-school in my music-buying habits, I’m not going to enjoy switching to an app that puts Apple Music ahead of my local library.
- Dark Mode for iOS is great, but as someone already running with Smart Invert on my iPhone it mostly just means fewer inadvertently-inverted images. The photo management features, if they work as advertised, will be very helpful. If you have an iPad, the new updates (and Sidecar screen mode for the Mac) seem like excellent additions.
- The new WatchOS stuff is nothing earth-shattering, but as someone who uses their watch for its fitness capabilities the better stats and trends tracking is a great addition.
- The $1000 stand accessory for the Mac monitor (the “Pro Display XDR”) is a bit crazy, but considering it’s part of a monitor that’s supposed to compete with reference displays two to five times its price, it’s not unreasonable. What is bizarre is that they specifically put it on another slide, as opposed to giving the price of the display as “$6000, or $800 less with a VESA mount.”
Overall, this seems like another year where Apple managed to make almost everyone happy. Whether you were there for Mac news or iOS devices—hell, even tvOS got Xbox and PS4 controller support, which could potentially be a huge game-changer when Apple Arcade launches—there was a lot of wishes crossed off people’s lists. It’ll be exciting to see how this all shakes out from the public betas to release in the fall.
Maxing out a Mac mini for my needs and getting en eGPU enclosure would run me around $2300, which is a pretty big gap up to the Mac Pro. For that extra $3700 you get ECC RAM, more cores, better thermals, and more expansion, but hanging external drives off the back of the mini and just dealing with the limitations seems like a better strategy than spending enough money to get another computer setup entirely. The big question is whether Apple is going to update the Mac mini this fall and keep it up to date and prevent it from languishing once again as has happened several times in its history. So too with the Mac Pro—the big question going forward is not how impressive Apple’s engineering is (it’s almost always impressive) but how committed they are to maintaining the level of support and updates professionals demand.↩
Jefferson Graham, writing for USA Today:
Apple has for years been a premium brand that rarely, if ever discounted products. Period.
Every year, the company could raise prices on products, and consumers would not only happily pay, but stand in long lines for the privilege of doing so.
So when Apple started putting misleading, but seemingly consumer-friendly posters in front of Apple Stores at the end of 2018 offering a new model for $300 off (with trade-in of your current phone), you know something different happened for the company this year.
Consumers fought back.
There’s a lot of support for this argument in the article, but it’s basically all nonsense and hearsay. Apple’s sales missing analyst’s expectations means nothing, because analysts are both not that great at their jobs and because in certain circumstances are very interested in peddling wrong information to affect stock prices anyhow.
What certainly does seem to be true is that Apple is focusing on revenue rather than sales. This isn’t really news, because Apple’s entire business for years has been to capture the most profitable segment of a market (e.g. personal computers and phones) rather than the majority of a market. A lot of attention was made of their announcement that they aren’t going to be giving sales numbers in their financial disclosures going forward, but there are good reasons for them to do so absent a ‘consumers are fighting back’ story. Rather, it’s a continuing focus on what ultimately matters to companies and shareholders—revenues and profits.
Unlike past years, however, Apple didn’t offer consumers much that was new for the 2018 models. The flagship XS and XS Max phones had more power, but that didn’t resonate with consumers who thought their old iPhone 6S and 7 devices ran just fine. The XR has the premium edge-to-edge display of the X series iPhones, minus the second camera lens of those models and shinier OLED screen, but it’s $400 more expensive than the older, entry-level current model.
Analysts say the XR phone experienced the biggest resistance from consumers.
This just doesn’t make much sense, and speaks to the weird schism in talking about the iPhones I see online. The XR is no longer the flagship phone from Apple, but it is a flagship, retailing for less than the iPhone 8 Plus it replaced from last year. Yet so much of the discussion is about how it’s simultaneously not worth the price as it’s too expensive, and the iPhone XS is not worth the price because the XR is $250 cheaper. (And here Graham uses the discounted price of the old SE to make it appear that Apple has suddenly cranked the prices of the new models up rather than discounting the old model, as they have done literally since there were multiple iPhone models.)
Near the end of the story, Graham has this to say:
And I wonder if there’s any new feature consumers really would care about more than an all-day battery, unbreakable screen and camera as good as Google’s Pixel 3 for shooting in low light.
If phones had all-day batteries with unbreakable screens, we’d have those phones. But there’s no such thing as an unbreakable phone, or a phone with a battery that will last all day under the most punishing conditions (my old phone’s battery lasts ‘all day’ under most circumstances, anyhow.) There’s only stuff that chooses different compromises. It’s fair to be disappointed that Apple doesn’t make a phone that makes the compromises you want (where is the iPhone X-style screen in a small, easily handled phone like the poor iPhone SE? Remember small phones? I do.) but it doesn’t make sense to demand they make an amazing product with no downsides. And sell it for $100, too, please.
We’ve gone through these stories before. The $1000 iPhone X was a failure, except it wasn’t. There’s simply not enough data to make a real claim at this stage. And Apple certainly won’t be encouraging any more speculation. Apple’s focus on upgrade prices and ‘discounts’ to its new models just seem like a way of helping to encourage people on the fence to upgrade, as the market for people buying new phones year over year (which was always a crazy waste of money) has dried up. It certainly takes the sting out of a $750 price if you can get it for $600 or less by trading in that four-years-old iPhone 6 (and Apple’s GiveBack program is more hassle-free than trying to sell your phone online, and they give you more for it than a site like Gazelle does.)
There’s reasons to be concerned about Apple’s price increases (especially if you’re outside the US, where the increases were particularly large.) And I myself remain concerned that Apple’s attempt to boost average selling prices and revenue by cranking up the prices will hurt more than help. In a pure logic exercise, there does have to be some mathematical limit to how far Apple can boost its prices before it craters its overall revenue (and Apple is certainly trying to find just where that limit is.) But claiming that 2018 was the year that limit was reached is too early a call to make.
This is an interesting video. Marques Brownlee seeded a bunch of cameras and did testing on Instagram and Twitter, gaining hundreds of thousands of votes, and the results included upsets like a Blackberry phone besting the flagship iPhone XS, and the Pixel 3 getting beaten by the P20 Pro.
Brownlee makes a very useful observation that a lot of this has to do with smartphone screen sizes and web compression removing many of the subtle details for comparison, with voters trending towards better exposed or brighter images overall. So too must the confounding factors of the screens people were voting on be considered. This is a terrible scientific test but nonetheless excellent for illustrating how much beyond specs goes into our gut reactions to pictures. The main takeaway seems to be that if you are just taking photos in general conditions and only for social media, virtually any midrange or better phone these days fulfills the “good enough” requirement.
Apple came to my home turf this past Tuesday, following up its iPhone-focused September event with iPad and Mac announcements. Some were welcome, some were surprising, some were long overdue. Some thoughts on what was announced follow:
New MacBook Air—Somewhere, something went terrible wrong in Apple’s notebook lineup. The MacBook Air arrived in 2008 as an impossibly thin albeit expensive and underpowered notebook that basically kickstarted the “ultrabook” category that makes up an increasing number of all laptops. Over the years it grew cheaper and faster, ultimately replacing the MacBook as the “consumer” segment of Apple’s consumer/pro laptop dichotomy. If you were a prosumer who needed extra power, you got a MacBook Pro; everyone else got a MacBook Air and liked it.
When the retina MacBook came out, I assumed it would follow a similar trajectory, with this new model eventually replacing the MacBook Air. The retina MacBook (also called the MacBook One, the MacBook Adorable, or confusingly just the MacBook by Apple itself) was impossibly thin, expensive, and underpowered. However, more than three years later, the retina MacBook remains $1299, and its limitations haven’t gone away. More confusingly, Apple kept a MacBook Air mostly unchanged since 2015 as a “zombie” product in its lineup, while introducing a MacBook Pro model that featured MacBook Air internals for a higher price.
I and many were hoping Apple would finally address this mess of a lineup on the low end, and the new MacBook Air partially does. It’s a slimmer version of the MacBook Air of old, with a retina screen and some tech updates. However at $1199 (with the zombie non-retina MacBook Air still hanging on at $999) and the retina MacBook and MacBook Pro “Escape” still existing, buying choices are still a muddle.
My opinion: Apple should just dump the MacBook. It’s more expensive than the new MacBook Air model while simultaneously being more limited (the only points in its favor are more flash storage standard and half a pound of weight.) While the new MacBook Air seems like a solid product, who it’s for is confused with a bunch of un-updated machines littered around it.
New Mac mini—The poor Mac mini has labored unchanged since a rather poorly received 2014 update; now a good four years later, it finally gets a substantial update. Surprisingly, Apple decided not to make it a small puck to take on the Intel NUCs and smaller PCs that have cropped up since the mini started existing, instead orienting it more towards pro functions. That shows in its new higher $799 price, but on the plus side, there’s no “zombie” $499 legacy option still kicking around. The new models have twice the RAM and a much faster SSD replacing the 5400 RPM spinning drive of the outgoing options; while it hurts to have to pay more, I think Apple is better off offering a good entry level model rather than one whose only virtue is it hits a price point.
In addition to powerful quad and hex-core i5 and i7 processor options, the Mac mini also returns to user-replaceable (albeit not easily accessible) SODIMMs, although the flash storage is soldered to the board and controlled by the bespoke T2 chip. The machine also keeps legacy USB-A and headphone jack while adding Thunderbolt 3 ports. Keeping more advanced features while adding back in ones that were stripped out was very much not to be expected. A surprise, but a welcome one.
New iPad Pros—The iPad Pros got the iPhone X treatment, shedding a lot of non-screen real estate and getting thinner while adding Face ID, more powerful processors, a redesigned pencil, and USB-C. The ditching of Lightning for USB-C makes a lot of sense for an iPad pitched as a replacement for a classic PC; ditching the headphone jack on such a machine makes far less sense. That and the camera bump notwithstanding, these look like pretty impressive updates that will make people happy, but that happiness will again come with a substantial price tag.
Odds and Ends—The iMacs were not updated at this event, perhaps surprisingly. They are now, with the release of the new Mac mini, the only machines Apple sells that still have spinning boot drives, so hopefully that will be addressed and we can embrace a much nicer all-flash future, more than eight years after the original MacBook Air showed us what was coming.
Mentioned briefly and taking the “it’s a product in our lineup” spot away from the Mac mini was the iPad mini; I suppose this bodes well that it will eventually be upgraded from its circa 2014 internals. (Another product still sporting an A8 processor from that era: the iPad touch. I wonder if it will be bumped to newer guts again, or just killed entirely.)
Not mentioned whatsoever was the Mac Pro, still slated for 2019. It’s encouraging to see the Mac mini as evidence that Apple understands elements like upgradable RAM are important, less encouraging to see proprietary flash storage connected to proprietary SSD controllers as a harbinger of a more locked down system. I expect at this point we won’t hear about the machine until WWDC in June; there haven’t been any new details on Intel Xeons that would work for the Mac Pro (let alone refreshing the iMac Pro) so it doesn’t seem like we’ll get a quicker turnaround.
A consistent trend of the event was new products at higher prices—the MacBook Air, Mac Mini, iPad, and iPad accessories such as the pencil are all more expensive than the models they replace. In some ways, this is justified; on the other, aside from a few notable exceptions (the $329 iPad introduced at the Apple Education Event earlier this year, for example) Apple has been consistently creeping up prices on all its products. The motivations for this are obvious—now that most product categories have reached saturation, the alternative if you want to keep making money is raising the average selling price—but it doesn’t feel any less of a jerk move. This especially extends to the build-to-order upgrade prices; upping your Mac’s storage from 128GB of flash to 256GB (really the base comfortable storage option if you have any number of apps and documents) costs $200, the same price as four years ago despite the decreasing cost of SSDs. It comes off as unnecessarily predatory. Unfortunately I don’t see this changing any time soon until the market decides it can’t bear it, but it feels like Apple is hastening the Mac’s own demise by making it a niche item for more and more people with the means to actually afford a decent product from them.