A Year With the Apple Watch

Until a year ago, I don’t think I had worn a watch since high school, if not earlier. I was interested in an Apple Watch for nebulous reasons of “that looks kind of cool,” but I wasn’t going to buy a first-generation product. By the time the Series 3 came out, I was sorely tempted, but I held off until the beginning of 2019, when thanks to a gift card to B&H the price of a Series 4 was far more palatable.

My main interest in the Watch at that point was as a fitness device; while there are certainly cheaper fitness bands out there, the Apple integration with the Health app appealed to me, and I was dissuaded from some of the cheaper options by the experience of friends and family members burning through plastic FitBits at a rate that made an Apple Watch actually seem more cost-effective.

At the time I was working a remote job, and so my main interest with the Watch was having something to prod me into more activity. The Apple Watch’s Activity application, in particular, seemed like it fit right into an achievement-hunting and gamification strategy for success. But I still didn’t know if I would find the hassle of another device to charge and the cost of the device to really move the needle for me.

After a year with my Series 4, I can confidently say that I love the Apple Watch, and more importantly, it has made a difference to my day-to-day life, in ways both expected and totally unforeseen.

Since I’m not one to spend a ton of cash on items of unknown value (and B&H was selling White Apple Sport models for $15 less for whatever reason) I picked up a 40mm Apple Watch Sport in silver. I have small wrists, and when Apple unveiled the larger Series 4 case dimensions I was a bit concerned about not having a 38mm option. Overall, though, the 40mm fits me well without looking ridiculous.

The fit and finish of the Watch itself is still interesting to me. It’s the only Apple device I own I want to be thinner, but it sits far better on my wrist than I would have expected given its bulbous proportions. The ideal Apple Watch of multi-day battery life in a slim package still isn’t here, but with the Series 5 it’s inching closer (and I think Apple’s right to prioritize battery life and processing power over thickness at this point.)

Roughly half a year into owning my Series 4, I made an ill-advised decision to remove the watch in my bathroom, with the end result being a drop onto tile and a smashed corner and crack across the face of the Watch. This hasn’t resulted in any noticeable performance or display degradation (besides, you know, the crack across it) and I’ve lived with the cosmetic damage; really the only downside is I’m pretty sure the water resistance of the thing is shot, but that just means a little more consideration when it rains. Apple’s repair quotes for the screen (and the cost of doing it yourself) are ridiculous, and so I’ll keep running with the battle-scarred version I have until I eventually replace it.

Even before the smashed screen, however, I’d ended up with a fair few minor scratches across the watch face. Training my brain to walk around with a wristwatch again took longer than I expected, and I’m pretty sure the majority of the scratches were accumulated by just running into doors or walls with my wrist because I’d gotten used to being able to do that without consequence. The stainless steel or Edition models with their sapphire glass would probably have survived that damage, but on the other hand, they may have fared worse in the drop. Either way, I don’t think these devices are hardy enough (nor long-lived enough) at this point to make a more expensive watch worth it. When I was purchasing the Watch, there wasn’t really any question I’d get aluminum anyhow—leaving aside the cost, the stainless steel models felt like too much flash for a guy who doesn’t wear any jewelry otherwise. The Series 5’s titanium finish looks higher-end than the aluminum without tripping that flashy line for me, so in the future if that material sticks around, I might consider it.

As a fitness device, the Watch has absolutely served its purpose. I was averaging only around 6,100 steps a day in 2018. For 2019, I averaged 10,280, and ended this January with in excess of 11,000. The Watch prodding me to get up and move around a bit also helps get in more activity and sit a bit less. The achievement aspect especially proves a tremendous motivator; I’ve reached an unbroken streak of 380 Move goals, which enforces a much higher minimum amount of activity to my daily routine. That sort of push was not there just using my phone’s tracking capabilities. The other health aspects are a mixed bag. I turned off the Breathe notifications within a week, but the newer noise monitoring feature has been great whenever I’m out at a bar or concert. I do not have a large social circle using Apple Watches to compete against, but fortunately personal motivation works just fine.

More interesting has been the ancillary benefits of the Watch beyond its fitness functions. I would regularly miss notifications when out on a walk or placing my phone down in my apartment; the Apple Watch makes it much harder to not see notifications when I’m on the go. It’s also amazing how nice it is to be able to deal with some things from my wrist and not pull out my phone—especially things like calls from unknown numbers, or sending a quick voice message or acknowledgement thumbs-up to a text update that doesn’t need a substantial reply. These are saving just a few seconds at a time, but once you’re used to that convenience, it’s hard to let it go. The ability to send directions to my watch and have it quietly tap me where to go when I’m out walking so I’m not running around with my phone out is also a very nice benefit.

That said, there are some annoyances with the product. Battery life is of course always less than I’d like it to be, and I’d prefer a more slim look for my wrist, but many of my nitpicks come from software, not the hardware.

I’ve bounced between several different watch faces. WatchOS has added more options and ameliorated some of my concerns, but the jump between faces has less to do with a sense of style and more that no single Watch face does exactly what I want it to.

I appreciate the visual component to time-telling, so I’m an analog watch face guy. But the Simple and Utility faces have some deficiencies; the utility doesn’t let me fine-tune which numbers show up on the face as much as I want, and the Activity complication is stubbornly colorful in the corner. The Simple watch face banishes the color, but I’m left with two complications on the bottom which don’t provide as much information as the single one on Utility. Infograph now comes in a monochrome option, but its analog face is hard to read quickly with its very thin hour and minute ticks, and populating the complications just makes it feel like information overload. Recently I’ve settled on Meridian; while it still isn’t monochrome, it’s at least two-toned. The complications being in the middle of the watch face makes them a bit harder to read depending on where the hands are, but they are generally fuller-featured (the temperature complication gives me the high/low plus current temperature like Infograph, instead of just current temperature like Simple and Utility.) As part of the trade you get a more legible analog face that takes up the entire screen, which certainly looks much nicer and embraces the fact that the Apple Watch is square rather than pretending it’s round.

Still, this all screams for richer complication customization, and true custom or modular watch faces. It’d also be great to have a machine that feels more capable when away from the phone. But the Apple Watch has become one of my favorite gadgets, and I’m looking forward to Apple continuing to push the frontier of health.

Mac Pro Day

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.

Apple’s Acrylic Era

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.

  1. 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.

On Jony Ive and Apple’s Future

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.

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

WWDC 2019

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.

Miscellaneous thoughts:

  • 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.

  1. 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.

USA Today: ‘The year consumers fought back against rising Apple prices’

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.

MKBHD’s Blind Smartphone Camera Test

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’s October 2018 Event

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.

Apple’s 2018 September Event

iPhone XR in Yellow
iPhone XR in Yellow (Apple Pressroom)

Compared to the breakneck speed of some of Apple’s previous keynotes, this one moved at a rather leisurely pace. It helped that there were only three products to introduce.

Apple Watch 4th generation

I’ve been holding off on getting an Apple Watch. They are pricey, and the improvements each generation have been significant. If you’re interested in keeping your tech for a while, though, the 4th gen watch might be the tipping point. The new watches are larger (boo) but have much larger screen-to-body ratios, and are slightly thinner (though still not as thin as the original ‘Series 0’ watches.) The new models are packed with more sensors, including an EKG. This seems like the model to get.

iPhone XS/ XS Max

The new names for Apple’s flagship phones are dumb, no doubt about it. But as has been proven time and time again with iPod, iPhone, MacBook, iPad—it doesn’t really matter. We’ll get used to them and move on. People pronouncing the roman numeral X as “ecks” rather than “ten” is as old as Mac OS X, which came out the better part of two decades ago. Life marches on.

The new models have nicer cameras, higher storage tiers (though you will pay dearly for them), and faster FaceID. I’ve seen plenty of sentiment that this is a lackluster “S” year, but I think the problem is this conflates the X with the iPhone 8, whereas it’s actually a higher-end SKU.

iPhone XR

Thus, the real phone to look at is the XR, which starts at $250 less than the XS in the US. It’s very much a copycat of the XS, just with a bit thicker edges and a less impressive screen. If you don’t care about the 2x optical zoom of the more expensive models or 3D touch, though, it’s a pretty great value.

The XR is truly the spiritual successor to the iPhone 5C in that it comes in candy colors. They are all rather brilliant, with the coral and yellow especially being rather striking with glass backs and aluminum accents along the edges. There are going to be people who buy these just for the colors.

My reservations about the XR come down to size; my current iPhone 6 was always slightly larger than my ideal phone would be, and the XR basically means you have to buy an iPhone Plus-sized phone at the low end, with the problems related to reaching distant items on screen in a one-handed grip exacerbated by the fact that more of the phone’s front is now screen.

The iPhone SE was quietly killed off at the event, and while it’s possible they’ll bring it back in some form as a mid-cycle model like the original SE was vis a vis the 6S, it doesn’t make much sense to wait for an upgrade that might never come.


  • Augmented reality still seems like an idea that like VR is flailing around looking for truly compelling use cases that would break it out into the mainstream.
  • The iPhone X is gone, which possibly strengthens the connection of the XR to the 5C (as reportedly Apple couldn’t make the 5 cheap enough and thus axed it entirely.) I imagine a lot of people are going to jump on used X phones versus the XR or spending more on an XS.
  • Aside from the optical zoom, the other benefit of the second lens on the iPhone X was the ability to do depth of field blur. Apparently that’s come to the single-lens XR as well; I’ll be interested in seeing how well the software implementation is.

The MacBook Pro Kerfuffle

Just last week it seemed life was promising. There were new MacBook Pros with beefy specs, and life was good.

Then, this week, spurred in part by a Youtuber and more detailed reviews of the shipping machines, reality reared its ugly head.

The latest Apple snafu, as it turns out, is that several SKUs of the MacBook Pro throttle heavily under intensive workloads. In some cases this means they drop down below their advertised base core clocks, to say nothing of their turbo boost speeds, and as a result are in fact slower than the last-generation Intel CPUs in the 2017 models.

There’s blame to go around here. The problem starts with Intel, who is currently facing some troubles and renewed competition from AMD. With their original CPU roadmap now terribly late, Intel tried to compensate and bumped the core counts for the 28-watt and 45-watt chips the 13 and 15″ MacBook Pro models use. The result is a far more power-hungry chip that upsets the general computing trend of better performance-per-watt with each generation. Intel released a bad product.

Of course, Apple still had a role to play in this. At this point they’ve become famous for extremely tight tolerances on their products, so much so that they admitted they designed the Mac Pro into a “thermal corner” where they could not easily refresh the machine and ended up making the 2013 redesign of the product an evolutionary dead end. With the 2016 MacBook Pro refresh Apple once again made the notebooks thinner, and while its size and thermal dissipation solution was adequate for Intel’s previous offerings, placing the new chips in the same cooling solution has resulted in some bad results. It’s a bit naive to expect Apple to drastically redesign their product every year when it turns out Intel has released a dud, but at the same time they put themselves in a tougher situation than it needed to be. And at the end of the day, people aren’t going to blame Intel for this—they’re going to blame Apple.1

It’s not all doom and gloom. Early indications are that the new ‘quieter’ third-generation butterfly keyboards on the 2018 models actually do feature much more robust protection from paralyzing dust, and the keys themselves are easier to service without requiring a full top replacement. And the new MacBooks aren’t necessarily forever crippled; Apple could update their firmware to have more aggressive fan curves, for instance, which would help mitigate some of the throttling by anticipating the extra heat. But it’s still not a great look to have your most expensive SKUs on a product targeted to professional users turn out to have a big asterisk by their specs. People have been complaining about Apple prioritizing thinness and quiet performance over raw power and cooler temperatures for years now, and it seems like those complaints have caught up to them decisively.

The gentlemen at Accidental Tech Podcast are (uncharacteristically?) bullish about this news, arguing that Apple has already turned a corner and that a “Mac renaissance” is coming, albeit slowly to outsiders given the amount of time it takes to change course. Apple’s response to the MacBook Pro throttling issue, and whatever form the Mac Pro takes next year, will be the indicators to watch to see whether that prediction holds.

EDIT (07/24/2018): Apple released a supplemental update to address the slowdown, blaming a firmware issue. We’ll see if that quells the complaints.

  1. This is also more fuel on the fire that is whether or not Apple should ditch Intel and create their own Mac processors, as is rumored. It still remains to be seen whether Apple’s industry-leading A-series chips in their iOS devices could scale to adequate pro-level performance, but Apple controlling the stack and having a much better idea of where chips are headed seems like it would have presented a blunder of this magnitude.