Apple’s Latest Lackluster Product Announcements

Despite a claimed emphasis on individual creativity, Apple employees seem to increasingly conform and wear the same clothes the same way. (Screen grabs from their presentation, today.)

Apple’s major new product release event of the year occurred today.  Like last year, it opened to an empty auditorium, and most of the presentations were pre-produced.  While that can make the overall event more showy and glitzy, it takes away some of the live “realness” of it.  There’s no longer the buzz of an audience giving instant feedback and validation in the form of cheers and clapping when much-wanted features are released.  It also removes any chance of any unexpected hardware/software problems or other mistakes.  A bit like watching car racing, the anticipation of a crash in both cases is always part of the attraction.

Perhaps for that reason, live presentations always feel more “real” and credible than produced video segments, which look more like advertisements (which of course is essentially what they are), and, as advertisements, are things we instinctively tune out rather than lean forward to watch.

Two New iPads

The first part of Apple’s presentation covered two updated iPad models.  First to be announced was a refreshed regular iPad, known as the ninth generation iPad.  This has a very slightly better screen (but the same 10.2″ size and 2160 x 1620 pixel resolution),  a greatly improved front facing camera (a leap up from 1.2 MP to 12 MP), and, inevitably, a faster processor.  It will be priced from the same lead price of $329 as the previous 8th generation model (released a year ago), but now starts with 64GB of storage instead of 32GB last year.  So you get twice as much storage for the same price.  It can be ordered now and deliveries start next week.

A new iPad mini was also announced.  This is the sixth generation of iPad mini, following after the fifth generation which was released two years ago (there was no update last year for the mini).  It has a nicer screen, which has grown in size to 8.3″.  All previous mini iPads had a 7.9″ screen.  Keeping the same 326 ppi resolution means the pixel count increases slightly from 2048 x 1536 pixels to now 2266 x 1488 pixels.

The larger screen is the result of a thinner bezel, and the loss of the action button at the bottom.  This actually makes the unit’s external dimensions slightly smaller – the same width and depth, but now only 7.7″ long instead of 8.0″.  There’s an imperceptible reduction in weight, too.

Sure, I get the concept of thinner bezel allows for more screen, but for a device positioned as being small, I wonder if the better use of a thinner bezel would be to keep the screen size the same and make the overall total product significantly more smaller.  Apple has shown that a 7.9″ screen is an acceptable size, so there is no need to grow the screen.  To keep the “mini” small, a better strategy might have been to shrink its case and lighten its weight some more.

It was amusing to hear Apple boasting about now offering a USB-C connector, instead of their former proprietary connector.  Without a single hint of embarrassment or irony, they boasted how much better the USB-C connector is compared to the “previous” connector.  Well, yes, I’d agree with that.  Welcome to the rest of the world, Apple – we’ve been enjoying USB-C connectors for three or more years, already.

Prices for the iPad mini start at $499, which is $100 more than the previous generation, and $170 more than for a regular iPad (with 10.2″ screen).  This feels awkward – a smaller screen than a regular iPad, but a much higher price.  It can be ordered now and will be available next week.

There were no changes to the other two model lines in the iPad series of tablets (the “Air” and the “Pro”).  That is not altogether surprising, their updates often come out in March/April, with their own release, rather than as part of the September release event.

New Series 7 Watches

Next was the Series 7 incarnation of their successful Watch product.  After the last three versions all had the same physical form factor and screen, this new version features a larger screen, both as a result of a thinner bezel and a tiny increase in case size.  Apple is still vague about the exact dimensions and specifications, but says the display is nearly 20% larger than the previous 4/5/6 series watches.  Not stated, but highly likely, is an increase in pixels to match the larger screen sizes – Apple has consistently maintained a 326 ppi resolution across all its Watch products.

The new Watch is matched with a new version of the Watch OS, version 8.  This too is typically on an annual update cycle.  The new version 8 of the OS, at least as described in the announcement, seems to be little changed from version 7, other than for adding a mindfulness app and fall detection when you’re on a bicycle.  Apple strongly pushed its fitness apps, some of which apparently have monthly fees.

Needless to say, as is always the case, Apple released some new screen display designs.  People who struggle to type on a phone screen will be horrified to learn that Apple has now added a keyboard to the tiny watch screen.  I can cover almost the entire screen of my 40mm sized Watch 4, goodness only knows how many letters I’d inadvertently touch simultaneously and which would be randomly selected!

The watch doesn’t have any extra battery life.  The watch starts at $399, but Apple was a bit vague about when it would be available.

Amazingly, Apple keeps its Series 3 version watch as an entry level watch product ($199).  This device – self-evidently four generations earlier, was released four years ago.  There is also an SE version watch that will remain ($299) that was introduced a year ago.

The biggest disappointment?  Apple seems to be maintaining the requirement that you must have a recent model iPhone to use to initially configure your Watch.  You can’t use an iPad, you can’t use a Mac, you can’t use anything non-Apple, you must use an iPhone.  If you don’t have a recent model iPhone, you’re out of luck.

New iPhone 13

Inevitably, the center-piece of the event was the annual release of a new iPhone.  I was slightly surprised that Apple named this the iPhone 13 due to the slightly unlucky connotations of the number 13.

Like every previous iPhone release, the same totally meaningless superlatives were predictably trotted out – most powerful, easiest to use, most state-of-the-art, industry-leading, most beautiful, and just generally “best ever”.  Also, as is increasingly the case, there were more and more superlatives, but fewer and fewer meaningful measures of how the phones were actually, noticeably, and impactfully, better.

The new phone has a slightly better/brighter display, a slightly better camera system that is moving far ahead of what most of us, wishing simple “point and click” type photos are likely to ever learn or use, and a more powerful processor, this year with nearly 15 billion transistors – a stunning number, for sure.  But does anyone really care about these tweaks?  Has anyone been disappointed with any part of the iPhone 12 (or 11, or X?).

What were the “must have” new features that would encourage us to spend $700, $800, $1,000 or $1100 (and up from those four entry level price points) for a new phone?  Well, there is a new focus mode for its video.  It supports some new 5G frequency bands.  It has slightly better battery life – the mini  iPhone and iPhone Pro are said to offer 1.5 hours of extra battery life, the regular iPhone and iPhone Pro Max have 2.5 hours of extra battery life.

Hot on the news yesterday of the latest iPhone privacy/hack exploit, Apple announced still more privacy tweaks.  But will that protect us against Apple’s own threatened privacy intrusions, though?  Almost certainly, not.

Many of us find it a bit spooky to have confirmed what we’ve long wondered – pple can inspect all our photos, and probably all the rest of the data on “our” phone any time it chooses to, and if it doesn’t like what it sees, it may choose to report us to some relevant law enforcement authority.  While this was framed in the context of a purpose that seems superficially sympathetic (catching child pornography) and Apple stepped back from immediately activating its searching, the future deployment seems inevitable, as does its future “mission creep”.  How long before this ability extends to other things – “hate speech”, “fake news”, anti-vax comments, and so on?  How long before law enforcement agencies start confidentially subpoena-ing Apple and requiring it to search thousands/millions of devices at a time for vaguely defined things?

To be fair, there is no phone manufacturer that is obviously better than Apple in this regard, but two (or three or four….) wrongs don’t make a right, and if Apple wants to really be a leader in the phone marketplace, why not lead on privacy issues as well as the count of transistors in the CPU.

The mini iphone is still priced at $699, and the regular phone is $799, the iPhone Pro $999 and Pro Max at $1099.  The phones now start with 128GB of storage rather than 64GB.  They go on order this Friday and will be available on 24 September.

Summary

It is interesting to see the iPad mini get a bigger screen, and nice to see the two new Series 7 Watches grow their screens as well.  All the products of course are slightly “better” in all the usual respects, but there’s no stand-out must-have new feature that would have any of us now racing to upgrade whatever current models of iPad, Watch and iPhone we have.  This is as much praise for the previous models as it is criticism of the new models, and if it weren’t for the ability to sell some people on the “latest and the greatest” for no reason at all other than “just because”, there’d be a lot of good sense in switching to bi-ennial rather than annual model changes.

But we fully anticipate Apple’s PR machine will quickly start boasting of record levels of pre-orders and difficulty producing enough new units to meet with “unprecedented demand”, even if it goes a bit vague about the exact numbers involved.  The lines of people camping overnight outside Apple stores to get the newest iPhone get shorter every year.

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