Spring Loaded

Thu Apr 29, 2021

In Apple’s recent Spring Loaded event, the landscaping at Apple Park was on point. The path sightlines, the balance of trees and shrubbery, the striking wooden decks - even the mulch - was all so pleasant to look at in its verdant splendour.

As Tim Cook strolled through the starkly empty courtyard grounds, around the shallow pool with its form-fitting crescent-shaped bench, in front of the rainbow arches, it became abundantly clear that working at the richest company on Planet Earth has its perks.

Criticize Apple all you want for creating a suburban oasis instead of a practical urban headquarters with better public transit options. But if you had the choice of spending your working days inside a grungy city office building or outdoors on a sunny California patio with views straight out of a manicured Airbnb listing, which would you pick?

I’m enjoying these polished online presentations - hopefully they don’t go away completely when traditional in-person events come back. I will miss strolling through Apple Park with Tim.

True to the event name, a plethora of product announcements were crammed into the hour. These were a mixed bag, from credit card improvements, to podcast subscriptions, to purple iPhones, to a Ted Lasso trailer. Fairly minor stuff. If I were forced to come up with a theme, however, I’d say the common thread - with one exception - was a focus on the average (non-nerdy) consumer.

Ordinary people, living ordinary - if somewhat privileged - lives (they can afford Apple products after all). From the family struggling to work from home, to the eco-conscious biker dude, to the hirsute, underdressed silicon-valley guy working on the Ferry. Apple’s marketing department knows their audience - or, at least, thinks they do.

For a full rundown of the event, go to your favourite tech publication. For a quick take, stick around here; I’m going to break down the major four hardware announcements with subjective pros and cons for each.

AirTags

These have been rumoured for a while, and now they’re finally here. Diminutive and surprisingly inexpensive (for Apple), AirTags are Bluetooth trackers that help you find your lost stuff - a brand-new product category for the company.

Instead of requiring users to download an app - looking at you Tile - this little tracker is seamlessly integrated into Apple’s existing operating systems.

On a macro level, AirTags create an ad-hoc surveillance network by piggybacking off the location of millions of iPhone users wondering around in the world with Bluetooth turned on. For the record, that’s a lot. At least in areas where iPhones are popular. Despite how creepy this feature sounds, Apple worked the privacy angle hard.

On a micro level, the ultra-wideband chip in Apple’s newer devices allow you to find AirTags with fine-grained precision. These ecosystem-locked micro and macro technologies are a one-two punch to the competition - again, looking at you Tile. No, they aren’t happy about it.

I get that AirTags were designed around a user-replaceable battery, which limits the form factor. But there isn’t even a lanyard hole built in to the AirTag, so you have to buy a case to attach it to your keys or backpack or whatever. In true Apple fashion, they will gladly sell you an Herm├Ęs luggage tag for $580, which is obviously outrageous.

However, the real bummer is that the AirTag isn’t quite slim enough to slide into your wallet. If you ask me, losing your keys is an inconvenience - but losing your wallet is a code-red scramble to cancel your credit cards and pray your identity isn’t being ripped out from under you. In other words, I think trackers should be designed for the wallet before anything else.

Apple TV

So, I still use the third-generation Apple TV, which is no longer supported. To be honest, these new Apple TVs miss the mark and won’t inspire anyone in the same boat as me to upgrade. I don’t see why anyone with a newer Apple TV would want to upgrade either. But before I get into it, let me talk about the positives first.

The automatic colour calibration (by pointing your iPhone at the TV screen) is the delightful sort of cross-platform integration you’ve come to love (or hate) about Apple. TV calibration is usually such a messy, complicated affair - simplifying it so everyone can do it is hallmark Apple.

The new remote control looks to be a solid upgrade. You’ll still lose it in your couch cushions (why no U1 chip?), but it looks more functional than previous iterations. Personally, I love using my Apple Watch as a remote - it’s always there on your wrist and you’ll never accidentally leave it in the kitchen when grabbing popcorn.

Okay, so anybody with an old 1080p TV like me who wants an Apple TV will have to choke up $200 for the Apple TV HD. The Apple TV 4K is only thirty bucks more at $230! Apple’s math is way off here - why would anyone… I can’t even…

And do they know you can just buy a Roku for a measly thirty bucks? Thirty bucks, and boom - your old TV can stream Netflix.

And if you have a newer 4K “smart” TV, you have all the streaming services already built in. Why pay to clutter up your TV stand with an unnecessary plug-in box? I’m scratching my head as to why anybody would buy this. Perhaps Apple has grander plans and the only purpose of this minor spec bump is to buy some time and confound those who thought Apple would kill of the Apple TV entirely.

iMac

The new iMac has the well-received M1 chip at its heart. And a nicer camera for all those working from home who want to look more flattering on their conference calls. But the major headline here is the eye-catching new design.

I’m going to keep this simple. With its vibrant colour choices, the back of this iMac looks fantastic. The colours, reminiscent of the iMac G3s, pop with deep, rich hues. From the side, this ridiculously-thin iMac also looks amazing. It sort of floats like a giant iPad.

The colour-matched mouse and keyboard, and even power cable, elevate this iMac from appliance to art. You can tell the designers really want this iMac to be the linchpin of your home decor.

The front of this iMac doesn’t look as good. Large white bezels and a larger chin constrain and detract from the display. Also, the pastel hue of the chin is very different from the resplendant back.

Having said that, I think the average consumer will love the new design. There are people out there who adored the bling of a rose-gold iPhone with white bezels. I’m not one of those people, but I get it.

An all-screen iMac with tiny bezels and no chin would be a delight to use, in my opinion. But then you’d have to increase the thickness by putting the internals behind the screen. Personally, I don’t think thickness is a big deal for a Desktop computer that isn’t portable at all.

But an all-screen iMac would shift the focus from the industrial design to the content and essentially make the hardware invisible. Apple would lose all the iconic design elements they paid their designers handsomely for. They would also lose the “wow” factor that ridiculous thinness elicits on an emotional level (despite the lack of any practical benefit).

iPad Pro

I mentioned in the intro that there was one exception to a focus on the consumer in this event. The iPad Pro is that exception.

The big upgrade here is the new mini-LED display with local dimming zones for inky blacks without the drawbacks of OLED. Apple calls it a “liquid retina XDR display”, a marketing label they also tacked onto their Pro Display XDR, which retails for over $6,000. When Apple draws a parallel like this, you’d better sit up and take notice. This is one kick-ass screen for a tablet.

Compared to the colourful iMac lineup and even the pastel hues on the latest iPad Air lineup, the iPad Pro seems a bit too straight laced. But you can excuse the absence of fun because this iPad is for Pros, right?

Apple is throwing the M1 chip into everything, including this new iPad. Such raw computing power may be wasted on the average YouTube-watching consumer. But given the limitations of iPadOS (you can’t install full Desktop-class apps), Pros can’t even harness all this power - even if they wanted to.

We’ll see what WWDC brings in June - perhaps Apple will announce a revamped iPadOS that can take full advantage of the M1. Until then, this iPad Pro is overkill for anybody who doesn’t rob banks for a living.

Unless you’re evil Tim Cook of course.


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