Apple’s “Let’s Update Everything” event

Tech Life

The presentation

First of all, I really appreciated Apple’s decision to stream the event live. As others have observed, I wish Apple started doing this for every event, not just occasionally. I enjoyed the changeover dynamics between Tim Cook and Phil Schiller, and Cook’s presentation style is starting to grow on me. He looks and sounds like the good-hearted, somewhat shy uncle who has come to tell us a great story nobody else knows. In a few instances he was evidently so excited and overwhelmed as to trip over his own words. I found that endearing. Schiller has once again proven to be a damn fine showman, effortlessly reeling off explanations on design details, manufacturing processes, device specifications and the like. At a certain point, however, I found the pace to be accelerating in a sort of “we’re running out of time” fashion, and from then on some parts of the presentation felt rushed. The 4th-generation iPad was announced and dealt with so quickly that three contacts on Twitter sent me messages like “Hey, what did he say about the regular iPad before introducing the iPad mini?”

The new 13-inch retina MacBook Pro

This is a sweet little machine, undoubtedly. It’s like having a 13-inch ‘Power Air’: it weighs little more than a 13-inch MacBook Air, it’s actually smaller (if you consider width and depth) — though not thinner. On paper, the difference in mass between the two should be negligible when it comes to carrying them around, so I believe the new MacBook Pro can really offer the best of both worlds — portability and power — even if it’s going to be at a price (the entry-level 13-inch retina MacBook Pro costs $500/€500 more than the entry-level 13-inch MacBook Air).

Mac mini

I chuckled at Schiller’s introductory joke: “You knew there’d be something called mini in this presentation.” The Mac mini has received a nice speed bump and upgrade, and remains a very affordable, dependable option for those who want to enter the Apple ecosystem but have limited budget. For only $599/€649 you get a computer with a nice 2.5GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 (Turbo Boost up to 3.1GHz) processor, a powerful enough integrated graphic chip, and most of all a lot of versatility connection-wise. The Mac mini has Gigabit Ethernet, Thunderbolt, HDMI, four USB 3 ports, an SDXC card slot and interestingly retains a FireWire 800 port. It’s definitely a nice little desktop machine.

The new iMac

I loved, loved, how Schiller introduced it. It was a ‘wow’ moment similar to the introduction of the iPhone 5. The thinness of the redesigned iMac is by all means stunning, and I admit that for a moment I believed that all the iMac was as thin as that. For a moment I thought: Apple did it, Apple managed to build a computer so thin it doesn’t look real. As you can see from this photo by Ars Technica, the new iMac reaches that incredible 5mm thinness only at the edges, but it’s still an impressive loss of bulk compared with the previous generation.

The new iMac is probably what blew me away the most in yesterday’s event. It is an engineering and design feat that I find more interesting and exciting than the new iPad mini. As I was following Schiller’s presentation, for the first time in years I started considering this new iMac for my next upgrade instead of a laptop. The last time a desktop Mac was my main machine was during the 1999–2003 period, when I was using a beautiful blueberry slot-loading iMac G3/350. Since a thunderstorm killed it, my main workhorses have been a graphite iBook G3/466, a 12-inch PowerBook G4 and then a 15-inch MacBook Pro. But in recent years I’ve been less mobile than before, and most of the time my MacBook Pro is used as a desktop workstation. I’ve been seriously considering the 13-inch MacBook Air as my next machine for a while, then the introduction of the new 13-inch retina MacBook Pro got me thinking… and this new iMac is making me rethink everything. With it, I’d actually have more free space on my desk, and the current 15-inch MacBook Pro would make a solid second machine.

I’m intrigued by what Apple calls the Fusion Drive, and if (and when) I upgrade to the new iMac, I’ll definitely choose that as the storage option. As Apple explains on the iMac’s Performance page, Fusion Drive is a breakthrough concept that combines the high storage capacity of a traditional hard drive with the high performance of flash storage. With Fusion Drive in your iMac, disk-intensive tasks — from booting up to launching apps to importing photos — are faster and more efficient. That’s because frequently used items are kept at the ready on speedy flash storage, while infrequently accessed items go to the hard drive. It’s all managed by OS X, so the user doesn’t have to worry about setting up anything.

It would be great that any hybrid drive you choose to put inside a relatively modern Mac (i.e., that can run Mountain Lion) were managed as a ‘Fusion Drive’ by the operating system. It’d be a fantastic upgrade for my current MacBook Pro — I’m still wary of SSD drives and they’re still too expensive considering the limited storage space they offer over a regular HD, but I’ve been considering a hybrid drive as the next upgrade for my MacBook Pro because I feel it can offer the best of both worlds, speed and ample storage space. An intelligent management provided by the operating system itself would be the cherry on the cake.

On a last note, Apple is really putting optical drives behind. When Schiller was illustrating how they got to achieve such thinness in the new iMac, the subtext I felt was: thank god we got rid of that cumbersome thing. Now, if you want a Mac with built-in optical drive, your only choices are the regular, non-retina MacBook Pros — or the Mac Pro, of course.

The 4th-generation iPad

Admittedly, this caught me by surprise. And not in a good way. Let’s be clear on this: I’m not feeling ‘cheated’ or ‘betrayed’ by Apple and I surely won’t get all dramatic over this, but I expected a slightly longer life-cycle for the iPad 3. On a rational level, I perfectly understand Apple’s strategy, and Marco Arment is spot-on about it in his assessment:

The timing of the update — just 6 months after the iPad 3, instead of the usual year — will anger a lot of iPad 3 owners. But the previous March releases of the iPad 2 and 3 were more problematic.

Many people give or receive iPads for the holidays, and their new gifts were one-upped by new models just a few months later. This undoubtedly caused some buyers not to give iPads as holiday gifts, waiting for the new models instead.

Furthermore, there’s much stronger tablet competition from Amazon, Google, and Microsoft now, and they’re all timing their updates for the fall, shortly before the cultural disaster of holiday shopping mania. Keeping the iPad on a spring update schedule would mean that 6-month-old iPads were competing with brand-new models from everyone else, and everyone else’s models were able to get more press attention without competition from Apple, during the most important buying season of the year.

The iPad 3’s time as the best iPad model was short-lived, and that’s unfortunate for people who bought one and care about having the best, but a fall update schedule will be better in the long run.

I have purchased my iPad 3 in late July, so it basically lasted three months as the best iPad model. Of course it’s still a powerful, fantastic device. Of course I still love it. As I love my iPhone 4, which is still a great device and I have no complaints about it even if it’s not as powerful as a 4S or a 5. The reasons of my feeling disappointed by such an early update cycle for the iPad are entirely personal and I don’t expect other people to feel the same. The fact is, I simply can’t afford to update computers and devices like I change my socks, so my strategy has always been to save money and wait until the device I’m after reaches a mature enough stage as to last the longest possible timeframe.

That’s why, when it comes to the iPad, I didn’t get the first generation model because it was a “1.0” version, so to speak. I was really close to buying the iPad 2 because at the time the speculation was that it would have sported a retina display, and for my eyesight a retina iPad would have been the perfect solution. When the iPad 2 was introduced, and the display was not retina, I (begrudgingly) decided to wait for the third-generation iPad, and to save more money so that I could buy the 32 GB model instead of the 16 GB one. When the iPad 3 was introduced I thought it would be the moment to finally get it. If I waited a couple months was because I wanted to learn the general reaction by other iPad 3 buyers, if there were problems related to the new high-density display, if there were performance issues or other unwanted surprises, etc.

Seeing that everything was fine about the iPad 3, I decided to buy it in late July, thinking its life-cycle would last at least until the beginning of 2013. The introduction of the iPad 4 after only six months makes the iPad 3 the shortest-living generation of models (unless Apple introduces an ‘iPad 5’ six months from now, which is unlikely) and, what’s more, makes it a bad investment for me. I can’t help but feel that my $599 iPad 3 is worth less than a $599 iPad 4 which, in all probability, will have a life-cycle of at least one year. That is really the core of the matter for me, even if, in day-to-day usage, I know I’ll be okay with my third-generation iPad’s performance.

The iPad mini

Something new, and nothing new here at the same time. The iPad mini is indeed a nice device which will quickly find its target audience and will sell a handsome number of units. If I were interested in a tablet of that size, I would certainly prefer an iPad mini over a Nexus 7 or Kindle Fire, despite the iPad mini’s premium price. (And I confess I enjoyed Phil Schiller’s comparison between the iPad mini and the Nexus 7 — “that other device” as he called it). The black & slate iPad mini is just lovely. But I very much prefer a 9.7-inch, retina display iPad. Apple’s tag line for the iPad mini is Every inch an iPad, to emphasise that despite its smaller footprint, its user experience is comparable with what you get when using a regular iPad, but John Gruber’s first impressions confirm my skepticism for a tablet of this size:

[…] It runs iPad apps, but feels like a a “big iPhone” in use. It feels smaller than I expected it to. Having held it, “Mini” now makes sense as the name for it. […]

Screen resolution-wise, it’s exactly what I expected for a 163 PPI display in 2012: noticeably nicer than the 133 PPI iPad 1/2, noticeably worse than the 266 PPI iPad 3/4. The iPad Mini display seems brighter and to have better contrast than the iPhone 3GS display, but unsurprisingly, rendered text looks exactly like it does on the 3GS.

Text-rendering for me is a deal-breaker in a tablet, and at this point, if it doesn’t have a retina display I don’t even look at it, whatever the size.

Like others, I too think that $329 is a strange price, but I like Dan Moren’s perspective: I just assume the extra $29 in the iPad mini’s price accounts for the Lightning cable they include.

I very much like the semi-interactive iPad mini Features page on Apple’s site. Scroll all the way to the bottom and play with iPad mini and Smart Cover’s colour combinations, and don’t miss that little gem of a video. Only Apple can make a video about an accessory with such an elegant, lovely result.

Software: iBooks 3 and iBooks Author 2

Both nice improvements from what I can tell at first glance, but I’d like to spend more time with both applications and maybe write a separate post about them. I definitely agree with Gruber when he writes (see aforementioned link): I can definitely hold [the iPad mini] in one hand, and I wonder if that’s exactly the reason for the new scrolling (as opposed to page-turning) theme in iBooks. (Should make iBooks better on the iPhone, too.)

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