Apple’s latest event wasn’t a blockbuster, but as the company rapidly approaches its 40th Anniversary, it was interesting to see how Cupertino plans to adapt to a more competitive market while playing a leading role in a rather critical current debate about the future of privacy. By K Stewart.
While tablet sales continue to dip, relentlessly squeezed by large screen smartphones and solid-state, ultra-slim laptops, Apple aggressively relaunched its mainstream 9.7-inch iPad model as the ‘ultimate PC replacement’ with a powerhouse feature set to match its Pro name.
At a starting price of £499 for a 32Gb WiFi model, it’s £180 cheaper than the 12.9-inch Pro model launched last Autumn with a spec sheet that matches or exceeds it in almost every way apart from screen size.
While the original 12.9 inch iPad Pro made do with a 8MP iSight camera with 1080P video, the new model takes the 6S’s state-of-the-art unit: 12MP with True Tone flash and 30 fps 4K (3840x2160) video and slo-mo video support for 1080P at 120fps and 720P at 240fps. The 1.2MP FaceTime HD camera is similarly upgraded to 6S class; 5MP with Retina Flash - where the iPad screen serves as your camera's front facing flash unit.
The A9X chip is the same as in the 12.9-inch Pro, but driving a 2048x1536 screen rather than 2732x204 so its real-world performance should be considerably higher.
The display itself is the best Apple has ever made for iOS according to Phil Schiller, with a wider colour gamut than the 12.9 inch model and the lowest reflectivity of any tablet - 40% lower than iPad Air 2. It’s also the first Apple device with a True Tone display, where four image sensors detect ambient light so the display can match the environment. It's not often an IPad gets a feature that's not been introduced on iPhone, but we can expect it in the 7.
The new Pro is also the first to offer 256GB of storage with £739 WiFI-only or £839 with Cellular. (The 12.9-inch model also get this option today for £899/£1019.)
Apple has always taken the line that its better for Apple to cannibalise itself rather than to allow the competition to do so. The new Pro model certainly proves that point and anyone who held off the larger model hoping its features would eventually come to the mid-size model are rewarded as the first 9.7-inch iPad Pro goes way beyond that.
Like the 12.9 inch Pro it has four speakers with twice the volume of the iPad Air 2 and somehow, despite exact same dimensions as Air 2, the battery capacity is virtually unchanged as is battery life.
There's also the Smart Connector to power accessories such as the Smart Keyboard. This fabric-covered accessory is now available in smaller form to match the new iPad but its price is only £10 cheaper at £129. I’ve found the larger size keyboard to be surprisingly good given its integration into a fold-up Smart Cover design - a significant qualifier which won't be helped in smaller format with reduced key size.
Apple Pencil may, as Phil Schiller insists, be the best Apple accessory ever but it’s certainly not the cheapest at £79. Nor is it perhaps the most practical, outside of the design agencies quoted in the presentation praising it as the best drawing device on the market. There’s still no ‘off button’ - so every time you move it beside the iPad Pro it will activate and start draining its battery. Nor have Apple deigned to provide any means to attach it to the Pro or carry it around. Its beautiful to hold and to work with, but also quite long and fragile - the polar opposite of the stubby, inferior-feeling but robust stylus Microsoft ship with Surface (as standard rather than extra cost item, it should be noted). With iOS still lacking system-wide handwriting recognition - except via third-party keyboard apps - the Pencil feels over-designed, over-priced for anyone other than designers and artists.
The only consolation for 12.9-inch Pro users feeling feature inferiority is that its internal USB 3 controller is not only absent from the smaller model, but also accessories previously promised for it are now here. A £29 Lightning to USB camera connector supports data transfer at USB 3 speed exclusively on the big iPad, while similarly a £25 USB-C to Lightning Cable makes use of the 12.9-inch iPad Pro’s fast charge feature… if you’ve got a USB-C charger such as Apple’s £39 29W unit for the 12-inch MacBook.
Tim Cook introduced the new iPad Pro with no sign of any faltering in Apple's commitment; “We believe iPad is the perfect expression of the future of personal computing. We took a giant step last fall with the introduction of the i12.9 inch Pad Pro, since then many people have told us it's become their primary computing device.”
For right now, we should balance Apple’s enthusiasm for iPad as the future of computing with their own caveats. Talk of the 9.7-inch iPad Pro as the ‘ultimate PC replacement’ was qualified as being aimed at the 600 million PCs that are five years or older and yet still in daily use. It’s difficult to think of what wouldn’t be a step forward for such users, but clearly the iPad Pro is.
There's also a certain irony in how the iPad 2, itself five years old, dominates iPad usage stats and it's no surprise Apple heavily pushed the Pro as the ultimate iPad upgrade as well as PC replacement. The price of the iPad Pro is higher than the Air 2 used to be however, while the Air is not only kept in the line-up but reduced to £349 (16GB) while the 64GB version is £429 and hasn’t been cut from the line-up yet in the way Apple normally uses to push you up the range. For customers who don't require the Pro's advanced features, the Air 2 remains a serious choice and perhaps the toughest competitor to the 9.7-inch Pro.
Taken as a whole, the iPad line-up from Mini 2 up to 12.9-inch iPad Pro now looks accommodating to almost any need rather than cleverly structured to push you into getting the most costliest model. This is a welcome change and it now also happens to be true for iPhones thanks in part to the SE…
The smaller screen iPhone SE
After the misfire of the plastic-bodied 5C, the iPhone SE reflects Apple finally, finally getting serious about the mid-range.
UK pricing is £359 (16GB) and £439 (64GB) which is £100 below the current price of the 2014 iPhone 6, £200 below the 6S.
There’s no 3D Touch or Taptic Engine, but the it’s the same 64bit A9 chip with M9 co-processor as the 6S with double the performance of the 5S, while the GPU offers three times the performance of the 5S. The M9 co-processor enables always on ‘hey Siri’ functionality like the 6S.
The design is a minor refinement of the 5S, albeit now available in the standard four colours; silver, space grey, gold and rose gold. More importantly it doesn’t feel dated, the distinctive design has been mildly tweaked (matt chamfered edges rather than shiny, a raised Apple logo on the back) but looks as premium - if not more so compared to the smoothly contoured but unoriginal lines of the 6S.
However, the rear-facing camera is the same as the 6S; 12-megapixel iSight camera with 1.22µ pixels and support for Live Photos, panoramas (up to 63 megapixels), True Tone flash and 4K video capture. It does 1080P up to 60fps and slo-mo 240fps. The front facing camera isn't quite as good as the 6S, but Mobile and wireless technology is pretty much a match with 802.11ac WiFi up to 3x faster than 5S.
Touch ID was introduced with the 5S and the SE doesn't get the latest gen version - but it's still plenty fast though and unlike the 5S, the SE comes with Apple Pay functionality.
Pre-orders begin on March 24th and shipments begin on the 31st and while it's apparently the most affordable price-point for any iPhone at launch, Apple are keeping the 6 and 6 Plus in the line-up, as more affordable big screen alternatives to 6S/6S Plus.
Come September, its latest generation technology will no doubt be overshadowed by the iPhone 7, but if you’re looking for a first iOS device or an upgrade to an existing 4-inch design, this is a compelling release.
According to Cook, the Apple is not only the number one selling smart watch, but also one with the highest satisfaction rating - although this may be a very relative term.
Pricing has dropped with the entry-level 38mm Watch Sport going from £299 to £259, while new colour options have been introduced for Sports and Leather bands, plus a black Milanese band added for £129. The entry-level £39 fluoroelastomer Sports bands also now have competition from woven nylon bands at the same price with seven colours to choose from and you can also get a Sports Watch with a Nylon Band bundled in rather than the fluoroelastomer - although it should be noted the latter wears and feels much better than you expect. iOS 2.2 has also shipped with refinements mainly to Apple Maps usability.
From my time using the Watch, I’ve found it a pleasant enough to use even if the much vaunted iOS 2.0 with support for native apps generally failed to live up to expectations. Advanced apps, particularly those without watch face complications, are often quicker, easier to access via taking out your iPhone rather than wait on Apple Watch spinning them up. What's to come with Apple Watch 2 will be interesting to see.
Declining to provide actual sales figures, Tim Cook nevertheless reported last year's rebooted Apple TV sparked the biggest sales to date for the category. Evidently this isn't enough to unfreeze negotiations for an accompanying streaming TV service, so the future of TV with Apple remains led by third-party Apps and HBO Now made a brief appearance to promote Game Of The Thrones Series 6.
An NBA-app with an exclusive split-screen view for watching two games simultaneously indicated how, in the US at least, there is interest in making TV apps that extend the viewing experience and there are now over 5,000 tvOS apps in total, including some decent new game apps such as Angry Birds Go karting, Real Racing 3 and AG Drive.
The main news was of refinement with tvOS 9.2 shipping now with enhancements such as Siri dictation - very useful for username/password entry - App Store search with Siri, support for Bluetooth keyboards, an updated app-switcher, support for App folders and the extension of Photos to support iCloud Photo Library and Live Photos.
iOS 9.3 has an extended open beta with multiple iterations to smooth the introduction of features such as Night Shift, which can be set automatically (based on location) or at scheduled times to reduce the blue light in your screen's display to be less disruptive of sleep patterns. Essentially, bright white becomes more yellow-ish, more restful on the idea if reading in bed. It works well enough, although Phil Schiller clearly favoured the ambient light technology in the new iPad Pro.
The built-in Notes app has recently gone from a Comic Sans joke app to a serious competitor to Evernote and OneNote. It has first class Apple Pencil support, beautifully integrates with other apps via the share tool and with 9.3 you can now password protect specific notes.
The News app has also been refined with Top Stories and Editors' Picks, while content sources have been broadened and Apple claim 50 million active users.
This was not an event for the Mac, not with the iPad pushed so aggressively as the future of computing and perhaps more to the point continued slippage for Intel's new CPUs, but OSX El Capitan got updated with support for Live Photos, the ability to synch PDFs in iBooks using iCloud and the ability to import Evernote files into Notes.
The 40th anniversary
April 1st will mark the 40th anniversary of Apple and Tim Cook's opening remarks briefly took note of this. After sprawling WWDC keynotes and premium iPhone launches, this was a stripped down, back to basics event held in the Town Hall venue on the Apple Campus. It's likely the last such event to be held with the vast new Apple HQ due to open next year.
It was a modest setting for Tim Cook to reveal there's now 1 billion Apple devices in use in the world, the starting point not for a sales pitch but a promise not to shirk the responsibility that entails and, specifically, the battle with the FBI over being compelled to develop software for unlocking the San Barnardino terrorist incident iPhone. Hours after the keynote, the court case was put on hold as the FBI asked for time to explore a non-Apple solution to cracking the iPhone.
In the fast emerging 'Internet of things' where everything is connected, the stakes involved are high indeed and Cook made a short, but focused argument on the iPhone being built for you and it becoming our most personal device. A point powerfully reinforced with the launch of CareKit for iPhone, which builds upon the success of the medical Research Kit To enhance medical support for iPhone users (and potentially others as it's Open Source software).
This wasn't a blockbuster event, but it usefully set out how Apple is adapting its iPhone line-up to a more competitive market, doubling down on the iPad as the future of computing and playing a leading role in a critical debate about the future of privacy.