Has Apple moved away from its longstanding simplicity stance with its latest product updates?
Back in early January, EDN published my retrospective on Apple’s 2019 unveilings. This year I decided not to wait quite so long (although, come to think of it, I’ve already generated some coverage on Apple’s transition to Arm chips), so here goes.
iPad Pro and its Magic Keyboard
Apple normally has at least one big product intro event prior to the mid-year WWDC (Worldwide Developers Conference), but COVID-19 (I’m guessing) thwarted those plans this year. Instead, we got a few discrete product releases in March, most notably that of the 2020 variant of the iPad Pro and its companion upgraded Magic Keyboard:
Two things particularly surprised me about this particular announcement. The first was that the tablet was based on the A12Z Bionic SoC, versus a variant of the A13 Bionic. The original A12 dates from September 2018, more than two years ago (a lifetime in tech). The “X” version of the A12, with three more GPU cores (an enhancement half-step which Apple had previously done with the A10-to-A10X, for example), followed one month later (two weeks shy of two years ago, as I write these words). And the A12Z, nearly 1.5 years after that? The exact same chip design, layout, and fabrication process as the A12X, but with all eight GPU cores on the die now functional. The A13 Bionic arrived in September 2019, but Apple chose not to do an “X” spin of it this time, perhaps because the A14 was arriving later in the year (keep reading) and/or perhaps because the company was busy designing its first generation of Arm-based PC processors instead? I’m betting more the latter.
That same day, Apple also announced its latest (and the last?) revision of the x86-based MacBook Air design, continuing its reversion to the beloved “scissor” keyboard (versus the reviled “butterfly” successor) which began the previous November with the 16” MacBook Pro. In May, the 13” MacBook Pro also got retrofitted with the “scissors” keyboard (completing the mobile product line retrograde), along with receiving a storage capacity update. Yawn.
Back in March 2016, Apple had introduced the “throwback” first-generation iPhone SE, with a form factor identical to the iPhone 5S but containing upgraded internals akin to those in the iPhone 6S family (including the A9 SoC). I actually have two of them downstairs in the storage closet; although I’m an Android guy (at least from a smartphone standpoint) nowadays, I couldn’t resist the early-2019 closeout prices. The second-generation iPhone SE showed up a bit more than a year later in April 2020; the concept was the same, although the form factor foundation and internals were both updated. The iPhone SE 2 was dimensionally and otherwise identical to an iPhone 8 from the outside but looked like an iPhone 11 on the inside (including the A13 SoC).
Apple on Arm
At WWDC in June, Apple fully embraced the Arm architecture that’s powered its smartphones, tablets, and smartwatches since 2007. I won’t repeat what I wrote back then so here’s the summary: Arm-based Apple PCs are on the way. Head here for the deets and keep an eye on this blog for more; rumor has it that company officials were actually serious when they said they’d be shipping “Apple Silicon”-centric systems by end-of-year, so my 2020 Apple coverage may not yet be concluded.
The August update of the 27” iMac was more significant than had been the case with the generational enhancements of its mobile siblings earlier in the year, but the announcement was a bit bittersweet to those of us with sizeable catalogs of legacy x86-compiled applications, as this very well may be the last significant product line update before the switch to “Apple Silicon”-based systems begins. Or not, we shall see.
September was “wearables” month apparently, as several new Apple Watch variants appeared. First off was the Series 6, which builds on its Series 5 precursor with (among other things) a blood oxygen (SpO2) sensor, although it reportedly doesn’t work very well, at least so far.
Next was the Watch SE, which like its iPhone SE relatives, makes cost-focused feature set tradeoffs that translate to lower prices, specifically in this case by removing the ECG and SpO2 sensors and dispensing with the always-on display option:
And finally, speaking of low prices, the Series 3 (which debuted in September 2017, more than three years ago) remains in the product line. Versus the Series SE, it also drops fall detection and noise monitoring, along with the altimeter. Although I get the idea of offering various products with various features and price points to broaden the overall market, once you additionally factor in Wi-Fi-only versus Wi-Fi-plus-cellular, different face sizes and materials (not to mention bands) and other variables, you end up with a bewildering array of options that belies Apple’s longstanding simplicity stance.
Speaking of a plethora of products, let’s next look at tablets. In September, Apple announced its fourth-generation iPad Air, the first product in its line with the A14 Bionic SoC. The company also unveiled its eighth-generation iPad, and as we saw earlier, there’s also the iPad Pro; multiple products, multiple screen sizes, multiple connectivity options. Historically the Pro has had the beefiest application processor inside, but that’s clearly not the case at the moment. I just end up confused, akin to what happens when I try to discern between Amazon’s various Kindle product tiers, and likely just leave my money in my wallet. I suspect many consumers are also in my shoes.
Earlier today, as I write this, Apple held its most recent announcement event. Remember the HomePod, which I dissed so derisively back in mid-2017? Well, it’s still in the product line, and it’s still too expensive, even though Apple’s dropped the price slightly from $349 to $299 (versus, say, the Amazon Echo Studio, on sale for $149.99 at the moment and still $100 cheaper than the HomePod even when not on sale). But if price is your primary hinderance to indulging in this particular aspect of the Apple ecosystem (i.e. you don’t care about the limited music service offerings, or the lack of “skills” support, or how bad Siri still is) there’s always the new $99 HomePod mini (which, as with Amazon’s latest Echo Dot design, seems to have caught the spherical wave):
Next is Apple’s next-generation mainstream smartphone line, the iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 mini. The mini is the more interesting of the two to me, in part because it’s at the low end of the line price-wise. Versus the 2nd-generation iPhone SE (which remains in the product line, along with the iPhone XR and iPhone 11), it has a larger display (5.4” diagonal vs 4.7”) but smaller overall dimensions (5.18” x 2.53” versus 5.45” x 2.65”) since its OLED display fills nearly the entire front of the phone.
Both it and its 6.1” diagonal iPhone 12 big brother are based on the A14 Bionic processor. Both phones surprisingly (at least to me) support both mmWave (U.S.-only) and sub-6 GHz 5G (mmWave support on the Pixel 4a 5G is a $100 markup, which I’d frankly argue is a smart tradeoff since mmWave 5G will effectively be a Verizon-only offering for a long time to come). They both offer “Super Retina” doubled resolution versus the iPhone 11 precursor, along with reinforced Corning “Ceramic Shield” glass, and ultra-wide and wide-angle rear cameras. The new line supports “MagSafe” magnet alignment-enhanced wireless charging, which, being proprietary, is also twice as powerful as industry-standard Qi (remember how much heat Google caught when it pulled a similar stunt with the Pixel 3?).
Take the iPhone 12, add a third (telephoto) camera on the back along with a LiDAR depth sensor, offer an even larger (Max) screen variant, and you have the iPhone 12 Pro family. It features the same processor and same 5G support, albeit with added support for ProRAW still image capture and both 10-bit HDR and Dolby Vision HDR video capture. The LiDAR sensor, which first appeared in the March-announced iPad Pro (you can read more about it here), is particularly interesting to me (but then again I’m a computer-vision guy in my day job). Back in March, a frequently-mentioned blog post from the folks at Halide (a well-known camera app) hyped its augmented-reality potential. Apple did a good job today, I think, of redirecting attention to a more meaningful near-term application: up to 6x faster low-light autofocus performance.
I’ll close, because I can’t resist, with a bit of snark (no matter that I wish I was off-base). Those who know me, or who have at least read my stuff for a while, already realize that I’m a pretty avid environmentalist. As a result, I really, really would like to believe Apple when they say that they’re not including headphones and AC adapters in the new smartphones’ boxes (as well as pulling them from existing products) because everybody’s already got them and the company doesn’t therefore want to contribute to unnecessary environmental waste. I daresay, however, that the likely primary true motivation is a reduction in bill-of-materials cost (with no associated reduction in price, of course), along with more compact per-product packaging that enables squeezing more of them per airplane, ship hold, truck, warehouse, and store shelf.
That said, Apple is thankfully still including a charging cable, versus forcing folks to buy one (or alternatively rely solely on environmentally-inefficient wireless charging; cue irony). And they’ve notably decided to transition it from legacy USB-A to USB-C, apparently the new version of the standard is now sufficiently pervasive, and it certainly charges faster.
Think I’m too cynical? Or disagree (or heaven forbid, agree) with anything else I’ve said? Sound off in the comments!
This article was originally published on EDN.
—Brian Dipert is Editor-in-Chief of the Edge AI and Vision Alliance, and a Senior Analyst at BDTI and Editor-in-Chief of InsideDSP, the company’s online newsletter.