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By Jason Snell
October 27, 2020 9:00 AM PT
For all the sound and fury about how iPhone updates are boring and incremental—and make no mistake, incremental improvement year over year is how Apple plays this game—it’s important to note that it’s a rare moment when Apple restyles the exterior of the iPhone. You could even say that the iPhone has had only four distinct design eras: the original model, the plastic-backed 3G/3GS models, the Braun-inspired flat side design of the iPhone 4 and 5, and the curved edges introduced in the iPhone 6. That basic design prevailed for six years—nearly half the iPhone’s total life.
Viewed through this lens, the iPhone 12 series is the start of an era—or perhaps the return to a previous era. While Apple has continued its grind of continuously improving the iPhone’s internals, the outside of 2020’s iPhone models has been refreshed with a look that harkens back to the design introduce ten years ago with the iPhone 4. When I first held the black iPhone 12 I was instantly taken back to the day I took the black iPhone 5 out of the box. That was my favorite iPhone design ever, and I’m glad it’s back in favor.
Two of a kind
Design is subjective, and if you preferred the curves of the iPhone 6 through 11 I won’t argue with you about it. But I felt that the curvy design contributed to the iPhone feeling slipperier, like I was constantly holding on to a bar of soap. I went from being the kind of person who never uses an iPhone case to being an inveterate case user. The iPhone 12 feels far more solid to me, especially aided by those matte anodized aluminum sides and the grippy, glossy glass back.
The iPhone 12 Pro feels the same, of course—and that brings me to the other major change this time around, which is that Apple has unified its base-model iPhones into a single size and shape. The iPhone 12 and 12 Pro are identical cousins, so much so that they can share the same cases. The iPhone 11 was a lot larger than the iPhone 11 Pro, but that distinction is gone. Even better, though both of these iPhone 12 models have a 6.1-inch diagonal screen—which is a larger number than the old 5.9-inch screen from the iPhone X, XS, and 11 Pro—that expansion has mostly been achieved by narrowing bezels and slightly lengthening the phone.
What this means: Both of these phones feel almost identical in the hand, and are not really larger than the models from the past three years. So if you’re comfortable with that size, you can forget about the screen and choose between them based on price, features, and aesthetics.
Speaking of the screen, this is another big step forward for Apple, because it’s brought the OLED display introduced in the iPhone X to the lower-end iPhone models for the first time. Last year’s iPhone 11 had a (very good) LCD-based display; this year’s iPhone 12 is OLED all the way. It looks great, with deep blacks and lots of available dynamic range, so if you’re considering a move from an iPhone X or XS to an iPhone 12, you won’t feel like you’re taking a step back in terms of display. (The iPhone 12 Pro offers a little bit greater “typical” brightness than the 12, so it’s fair to say it’s a slightly brighter display—though both displays can reach the same level of peak brightness.)
Apple has also upgraded the surface that covers that OLED display. Both models are using Corning’s Ceramic Shield process for the front glass, which uses a lattice of crystals to improve shatter resistance. This technically means that the iPhone’s front covering is no longer glass, because a material with crystals in it isn’t considered glass. You can call it glass if you like, but the point is that it’s an engineered surface that’s less likely to break if you drop it. (Apple says it’s “4x better drop performance” than last year’s models, but what that really means is that Ceramic Shield-bearing phones were 25% as likely to shatter when dropped than last year’s iPhones.)
Beyond the ceramic shield layer, there are no changes to the underlying ion-X reinforced glass being used on the front and back of these phones—and no improvements to scratch resistance. If you get upset by iPhone screen scratches, I have no good news to tell you. I feel your disappointment, but I agree with Apple’s prioritization of reducing the likelihood of catastrophic events rather than preventing limited cosmetic damage.
Which brings me to Apple’s other continued attempt to keep your iPhone from breaking, its upgraded resistance to water and dust. This year Apple’s upped its water-resistance claims to up to six meters of water for up to 30 minutes, so there’s even less chance that your iPhone will be ruined if you drop it in water. But just as with Apple’s glass shattering claims, it’s important to keep in mind that this is all about reducing the probability of destruction. Apple still won’t replace your phone under warranty if you drop it in a swimming pool and it leaks—it’s just less likely to leak if you do. Apple still says you shouldn’t intentionally place an iPhone 12 in water. Water resistant is not waterproof. Knowing is half the battle.
The accessory story
Apple introduced support for wireless charging three years ago with the iPhone 8 and X models. With the iPhone 12 generation, it’s placed its own spin on wireless charging with the (re)introduction of MagSafe, a familiar old Mac name reincarnated as a magnetic ring on the back of the iPhone that aids in attachment of a magnetic charging puck. (Regular Qi charging is still supported, but Apple has reserved the highest-power charging rate for MagSafe.)
Apple’s MagSafe charger is well made, an aluminum paddle with a white cord that looks like the big sister to the Apple Watch charger. It attaches to the iPhone with a pleasing magnetic snap, and removing it is easy—you can even do it with one hand, using a finger to flick it off.
Of course, this means that Apple has a whole new set of MagSafe-related accessories, and a zillion more will come from other companies over the next few months. I have had a chance to use Apple’s Silicone case, and it’s nice—the magnets attach on the back for an added snap (though the tension of the case is still doing most of the work of holding it in place) and there’s even a hidden NFC chip in there that allows the iPhone to know what color of case has been attached and respond accordingly. Clever Apple.
I haven’t used any of Apple’s other accessories for these models, though a leather case is apparently coming next month. That’s the case I’d buy, but I’m holding out hope that I won’t need one at all.
As for the iPhone now having magnets inside it, it remains to be seen if those magnets are actually strong enough to attach to accessories like PopSockets or a car charger. Maybe? But I wouldn’t count on it. Every accessory maker in the world is figuring that out right now.
It’s worth also mentioning the accessories that Apple no longer includes in the iPhone box: There’s no USB plug charger and no set of wired Lightning EarPods. I believe Apple that these items are an enormous source of electronic waste, and it’s better to not include them in the box. (I also believe that in addition to reducing waste, it’s saving Apple a ton of money.)
Including the earbuds seems like the biggest waste to me—though apparently France disagrees?—and so I’ll applaud that decision. As for the charging plug, well… I do own an awful lot of USB-A charging plugs. But I am a bit puzzled that Apple has switched to a default USB-C-to-Lightning cable in the box, given that USB-C charging plugs are far less common. At least you can use one of your many USB-A chargers with one of the many USB-A to Lightning cables you probably have. The situation on the MagSafe charger is even worse—it also comes without a plug, and is USB-C, making it far more likely that buyers of the MagSafe charger will also need to buy a charging plug.
Power and its price
When Apple introduced an OLED display to the iPhone, the price shot up. So it’s not surprising that bringing OLED to the lower end of the iPhone line has resulted in a price increase—but it is disappointing. Last year, you could buy a “mainstream” iPhone—the iPhone 11—for $700. This year the mainstream choice, the iPhone 12, is $830 ($30 less if you’re on a major U.S. carrier). The new iPhone line does still start at $700 (actually $730), but it’s for the iPhone 12 mini.
That’s a downer for people looking for the best price on a mainstream phone. The good news is that if you’re in the market for an iPhone Pro, Apple has boosted the base storage on those devices to 128GB, so you’re getting twice the storage as last year for the same price. As John Gruber wrote in his excellent piece on iPhone 12 pricing, the result is a more smooth continuum of iPhone prices. I wish the mass-appeal iPhone model started at $700 and not $830, but the act of adding an OLED screen to those models probably sealed that decision. I hope that price creeps back down over time. (Apple did cut the price of the iPhone 11 to $600, which makes it a great option for people who want to save money and might like a larger phone than the iPhone 12.)
Powering every iPhone 12 model is the A14 processor, Apple’s latest processor and likely the core of the next year’s worth of Apple devices. I covered the general characteristics of the A14 in my iPad Air review, but suffice it to say that it’s fast. However, I did discover that the iPhone 12 models scored lower at GPU-related Compute tests in Geekbench 5 than the iPad Air did. It’s not entirely clear what’s going on here, but my guess is that the iPhone is a little bit more thermally constrained than the iPad Air, at least on the GPU. Still, the A13 chip on last year’s iPhone was the fastest smartphone chip ever made—until the A14 came along. iPhone users won’t hurt for processing power.
The looks and feels
As it did last year, Apple differentiates between the pro and non-pro iPhone models by offering different variations on material, finish, and color. The iPhone 12 is ringed in anodized aluminum with a glossy glass back and matte camera bump, and comes in black, white, blue, green, and red. The iPhone 12 Pro’s ring is stainless steel with a matte glass back and glossy camera bump, and comes in gray (Apple calls it “graphite”), silver, gold, and a blue-gray Apple calls “Pacific Blue.”
Honestly, I prefer the aesthetics of the iPhone 12. No company in existence is better at anodized aluminum than Apple, and the matte black aluminum on the iPhone 12 Apple provided me for review is exquisite. The glossy deep black back is gorgeous. Photos I’ve seen of the other colors of the iPhone 12 suggest they’re vibrant and attractive.
In contrast, the iPhone 12 Pro is—well, it’s fine. It’s pretty much the playbook Apple has been using on the iPhone for years—a shiny metal band (that really picks up fingerprints) and a muted back color. Last year Apple finally added some color to the black/silver/gold trinity with the addition of Midnight Green, and this year that choice has been replaced with Pacific Blue.
While it’s nice to see color, Apple’s choices are still incredibly restrained. Apparently bright colors aren’t professional. Personally, I think it’s a shame that you have to choose between an iPhone with a fun personality and an iPhone with a better camera. But as long as Apple insists that pro equals boring (with the possible exception of a little fingerprint-mottled stainless steel bling), that’s where we’ll be. I look forward to next year’s Moonlight Brown or Deep Tan iPhone Pro.
After the iPhone 12 series was announced, I began to prepare myself to give up pro features and looks in case I wanted the iPhone 12 mini. I didn’t expect to prefer the straight-up iPhone 12 to the iPhone 12 Pro, but that’s what happened. It looks better, feels better, and is appreciably lighter than the pro model. Your mileage may vary, but I hope the future of the iPhone looks more like the iPhone 12 than the iPhone 12 Pro.
Pro is for cameras
So if I prefer the iPhone 12’s aesthetics, what will I be forced to give up in exchange for those sweet aluminum sides? Two sensors on the back of the phone: the new Lidar sensor (which first appeared on the 2020 iPad Pro) and the telephoto camera.
Unlike the Lidar sensor in the iPad Pro, which was designed to enhance augmented-reality applications, Apple has tasked the iPhone Pro’s Lidar sensor with some additional functionality. The photography subsystem uses it to assist with range-finding, allowing faster focus in low light situations and the shooting of Portrait Mode shots in Night Mode.
The iPhone Pro also has the capability to save shots in Apple’s new Pro RAW format, which lets pro photographers use the raw sensor data from the iPhone’s cameras as the basis for photo editing, and can shoot HDR video at 60 frames per second compared to the iPhone 12’s 30 fps cap.
These are real features, and if you’re truly a pro (or a hobbyist who likes to work like a pro), these features are going to make the iPhone 12 Pro the better choice—as they should. When Apple dared to suggest that a smartphone could be “professional,” it was mocked—but here it is, adding actual professional features to the iPhone Pro. Yes, most people who buy an iPhone Pro won’t need these features, but that doesn’t always matter—it just matters that the thing you bought is so good that even the pros can use it.
Both models do benefit from an upgraded “wide” (1x) camera that performs better in low light. And of course, neither of them have some extra features that will only be available in the iPhone 12 Pro Max.
I’ll be honest: Apple’s Night Mode is really, really good—but I almost never use it. I’m sure that’s due, at least in part, to the pandemic leading to me very rarely being out anywhere in low-light situations. In any event, this seems like a year with subtle but real camera improvements—again, it’s how Apple plays this game.
If you’d like some very detailed samples of the changes in iPhone cameras this year, I can’t recommend Austin Mann’s iPhone 12 camera review enough.
The outlier alternatives
The iPhone 12 and 12 Pro are Apple’s mainstream iPhones. Since they share a shape and size, it’s really down to the preference of the potential buyer to decide which one is the right one. I have a strong preference for the aesthetics of the iPhone 12, and the additional camera functions aren’t enough to sway me, but reasonable people can differ. It’s great that Apple is offering both, and together they form the core from which the bulk of iPhone sales will come.
But here’s the funny thing: the most interesting iPhones of the year may be the ones at the extremes, the edge cases, the two models that won’t arrive until November. The iPhone 12 mini may be the phone that a whole slice of the iPhone buying public has been pining for since Apple started cranking up the size with the iPhone 6. (Though I suspect that at least some of the people who profess interest in the iPhone 12 mini—and I may be in this group myself—will hold one in their hands and realize that they’ve adapted to larger phones and would miss the extra screen size if it went away.) And the iPhone 12 Pro Max will offer the largest iPhone screen yet, coupled with camera improvements that aren’t available on any model—thrilling fans of huge phones and those who prioritize camera features above all others.
Without those devices in the mix, the iPhone line remains incomplete. But the iPhone 12 and 12 Pro are a good start.1
- The iPhone 12 line also offers 5G cellular networking. I wasn’t able to test it, and 5G is more a marketing vehicle for the wireless industry than something that will have a big impact on how people use their phones in most cases. In terms of all the new features of the iPhone 12, it’s really a footnote. ↩
New Apple hardware season is in full swing! We review the iPhone 12, iPhone 12 Pro, and fourth-generation iPad Air. Myke and Jason find themselves drawn to different models for aesthetic reasons. And in Upstream, we discuss why James Bond is probably not coming soon to a streaming service near you.
By Jason Snell
October 26, 2020 9:00 AM PT
The original iMac was defined by the shape of the CRT display at its heart. Fairly early on in the process of designing it, Apple decided to set aside an alternative version that used a laptop-style flat-panel display as being too expensive and impractical.
But four years later, flat-screen technology was finally ready to reach the mainstream, and the giant tube inside the six million iMacs Apple had sold felt like outmoded technology. The designers behind the original iMac set about reinventing the iMac for an era where the flat screen was at the forefront. What they came up with bore no resemblance to the biggest hit the Mac had ever had.
Just sticking a motherboard on the back of a flat screen? That was no good. It would ruin the thinness of the display. Optical drives couldn’t spin fast enough in an upright configuration. It would force all the ports to the sides, rather than hiding them in the back to reduce clutter. No, Apple wasn’t going to take the easy way out.
Instead, the iMac G4 was all about that flat screen, floating on air, held aloft by a chromed stainless-steel arm, kept stable by the computer hardware in its white dome of a base. It was beautiful. A triumph of industrial design. A perfect match of form and function. A creation that deserves its place in museums, truly.
Steve Jobs certainly thought so. In launching the iMac G4 at Macworld Expo in 2002, he called it “the opportunity of the decade to reshape desktop computers,” with “beauty and grace…that is going to last the next decade.”
And that’s the funny thing about the iMac G4. It’s undoubtedly, inarguably one of the best designs that the team of Jobs and Ive ever came up with. But while it wasn’t exactly a flop, it only lasted two years. It was replaced with the real design that would define the iMac for more than a decade—the very design Apple had tried to avoid.
Design by Mr. Rogers
The goal of the iMac G4’s design, Jobs said on stage, was to “let each element be true to itself.” That’s a statement that goes way beyond one computer: I believe it to be the core of Jonathan Ive’s design philosophy. Try to find the truth about whatever technological component is required for the product—and then allow it to be the perfect representation of what it is, rather than trying to be something it’s not.
Shakespeare’s classic line from Hamlet, “This above all—to thine own self be true,” seems to be the right reference to make here, but I grew up on “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” Among Fred Rogers’s teachings was a belief that we are all at our best when we are being authentic: “You’ve made this world a special day just by being you,” he said at the end of his show for decades. Or as he sang, “It’s you I like, the way down deep inside you, not the things that hide you.”
That flat panel on the iMac G4 is living its best life. It is as thin and light as possible, suspended by one of Apple’s great mechanical engineering tricks, the articulated chrome arm. The display could rotate 180 degrees, bend 90 degrees, and tilt 35 degrees, allowing Jobs to boast (rightly) about the iMac’s “superior ergonomics.” You could really move it to just about any position, in most cases with a single finger.
To make it seem even thinner—and to keep your grubby fingers off the display—Apple’s designers surrounded the display with a clear plastic halo, and this was what you were supposed to touch when you repositioned the screen.
The rest of the iMac lived in that white dome, a half a volleyball with a hard drive, optical drive, power supply, and powerful G4 processor densely packed in. If you haven’t picked up an iMac G4 lately, let me assure you that they are much heavier than you’d think, mostly because of the surprising density of the base.
The trouble with floating screens
So why didn’t the iMac G4 design stand the test of time, and set the iMac up for a decade of innovation? The most obvious answer is that LCD screens weren’t going to remain small forever. Over the iMac G4’s lifetime, Apple added 17- and 20-inch models to the original 15-inch design. The bigger the display, the more magic is required to keep it floating in mid-air and let it be adjusted with a single finger. My recollection is that some users of the larger models discovered that their iMac displays started to sag.
Clearly, at some point Apple’s designers saw the writing on the wall: Displays were going to keep getting bigger, and the engineering task to keep them floating was going to be more trouble than it was worth. Instead, they began working on a design that was pretty much the one that Jobs insulted during the iMac G4 roll-out: attaching the computer to the back of the flat screen, a design closer to the Twentieth Anniversary Macintosh than to the iMac G4.
The truth is, Jobs’s insults weren’t wrong. Apple sold the iMac G5 as a design “from the people who brought you the iPod,” and compared its silhouette to an iPod sitting in a dock. But the truth is, the iMac G5—and the first few generations of Intel iMacs—were quite thick. (It would take years for Apple to make them seem even remotely like the thin and light contours of the iMac G4.) And yet, it was a design that lasted a decade, and beyond—and continues to define the iMac to this day.
A glint of hope
Sometimes I wonder if we might one day see the return of a Mac that’s reminiscent of the iMac G4 design. Today’s enormous displays would suggest that it’s not in the cards, but there’s one thing that might force a different approach from Apple, and it’s the same thing that Jobs raved about when he introduced the iMac G4: ergonomics.
Look at Microsoft’s Surface Studio. It’s essentially a 28-inch iMac that runs Windows, but with a crucial difference: its screen supports touch and pen input. And because of that, it can be pulled down out of a traditional upright configuration and into a lower, flatter orientation that’s more conducive to putting your fingers or pen on the display itself.
To do this, Microsoft has built the Surface Studio in two pieces, with a heavier base resembling a Mac mini that contains the computer itself, with the screen above, suspended by a pair of arms attached to a “zero gravity hinge.” It’s not as elegant as the iMac G4, to be sure, but it’s a closer cousin than today’s iMacs.
It’s hard to believe that Apple wouldn’t take a similar approach, should it decide to bring touch and Apple Pencil input to Mac displays in the future. I’d love an iMac in the vein of the Surface Studio—which is to say, an iMac that hearkens back a bit more to the original flat-panel iMac.
In the meantime, I’ve got my iMac Pro suspended over my desk on a monitor arm attached to a VESA mount. Inelegant, to be sure. But few computers could compete with the iMac G4 on that score.
I’ll be back next week with number eight.
For a couple of years in the mid-90s, the Mac market was enthralled by a clonemaker with great deals and riotous marketing.
By Jason Snell
October 21, 2020 3:43 PM PT
I used to think that screen shots1, images captured from a computer screen, were only for tech journalist types like me. But is there any clearer example of the public hijacking a computer feature originally intended for a very nerdy purpose than the preponderance of screen shots from Notes used to make announcements on social media?
The fact is, there are plenty of reasons for people to take screen shots. Not everything needs to be composited carefully in a graphics program. On social media or in an email, a quick screen shot of a portion of a spreadsheet can provide perfect clarity. Bad Tweets are frequently screenshotted before they can be deleted by the person who sent them. The list goes on.
In the past few years, on both macOS and iOS, Apple has seriously improved its built-in screen shot features, and I use them all the time. You do too, and if you don’t, maybe you’ll consider it when you’re making your next big announcement and/or apology to Twitter.…
This is a post limited to Six Colors members.
The episode between new phones being announced and new phones shipping.
Google in the government’s antitrust crosshairs, politicians streaming video games, our cloud storage habits, and what the heck is going on with 5G.
By Jason Snell for Macworld
The future is here. Yes, this week marks the release of the iPhone 12, iPhone 12 Pro, and iPad Air. But it’s also the week we all finally get to meet Apple’s latest processor design for the first time. The A14 is here, and it’s going to be playing a major part in the entire Apple universe for the next year.
By Jason Snell
October 21, 2020 6:00 AM PT
Apple is at its best when it’s so confident in its product plans that it repeatedly challenges and one-ups itself. Think of that quintessential moment when Steve Jobs announced that he was discontinuing Apple’s best-selling product, the iPod mini, because they’d replaced it with something better—the iPod nano. Which immediately became Apple’s new best-selling product.
The release of the fourth-generation iPad Air feels kind of like that. Apple is apparently so confident in the roll that it’s on with the iPad that it’s happy to take the iPad Air, which it previously defined as a more expensive version of the low-end iPad, and transform it into an iPad Pro.
No, the new iPad Air doesn’t offer every single feature of the iPad Pro. There are still some reasons for some users to opt for the more expensive model. But this isn’t a move that a company terrified of undercutting its own high-margin products would make.
Hold the new iPad Air in your hand and you’ll discover all the styling that you’d expect from the 11-inch iPad Pro, all flat edges and curved corners and a screen unblemished by a home button. Get it in one of the bright color options not available on the iPad Pro and you’ll be impressed with how much more fun it feels, too.
It’s clear that there’s another shoe to drop here. There is, undoubtedly, an iPad Pro update on the horizon that will put plenty of distance between those models and today’s iPad Air. But who cares? Many features that were previously locked into Apple’s top-of-the-line iPads have migrated down to a more affordable model. Not everyone needs an iPad Pro, especially when there’s an iPad Air that’s this good.
By Dan Moren
October 20, 2020 10:56 AM PT
The promise of playing Xbox games on my iOS devices has been tempting me for a while; though I’m not a hardcore gamer, there are a number of titles I like to play on my Xbox One, most recently Star Wars: Squadrons. Plus, the ability to still do some gaming, even when the sole TV in our household is tied up, definitely has some appeal.
So the news a few weeks back that remote play was coming to Microsoft’s iOS app was welcome indeed. Unlike the contentious Project xCloud game streaming, remote play falls into a more standard (and, to Apple, more acceptable) category of apps: it’s basically a screen-sharing client. So, the Xbox app for iPhone and iPad now lets you screen share with the Xbox in your house over your local network or, if your connection is good enough, the Internet.
The real question is, how well does it work?
My quick test results have sadly been mixed at best. I tried a couple games both via my local Wi-Fi as well as via the cell connection on my iPhone 11 Pro.
The cellular network connection produced fairly dismal results, though that could certainly all be chalked up to bad reception in my neighborhood. There was a lot of crackling in audio, gameplay was difficult at the best of times (there was occasionally some serious latency even just in navigating menus), and graphics were heavily artifacted, often beyond recognition (and don’t even get me started about trying to read onscreen text in a game like Marvel’s Avengers). I also lost the network connection with the Xbox a couple times, leaving me staring at a “reconnecting” screen.
On Wi-Fi, the quality of graphics looks much better—especially on my iPhone 11 Pro’s very nice display—and games were definitely playable, but the experience still paled next to normal console play. In particular, I’ve been plagued by network issues which have proved difficult to diagnose or resolve. The Xbox app repeatedly tells me that there are “problems” with my network, resulting in skipping audio, jittery gameplay, and some graphical artifacts. Between those skips and jitters, the gameplay is surprisingly responsive, especially in terms of latency—which is to say, when I hit the throttle control in Squadrons, the ship throttles up; I don’t notice a significant delay there or elsewhere, such as in firing my ship’s weapons, though I would still be hesitant to take on another human player head-to-head.1
The experience actually makes me feel like there’s the potential for a solid gameplay experience here, if those network issues could be eliminated. Unfortunately, I’m not sure whether the issue really is my network infrastructure or some flaw in the app or console software. (I have my Xbox One hardwired to a gigabit switch which, in turn, is connected directly to my home’s eero base station; both my iPhone and iPad are connected to a 5GHz Wi-Fi network, so my options for further tweaking are kind of limited.) We’ll have to see if the iPhone 12 Pro arriving later this week makes any difference at all, but I would frankly be surprised.
So, while the idea of remote play is sound, and the technology is so nearly there, the collision with real world factors seems to limit just how broadly feasible this might be. It’s possible that those with a really optimized network or top of the line hardware will get a lot out of remote play, but for the rest of us, it’s just another technology that feels like it’s not quite here yet.
- I restricted my testing to Squdarons‘s Training mode; I definitely wouldn’t be playing Fleet Battles here. ↩
[Dan Moren is the official Dan of Six Colors. You can find him on Twitter at @dmoren or reach him by email at email@example.com. His latest novel, The Aleph Extraction, is out now and available in fine book stores everywhere, so be sure to pick up a copy.]
This week we’re picking up the pieces on last week’s October Apple event. What have we learned about the HomePod and iPhone 12? There’s a lot to unpack here. And in other news, Apple has decided that 2020 is the right time to become MTV.
By Jason Snell
October 19, 2020 9:00 AM PT
A recurring theme in this series is that the middle of the 1990s was not Apple’s best era. With Windows 95 on the march and Apple’s market share waning, the company made a series of questionable decisions as it struggled to find a way to stabilize and grow its business.
For years, Apple had to justify itself as an outlier in its own industry. Everyone from journalists to investors would look at Apple and compare it to every other PC maker,wondering why it couldn’t just choose a path. Why couldn’t Apple settle on being either Microsoft or Dell? Why couldn’t it become a software company and license its stuff to a collection of hardware makers and let the money roll in? Why couldn’t it focus on making hardware that ran Windows like everyone else?
This was a fundamental misunderstanding of what even confused, beleaguered mid-’90s Apple was. Apple always went its own way, building the hardware and software together—and that’s what made it notable. But for far too many people, any company that can’t be easily compared to another company has to be weird or broken or wrong.
The saddest thing? At some point in the mid-90s, some powerful people inside Apple seemed to believe this misunderstanding was true, at least a little bit. And that’s how Apple decided to try to save its business by allowing outside companies to make officially licensed Mac clones.
An ecosystem without predators
It wasn’t Steve Kahng’s fault that Apple was dazed and confused. He was a computer engineer who had made millions in the PC clone business, and he saw an opportunity to apply the hard-earned lessons of a ruthless PC clone maker to a soft market entirely unaccustomed to real competition. Kahng founded Power Computing, the first, and by far the most important, Mac clone maker. He hired a bunch of disaffected Power Mac hardware engineers away from Apple. He set up a factory in Austin, Texas that would use the same build-to-order manufacturing techniques innovated by Power’s Austin neighbor, Dell. And for a brief couple of years in the mid-1990s, Power Computing changed the face of the Mac world.
The computers themselves? They were beige PCs. You could never tell by looking at them that they weren’t just mid-90s clones from pretty much any random clonemaker. And in truth, they rarely offered any technology that wasn’t already offered by Apple, though in some cases Power Computing went the extra mile.
The one that did was the PowerWave. This early Power Computing model, with its unique “Stargate” mechanism, offered buyers the option of simultaneous compatibility with both old-school NuBus expansion cards and new-school PCI cards. Apple never offered a transitional product like that. I bought and used one for four years.
For the most part, Power Computing shined in the areas where it could run circles around Apple. Apple manufactured Macs en masse and shipped them into an enormous sales channel; Power Computing built each computer to order, to a customer’s specifications—meaning it had essentially no inventory, as well as a remarkable level of customizability. Apple couldn’t integrate new, faster processors into Power Macs until they were shipping in large enough volumes to fill Apple’s sales channel; Power Computing could buy a much smaller allotment of those processors fresh off the assembly line and make headlines by beating Apple to whatever the latest megahertz milestone was. Apple’s sales channel was large and slow to move and focused on resellers; Power Computing sold direct.
Perhaps most notably, Apple’s marketing in the mid-90s was… sedate? Boring? One of my jobs at MacUser magazine during this period was to compile the monthly reader-mail column, and a constant theme was enthusiastic Mac users aghast at Apple’s inability to market the virtues of the Mac to the wider world.
Power Computing’s marketing was the opposite of sedate. It spoke to loyal Mac users in their own language—a scream of defiant pride.
Take a flying leap
It’s August 1996, and an enormous crane festooned with the Power Computing logo is looming over a pier at the far edge of the convention center in Boston where Macworld Expo is being held. It’s been dubbed the PowerTower, after the company’s new series of professional tower Mac clones. For the entire week of the trade show, you can’t step outside without being assaulted not just by Boston’s aggressive summer humidity, but by the sounds of screams from Mac users getting dropped from a great height.
It was yet another triumphant publicity stunt for Power Computing’s head of marketing Mike Rosenfelt, who excelled at them. Months later, the streets of San Francisco around Moscone Center were flooded with humvees carrying Mac users in fatigues as a part of its “Fighting Back for Mac” theme. That campaign also featured a cartoon character bearing an uncanny similarity to Sluggo from the comic strip “Nancy”, shouting, “We’re Fighting Back for Mac!” or, in its slightly less censored variant, “Let’s Kick Intel’s Ass!”
Rosenfelt understood that denigrating Apple wasn’t the way into the heart of Mac users. These were dark times for Apple. Instead, Power embraced the rebellious nature of using a Mac in the mid-90s. Its message was that Power Computing was a company that understood the power of the Mac, and why it deserved your loyalty. “You can take my Mac when you pry my cold, dead fingers off the mouse,” in the words of an early 1997 Power Computing ad.
The idea of the clone era was not that companies would eat Apple’s lunch, leaving the company teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. It was to expand the Mac market, pushing back at the Wintel hegemony and growing Mac OS market share. But the truth is that the Mac was probably too far gone by the time Apple finally committed to license Mac OS, first to Power Computing and later to many other companies, including UMAX, APS, Radius, Motorola, and Daystar Digital. The momentum toward Windows was so powerful that all the Mac OS hardware companies were fighting over scraps.
The road not taken
Would licensing Mac OS have worked in a different set of circumstances? It’s possible, though not very likely. If Apple were a bit stronger, if Microsoft were a bit weaker, it’s possible that Mac OS could have managed to keep a larger portion of the overall PC market. And Apple might not have lost its soul in the process—consider today’s Microsoft, which is steward to Windows but also makes some of the best PC mobile hardware with its Surface series.
But the truth is, Apple has always been about combining hardware and software together in a way that other companies just haven’t been. The thing that made Apple so frustrating to investors and business analysts is also the thing that makes Apple work. And the return of Steve Jobs to Apple in early 1997 made it clear that Apple would be doubling down on that style, and there would be no place for clones.
The end of the clone era was relatively abrupt. Mac clone licenses were based on version 7 of Mac OS, so Steve Jobs renamed the forthcoming Mac OS update Mac OS 8—freezing licensees out of the new OS and the new hardware it would support. The writing was on the wall. But Jobs also seemed to be willing to pay to make the clone-makers go away; in the case of Power, the company sold its core assets to Apple for $10 million in cash and $100 million in Apple stock.
Still, as with DayStar Digital, Power Computing contributed to the Mac in some interesting ways and prefigured the future in others. Its policy of building systems to order and minimizing inventory became an industry standard—and while Power Computing wasn’t the first to take that approach, they were the ones who exposed Mac users to it for the first time.
And while it’s hard to verify the claim, Power Computing seems to be the first computer to allow customers to build and order their computer, spec by spec, via the web. (You could call Dell and order a custom system over the phone, but not via the web.) I know that’s how I ordered the PowerWave that I used for several years.
The Mac clone era was a mistake, in hindsight. But for those two-plus years when it was going on, the Mac market was dynamic and exciting in ways that it hadn’t been before—and honestly, hasn’t been since. Having multiple hardware makers to choose from, fighting to get your business and engaging in acts of one-upmanship via press release on a regular basis? That’s bog-standard stuff in the PC world, but for Mac users it was a dramatic change from the single-vendor world we’d been living in. After a decade buying at a Soviet market, we were turned loose in a shopping mall. It was chaotic and loud and obnoxious and incredibly fun.
When Steve Jobs pulled the plug, we were all disappointed. Apple’s track record in designing Mac hardware wasn’t really the best during that era. Fortunately for everyone concerned, Apple’s next set of hardware releases made us forget about the clones. But it sure was fun while it lasted.
I’ll be back next week with number nine.
By Dan Moren for Macworld
There was big news out of Cupertino last Tuesday—big news! Apple announced a new, smaller version of one of its products at a cheaper price point, potentially opening it up to a whole new class of customers.
I speak, of course, of the HomePod mini.
Yes, yes, there were iPhones as well, but I found myself more drawn to the new, smaller, and 100-percent more globular smart speaker. Part of that may have been intrigue, yes, but a more substantial reason is that I’m trying to figure out exactly what Apple’s strategy for this product line is. Which, coincidentally, is exactly what Apple seems to be doing.
By Jason Snell
October 16, 2020 2:17 PM PT
Six Colors member Mark writes, presumably while pondering a new iPhone 12 rather than a 12 Pro:
Any way to tabulate/sort which lens your photos used? After listening to #400 of ATP it’s got me thinking “Show me all my wide angle photos” so I can see if I’ve really used it or not.
I can’t figure out any way to do this in Photos on the iPad or iPhone, but on the Mac you can do it via a Smart Album.
Every photo shot with an iPhone includes metadata about which device and camera was used. You can see them all in the Info pane, which you can activate by typing Command-I or choosing Window > Info from the menu bar.
In the gray box found toward the top of the Info window, you’ll see some basic data about the photo. The first line indicates the device that took the photo—in my example, an iPhone 11 Pro. The second line displays which lens took the photo, and this is how you can sort out your photos from one another by lens used. On my iPhone 11 Pro, the lenses are:
(Update: When the iPhone camera uses data from two different lenses to generate an “in between” zoom level, or when it’s in Portrait mode, it lists an entirely different lens—one with “back dual camera” as the name rather than “back triple camera.” Since they are technically not taken by one lens, I’ve decided they don’t count.)
These will vary by iPhone model, obviously, but you can always look through your library with the Info window open and fairly quickly find the names for all the lenses on your iPhone. You can even click in the Lens area of the Info window to copy the text and paste it somewhere where the entire content of the field is readable.
Once you’ve got the names, it’s pretty easy to make a Smart Album for just those photos. Here’s what a Smart Album looks like for Telephoto iPhone 11 Pro photos:
That’s it. If you upgrade your iPhone to a model with a different camera system, you could even modify this Smart Album so that it’s catching all the photos of the type you want to capture. (And for the record, my total iPhone 11 output appears to be 603 wide shots, 87 ultrawides, and 163 telephotos.)
If you want to learn a lot more about how the Photos app works on Mac and iOS, check out my book Take Control of Photos, which was just updated for iOS and iPadOS 14 and macOS Big Sur.
By Dan Moren
October 16, 2020 12:34 PM PT
Way back in the late ’90s and early 2000s when I was first creating websites on a relatively frequent basis, the view of security on the web was a little bit different than it is today.
Sure, you hardened access to your server and tried to write your code as tightly as possible, but unless you were a huge organization or were handling credit card details, you didn’t really bother implementing secure HTTP connections, in large part because getting a certificate was often a pain and cost you money. (If you were just a hobbyist creating a website, for example, you probably weren’t going to pony up the hundred or more dollars per year that it cost.)
Fast forward twenty years, and this is one place that progress has definitely been made, thanks in large part to the Let’s Encrypt project. Created by the non-profit Internet Security Research Group, Let’s Encrypt makes acquiring a digital certificate to secure your website not only easy, but more importantly free.…
This is a post limited to Six Colors members.
By Dan Moren
October 16, 2020 11:21 AM PT
As rumored, Apple has extended the free subscriptions it handed out to its TV+ streaming service until February. I, and other subscribers, received the following email this morning:
[Dan Moren is the official Dan of Six Colors. You can find him on Twitter at @dmoren or reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. His latest novel, The Aleph Extraction, is out now and available in fine book stores everywhere, so be sure to pick up a copy.]