A week later, we’re pondering the 16-inch MacBook Pro and what it means about how Apple listens to customers and criticism. We also look into the future to wonder where Apple will take touchscreen devices and whether we’re uncomfortable about Apple’s interest in augmented reality.
Recently a friend of mine complained that he was having trouble with iOS not recognizing his daughter’s name. It’s not a particularly unusual name, but it’s just not in Apple’s built-in dictionary, and so the system kept changing it to another name close in spelling that, while not necessarily more common, was in its database.
After trying a bunch of workarounds, I found one that worked for me (though, for some reason, not for him): adding a contact with her name in it. But the point is: why? Why should we have to jump through this hoop?
On macOS, we’ve long been able to add words to the system’s built-in dictionary, so they don’t come up every time we run check spelling. That’s a particular boon for sci-fi writers like me, because often we just make up words and then use them a lot. So on my Mac, I can just go to Edit > Spelling > Show Spelling and Grammar and then, when it flags the word in question, click Learn. And that word will never bother me again.
But this ability simply doesn’t exist on iOS. We’re told that if you override autocorrect a couple of times, the system should remember your correction, but in my experience, that “feature” is hit or miss. It’s also incredibly opaque and annoying as a user experience: the only way to have something done right is to fight with the system? Multiple times? Bizarre.
The fix seems straightforward enough: allow users to add words to iOS’s dictionary so they can stop fighting with autocorrect. Whether this takes the form of a contextual popover menu, a section somewhere in Settings, or somewhere else entirely doesn’t particularly matter—the important part is giving the control to users, rather than some obtuse machine-learning algorithm that already seemingly likes to replace real words with non-words.
Which, while we’re at it, suggests that Apple ought to give us an option to have autocorrect unlearn words as well. If the system is going to act as though it knows better than the users, it should actually know better. 1 Or it should let us flag words and terms that we don’t use and remove them from the iOS dictionary at well. Let us make our mistakes, instead of having them made for us.
It often seems like it doesn’t, for a couple reasons. Firstly, because it usually doesn’t come right out and say “we’re listening”—at least not specifically. But more visibly, because the actions that result from that listening generally take a pretty long time to come to fruition.
The old metaphor for something that’s slow to change is “turning a battleship,” but Apple is so big at this point that it’s more like turning a flotilla of aircraft carriers that have been lashed together as a floating city. In the middle of a glacier.
We’re talking slow here, people.
The 16-inch MacBook Pro released this week points to the fact that Apple can bring its ships around, eventually. And even when they do get on a new heading, it might not be exactly the one that all of its users are looking for. But there are certainly enough significant changes in this latest update to indicate that the company is looking to keep its customers, especially its most vocal ones, happy.
It’s not the first and it won’t be the last, but Wednesday’s announcement of the 16-inch MacBook Pro is probably the clearest sign thus far that Apple has changed its priorities when it comes to the Mac.
It’s a process that’s been visible in public for a couple of years now, and it’s not quite done—but here in the latter half of 2019, we’re getting our clearest look at a company that got out of sync with some of its most important customers and has realized it needs to change some of its assumptions about product design.
This week, on the irreverent tech show that has either two or three hosts depending on the week, Dan and John talk about Apple’s brand spanking new 16-inch MacBook Pro and what it bodes for the rest of the company’s laptop lineups. Then it’s on to the launch of Disney+, the missing Apple tags, the 2020 phone line-up, and which Apple execs we’d have lunch with.
The butterfly keyboard era is over! Apple is releasing a new 16-inch MacBook Pro this week, featuring a Magic Keyboard, upgraded audio, the biggest battery allowed by law, and a lot more. Jason has an exclusive interview with Apple’s MacBook Pro product manager, Shruti Haldea. Then Jason and Myke break down the new laptop’s features and feature omissions, while reserving a little bit of time for the launch of Disney+.
On Wednesday Apple announced a new 16-inch MacBook Pro, with a completely redesigned keyboard, bigger display, increased battery life, ninth-generation Intel processors, upgraded graphics processors, expanded storage, and improved audio input and output. And despite the rumors that Apple’s newest laptop would be a super-premium product at the top of the price list, in fact that 16-inch MacBook Pro is replacing the 15-inch model at the same base prices of $2399 and $2799.
I got to spend most of Tuesday with one of these new laptops, and the words you’re reading now were typed on the new keyboard. It’s strange that in a product update packed with a bunch of eye-watering specs, what most people want to hear about is the keyboard—but we live in a strange world, don’t we?
Back in 2015, the same year that Apple introduced the “butterfly” keyboard design that was standard on all current MacBook models until today, Apple introduced another keyboard—the Bluetooth Magic Keyboard. At the time, I took the design of the Magic Keyboard as a sign that Apple might not transfer the MacBook’s keyboard to the rest of the laptop line, creating a “keyboard dystopia.” Welp.
Four years later, Apple has finally embraced the Magic Keyboard design for laptops. The 16-inch MacBook Pro’s keyboard is a Magic Keyboard, with a scissor-switch design that Apple says is “inspired” by the design of the Magic Keyboard, but adapted for a laptop. It’s got more key travel—about a millimeter of key travel—and Apple says it’s designed the top of the mechanism to lock into the keycap at the top of travel in order to increase key stability.
Apple doesn’t like to admit that it’s wrong, but will be the first to let you know when it’s made an improvement. In this case, the Apple representatives I talked to admitted that while many people liked the butterfly keyboard, “some didn’t.” (That feels like a bit of an understatement.) Regardless, Apple spent time reconsidering what users wanted out of their keyboards, including doing a lot of internal research—and the result is that this new MacBook Pro has a keyboard based on the other 2015 Apple keyboard design, in the hope that this keyboard will be more broadly appealing to laptop users.
The introduction of the butterfly keyboard to the MacBook Pro line in 2016 coincided with the addition of the Touch Bar, a single touchscreen strip that replaced the entire function row. It quickly became apparent that one key on the function row, the Escape key, was missed far more than F1 through F12—and people who relied on the Escape key were unhappy with losing it as a physical key. The 16-inch MacBook Pro still has a Touch Bar—it’s just a little narrower. To its left is a physical Escape key, and to the right, a discrete power button with Touch ID, just like the one found on the MacBook Air.
The good keyboard news continues. In the bottom right corner of the keyboard is a “new” arrow layout that will be familiar to users of previous generations of Apple laptops: Four half-height arrows oriented in an “inverted T”, a shape that also provides some empty space that’s helpful for orienting your fingers on the keyboard without looking. My fingers salute you.
Apple clearly took the wrong road with its keyboard designs in 2015. The Magic Keyboard design was the right approach then, it’s the right approach now, and I’m glad to see it appear on a MacBook at last. I’ll be disappointed (and, quite frankly, shocked) if we don’t see this same keyboard on all Apple laptop upgrades over the next year. Out with the butterfly, in with the scissors.
16 is the new 15
The display of the 16-inch MacBook Pro—well, it’s right in the name, isn’t it? This laptop has a 16-inch diagonal screen that’s 3072 by 1920 pixels, up from 2880 by 1800 on the 15-inch model. Pixel density has increased from 220 pixels per inch to 226 ppi, so this is a higher resolution screen, not just a bigger one. Still, Apple has set this laptop to default to a scaled size that’s the retina equivalent of 1792 by 1120. I don’t mind the scaling and think the display looks fantastic, complete with the same P3 wide color gamut and 500 nits of brightness found on the previous 15-inch model. But I can see people who desire pixel-perfect accuracy being disappointed that this isn’t a “true 2x” display at 3584 by 2240.
The 16-inch display can also alter its refresh rate, which is especially helpful for video editors. You can choose from 47.95, 48, 50, 59.94, and 60 Hertz refresh rates. (The MacBook Pro can also drive up to two of Apple’s high-end Pro XDR displays, once they arrive—presumably alongside the Mac Pro, which is officially shipping in December.)
To help fit the larger display into the MacBook’s case, Apple reduced the bezels around the display. The top bezel is 25 percent smaller, and the side bezels are 34 percent smaller. Still, nobody could declare this a bezel-less display. And in fact, despite the reduction in bezel size, this is a larger laptop than the 15-inch MacBook Pro—14.09 inches wide (up .34 inches or about 9 millimeters) and 9.48 inches deep (up .2 inches or about 5.2 millimeters). The 16-inch MacBook Pro is also thicker, by less than a millimeter, at 0.64 inches (1.62cm) thick.
Add in a 100wH battery 1 (for about 11 hours of estimated battery life) and you’ve got the recipe for a chunkier laptop all around, and in fact, the 16-inch MacBook Pro weighs 4.3 pounds (2kg), compared to the 15-inch model’s 4.02 pounds (1.83kg). Clearly Apple’s design philosophy here was to optimize for performance and battery life and allow the laptop to get a little larger if needed. After many years of Apple seemingly prioritizing thinness and lightness even in its products targeted at professional users, this is a refreshing shift.
And to lend power to this whole thing, the MacBook Pro’s charger has also expanded. It’s not larger than the 15-inch MacBook Pro’s charging brick, but it is more powerful at 96 watts.
Apple has upgraded the sound on the 16-inch MacBook Pro, both for input and output. The new six-speaker sound system includes two speaker drives that are mounted back to back, allowing them to cancel one another out as they vibrate, which Apple says dramatically reduces distorting vibrations in the laptop case. What I can tell you is that the speakers on this laptop sound really, really good. Like, good enough to listen to music on, and I’m someone who has never thought any laptop speakers were good enough to use for music.
Apple has also upgraded the internal microphone on the MacBook Pro, and the company says that it’s of “studio quality.” That’s a somewhat meaningless phrase, but it definitely implies a much higher quality microphone than has previously been in Apple laptops. In my few hours with the MacBook Pro in a hotel room, what I can say is that it’s definitely a major upgrade over past Apple laptops. As someone who has had to salvage many a podcast recorded by someone who either didn’t realize they were using their laptop microphone or didn’t have any other alternative, I thank Apple for improving the base situation. I hope this microphone ends up in every Apple laptop.
Would I recommend that everyone chuck their podcast microphones and switch to a 16-inch MacBook Pro? Mmmmmmm, probably not. The microphones (located to the upper left of the keyboard) will still pick up vibration from typing and mousing around on your laptop, and in at least one placement I tried (on a desk up against the wall in the corner of a room) the recording had a resonance that wasn’t ideal. But still, this is a good microphone, and if you use it, I promise not to come over to your house and chastise you for not using a proper external microphone.
The new studio-quality mic array has a signal-to-noise ratio that is so high, it rivals that of popular professional-grade standalone digital microphones. With 40 percent less hiss than before, recordings sound superclean and capture much more of the quieter detail. So pros on the go can record a podcast or even lay down a voice track, all with the mics built into the 16-inch MacBook Pro. But you don’t have to be a recording artist to benefit from the high-performance mics—whether you’re dialing in for a conference call or catching up with your friends over FaceTime, your friends and colleagues will hear you crystal clear.
With keyboards, microphones, and displays out of the way, perhaps it’s worth recapping the processor and storage upgrades also found on this new MacBook Pro. It’s powered by ninth-generation Intel Core processors, with a six-core i7 in the base model and a 8-core i9 in the higher-end configuration.
Graphics are driven by the new AMD Radeon 5300M and 5500M GPUs, each of which comes standard with 4GB of GDDR6 video RAM (which has double the bandwidth of previous-generation GDDR5 RAM), but there’s a 5500M with 8GB of VRAM as a high-end configurable option.
A big part of the story of the 16-inch MacBook Pro is offering even more to people who need as much of anything as Apple can give them. So these laptops can be loaded with up to 64GB of 2666Mhz DDR4 memory. And you can configure them with up to 8TB of storage, which Apple says is the largest solid-state drive ever in a laptop.
Faster processors and more powerful graphics means more heat being generated by the system, which is why Apple redesigned the cooling system in the MacBook Pro. The heat sink’s surface area increased by 35 percent, and the fans have larger impellers and more blades so they can move 28 percent more air. While setting up my test MacBook Pro, Spotlight and Dropbox were indexing files and Logic Pro X and Final Cut Pro were installing and the fans cranked up all the way.
In what is a recurring theme for the 16-inch MacBook Pro, Apple has prioritized professional needs over aesthetics. The fans are not designed to be quiet, and it’s absolutely not—though I found the sound more agreeable than many other laptop fans I’ve experienced over the years. Those fans are there to move a lot of air and keep the MacBook Pro running as fast as possible. I look forward to discovering in the coming days just how well the cooling system performs at that task.
Change, where needed
With the 16-inch MacBook Pro, Apple has revealed its priorities for the MacBook Pro. The new keyboard was almost a given, but a larger display with smaller bezels, an emphasis on performance and battery over size and weight, and a redesigned cooling system to provide more thermal room for processor- and graphics-intensive operations. It seems to me that this MacBook Pro is finally fulfilling the promise made by Apple executives in 2017 to take the needs of its professional users more seriously.
If you’re someone who was waiting to throw out the industrial design of the MacBook Pro for something that looks different, or to add back MagSafe and a card slot, this laptop will disappoint you. Apple apparently didn’t have those features high on its priority list, if they were even there at all.
Only time will be able to tell us how well these laptops work over the long term, how people respond to the new keyboard, how well the thermal system works, and the rest. But right now I’m choosing to be optimistic. I just wrote 2,000 words about a new Apple laptop on that laptop’s keyboard, and it went just fine. That’s reason enough to party like it’s 2015.
That’s as big a battery as you can put in a laptop and fly with it, based on FAA regulations. ↩
I’ve long been a proponent of using the iPad for podcasting, whether recording or editing them.
When the new Apple Pencil came out a year ago, I integrated it into my iPad editing workflow. I can edit podcasts with the Apple Pencil at a pretty impressive rate of speed, and the precision of the Pencil means that I’m more inclined to make detailed edits on the iPad than I am when I’m editing on my Mac with Logic Pro X and a trackpad. In fact, every episode of The Incomparable that I’ve edited in the past four months has been done on my iPad Pro.
I started editing podcasts on the iPad when I was traveling, since I haven’t regularly traveled with a Mac laptop in a few years now. But this summer I decided I’d rather edit The Incomparable, which I tend to do on Saturday mornings, somewhere other than at the same desk I use during the week. It’s nice to be in the same space as the rest of my family, even if we’re all doing our own thing and I’ve got headphones in while I edit the podcast.
Ferrite Recording Studio is a fantastic app that does almost everything I’d want an editing app to do, and combined with the power of the iPad Pro I can even edit podcasts with enormous panels, like our Incomparable draft episodes—though I had to rotate my iPad to fit all the tracks on screen.
This year the iPad has become much more capable at being a podcasting device than ever before. iPadOS 13 and the updated Files app give me access to audio files on USB media, which was a major hurdle before. A new update to Ferrite added support for recording on up to 8 tracks simultaneously, so I could record a multi-person session directly into my iPad if I wanted to. (In general I use a Zoom recorder for this, though—I will trust dedicated recording hardware over computer software every time.)
That leaves a couple of places where the iPad still lacks, though.
First: Recording multiple people via the Internet. On my Mac I use Audio Hijack to record my own voice as well as the audio from all the other people on a session, but you can’t run two audio apps at once in iOS. I’ve taken to recording many podcasts using Zoom Cloud Meetings, which will theoretically record the audio from participants on iOS as well as it does from those on desktop operating systems. I’ve also used RINGR, a cross-platform conferencing app, with results of varying quality. And I figured out a way to record my own audio locally onto an external recorder, so that’s an option.
But the truth is, I just record my podcasts on my Mac most of the time. On the road, I have iPad-only alternatives, but they offer enough trade-offs that I wouldn’t use them if I have a Mac handy.
Now here’s the tough one, one I don’t have a good answer for as yet. As cool as it is that I edit every episode of The Incomparable on my iPad, the fact is that all the audio files for that episode are prepped on my Mac before they get to my iPad. I sync audio tracks using a proprietary tool, then use iZotope RX to remove background noise, and finally use a compressor (currently it’s Klevgrand’s Korvpressor, but it’s the latest in a string of ones I’ve used, they’re like Spın̈al Tap drummers) to balance the volume of audio across different tracks.
Ferrite includes a compressor plug-in and a volume-leveling preprocessing feature, neither of which can I get to generate the output I desire. Korvpressor has an iOS version that I can use as a plug-in in Ferrite as I do on the Mac with Logic Pro X, but the iPad version crashes reliably, so I can’t use it. And there’s absolutely nothing I’ve found on iOS that can match the quality of noise and echo removal that iZotope provides on the desktop.
Now, I have definitely posted podcasts that were entirely processed on my iPad. I’ve made use of existing tools to make the audio sound as good as I could. And yet, when I listen back to those podcasts, I can tell that they don’t sound as good as the ones processed on my Mac.
Maybe iZotope will bring a subset of their audio tools to iOS at some point. Maybe I’ll find a plug-in that’s more stable inside Ferrite, or maybe I’ll figure out a way to use Ferrite’s leveling features more effectively. But for now, my iPad editing workflow still passes through my Mac.
Things are a lot better than they were even a year ago, but we’re not all the way there yet.
In less than two months since its arrival, iOS 13 has already blasted through two major updates (iOS 13.1 and 13.2) with Apple readying a third. But in the back rooms at Apple, plans are already being drawn up to move beyond the bug fixes of fall and begin the slow, silent cruise toward the reveal of iOS 14 next June.
So even though iOS 13.3 has just entered beta for developers and the public, who am I to resist the temptation to create an early iOS 14 wish list?
Put simply, Apple’s new wireless earbuds are chock full of amazing features: they’re lightweight, they have impressive noise cancellation, and they make switching between devices easy. There’s just one small problem: at the end of the day they’re still in-ear headphones. 1
Look, I’m not being snobbish about this. It’s not a matter of sound quality, something that people often ding earbuds for. I’ve tried to be an in-ear headphone person. Over the years, I’ve bought more than a few pairs, just in case my experiences with them have been less a trend and more a series of flukes. I hoped the AirPods Pro, with their innovative vent design, swappable silicone tips, and Ear Tip Fit Test, might finally be the models that defeat my inborn prejudice.
Alas, it’s not to be. I haven’t yet decided if I will return my AirPods Pro, but the battle rages on. Here’s why I’m on the fence.
I did not buy the original AirPods, mainly because I’d never had any success with their predecessors, the EarPods. I didn’t like the way that they fit—or more accurately, didn’t fit—in my ears, ready to pop loose at the most minute of head shakes. (For that matter, I haven’t particularly cared for the headphones that Apple has included with any of its products, all the way back to the original iPod.)
But having spent a week with the AirPods Pro, I do have an understanding of why Apple’s wireless earbuds are so beloved, why I seem to see them jutting forth from people’s ears no matter where I go: put simply, they’re sawed-off technological marvels.
The headphones I usually wear while walking around town are the wireless version of the Koss Porta Pro, which replaced the wired version I had previously used for many years. They’re lightweight over-the-ear headphones, not too dissimilar from the kind that you might have used with a Sony Walkman twenty or thirty years ago, but they deliver surprisingly great sound, and they’re pretty comfortable.
The AirPods Pro are surprisingly comparable in the sound department. I definitely get more bass out of the Porta Pros, and the mids are a little less muddy to my ears, but I’m no audiophile. (In terms of sound quality, they both handily defeat the many $20-$30 pairs of Bluetooth headphones I’ve bought over the years, so my ears can at least discern that much.)
Where the AirPods Pro beat the pants off my Porta Pros are in design, compatibility, and performance. Despite the Porta Pros’s ability to be folded up, I always end up thinking twice before I take them with me someplace where I’d have to stow them in a pocket—it’s fine if I’m wearing, say, a jacket, but in the summer, in just a t-shirt and shorts, they were still a bit too bulky to easily carry around. By comparison, the AirPods Pro charging case is small enough that I can throw it in a pocket no matter what I’m wearing.
All of the headphones I use these days 2, with the exception of the Sony MDR-7506 monitors I podcast with, are Bluetooth. When it comes to dealing with pairing and reception, the experience varies widely: the best of the bunch are probably the Bose QC-35s, which not only rarely lose their connection with my devices, but also let you pair with two devices at a time as well as manage your device connections within Bose’s iOS app.
The AirPods Pro put even that experience to shame. Apple’s skill at creating seamless integration across its product lines is one of its greatest strengths, and being able to simply switch to your AirPods Pro on any Apple device without ever having to do the Bluetooth pairing dance is a godsend.
Likewise, Apple’s ability to integrate Siri support puts it well ahead of the competition. I do use Siri on my other headphones, where I generally have to hold or double-click a button on the headphone remote, wait for a beep, speak my query, and then wait for the response. The Hey Siri feature on the AirPods Pro, meanwhile, requires no button-pressing and no waiting for acknowledgement. The first few times I used it, the lack of audio feedback for the wake word had me unsure that it was even working—but then Siri immediately spoke up and handled my request like a champ. I’ve only had it fail to hear me a couple of times, and that was while walking into some pretty strong wind; repeating my request worked fine.
Add to that the new Announce Messages feature, which will duck the music and read a recently arrived message, as well as making it easy to reply. It feels seamless to me, and I think presages a bit how Apple envisions the future of its virtual assistant. If I have one complaint, it’s that adjusting the volume of the Siri response—which on my AirPods Pro is very quiet—is opaque. I tried turning up the volume while Siri was talking, which works when I have the same problem in CarPlay, but just ended up blasting out my eardrums when the music came back.
Finally, the AirPods noise-canceling and Transparency modes are fascinating and very well designed. I would say the noise-canceling isn’t quite as good as the QC-35s, but it’s very close. I’ve taken to switching to Transparency mode every once in a while, just for the comparison, and in a noisy environment like a coffee shop, it is night and day. Even sitting on the couch next to my wife while she watches something on the Apple TV with the speakers on, I can sit and comfortably watch my own show on my iPad.
As Jason pointed out in his own thorough review, Transparency isn’t perfect: it’d be nice if it ducked the volume of the audio a bit as well, since it’s often still too loud to hear outside noises. In those cases, I’ve generally ended up taking out one AirPod, which pauses the music. (Usually, anyway. I’ve had problems with that from time to time, and more than once, I’ve removed an AirPod and then accidentally clicked it, which starts the audio playing again.)
Though I never had the original AirPods to compare with, I quite like the force control on the AirPods Pro. It’s easy to use and provides just the right level of satisfying feedback, à la the Magic Trackpad’s fake click.
Overall, my interactions with the AirPods Pro have generally been a delight and you may be wondering, given my glowing review so far, what the heck is holding me back from embracing them as my one true pair of headphones?
Unfortunately, the problem lies in their essential, intrinsic nature.
It’s not the AirPods Pro’s fault. As the timeless saying goes, it’s not them—it’s me. I have problems with in-ear headphones, and not even the AirPods Pro can find their way to get around it. Let me run down the two biggest impediments for me.
First, my ears are weird. I know Apple supposedly spent a lot of time studying people’s ears to design these new models, and the truth is they hit on something that probably works for 80 to 90 percent of people, making me an outlier.
While I can get AirPods Pro to sit reasonably comfortably in my ears, I can never get quite the same fit on both of them. I’ve managed to use the Ear Tip Fit Test to confirm a good seal on both the small and medium tips that are included with the AirPods Pro, but it often requires a degree of wacky adjustment, and even then one of them—generally my right ear—will loosen over time, to the point where I no longer have a good seal. Which is not only irritating, but also, with the noise canceling feature on, provides a weird feeling of imbalance. So a lot of times, I’ll end up having to continuously readjust my right earbud as I go, which is annoying.
If that were it, I would probably be able to live with it. The real challenge comes back to that intrinsic nature of earbuds. The feeling/sound I experience when I have them in is just…disconcerting for me. Most noticeably, when I’m walking outside with them on, the vibrations of my feet against the pavement seem to reverberate all the way into my skull, to the point that they sound like a bass drum in my head. And god forbid I try to eat something while wearing my AirPods Pro; I might as well be inside a trash compactor.
When I’m wearing them while sitting at home or in a coffee shop, this issue doesn’t really bother me. But walking around town, which is one of the prime places I use headphones, I find myself constantly distracted by how loud those echoing noises are. I don’t know if other people have figured out how to filter them out, don’t hear them as loudly I do, or maybe just walk with lighter feet, but for me it’s fingernails on a chalkboard.
As I said, I can’t really ding AirPods Pro for this. For one thing, it’s a problem shared by every pair of silicone-tipped earphones I’ve ever used. For another, it’s more of a problem with me than it is with the product themselves. It’s one reason I’ve stuck with over-ear headphones for so long. And, to their credit, the AirPods Pro seem better in this regard than most of the other in-ear headphones I’ve tried: I don’t know if it’s something to do with that venting system, the noise-canceling making it easier to hear the music over those vibrations, or some combination thereof.
In the end, it’s a scorpion and the frog situation: I shouldn’t have expected a fundamentally different result here. Maybe some innovative third party or Apple itself will eventually invent a material that mitigates this issue, but until then, I fear it’s a problem I’ll have with all earbuds of this type. I’d love for Apple to make a lightweight pair of wireless headphones with the same H1 chip and sauce as the AirPods Pro—and before you ask, I find the Beats offerings too bulky in that department—but I’m not holding my breath. To them, the AirPods Pro are clearly the best solution, and given their success, I can’t exactly argue that point. Do you design for the 80 percent, or the 20 percent? The choice seems pretty obvious to me.
All of which is to say it’s a shame, because as I said up top, I want to love the AirPods Pro. They have so many of the qualities that I look for in headphones: portability, seamless integration with the devices I use most, pretty darn good sound, especially for something so small. Frankly, I could almost use them to replace most of my other headphones 3.
So, am I going to return the AirPods Pro? I’m not sure. I’ve got a week left in my trial period, and I’m planning on making the most of it. Will my one objection be enough to outweigh all of those other advantages? I guess we’ll have to wait and…hear.
Literally, at the exact moment I typed this sentence, someone walked into the coffee shop wearing the first pair of AirPods Pro—besides my own—that I’ve seen in the wild. Serendipity! ↩
And I have many. I may have a bit of a headphone problem. ↩
Though they probably wouldn’t replace the cheapo Bluetooth behind-the-head set I use at the gym, because a) I do not trust them to not fall out while I’m running and b) if you think the vibrations sound annoying when you’re walking, hoo boy, running starts to sound like you’re dodging mortars. ↩
I’ve spent the last week wearing Apple’s new AirPods Pro. Not a week straight, I mean, but pretty consistently in all the places where I would usually use one of my other myriad sets of headphones.
In looking at the AirPods Pro as a product, I think there are important things to be gleaned from the choices Apple made in their design—the kind of design choices that may lend insight into the way Apple is thinking about the wearables market.
Wearables, of course, was the market that was sharply up in the company’s most recent quarterly results, and thus is clearly a place that Apple is likely to be focusing some attention in the future. And with rumors of Apple’s AR goggles/glasses starting to coalesce around next year, the AirPods Pro might key us into how Apple is thinking about entering the still nascent (or perhaps non-existent) market for augmented reality headsets.
The original AirPods were a revelation, even for a person like me, who had written off Apple’s ability to create good headphones years before. The combination of being truly wireless, sounding pretty good, and being easy to use turned the AirPods into a hit product. I know a lot of Apple nerds, and a surprising number of them think the AirPods are the best product Apple has made in the last few years.
Now here come the $249 AirPods Pro, an even more cutting edge, even higher priced pair of wireless headphones that go beyond AirPods with an in-ear-canal design, customizable silicon tips, less obvious stems, a refined control scheme, and active noise cancellation. The result is a pretty incredible product that will be the perfect fit for some people, while others will find the original AirPods design to be a better value.
It’s in your ear
It was surprising that the original AirPods fit as well as they did. A lot of people (myself included) tried EarPods, their wired predecessors, and didn’t like them. They felt funny in my ears. They fell out too easily. I had a pair of wired headphones that sounded better, anyway, so I stuck with them.
But the AirPods added that entirely-wireless dimension, and the absence of wires pulling on their ends helped them stay in my ears, and before too long I found that I was using AirPods most of the time. The only situations they didn’t replace were ones in which I needed to hear audio more clearly (on airplanes or while mowing the lawn), or where zero latency or a lack of audio leakage were paramount (recording and editing podcasts).
The AirPods Pro narrow this use case even more. They are designed as canalphones, meaning they push into the holes in your ears, separating you from the outside world. This is the most basic form of noise reduction a set of headphones can offer—the blocking out of noises from the outside world. (My custom headphones, which are designed to fit the inside of my ear canal perfectly, do such a great job of blocking out the world that I sometimes use them as earplugs at rock concerts.)
Apple has added active noise cancellation to the basic noise-blocking on the AirPods Pro. Two microphones—one pointing inside your ear, the other aimed at the outside world—detect the sounds of your audio environment, and then the speakers on the AirPods Pro cancel those sounds. The result is not as thorough as the noise cancellation on my Sony over-ear noise cancelling headphones (which cost $100 more than the AirPods Pro), but it’s still pretty good. The AirPods Pro passed the test of allowing me to listen to podcasts while mowing my lawn, something that the original AirPods absolutely couldn’t manage. The mower sounded like a fan running very far away—still audible, but extremely faint.
In general, I’d describe ambient noises when using the AirPods Pro in noise-cancellation mode as if someone grabbed the volume dial on the world and just turned it way down. While walking on a sidewalk, a passing car was audible as it passed me, but not until it was very close. The quieter background hum of everyday life in suburban California faded away completely.
If you’re uncomfortable about walking on a sidewalk and not hearing that car until it’s right next to you, AirPods Pro lets you turn off noise cancellation. Even better, Apple has built in an augmented audio mode called Transparency that uses the microphones on the AirPods Pro earbuds to channel ambient sound into your ears along with whatever you’re listening to. It’s a great feature that’s much easier to access than the equivalent feature on my Sony headphones. On the Sonys it’s a multi-step toggle with a long delay and I have given up even trying to use correctly; on the AirPods Pro you squeeze the flat side of one AirPods Pro stem until you hear a chime. Squeeze again, and noise cancellation comes back.
I should say that as cool as Transparency is, it’s not a cure-all. For it to really be effective, you need to turn down your audio to a relatively low volume, or you’ll still miss everything. In fact, I found myself wishing for a way to make the Transparency shortcut also reduce my playback volume, since I inevitably found myself reducing volume every time I turned on Transparency, and increasing it when I turned noise cancellation back on. No such luck.
Transparency is made more useful because the in-ear design of the AirPods Pro means it’s a little bit more awkward to pop the earbuds in and out. As a result, I’ve found that I am much less likely to pull out an earbud when someone is approaching me while I’m walking my dog on a local path. Instead, I find myself just pausing my audio and letting Transparency pass through any potential conversation.
You can toggle between all three of the noise modes (cancellation, Transparency, and entirely off) on AirPods Pro by tapping and holding on the volume slider in Control Center, which is my cue to say that AirPods Pro requires iOS 13.2, watchOS 6.1 (you can also toggle modes from the Now Playing screen), and macOS Catalina 10.15.1. Sorry, Catalina holdouts. (My daughter had to update macOS on her MacBook when I got her a set of second-generation AirPods when she went off to college. The struggle is real.)
You’d think that noise cancellation would be a battery killer, but it’s not as bad as I expected. Apple says normal AirPods offer five hours of listening time; the company quotes the same number for AirPods Pro with noise cancellation turned off, and four and a half hours with it turned on. I am very rarely using AirPods for five hours without a break, so this seems like a distinction without much of a difference. It’s still a 10 percent battery hit, but if you take a break and pop these AirPods in their case, they’ll charge back up relatively quickly. And if you’re desperately trying to extend battery life, just turn off noise cancellation altogether.
A new option takes shape
Speaking of the AirPods Pro case, I should mention that since Apple has completely redesigned the AirPods Pro buds, the AirPods Pro case isn’t like the one used for the original AirPods. The eartips don’t slide perfectly into the case like AirPods do, because the AirPods Pro’s silicone tips come in three sizes, so the case needs to fit all of them.
AirPods Pro come with medium-size tips installed; a pair of both small and large tips come in the box and pop on and off with a satisfying click; replacements can be purchased from Apple for $4. Apple has built a clever “fit test” that tries to detect if the tips are properly sealing your ears from the outside world. It seems to work, though I was able to get multiple sizes of tips to be declared fit-worthy, leading me to spend more time with different sizes until I figured out the ones that were best for my comfort.
Unlike the original AirPods, which were based on Apple’s design for the EarPods wired headphones it still includes in the box with every iPhone, AirPods Pro are shaped differently—and according to Apple, it’s a design based on new research, including scanning the ears of a much wider range of people all around the world than it did when it made EarPods. The result won’t be a perfect fit for everyone—if there is such a thing—but it’s possible that the AirPods Pro will fit all sorts of people that Apple’s previous headphones didn’t, on account of Apple broadening its horizons and realizing that perhaps its conception of ear shape was not broad enough to match Apple’s global reach.
It’s hard to compare the fit of AirPods Pro to original AirPods, because they’re entirely different classes of headphones. The original AirPods are earbuds, tucking somewhat loosely into the space outside your ear canal. AirPods Pro must be inserted into your ear canal, and stay inserted by exerting pressure on the inside of that canal. It’s an entirely different sensation, and some people will hate it. (I’ve gotten used to it over the years, and actually prefer the feel now.) While wearing AirPods for a long time would make the curves at the bottom of my ears sore from holding the weight of the earbuds, a long session of AirPods Pro use makes my ear canals feel a little stretched and achy. (Even my custom-made silicone inserts, which are exactly the shape of my ear canal, will cause me to get irritated after a while.)
What I’m saying is, I think AirPods Pro are pretty great in terms of fit, but other people will find them repellant. And if you’ve never used canalphones before, the feel may take some getting used to. If you’re like me, you may come to love it.
You won’t go undetected while wearing AirPods Pro out in the world, but they are a bit less obvious than AirPods, mostly because the stems aren’t as long. Since Apple has chosen to make the stems the control surface for these headphones, I’m left to wonder what the endgame will be here, but for now, there’s enough space for me to reach up with my thumb and index finger and give the control surface a squeeze. (Beyond the squeeze-and-hold to toggle noise cancelling and Transparency, the control surface functions just like an old-school headphone clicker would—one click for play/pause, two clicks for forward, and three clicks for back. It’s like riding a bike.)
But how do they sound?
What I said in my original AirPods review goes for the AirPods Pro, too: “They sound good.” The world is full of people who will tell you all sorts of things about audio quality of headphones and speakers, some of which is legitimate and some of which is complete snake oil. All I can say is that I can listen to favorite songs on AirPods Pro and they sound good. Do they sound as good as my expensive custom in-ear monitors? No… but they’re way more convenient. And the active noise cancellation basically equals the additional sound dampening of the custom inserts.
AirPods Pro are almost certainly not the best-sounding earbuds on the planet, but they may be the most convenient. Is that a trade you’re willing to make? I already made it with the original AirPods—and AirPods Pro sounds even better.
And if you’ve never used AirPods because they didn’t fit your ears, you may also discover just how great it is to use truly wireless earbuds. I used to snag my headphone cords in my kitchen all the time, and those days are over.
I’m glad Apple is keeping the second-generation AirPods around. Not everyone wants or needs noise cancelling, and the canalphone fit isn’t for everyone. On top of all that, AirPods Pro cost $90 more than AirPods. For a lot of people, AirPods will be more than enough to do the job.
I was certainly happy with my AirPods. But between flying and mowing the lawn, I’ve had to use other headphones to fill in for use cases where AirPods just don’t work well enough. The AirPods Pro are perilously close to becoming the only headphones I use when I’m away from my desk. They’re a great product, worthy of the AirPods name, albeit with a price worthy of the “Pro” tag.
Apple TV is a hardware device… an app… an app or built-in feature of other devices, like smart TVs and streaming set-top boxes…. Apple TV Channels is a feature on all Apple TV apps…. Apple TV+ is a subscription streaming service…
Other than that, though, Apple TV is relatively straightforward.
Curtis’s post is funny and cutting and entirely accurate.
That said… this stuff is complicated across the board. Try to do what Apple is doing and you will end up with confusion aplenty. Just ask Amazon.
Also, I’m just going to put this out there: An article like this would also be written if Apple went to market with a hardware device called Apple TV, an app called Videos, a smart-TV app called Apple, a reselling strategy called Apple Channels (or having no name at all!), and a subscription streaming service called Apple Cinema. Too many names, Apple! It’s confusing! Why not something simpler?
Apple would also be mocked if it didn’t let you watch its originals on the Web—what about people on Windows, Apple? Or on devices without the latest OS versions? And it would be criticized if it didn’t provide its content on devices other than its own—what about my 4K Smart TV, Apple? What about my Roku or my Fire TV?
So, yes: Apple’s strategy is a mess. I’m also not sure that the alternatives are any better.
I saw someone the other day say that television is so much simpler than it used to be, and I had to laugh. Television has never been more complicated. Apple’s very Apple-like attempt to stick to a single simple phrase—“Apple TV”—can’t spackle over just what a messy situation the streaming entertainment world is right now.
This week, on the 30-minute show that’s fallen back but never fallen behind, Dan and Mikah are joined by special guests Christa Mrgan and Jeff Carlson to discuss the nerdy technical tasks we find ourselves undertaking, how we handle software updates in the era of Catalina and iOS 13, our thoughts on Photoshop for iPad and mobile photo editing, and actually finding the useful new features in the barrage of software updates.
In late October, my house lost power and internet for three days, part of a larger story involving nearby fires and poorly maintained electrical infrastructure in California. Over those 72 hours and the ones that directly preceded and followed them, I spent a lot of time thinking about how best to deal with technology when faced with a blackout. Here’s what I learned.
I quite like the first three episodes of “For All Mankind.” But I had to deal with the app losing my viewing progress, and failing to sync it with other devices. And then I heard from people who were confused why HBO shows were showing up in the TV app when all they wanted to do was see what shows were available on Apple TV+.
Apple has made very few changes to the TV app design and feature set to accommodate the TV+ launch. TV+ is shoehorned in as just another source of content with very little consideration. With other streaming services, if you want to commit to their world and explore everything they have to offer, you can just open the dedicated app and never touch the TV app. With TV+, that’s simply not possible.
There is a channel section of the TV app that is dedicated to TV+ content — but it’s far from perfect. Finding the TV+ section requires a lot of scrolling, meandering past several screens worth of Watch Now recommendations for everything in the iTunes catalog.
When you get there, it lacks basic hierarchy like filters or subcategories. And most annoyingly, you can’t see the Up Next queue because you aren’t on the main screen anymore.
The list goes on, as does Mayo’s article. Apple has made some interesting shows, but it’s being let down by its own app.
This week, on the irreverent tech show that now reviews TV shows, we discuss all of Apple’s fine new streaming offerings, with the operative word being “fine.” Then Dan has thoughts on the AirPods Pro, John’s in the market for HomeKit-compatible security cameras, and Lex is moving into the legal profession. Plus, a thrilling conclusion.
Apple TV+ has finally arrived, and we discuss Apple’s first round of new shows—as well as an unimpressive performance from the TV app itself. We’ve also got reviews of the new AirPods Pro, and Apple’s latest financial results reveal that for the iPhone, sometimes down is up.
Sometimes in technology you think of an idea that everybody needs—one of those things that you can’t believe nobody has built.
And sometimes you just think of something that you really need.
Not infrequently, my wife asks me to pick her up from the subway station. So I hop in the car, fire up Google Maps on CarPlay to keep an eye on the traffic, and off we go.
This is all well and good. However, sometimes my wife, in her infinitely helpful manner, starts walking in the direction I’m coming from so that we can meet in the middle. And while she usually takes the same route, it would be very helpful if I could see where she is, so I don’t drive past her.
Enter Find My (formerly Friends), which is perfect for this situation. Except for one little annoying factor: there’s no Find My app on CarPlay, which means if I want to see where she is at this very moment, I have to look down at my phone—precisely the sort of unsafe behavior that CarPlay is designed to avoid.
This probably isn’t a feature that everybody needs, but it’s one that I’d greatly appreciate—and, given the mapping synergy with CarPlay, it seems like something that makes sense.
That said, with iOS 13’s merging of Find My Friends and Find My iPhone, I can imagine an unfortunate daredevil scenario where somebody engages in a high-speed chase in order to retrieve their stolen iOS device. Fun for a Fast and Furious movie, but probably not in real life.
In looking at Apple’s most recent financial quarterly results, you can learn a lot about the company’s strategy by seeing where the company is doing well. As chief financial officer Luca Maestri pointed out on the call, Apple’s primary investments have traditionally been in research and development, and it’s a good bet that it will focus many of those funds on areas that are growing.
As I listened to this week’s financial recap of Apple’s latest blockbuster quarter, I kept my ears perked for mentions of the places where the company seemed to be doing particularly well. That’s because Apple famously prides itself on skating to where the puck is going—which generally means the areas where people are responding well to its products.