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by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Jason Snell

Apple’s iPad/Mac event: First thoughts

Tim Cook with Gold-backed iPad Air 2
Tim Cook and his new, gold iPad Air 2.

I just got back from Cupertino, barring a stop at my local In N Out Burger for a post-event treat. Here’s a quick take on the aftermath.

iPad Air 2 gets upgraded where it counts.

Gold-backed iPad Air 2
The back of the iPad Air 2.

Dog Bites Man! Apple product is thinner than product it replaces!

But the iPad Air’s improved A8X processor includes improved graphics performance that seems to still be accelerating. (iPhone performance, we learned last month, is growing more slowly.) These new iPads will definitely be fast, and they’ve got Touch ID, and in addition to being thinner, they’re a scant bit lighter.

iPad Graphics Chart
Graphics horsepower still growing fast…

But what I really liked about the iPad Air 2 was its display. On these devices, the display is where the rubber meets the road. The iPad Air 2’s display is laminated, eliminating the air gap between the glass and the screen—they’re attached together now. This has the same effect it did when the iPhone switched to a laminated display—the pixels just feel that much closer to your finger when you’re touching the screen. It’s a good thing.

And then there’s the glare reduction. Now, I’ll admit it’s subtle. When my former colleague Dan Frakes posted a picture of the glare-reduced iPad Air 2 next to the iPad mini 3 (which, like just about everything else, doesn’t have this feature), some people couldn’t see the difference!

But it’s there, and it’s a good sign because it shows that Apple knows that glare is an issue when it comes to tablets. There’s a reason I see Kindles everywhere when I go to a beach or a swimming pool. They’re great in bright light, and tablets—with their big glass screens and their backlit displays—aren’t. The room we got to handle the iPad Air 2 in was pretty shielded from glare, so I didn’t get a chance to check it out in more real-world conditions. My guess is that it’s going to be better, but not great. But it’s a start—here’s hoping Apple keeps heading down this path.

iPad mini’s not a loser, it’s just slow.

I love my iPad mini with Retina Display, which has now apparently been retconned into the iPad mini 2. But what we saw Thursday was indisputable proof that the iPad mini is once again a second-class citizen in the iPad line. Last year, the two models were pretty much the same guts stuck inside bigger and smaller bodies. This year, the iPad Air got a faster processor, a thinner and lighter body, and Touch ID.

The iPad mini 3, on the other hand, got a Touch ID sensor, a gold color option, and a hearty handshake for a job well done.

Yes, that’s right—according to Apple’s very helpful iPad comparison chart, the only technical difference between last year’s iPad mini “2” (still available!) and this year’s iPad mini 3 is the Touch ID sensor. The older model is now only available in 16GB and 32GB configurations, while the new model is available in 16, 64, and 128. But if I were talking to someone today about which iPad mini to buy, I’d advise that they take a serious look at the iPad mini 2 models. I like Touch ID, but it’s not worth $100 on its own.

And while I don’t think the iPhone 6 Plus is a replacement for the iPad mini, this guy might not be wrong:

The A5 is like a horror movie monster. You can’t kill it.

When people started saying that iPads are remarkably long-lived and that the purchase cycle for tablets would be longer than phones, they weren’t kidding. The very same technology Apple introduced with the iPad 2 in early 2011 will apparently still be actively sold into 2015. That’s because the original iPad mini (which is basically an iPad 2 tucked into a smaller case) remains on Apple’s price lists, in a 16GB configuration, for the low, low price of $249.

Having a low-cost iPad isn’t a bad idea. And the iPad mini’s not a bad little system. My son uses my old iPad mini every single day, and he loves it. However, for Apple—and app developers—it’s a potential support nightmare. The A5 processor that drives the iPad mini is old tech, but it’s still being made and sold as new by Apple. Developers who were hoping to drop support for the A5/iPad 2/iPad mini are going to need to keep waiting.

The Mac mini is present.

Mac Mini slide
It exists! Still!

Whether or not this was a good day for Apple products named mini really depends on your expectations. I’m in the middle. This wasn’t a good day for iPad mini fans, but it was a great day for Mac mini fans. Mostly because the Mac mini still exists, and was updated for the first time in two years!

Now, true, the chips inside these new Mac minis appear to be Intel’s current run of Haswell processors, rather than the forthcoming Broadwell chip generation. But the Mac mini, as a device that’s always plugged in, is less likely to suffer by not gaining the power efficiency of the new Intel chips. And anyway, these new chips are way better than what the Mac mini had been sporting before today.

And all starting at $499! That was the original price of the Mac mini, back in 2005. (Good grief, we’re three months short of the 10th anniversary of the Mac mini.) That price lasted about a year, and then Apple walked the Mac back up above the $500 barrier. But we’re back down there, albeit with a 500GB spinning-disk hard drive and only 4GB of RAM. Still. $499. Happy 10th, Mac mini.

And at the high end, you can configure a Mac mini with a 3GHz i7 and up to 1TB of SSD, with 16 GB of RAM. (Sadly, those are dual-core options—it looks like the quad-core options are gone? That’s a bummer.)

Anyway, it’s not a Mac Pro, but the Mac Mini is still a machine that can still get jobs done, and I’m glad it’s not dead!

The iMac with Retina 5K Display is an iMac with a giant Retina display.

The Retina iMac up close
Final Cut Pro on a Retina iMac.

I don’t want to make this less dramatic than it is, but the iMac with Retina 5K Display does what it says on the tin. It’s a 27-inch iMac that’s got a Retina display on it. 14.7 million pixels worth, a 5120-by-2880 pixel screen. That’s a whole lot of little glowing dots. If you’ve seen a MacBook Pro with Retina, the look of the interface won’t surprise you. There’s just a whole lot more of it.

Now, the 5K iMac has some pretty impressive processor options, but that’s not surprising. This iMac really has to make us all question what an iMac is. When the iMac was introduced, it was the new “computer for the rest of us,” a consumer-friendly all-in-one device. This 5K iMac has the power to edit 4K video in Final Cut Pro with room for a timeline and other interface elements. It’s a screen so good, people who have Mac Pros are going to want to replace them with an iMac.

Let’s step through that one again. People will forsake their Mac Pros for this iMac, until there comes a day when a screen like this is available as an external display option for the Mac Pro. For $2500 or less. People who would never have considered buying an iMac will buy this iMac.

To drive this display, to power applications like 4K video editing, this iMac needs raw power. So while it may not be a Mac Pro, it’s also not a… well, not a Mac mini. (Sorry, little guy.)

Unfortunately, this display is an iMac—and not an external display. But it makes sense, in a way. Getting this much video data out of a computer and into a monitor can be hard. What makes it easier is if you just connect the computer directly to the display and create a single product that’s got the computer and display integrated. You know, like a Retina iMac. And so here we are… at least for now.

Mac buyers all over the world are wadding up their wish lists.

I was ready to buy an updated Mac mini and put it on my desk. Really, really ready.

Now? I have no idea what I’m in the market for. Retina iMac? Mac Pro? Mac mini? I have no idea. This event is going to take some time to sink in. In the meantime, I shall stroke my iPad mini 2 and be grateful that I have no desire to upgrade it.

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