By Jason Snell
March 9, 2015 9:31 PM PT
Quick reactions to the “Spring Forward” Apple event
Note: This story has not been updated for several years.
As an attendee, these Apple media events are peculiar. The waiting area beforehand is like a reunion of former colleagues and media pals, where you catch up and meet a few new faces and generally say “hello” to people you almost never see anywhere but at Apple events. The event itself is pretty much what you see on the video stream1. Afterward we get to go to a hands-on area and play with the products, which can be incredibly productive, given that those products won’t reach the world’s hands for a few weeks.
After a few hours you emerge, blinking, into the California sun. And while your hands-on experience gives you something unique to go on, the rest of the Internet has been scouring Apple’s press releases and web pages and has learned five hundred little tidbits that went unmentioned in the keynote. You find yourself, an eyewitness, strangely behind the curve. Then you play catch-up.
I haven’t caught up yet. I recorded a podcast and am writing this story and when all that’s done, I’ll get caught up. But here, at least, are my first impressions of the “Spring Forward” event.
The adjectiveless MacBook
I feel like I covered a lot of the reasons for the new MacBook in this post from January, back when we were calling it “the new MacBook Air.” To summarize, this is not meant as a laptop for everyone, but it is meant to point the way to the future and create some differentiation between the MacBook Pro and the rest of the MacBook line. It’s priced higher than the MacBook Air, because it’s got a retina display! The MacBook Air suddenly looks like the bargain-bin Apple laptop. How things change.
I was really impressed with the build quality of the MacBook. This is most definitely the iPad of laptops—and while it won’t appeal to people who want a lot of ports on their laptops, it will appeal to people who love their iPads and want a thin, light laptop that’s got the same design sensibility.
As a user of the 11-inch MacBook Air, even I was impressed with how thin and light the MacBook felt. The construction is solid, and the new colors—look, it’s our old friends, gold and Space Gray—looked great in person. My wife commented tonight that the idea of a gold laptop sounded ridiculous, but the idea of a gold iPad or iPhone sounded ridiculous too, once. This is the same gold. It’s not garish. It’s just gold, instead of the old silver.
The new keyboard is going to take some getting used to. Apple’s proud of its butterfly switches and stainless steel thingies, but the truth is that this keyboard exists because Apple wanted to reduce key travel (the amount of downward movement available when you press a key) in order to make the device as thin as possible. There’s a whole lot less key travel, it’s true, but this doesn’t feel like a cheap keyboard. I’m not sure whether I like it—that’s going to take a lot more than a few minutes of typing in a demo area.
But using the keyboard for a few minutes did make me realize that my current typing style, honed over years using Apple’s current keyboard designs, includes a lot of force (and even a flourish after my fingertip initially strikes a key) in every stroke. With the MacBook keyboard, all I needed was to tap the key—no extra flourish or force—for the keystroke to register. It actually felt like a cross between typing on my MacBook Air’s keyboard and typing on an iPad screen. If I can unlearn my keystroke muscle memory, I might come to accept it. But it’s definitely going to take some adaptation.
The real highlight of trying the MacBook was the trackpad. When the first reports about a non-moving trackpad arrived, I wasn’t happy. I’ve never liked the tap-to-click gesture on trackpads, and always turn it off. But what’s been implemented in the MacBook trackpad is not remotely like tap-to-click or anything else you’ve ever experienced on a trackpad. In fact, it’s more like a magic trick—or an optical illusion.
The first time I clicked on the MacBook trackpad, I was just moving the cursor around to get my bearings and wasn’t thinking of the fact that I was using a new trackpad. I pressed, the trackpad clicked, and suddenly my train of thought screeched to a halt. Wait, I thought, wasn’t this thing supposed to have a new trackpad? It had felt like nothing had changed.
That’s just what Apple wants you to think. What had really happened was that the trackpad’s force sensors registered the force of my finger pushing on the trackpad and activated the Taptic Engine, which briefly vibrated the trackpad. The trackpad surface didn’t move down at all, but my brain combined my finger press and the vibration and interpreted it as if it had. It was a strange experience to be sure, but if I hadn’t known the trackpad was any different, I wouldn’t have suspected a thing.
Where you notice the difference is in apps that support the force-touch trackpad in interesting ways. Now that a click isn’t mechanical, the entire experience can be controlled by software—the Trackpad control panel lets you set how much force is necessary to register each click. QuickTime Player has been modified to allow you to increase fast-forward speed by pressing harder on the control, which has the effect of feeling that as you increase the pressure from your finger, you are clicking through different tabs on the trackpad. QuickTime Player is probably not the best place for this feature, but it will be interesting to see what other Mac developers come up with.
Apple’s new Force Click gesture—also known as clicking with more force—is an addition to the gestural toolbox of Mac laptop users. The Force Click isn’t a control-click, it’s a new thing that, at least for now, does things like bring up dictionary definitions in Safari and using Apple’s Data Detectors technology to bring up contextual information in other apps. A Force Click on a file in the Finder kicks off a Quick Look. Again, developers will have to figure out how to support this gesture, but it could bring an added dimension to trackpad-based interfaces2.
The single USB-C port on the MacBook gave me flashbacks to the original MacBook Air, with its one USB port. But at least the original Air had a separate power connector! I have no idea if this is the death knell of the MagSafe connector or Thunderbolt or if the port configurations on this first-generation Retina MacBook will be re-thought when it’s updated in a year’s time. The single port certainly limits the laptop’s appeal to people who tend not to plug cables into their computer. (Or trip over their power cords.)
I don’t have a lot to say about the screen. It looked good. I’ve been using a Retina display every day for the last few months, and there was nothing about the MacBook’s screen that didn’t make me think that it wasn’t Yet Another Mac Retina Screen. Have I become so jaded about amazing high-resolution displays? I guess so.
The new MacBook is the spiritual successor to the original MacBook Air, and it once again shows that Apple is always striving to push product categories forward. Some users will welcome it today, while others will wait… a bit. But do you think it’s likely that most of the laptops we’ll buy in five years will look a lot like this? I think it probably is.
The Apple Watch, redux
Six months ago we met the Apple Watch. Six months is a long time—I left Macworld six months ago and started this site—and so it was worth Apple spending time re-introducing the Apple Watch to the world before it goes on sale next month. And there have definitely been some software refinements in the intervening time. But still, this is the Apple Watch we knew. Close observers will glean some new information, but the most interesting news of the day were battery life, the ship date (April 24), and the range of prices for the various models.
The details about battery life just reinforced the goal that Apple clearly set with itself back in September. During that event, the company didn’t discuss battery life other than to say that you’d charge the Apple Watch at night. The implication was day-long battery life, and Apple confirmed that today, rating the watch as 18 hours of life—based on 90 time checks, 90 notifications, 45 minutes of app use, and a 30-minute workout with music playback. One would hope that Apple chose those numbers based on how its own employees have been using the Apple Watch, and that it’s a realistic model. If the Apple Watch dies at 4 p.m. most days, it will be a major embarrassment for Apple.
While I can quibble with Tim Cook’s referring to the creation of the three Apple Watch product lines as “curation,” it’s good to know what we can get in each model line and what each line costs. Personally, I find myself torn between the $399 Sport with a $149 leather band as an add-on, or the $699 stainless steel model. I think I actually prefer the soft look of the anodized aluminum on the sport to the super-shiny stainless steel. But I’m also sure I’ll change my mind on this 20 times before I finally decide.
The HBO NOW announcement was big news, more for the TV industry than for the tech industry. HBO NOW has the potential to be a big deal, and it’s interesting to see Apple strike such a major exclusivity agreement—even if it’s just for a few months. Cord-cutters who want to get HBO NOW to watch “Game of Thrones”3 will need to get an Apple TV.
Speaking of the Apple TV, it really felt like we might be getting a new model, didn’t it? Instead, the old model got a price cut to a $69 price that we all should hope is of the everything-must-go variety. It’s smart to try to use the HBO deal and the existence of older, presumably low-cost hardware to spur sales of Apple TV. But I sure hope this is also a sign that a new Apple TV is waiting in the wings4.
I was impressed with the time taken to talk about ResearchKit. Cynical people on Twitter might just have kept pressing the feeder bar and hoping for more new products, but I think it fits well with Apple’s self image to discuss a way that its products can change the world beyond how they change individual lives. The scope of the announcement is broad; I’ve got a friend who’s an oncologist at UC San Francisco and I’m interested to hear his take on it, to get some sense of how people in the medical profession view stuff like this. But was it cool that Apple spent a few minutes in its big event to show off how iPhones can be used to aid in medical research? Sure it was. I hope Apple keeps throwing curveballs like ResearchKit into the rundown of its media events.
I get what they were trying to do with Christy Turlington’s appearance on stage. A lot of the ingredients were there: She’s got philanthropic endeavors, she went to Africa, she’s running marathons, there’s a tie-in to the Apple Watch… but the whole segment kind of fell flat. I was hoping Turlington was going to prove to be a perfect explanation of a use case for the Apple Watch as an athletic training assistant, but it never really seemed to come together. Instead, we discovered that she’s writing a blog on Apple.com (!) about her Apple Watch journey. A celebrity, writing a weekly blog on Apple’s web site. That’s an interesting wrinkle.
That’s all that my brain has managed to bubble out tonight. I’ll keep thinking and writing and be back throughout the week with more.
- I almost wrote “what you see on TV” there. I’m old. ↩
- It makes me wonder if we’ll see a Magic Trackpad with Force Touch technology in the near future… ↩
- By the way, if you’re a fan of the show you should know that I will be podcasting about it again this season… ↩
- When Tim Cook mentioned that Apple TV users must have noticed that channels keep getting added to the device, I was waiting for him to play a video that pointed out how ridiculous the giant list of Apple TV channels has gotten. Alas. ↩
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