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By Jason Snell
September 29, 2019 4:00 PM PT
We all like to remember the huge leaps forward, but much of the progress Apple makes is incremental. Even when the devices come in the same wrapper, new technologies are being added on the inside. That’s especially important to keep in mind in a year such as this, where all of Apple’s new iPhones are incremental updates to old models.
If you’re using an iPhone 8 or earlier, these new models will bring with them all the new features Apple has added to the product line since the iPhone X in 2017. The upgrade is a bit less dramatic if you’re coming from an iPhone X-class model, since externally these models are dead ringers for the iPhone X/XS (iPhone 11 Pro), iPhone XS Max (iPhone 11 Pro Max), and iPhone XR (iPhone 11).
You’ve got to hand it to Apple—the most notable incremental improvements Apple has made to these models might be in the two most important features to smartphone users. First there’s battery life, and in the iPhone Pro models Apple has made an especially surprising leap. Then there are the cameras, because our phones are now the primary way we visually document our lives.
So yes, these are iPhones very much like ones we’ve seen before. But in true Apple fashion, they’re also improved—and in the best ways.
By Jason Snell
August 1, 2019 12:11 PM PT
I read all my books on a Kindle, and the $250 Kindle Oasis is the model I prefer. It’s not for everyone—the $130 Kindle Paperwhite is a better buy for most people. But the Oasis offers a collection of features that make it appreciably nicer than either of the lower-priced Kindle models, and after spending some time with the new Paperwhite, I’m more convinced than ever that the Oasis is worth the extra price if you’re going to use it a lot.
Amazon recently updated the top of the Kindle line, introducing a new third-generation Kindle Oasis that adds a few minor display improvements. There are more LED lights encircling the screen, giving this Oasis the most even lighting of any Kindle yet. (Kindle screens are reflective, not backlit, which makes them much more readable—but a bit trickier to light.)
Most people won’t notice the improved backlighting, but if you’re someone who is concerned with the amount of blue light wavelengths you receive in the evening, you are the target audience for the one major new feature in the third-generation Oasis. The color temperature of its lighting system is adjustable, so if you prefer a more orange hue in the evening, you can set it to adjust itself automatically—or you can just take control and make the lighting more or less blue anytime you like. (You can also turn all of that off and use the “normal” Kindle color, if you like.)
I’m not going to comment on the debate about whether blue wavelengths really affect sleep, but I will say that I am one of those people who finds warmer color temperatures more aesthetically pleasing. The lights in my house are warmer in temperature, and Apple’s introduction of TrueTone displays (which adapt to the existing color temperature of the room) has really hit that point home. If I’m reading in the dark, a redder light will also mean that my eyes adapt more rapidly when I turn off the Kindle, too.
That’s it. The rest of the Oasis is unchanged from the second-generation model, so far as I can tell. If you’d like to read the case for the Kindle Oasis in general over other models, read on.
Why it’s better than the others
The Oasis is oddly shaped because it’s designed to be as thin as possible except in the place where you grip the device. As a result, there’s a thicker (8.3mm) grip area that features the Oasis’s two physical page-turn buttons, and a thinner side (3.4mm) that helps the device weigh less.
Oh, the page-turn buttons! They’re great. Other Kindles require you to constantly move your fingers on and off the touchscreen in order to tap or swipe forward or backward. With the Oasis, you can rest a finger or thumb on the button and then just gently press to advance to the next page.
People will tell you that it’s just fine to find a grip that lets you slide a finger over to the screen, tap, and then slide back every single time you turn the page. Sure, it’s fine. But this is way better.
At 6.8 ounces, the Oasis is very slightly heavier than the other Kindles, but with that you get a much larger screen. The Oasis screen is seven inches diagonal, up from the six-inch screen found on all other current Kindles. This means more words on a page and fewer page turns, which is especially important if you’re reading at larger font sizes.
The Oasis is also the highest-quality device hardware I’ve ever seen from Amazon. The sides and back are a single piece of aluminum, giving this a premium device feel that the cheaper, plastic Kindle models lack.
It feels good, for twice the price
For me, Kindles are all about price and ergonomics. The Oasis doesn’t really do it on price, but it’s the best when it comes to feel. As someone who reads a couple dozen books a year, paying more for the best reading hardware makes perfect sense. And the pace of change in Kindle land isn’t particularly great; an Oasis will serve you well for many years to come. It remains the best Kindle you can buy, and is appreciably nicer than the Paperwhite on almost every front. And now with better lighting and an adjustable color display.
Yes, the $120 Paperwhite is the better buy. But the Kindle Oasis is a great splurge for people who simply want the best ebook reading experience around and don’t really mind that it costs twice as much as the step-down alternative.
By Jason Snell
May 7, 2019 10:00 AM PT
Logitech has been making keyboard cases for the iPad Pro since the very beginning. Its case for the original 9.7-inch iPad Pro was close to perfect. With the $130 Slim Folio Pro for the 2018 12.9-inch iPad Pro (the 11.5-inch model is $120), Logitech continues its commitment to making very good iPad keyboard cases—that just don’t seem to fit with the way I prefer to use my iPad Pro.
Logitech’s iPad cases have always wrapped the device in protection. Unlike the approach of a company like Brydge, which builds aluminum keyboards into which you clip the iPad by its corners, Logitech’s cases generally cover all four corners of the device. In the case of the Slim Folio Pro, you tuck the non-Apple Pencil side of the iPad into a large rubberized bumper, and then push two small rubberized bumpers over the other corners.
The result is a case that feels sturdy and protective, but it also means that every time you want to extract the iPad from the case, you’ve got to push those corner pieces off. If you’re someone who prefers to leave the iPad in the case most of the time, this is fine, but the Slim Folio Pro is a thick, bulky case, and I have a hard time believing that anyone would want to keep it on their iPad when they weren’t actively using the keyboard. (The Slim Folio Pro weighs 704 grams, almost identical to the Brydge Pro—but the Brydge is denser and slimmer.
Why not get a laptop?
When I write about iPad keyboards, the question I get most often is, “Why turn your iPad into a laptop instead of getting a laptop?” If you want my answer, check out the “Why not get a laptop?” section in my December 2018 story about the Brydge Pro keyboard.
As you might expect, the two corner pieces on this case are shaped the way they are so that they don’t cover up the magnetic charging area for the Apple Pencil. If you want to close the case, though, you won’t be able to charge the pencil—but Logitech does provide a loop on a magnetic flap that’s used to keep the case securely closed, making it less likely that you’ll misplace the Pencil when it’s not attached.
The keyboard itself is good, though the entire keyboard surface is made of gray plastic that feels a little cheap when compared to the aluminum-framed keyboards you’ll find in Apple’s laptops (or Brydge’s iPad Pro keyboard). The keycaps have a smooth texture and typing feel that remind me of classic Apple laptop keys. (That’s a good thing.) There’s a full function row, giving you control over keyboard backlighting, screen brightness, media playback, volume, and other shortcuts that users of Apple’s own Smart Keyboard Folio don’t have access to. The arrow keys are in the familiar inverted-T configuration that Apple has unfortunately moved away from in its own laptops.
While the Slim Folio Pro connects to the iPad via Bluetooth rather than Smart Connector (and charges via a USB-C port), it’s got a clever way of saving power: it only activates when you set the iPad in a magnetic slot on the front of the case.
Like Apple’s Smart Keyboard Folio, the Slim Folio Pro (and unlike Brydge’s keyboard) places the keyboard at the very front of the keyboard surface. This means it’s a different feel than you’d get on a MacBook, where the keyboard is pushed further back to leave room for a trackpad just below the keyboard. The edge of the iPad lands right behind the function row, about one-third of the way down the plane on which the keyboard sits.
Unfortunately, this design has a few side effects. First, it’s not at all adjustable. If you don’t like the particular angle of the iPad Pro in this case, there’s nothing you can do to change it. Second, at the very back of the horizontal keyboard plane where the case wraps around and provides support to keep the iPad upright, there’s half an inch of flexible material that serves as the spine of the case when it’s closed. I found that when I was typing with the Slim Folio Pro in my lap, the iPad had a tendency to rock back and forth as that flap of material slid back and forth. The result is that the case isn’t as stable on a lap as I’d like.
If you’re someone who doesn’t mind taking extra time to attach and detach your iPad from a case, the Slim Folio Pro provides a good typing experience and some protection for your iPad at a price that’s quite a bit lower than either Apple’s Smart Keyboard Folio or the Brydge Pro keyboard.
I get tired of people asking me why I use a keyboard with my iPad Pro rather than just buying a laptop, but I have to admit that if you’re going to snap your iPad into a big keyboard case that’s not particularly easy to remove, that argument gets a little bit stronger. The beauty of the iPad is that it can do something a MacBook just can’t—namely, be a bare screen without attached keyboard when that’s all you want.
The Slim Folio Pro traps the iPad Pro in a less than ideal form. Both Apple’s Smart Keyboard Folio and the Brydge Pro let you switch from keyboard to tablet quickly. Apple’s device excels because it’s small enough to carry around as a cover; Brydge’s excels because it provides the full laptop experience. I would choose either of those products over this one. But if you’re seeking value in an iPad keyboard case and don’t mind fussing with getting the thing on and off of your iPad, the Slim Folio Pro won’t let you down. It’s a solid product—as long as you know what you’re getting into. And out of.
By Jason Snell
May 7, 2019 9:42 AM PT
I’ve spent six months using the 2018 iPad Pro with Apple’s Smart Keyboard Folio and a collection of external USB and Bluetooth mechanical keyboards. The Smart Keyboard Folio has been a solid traveling companion, and it’s a major improvement over the old thick two-layer Smart Keyboard, but I’ve missed what I had on the older iPad Pro, namely the laptop-style keyboard from Brydge that let me convert my iPad into a laptop shape when I needed it.
Six months into the life of the iPad Pro, Brydge’s new iPad Pro keyboards are finally starting to arrive. Back in December I briefly got my hands on a preproduction model, and two weeks ago I received one of the first $170 12.9-inch units off the production line and have been using it on and off since then. (There’s also a $150 11-inch version, which I haven’t used.)
While it’s taken me some time to adapt to some of the changes Brydge has made, I’m happy to report that this is still the best option for people who want the full laptop typing experience on an iPad Pro.
Why not get a laptop?
When I write about iPad keyboards, the question I get most often is, “Why turn your iPad into a laptop instead of getting a laptop?” If you want my answer, check out the “Why not get a laptop?” section in my December 2018 story about the Brydge Pro keyboard.
By Jason Snell
April 17, 2019 11:08 AM PT
In the last few months Amazon has released two new Kindles, the $130 Kindle Paperwhite and the $90 base-model Kindle. Both of them are notable improvements on their previous versions, making it harder for me to declare which Kindle you should buy. The base-model Kindle is much harder to write off than it was before, but I think the Paperwhite still has a better combination of features for most users.
A lot of people think the entire dedicated ebook reader category has been made obsolete by tablets and smartphones. Not so! If you’ve never used an ebook reader before, you may not realize that their screens are dramatically different from computer, phone, and tablet screens. These are reflective screens—like ink on paper, you read them by light reflected off their surface, rather than light shining in from behind like those other screens.
These screens have some huge advantages: They use very little power, and they’re extremely readable in bright light. But they’re relatively low resolution and can only display black, white, and shades of gray, so they’re inappropriate for much more than text on a page. If you’ve ever tried to read a book while sitting in the sun at the pool, you can see why this sort of display is a perfect match for this category.
What’s more, these devices are unitaskers. You won’t be tempted to flip over to Twitter or get bugged by a push notification or an incoming FaceTime call. When I’m using my Kindle, I am reading, not grazing the internet. When I’m out and about without a Kindle, I’ll read books on my iPhone, but when I get home I’m right back to the dedicated reading device. If you are someone who reads a lot, consider buying a Kindle. (You can probably even check out books from your local library to your Kindle using a service such as OverDrive!)
A word about Kindle pricing
Amazon’s pricing model for the Kindle is complicated. The base prices of each Kindle model include “special offers”, which is Amazon’s euphemism for advertising. With special offers enabled, the screensaver on your Kindle when it’s turned off is an ad for a book, and to turn the Kindle on you’ve got to press the power button and then swipe the touchscreen to dismiss the ad. There are also small ad banners at the bottom of the main navigation screen.
It costs an additional $20 to turn off the special offers. You can order your Kindle without special offers or just pay the $20 later on the device to turn them off. I have talked to many people who find the special offers valuable, because they aid in discovering interesting books and point out sales going on in the Kindle store. I find the addition of an extra step every single time I turn my Kindle on to be enough of an interface impediment that I always pay the $20 to turn off special offers. The choice is yours.
For the Kindle Paperwhite and Oasis, Amazon also offers two storage-size tiers—8GB or, for $30 more, 32GB. Unless you are leaving the internet for years or have decided to use the Kindle as a repository for audiobooks as well as text, you don’t need the larger size. Ebooks just don’t take up much space. You can fit hundreds of books on an 8GB Kindle.
Amazon also offers an alternative networking upgrade on the 32GB models of Paperwhite and Oasis, one that adds “free” cellular connectivity to the party. For an additional $70 (keeping in mind you’re also paying $30 more for the larger storage capacity—though your $20 Special Offers charge is comped at this level) your Kindle will use LTE cellular networking when it’s not able to connect to Wi-Fi. It means you can download books in more than 100 countries without needing Wi-Fi, and you’ll never see a bill (other than that $120 additional charge from Amazon). Wi-Fi is so ubiquitous that this seems unnecessary, but you can pay $250 instead of $130 for a Kindle Paperwhite if you really want all the features.
Base-model Kindle upgrade
The “cheap” Kindle (which now starts at $90, up from $80 with the previous model) has lagged behind the rest of the product line in failing to offer an integrated light (first offered on the Kindle Paperwhite in 2012). There is nothing dumber than needing to clip on a book light in order to read a digital device in the dark.
Those days are over. The new ninth-generation Kindle has an integrated light, four LEDs that shine from the edges of the display to make it readable in any light conditions. It’s an enormous step up that makes the base Kindle a product worth considering as more than a disposable beach-reading device.
In most other aspects, the Kindle is still inferior to other models, though. The integrated six-inch display is the same size as the Paperwhite, but at 167 pixels per inch it’s about half the resolution. This means that text is less crisp and more jagged. If your eyesight isn’t great you won’t notice, but everyone else will. I also found that the Kindle’s display was lower contrast than the Paperwhite’s, with text appearing less black and more dark gray.
The Kindle’s display is recessed in its case, with a plastic bezel that surrounds it. Years of using Kindles with recessed bezels has taught me that it’s an inferior design, because the corners where the recessed screen meets the bezel are magnets for dust, crumbs, and other tiny bits of distracting debris. (And of course, since the Kindle screen itself is touch sensitive, you can’t just wipe that debris away—you’ve got to turn the device off and then try to jimmy that stuff out of there.)
The Kindle is the lightest of all three of Amazon’s ereader models, at 5.9 ounces, but all the models are within an ounce of each other, so I’m not sure it matters that much. (The Paperwhite is 6.5 ounces and the high-end Kindle Oasis is 6.8 ounces.)
The overall texture of the Kindle is what you’d expect for a low-end, cheap tech product. It’s hard plastic, and not particularly grippy. In other words, this is a utilitarian product that gets the key parts right—it’s got an E Ink screen and lighting—while avoiding most nice-to-have features that the higher-end models provide.
The $130 fourth-generation Kindle Paperwhite retains its crown as the Kindle most people should buy. It’s a lot cheaper than the high-end Kindle Oasis and appreciably nicer than the base-model Kindle.
The Paperwhite’s screen has 300 ppi resolution, almost twice the base model, bringing it up to more or less “retina” resolution in terms of displaying smooth type that’s hard to distinguish from ink on paper. I found the display to be appreciably better quality than on the base model, with higher contrast and more consistent lighting. The display on the Paperwhite is also flush with the front bezel, so there are no nooks and crannies for lint and dust and crumbs to get stuck.
The biggest improvement to this generation of Paperwhite is IPX8 waterproofing, so you can read in the bath or by the pool without worry. The last time I went to a beach resort I saw a zillion Kindles poolside, so it makes me think that adding waterproofing will be very popular.
Beyond that, the Paperwhite is simply made of better materials than the base Kindle. It’s got a grippy back that feels nicer than the hard plastic of the Kindle, although it’s not quite as swank as the aluminum back of the Oasis.
In other words, this generation of Paperwhite remains the best balance of features and price in the Kindle line. In my opinion, the Paperwhite has been the real Kindle for a few years now, and that remains the case. The base-model Kindle is getting better, but the better display, waterproofing, flush-front design, and nicer overall feel push the Kindle Paperwhite ahead.
By Jason Snell
April 10, 2019 12:38 PM PT
The 2019 iMacs are a contradiction. They are brand-new computers that somehow feel like the last members of a dying order. They are shells designed in 2012 that somehow contain 8th- and 9th-generation Intel processors. They represent Apple’s broad-appeal entry-level Mac desktop, but can also offer power to rival the performance of the base-model iMac Pro. They are part of a legacy that once represented the core of the Mac market, but now fills specific niches in a world devoured by mobile technology.
I had a chance to spend a couple of weeks with a top-of-the line 5K iMac with a 9th-generation Intel processor, and its performance was impressive. There’s no denying that the iMac is better than ever, just as there’s no denying that this is a product line that’s in need of reinvention after years of stasis.
By Jason Snell
March 21, 2019 4:00 AM PT
When three and a half years go by without Apple updating your favorite product, you start to get a little antsy. In the case of the iPad mini, Apple has spent those years completely reconfiguring the iPad line, introducing multiple models of iPad Pro and creating a new low-price sixth-generation iPad—thereby making redundant the iPad mini’s role as the most affordable iPad around.
But at least in this case, the despair wasn’t warranted. It took a while, but here’s the fifth-generation iPad mini—instantly recognizable since it’s got the same shape and size as its predecessor, but now powered by the same A12 Bionic processor found in the iPhone XS. It’s amazing what a difference three and a half years can make.
Say hello to my little friend, again
The sixth-generation iPad has effectively usurped the iPad mini’s role as The Cheap iPad, meaning that as of now, the only reason to buy an iPad mini is because you want a small iPad. And there are plenty of people who do—from extreme mobile workers to people who want to slip an iPad into a purse or coat pocket to businesses who want simple point-of-sale terminals to children with small hands and keen eyes.
For several years, the iPad mini was my primary iPad. Then I switched to the 12.9-inch iPad Pro, which was a radical size change. It was quite a feeling to hold an iPad mini in my hands again after all this time. Coming from the 12.9-inch iPad Pro, the iPad mini is staggeringly small. If you’ve forgotten, it’s 8 inches (203mm) high and 5.3 inches (135mm) wide, weighs two-thirds of a pound (300g), and has a 7.9-inch diagonal display.
And yet despite its small size, that display packs in all the pixels of the 9.7-inch iPad—2048 by 1536 resolution—meaning it’s got a pixel density of 326ppi. This is a better screen than the low-cost iPad, though—it’s laminated, so it’s closer to the surface of the glass, and it’s got support for the P3 wide color gamut and True Tone. All it’s really lacking when compared to the iPad Pro display is ProMotion—this display refreshes at 60Hz, not 120.
For a while now I’ve been advocating for the idea that the iPhone should support the Apple Pencil, so it could be used as a sketchbook or notepad. The big problem with that theory is that it would really require a smaller Apple Pencil, and when Apple redesigned the Pencil last year, it didn’t go this route.
The iPad mini isn’t an iPhone, exactly, but it’s less than twice the volume and half again the weight of the iPhone XS Max. (It’s also got fewer pixels, owing to the XS Max’s higher-density display.) So if you imagine the iPad mini as a sort of reporter’s notebook or artist’s portable sketchbook, it starts to make more sense as the most portable device yet to support the Apple Pencil.
Today every new iPad being made supports the Pencil, but it’s important to note that all the Lightning-based iPads—the iPad, iPad mini, and iPad Air—all use the Lightning-based original Apple Pencil model. The new Apple Pencil, supported only by the 2018 iPad Pro models, is superior in a whole lot of ways—but if you buy one of these non-pro iPads, you’ll be left with the older model. Not that the old Pencil is bad, it’s actually quite good, but it’s a bit painful to go back to a Pencil without a flat edge, matte finish, and magnetic-induction charging. (You can also use the Logitech Crayon on any of them.)
Drawing on the iPad mini (or these other low-end iPads) will also not be able to take advantage of the faster digitizer rate, which combined with the ProMotion display dramatically reduces lag—the space between where the stroke you just drew is visible and where the tip of the pencil is right now. It’s not a bad experience, it’s just not as good as the experience on the iPad Pro—but you’re also using a much smaller and cheaper device. It’s all a matter of trade-offs.
I’ve always preferred using a Kindle to read books, but I have to admit that the iPad mini is a pretty great size if you’re primarily planning on using it to read books, newspaper apps, and websites. The screen may feel a bit cramped when using productivity apps, but switching to the iPad mini from the 12.9-inch iPad Pro was like going from a coffee-table book to a trade paperback. Reading from apps while holding the iPad mini in vertical orientation in one hand was easy and pleasant.
However, the increased screen density of this device means you’ll probably need to crank up the default text size in your apps and in the Text Size setting in the Display & Brightness section of the Settings app. As on previous iPad minis, everything’s just a bit smaller, and unless your eyes are particularly keen (and young) you’ll need to slide that text size up a notch or two in order to get it back into comfortable territory.
I wrote a large chunk of this article on the iPad mini, and while it’s capable of all the same stuff as just about any other iPad, writing is probably not its forte. Several companies do make add-on keyboards for the iPad mini 4 (all of which will work with this model, since they’re identical on the outside), its eight-inch width in horizontal orientation is not really wide enough to fit a keyboard with normal size keys. I ended up using an Apple Magic Keyboard in a Studio Neat Canvas case, which worked fine. If you don’t mind tiny keyboards with ultra-compact keys, cases like the ones from Zagg or Logitech or even Brydge might work for you. It certainly would make this a remarkably compact and portable writing device. You just have to deal with a nonstandard, compact keyboard layout.
I should mention one of the best features of the design of this iPad mini, which is that it’s entirely identical to the iPad mini 4. That might bore people who were hoping for a complete re-think of the device, but it’s pretty obvious that wasn’t going to happen. And because Apple didn’t tweak the exterior even a little bit, every accessory made for the iPad mini 4 will work on the fifth-generation iPad mini. And at least for right now, many of them are quite cheap, because the iPad mini was considered a dead product. Old iPad mini cases and covers and keyboards should work fine with this device, provided they were designed for the iPad mini 4. (Apple made changes in design between the iPad mini 3 and 4 that broke compatibility; accessories build for other models are not likely to be compatible.)
As the iPad line expands—it’s a family of five now—the different models are better suited for different tasks. The iPad mini is all about that small size, and with Apple Pencil support it can serve as a sketchbook or basic notebook. It’s also an ideal size for reading books, newspapers, and other web content. At $399 it’s worth asking if we’ve gotten to the point where people will consider pairing an iPad mini with a larger iPad and using them for different tasks. The truth is, the iPad mini’s processor means it’s capable of doing almost anything its larger siblings can do—it just does them all on a smaller screen.
The new iPad mini doesn’t need to be all things to all people. It doesn’t even need to be the cheapest iPad in the product line. It just needs to be small and light while still providing the power of a modern iPad, and it does that quite well.
By Jason Snell
November 13, 2018 2:00 PM PT
You have to judge a product on what it is.
In starting the pricing of the 2018 iPad Pro models at $799 and $999, in comparing the power of the A12X chip inside to PC laptops, in replacing the Lightning port of previous iOS devices with the USB-C port found on Mac and PC devices, Apple is sending a clear message: The iPad Pro is not meant to be a toy or a curiosity or an alternate device. It is just as serious a device as a computer, Apple suggests, and if that’s true we should judge it accordingly.
But just because the iPad Pro needs to be taken as seriously as a computer doesn’t mean it should be judged as a PC. The iPad is not a computer, not as the term’s been defined for the past 40 years. It’s something new and different, and it excels in some ways that PCs don’t while also struggling to do some things that PCs do well.
No, the iPad Pro can’t do everything a PC can do—nor should we expect it to, because it’s not a PC. If you choose to use an iPad Pro rather than a MacBook or a Windows laptop, you are presumably doing so because some aspect of the iPad Pro makes it more appealing than those products. In other words, there’s something else it does better than those devices, making it worth the trade-off.
Better is to judge the iPad on what it is—and where its potential lies. While it’s misguided to consider the iPad’s path incomplete until it turns itself into a PC, it’s fair to ask if the spectacular hardware Apple’s developed here is being let down by its software.
The iPad Pro isn’t a PC, and shouldn’t be judged as such. It’s something new, and different. But being new and different doesn’t mean it gets a free pass. It’s still got to measure up.
You have to judge a product on what it is.
By Jason Snell
November 6, 2018 3:00 AM PT
Think back to the fall of 2010. The iPad was just a few months old, and Apple introduced a new design for the MacBook Air. The previous model was an impressively thin and light laptop (that could famously fit in a mailing envelope), but it was expensive and had a single USB port concealed beneath a weird flip-down door. But the new models—and there were two, at 13 and 11 inches—were entirely different. They were still thin and light, but now they offered two USB ports and a new wedge-shaped design.
In that moment, the MacBook Air went from being a bit of an oddball to being the heart and soul of the Mac laptop line—and since two-thirds of Mac sales are laptops, it’s probably safe to say that the MacBook Air is the definitive Mac of this decade. For the past eight years, its exterior design has largely remained unchanged, as other products have come and gone.
Just when we thought it was dead, after several years of essentially no updates, the MacBook Air has returned with a new version that’s clearly inspired by the classic design. It’s been so long since the last major MacBook Air update, in fact, that most of the “new” features on this device are simply a recap of all the changes Apple has made to other Macs the past few years, finally rolled into this one: a new keyboard, Retina display, Force Touch trackpad, Apple-designed T2 processor, USB-C/Thunderbolt 3, “Hey Siri”, and Touch ID.
Surprise! The definitive Mac of the 2010s is going to survive this decade. And while this MacBook Air is dramatically different from previous models in many ways, it’s also got a bunch of familiar touches that make it undeniably a MacBook Air. Like its predecessors, it’s not the computer for everyone… but it will probably be the most popular laptop among the (count ‘em) six models Apple currently offers.
By Jason Snell
November 6, 2018 3:00 AM PT
When the Mac mini was introduced at Macworld Expo in 2005, what caught the eye was the $499 base price, the lowest price ever for a Mac 1. In an era where the iPod was in the process of entirely rehabbing the Apple brand in the eyes of the general public, the Mac mini was for switchers—people who decided that the iPod was so good, maybe a computer made by Apple would be better than whatever PC they were using right then.
It was a good idea, and I suspect that the Mac mini drove a lot of switchers—or at least got them into an Apple Store, where perhaps they ended up walking out with an iMac instead.
Apple and the Mac are in very different place today, though. Most of the Macs it sells are laptops. The concept of the low-end desktop switcher feels outmoded. (Which is not to say there aren’t any, just that there maybe aren’t as many as there might have been in 2005.)
In the intervening 13 years, the Mac mini has become something different. As the one Mac without a built-in monitor that isn’t an expensive and large Mac Pro, it’s become a bit of a Swiss army knife, fitting as a tiny Internet or file server (I’ve had a Mac mini running in my house more or less constantly for more than a decade), running lights and audio in theaters and at rock concerts, and thousands of other small niches that are vitally important for the people who live in them.
Just last week, hours after an Apple media event, I found myself in an edit bay at the offices of Stitcher in midtown Manhattan, recording a podcast. The multi-microphone, multi-display audio setup was powered by—you guessed it—a Mac mini.
Apple has witnessed how the Mac mini has gone from being the best Mac it could build for $499 to one that’s a vital tool for professional and home users in a variety of contexts. And so, after a long time in the wilderness, the Mac mini has at last been updated—the right way. The last time the Mac mini got updated, Apple took away the highest-end configurations. This time, the Mac mini has been built with those many niche uses in mind.
For the record, you had to pay an additional $50 for Bluetooth, $79 for Wi-Fi, and $100 for a SuperDrive, and you could max out the Mac mini at $1200 if you tried. ↩
By Jason Snell
October 15, 2018 2:40 PM PT
It’s hard to believe that it’s been nearly a month since I took possession of an iPhone XS and XS Max. In the intervening four weeks I’ve taken photos and video, traveled on a business trip, gotten stuck in hideous commute traffic. That’s life. And throughout, the iPhone XS has proven itself as a phone that’s got all the benefits of the excellent iPhone X, with some subtle tech upgrades, a massively improved camera, and—perhaps most significantly—a bigger screen if you want it.
Same as it ever was
After a year with the iPhone X, switching the iPhone XS was not much of a disruption. (I’ve been using the same case as the one I used with the iPhone X.) Apple hasn’t perfected the process of migrating from one phone to another, but it’s coming ever closer. Back in 2015, Myke Hurley and I spent 90 minutes detailing all the annoyances in migrating to our new iPhone 6S models. On what should be one of the most fun moments on any tech enthusiast’s calendar—iPhone upgrade day!—we ended up getting frustrated with a long chain of annoyances that soured the entire experience.
Things are much better now, starting from the moment where your old iPhone senses that a new iPhone is in setup mode nearby. That kicks off a whole local information-exchange experience that gets you most of the way to upgraded with a minimum of password re-entry. I’d love for it to be even more frictionless, but it feels very much like Apple has done everything it can while also keeping its security model intact. Restoring Apple Pay only requires re-entering of CVV codes. Even restoring apps from the App Store seems faster than it used to!
Since biometric data is not transferrable between devices, of course you have to set up Face ID when you move to the iPhone XS. I’m still flabbergasted about how easy it is to set up Face ID—you tilt your head a couple of times and that’s it. Apple says Face ID is faster on the iPhone XS than on the iPhone X due to the faster A12 processor, and after a month I guess I can see it. It’s hardly a shout-from-the-rooftops improvement, but it’s faster—and it was already pretty great. Face ID all the things! 1
So let’s deal with this up front: The iPhone XS is a better iPhone X. I’ll get into the details in the rest of this review, but if you spent $999 or more on an iPhone X last year, and you’re not on some sort of annual replacement plan (or don’t have a family member to roll your phone down to), you can probably hold off on upgrading this year.
That’s not a condemnation of the iPhone XS, but a compliment to just how far forward the iPhone X pushed the iPhone line. It was a truly great upgrade.
Staring into the sun
The defining feature of the iPhone XS upgrade is the camera. But these days when you talk about a camera, you’re really talking about the combination of an image sensor, a set of lenses, signal-processing hardware, and complicated (machine-learning assisted) software running on powerful processors. This is what smartphone cameras are now, and as long as the laws of physics require smartphones to only be a handful of millimeters thick, that’s not going to change.
(I assume that eventually, the back of every smartphone will either be one giant light-sensitive surface or an array of dozens of cameras, intelligently capturing the scene around you and using powerful algorithms to create a perfect representation of what you saw. Either that or the cameras will migrate into our smart glasses or smart hats or some other smart object not yet devised.)
For now, though, we’ve got a camera so good that you can shoot straight into the sun and it kind of doesn’t matter, other than the risks of J.J. Abrams-style lens flare. A lesson anyone using a camera learns early on is that you don’t want to shoot backlit subjects, because the light from behind them will wash out the rest of the picture, and you’ll be left with silhouettes or a completely useless, blown-out image.
Using the iPhone XS camera has required me to retrain myself. You’re always going to be better off not shooting directly into the sun, but it matters a lot less when every shot you take is actually a combination of multiple shots and exposures capturing different portions of the image at different light levels, and sticking them all together on the fly into a single image that can show the sun, the sky, and the faces of the people who are feeling that sun on their backs. This is a technique Apple calls Smart HDR, and it is a remarkable step toward making iPhone photos match what your eye actually sees.
(Our eyes—and the powerful neural engine that processes the image signals coming from them—can see simultaneously in bright light and dark shadow in a way that our cameras just can’t. But the cameras are getting better all the time.)
Is the ultimate goal to make every photo out of an iPhone camera exactly match what you see in your mind’s eye when you look at the scene? Not necessarily, no. Part of the power of an experienced photographer is using the technology at their disposal to capture a specific image, one that doesn’t necessarily copy reality but represents some aspect of it. Photography is the art of finding a still image with very specific bounds in a dynamic, 360-degree world.
That said… when it comes to snapshots? Yeah, the ultimate goal is to save what you saw with your own eyes so you can remember it later. There are lots of apps that will let advanced photographers take advantage of the power of the iPhone XS camera to take amazing pictures—but by default, in the Camera app, the goal is rightly to capture that scene you want to keep forever. And if it involves two kids playing in the sand at the beach with the sun inconveniently setting behind them, then it needs to do everything it can to represent that moment despite the less-than-ideal conditions. That moment won’t come again and can’t be restaged.
In the past month I have taken a huge number of photos pointing more or less straight at the sun. I’ve taken shots on the side of a mountain with bright sunlight in the foreground and deep, deep shadow in the background. The iPhone XS did a great job rendering those scenes—in fact, in one shot on the mountain, I was standing in the sun and couldn’t see anything in the shadows, but the iPhone managed to reveal some of it. Comparing a Smart HDR photo and its single-exposure equivalent, I found that Smart HDR exposed detail in sunlit spots that would’ve otherwise been blown out. In a shot up from within a dark forest canopy, Smart HDR images were able to render the sky through the trees as blue with puffy clouds, as opposed to just a bright white.
I’m similarly impressed with the video-capture ability that Apple’s calling “extended HDR.” In essence, if you’re taking video at 30 frames per second or less, the iPhone actually captures pairs of frames, one stepped up in exposure, one stepped down, and then combines them on the fly into a single frame that includes more image information from both the bright and dark spaces in an image. Think about that for a minute—it’s capturing 4K video at 60 frames per second, analyzing two 4K frames, and merging them into a single frame every thirtieth of a second. It’s a staggering amount of processing power, but in the end all that matters is that now your video shows the details of light and shadow better than it did before.
And that’s all that really should matter. It’s nice that when it rolls out new products, Apple shows some of its work—tech nerds like me want to know what’s going on behind the scenes. But for just about everyone else, the point is that photos and videos look better and more like what we saw with our own eyes.
Is there more to be done on this front? Always. Google continues to push its computational photography forward in the Pixel line, with the latest model offering its own tricks to improve image resolution, low-light photography, and finding just the right fraction of a second to take the perfect image even if you pressed the shutter button at a slightly less optimal time. Our cameras are getting smarter and smarter. Eventually all we’ll have to do is point them at a scene and let them work their magic.
Large and in charge
The other notable thing about the iPhone XS is, of course, that it comes in two sizes. The iPhone XS Max is a return to the big-and-small buddy iPhone movie Apple’s been running for the past few years, but this time rebooted for the iPhone X. The XS Max is, in fact, so much like the standard iPhone XS that it’s uncanny how your perspective shifts when you use one of the models for a while.
An hour with the iPhone XS Max and the iPhone XS and iPhone X suddenly look like little toy phones. A day with the XS, and suddenly the XS Max seems like a monster.
The fact is, the two models are identical other than their screen size (and a little bit of extra battery thanks to the extra volume of the device). So you don’t need to shop for an iPhone based on features, as some people did with the iPhone Plus models—namely buying a larger phone to get access to a better zoom lens.
I’ve never been a fan of larger phones, but since the iPhone X was itself larger than the iPhone 6/7/8 series that preceded it, that means that it’s less of a size jump from the iPhone XS to the XS Max. I’d argue that the iPhone XS’s screen is plenty large and fits better in my hand, so the extra pixels of the XS Max aren’t worth the awkwardness of holding a larger phone. If you have larger hands than I do, you might feel very differently. There’s a phone for both of us!
If you have hands that are smaller than mine, though, you may not be as pleased. Certainly, many people are lamenting the death of the iPhone SE and the lack of an update to the (larger, but not as large as the XS) iPhone 8. The iPhone XS is the smallest 2018-vintage iPhone, and it ain’t small.
I get it. One size does not fit all. And I’m hopeful that at some point—perhaps next spring, midway between this year’s revisions and next year’s—Apple will roll out another phone model or two that are a little bit smaller.
But these phones, as well as the forthcoming iPhone XR, are a reminder that in terms of the global smartphone market, bigger is better. It’s never any fun to be a fan of something that is a niche of a much larger market, but here we are. If you don’t like chocolate or vanilla ice cream, it’s good that there are more flavors. Right now there aren’t very many flavors of iPhone. I hope that changes in 2019.
Leaving aside the issue of smaller phones, there’s also the issue of a larger phone—the iPhone XR. I got a chance to try one out for a few minutes after the iPhone launch event in September, and I’ve got to be honest: It seemed pretty great. The screen’s not an OLED like the iPhone XS Max, and it only has the one rear camera—but it costs $350 less than the Max, and it comes in a bunch of bright, pretty colors that the XS models don’t.
It’s an interesting gambit on Apple’s part, to expect some percentage of users to opt for the more expensive, higher-end phone when the lower-end model is largely just as well equipped, comes in fun colors, and is a big cost saving. But then again, at $749, it’s not like the iPhone XR is a bargain-basement model. Apple wins either way. Isn’t that just like them?
Well, here we are in the future
In 2017, Apple said that the iPhone X was the future of smartphones.
Now it’s 2018, and… the iPhone X is still great. Story checks out. After a year with my iPhone X, I can’t imagine going back to Touch ID or a phone with big bezels on the face.
The iPhone XS, then, is today’s phone, today. Yes, it’s a small step forward for the iPhone X, but the iPhone X itself was a big step forward. If you haven’t joined the X family yet, this is a great time to jump on. If you want a larger phone, the XS Max will suffice—as will the XR, probably.
Is this an incremental update? Sure, but most of Apple’s updates are incremental. It’s only after a few years that you really notice all the major changes that have been happening, bit by bit. Last year’s jump to the iPhone X was unusually dramatic, but this year’s iterative step is not without its own kind of appeal. I’ll miss the iPhone X, which led a mere year-long existence, but the iPhone XS is the same phone—only better.
I’m looking at you, iPad Pro. ↩
By Jason Snell
October 2, 2018 1:14 PM PT
In the fall of 2014 the big question was: What is the Apple Watch good for? The company’s expansive answer was, essentially: What isn’t it good for? The result was a product that was new and interesting and weird and entirely unfocused.
In contrast, today’s Apple seems to have a laser focus when it comes to what the Apple Watch is for: Health, Fitness, and Connections. Can you do math problems on it? Sure. But it’s really a health guardian, fitness coach, and tool to help you stay connected with people and information sources that matter to you.
Better focus means better products. Apple has spent the last four years listening to and watching its customers, learning which features of the Apple Watch have resonated—and which ones haven’t. (Goodbye, Digital Touch!) Apple’s also got four more years of watch building and technological development under its belt.
The result is the Apple Watch Series 4, a new model that—combined with watchOS 5—makes it clear that Apple has left everyone else in the dust when it comes to smart watches. This is not a product for everybody—you can get a cheaper fitness monitor or a cheaper (or vastly more expensive!) timepiece. But if you need a device that fits into Apple’s areas of focus, the Apple Watch Series 4 will fit perfectly.
By Jason Snell
April 6, 2018 11:05 AM PT
The fact of our society is that nice things cost money and nicer things cost more money. What you buy depends on your means, but also your priorities. At $329, the new sixth-generation iPad doesn’t have a bunch of the features of the more expensive iPad Pro, but if those features aren’t your priorities, you can spend half what you would on an iPad Pro and get an iPad that’s faster than the 2016 iPad Pro.
For years I’ve driven a Honda Civic. It’s about as far from a luxury car as you can get. The new iPad is a little like that car: Not the fanciest thing you can buy, but it’ll provide you with a solid, reliable tool to get you where you need to go. There’s not a thing wrong with that.
By Jason Snell
October 10, 2017 11:16 AM PT
I started using Twitter because of Twitterrific for Mac. When the Iconfactory first released the app, I signed up for a Twitter account and started chatting with my friends. That was ten years ago. Twitter has changed, mobile devices reign supreme, and Twitterrific for Mac stopped being updated many years ago. But as of Tuesday, it’s back, with a new version 5.0 funded by a successful Kickstarter.
This new Twitterrific for Mac is basically a 1.0 product, based on the code base of Twitterrific for iOS, an app that’s been continually updated during the span when the old Mac version had fallen entirely by the wayside. Using the iOS code base is what allows the new Mac version to exist at all, but it does lead to the occasional interface oddity.
On iOS, I use Twitterrific exclusively—don’t email me, Tweetbotists—but on the Mac I switched to the official Twitter app a few years ago. It’s not a great app, but it’s better since it stopped being abandonware. For the past few weeks, I’ve been using Twitterrific for Mac extensively, and I’ve found that it can mostly replace Twitter for Mac for me—but there are a few places where it definitely falls short. (Most of this can be placed at the feet of Twitter, which limits the access third-party apps have to Twitter’s rich data soup, while giving its own app full access.)
As an iOS user, there are features of Twitterrific for Mac that I take for granted, because they exist on iOS: The interface is colorful, with different colors for different sorts of Tweets. It’s customizable, with several different fonts and font sizes available. And there are some nice Mac-only developments, like the ability to open multiple windows with different accounts or aspects of your timeline. (It sort of makes me want the ability to view a couple of timelines when using Twitterrific on my iPad Pro in landscape view, I have to admit…)
This is essentially a 1.0 product, and there are several features of the iOS version of Twitterrific that are just absent here: You can’t manage lists, or set up muffles or mutes on people or keywords or hashtags. (The good news is, Twitterrific for Mac will sync muffles and mutes from iOS and honor them… you just can’t edit them on the Mac side.) The Today view, Twitterrific’s attempt to emulate the secret weapon of Twitter’s native app (the Notifications tab, which shows you who is retweeting and favoriting your posts) is also absent.
There are also several places where the app just doesn’t seem quite properly adapted to the Mac. Text sizes seem a little too large, even when I scale them down, especially when it comes to window headers. I frequently get frustrated that I can’t bring up a reply list by double clicking anywhere in a tweet—if you get too close to the text of the tweet, it thinks I’m selecting a single word of that tweet. (I’m never doing that.)
Because iOS relies on touch interaction, it has no real concept of hovering over something with your cursor—something that happens on the Mac all the time. Since Twitterrific hides the interaction icons on each tweet until you select a tweet, I have to click to select the Tweet, then click to reply. I’m okay with Twitterrific hiding the icons, but maybe when I move my cursor over the tweet, they should appear? It would save me a click every single time.
Back in the old days, I used to customize the color scheme of Twitterrific for Mac, which was a huge pain—you had to open the application bundle and edit a text file. Fortunately, Iconfactory has built theme editing right into the Twitterrific for Mac app, including support for importing and exporting settings. The Theme tab is a hidden feature you can activate by holding down the Option key while opening the app’s Preferences window. It’s not a friendly interface by any means, but that’s just fine—it let me tweak my settings and create a set of colors that was much more pleasing to me.
Overall, I’m happy with how Twitterrific for Mac is progressing. Right now I suspect its target audience is people who use Twitterrific on iOS and want their familiarity to cross over to their Macs. (I’m in that group!) I’m not sure it is quite ready to appeal to users of the official Twitter app or most other Mac Twitter apps, but with continued polish and addition of a few missing features, it could be in short order. But even today, it’s a more complete app than I expected when I backed the Kickstarter, and I’m happy to have it back on my Mac.
By Jason Snell
October 5, 2017 8:30 AM PT
Three years in, the Apple Watch is still the Apple Watch.
This wasn’t a foregone conclusion. When Apple introduced the Apple Watch in the fall of 2014 (it didn’t ship until spring 2015), it was unclear how often we’d see new models, and whether the design of the original Apple Watch would be replaced immediately or be maintained for several years.
But here we are in late 2017, and while the Apple Watch has seen some major internal improvements over the years, Series 3 looks just like the original model. (There will undoubtedly be a time when Apple breaks with the design style—and people who have invested in Apple Watch bands will be supremely sad—but three-plus years is a pretty decent run.)
Those internal improvements, though…. The Apple Watch Series 3 is noticeably faster than the Series 2 (let alone the original model), making the interface much more responsive and reducing annoying wait times. In a glanceable device like the Apple Watch, there is perhaps no greater sin than forcing the user to stare at a spinning animation while… nothing… happens. That happens a lot less on the Series 3 watch, and the waits (when they appear) are much more brief. Siri also tends to come up faster, though there are still frustrating random pauses where I’m not allowed to talk to Siri. With Apple Watch Series 3, Siri can talk back to you, which is a good addition—the last thing I need to do is stare intently at my wrist for longer than I need to.
Last year, the Apple Watch Series 2 added standalone GPS capability, which was good, but with the Series 3 it has reached its ideal form with the addition of cellular networking. Just as we arrive at the era where our smartphones are the be-all, end-all of personal technology, along comes a device that allows you to sidestep the obligation we all feel to carry our phones with us just in case someone needs us (or we need someone).
Is that freedom worth the $10 per month I’m paying my cellular carrier? For a lot of people the answer is going to be no—and that’s okay. People resisted the cost of the first wave of smartphone data plans, too… but over time the market and our needs adjusted and synced up. I really do believe that in the future we’ll all have a collection of these devices and paying for them will seem normal (and not outrageous). Today, it’s a feature that will appeal more to people who really benefit from not toting their phone around, mostly active people like runners and bikers and swimmers.
Both the Apple Watch hardware and software have evolved a lot in the past three years, but it’s clear that the hardware development has seriously outpaced the software side. One of the big features Apple is promoting with the Series 3—streaming Apple Music over cellular—doesn’t actually work yet. Apple says it’s coming soon, but in the meantime Apple has set up automatic syncing of music you play often and Apple Music’s auto-generated personalized playlists. Overnight, when your watch is connected and charging, that music will get loaded on your watch. It’s a nice feature (and syncing music to the Apple Watch has come a long way from the janky early days), but it’s not quite the feature that was promised.
I also had some stability issues with my Apple Watch Series 3, though they seem to have worked themselves out after a few days. The first time I went out for a bike ride with only my Apple Watch and a set of AirPods, the watch rebooted twice and spontaneously lost connection with my AirPods a third time. My guess is that the watch was left in a weird state after restoring it from the backup of my previous watch, but that had happened nearly 24 hours prior. Later that day, I got a bunch of permissions requests from the watch (i.e., do you want to allow location tracking), and all of a sudden the watch began to behave normally. I haven’t had a problem since.
Another challenge for watchOS is that the watch was originally conceived as a device with a closely tethered iPhone as a buddy. Many (perhaps most) watchOS apps are still reliant on communicating with their iPhone app on the iPhone, which limits their utility when away from the iPhone. Over time, apps will be updated to take advantage of cellular networking, but today there are a limited number that are truly functional when you’re out running, miles from your iPhone. watchOS needs to be improved to allow developers to create more powerful watch apps, because users will expect more from the device when they’re relying on it as their only connection to the world.
I’m also baffled by how little cellular status has been integrated into the Apple Watch’s faces. There’s a new face, Explorer, that will show dots to subtly indicate that you’re on cellular—but those dots are only available on that face. Why not on my favorite face, Utility? No idea. Every watch face should have a network status complication available. It feels like integrating cellular functionality into watch faces was an afterthought, to be honest.
I don’t want to imply that watchOS isn’t advancing at all—it is, and watchOS on Apple Watch Series 3 is the best Apple Watch experience yet. I love the fact that the apps I most need access to—fitness and audio apps as well as whatever other apps I’ve been using lately—generally stay right on top of the interface, so I don’t have to re-launch them every few minutes when I want to make a quick adjustment. watchOS 4 lets me view my apps in an alphabetical list instead of playing a pattern-matching game in a honeycomb of tiny circles, for which I’m grateful. (You have to force-touch on the app view in order to select list view, so it’s not a very discoverable feature, but at least it’s there.)
Most importantly, watchOS seems to have fully embraced the fact that scrolling (via the Digital Crown) is the primary way to interact with the watch interface. Tapping the side button brings up a new dock, redesigned for the second straight year, that’s stacked vertically so that it makes sense that you can scroll through it via the Digital Crown. There are a few side-to-side swipes still in the interface, but much more of it is about scrolling up and down. Good call.
The Apple Watch Series 3 is an improvement on the previous model, which was itself a major improvement on the original. While adding cellular connectivity isn’t a must-have feature for everyone, for a lot of people it will be reason enough to upgrade (or buy an Apple Watch in the first place). I wish the Apple Watch software was better able to take advantage of cellular connectivity, but for the first time in ages I can leave my phone at home and know that I’m still reachable and can reach out if I need to. This is the start of something big.
By Jason Snell
January 27, 2017 11:37 AM PT
I’ve been struggling to find the perfect 12.9-inch iPad Pro keyboard. The Razer Mechanical, Logitech Create, and Apple Smart Keyboard all have issues that prevent me from endorsing them. The big screen is why I love the big iPad, but its surface area makes it tough to match with a keyboard that’s functional and not bulky. Generally, I’ve been traveling with an Apple Magic Keyboard and the Studio Neat Canopy.
But I think I’ve found the best external keyboard yet for the 12.9-inch iPad: the $150 Brydge Keyboard 12.9. It’s not perfect, but it’s the first external keyboard that I can see myself using on a regular basis.
By Jason Snell
December 21, 2016 8:45 AM PT
Wireless headphones aren’t new. Individual wireless earbuds aren’t even that new. But the profile, power, and prowess of Apple make the AirPods special. These are the wireless earbuds that people will notice and talk about—and probably buy in large numbers. The good news is, they’re worthy of the attention.
Time to go wireless
A cynic would say that Apple removed the headphone jack on the iPhone 7 as a way to push users toward wireless audio products like the AirPods. In fact, wireless headphones have been around quite some time. And they have distinct advantages.
A couple of years ago, tired of having my headphones yanked out of my ears by a stray kitchen knob while cooking, I bought a set of Jaybird Bluetooth earbuds and have been using them ever since, mostly for listening to podcasts while walking the dog, running, or working in the kitchen. Not having cords to flap around or get caught is definitely a freeing experience.
Yes, there are drawbacks—having to plug the headphones in every so often to recharge their battery is the biggest added annoyance—but in general the move to wireless was a good one. The only problem with those earbuds is that they’re not truly wireless, because the earbuds are still wired to one another. The wire can hang down in front like a necklace, or you can bind it up and wear it around the back of your head, but neither configuration is ideal.
Fundamentally, earbuds deserved to be treated as individual objects, not tethered together. That’s the premise of the AirPods as well as several other wireless earbuds of this type. Each earbud is its own separate entity, so you can stick one or both in your ears and truly say goodbye to dangling wires.
In form, the tips of the AirPods are quite similar to the EarPod design Apple’s been using for several years. (They appear to be a bit more tapered at the ear end.) While there are no attached cables, the stems of the earbuds extend further away from your ears, all the better to pack in an antenna, battery, and microphone. Since there are no ports in which to plug charging cables, each pair of AirPods comes with a small carrying case, roughly the size and shape of a packet of dental floss. The case has a Lightning port on the bottom, and it will charge the AirPods when you drop them in. (They drop in with a clear, pleasant magnetic click, and a small light indicates charging status.)
According to Apple, the AirPods will last about five hours on a charge, and 15 minutes in the case will recharge them enough for three more hours of playback. In my usage these seemed like reasonable estimates—it took a lot of effort to wear down my AirPods, and even a brief visit to the charging case would revive them. Apple says that all told, fully charged AirPods and a fully charged case will provide 24 hours of listening time.
Given the average length of my old public-transit commute, I wouldn’t have even needed to bring the case with me, but given the size of each AirPod earbud, the case is more than just a charging system. It’s also an important organizational tool—because if you leave these earbuds floating around, you will probably lose them. Keep the earbuds in the case when not in use and everyone’s happy. (And yeah, the case adds another item you need to carry around with you—but on the positive side, these headphones won’t ever get tangled cords.)
The secret sauce—okay, magic—of the AirPods comes in the details that Apple has sweated in order to make the AirPods more than just a generic set of Bluetooth headphones. (Though they can be that if they must—I was able to pair them with an Android phone and they worked just fine.)
Pairing them with my iPhone 7 couldn’t have been easier: When I flipped open the AirPods case while they were next to the phone, up slid a screen showing AirPods with a large button marked Connect. That was it. The information synced across iCloud to my other Apple devices; I could switch the AirPods to my iMac running macOS Sierra by or my iPad Pro by choosing “Jason’s AirPods” from the sound output selector.
When you put an earbud in one ear, you hear a pleasant chime to let you know that the earbuds are on and connected to a device. (If you switch devices, you’ll hear the chime again.) There’s a similar, sadder tone that plays when you’ve just about drained the batteries down.
Perhaps the best single feature of the AirPods is their infrared proximity sensors, which is how they know to chime when you’ve placed one in your ear. More importantly, this sensor forms the basis of a natural and useful interface gesture: removing one earbud. When you remove an earbud, which is generally the universal signal that you’re trying to hear something happening in the outside world, the AirPods will automatically pause your audio. When you pop that earbud back into your ear, playback resumes.
The first day I wore AirPods out in the world, I was walking my dog down a dog path when another dog and person came toward us from the other direction. I popped an earbud out, said hello, and when we moved past one another I popped the earbud back in—and my podcast resumed. (The AirPods only resume your audio playback in this specific context—when you take out one earbud and then replace it. If you pop both earbuds out, it assumes that a listening session has ended, and you’ll need to press play to get your audio started up when you return.)
As clever and humane as that interface is, its flip side is the weakest feature of the AirPods: their reliance on Siri for just about everything else. You can summon Siri with two taps on either earbud, just as if you held down the Home button or said “Hey Siri” out loud. (If you want, you can deactivate this gesture entirely or have it merely represent a play/pause control.)
If Apple’s strength is integrating various technologies together, it’s also a weakness. In this case, a pretty terrific bit of hardware is let down by a software feature of only middling reliability. Too many of Siri’s commands still seem to direct responses to a screen, which makes it inappropriate for voice-only use.
But I’m not sure I’d blame this all on Siri. The fact is, the AirPods come with only two gestures—a double-tap and removing an earbud—when headphones with traditional clickers offer three buttons and an array of double- and triple-taps and press-and-hold gestures. Because the AirPods only have two available gestures, Apple has used Siri as a catch-all, figuring that you can adjust volume and skip tracks and do all of the other stuff you need to do from Siri, so it’ll be okay.
That’s a mistake, for a few reasons. First, Siri control is only functional when there’s an Internet connection. If you want to adjust the volume of your AirPods when you’re in an area with no service, you’ll need to pull out your phone or launch the Now Playing widget on your Apple Watch to do it. Why Apple doesn’t allow Siri to gracefully degrade to a few basic hardware-oriented commands when there’s no network connectivity is beyond me. The Internet doesn’t need to exist for me to tell my phone to skip to the next track—but that’s how Apple has apparently built this feature.
Then there’s the difference in convenience between a few clicks or taps and having to tap, say a phrase, and wait for it to be interpreted. There’s a lot of extra baggage there, which is great when you need a pocket supercomputer to interpret a complex phrase like “Play the playlist ‘Best of Alternative 2016’.” But it seems a little sillier to do all of that just to say “decrease volume.” (Also, if you’re on the subway, people will think you’re a weirdo. Or that you’re telling them to shut up.)
Apple has packed so much into the AirPods that it’s understandable that this first-generation product would have some limits. That said, even without adding buttons or touch surfaces, Apple might have been able to do more with this technology. Imagine the ability to customize double-taps per earbud, so that a double-tap on your left ear can perform a different task from the right. Add in support for a triple tap. Now you’ve got a wider palette of gestures to choose from. But, at least for now, this is what we’ve got.
In my use of the AirPods, I tried very hard not to use Siri when at all possible. My Apple Watch was a pretty good remote control, and I could always resort to the classic “squeeze the iPhone in my pocket” maneuver to adjust volume. This is the price of minimalism.
But how do they sound and fit?
Everybody’s ears are different, inside and out. A sound you find pleasing might be awful to someone else. And I’m sure AirPods won’t please audiophiles. But as someone who has been using good in-ear monitors with custom-molded silicone tips for years now—in other words, someone who at least has a passing familiarity with pretty good sound—I can tell you that, at least to my ears, AirPods sound just fine.
I have spent very little time with Apple’s EarPods over the years. The fact is, the original iPod earbuds were so awful—they didn’t sound good and they didn’t fit my ears well—that I quickly switched to third-party headphones and never looked back. But the AirPods (and, yes, the EarPods) sound surprisingly good, for both music and podcasts. I was impressed with the depth of the bass and the clarity of the treble. As a skeptical listener, I came away believing that the sound of the AirPods was not a limiting factor. They sound good. I’m sure they will not sound good to some people, but the vast majority of people will find them pleasing.
Likewise, ear shape can be an issue. I know someone who tried the AirPods and said they kept falling out of their ears. My right ear started hurting after about half an hour of use, until I repositioned the stem of the earbud to point a bit more in toward my neck, at which point it was much more comfortable. Some people, just by the luck of the shape of their ears, will not be able to wear AirPods comfortably.
In many hours of use, an earbud fell out of my ears twice. In both cases, the fall was caused by brushing against the stems with another object, namely the sleeve or hood of my sweatshirt. Otherwise, they stayed in my ears despite several attempts to shake them out. I never felt this way with a pair of wired earbuds.
The big difference is probably the lack of wires coming out of the bottom of the stems. You may not notice the force that wires exert, constantly pulling against your ears and trying to coax those earbuds out of position, but compare the feeling of wearing EarPods to AirPods and you will realize that those wires really do have an impact. I never felt that EarPods were reliably seated in my ears, but AirPods stay in my ears even if I simulate enthusiastic headbanging or shake my head wildly from side to side.
Now hear this
AirPods feel like a classic Apple product. Its custom hardware and tweaked software interact to create a product that’s packed with high technology but never feels complicated or flaky. They are exactly what you’d imagine if I told you that Apple was making a set of completely wireless earbuds. You pop them in your ears and go—they really do just work.
They’re not a perfect product, for sure. If there’s any way for Apple to add more tap gestures via a software update, I hope the company will consider that. I’d like to see Siri to stop requiring an Internet connection to perform basic tasks. And if Apple can find a way to create next-generation AirPods with more tap gestures or on-device buttons or touch-sensitive gestural areas, they’ll be that much more effective.
But if you’re the user of any Apple device and you are in the market for a pair of headphones, the AirPods deserve serious consideration. Once you’ve cooked a meal or run a mile with no wires coming out of your ears, you will wonder how you ever lived without this product. And isn’t that the most Apple-like feeling of all?
By Jason Snell
November 14, 2016 5:00 AM PT
The new MacBook Pro is a powerful computer in a relatively thin and light shell that brings an entirely new connection format to the Mac mainstream, but it won’t be remembered for any of that. The legacy of this laptop sits at the top of the keyboard, where a row of function keys have been replaced by a high-resolution multitouch 2170 × 60 OLED display with a fingerprint sensor next to it.
This isn’t the MacBook Pro, it’s the MacBook Pro with Touch Bar and Touch ID. And it’s a major investment by Apple, featuring major additions to macOS and almost all of its included apps in order to support the Touch Bar and Touch ID.
By Jason Snell
November 6, 2016 10:52 AM PT
When Apple provided me with a 13-inch MacBook Pro the day before I was set to spend 10 days traveling to Europe and back, I took it upon myself as a challenge to do one of the things that laptops are meant to do: provide computing power while you’re on the go. So I edited podcasts on planes, wrote articles in hotel rooms and airport departure lounges and even on trains zipping through the Irish countryside.
As a MacBook Air user, I’ve paid attention to Apple’s statements likening the low-end 13-inch model with physical function keys and two USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 ports to the 13-inch MacBook Air. My preferred Air, the 11-inch model, is on the way out—and the regular MacBook is probably its best analog. (Could we get a second port on there?) But my wife’s a user of the 13-inch Air, and comparing this new MacBook Pro to her Air is illuminating.
This model is more compact than the Air, with smaller bezels around the display leading to a more compact shape. It’s thicker at the trackpad end than the MacBook Air’s wedge shape, and it weighs an ounce more, but most notably it just feels more dense (and more solid).
The big difference is the screen: It’s beautifully bright and with the Retina resolution you’d expect. Well, that and the price. The newer tech and that Retina screen make this MacBook Pro a 50 percent price premium over the Air, at $1499 (versus $999). The spread of Retina displays across most of the Mac product line is great, but it has come at a high price—literally.
My review model came in Space Gray, marking the first time I’ve regularly used a non-silver laptop since the days of the Black MacBook. I like the darker shade, but wish Apple would give buyers even more color choices—and not just gold and rose gold as on the MacBook, but brighter colors, too.
With this new MacBook Pro, Apple has gone all in on the USB-C connector. First debuting on the Mac with the MacBook in 2015, this model sports two USB-C connectors, but these are enhanced with Thunderbolt 3. This means that you can use adapters to connect them to older products that used either USB or Thunderbolt, and it simplifies the MacBook Pro by providing only a single connector type.
I’m all for Thunderbolt 3 and USB-C, especially for the ability for this laptop to drive an external 5K display. But there are a few issues. First is the change, as on the MacBook, to use USB-C for charging. MagSafe is gone, so if you trip on your charging cable with this new MacBook Pro you are less likely to be saved by a breakaway cable. And by plugging in the laptop on one of its two ports, you’ve eliminated that part for use in attaching peripherals.
You’ll need adapters, too. A friend brought me a USB stick last weekend and we chuckled for a moment when he realized he couldn’t plug it into this Mac. Fortunately, I had Apple’s USB-C to USB-A adapter, so I was able to copy off his files by attaching his drive to the end of a dangling dongle. To copy some of my system files onto this laptop, I used Apple’s blocky Thunderbolt 3 to Thunderbolt adapter and placed my old laptop in Target Disk Mode, which worked well.
This MacBook Pro also doesn’t have an SD card reader, which will upset some photographers. My MacBook Air never offered a card reader, so I didn’t miss it. I’d wager that the reader was used by very few people, which is one reason Apple would’ve removed it, but if it was a convenience you relied on to rapidly offload an external device, it will be less convenient with this machine.
The MacBook Pro’s keyboard isn’t like the one on the MacBook Air, or the previous-model MacBook Pro, either. Instead, it’s an updated version of the keyboard introduced with the MacBook last year. Apple told me that the keys don’t travel any farther than on the MacBook, but that this second-generation keyboard offers more feedback and feels more responsive than the one on the MacBook. That may be true, but there’s no doubt that this keyboard is a progression of the MacBook keyboard, not a revision of the previous MacBook Pro keyboard or Apple’s external Magic Keyboard.
I have written on more than one occasion of my general dislike of the MacBook keyboard. The keyboard is an important tool in making my living, and while I can use just about any keyboard, I know what I like. And what I like is more travel than these keyboards offer. That said, I want to allay the fears of people who think these keyboards don’t do the job: They do. I find the lack of response in the keys unpleasant, but I can still type at full speed and accuracy when I use it. (I do keep hitting the wrong arrow keys, though. I’m still not a fan of the full-sized left and right arrow keys sharing space with half-height up and down arrows.)
In any event, if you like the MacBook keyboard, you’ll like this one even more. If you disliked the MacBook keyboard, you may find this one to be an improvement—but it’s a progression of that keyboard, not a replacement.
Being on the road, I haven’t been able to do methodical speed or battery tests, but I can say that the battery life on this laptop seems to be a lot more than on the MacBook Air. It also handled some more intense work—editing multi-track audio in Logic Pro and removing noise from audio with iZotope RX 5—with aplomb. Some of that may be the result of the faster SSD in this model, but some of it is at least the responsibility of the processor.
In the end, the low-end 13-inch MacBook Pro turned out to be a pretty fine traveling companion for the past ten days. As a loyal Air user, it’s been a delight to bring a Retina display with me and have the ability to pack a single brick (plus one cable) to charge my Mac, iPad, and iPhone. I’ve just had to remember to keep my adapters close by—it’s always smart to be prepared.
Would I choose this model over the new MacBook Pro models with the Touch Bar and Touch ID? If money was no object, probably not. But if you’re a MacBook Air user (or were considering buying a MacBook Air), money will probably be relevant. This model is a tweener, to be sure, but it’s got a lot more than the MacBook can provide without the higher price tag of the Touch Bar models. Surely there’s a sweet spot there.
By Jason Snell
September 27, 2016 11:07 AM PT
The ebook reader market is funny. After an initial flurry of excitement, we seem to have settled in on the idea that paper books and ebooks are going to coexist, and that some people who choose to read ebooks will just do so on their smartphones and tablets. But that still leaves a really interesting niche for people who do love reading on dedicated reading devices with screens that are more like a book’s pages than a computer’s backlit display.
For pure utility, the $120 Kindle Paperwhite is the ebook reader you should buy. But what’s more interesting are the developments at the high end of this category, where premium ebook readers have become a thing. First was the $290 Kindle Oasis, which is beautiful, small, and thin.
So when Kobo announced the $229 Kobo Aura One, I was intrigued. It’s a premium ebook reader like the Kindle Oasis, but Kobo has made a bunch of different choices about what that means and what features matter to ebook readers.
I bought a Kobo Aura One to try it out and have been using it for a couple of weeks, the first time I’ve used an ebook reader that wasn’t a Kindle. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by a lot of the choices Kobo has made, and while I’m not sure it’s better than the Oasis, it’s most certainly different.
Let’s start with the size: The Aura One has a 7.8-inch diagonal screen with a screen resolution of 300 ppi. That’s the same resolution as all but the cheapest of Amazon’s Kindles, but it’s a much larger screen—the Kindle screens are all only 6 inches diagonal. The end result is that reading a book on an Aura One feels like reading a hardcover, while reading on a Kindle feels like reading a paperback. There’s more text on the screen and you need to turn the page much less frequently. The extra reading space isn’t necessary, per se, but it does feel luxurious.
Hardcover books can be heavy, though: the last hardcover novel I read before I bought my first kindle weighed 2.8 pounds! The Aura One isn’t like that—at 8.1 ounces, it’s about the same weight as the Kindle Paperwhite. The Oasis, on the other hand, weighs 4.6 ounces. I was comfortable holding the Aura One and reading for long stretches of time, but if you’re looking for the lightest ebook reader around, the Oasis is for you. The Oasis also offers hardware page-turn buttons; to turn pages on the Aura One, you’ve got to swipe or tap on the screen.
This is not to say that the Aura One doesn’t have its own advantages. It’s waterproof, for one, which no Kindle has ever been able to claim. If you’re someone who reads in a bathtub or hot tub, or otherwise walks the perilous path between reading and water, this is a huge feature in the Aura One’s favor.
Like the Kindle Voyage (but not, strangely, the Oasis), the Aura One has a light sensor that allows it to dynamically adjust its screen brightness based on your surroundings. (Like most Kindles, the Aura One is illuminated internally by a ring of lights.) Unlike the Kindle, the Aura One has a feature that’s akin to Apple’s Night Shift—it can skew its lighting into warmer tones in the evening. If you’re someone who wants to get blue light out of your eyes at night, that’s another point in the Aura One’s favor.
In the end, though, shopping for an ebook reader comes down to the ecosystem it’s connected to. Kobo readers are wired to buy books from the Kobo store; Amazon readers buy from Amazon. You can’t easily migrate your books from one store to another, so if you’ve invested in the Kindle ecosystem it would be hard to switch to the Aura One. That said, I used the open-source app Calibre to convert some of my Kindle books into DRM-free Epub files and then read them on the Kobo. So it’s not impossible to make the transition if you only occasionally want to dip into the archives.
Amazon still offers daily newspapers for the Kindle, which Kobo doesn’t, though both stores offer magazines. Kobo has a leg up on Amazon in a couple other areas: native support for Pocket and Overdrive.
Pocket is a read-it-later service that lets you save stuff on the Web to read at a later time. It’s a perfect fit for an ereader—I use Instapaper to send stories to my Kindle all the time. But on the Aura One, Pocket is integrated right into the device. Just log in with your Pocket account, and your articles will sync, ready to be read on the device. It couldn’t be easier.
Overdrive is a system (owned by the same company, Rakuten, that owns Kobo) that lets your local library offer ebooks for check-out to patrons. You can check out books from Overdrive and download them to your Kindle, but it’s a multi-step process that involves logging in to the Overdrive web site, picking a book, then linking over to Amazon. On the Aura One, all of that happens on the device, which is much more convenient.
There’s just one problem: The Aura One doesn’t give you a way to search your local library’s collection of ebooks on the device. If you want to read a book, you can search for it in the Kobo store and then tap a More Options icon to see if it’s available on Overdrive. It reminded me of that Douglas Adams line about an item being put on public display “at the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying ‘Beware of the Leopard.” Once you find a book that’s offered by your library, it takes a couple of taps to check it out and read it—but Kobo is not making much of an effort to let you find library books or remind you that a particular book is available for free check-out. Two steps forward, one step back.
After years of using the Amazon Kindle interface, I was interested in Kobo’s very different approach. Instead of making a list of your documents the home screen, the Aura One features a set of tiles that highlight books and apps that you’ve used recently. I’m not sure if I prefer it to a no-frills list of what’s on the device, but I generally never needed to go to that list, since the books I was currently reading were always offered on tiles. I also found Kobo’s typography quite good, with several different font choices as well as the ability to turn off forced justification on books. My only complaint on this score is that book text seemed strangely framed on any book that wasn’t bought from the Kobo store or checked out via Overdrive, with almost no white space at the top of the screen and too much at the bottom.
(Update: Thanks to reader Eliot Lovell, I discovered this set of Calibre plugins that gets Epub files in a more Kobo-friendly format, and solves the rendering issues it seems to have with generic, unconverted Epubs.)
In the end, where does the Kobo Aura One rank? If you’re not deeply tied into the Amazon ecosystem and screen size or waterproofing mean more to you than weight, the Aura One’s a better choice than the Oasis—and it’s $60-$80 cheaper. (Unlike Amazon, Kobo doesn’t make you pay $20 to remove ads—and it does the right thing and shows the cover art of the book you’re currently reading when it’s turned off.)