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Earlier this week Apple announced new iPads and refreshed iMac models. Both product lines needed an update and, for the most part, Apple delivered. Yet there are some odd choices.

2019 iPad update

While there are two iPads in the announcement, they are, in effect, two different sized versions of the same hardware.

The 2019 iPad Mini is functionally the same as the 2019 iPad Air. In place of the Air’s 10.5 inch screen, the Mini has a 7.9 inch screen. Prices for Air models start at NZ$850. You can buy a Mini for NZ$680. Otherwise they are much the same.

That’s not the only confusing Apple product name to emerge from this week’s announcements. Both the new iPads work with the Apple Pencil, not the new flat-sided Pencil that works with iPad Pro models, but the older round pencil. You’ll need to be careful if you order one to go with your new iPad.

Adding a Mini model that can work with a Pencil is a smart move. There’s a clear need for this with some customers.

The new Air model’s screen is larger than the older Air. A move from 9.7 inches to 10.5 inches might not sound like much, but because we measure screens across the diagonal, any increase is a squared. In plain English, the new screen is a lot bigger than you might otherwise expect.

While I’ve chosen to use an iPad Pro as my main on-the-move computer these lower-powered iPads are a more affordable choice. For most everyday work, such as writing, dealing with email and so on, they are more than enough computer.

2019 iMacs

Apple’s 2019 iMac upgrades are nothing other than speed bumps. You’ll get a faster machine this week than the one you could have bought last week.

The computer’s external design remains much the same as before. This isn’t a problem, the iMac is perfectly formed and there’s nothing obvious that needs fixing on the outside. The gorgeous big displays remain gorgeous.

Inside the case is another matter. The new iMac models still include old school hard drives. The technology is now past its sell-by date. Apple doesn’t offer old style hard drives anywhere else. It pushed hard to show solid-state-only portables were the way to go at a time when other computer makers still relied on hard drives, but hasn’t extended this to its new iMac models.

Sure, there are Fusion drives, which combine some solid state storage with a spinning drive. This will speed up many apps, but even so, they are slower than pure SSDs. No doubt the argument if that iMac buyers are price sensitive.

Next week Apple is holding a media event in Cupertino, California. Company watchers expect Apple to launch one or more new subscription services including TV streaming.

Certain western governments might be uneasy about buying Huawei kit, but phone buyers flock to the brand.

The latest phone sales data from Gartner shows Huawei has won market share from Samsung and Apple. In the fourth quarter of 2018 Huawei sold a shade over 60 million phones. This compares with Apple’s 64 million and Samsung’s 71 million units.

The fourth quarter is usually the most important period for phone sales.

Huawei growing fast

Huawei sales grew nearly 40 percent compared with the same period a year earlier.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Huawei’s success is that it is, in effect, locked out of the USA.

Gartner senior research director Anshul Gupta says; “Beyond its strongholds of China and Europe, Huawei continued to increase its investment in Asia-Pacific, Latin America and the Middle East, to drive further growth”.

Much of the company’s success came from lower price phones. Gupta says: “Huawei also exploited growth opportunities through continued expansion of the Honor series in the second half of 2018, especially in emerging markets, which helped Huawei grow its market share to 13.0 percent in 2018.”

Both Samsung and Apple sold fewer phones in the period than the same time a year earlier. Both companies had falling market share.

Samsung, Apple stumble

Apple suffered a year-on-year fall in sales of almost 12 percent. The company previously said this was largely due to falling sales in China, although numbers fell everywhere except North America and the wealthier parts of Asia-Pacific.

Samsung’s high-end phones failed to turn buyer’s heads. The company strengthened its mid-range models during the period.

Chinese brand Oppo, also enjoyed growth. It is now the world’s number four phone brand by unit sales. It has a market share of 7.7 percent.

The phone market has stopped growing. In the fourth quarter sales were 0.1 percent higher than a year earlier, essentially flat.

Gartner says the mature Asia-Pacific markets (which includes Australia and New Zealand) declined 3.4 percent.

While raw unit numbers excite many phone industry observers, the more important question is which brands are making money.

iPad Pro 12.9-inch 2018 with PencilThree days in to using the latest Apple 12.9-inch iPad Pro as my main computer I canned plans to buy a 2018 MacBook Air.

The new iPad Pro is all the mobile computer I need for journalism on the move.

It’s light. It’s always on and ready to go. It goes all day and then some on a single charge.

Add a SIM card and it’s always connected.

At a pinch it can take photos and video. There’s something uncool about holding up a magazine-sized glass-metal slate to take shots. Yet it works a treat.

The iPad Pro also does a good job recording audio. You can do that without looking like a dork.

Writing, editing

There are great iOS writing tools that work so much better on the 12.9-inch iPad Pro than on smaller iPads or iPhones.

While I prefer a Markdown editor for my writing, most of my clients prefer to get Word documents. Converting Markdown to Word is easy enough. But on the iPad Pro it’s easy to work in Word and not stuff around with converting files.

For some reason I’m yet to fathom, Word works far better on iOS than on MacOS anyway. On the iPad Pro it’s a far better experience than on any MacBook. At least for my work.

Worth buying

If you think I’m enthusiastic about the new iPad, you’d be right. It’s rare for any new hardware to capture my imagination as much as the last two 12.9-inch iPad Pro models.

They are amazing. Despite the high cost, we’ll come back to that point, they a good investment. I get a fast productivity pay off. So might you.

For my first two days with the iPad I was out-of-town working from a hotel room and cafès. That gave me an opportunity to road-testing the iPad with the kind real tasks that make up my bread and butter. I had a newsletter and a feature to write.

Before going further, I should point out an older 12.9-inch iPad Pro has been my main mobile computer for a year. There have been times when I needed a Mac, few times, but enough to mention.

I’m familiar with the basics of living an iOS only existence. Much of the rest of this post is about my first impressions moving from one 12.9-inch iPad Pro to another.

iPad Pro 2018 showing orientations

Size matters

Size is the most visible change. As the 12.9-inch name makes clear, the screen is exactly the same size as before.

The edges around the screen; bezels in geek-speak, are smaller. This means the iPad is smaller. When looked at in the portrait orientation, the 2018 model is only about 5mm less across its width. It’s height is around 20mm shorter.

In practice this is a bigger deal than you might expect. At the airport on the way home I had to unpack the iPad to go through security. Taking a dozen or so millimetres off the case means I could slip it in an out of my bag with less fuss than my older iPad.

Space is at such a premium when flying that this helps. The smaller 12.9-inch iPad Pro size works better on Air New Zealand tray tables.

It is a few grams lighter too. If, like me, you watch streaming sports coverage on an iPad, it means you can hold the device for longer in a single hand.

I spent part of Thursday and Friday moving from place to place, often cafès, carrying the iPad. It felt more comfortable.

iPad pro 2018 thin

Powerful

Apple uses a faster A12X processor in the newer iPad Pro. You may see this referred to elsewhere as a system on a chip. It is getting on for twice as fast as the processor in last year’s iPad Pro.

You wouldn’t buy an iPad Pro based on something as esoteric as processor speedtests. I’m not going to waste your time discussing benchmarks, they are meaningless for most of us.

Even so, you might choose the new iPad based on what that faster A12X chip means for your productivity.

Raw speed doesn’t make any difference to my writing. I don’t type a Markdown or Word document any faster with a better chip.

The speed comes into its own if you do photo or video editing. Next year, Adobe plans an iPad version of Photoshop. That will push the A12X harder than anything I’m using at the moment.

For now, one bonus of the faster processor is that it runs the Face ID software at a clip. It works in no time.

This means you don’t need a home button, hence the smaller bezels. It also means security is less of a productivity burden. At times I still instinctively reach for the home button, but I suspect that won’t last.

Smart Folio Keyboard

The Smart Keyboard Folio is better than the Smart Keyboard Cover used with the earlier iPad Pro. It still lacks backlighting, which I find essential on a night-time plane flight even though I’m a touch typist.

Speaking of which, I can touch type all the alphabet characters without a problem. Yet I struggle to find the apostrophe key without peeking. In touch typist circles, that feels like cheating.

Likewise, I need to look at the arrow keys use them. The keyboard is exactly the same width as on my old, 2012 MacBook Pro, but shallower.

Keys have a pleasing amount of travel and a comforting click. The typing experience is good. This is more important when you consider Apple’s new MacBook keyboard comes in for criticism. I prefer using the Folio.

Kickstand tease

I’m not excited that Apple now offers two screen angle positions. Microsoft Surface users will jeer that Apple hasn’t gone down the kick-stand route. Long-term happy iPad users will wonder what the fuss is about.

The back part of the Keyboard Folio covers the entire back of the iPad. It would be a little harder to remove in a hurry than the earlier KeyBoard Cover. That’s not a bad thing, my old Keyboard Cover often detached when I didn’t want it to.

Also I slipped and bashed my older 12.9-inch iPad Pro. If that had happened with the newer Folio, it would have protected my tablet.

New Apple Pencil

Apple’s new Pencil is marvellous. I like the way it looks and feels in my hand more than the earlier one which was too shiny and slippery for my taste.

The new Pencil has a far less awkward charging mechanism. You sit it on the top of the screen when the iPad has its keyboard attached in the landscape orientation. While it is there, the Pencil will also pair with the iPad. It feels almost like magic.

When the Pencil is in this place, a strong magnet holds it to the side of the iPad. I walked about 5km around Wellington in windy, wet conditions. The Pencil stayed stuck in place.

Sounds good

Apple has done something remarkable to the speakers. When I first heard them cranked up during a demonstration the clarity surprised me. It’s amazing given the small amount of space the engineers have to play with.

Later when I listened alone, the wide stereo separation was more obvious. There’s enough sound here for two or three people to watch a movie or sports game on the device in comfort.

12.9-inch iPad Pro Issues

I’ve run up against a couple of frustrations. Using WordPress is hard work on the iPad Pro. The WordPress iOS app is incomplete and inconsistent. I usually prefer to use the web to edit and manage my site, but this is difficult on a touch screen device.

WordPress has a poor designed for touch screen users. There’s a simple fix for this, find an alternative to WordPress.

Not having a Touch ID home button presents a minor, very minor challenge at first. I use a couple of apps which don’t always switch off when they are in the background.

With the old home button, clicking it twice gets a screen showing all the active apps. Swipe the misbehaving ones up and they would stop. If I didn’t they chewed through processor cycles or battery life.

Now there’s no button, the double swipe-up gesture is a little harder to use. It could be a case of getting use to it.

iPad Pro 2018 with smart keyboard folio and pencil

Value for money

Make no mistake, the new 12.9-inch iPad Pro is not cheap. The basic model is NZ$1750. That version only comes with 64GB of storage, which is less than most people will need.

Few users will need to go all the way to the MZ$3049 model with a terabyte of storage. To me even the 512GB for NZ$2350 seems excessive. The sweetest spot is the NZ$2000 model with 256GB.

Adding cellular capability adds NZ$250 to the price. This seems a hefty premium given that you can tether an iPad to a phone in a jiffy. After all, no-one goes out without their phone these days.

Is this a lot to pay? That depends on what you want it for.

If it makes you more productive and lets you work where you otherwise might not. If it makes better use of your travelling time then its a bargain. You’ll recover the price premium in no time.

When you compare the price and performance of an iPad Pro against any laptop, they don’t look like a bad deal. The same goes for comparisons with the Microsoft Surface. For a while I could have gone Surface or iPad Pro. My recent experience puts me in the iPad Pro camp, but, remember, my needs are not your needs.

If you think you can’t justify the price, there’s always the non-Pro iPad. It does most things its big sister can do at a fraction of the price.

Prices start at NZ$540 for a 32GB model. I recommend you either find a little more and get the NZ$700 version with 128GB or accept you’ll move plenty of data on and off your tablet.

Apple’s iPhone XS Max represents the state of the phone-maker’s art. It is big, beautiful and screams luxury from the moment you open the box.

The screen is large by phone standards. Any larger and you’d be looking at a small tablet. It is stunning. You get vibrant colours, dark blacks and strong contrast. I’ve never known any phone to be as readable outdoors on a sunny day.

If you want to watch movies, look at photos or read documents this is the best phone for the job. Nothing else comes close.

Mind you, nothing else comes close on price either, except the loopy NZ$2400 Oppo Lamborghini-branded Android.

Apple iPhone XS Max

Expensive

There is a review model iPhone XS Max in my pocket with 512 GB of storage. It costs the thick end of three grand: NZ$2800.

That’s more storage than most people need. My current phone has 256 GB. In two years I’ve never come close to filling it and see no prospect of doing so.

You can save money by buying less storage.

Apple has a 256 GB version for NZ$2400 and a 64 GB version for NZ$2100. The last of these could be less storage then you’ll need. Although that depends on how you use a phone and how much you send off to the cloud.

Can you justify spending that much money on a phone? That’s something only you can answer. I’ll save my thoughts on this for another post.

If, and it’s a huge if, Oppo’s Lamborghini phone is worth $2400, then the 256 GB Apple iPhone XS Max at the same price is a snip.

iPhone XS Max is all about the big screen

Apple wants to let you know all about the camera in the phone. It’s good and we’ll get to that in a moment. But before we move on, let’s make one thing clear: the iPhone XS Max is all about that big screen.

The iPhone XS Max screen covers the same area as the display on the Samsung Galaxy Note 9, another leviathan phone. The difference is in the height-to-width ratio.

Both phones have the same screen-to-body ratio at around 85 percent. You can’t sensibly do less than this without resorting to a gimmick like a pop-up camera. The Apple phone is smaller than the Note 9. It’s a millimetre thinner and 4.5 mm shorter.

I no longer have a Note 9 for direct comparison. Yet I’d say that would be the only other phone screen that comes close to the XS Max in terms of overall display quality.

Apple iPhone XS Screen

Too big?

Reviewers and users elsewhere have criticised the iPhone XS Max for being too big to handle. Of course this depends on the size of your hands. It’s a perfect fit for me. I’d recommend getting your own mitts on one before buying.

In fact I’d go further. Don’t choose an 2018 iPhone model on the basis of reviews like this or advertising. Go into a shop and put one in your hands. If the XS Max is too big, there’s always the smaller size iPhone XS. And while you’re at it, check out the less expensive XR. That could be the best model for you but you won’t know which fits until you handle all three.

Bionic

Apple’s latest processor, the six-core A12 Bionic powers the iPhone XS Max. According to the company it is 15 percent faster than last years A11 Bionic chip and 50 more efficient. There’s also an AI chip that is nine times faster than the one in the iPhone X.

Most of the time you don’t notice this power. The phone doesn’t seem faster than the last two or three iPhones in day-to-day use. Everything already happened in an instant. I don’t recall that waiting around from processing has been an iPhone drawback in recent years.

To complicate matters, Apple’s newest phone operating system, iOS 12, is also snappier and more responsive than iOS 11. Either way, this is one fast phone.

For the most part the applications that use this extra grunt are yet to appear. I’ve seen augmented reality apps that may need all the processing power you can throw at them. There is, however, one area where the processing capability is already put to good use: photography.

Apple iPhone XS camera

Camera

Every phone maker will tell you their cameras are the best in the business. Apple is the same, but in this case it is more than mere marketing bravado.

Apple upgraded the rear dual camera on the iPhone XS Max. It, or they, have the same basic specification as on last year’s iPhone X. That is: two 12-megapixel cameras. One has a wide-angle lens, the other had what amounts to 2x optical zoom. In both cases Apple upgraded the the image sensors and the hard-wired algorithms.

The effect is that you now get better low light pictures. Samsung and Huawei both have a slight edge in this department. But Apple seems to now do a better job of handling detail.

HDR mode is now the default. It has also been improved to the point where high contrast images look far better. In my experience iPhone XS Max pictures taken in bright outdoors beat those on rival phones.

If you like the bokeh effect, you can now add it after taking the shot. It’s a nice option.

Stablisation

Just as important, the image stabilisation works better than before. You can take hand-held video tracking shots which look like they are made with a dolly.

Portraits are now noticeably better too, particularly the shallow depth of field effect around hair and other extremities. The bokeh is also now adjustable after the fact, which is fun.

Much of the improvement in photographs is down to the extra processing power. In effect a supercomputer starts tweaking images the moment you press to click.

Phone photography is partly a matter of taste. There may be equals, but nothing offers a better camera experience than the iPhone XS Max.

That processing power gets a workout elsewhere. Apple uses Face ID as its security system. It works well and it works fast. Since setting it up, Face ID hasn’t failed to recognise me even when wearing glasses or sunglasses.

Battery life is good, but not outstanding. There’s more than enough juice for me to leave home at 5 AM, fly out-of-town, work all day and get the last flight home. I don’t feel the need to curtail my use, but then nor do I spend all day watching or making videos.

In normal life I can almost, but not quite, two days from a single charge. The red warning icon kicks in after around 36 hours. That’s eight hours more than I get from the Samsung Galaxy Note 9 .

iPhone XS Max: Verdict

Few people buy a new phone every year. Even fewer are going to do that when the asking price is in the two to three grand range. It’s questionable whether those moving from an iPhone X to the XS Max would get much from an upgrade other than the bigger screen.

It makes more sense to compare the XS Max with the iPhone 7 Plus, which has been my main phone for the last two years. While I don’t feel a pressing need for an upgrade, there’s a lot more phone in the XS Max.

The extra screen size, nicer screen and Face ID are all noticeable. On paper the better camera doesn’t sound much, in practice it is a huge leap. Faster processing doesn’t make much day-to-day difference. The extra battery life does. But then much of the difference between the two phones’ performance here could down to two years of wear.

If you get value from iOS then the iPhone XS Max could well be the way to go. You’d get the most advanced phone on the market and an object of beauty. You might get more value from buying the straight XS model or an XS Max with less storage. With prices starting at NZ$1400, half the price of the fully packed XS Max, the iPhone XR seems like a bargain.