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Bill Bennett

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Apple’s timely shift to value

Sometimes the stars align. Apple set out its hardware stall in early 2020 with advanced, yet lower priced, iPhones, iPads and Macs. The the pandemic hit.

Affordable models arrived as the world tightened its belt to deal with the inevitable downturn.

Take the iPhone SE. It looks like a two-year-old iPhone on the outside. Yet inside the case it has a 2020 processor. The A13 Bionic chip also powers the iPhone 11.

Lockdown ready

April’s story calls it an iPhone that’s right for lockdown times. News reports suggest the SE sell faster than Apple expected. The company struggled to meet demand. Although that could also be down to pandemic supply chain problems.

Last month’s iPhone SE review says: “This may not be the most exciting iPhone from a technology point of view. Yet it is the iPhone a lot of people have been waiting for.”

You can’t argue a NZ$800 phone is cheap. Many readers will wince if we describe it as affordable.

Yet it puts advanced technology and, arguably, the best experience in reach of more buyers.

The iPhone SE stacks up well against similar price competitors. If Android is not your thing and you prefer to avoid second hand hardware, its $800 price tag is tempting.

iPad

This year’s base iPad model costs NZ$600. You get a lot of iPad, but not enough storage. Its 32GB is not enough for most uses. Pay $780 and you’ll get a 128GB model. It represents good value for money.

Move up to the iPad Pro and prices start at NZ$1500 for an 11-inch model. That’s in line with prices two years ago but you get more iPad. The base Pro now comes with 128GB at the price of the two year old 64GB model.

Although currency movements haven’t been kind to New Zealand, prices for new MacBook Airs are still $100 or so lower than the models they replace. They come with better keyboards. Apple kept MacBook Pro prices in line with earlier models, but bumped the storage. Likewise the Mac mini.

Apple remains at the more expensive end of the market when benchmarked against similar hardware from other laptop makers. Yet the gap has narrowed. If you like the performance, the operating system and the wider Apple experience that margin is less of a barrier than it was.

Apple still has nosebleed prices if you know where to look. You could fork out NZ$10,800 for the basic Tower version of the Mac Pro. A full configured model can cost more than NZ$94,000. That includes NZ$700 to put wheels on the beast.

That’s not likely to be on your shopping list. A nice iPad keyboard might be. Apple wants NZ$549 for the iPad Pro Magic Keyboard. That’s pushing it.

Some incorrect prices were shown in an earlier version of this post. 

Apple MacBook Air 2020: Near perfect

The Guardian reviewer Samuel Gibbs gives Apple’s 2020 MacBook Air five stars.

In form and function the MacBook Air is just a few shades short of the perfect traditional laptop. If you don’t want a more modern convertible, you’ll struggle to find a better consumer machine than this.

The keyboard is finally as great as the trackpad, the battery lasts long enough for a work day, it’s light but strong and the screen is beautiful, while the little things such as Touch ID work great. You also get two Thunderbolt 3 ports and a long support life.

Sure, the screen could have smaller bezels and the webcam could be better – why Apple hasn’t put its excellent Face ID into its laptops I have no idea. You can’t upgrade the RAM or storage after purchase, there’s no wifi 6 support, nor SD card slot or USB-A port, but by now most will have enough USB-C cables and accessories, and if not, now is the time to buy them.

As the headline suggests, this is a positive review. The pluses are big, niggles are minor. It squares with my long term MacBook Air experience.

I’ve used MacBook Airs for the past six years. I’m on my second one. Every member of my family now has one. They are by far the best laptop for writing and other light computing tasks. There is more than enough power for everyday users.

Apple MacBook Air 2020

Price and productivity

When I write about Apple products1 there are always readers who complain about the price.

That misses a lot of context. You’re not just buying the hardware, you are buying into a different way of using computers.

Macs come with a suite of productivity software that costs extra if you buy a Windows computer.

They also come with a complete, fully realised, this is a word I hesitate to use, ecosystem.

Apple’s world is not necessarily better or worse than what you’d get with Windows or for that matter with Android or a Chromebook. But if it suits the way you work and think, the relatively small margin you pay for an Apple will pay off immediately in terms of improved productivity.

My freelance writing business quite literally took off when I switched back to Macs from Windows.

You may experience something similar. You may also experience the same kind of improvement moving from MacOs to Windows or from anything to Linux or any other operating system. This is not a one-size-fits-all world.

What my experience says does not work, is attempting to do things on the cheap. Skimping saves you dozens or maybe hundreds of dollars. Being unable to work productively will cost you thousands.


  1. It’s not only Apple, people say similar things about any premium hardware product ↩︎

Fixing MacBook Pro: Apple’s to-do list

macbook pro keyboard

Marco Arment has a number of suggestions for Apple in Fixing the MacBook Pro. Arment’s post runs down a list of the things that are wrong with the 2016 MacBook Pros and offers suggestions for putting them right. It covers four areas, but the main one and the problem that bothers me personally is the new MacBook Pro keyboard.

Arment writes:

Butterfly key switches are a design failure that should be abandoned. They’ve been controversial, fatally unreliable, and expensive to repair since their introduction on the first 12” MacBook in early 2015. Their flaws were evident immediately, yet Apple brought them to the entire MacBook Pro lineup in late 2016.

The decision to use the butterfly key switch keyboard looked odd at the time. One reason people thought earlier MacBook Pro models were among the best-ever laptops was the solid keyboards. They were great. Dropping the earlier design looked and felt like a mistake at the time. Yet, as Arment points out, things only got worse when it emerged they were unreliable and required an expensive, fix.

He says:

After three significant revisions, Apple’s butterfly key switches remain as controversial and unreliable as ever. At best, they’re a compromise acceptable only on the ultra-thin 12” MacBook, and only if nothing else fits. They have no place in Apple’s mainstream or pro computers.

Maybe not. But here’s the strangest thing. I have a 12.9 inch iPad Pro with the Apple Smart Keyboard. It is great to type on. Yet it uses the same basic butterfly key switch.

I’m a touch typist and hammer keyboards because I learnt to type on manual typewriters. The Smart Keyboard may not be perfect, no portable keyboard is, but it is a far better experience than typing on a new MacBook or MacBook Pro.

When I wrote about the MacBook Pro keyboard before, I found it acceptable, but clearly preferred the keyboard on the Air.

Few options beyond MacBook Pro

My ageing MacBook Air is coming up for replacement. After looking at the MacBook and MacBook Pro keyboards and deciding they are not for me, I’m thinking about the options for my next portable computer. At this stage the shortlist is go with the iPad Pro and get a desktop iMac for home, buy a new MacBook Air or wait until there’s a refurbished older Retina MacBook Pro in the local Apple Store.

While buying a refurbished machine is good for the planet, it doesn’t seem right. A new MacBook Air would be a productive choice. Yet I prefer Retina displays. The MacBook Air specification is old-fashioned by late 2017 standards.

Which means the most likely choice will be the iPad Pro and iMac. That’s remarkable as it means for the first time in years there isn’t a MacBook model that meets my needs. All because Apple doesn’t offer one with a decent keyboard.

Back to Arment:

The MacBook Pro must return to scissor key switches. If Apple only changes one thing about the next MacBook Pro, it should be this.

It needs to do this soon to get my business. I’m probably not alone. And yet it’s unlikely Apple will move because it seems the new MacBook Pros have been selling better than expected. If the market has spoken, whatever it said was not: “fix the MacBook Pro keyboard”.

MacBook Pro, Surface Book choice down to hands

macbook-pro-2 hands onMacBook Pro and Surface Book are flagship laptops. They show the best hardware Apple and Microsoft have to offer.

They are also showcases for MacOS and Windows 10.

Each makes a powerful statement about what laptops are today and where they are going.

The two share underlying technology. Both use the same Intel Core i5 and Core i7 processor families.

Both have high-resolution displays. While the Surface Book packs more pixels per inch, most everyday users won’t notice.

Both come in a slim clamshell case. They have decent battery life. They are powerful and mobile.

Different paths

Yet despite similarities they couldn’t be more different.

Surface Book is a touch-screen hybrid. The MacBook Pro is a more traditional non-touch screen laptop. More traditional not traditional: most 2016 MacBook Pro models have a Touch Bar.

You could see these differences as a fork in portable computing’s evolutionary path.

Real choice

Most people considering one of these two laptops will have already made up their mind. A number will weigh the two up and choose the computer that most suits their needs.

There are matters to consider. You may prefer Windows 10 or MacOS. There is a fortune invested in apps. You could have a lifetime of habits, skills and muscle memory tied up in one or other operating system.

You may have a deep-seated philosophical or ideological objection to Apple or Microsoft. This may, or may not, be rational.

You may want a device with a detachable screen that acts as a tablet. Plenty of ports  are important or you have an aversion to dongles. You may want to punish Apple for not keeping faith with whatever was on your personal MacBook Pro wish list.

Or you might like the look of the Touch Bar.

All these considerations are valid. Only a fool would spend a few thousand dollars without thinking them through. The important thing is you have a real choice between two quite different machines.

What you do with your hands

Switching from one line to the other is more than just a one-off investment in a new laptop.

Yet the most important choice between the two ranges is simple and fundamental question:

Do you prefer to work where your hands stay on the keyboard plane or are you happier reaching up from the keyboard to hunt and peck screen buttons?

Productivity

Apple thinks you’ll be more productive and comfortable keeping your hands on one plane. Microsoft begs to differ.

Getting this decision right is vital. It depends on what you do with your computer.

People who touch type, who write vast numbers of words each day might do better going with Apple’s keyboard-centric approach. 1

If you use your laptop more as a consumption device, then Microsoft’s touch-screen way of working may better suit your needs.

Again there’s a qualification: may. Some readers who want a touch screen computer could be better served with something else. That could be an iPad Pro or it could be another brand of tablet.

There are qualifications here because you don’t need me to tell you what to buy2. Once you’ve figured out how the physical user interface relates to the way you work, you’ll know yourself which is right for you.

The question may be simple, the answer is not.

Clash of ideas

Both computers appeal to the same class of demanding, well-heeled user. They both look and feel good. They deliver enough power. Both cost a lot compared with alternatives.

Apple is sticking with the clamshell-keyboard-screen laptop format that has been around in one form or another since the early 1980s.

While it uses an old format, the MacBook Pro is not conservative. You only have to listen to the critics who decry the lack of ports or sneer at the Touch Bar to realise just how different it is to what went before.

Computer makers don’t alienate customers with incremental design changes.

Surface Book a break with tradition

Microsoft’s Surface Book is a departure. It is a hybrid device that works as both a conventional laptop and a tablet.

Sure hybrids are no longer new.

Yet the Surface Book feels like a fresh take on the format. At the time of writing it represents the state-of-the-art for hybrid devices. It is the most advanced, the most polished and the most powerful hybrid you can buy.

The Surface Book has an elegant approach to docking and undocking the two parts. Most hybrids involve compromise. They sacrifice something of their laptop personality and part of their tablet identity.

Microsoft avoids this.

Philosophy beyond hands

It can sound pompous to talk of philosophy in this context, but there is a clear divide in the thinking behind Microsoft and Apple’s designs. It goes beyond the hands flat or hands moving between screen and keyboard choice.

Microsoft built its device for people who want both a laptop and a tablet in a single package. Most likely, people who buy a Surface Book will use it as a laptop most of the time with occasional tablet forays.

The Surface Book has a touch screen. This isn’t because it can function as a tablet, it’s because Microsoft sees touch screens as the future.

Touching

Microsoft bet the farm on touch technology when it released Windows 8. That was a mess of an operating system. It belongs among the great technology missteps of modern times. The mistake could have killed a less robust business than Microsoft.

Consumers are less keen on touch screen laptops than Microsoft anticipated. There are good reasons for this. Touch interfaces are still clumsy. The jarring step between Windows tablet mode and desktop Windows is still not resolved. Moving your hands off the keyboard isn’t alway efficient.

This makes for cognitive dissonance. The effect is not as pronounced in Windows 10 as in Windows 8, but it has not gone away. If you’re a Windows user and you don’t like or need the touch interface, it is easier to ignore in Windows 10.

Expensive

The Surface Book is the most expensive Windows laptop choice. You’ll be hard pressed to find an everyday computer that costs more. Although if it meets your needs, the Surface Book is worth every penny.

You can buy a Surface Book for NZ$2750. That money gets you a model with only 128GB of storage and an i5 processor. Going all the way to a i7 power plant and 1TB of storage will lighten your bank account by NZ$5800.

That’s a big investment. Yes, if you work all the time with your computer and it lasts more than a couple of years it only amounts to $50 a week.

Apple prices

Apple’s prices are at the same nosebleed altitude. A bare bones 13-inch 2016 MacBook Pro without the Touch Bar but with 256GB of storage and an Intel i5 processor costs NZ$2500.

If you crank the spec up all the way to a 2.9GHz i7 chip and 2TB of SSD storage, a graphics card and extra graphics memory then you can spend a whopping NZ$7250.

As with the Surface Book, you’re only going to go for the full monty if you run applications that need all the power. If you do, then the price of the hardware is among the least of your problems.

Apple touch screen

Apple doesn’t offer touch screen laptops. At least it doesn’t offer touch screen laptops running MacOS.

You could argue the iPad Pro with Apple’s Smart Keyboard or with a decent third-party keyboard gives you what amounts to a laptop.

Whatever that is and whatever its merits, it does not compete with the Surface Book or the MacBook Pro.

It’s possible Apple may one day build an iPad with the power and versatility of a Surface Book or MacBook Pro. It won’t be soon, the chips needed to build such a device don’t exist today.


  1. Might because my experience is touch screen computers are painfully the hands after hours of typing. They may not trouble you. ↩︎
  2. Often when I write about comparisons readers think I’m telling them what to do. That’s not my aim. ↩︎

Understanding Apple’s MacBook Pro Touch Bar

Apple’s 2016 MacBook Pro has a slim new body. It boasts a faster processor, larger trackpad, improved keyboard, better speakers and a glorious high-resolution Retina display.

Everything in that list, except maybe the keyboard, is an improvement on earlier MacBooks. If you own an old MacBook Pro that’s approaching the end of its life, now is a good time to upgrade. You’ll get a definite performance bump, a better experience and greater mobility.

Complaints about ports and dongles are real enough but overstated. In a year or so everyone will wonder what the fuss was about.

The more expensive new MacBook Pro models have two important additions. The Touch Bar and Touch ID sensor are a departure from earlier computer designs.

Apple’s Touch Bar replaces the row of function keys while the Touch ID button sits on the far right of the function key row where the power button once lived.

Cosmetic or innovation?

People want to know if the Touch Bar and Touch ID are gimmicks or whether they help productivity. They may not be a Great Leap Forward, but they are useful. More useful than you might think. And they are more than just cosmetic upgrades.

Touch ID works on the MacBook Pro in the same way it does on iPhones and iPads. You can use it to bypass the login password. It may not give you a huge productivity boost, but it makes for a better experience.

Move back to a Mac without Touch ID and you’ll miss it.

Touch ID also works as verification for some apps and websites. If you have Apple Pay you can use it to make payments. You can login to some services with it. It won’t change your life, it will rub a few rough corners a fraction smoother.

Touch Bar controllers

Replacing the function key row with a Touch Bar is more radical than it looks. You can still use the function keys by hitting the function key. If you’ve memorised function key shortcuts they are all still there. At times I’ve managed to turn unchanged type the keys and they are exactly where my fingers expect to find them. But replacing function keys is not the whole story.

Because the Touch Bar is a long, thin touchscreen many apps can use the space to let you know your function key options. They can display function names, not just F1 or whatever.

They can have names written on them, show icons or be displayed in bright colours to draw your attention. The functions can change dynamically depending on the state of the software.

In the Safari browser tiny thumbnails of tab displays show allowing to switch quickly between pages. Navigation keys are also more obvious.

Touch Bar when a video is playing in Safari
Touch Bar when a video is playing in Safari

The Touch Bar comes into its own when apps need slider controls. In iTunes you can move a slider to control the volume.

Touch Bar for iTunes
Touch Bar for iTunes

In Garage Band the slider controls various functions for things like the mixing desk or dials used for synthesiser settings and so on. In graphics apps and photos editing tools you can use the Touch Bar to pick colours and so on.

It’s a touchscreen…

With the Touch Bar Apple has drawn a clear line in the sand between Macs and Windows computers.

Apple company wisdom has it that if you want a touchscreen device, you can get an iPad. If you want a more traditional Keyboard-based computer get a Mac. That way won’t need to keep reaching from the keyboard to screen and back again.

Touch Bar for MacOS Mail app
Touch Bar for MacOS Mail app

Apart from anything else, that constant reaching an occupational overuse hazard waiting to happen. The reach from the keyboard to screen is neither natural nor comfortable. I found aches on my forearms when I first spent a lot of time with the Microsoft Surface.

So the Touch Bar gives you some of the functionality you might get from a touch screen, but without the constant reaching.

Theory, practice,

That’s the theory. In practice it works better than you might expect. If it doesn’t make a lot of sense when you see the idea written down, wait until you start using it for real tasks. It takes a little adjusting.

Apple hasn’t done a great job of explaining any of this in its marketing so far. The Touch Bar wasn’t well described during the October 27 MacBook Pro launch.

To be fair, there wasn’t a huge amount of software support for the feature at the time of the launch. It has been progressively added over the past six weeks or so with more and more software using the feature. You also get the feeling that many developers have yet to learn how to make the most of the Touch Bar.

It’s hard to estimate how much extra you pay for Touch Bar and Touch ID because the specifications of models with and without the features are somewhat different.

Even if it is not a great leap forward, it is a useful step towards greater productivity. Often when Apple makes a change of this type, there’s a little market noise or even sneering from rivals, then other computer makers add the feature or something similar to their products. This may not happen with Touch Bar as the Windows world is busy ploughing ahead with full-on touch screens.