This piece by Bryan Clark for TheNextWeb caught my eye last weekend — “We’ve Reached — Maybe Passed — Peak Apple: Why the Narrative Needs to Change”:
Last month, Apple’s latest earnings call announced its “most successful year ever.” The numbers were reported, the stories were spun and Wall Street basically anointed Apple the god of capitalism.
They’re all wrong.
Apple wasn’t wrong — fiscal 2015 was Apple’s most successful year ever, by the objective measures of both revenue and profit. I suppose you can decide to define “most successful year ever” in terms of something else, like percentage growth or stock price gains, but revenue and profit are pretty fair measures.
I missed it where “Wall Street basically anointed Apple the god of capitalism”. All I noticed was that Apple’s stock price went up about two percent the day after earnings were announced and has since fallen back to where it was before Q4 earnings were announced.
The actual story, the story we should be telling, involves a different narrative. Apple is the largest company in the world, but success is fleeting. While the numbers are impressive, they don’t come close to painting an accurate picture about how much trouble Apple is really in.
Apple’s rise under Steve Jobs was historic. Its fall under Tim Cook is going to be much slower, more painful.
The fall usually is more painful than the rise. Who writes a sentence like that?
And if Apple’s fall under Cook is much slower than its rise under Steve Jobs, it’s going to take 20 or 30 years. Apple’s revival was long, slow, and relatively steady.
Apple lives and dies by the iPhone. iPad sales are flat, iPod’s are all but irrelevant, and while Mac sales are up, they’re nowhere close to the workhorse that can continue to carry Apple should they experience a downturn in iPhone sales. There is no Plan B.
One look at the numbers tells a pretty decisive tale.
Percentage of revenue derived from iPhone sales:
- 2012: 46.38%
- 2013: 52.07%
- 2014: 56.21%
- 2015: 62.54%
This is the part of Clark’s piece that got my attention. It’s a common refrain these days — just search Google for “Apple is too dependent on the iPhone”.
Clark makes it sound like this is because the rest of Apple’s business is in decline, whereas the truth is that the iPhone continues to grow at an astonishing rate that even Apple’s other successful products can’t match. Is it worrisome that iPad sales continue to decline? Sure. Would it be better for Apple if the iPad were selling in iPhone-esque quantities? Of course. But iPad still sold 9.9 million units and generated $4.3 billion in revenue last quarter.
Arguing that Apple is in trouble because the iPhone is so popular is like arguing that the ’90s-era Chicago Bulls were in trouble because Michael Jordan was so good. It’s true Jordan couldn’t play forever — and the iPhone won’t be the most profitable product in the world forever. But in the meantime, the Bulls were well-nigh unbeatable, and Apple, for now at least, is unfathomably profitable.1 Just like how it’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all, it’s better to have tremendous success for some period of time than never to have had tremendous success in the first place. Right?
What I don’t get is why Apple gets singled out for its singular success, but other companies don’t. 92 percent of Google’s revenue last year came from online advertising. And more importantly, I don’t get why Apple’s non-iPhone businesses are so quickly written off only because they’re so much smaller than the iPhone.
Apple’s total revenue for last quarter was $51.5 billion. The iPhone accounted for $32.2 billion of that, which means Apple’s non-iPhone business generated about $19.3 billion in revenue. All of Microsoft in the same three months: around $21 billion. All of Google: $18.78 billion. Facebook: $4.5 billion. Take away every single iPhone sold — all of them — and Apple’s remaining business for the quarter was almost as big as Microsoft’s, bigger than Google’s, and more than four times the size of Facebook’s. And this is for the July-September quarter, not the October-December holiday quarter in which Apple is strongest.
Nothing in the world compares to Apple’s iPhone business, including anything else Apple makes. But a multi-billion-per-quarter business here (Mac), a multi-billion-per-quarter business there (iPad), a “Services” division that generates more revenue than Facebook, and an “Other” category (Watch, Apple TV, Beats, iPod) that booked $3 billion in a non-holiday quarter — and it’s clear that Apple’s non-iPhone businesses, combined, amount to a massive enterprise.
Here’s a Larry Dignon column about whether iPad Pro will make “iPad material to Apple again”:
Apple’s iPad sales are on the borderline of being immaterial to the company, but some analysts are betting that enterprise sales of the iPad Pro can turn the product line around. […]
Nevertheless, the iPad franchise is sucking wind relative to the iPhone. Apple’s annual report shows the iPad is 10 percent of overall sales. Once a business falls below 10 percent a company doesn’t have to break it out. In other words, the iPad could be lumped into “other” with the Apple Watch and iPod if current trends continue.
This is a product line that, in and of itself, generated just about exactly the same revenue last quarter as all of Google’s non-advertising business did for the entire fiscal year. But Apple is the company that is considered lopsided and worrisomely dependent upon a single product.
Name a product introduced in the last five years that has been more successful than the iPad — either in terms of revenue and profit for its maker, or in terms of aggregate hours of daily use and customer satisfaction of its users. I can’t think of one.
Now consider the Apple Watch. Fast Company called it “a flop” back in July. Here’s a guy on Quora — Jason Lancaster, editor of a website called Accurate Auto Advice — answering, in the affirmative, whether Apple has “already lost the market for self driving cars” (not joking):
Third, Apple may have peaked. Call me a hater, but what reason is there to assume Apple’s reputation is going to stay where it is? The watch was a flop, and their only consistent source of success is the iPhone, as the market for Macs and iPads is drying up (as it is for all computer hardware companies).
Forget the fact that Mac sales are growing, or that iPad sales, though in decline, remain roughly 10 million per quarter. What I enjoy about this is Lancaster’s having written off the Watch as a flop — he even uses the past tense.
Apple has shipped seven million Apple Watches since its introduction this spring, giving the technology giant a firm lead in the nascent smartwatch market, according to researcher Canalys.
That number falls shy of some Wall Street analysts’ expectations for Apple’s first new device category since 2010. But, for perspective, consider this: Apple sold more smartwatches from April through September than all other vendors combined sold over the past five quarters, Canalys reports.
If we estimate the average selling price for an Apple Watch at $500 (reasonable), that’s $3.5 billion in revenue for the year to date — prior to the holiday quarter that is almost certainly going to be the strongest for watch sales annually.
Back to Bryan Clark’s TheNextWeb piece:
Steve Jobs is almost entirely responsible for Apple’s cult-like following.
By streamlining the company in an attempt to make it profitable, the same vision started to makes its way through every product Apple created. Rather than bloated and flashy, Jobs created a movement of decidedly minimalist devices that required not much more than an occasional charge and a user that knew where the power button was.
Between aesthetically pleasing design, rock-solid hardware, and software that responded as if it were built for the machine — not in spite of it — Apple culture became a cult of Jobs-worshipping consumers willing to buy anything with a lowercase “i” in front of it.
That never happened. The G4 Cube didn’t sell. iPod Hi-Fi didn’t sell. Those weren’t just non-hit products — they were both products that Steve Jobs himself really liked. I’ve heard that he had a stack of unopened iPod Hi-Fis in his office. Apple products have never been blindly accepted by the mass market — they’ve succeeded on their merits and by meeting actual demand. As I wrote two years ago:
To posit that Apple customers are somehow different, that when they feel screwed by Apple their response is to go back for more, is “Cult of Mac” logic — the supposition that most Apple customers are irrational zealots or trend followers who just mindlessly buy anything with an Apple logo on it. The truth is the opposite: Apple’s business is making customers happy, and keeping them happy. They make products for discriminating people who have higher standards and less tolerance for design flaws or problems.
Clark finally tells us what Apple’s biggest problems are:
There are larger issues on the horizon: For example, how does Apple compete with Windows and Android?
Both have proven to be amazingly adept in recent years not only at competing with Apple in form factor, but functionality as well.
Two companies that are innovating, not searching for identity outside of a singular product.
Two companies that are on the way up, not down.
Windows and Android, got it.
The Apple Watch is great, but it’s never going to carry Apple like the iPhone until it works like one. The watch is undeniably cool, but it really fails to do anything better than your phone.
To make matters worse, you have to have an iPhone close by in order to even use most of its features. Similar Android models are self-contained and only require an occasional sync.
The autonomous car project sounds promising, but competing against Google and Tesla in addition to auto industry giants like Lexus and Mercedes is an uphill battle full of technology challenges, government red tape and changing century-old transportation conventions.
The best I can gather from this mishmash of a conclusion is that Apple Watch should have somehow debuted as a first-generation product that could stand toe-to-toe with the iPhone (which is now in its ninth generation), and that Apple’s car product should already be here. If there were no rumors of an Apple car, we’d be hearing that Apple is going to miss out on the next big industry that is ripe for disruption from the tech industry. But because there are rumors and hints pointing to an Apple car, we’re hearing that cars are too difficult, the established companies too entrenched. Ed Colligan’s line for the ages — “PC guys are not going to just figure this out. They’re not going to just walk in.” — was also about an industry full of longstanding giants, Google, technology challenges, government red tape, and century-old conventions. Minus the “government red tape”, that’s a pretty good description of the watch and home entertainment system industries, too.
I’m not here to argue the opposite of Colligan — that Apple’s success in these new fields is preordained — because that would be foolish. But it’s just as foolish to argue that Apple can’t succeed — or that anything less than iPhone-sized success in a new endeavor is a failure. ★
First impressions last a lifetime, goes the adage. You’re going to have to forget your first impressions of the iPad to understand the iPad Pro.
When Apple introduced the original iPad in 2010, it was explicitly positioned in a new role for a device — somewhere between an iPhone and a MacBook. That seems obvious, but the problem, for the iPad, is that people loved their iPhones and MacBooks. The only way iPad would succeed, Steve Jobs said, was if it were “far better at doing some key things” than either an iPhone or MacBook.
Apple succeeded. Simply by nature of having a bigger display, the iPad was better than the iPhone for numerous tasks — watching videos or reading long-form text, to name just two. No one would dispute that bigger displays are better for certain tasks — you can prove the productivity gains.
What made the iPad better than a MacBook, in at least some ways, was more subjective than objective. Objectively, a MacBook was faster, by a large factor, could multitask, and offered a rich library of serious productivity apps. A Mac was, simply put, more powerful than an iPad — both in terms of hardware and software. The iPad had some objective advantages — battery life and the pixel density of its display are two that come to mind.1
The trade-offs were obvious. The iPad offered the same conceptual simplicity and intimacy as the iPhone, with the “lean-back” ergonomics of a tablet, at the cost of power — hardware performance and software complexity.
It was, in short, just a big iPhone. To the eyes of many in the tech industry, “just a big iPhone” was damning. They wanted the iPad to impress in terms of power. To the eyes of tens of millions of users, however, “just a big iPhone” was strong praise. An iPhone with a 10-inch display sounded just great.
The intervening five years have turned all of this upside down. The iPad Pro now impresses solely by dint of its engineering. Anyone who doesn’t see this is blinded by their established impressions of the first few iPads.
For the moment, put aside the form factor differences (tablet with optional keyboard vs. hinged clamshell), conceptual differences in iOS and OS X (direct touchscreen manipulation of full-screen apps vs. a mouse pointer and tiled windows) and software differences (simpler iOS apps vs. more complex OS X apps). All those points are worth consideration, but for now, put them aside. Right now, today, the iPad Pro is a peer to the current lineup of MacBooks in terms of computational hardware performance.
The iPad Pro is without question faster than the new one-port MacBook or the latest MacBook Airs. I’ve looked at several of my favorite benchmarks — Geekbench 3, Mozilla’s Kraken, and Google’s Octane 2 — and the iPad Pro is a race car. It’s only a hair slower than my year-old 13-inch MacBook Pro in single-core measurements. Graphics-wise, testing with GFXBench, it blows my MacBook Pro away. A one-year-old maxed-out MacBook Pro, rivaled by an iPad in performance benchmarks. Just think about that. According to Geekbench’s online results, the iPad Pro is faster in single-core testing than Microsoft’s new Surface Pro 4 with a Core-i5 processor. The Core-i7 version of the Surface Pro 4 isn’t shipping until December — that model will almost certainly test faster than the iPad Pro. But that’s a $1599 machine with an Intel x86 CPU. The iPad Pro starts at $799 and runs an ARM CPU — Apple’s A9X. There is no more trade-off. You don’t have to choose between the performance of x86 and the battery life of ARM.
We’ve now reached an inflection point. The new MacBook is slower, gets worse battery life, and even its cheapest configuration costs $200 more than the top-of-the-line iPad Pro. The iPad Pro is more powerful, cheaper, has a better display, and gets better battery life. It’s not a clear cut-and-dry win — MacBooks still have more RAM (the iPad Pro, in all configurations, has 4 GB of RAM, although Apple still isn’t publishing this information — MacBook Pros have either 8 or 16 GB), are expandable, and offer far more storage. But at a fundamental level — CPU speed, GPU speed, quality of the display, quality of the sound output, and overall responsiveness of interface — the iPad Pro is a better computer than a MacBook or MacBook Air, and a worthy rival to the far more expensive MacBook Pros.
The entire x86 computer architecture is living on borrowed time. It’s a dead platform walking. The future belongs to ARM, and Apple’s A-series SoC’s are leading the way.
The A9X didn’t come out of nowhere. Watching Apple’s A-series chips gain on x86 over the past five years, we’ve all been speculating about whether Apple might someday start using ARM chips in MacBooks. As of now, it’s only a question of whether they want to.
With the Mac Pro, the “pro” really does stand for “professional”. There’s pretty much no reason for anyone to buy a Mac Pro unless their work is computationally expensive. There aren’t many people left whose work is slowed down regularly by the performance of their computer. The Mac Pro is aimed at that market. (That said, a higher-end iMac will outperform a Mac Pro in many tasks that aren’t well-suited to multicore parallel computing. The Mac Pro is due for an update.)
With the MacBook Pro, on the other hand, “pro” isn’t really short for “professional”. It’s more like “deluxe” — a signifier that it’s a higher-end product than its non-pro siblings. Faster, better, and accordingly higher-priced. A MacBook Pro with 1 TB of SSD storage is indeed a terrific portable computer for “professional” use by, say, a photographer or film editor or software developer — people who truly stretch the performance of any computer today, portable or otherwise. But a decked-out MacBook Pro is also a terrific and perfectly reasonable choice for anyone who can simply afford one. MacBook Airs don’t have retina displays (and likely will never be upgraded to offer them), and the one-port MacBook is relatively slow.
The iPad Pro is “pro” in the way MacBook Pros are. Genuine professionals with a professional need — visual artists in particular — are going to line up for them. But it’s also a perfectly reasonable choice for casual iPad users who just want a bigger display, louder (and now stereo) speakers, and faster performance.
Anyone tying themselves in knots looking for a specific target audience for the iPad Pro is going about it the wrong way. There is no single target audience. Is the iPad Pro meant for office workers in the enterprise? Professional artists creating content? Casual users playing games, watching movies, and reading? The answer is simply “Yes”.
So unlike the original iPad of 2010, which carved out new territory between that of an iPhone and MacBook, the iPad Pro is clearly an alternative to a MacBook. I’m sure someone out there will carry both a MacBook (of any sort) and an iPad Pro while traveling, but I don’t really see the sense of that. The iPad Mini makes perfect sense as a travel companion to a MacBook. The iPad Air does too — especially for someone who watches a lot of video or prefers larger type while reading. But the iPad Pro stands as an alternative to a MacBook. If you want to carry a MacBook, you want a smaller, lighter iPad as a companion, and you don’t need a keyboard for it. If you want to carry an iPad Pro, you might as well get the Smart Keyboard cover and leave the MacBook at home.
The trade-offs are varied. If you don’t type much, or don’t mind using the on-screen keyboard when you do, you’re probably already sold on the iPad-as-primary-portable-computer lifestyle. If you do type a lot and want a hardware keyboard, the appeal of the iPad Pro is going to largely hinge on your affinity for the Smart Keyboard.
I’ve been using this iPad Pro review unit (128 GB, with cellular — top of the line kit, natch) for eight days, and most of that time I’ve had the Smart Keyboard attached. For just plain typing, it’s not that bad — I’ve written this entire review using it, Federico Viticci-style. I went into it thinking that my biggest complaint would be the keys themselves — I like my keyboards clicky, with a lot of travel. But I adjusted to it pretty quickly, and I kind of like the way it feels, as a tactile surface. It almost feels like canvas.
My complaints and frustrations are more from the software, both iOS 9.1 itself and individual apps, both from Apple and third-party developers. Trying to use the iPad Pro as a laptop with the Smart Keyboard exposes the seams of an OS that was clearly designed for touchscreen use first. These seams aren’t new — I’m sure anyone who has tried using an iPad of any sort with a paired Bluetooth keyboard has run into the same things. This is simply the first time I’ve tried using an iPad with a hardware keyboard for an extended period for large amounts of work.
I almost wrote “for large amounts of writing” in the preceding paragraph, but the problems with an iPad and a hardware keyboard are more than about typing. A large part of my work is reading, and with a laptop, the keyboard is a big part of the reading experience. In fact, with the iPad Pro, the keyboard is even more important than it is on a MacBook — and today, it falls short.
Here’s what I mean. First, when the iPad Pro is open with the keyboard attached, holding your arm up to touch the screen for anything longer than a moment or two is ergonomically uncomfortable. Apple has stated for years that this is why they don’t make the displays on MacBooks or iMacs touchscreens (that, combined with the relatively tiny click targets of Mac OS X, which are designed for very precise mice and trackpads, not imprecise finger tips). Scrolling through a long document using the iPad Pro touch screen is uncomfortable when it’s in laptop position. Going through a slew of new emails, likewise. In laptop mode, I want to use the keyboard for these things — and in most cases, because of bugs and/or software limitations, I can’t. That the keyboard falls short in these cases is even worse on iPad than it would be on a MacBook, because a MacBook has a trackpad. The point is, if my fingers are on the keyboard, I don’t want to move my hands. With a trackpad, I don’t have to. With the iPad Pro, I do.
It’s an ancient (meaning dating back to the Classic era) Mac convention that in a read-only scrolling view, you can use the space bar to page down. When your eyes get to the bottom of the display, you can just hit space and the view should scroll to show the next screen full of content — with the last line or two of the previous screen now repeated at the top of the new screen to provide context as your eyes move from the bottom to the top of the display. This works almost everywhere on OS X, and anywhere it doesn’t work should be considered a bug.
On iOS 9.1, Safari tries to support this, but it is dreadfully buggy. Instead of paging down just less than one screen-height of content, it pages down about 1.5 screen-heights of content. It literally scrolls right past huge amounts of content, rendering the feature completely unusable.
Here’s a sample page I’ve created to illustrate. It’s just a simple text file with 1,000 lines, numbered in order. When I view that on my MacBook Pro, I see lines 1–45 (and half of line 46). When I hit space to page, the view scrolls and I now see lines 44–89. Hit space again and the view scrolls to show lines 88–132.
On iPad Pro, I see lines 1–49 initially. But when I hit space to page down, the view scrolls to show me lines 75–123. Lines 50–74 are completely skipped past. It’s not even just a line or two — it’s huge chunks of text. This happens in all web pages in Safari on iOS 9.1, and it is not specific to the iPad Pro and Smart Keyboard. I see the exact same behavior on any iPad with a paired Bluetooth keyboard.
Mail is another app in which, on my Macs, I depend heavily on the keyboard for scrolling and selection. On iPad, Mail does let you move from message to message using the keyboard (⌘↓ and ⌘↑), but it doesn’t support scrolling the actual message content — the space bar does nothing, and the Smart Keyboard doesn’t have a proper Page Down key.
The space bar doesn’t work as a Play/Pause toggle for audio or video, either. I think it should.
I don’t think it’s inherently problematic that iOS has no conceptual support for a mouse pointer, and thus can’t work with any sort of trackpad. But, given this constraint, good support for navigating as much of the UI as possible using the keyboard is more important on the iPad than it is on the Mac. But iOS’s support for navigating using the keyboard is worse.
Another problem: when editing a long document, if you use the arrow keys to move the insertion point above the first line on screen or below the last line on screen, the insertion point just disappears off screen. The view doesn’t scroll to keep the insertion point visible, which is clearly what should happen (and does happen on OS X). Surely iOS will work this way eventually, but right now it still shows its roots as a touchscreen OS where a hardware keyboard is a decided second-class citizen.
All is not lost, however. ⌘-Tab works for app switching just like it does on the Mac. Tap it and release and you switch to the most-recently used app. Tap it and keep holding down ⌘ and you get a visual switcher showing the 10 most-recently-used apps. (Again, this works with any hardware keyboard connected to any iPad — it’s just that this has been the first time it’s been relevant to me, personally.) The Smart Keyboard lacks a Home button, but there is a system-wide shortcut that maps ⌘-Shift-H to “Home”. Not bad, but once you’re at the iOS home screen, there’s not much you can do without touching the screen. For a few days, I sort of wished that I could use the arrow keys to navigate the home screen, with the selected app icon popping “up” like in the “focus” UI of the new Apple TV. But that idea, I suspect, is too far afield from the regular touchscreen-based UI of the iOS home screen. My keyboard idea requires a select-then-act two-stage model — the regular touch-based launcher is single-stage: just tap.
But then I realized that the problem I wanted to solve wasn’t that I wanted the home screen to be keyboard-navigable. The problem was that I wanted to use the keyboard to launch apps that weren’t listed in the ⌘-Tab switcher. To do that on iOS without a hardware keyboard, you go home, then tap the app. With a keyboard, though, you can do it, just in a different way.
Hit ⌘-Space system wide, and you’ll be taken to the home screen’s system-wide “Quick Search”. It’s like the iOS equivalent of Spotlight. Start typing the name of the app you want to launch, and there it is.
But go ahead and play a sad trombone wah-wah here, because at this point, you still have to pick your arm up and touch the screen to launch the app. You can also use Quick Search for starting a web search in Safari, or anything else. But you can’t use the keyboard arrow keys to navigate the list of results. (Another problem with Quick Search using the keyboard: you have to wait a second or so for the Quick Search text field to accept input. I’m pretty sure it’s because we’re waiting for the animation to complete — first to show the home screen, then to jump to Quick Search. So if you type ⌘-Space and immediately begin typing what you’re looking for, the first few characters you type are lost. The user should never have to wait for the computer, especially if it’s just for an animation. Any Mac user with muscle memory trained by LaunchBar, Alfred, Quicksilver, or even Spotlight is going to find this enforced delay on iOS maddening.)
This lack of keyboard support is prevalent system-wide. In Messages, if you start a new conversation and type the partial name of a contact, you can’t select from the list of matches using arrow keys or auto-complete the name you’ve partially typed using Tab. You’ve got to — you guessed it — reach up and touch the screen. You can use the arrow keys to select from a list of suggestions in the recipients fields in Mail, however, and arrow keys also work for selecting from the list of suggestions in the Safari location field.
The bottom line is that the potential of the iPad Pro as a laptop is tremendous. The keyboard is just fine for typing, and the magnetic connection between the iPad Pro and the keyboard is surprisingly sturdy. You can absolutely use it as a literal laptop without any worry that the iPad Pro is going to fall off the Smart Keyboard. I even like the 4:3 aspect ratio — it shows more lines of text when reading than my 13-inch MacBook Pro. It also occupies a smaller footprint than an open MacBook Pro, meaning it should fit better on the seatback tray of an airplane. But the lack of pervasive support for keyboard-based UI navigation in iOS is a problem for anyone with longstanding Mac keyboard shortcuts ingrained in their muscle memory.
As an actual cover, the Smart Keyboard does feel thick, and when closed, it bothers me a little that it’s thicker on the outer two thirds (where the keyboard is folded under) than the inner third. I wouldn’t recommend the Smart Keyboard for anyone who doesn’t plan to actually use the keyboard quite a bit. But if you do plan on using the keyboard frequently, the trade-off in thickness (compared to the non-keyboard Smart Cover) is well worth it.
(It occurs to me that for many people, the Smart Keyboard might best be thought of not as a thick cover, but as a thin very portable desktop docking station.)
I experienced some flakiness with the keyboard throughout the week. Sometimes, system-wide keyboard shortcuts would stop working: ⌘-Tab, ⌘-Space, and ⌘-Shift-H. Typing within apps still worked, and keyboard shortcuts within any given app still worked, but the system-wide shortcuts inexplicably stopped working.
Less frequently, I’ve seen the opposite problem: the system-wide keyboard shortcuts work, but keyboard shortcuts within any given app stop working. (iOS 9 has a very clever feature, by the way: press and hold the ⌘ key and you’ll see a HUD pop-up displaying all keyboard shortcuts available in the current context. This makes keyboard shortcuts more discoverable than they are on the Mac, where they’re spread across multiple menus in the menu bar.)
In either case, I’ve been able to fix these keyboard problems by detaching and re-attaching the iPad from the Smart Keyboard. I don’t know if it’s a bug in iOS 9.1 or a faulty Smart Keyboard. (Apple has shipped me a second Smart Keyboard to test, but it won’t arrive until later in the day, after this review has been published. I’ll update it after the replacement arrives.)
It’s about precision: accuracy where you touch (Apple claims sub-pixel precision on screen), accuracy regarding pressure, and low latency regarding what you see on screen. I am not an illustrator, but I do know my own signature. My signature never looks like my actual signature when I have to sign electronically on a point-of-sale terminal. Usually it doesn’t even look close. On iPad Pro with Apple Pencil, it looks exactly like my signature when I sign with paper and ink. My handwriting looks like my handwriting, period (for better or for worse).
All previous iOS devices have touchscreens designed for input from one source: fingertips. Fingertips are relatively fat and capacitive. The relatively fat size and imprecise location of a finger on screen is why tap targets are relatively larger and more spaced apart on iOS than OS X. This is also why third-party styluses for iOS devices have broad tips made of capacitive rubber — they’re more or less fake fingertips. The capacitive touchscreens on iPhones and (non-Pro) iPads aren’t designed for “fine tips”.
Apple has done a few things regarding sampling the screen for input with Apple Pencil. First, there is something new in the display itself — something in the layer between the glass surface and the LCD display, I think. Or perhaps it’s under the LCD? Apple alludes to it in the Jony Ive-narrated video on the Apple Pencil web page, but they’re not really talking about it in detail.
For capacitive (finger) touch, the iPad Pro samples at twice the rate of previous iPads — 120 times per second instead of 60. With the Pencil, though, the iPad Pro samples 240 times per second. The way the Pencil works requires cooperation with the display, and so there’s no way this Pencil could be made to work with existing iPads. The Pencil is not iPad Pro-exclusive out of product marketing spite — it’s exclusive to the Pro because the two were engineered in coordination with each other. And if Apple had designed the Pencil differently, to allow it to work with existing iPads, there’s no way it could have had this level of accuracy, because the tip would have needed to be broader and capacitive. (The Pencil’s tip is not capacitive at all — it doesn’t register as a touch at all on any other iOS device.)
My guess is we’ll start to see Pencil support in future iOS devices in addition to the iPad Pro, starting with the iPad Air 3.
Because the Pencil is round-barreled and has no clip on the cap, I was worried that it would roll around (and eventually, off) a table top. But it’s actually weighted inside, sort of like a Weeble Wobble, so unless it’s on a sloped surface, it won’t roll more than an inch or so before settling in place. In hand, I can’t tell that it’s weighted like this.
I think most people who buy an iPad Pro are going to want a Smart Keyboard. The Apple Pencil is the more technically remarkable peripheral, but I suspect it’ll prove useful to far fewer people. Sketching apps like 53’s Paper and Apple’s own built-in Notes app certainly have appeal and utility to people who aren’t artists, but I suspect a lot of Apple Pencils are going to be bought out of curiosity and then go largely unused.
For actual illustrators and artists, however, the Pencil and iPad Pro seem poised to be a career/industry-changing combination. What has been largely abstract — drawing using a device over here, looking at the results on a screen over there — can now be direct.
Weight: The iPad Pro certainly feels heavier than recent iPads, but only in a way that’s commensurate with its increased size. It’s not too heavy.
Audio: The speakers are surprisingly loud. Apple told me the iPad Pro produces three times the audio volume of the iPad Air, and that certainly matches my experience. If you use your iPad as a small TV, the audio improvements might be more meaningful than the bigger display. The four-speaker stereo system is also very clever — no matter which way you rotate the iPad Pro, the top two speakers are for treble and the bottom two for bass.
Snap: Speaking of audio, if there’s a downside to the snug connection between the iPad Pro and the Smart Keyboard, it’s that the magnetic connection makes a rather loud snap when you connect or disconnect it. I can imagine some scenarios — in bed with a sleeping spouse, say — where this might be a problem.
Size classes: I think even Apple’s own apps are still figuring out how best to arrange layouts on this larger display. For example, in Mail, when the iPad Pro is in portrait, it only shows one column at a time. I think there’s clearly enough room horizontally, even in portrait, for a two-pane layout (narrow list of messages on left, wide message detail on right). The iPad Pro in portrait is as wide as the iPad Air in landscape — and the iPad Air in landscape uses two panes for Mail. Third-party developers are going to want to adjust their apps after they get a feel for what it’s like to use the iPad Pro for real.
Battery life: Simply outstanding. I didn’t even plug it in once between Monday and Friday, and it still had plenty of charge left. I’ve been using it for eight continuous hours as I type this sentence, and it still has more than a 50 percent charge remaining.
Missing apps: It’s been like this ever since the original iPad, but it still strikes me as odd that the iPad version of iOS lacks the Calculator, Weather, and Stocks apps. The Mac doesn’t have “apps” for Weather or Stocks, but it does have widgets for them in Notification Center. And it seems downright crazy for a computer not to have a built-in means for doing arithmetic. (Although you can do some arithmetic using Quick Search.)
Touch, Don’t Touch: For the past week I’ve really only used two computers. The iMac on my desk, and this iPad Pro. Today, though, I used my MacBook Pro while the iPad Pro was running benchmarks. And within a few minutes, I did something I have never once done before: I reached up and tried to touch something on the display. Ten minutes later I did it again. I point this out not to argue that I think MacBooks should have touch screens, but simply as an observation that even a lifelong Mac user can quickly get accustomed to the iPad Pro as a laptop.
From a hardware perspective, the iPad Pro strikes me as a seminal device. It runs faster than the Intel x86-based MacBooks, gets better battery life, and costs significantly less. And it has a better display with significantly more pixels than even a 15-inch MacBook Pro.
Software-wise, support for the Smart Keyboard needs to get even smarter — but I’d be shocked if it doesn’t. For me, the iPad Pro marks the turning point where iPads are no longer merely lightweight (both physically and conceptually) alternatives to MacBooks for use in simple scenarios, to where MacBooks will now start being seen as heavyweight alternatives to iPads for complex scenarios.2
Is it a MacBook replacement for me, personally? No. For you? Maybe. For many people? Yes.
It brings me no joy to observe this, but the future of mass market portable computing involves neither a mouse pointer nor an x86 processor. ★
It’s kind of funny to think of a 2010 iPad with its 133 PPI display as “high resolution” — such a display looks comically fuzzy by today’s standards. But at the time it was a noticeably sharper display than what was in the MacBooks of the day — a 2009 13-inch MacBook Pro had a display with 113 PPI resolution. ↩︎
iOS 9’s split-screen multitasking really shines on the iPad Pro. I’ve found it useful on my iPad Air, but it’s downright natural on the iPad Pro. ↩︎︎
The pattern is pretty clear. In even-numbered years (2008, 2010, 2012, 2014) Apple releases all-new iPhone form factors: 3G, 4, 5, 6/6 Plus. In the subsequent years, they release “S” variants: iPhones that look nearly identical to their predecessors, but with improved components.
Why do they do this?
There are some ecosystem advantages to this tick-tock1 schedule. Most iPhone cases, for example, fit both the tick and tock iPhones. (The rare exceptions are certain hard cases with extremely tight tolerances. The iPhones 6S, for example, are both a few tenths of a millimeter bigger, wider, and thicker than their corresponding siblings from last year.) I think there are some branding advantages to this two-year cycle as well. iPhones are iconic devices. The devices themselves are recognizable. Keeping each new form factor around for two model years lets that iconic appearance seep deeper into the mass market collective consciousness.
Releasing a new generation of iPhones every year — year in, year out — is an aggressive pace given the scale and scope of the iPhone, and its importance to Apple financially. Sure, other handset makers put out dozens of different models every year. But Apple is playing an entirely different game. With one exception — the iPhone 5C two years ago (a phone which, as time goes by, seems more and more curious strategically) — Apple has never made a new iPhone other than a new top-of-the-line industry-leading flagship. In the same way that automobiles don’t change form factors every year, I don’t think it would be feasible for Apple to change the iPhone’s form factor every year. I think it takes more than a year for Apple’s design team to create a new iPhone design — at least to create a new design that is different because it is better, not merely different for the sake of being different.
The glaring downside to this tick-tock schedule is that we as a culture — and particularly the media, both on the tech/gadgetry side and the business side — are obsessed with “new”. And, well, the S-model iPhones don’t look new. This year there is a new rose gold aluminum finish, but at a glance, the iPhones 6S look like last year’s iPhones 6. Every year is an iterative improvement over the previous one, whether it’s an S year or not. But it’s hard not to see the S years as more iterative, less impressive, updates, simply because they look the same.
I think that’s a trap — a way to be fooled by your eyes. If you put aside what the phones look like, the S model years have brought some of the biggest changes to the platform. The display changes came in non-S years, of course — the iPhone 4 going retina; the iPhone 5 expanding from 3.5 to 4 inches diagonally and changing the aspect ratio; and of course last year’s 6/6 Plus expanding to 4.7 and 5.5 inches and higher display resolutions. But it was the 3GS that first improved on CPU performance and gave us the first improvements to the camera. The 4S ushered in Siri integration and a much faster camera. The 5S was Apple’s first 64-bit ARM device, years ahead of the competition, and was the first device with Touch ID. For a typical iPhone user on a two-year upgrade cycle, I think the S years are the better phones, historically.
Here’s a passage from my 5S/5C review two years ago:
Refinement, in the eyes of these naysayers, does not count as innovation. Only revolution counts. But the iPhone needs no revolution. It continues to sell better year-over-year, year after year, without lowering its prices. Every step of the way between 2007 and that lone original iPhone — running an OS with no third-party apps, no multitasking, not even copy-and-paste — and today’s world, where Apple is on the cusp of selling its 700 millionth iOS device and the lineup ranges from the iPod Touch to the iPhones to two sizes of iPad, has been about just that: refinement.
The iPhone 5S shows that there remains much room for refinement.
I don’t think it’s ever been more of a trap to approach an S-model iPhone as “just a slightly improved version of last year’s iPhone” than this year.
I used to think — and maybe it was even true — that one of the advantages to Apple of the tick-tock cycle is that during the S years, they’re already experts at manufacturing a bunch of the components. That they’ve already got a year of experience making that case, that display, those buttons. That manufacturing-wise, Apple could just swap in a few new components, like a new A-series CPU, and call it a day. But the iPhones 6S don’t use the same case as last year’s models. They’re now made out of an altogether new “7000 series” aluminum alloy. This isn’t just a new material that needs to be obtained in massive quantities, it also requires new CNC machining to carve and polish the frames. The displays are the same sizes as last year, but Apple is using a new glass that it calls “the strongest in the smartphone industry”.2 Even the Touch ID sensor is new. Everything you can touch on the iPhone 6S and 6S Plus is new.
Internally, Apple has added force sensors to enable 3D Touch. They’ve replaced the chintzy old vibrating engine with a “Taptic” engine. Both LTE and Wi-Fi now support faster speeds (and LTE supports more bands, increasing compatibility with networks around the world). The camera now supports 4K video and shoots better (and bigger) still photos. On the iPhone 6S Plus, image stabilization now works with video in addition to stills. The CPU and GPU improvements in the A9 system-on-a-chip are more dramatic compared to the A8 than the A8 was to the A7.
Apple has even — dare I say finally — increased the amount of RAM, from 1 GB to 2.
“The Only Thing That’s Changed Is Everything” is the slogan of Apple’s marketing campaign for the iPhones 6S. I can’t beat that. I’ve been testing both models for 12 days, and what Apple is saying about the new iPhones is true. They don’t look new, but almost everything about them is new.
I think it’s backwards to think that in an S year, Apple simply takes the previous model and makes a few tweaks. Instead, I think what’s obvious is that knowing the basic industrial design at least two years ahead of time gives the engineering teams inside Apple an opportunity to make significant changes to the components and the materials used to construct them. The timeline for iPhones, because of the massive scale at which they must be manufactured, is such that, right now, as I’m typing this, the design for next year’s iPhone 7 is either locked down or very close to it. The company will now spend the next year hustling to make it work and put it into production so it can start shipping a year from now. But that means there are also teams already at work on the iPhone 7S slated for 2017 — and they have a massive head start in terms of knowing the shape and dimensions of the device.
As usual, I’ll leave in-depth performance analysis to others, but I did run the Geekbench 3 general-purpose benchmark. All devices were running the release version of iOS 9.0. I ran the benchmark three times after restarting the device, and put all devices in airplane mode during the tests. I’ve rounded the scores to the nearest tens digit. For both the iPhone 6 and 6S, the scores for the 5.5-inch Plus models were effectively identical to the 4.7-inch models, so they aren’t broken out separately.
|Test||iPhone 5S||iPhone 6||iPhone 6S||6S vs. 6 Factor|
Two observations here. First, there is a noticeably bigger performance increase across the board going from the 6 to the 6S than there was last year, going from the 5S to the 6. In broad strokes, the non-S iPhones are about physical style, the S models are about performance. (At the introduction of the 3GS in 2009, Phil Schiller claimed the “S” stood for “speed”. Since then, Apple hasn’t said what any of the S’s stand for, but “speed” still fits)
Second, take a look at Geekbench’s aggregate results for Android devices. (Here’s a screenshot as it stands today, for posterity.) In terms of single-core performance, there isn’t a single Android phone that beats the two-year-old iPhone 5S. Android devices fare better in multi-core benchmarks, because they have more cores (some have eight, many have four — the iPhones 6S still have only two cores), but single-core performance is a better measure for the sort of things you can feel while using a device. Apple is literally years ahead of the industry. Even if you don’t agree that single-core performance is the more meaningful benchmark, you can’t deny that iPhone benchmarks don’t look anything like the benchmarks for high-end Android devices. With the Mac, Apple uses the same Intel chips as its PC competition. On mobile, though, Apple’s in-house chip team has given the company a tremendous advantage over the rest of the industry.
Speaking of the Mac and performance, again looking at single-core performance, Geekbench results put the iPhone 6S at roughly the same score as a 2012 or 2013 MacBook Air. Even more intriguing is a comparison to the new single-port MacBook:
The new iPhone 6S beats the new MacBook in single-core performance on Geekbench, and is within spitting distance in multi-core. That’s astounding. I can’t wait to see the scores for the iPad Pro later this year.
3D Touch can be used in a few ways:
Quick Actions: The pop-up menu you see from the home screen when you press on an app icon.
Peek and Pop: Press a little to get a peek, press harder to pop whatever you’re peeking at open. This works mostly on list items. So in Mail, from your list of messages, you can peek to look at a message, then pop to open it all the way up. It works almost everywhere in Apple’s own apps: Messages, Camera, Maps, Weather, Safari (page previews on links), Notes, Calendar, and more. It pays to explore.
Multitasking: As an alternative to double-pressing the home button, you can now press on the left edge of the display. Press-and-swipe all the way across and you switch back to the previous app you were using. Press-and-swipe just a little and you’re left in the “card view” where you can switch to any previous application. The former is like hitting Command-Tab just once. The latter is like hitting Tab repeatedly while holding down the Command key. This is quickly addictive, and a great accommodation now that the iPhones are bigger than they used to be — you can switch between apps without changing your grip to allow your thumb to reach the Home button.
Trackpad Mode: Press on the keyboard and it turns into a trackpad. iPads running iOS 9 can trigger this trackpad mode, too, with a two-finger swipe on the keyboard. Doing it with a single finger on the iPhone, though, is a tremendous boon to text editing. This might be the single best new feature for text editing on the iPhone since the addition of selection and Copy/Paste in iOS 3 in 2009. In addition to moving the insertion point around, you can press again and switch to selection mode — like double-clicking the mouse button on a Mac. Trackpad mode is a once-you’ve-used-it-you-can’t-go-back addition to iOS.
There are other uses for 3D Touch as well. When drawing in the new Notes app or using Markup to annotate an image in Mail, you can press harder to draw thicker strokes. (The same also applies when drawing Chinese characters on Chinese handwriting keyboards.) If you press on one of the new “dynamic wallpapers” on the lock screen, it animates for a few seconds, like a Live Photo. (Or you can set your lock screen wallpaper to a Live Photo you’ve taken yourself. But Apple’s “dynamic wallpapers” have a higher frame rate than the live photos you can take yourself; they’re obviously like live photos, but they’re not the same thing as the ones you can take with the iPhone 6S camera.)
The wallpaper animation is gimmicky, but fun. Most of the other uses for 3D Touch, though, are legitimate productivity gains. I find myself using the shortcuts on the icons for Messages (to jump to one of your three most-active recent threads) and Camera (to choose which mode to start in: front-facing self-portrait, video, slo-mo, or still) frequently. It’s habit-forming.
Peek-and-pop for, say, reading email — I wasn’t too sure about that at first. But watching Tim Cook’s appearance on Stephen Colbert, I took note when Cook claimed it helps him get through his inbox faster. I tried it again, and noticed for the first time that while peeking, you can slide the message left or right to trash or archive it. It really is an efficient way to triage messages, especially ones that you can’t get the gist of from the two- or three-line preview in the message list itself. And, you can drag a message up to get an activity sheet with additional actions, like Reply, Forward, Notify Me, and more. The productivity gain with this workflow is that you don’t have to go “back” after finishing. Peek, swipe to the side to archive, and it’s gone. Anywhere you can peek, try sliding the peek around.
I have only two bad things to say about 3D Touch. First, Apple missed an opportunity to borrow a great feature from Apple Watch. On Apple Watch, you can force touch in the notification list and you get an option to Clear All. 3D Touch has no effect in iOS 9’s notification list, and there remains no way to clear all notifications at once.
Second, I find myself triggering the Quick Action menu inadvertently when I want to enter “jiggle mode” on the home screen, to either delete or move an app. Tap-and-wait long-pressing has always been a little frustrating to me. I don’t like to wait. I’m impatient. So when I go to move an app on the iPhone 6S, I press on it, and more often than not, I press hard enough to register as a 3D Touch. For apps that don’t have any Quick Actions (which is to say, as of this writing, all third-party apps), what happens next is that you get a wee bit of haptic feedback to let you know your press registered as a 3D Touch event, but that there are no Quick Actions for this app. It feels like two very quick gentle taps. This haptic feedback is very clever. There is no alert, and no sound. Just that little feedback that feels like the haptic equivalent of your phone telling you “Uh-uh”. But the experience is frustrating, because now it’s taking me even longer to enter jiggle mode: first, without thinking about what I’m doing, I accidentally trigger the “Uh-uh, no quick actions for this app” 3D Touch. Then I have to let go, purposefully tap-and-hold gently, and wait. I expect to get used to this over time, but at this point, 3D Touch and long-pressing feel like they’re at odds with each other.
Overall, it seems very clear to me that 3D Touch will spread across the entire iOS device line. Like Touch ID and retina displays, it’s simply debuting on the iPhone first.
Speaking of the new Taptic Engine, it’s excellent. It doesn’t just provide for 3D Touch feedback, but it also serves as the vibrator for notifications. It is stronger, more noticeable, and in my opinion more pleasing than any previous iPhone vibrator. Back in 2011, Apple switched to a superior oscillating vibrator in the iPhone 4S (and the Verizon/CDMA iPhone 4). All previous iPhones used a cheaper rotational vibrator. The oscillating vibrator in the iPhone 4S was noticeably nicer. For whatever reason, Apple went back to a rotational vibrator in the iPhone 5, and stuck with it through the iPhone 6. The new taptic engine in the 6S feels as good or better than the old iPhone 4S vibrator. It’s just stronger and more pleasing.
The 3D Touch feedback is well-designed. Peeks feel gentle, pops feel stronger — sort of like a half tap and a full tap. When you press something in the interface that has only one level of 3D Touch (like the Quick Action menu on a home screen icon), you get the full-strength tap feedback, which is a way of letting you know, by feel, that there’s no reason to press harder. If you feel a peek, you know you can press hard to pop; if you feel a pop, you know you’re done. Once you get used to it, peek/pop is as intuitive as the shutter button on a camera, where you can press halfway to engage autofocus and set the exposure, and press the rest of the way to take a picture.
Speaking of which, the iPhone 6S cameras are terrific. They’re fast, responsive, and accurate — accurate meaning that unedited, right off the camera roll, the color and light reproduction look like how the scene appeared to my eyes. More than any other aspect of the iPhone, the camera exemplifies the advantages of Apple’s integration of hardware and software.
I’m still not sure what to make of the Live Photos feature. Is it a gimmick? I don’t know. But I’m still shooting with the feature turned on. Technically, the way it seems to work is that the iPhone creates two files: a 12 MP JPEG (exactly the same as when you shoot a still image with Live Photo disabled), and a three-second-long MOV file. When looked at through Image Capture on a Mac running OS X 10.10.x, you see both files in the iPhone camera roll: “IMG_1234.JPG” and “IMG_1234.MOV”. Both files have same numeric index after the “IMG_” prefix, and both files have the same creation date. The MOV file is 1440 × 1080 pixels, at 12.77 frames-per-second.
Technically, of course, a MOV file is a video. But I think one of the reasons Apple is adamantly refusing to describe Live Photos as “video” is that these animated sidecars aren’t high-quality videos in and of themselves. That they are video files, under the hood, is just an implementation detail.
It’s also worth emphasizing that these Live Photos are not implemented by burst mode. You can still engage burst mode by holding down the shutter button, but you still only get about six or seven frames per second. When taking a burst of stills, Live Photo is disabled — you just get a regular series of still images, grouped together in the camera roll just like on the iPhone 6.
So the way Live Photo works, I think, is this: when you’re in still photo mode with Live Photo turned on, the iPhone is constantly capturing 1440 × 1080 video at 12.77 FPS, but keeping only the most recent 1.5 seconds. Then when you tap the shutter to capture a still, it takes a 12-megapixel still image in between capturing frames of the video. Then the camera continues capturing another 1.5 seconds of video. So you wind up with 1.5 seconds of video prior to hitting the shutter, one still image at the maximum resolution of the image sensor, and another 1.5 seconds of video from after the shutter press. Because there is only one 12-megapixel still image captured, you can’t change the “key frame” of a Live Photo.
In iOS 9.0, the timing of this video capture is hard-coded. You get 3 seconds of video — 1.5 seconds on each side of the still capture — every time. This means, however, if you snap your photo and then lower the camera, you wind up with a “droop” at the end of your live photo animation — usually a blurry view of the floor. Apple has already addressed this in the betas for iOS 9.1. In 9.1, the camera will use the accelerometer to detect when you lower the camera after snapping a shot, and truncate the animation at that point. So in 9.0, all live photos are 3 seconds long, but many will have an unfortunate droop at the end. Starting in 9.1, live photos will be up to 3 seconds long, with no droops.
You cannot edit Live Photos. Well, you can edit them, but doing so turns them into stills.
One other camera feature demands mention, and it breaks my heart. Last year, the iPhone 6 Plus, and only the Plus, included optical image stabilization. This year, OIS remains a Plus-only feature, and Apple has made it even better, because it now works with video. The advantages of OIS for video are even greater than for still images, in my opinion. You know how when you watch a video someone shot on their phone — any phone — and when they walk around, you can see the picture rock up and down with each step they take? It’s a signature of amateur video shot on consumer cameras, and it’s unpleasant to say the least.
OIS for video reduces this jerkiness. And in my testing on the iPhone 6S Plus, the effect is dramatic. It’s a poor man’s Steadicam, built right into the iPhone 6S Plus. I say that this breaks my heart because, personally, I have no interest in owning the 6S Plus — I much prefer the pocketability and feel-in-hand of the 4.7-inch iPhone 6S. I could tell myself last year that the 6 Plus’s camera was only a wee bit better than the regular 6’s, and only under certain conditions. This year, OIS for video means the iPhone 6S Plus is capable of something the regular 6S is not: shooting smooth full-size videos while you walk around or pan the camera.3
Lastly, I can’t write about the camera without complaining that the bump for the lens is still there. I understand the physics and optics involved, but it bothers me every single day that I can feel that nubbin. The best argument for forgiving the camera bump is that a vast majority of iPhone owners use a case of some sort, and with a case, the camera bump is a non-issue. But for those of us who don’t use cases, and who appreciate Apple’s general attention to every little detail, it’s a very minor but daily irritation. My number one hope for next year is that Apple can continue to improve image quality while somehow getting rid of the bump.
One thing that hasn’t changed from last year’s iPhone 6 models: storage tiers of 16, 64, and 128 GB. The units I received for testing (one 6S, one 6S Plus) were both 128 GB. I’m sure most people can get by easily with the 64 GB models. For anyone who is not completely certain that they don’t need much storage, I would recommend against the 16 GB models. It’s too easy to fill them up. I wish Apple had switched the baseline from 16 to 32 GB. 4K video is off by default (the default is 1080p at 30 FPS), but forget about shooting 4K with a 16 GB device. Apple says 4K video takes up 375 MB per minute.
Here’s the thing that nags me whenever I complain about these 16 GB phones. My gut feeling is that they’re too small. Data from third-party app analytics suggests they’re too small for many of the people who buy them. But Apple has more data on iPhone usage than anyone, and the company is obsessed with customer satisfaction. They measure customer satisfaction through surveys as accurately and scientifically as they can. How often does Tim Cook speak in public without the words “customer sat” coming out of his mouth? If last year’s 16 GB baseline adversely affected customer satisfaction, you’d think Apple would have done something about it this year, right? The only other explanation that makes sense is that it does adversely affect customer satisfaction, but they’re willing to take the hit in the name of higher average selling prices, because of the people who wind up buying 64 GB models who would have bought a 32 GB model for $100 less if that had been an option. Again, to me, 16/64/128 is not good/better/best — it’s OK/better/best.
Also seemingly unchanged from last year: the effective battery life of the device. I didn’t perform any sort of battery life tests, but in heavy daily usage, the iPhone 6S felt like it got the same battery life as the iPhone 6 I’ve been using for a year. No better, no worse. Like last year, the iPhone 6S Plus clearly gets way better battery life than the regular 6S, simply because it has room for a far larger battery.
The 6S models are heavier than last year’s phones: the 6S is 14 grams heavier than the 6 (143/129g); the 6S Plus is 20 grams heavier than the 6 Plus (192/172g). Some of this might be due to the new Taptic Engine (which looks bigger in Apple’s see-the-components promotional video) and the sensors for 3D Touch, but I presume most of the difference is due to the switch to higher-grade 7000-series aluminum. Well worth it for the additional structural integrity — I don’t expect any complaints about bending this year. [Update: According to The Verge, most of the weight gain is from the touch sensors in the new display assembly, not the aluminum.]
This is subjective, but it seems to me that the new iPhones feel different to the touch. It’s not dramatic, but I think they’re less slippery. I’ve gone case-less with every iPhone I’ve owned, and the only one I’ve ever dropped and had the screen crack was the iPhone 6. The larger size and rounded edges made the iPhone 6 less grip-able than my beloved old iPhone 5S. It could just be the extra weight, but in blind testing, I can feel the difference between my old iPhone 6 and the new 6S. It’s just a wee bit more tacky, and it’s either due to the material, or the wear and tear of a year’s usage on my iPhone 6.
Apple is billing the new Touch ID sensor as “up to 2× faster”. They’re underselling it. It’s so fast now that every single time I press it, it unlocks the phone, no matter how brief the contact is between my finger and the sensor. I can sit here and try to use the home button to get to the lock screen, and I can’t unless I purposefully only touch a small portion of the button or use an unregistered finger. It’s that fast. This actually takes some getting used it, if, like me, you sometimes use the home button just to get to the lock screen to check the date or time. With the new Touch ID sensor, the home button instantly unlocks the phone and I need to use the sleep/wake button to get to the lock screen.
You know those FCC-mandated regulatory logos etched on the back of your iPhone? They’re gone. Last year the FCC issued new guidelines that allow manufacturers to put all these labels in software, for display on screen, and Apple has done just that. (You can see them in Settings: General: Regulatory.) It’s such a little thing, but those little turds have always bothered me. Curiously, one previous iPhone also lacked these regulatory etchings: the Verizon iPhone 4. I have no idea why that one iPhone was able to omit them but subsequent ones were not.
Replacing the regulatory turds is a simple “S” under the “iPhone” on the back of the phone. Previous S-model iPhones were not labeled as such.
I don’t plan to use one, but Apple’s new cases are very nice. Both the silicone and leather cases come in nicer colors than last year — and they complement/match Apple’s lineup of Sport and leather straps for Apple Watch nicely. They really seem to have upped their game with leatherwork. Just for kicks I spent a few days of my review period with the iPhone 6S in the saddle brown case, and I really liked the way it looked and felt. It seems like the sort of leather that will look better as it ages. The biggest thing keeping me from using this case for real, going forward, is that the raised edge along the side of the display gets in the way of performing edge-based gestures, primarily swiping to go back, and the new press-and-swipe to switch between apps with 3D Touch.
New-number iPhones (4, 5, 6) are about showing off Apple’s design prowess. The S models are about showing off Apple’s engineering prowess. Storage capacities and battery life are unchanged from last year’s iPhones. Everything else — the materials they’re made from, the performance of their custom CPU/GPU, the quality of the cameras, the smoothness of the user interface — is noticeably, tangibly improved. ★
There might be other examples, but in tech the most well-known example of this strategy is Intel’s CPU schedule: one generation is a new microarchitecture (big new change) and the next is a shrinking of the previous one. What isn’t obvious is that the “tocks” are the new microarchitectures, and the “ticks” are the die shrinkings. So for iPhones, the S models are the ticks, and the new form factors are the tocks. That seems counter-intuitive, of course, because we say “tick-tock” but the tocks come before the ticks. That’s kind of stupid if you ask me, so if you want to call the new form factor models the ticks and the S models the tocks, go right ahead. ↩︎
What does “stronger” mean? More scratch-resistant? Less prone to cracking when dropped? Both? I don’t know, and when I asked, no one at Apple would say. ↩︎︎
There are a few apps for the iPhone that implement image-stabilization for video in software. Two that I’m aware of are Hyperlapse (from Instagram) and Horizon. Both apps work well, but there’s no way to cheat true optical image stabilization. These apps smooth out the motion in video by cropping the frames. So you lose some resolution and wind up with a narrow field of view. The bigger downside is that you have remember to use these apps before you start shooting. When I see something I want to capture, I’m already in the system Camera app before I think about it. ↩︎︎