If Apple’s most recent hardware events were about going bigger (larger iPhones, a jumbo iPad, and a new Apple TV), Apple’s March 21st event is about going smaller. Apple yesterday officially sent invites to its much-anticipated event to be held at its Cupertino campus with the tagline “Let us loop you in.” The event, which was originally internally scheduled for a week earlier, will focus on Apple’s new 4-inch iPhone SE, a smaller, 9.7-inch iPad Pro, and new Apple Watch bands. The company will likely also reveal the final versions of iOS 9.3, tvOS 9.2, watchOS 2.2, OS X 10.11.4, and an iTunes update. We’ve reported nearly the entirety of what’s expected to come at the event, so read on for a full roundup of everything we’re likely to see…
iPhone SE: The Return of the 4-inch iPhone
Name and Design:
The 4-inch iPhone screen size is back. After being introduced in 2012 with the iPhone 5 and expanding over to the iPhone 5s and iPhone 5c in 2013, the 4-inch screen-size became a thing of the past with the launch of the iPhone 6 line in 2014. A couple of years later, the smaller screen is coming back with a new model called the “iPhone SE,” not an “iPhone 6c,” according to sources. Within Apple, employees refer to the “SE” designation in two ways. Some call it an “enhanced” version of the iPhone 5s from 2013.
Others say that the term refers to “special edition,” indicating that this new iPhone model is special variant for those looking for a new 4-inch iPhone model. Apple initially planned to call the device the “iPhone 5SE,” according to sources, attaching the “enhanced” and “special edition” tags to the iPhone 5s. Why? Because the new iPhone will look nearly identical in external appearance to the iPhone 5s as we have been reporting since January. In fact, sources say that the iPhone SE will be compatible with the market’s existing iPhone 5s cases. And yes, unlike the iPhone 7, the SE will have a headphone jack.
There are only a pair of exceptions to the SE retaining the 5s’s design: its edges and color options. Sources say that internal prototype versions of the SE include slightly rounded, more matte edges in comparison to the sharp, shiny, and scratch-prone chamfered edges of the iPhone 5s. While the diagram below shows a relocated power switch, the button will actually remain on top like with the 5s.When the iPhone 5s launched in 2013, it was available in three colors: space gray, silver, and gold. With the launch of newer iPhone models, Apple reduced the 5s’s color options to just space gray and silver. For the iPhone SE, Apple is bringing back gold and adding in rose gold.
Apple Pay, A9/M9 Chips, and Always-On “Hey Siri” Support:
While the outsides of the iPhone SE will be from the past, the insides will be mostly all modern. First up on the list is Apple Pay. Sources say that the iPhone SE will include an NFC chip in order to allow for mobile payments like the iPhone 6 and 6s lines. Also on board are the new A9 and M9 chips, significant upgrades from the A7 and M7 chips from the iPhone 5s. The A9 chip will unlock speed improvements like those brought by the iPhone 6s and the M9 chip will allow for more accurate motion tracking and always-on “Hey Siri” support. This means that a user can shout “Hey Siri” at their iPhone SE to activate Siri even if the device is not plugged in to power.
New Cameras, Live Photos, No 3D Touch:
Powered by the new internals are upgraded cameras and camera software. Like the iPhone 6s, the iPhone SE will be capable of taking and viewing Live Photos, pictures that embed a few seconds of video and audio before and after the time of the still photograph. On the iPhone 6s, these Live Photos are playable via a 3D Touch hard press, but the feature will work via a simple long press on the iPhone SE as the SE will not have 3D Touch.
Also unlike the iPhone 6s, sources say that the SE will not include a front-facing LED flash via the display. Sources say the flash feature won’t be present as it requires the iPhone 6s’s updated screen hardware technology. As for the megapixel counts of the SE, it’s unlikely that the front camera will reach the 5 megapixel count of the 6s, but Apple has tested both iPhone 6 (8MP) and 6s (12MP) sensors for the rear camera. Like on the 5s, the camera will likely sit flush with the device’s body.
Pricing, New Capacities & 5s Discontinued:
Sources say that the iPhone SE will replace the iPhone 5s in the iPhone family, and will likely be released within a week of the announcement. Upon the release of the SE, the 5s will be discontinued and the SE will take its price points. As of today, the iPhone 5s is available in 16GB and 32GB capacities for $450 and $500, respectively. The SE will likely pick up those price points, but the 32GB option will be doubled to 64GB, making the capacity options 16GB and 64GB for the 4-inch iPhone. This follows Apple’s recent pattern of eliminating 32GB iOS device storage offerings and retaining 16GB as the baseline. As we noted earlier, the iPhone SE will come in space gray, silver, gold, and rose gold, per sources. As for this fall, Apple’s likely iPhone lineup will be the iPhone SE, the iPhone 6s, and the next-generation 4.7-inch and 5.5-inch iPhones.
9.7-inch iPad Pro: November’s 12.9-inch Model in a Smaller Package
iPad Air Design with iPad Pro Features:
Given that the new iPad coming at the March event is a 9.7-inch model, early reporting naturally dubbed the device as an “iPad Air 3,” a direct successor to the current iPad Air 2. However, we have reported that the new 9.7-inch iPad model will actually instead be a smaller iPad Pro. Like it did with its laptop line, Apple will likely begin eliminating the “Air” suffix from its iPad tablet lineup. Regardless of the internal features and naming, the overall design of the product will marry the iPad Air 2’s design aesthetic to the iPad Pro’s features. The overall size, shape, and weight of the 9.7-inch iPad Pro will approach that of the iPad Air 2, but the device is expected to be slightly thicker according to leaked design schematics. Like the 12.9-inch iPad Pro that launched last November, the new 9.7-inch model will include quad-speakers around the sides of the tablet. Michael Steeber created the mockup above of the 9.7-inch iPad Pro.
A9X Chip, More RAM, Smart Connector, Brighter Display:
Beyond physical design, the product’s features all match the larger iPad Pro model. Sources confirm that the new iPad will include the A9X processor and additional RAM from the larger version, in addition to a Smart Connector. The Smart Connector will expand the iPad third-party accessory marketplace, opening up the door for automatically pairing, self-powered keyboard attachments and input devices. Sources also say that the 9.7-inch iPad Pro will include updated display technology that allows for the screen to become “noticeably brighter’ than that of the iPad Air 2. The new technology also unlocks the updated pixel technology from the 12.9-inch model needed for stylus support.
Smart Keyboard and Apple Pencil Support:
As it does for the 12.9-inch model, Apple will release a Smart Keyboard attachment for the 9.7-inch version. The case is proportional to the smaller iPad and will include slightly smaller keys to fit in a full keyboard. The new model will also have full support for the Apple Pencil.
12 Megapixel Camera and 4K Video Recording:
While all of the functionality discussed thus far of the smaller iPad Pro lines up with the features of the bigger model, sources say that there will be a pair of key differences regarding the camera system. Sources say that the 9.7-inch model will include a 12 megapixel camera to match the iPhone 6s and best the 8 megapixel sensor on the 12.9-inch iPad Pro. Like the iPhone 6s, the new iPad Pro will also be capable of recording video in 4K resolution, a format that is higher-quality than the 1080p standard. Given that the new Pro model is more portable than the larger version, it makes more sense to include improved camera hardware. Some schematics have also shown the possibility of a rear-facing LED flash.
Pricing and Discontinuing Older Models:
It is likely that the 9.7-inch iPad Pro will be priced closer to the iPad Air 2 line than the 12.9-inch iPad Pro line, but the new devices are expected to carry higher capacities than the Air line. It is likely that the smaller iPad Pro will likely come in the same 32GB and 128GB variations as the larger iPad Pro as well as in the same space gray, silver, and gold color options. Upon the launch of the new iPad Pro, Apple will likely discontinue older iPad models such as the original iPad Air and iPad mini 2 from 2013. The new iPad Pro is expected to be released within a week of the announcement.
New Apple Watch Bands: A Line Refresh Ahead of the Apple Watch 2 in September
New Sport Bands:
As with September, Apple will refresh its line of popular Apple Watch Sport Bands with all new colors for the spring. The new bands are expected to be available as standalone purchases and as part of whole unit Apple Watch purchases.
Black Milanese Loop:
As leaked on Apple’s website earlier this year, Apple is preparing a space black version of the Milanese Loop. Sources say that Apple initially intended to announce this band last September and release it around November, but it was delayed due to manufacturing bottlenecks related to applying the space black coating. Given that the space black Link Bracelet is priced higher than the standard version, it is possible that the space black Milanese Loop will cost slightly more than its silver variant.
NATO-Style Nylon Bands:
In addition to updating existing band lines, Apple will for the first time expand its Apple Watch band lineup with new styles. Apple is preparing an entirely new set of NATO-style Nylon bands. These bands gained popularity in the 1960s when they were featured in multiple James Bond movies, and the presence of a new band style will likely temporarily help keep up Apple Watch and accessory sales until the redesigned model debuts in September.
The new bands are said to be made out of a “high-quality” form of nylon that has been in testing for several months. These straps likely will be oriented toward active Apple Watch wearers looking for a waterproof, but still fashionable, alternative to the fluoroelastomer band. Like with the Leather Loop and Sport bands, the lug attachments to connect the band to the Apple Watch face will be integrated into the band, meaning that they will sit flush with any Apple Watch variation and won’t feature mismatched metal.
New Hermès Bands & Partnerships:
It is also possible that Apple unveils additional band color options from Hermès, beyond the current brown, red, and blue shades, and additional band design partnerships. Sources say that Apple discussed expanded band partnerships for the Apple Watch with case maker Incase, but it is currently unclear if such a partnership is ready to be announced. Given the fashion focus of the device, it would not be surprising to see additional partnerships on stage beyond Hermès on March 21st.
Extras: iTunes, iOS, OS X, tvOS, & watchOS Software Updates + Macs Unlikely
iOS 9.3: Apple so far has released six betas of iOS 9.3. The update adds a handful of new features. First is Night Shift, a Flux-like feature that automatically adjusts the color temperature of the display to reduce eye strain. There’s also support for Wi-Fi calling on Verizon, Touch ID Notes, new CarPlay features, and more.
tvOS 9.2: tvOS 9.2, which has also been tested via six betas, includes a host of enhancements. Perhaps most notably is Voice Dictation input for search and username/password entry. Additionally, there’s complete support for iCloud Photo Library, using Bluetooth keyboards, and Siri enhancements. the conference mode room also makes a return with tvOS 9.2. Here is a video overview of what to expect:
OS X 10.11.4: Similarly to iOS 9.3, OS X 10.11.4 includes support to protect the Notes app behind a password. There’s also improved support for Live Photos in the Messages and Photos apps.
watchOS 2.2: The 2.2 update includes support for pairing multiple watches to a single iPhone as well as enhancements to the Maps application. There’s a new screen of actions and Nearby search powered by Yelp. With watchOS 2.2, users can instantly navigate to home or work and find local businesses organized by type via a new Maps Glance.
As Apple Senior VP Eddy Cue recently hinted, Apple is preparing to soon release an iTunes for Mac update, and it would make sense for it to launch alongside the aforementioned operating system software updates. Sources say that the new version of iTunes is unlikely to be a design refresh, despite Cue’s hints, but more so a series of bug fixes and minor interface tweaks for the application and Apple Music integration. A more wide-ranging Apple Music update is expected this fall alongside iOS 10 and OS X 10.12, which we reported will finally enable Siri support.
Sources say that this event will likely focus solely around the new iPhone, iPad, and Apple Watch announcements. However, both new 12-inch MacBooks and upgraded MacBook Pros are in the pipeline for this year. Faster MacBooks are in store for debut by WWDC, potentially in April or May, and new MacBook Pros coming by the second half of the year. Sources say that Apple has considered announcing new 12-inch MacBooks at this event, but the imminent release currently seems unlikely.
As always we will have live coverage of the keynote and will keep reporting the news as we get it ahead of March 21st.
Top Tim Cook Image via Getty Images.