Opinion: My end-of-year report card for Apple’s 2018 hardware

In what is now an annual tradition, I’m offering my end-of-year report card on Apple’s 2018 hardware performance. What the company did well, what it did less well, and what it failed to do altogether.

We’ve already rounded-up everything Apple announced during the course of the year, so let’s look now at what I consider to be the highlights and lowlights …

My usual reminder about Apple innovation

Apple has long been criticized for over-reliance on the iPhone, and what some consider a lack of innovation. Where, some asked, are the new product categories? So before I talk about the one Apple did launch this year – the smart speaker – I should issue my usual reminder.

While some are fond of the narrative that Apple was launching new product categories on a weekly basis when Steve Jobs ran the company, the reality is rather different.

The Macintosh, a truly revolutionary computer, was launched in 1984. We had to wait 17 years for the next groundbreaking product: the iPod in 2001. We had to wait six years after that for the next major product category: the iPhone in 2007. And a further three years for the iPad in 2010. (If you wanted to push things a little, you could argue that the MacBook Air was also so revolutionary that it deserves to be included; if so, we’re up to five new product categories in 26 years.)

Since then, we’ve had the Apple Watch and, this year, Apple’s first smart speaker.

Again, the usual reminder applies here too: Apple wasn’t first in any of its product categories. It didn’t invent the GUI computer, the mp3 player, the smartphone, the tablet or the smartwatch. What Apple did with HomePod was what it always does. Watch the market, figure out what it thinks it can do well, then aim to launch the best possible version of each product.

HomePod

New product category: HomePod

That out of the way, let’s talk HomePod.

HomePod hasn’t dominated the market the way the Apple Watch has. Its market share is somewhere around 6% of the smart speaker market. But that’s not really surprising when the cheapest big name smart speaker – Amazon’s Echo Dot – officially retails at just $50 and is frequently available for much less. HomePod costs $300 more.

All the same, HomePod is a pretty incredible achievement. At $349, the sound quality is way better than it has any right to be. It’s not up there with true hifi systems with price-tags well into four figures, but a stereo pair at $700 is an absolute bargain for the quality you’re getting. Add in the usual smart speaker benefit of simply telling the speakers what to play and it’s a winning package.

To me, the HomePod is Apple’s most under-rated product.

For Apple as a company, HomePod is perhaps not as big a deal as it might have been. Rather than spurring a whole range of speakers, as some had predicted, Apple has instead made Apple Music available to first Echo and later other third-party speakers. But HomePod is a big deal for people who want really good quality music for a three-figure sum.

I should also give a shoutout to AirPlay 2. I’ve long been an AirPlay fan, but have also long been calling on Apple to improve it. So far, AirPlay 2 appears to have delivered on the reliability and seamless multi-room support I asked for. What’s missing now is broader support: the protocol was officially launched in May but there’s still very little compatible hardware out there.

So, great hardware at a great-value price, and a consumer-friendly decision to open up Apple Music to more brands. AirPlay 2 a huge step forward, but Apple needs to work harder to persuade audio brands to adopt the protocol. Overall: 8/10.

$329 iPad

A new level of affordability: the $329 iPad

Apple has been widely criticized for pushing up the prices of most of its products – a topic I’ll return to shortly – but it did the opposite where the iPad is concerned. By making a 9.7-inch model that works with Apple Pencil available for $329, it was turning an iPad into something much more like a mass-market product.

Sure, you can say that this model uses older technology, and that’s true. But it offers what mass-market consumers want from a tablet at a significantly lower price than ever before. 9/10 for that.

iPhone XR Apple Watch Series 4

Some standout hardware: iPhone XR, XS Max, Apple Watch Series 4, new iPad Pro models

Apple’s flagship new iPhones were, to me, the least interesting announcements at September’s event. For me, the real standout was the iPhone XR.

Sure, it’s still a relatively expensive phone, but it still brought Apple’s new form factor to market for $250 less than last year. And while Apple aficionados might turn up their nose at the LCD screen, thicker bezels and single rear camera, the iPhone XR offers a fantastic balance of features and cost. So much so that, if I’d been buying this year, I might well have opted for it.

But while the iPhone XS was a little boring – not really offering any compelling benefits over last year’s iPhone X – the XS Max does deserve a special mention. Some people simply want the largest screen they can get on a phone which, for them, combines iPhone and iPad benefits into a single device.

Then there was the Apple Watch Series 4. A larger screen and more complications make a surprising difference to the usability of the device, and the ECG functionality – where it is supported – has already demonstrated its potential for saving lives.

And finally, the new iPad Pro models. Beautiful, powerful, delightful to use. The 11-inch one combines a fantastic screen in a highly portable device, while I’ve already sung the praises of the 12.9-inch one. It’s rare that I recommend Apple’s most expensive iDevices to non-tech friends. For most people, I’ve recommended the iPhone XR and the new MacBook Air, for example. But the 12.9-inch iPad is an exception: it really is that good.

Launching four or five pieces of standout hardware in one year (depending whether we count the new iPads as one or two products) is a real achievement, so for this I give Apple 10/10.

MacBook Air

And some more mixed hardware: MacBook Air, Mac mini

However, Apple also launched two other new products which – while they have many winning features – have to be given a somewhat more mixed report.

First, we have the 2018 MacBook Air. On the plus side, this is absolutely the Mac I now recommend to most people. You get something close to the portability of the 12-inch MacBook with a larger screen and enough power for most people. At $1200, you’re only paying $200 more than the ancient version Apple still sells for $999, which is not a massive premium for what you’re getting.

However, it’s still less powerful than it could be or should be today. And, frankly, selling a laptop with 128GB storage in 2018 is embarrassing. Yes, that storage is fast, but when Apple sells a phone with 512GB and an iPad with 1TB, there is no way in the world it should be selling a laptop with anything less than 256GB. So, for many people, the real price of the machine is $1400 – and then you have to question whether the $1500 13-inch MacBook Pro might not make a better choice. That isn’t a question MacBook buyers with basic needs should ever have to ask themselves.

Second, the 2018 Mac mini. Hats off to Apple for recognizing that the market for this device has now changed. Where it was once a cheap way to switch from Windows to Mac, that isn’t – for the most part – the demographic that has been buying the machines of late. Most of today’s buyers were those who were looking for semi-pro capabilities but with their own choice of screen – or were running server farms, where the machine has proven surprisingly popular.

So Apple has completely revamped the machine in line with what most buyers wanted: a desktop Mac that can be specced from basic server needs through to high-end applications.

But … it’s not all good news. The jump in price does leave behind some of the machine’s user-base. And while the spec is decent, it’s not exceptional. Especially when it comes to the GPU. Add in an eGPU, and the price jumps even further. So Apple is certainly not pleasing everyone. A base-level model with modern architecture and ports at a more affordable price point would have kept more home server buyers happy.

So for these two products, I have to give Apple 5/10. (And where the Mac mini is concerned, I know some who would argue it should be 0/10.)

Apple pricing

The pricing controversy

Which leads us into the single most controversial Apple topic of the year: pricing.

Apple has never been a company to offer cheap products. It has always offered premium products at premium pricing.

But at the same time, the operative word there has been ‘premium,’ not ‘luxury.’ An iPhone has always been a piece of premium tech that is within reach of most middle-class people in developed countries. That has, in recent times, started to change.

We saw a huge jump in MacBook Pro pricing in 2016. We saw the iPhone SE withdrawn from sale (in most markets). Last year saw the first iPhone with a four-figure price tag. This year saw a top-spec iPhone at a staggering $1,449, and a top-tier iPad for a mind-blowing $1,899. And we’ve just talked about the MacBook Air and Mac mini.

Now, you can argue that choice is good. I can’t imagine buying a 1TB iPad myself, but if you have a business case for one, then it’s better that it be available – whatever the price – than not. You can also still buy a brand new iPhone from an Apple Store for $449 (depending on your definition of ‘brand new,’ of course). There’s that $329 iPad I mentioned earlier. And the largely unsung hero, the HomePod, which is actually a really good value product disguised as an expensive one.

So it would be unfair to Apple to suggest that it is simply raising prices across the board, and trying to gouge us for as much as it can take. I made the counterargument in what probably counts as the least-popular piece I’ve ever written. Apple is, in many areas, pushing the boundaries of what can be offered in mass-market products, and its pricing reflects that.

But it would be fair to say that Apple is, in a saturated market, doing its best to make up in price growth what it is losing in volume growth. It is offering us choices, but it’s also taking steps – like that insulting 128GB base model MacBook Air – to push us toward the more expensive ones.

Apple is perhaps playing a slightly dangerous game. Its ecosystem is a huge lock-in to its products – but not an unbreakable one. You have only to read the comments here to see plenty of people saying they are now upgrading their iPhone on a 4-5 year cycle, as well as some MacBook owners who are starting to eye-up Windows laptops. There’s a risk here that Apple’s strategy could backfire.

But my ratings are not offered from the perspective of Apple as a business, rather from that of the customer. And there things get difficult, as it depends on your viewpoint. If you want the top-spec products, and can afford them, you’ll be glad of the choice. If you’re feeling squeezed out by Apple, you’ll feel that the company has taken a wrong turn. Given that mixed perspective, I think 5/10 is the only reasonable rating here.

Missing Apple products

Missing products: Modular Mac Pro, Apple Display, AirPower

There are three Apple products which were once expected to arrive in 2018 and now aren’t.

Apple was always cagey about the release date of the modular Mac Pro. All it said in 2017 was that it wouldn’t be released that year. But certainly the widespread expectation – and a perfectly reasonable one at the time – was that it would be launched in 2018.

But by April of this year, Apple took that possibility off the table.

We want to be transparent and communicate openly with our pro community so we want them to know that the Mac Pro is a 2019 product. It’s not something for this year.

We still know next to nothing about the form factor of the machine. We know it will be modular, so that it can be easily repaired and expanded, but we don’t know what that term means to Apple. While many pros hope for the internal upgradability of the original Mac Pro, some suspect that much of the expansion capability will be external – like eGPUs.

Apple says it wants to take the time to get the machine right, using feedback from pro users, and its caution is understandable given how badly many feel Apple missed the mark with the trashcan model. But it’s now five years since the launch of that version, and the machine hasn’t been updated since then. That’s a long time to wait – and many pros have had to opt for various compromise options in the meantime.

The situation is just as bad with an official Apple monitor. The Thunderbolt Display was withdrawn from sale in 2016, and hadn’t actually been updated since 2011. So we’re going to be eight years on by the time the new one arrives – and, like the Mac Pro, we also know nothing concrete about what form it will take.

Finally, of course, there’s the AirPower debacle. Originally promised for sometime this year, there’s now a deafening silence. Many now doubt that it will ever be launched.

So for products that should have been launched this year and weren’t, 0/10.

Those are my ratings for Apple’s performance this year – what are yours? If you need a reminder, check out all of Apple’s announcements for the year. Then let us know in the comments what impressed you and what didn’t about what Apple did and didn’t deliver in 2018.

Photos: Shutterstock


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