For a long time, there’s been two competing narratives about Apple’s pricing:
They’re “premium”: sure, they’re expensive, and yes, you pay for the brand name. But when you compare them with products of equal quality, counting not just feature specs but design, materials, and build quality—so an iPhone with a Galaxy S, a MacBook with a Dell XPS—they’re rarely unreasonably higher, and the user experience of macOS and iOS is arguably1 worth it.
They’re “luxury”: there’s nothing about a Mac, an iPhone, or an iPad that truly makes it better than its competition; the only reason anyone buys Apple products is for the supposed status of owning them and showing them off.
For most of my Apple-using life, I’ve unsurprisingly been in the first camp. But for the past, oh, let’s call it five years, Apple has been making this…difficult.
- Phone prices have climbed faster than their sizes, especially at the high end;
- Their vaunted hardware engineering and design teams have become tethered to form over function, leading most infamously to the “butterfly” keyboard that prioritized thinness at the expense of not only typing feel but reliability;2
- Laptop prices have also climbed fast, possibly because prioritizing form over function turns out to be expensive;
- While iOS 7 made significant UX changes, those changes sometimes came at the expense of clarity (e.g., little to no visual cues as to where tap targets are), and later development seems fairly stagnant, other than a few changes for the iPad;3
- While Apple has always had a “we know what’s best for our users” attitude and has never been super chatty about their decisions, they’ve just made themselves look arrogant and unresponsive a few times, most infamously over battery management.4
But the two products announced this week show off two old-school Apple moves we haven’t seen in, well, a while.
First, the new MacBook Air. They’re bringing the Magic Keyboard to it, as we all assumed (hoped?) they would, fixing the biggest problem with their laptops of the last few years. They’ve upped the starting SSD from 128G to a more respectable 256G, and upgraded to a modern Intel processor that can turboboost up to twice as fast as last year’s Air—and that’s just the base processor: you can get up to a quad-core i7.
And they lowered the price.
For the last few years Apple’s been far more likely (especially with Macs but arguably with the iPhone, too) to improve a product some ways while making it worse in others and raising the price, playing right into that “luxury” narrative. But this wasn’t always Apple’s modus operandi. For many years, their classic move was upgrading a product while keeping the same price point: you still paid $1499, but now the CPU was faster, you had more RAM, you had a bigger hard drive, and so on. But the new Air is back down to the semi-magic $999 point (and Apple loudly trumpets that it’s $899 with the education discount). To be fair, we’ve been seeing more of this from Apple in the last couple of years—there was a modest price drop moving from the iPhone 8 to the XR, and while high-end iPads climb to nosebleed pricing territory, the low-end model has gained power while dropping in price—but there was a multiyear stretch when “get more for the same money” became “get mildly aggrieved for another couple hundred.”
Second, the new iPad Pro—but especially the new iPad Magic Keyboard, which has a trackpad, a USB pass-through port, an amazing cantilever design like no other tablet keyboard case I’ve ever seen, and a wheeze-inducing price point of $299–349 depending on size. This is also a classic Apple move: the damn thing is so expensive you can’t help but think of it as overpriced, but there’s literally no competition for it. You are not going to be able to get a keyboard case that nice from anyone else. (Amazon will fill up with knockoff versions for $99 or less, and they will all be pretty bad by comparison, because that’s the way of things.)
Personally, I’ve grown frustrated with the iPad’s software limitations at both the OS and app level. I wrote about that in “The iPad needs more focus on the little things” last August, which concluded with,
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not giving up my iPad. Who knows what iPadOS 14 will bring? But in the meantime, I confess I’m watching what happens with the next MacBook Air revision pretty closely.
Well, that update is here, and frankly, they knocked it out of the park. It’s pretty much everything I was waiting for.
And yet, if the iPad Magic Keyboard lives up to its promise, it’s the keyboard case for the iPad that I’ve always wanted. I still do love the iPad, and the Magic Keyboard might make it the best portable computing device for me ever—in terms of hardware. Unfortunately, hardware won’t fix the frustrations I have with the platform. So now, I suppose I’m watching what happens with the next major iPadOS revision pretty closely.
For the time being, though? The portable computer for me—and, I think, for anyone who wants the best laptop—sure seems like it’s the new Air.
- I’m using the term literally here: many of the Linux-using folks that I know don’t like the macOS user experience at all, and long-time Windows users often find the small differences frustrating, just like I do when trying to use Windows (or a Linux desktop environment). [return]
- Other things I’d put in that camp are the Touch Bar, a clever idea that, five years on, remains a solution in search of a problem; the change to make the bottom row of the keyboard the same size as the other rows and the left and right arrow keys full-height, just so everything is perfectly symmetrical; the spartan set of ports on modern Mac laptops, even the biggest ones that could surely spare space for a micro SD card slot; the now discontinued 12″ MacBook. [return]
- I know that undersells some of the changes for the iPad, and I’m not throwing in with the “iPad multitasking is a fiasco that ruined everything” camp. The biggest problem isn’t features being unintuitive—as many people point out, little about any modern GUI is intuitive, strictly speaking—but being undiscoverable. For a quick example, you can display folder contents in both macOS Finder and iOS Files by icon, list view, or column view. Finder controls those through little buttons; you can find that feature for yourself. In Files, though, you swipe down to reveal the iOS equivalents, and there is no visual indicator or other affordance that suggests swiping down is a meaningful action. There are more of these hidden gestures in iPadOS with each major release, and even the ones I know about get frustrating. (Swipe up from the bottom edge to pull up the dock or go back to the home screen or pull up the multitasking space navigator? This is bad UX design, okay? It’s bad.) [return]
- The narrative to this day is still “Apple secretly slowed down your old phone to get you to buy a new one.” That’s wrong on multiple levels, but the secretly part isn’t. If Apple had treated battery management like a public-facing feature from the start, they’d have saved themselves a massive PR fiasco and multiple lawsuits. [return]