Special: On Apple’s Spring Forward Event

by on March 9, 2015

It’s really starting to feel like 2008 once again. Not only could one argue that in the previous year, some priorities have been shifted away from Mac software development in favor of the new hot portable device, but there is a new aluminum-clad MacBook that is dropping ports. Additionally, we got to see further clues where Apple is going next and it’s an excellent mix of excitement, opinionated development, and the feeling that everything is even more cohesive across the product lineup.

Apple Watch

We had a pretty good idea about the Apple Watch, as it was a large portion of September’s event for the iPhone 6. It’s nice to see a few things come into focus, notably the battery life, additional capabilities, and pricing. Having not worn a watch or fitness tracker for over fifteen years, I’m having a slightly hard time finding a need for the Apple Watch, but the more I see, the more I’m trying to convince myself that I want one. That being said, the device seems like a winner, especially in comparison with other smartwatches.

Some may balk at the pricing, and while we always knew $349 was the starting point, the different sizes and also different collections can make the price shoot up to over $17000. While I have no interest in an eventually-obsolete-gadget that costs more than some cars, there are people out there that would only consider an Apple Watch if there was an expensive option. Plus, it makes the $349 or $399 Sport model seem cheap in comparison.

Apple TV & HBO Now

I have a soft spot for the Apple TV, mostly because it’s a device that I can simply enjoy. Unlike my MacBook, iMac, or various iOS devices, work never really finds a way to end up on my Apple TV. With a background in media production, I also can appreciate that it allows us to find new content and things that wouldn’t traditionally be on broadcast TV. I am a bit disappointed that Apple didn’t update the hardware to keep pace with competitors, but nobody is really running away with the market entirely. Besides that, with the lower price, it may encourage more people to give it a try, especially since they could just slap a “30% Off” sale sign on the current model.

HBO Now is certainly interesting, but nothing new—it basically Netflix-ifies HBO, and offers a better option for cord cutters or those who have some sort of institutionally provided cable where HBO isn’t an option (college students). At $15/month, the pricing is a bit more than other services, but unreasonable considering that you have access to the back catalog of excellent shows, as well as current movies and shows.

ResearchKit

This will most likely be the portion of the event that gets overlooked the most—at least initially. I can’t quite grasp the implications of this, other than it’s a great move by Apple for the betterment of everyone, and the continued emphasis of privacy is welcome. I hope the amount of medical organizations that take advantage of this grows and it doesn’t turn into another lofty project that gets buried in a support document.

MacBook

As I write this on an 11″ MacBook Air, this was the biggest part of the event for me. Like the MacBook Air in 2008, Apple dropped traditional ports from an ultralight portable machine. While we don’t know if it’s as grossly underpowered as the first Airs, it certainly is a bold design. I like the idea that the keyboard was re-designed (and especially glad that the early rumors were wrong about the power key being moved), am mixed about the click-less trackpad (I use trackpads on all my Macs and still enjoy a satisfying click for dragging items, taps for everything else).

If you had told me that Apple was introducing a new device today with only a headphone jack and one other port that allowed charging and communication, that it would run all day on a charge, and be available in silver, space gray, or gold, I probably would just assume that it was a new iPad of some sort. That’s really what this new MacBook is—the not-so-subtle merging of the Mac and iOS families. While it doesn’t run some sort of hybrid of software, it certainly feels as appliance-like as an iPad. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, since some people can buy this and have a great computing experience in a small, lightweight, energy-efficient package. In some other ways, it’s the perfect Mac for the minimalist types that can’t quite commit to a Federico Viticci-style iPad-only life.

For someone who likes to expand, I see the new MacBook as a nickel-and-diming endeavor, mostly because I’d need at least one of the adapters to connect an external hard drive, larger display, USB microphone, or SD card reader. Since the single connector is USB-C, a standard, I suspect others will offer additional options. That being said, nobody seems to be that upset about spending $30-$50 for a Lightning-to-whatever adapter to expand their iPads, so one of the video/USB combo adapters isn’t that ridiculous. Also, the idea of an ultralight Mac that has some sort of port-replicator to do anything really isn’t new—it dates back over twenty years to the PowerBook Duos. It’s just a shame we don’t have something like the Duo Dock to use this MacBook at a desk with expansion cards and every kind of device plugged in at once.

Curiously, the power adapter is more iOS-like, too. Instead of a traditional block that you wind a cord around when not in use, it looks like the iPad adapter just grew in size and got a USB-C connector. It runs at 29 watts, so it slots nicely between the iPad and MacBook Air adapters in maximum power consumption. Furthermore, the cable that connects it to your computer is USB-C on both ends and detachable, much like a USB-to-Lightning cable of the iOS world. Part of me wonders if this can also be used for MacBook-to-MacBook communication, too.

Weirdly, I’m a bit disappointed to see two things disappear from this model—Thunderbolt and MagSafe. Thunderbolt was a nice security blanket, ensuring that even the most basic MacBook Air could be used for a lot more one day. It’s been useful for fast drives, but also adding USB 3 to most Macs made in 2011. This also means that the Thunderbolt Display is probably not compatible with the new MacBook, an odd incompatibility within Apple’s product line. MagSafe was a great idea to prevent accidental damage, and while the argument could be made that you won’t need to plug this computer in as much, it still feels like a step backwards.

That being said, I’ll hold my judgment until I actually get to try one of these in person, and even see how they fare in regular use. Although Apple sometimes errs on the side of limiting users for the sake of progress, sometimes it is less of an issue than our initial snap judgment. Until then, if I had to get a new portable Mac tomorrow, I’d probably still be looking at something with a glowing Apple logo on the lid.

Other MacBooks

Speaking of Apple’s other portables, the updates to the MacBook Air weren’t surprising, as it feels like the plan is for the MacBook to replace the MacBook Air once the prices can drop. This isn’t unlike the MacBook Air replacing the prior MacBook, or even the Retina MacBook Pros taking over. Then again, the non-Retina 13″ MacBook Pro did stick around on Apple’s Store.

The odd update was to the Retina MacBook Pros—the 13″ model dips its toes in the MacBook territory with a Force Touch trackpad, yet the 15″ model remains unchanged. I’m reminded of the transition to the unibody MacBook Pros in 2008—the larger 17″ model lagged behind and wasn’t refreshed until 2009.

Good

Today’s event had some surprises, despite a few rumored items turning out exactly as expected. It also had a few disappointments, notably the growing pains presumed with the new MacBook and the lack of attention with the Apple TV. It also made me excited to see what Apple does next, especially since the Apple Watch is unlike anything else that they have introduced. Still, at this point, I’m not too worried that they’ll be able to handle it.

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