20 Oct 2021

Some Thoughts on Apple's 'Unleashed' Event

In the order that they were announced:

Apple Music Voice Plan

Amusingly, this could be viewed as an upgrade instead of a budget option. You get to pay less and you don’t even have to use the clunky Music app!

In all seriousness, I bet there are plenty of people who just want to be able to stream music while driving, exercising, etc., don’t care much about curating a library or browsing content, and are perfectly happy to just have a “smart radio” that they command through Siri. And I bet there are also plenty of people who won’t pay $9.99 / month for music, but who will pay half that. Apple will never break out the numbers, but it will be interesting to see what analysts estimate the uptake of this plan actually is.

Speaking of numbers, I assume Apple can’t offer a free tier since they don’t do ads. But perhaps they can offer this lower $4.99 pricing for the Voice Plan because they’ve worked out a deal where they pay the record labels less for music the end user streams via Siri? The record labels have a lot of weird and arbitrary rules, and pricing their content based on how the listener accesses it is one of them.

HomePod Mini Colors

Ordinarily, adding three new colors to a product priced at $99 would mean Apple is going to sell them like hotcakes for the holiday season. I’m not sure that’s going to happen here. The new colors don’t actually look that good to my eye. Which is rare; Apple’s colors are normally very on point. But even if most people like the new colors more than me, the HomePod Mini still doesn’t seem to have found product market fit. So it’s unclear how much a few new colors will help.

I personally love my original HomePods… or at least the ideal of what they could have been. So the new HomePod Mini colors are heartening to me, if only because they indicate Apple is still actually thinking about and investing in this area.

Which is strategically good for them. As they continue to expand the Apple Home software layer, they need a solid physical presence in the home to underpin it all. I really hope Apple revamps the HomePod product line, and doesn’t just abandon the original, larger speaker. It could also be so much more than a speaker: mesh wifi router, a FaceTime device… It has unrealized potential that I’d love to see Apple take another crack at. Plus it’s really incongruous to have a HomePod Mini when there’s no HomePod “regular”.

AirPods 3

I’m totally obsessed with my AirPods Pro, so these aren’t for me, but it’s great to see the regular AirPods getting some upgrades. It’s also great to see the previous 2nd generation remaining in the product lineup, offering a more affordable option. But even at $129, they’re still pretty expensive for a pair of ear buds that are easy to lose. Why can’t they be $99?! That would sell like hotcakes for the holiday season.

M1 Pro and M1 Max

Names first. Everyone’s been debating if the new chip would be the M1X (in the A*X tradition) or if Apple would go straight to the M2. Surprise! It’s neither.

M1 Pro seems like a good name. The M1 is in the MacBook Air, the M1 Pro is in the MacBook Pro. Makes sense.

M1 Max is a bit strange. With iPhones and AirPods, “Max” denotes “physically larger”. And while the M1 Max is literally larger, that’s irrelevant since nobody except nerds will ever even see it. What “Max” really means here is “even more powerful”. M1 -> M1 Pro -> M1 Max.

Oh well. In the end, the names are short, so they’re good. People will quickly stop thinking about it and just use them: “Are you going to get the Pro or the Max”? But the delineation isn’t as clear as it could be.

Names aside, these chips seem like they will absolutely shred. I have yet to experience a single performance hiccup on my M1, and the M1 Pro and M1 Max are going to scream compared to it: 70% faster CPU than the M1, and 2x - 4x faster GPU. It makes me wish I actually needed them. But I’m excited for the real pros who do!

MacBook Pros

So as impressive as the new chips are, what I’m more excited about is the notebook’s new design.

The new XDR display is going to look phenomenal, and the thinner bezels provide extra screen real estate for the same physical footprint. The raised feet, squared chassis edges, and matte black keyboard all look super Pro. They make one want to rub their hands together and proclaim “Let’s get to work!”. And since we’re all still stuck in the land of video calls, the 1080p camera is going to be really nice.1

I ordered the 16” with the M1 Pro chip. I’ve historically used a 15” MacBook Pro for the larger display, so when I stepped down to the 13” Air in order to get the sweet new M1 chip, it was always with the idea that it was a stopgap for these machines. Now that they’re finally here, I’m surprised to find I’ve developed an affection for my little Air and am sad to move on. But I’m going to be coding exclusively on a laptop without an external display for a while, and the 13” Air is a bit cramped for this. Hence, upgrade. Anyways, I’m sure these feelings of fondness will immediately fade when I first power on my lean, mean, Pro machine.

The “Unleashed” moniker for this event was clearly referring to the new M1 Pro and M1 Max chips and what these new MacBook Pros can do with them. But it might as well refer to Apple the institution, because they’re finally unleashed to make insanely great tools for Pros.

First, unleashed from Intel and their performance plateaus. It’s notable that this is the first time you can spec up the smaller MacBook Pro just as fully as the larger one. In the past, this just wasn’t possibe because Intel’s more powerful chips ran too hot for the smaller chassis / battery. This eliminates the tradeoff of form factor vs. computing power. Now you can just select your preferred size and specs independently.

Second, Apple’s unleashed from the Jony Ive design era’s relentless pursuit of minimalism. After an extremely frustrating stretch for the MacBook Pro, Apple is adding all the ports back (goodbye, messload of adapters!), adding physical function keys back (goodbye, TouchBar! Hello, physical and full-size Escape key!), and even made the machines the tiniest bit thicker. I doubt the extra thickness will be noticeable in practice, but it says a lot in principle about the new design philosophy. Form is no longer prioritized over function at all costs, and Apple is once again taking into consideration what people are actually trying to do with their machines. Awesome.

Wishful Thinking

I was really hopeful that Apple would release a standalone Retina display to go along with these machines. It seemed possible, since the two would have presented perfectly together. I really want an Apple-engineered, Retina quality display. I really don’t want to pay $6,000 (!!!) for their Pro Display XDR. And I also don’t need its reference monitor functionality. I just want a 27” - 30” Apple display that has Retina resolution, looks great on my desk, and works seamlessly with my Macs.2 There’s rumors that an Apple display for the rest of us is in the works… I sure hope they’re true.

  1. People seem really worked up over the notch. But people always get worked up over something. I don’t think it’s going to be an issue at all; like iPhone/iPad, it will disappear as we quickly get used to it. And anyways, it will mainly be in the macOS Menu Bar so it’s not really occluding anything. 

  2. Right now, my M1 Mac Mini wakes from sleep faster than my Dell 4K monitor can!