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Assorted thoughts on the Apple event

13” Retina MacBook Pro

Looks like an excellent computer: the perfect choice for nearly everyone.

Prior to this, the computer I recommended for nearly everyone was the 13” MacBook Air. But the new 13” Retina MacBook Pro is only about 0.6 pounds heavier, has much higher CPU, RAM, and storage options, and has the much nicer Retina screen. It commands a premium of about $500, which is significant, but you get much more for it.

This is now the computer I’ll recommend that most people get.

For extremely demanding people (like me), the 15” Retina MacBook Pro still has much faster CPUs (quad-core instead of dual-core) and much more screen space, so it’s probably the better choice. But I bet most people will be happier with the 13”.

Since the old 13” and 15” MacBook Pros are still for sale and getting CPU updates, Apple now has an unwieldy laptop lineup: 11” MacBook Air, 13” MacBook Air, 13” MacBook Pro, 13” Retina MacBook Pro, 15” MacBook Pro, 15” Retina MacBook Pro. Six very different models for only three sizes.

Having three very different 13” models is especially awkward. I bet the 13” MacBook Pro and 13” MacBook Air, in that order, are Apple’s two best-selling models, making it difficult to discontinue either of them yet.

iMac

The high-end iMacs continue to race past the neglected Mac Pro, now with USB 3, Thunderbolt, less-reflective screens, and extremely competitive CPUs and GPUs.

Fusion Drive might be the most interesting announcement today for our day-to-day computing. Similar SSD-as-cache arrangements have been kicking around in the Windows PC market for a while, and the Seagate Momentus XT brought a large cache to laptop drives a few years ago, but these have only brought mixed success and mediocre improvements so far.

With tight OS integration, larger performance gains are possible. I can’t wait to see how these perform in general use, and which Macs will be able to use this technology. For instance, it’d be great for Disk Utility to be able to logically combine any installed SSD and hard disk in all Mac models, especially for the Mac Pro and the previous-generation iMacs that were sold with separate SSDs and hard disks. It would be a shame for Fusion Drive to be limited only to the new iMac.

Mac Mini

The same, but faster. Yay.

Mac Pro

What Mac Pro? You mean the only major Apple product that wasn’t updated in 2012, and in fact hasn’t been updated since 2010?

The Mac Pro will continue to lose customers to the iMac and Retina MacBook Pros.

iPad 4

I’m glad the full-sized iPad was updated today. The third-generation iPad (which most of us call the iPad 3) is a good product, but it has four annoying flaws:

The new fourth-generation iPad (which, presumably, we can safely call the iPad 4) is approximately the same size and weight as the iPad 3, so the battery is probably similarly specced, and similarly time-consuming to charge. So we’re probably still stuck with the first two.

The new A6X CPU is promising, though: it’s presumably based on the same (awesome and cooler-running) “Swift” CPUs in the A6, with more memory bandwidth and GPU power to drive the larger screen. Going from the iPad 2 to 3, Apple kept CPU power the same and increased GPU power, but only to drive the larger screen, so it was mostly a wash. From the iPad 3 to 4, we’re finally likely to see a welcome and necessary improvement in both CPU and GPU performance.

The new iPads are probably also using the new low-power LTE chipset from the iPhone 5, so with the presumed reduction in power needs for the LTE radio and the CPU, it’s worth considering why the iPad 4 still needs such a big, heavy battery. It’s probably because the Retina panel and backlight are much bigger power hogs than the A5X or prior-generation LTE radio. But since so much of the screen’s power becomes light, not heat, I think it’s reasonable to assume that most of the iPad 3’s heat was from the A5X and the iPad 4 might run significantly cooler.

I would have liked to see them reduce the weight of the full-sized iPad as well, but maybe that just wasn’t possible with the huge Retina screen’s battery requirements yet.

The timing of the update — just 6 months after the iPad 3, instead of the usual year — will anger a lot of iPad 3 owners. But the previous March releases of the iPad 2 and 3 were more problematic.

Many people give or receive iPads for the holidays, and their new gifts were one-upped by new models just a few months later. This undoubtedly caused some buyers not to give iPads as holiday gifts, waiting for the new models instead.

Furthermore, there’s much stronger tablet competition from Amazon, Google, and Microsoft now, and they’re all timing their updates for the fall, shortly before the cultural disaster of holiday shopping mania. Keeping the iPad on a spring update schedule would mean that 6-month-old iPads were competing with brand-new models from everyone else, and everyone else’s models were able to get more press attention without competition from Apple, during the most important buying season of the year.

The iPad 3’s time as the best iPad model was short-lived, and that’s unfortunate for people who bought one and care about having the best, but a fall update schedule will be better in the long run.

iPad Mini (If I can say “iPad 4”, I can capitalize “Mini”.)

There weren’t many surprises, and that’s a good thing. It looks like a great iPad that I can’t wait to try.

I don’t mind the lack of a Retina screen in the first version. As we can see from the iPad 3 and 4, lighting and driving a 2048x1536 screen just can’t be done well in a small, thin, light, inexpensive device yet. Maybe next fall, or maybe the year after that.

I think it’s reasonable to assume from the other Retina products that GPU power and current draw, not the cost of the LCD panels themselves, are the main limiting factors to Retina adoption.

I do wish they were more aggressive on the Mini’s pricing. $329 is a strange price, and not very competitive against other low-cost tablets like the $199 Nexus 7 or the $159 Kindle Shitbox With Ads.

Apple’s messaging is clear: they make premium products, and they’re worth the higher price. They don’t address the low end of most markets they’re in. They’re doing the same for tablets: addressing only the midrange and high end. It will probably work well and profitably, and they’ll sell so many of these that they’ll likely be supply-constrained for the entire holiday season.

But they know that most people won’t buy the base model without a Smart Cover or AppleCare. The average selling price, especially if attachments are included, is going to be much higher than $329. So why not get more people in the door with a more aggressive entry price, such as the close but far more appealing $299?

One reason might be Wall Street: Apple’s financials have met lukewarm receptions by investors and analysts recently, and Tim Cook is still under extreme scrutiny in Steve Jobs’ shadow. A holiday quarter with strong sales volumes but smaller average profit margins might be a worse outcome than losing a bit of ground to cheaper tablets. But I don’t think Apple would put a high-profile product at risk to keep the stock price up.

Which iPad Mini/4 should I get?

If you’re planning on ordering an iPad Mini, and this will be your first iPad, I’ll reiterate my previous advice on getting a 4G model versus getting a Wi-Fi-only model and tethering: I’ve found that I use my iPad more, bring it with me more, and am generally happier with it when it has its own cellular data service.

If you have roughly $100 to allocate to either more storage or the 3G option, I’d pick the 3G option.

That said, 16 GB is too small if you plan to sync a lot of media to it or install a lot of games, especially those gigabyte-sized high-profile 3D games. I’d only recommend 16 GB if your primary uses will be email, web browsing, reading, other “productivity” apps, and casual gaming, and you won’t want to keep many videos, photos, songs, or podcasts on it at once.

My favorite configuration, therefore, is the 32 GB size with 4G. Color is your call: I think the Mini might be the first iPad I order in white.

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