Every year Jason Snell puts together a round table of opinions from Mac pundits called the Apple Report Card. I particularly look forward to it as I inevitably play the game "How would I score it?" I probably should never be asked by anyone as a panelist for something like this as I'm much too dower.`
The M1 is wildly exciting. I've written about it as I'm an early adopter, but there are some curious limitations that aren't appropriate for many mid-tier users, 16 GB of RAM, lack of eGPU support, or more than two displays. These are all things certainly to be addressed (except maybe eGPUs), but it does look like the death of user serviceability. The iMac will be the big canary in the coal mine for the Mac's future.
A computer is nothing without its OS, and Big Sur wasn't nearly as bad as Catalina, but I'd rather see a focus on "when it's done" than yearly OS releases.
The rumors for the Mac laptops sound amazing. No longer feeling the holy crusade against ports or thinness at the expense of everything else gave us in 2019 both the Mac Pro 2019 (even if its absurd) and the MacBook Pro 15 inch 2019. With Magsafe and SD card slots, rumored the Mac laptop will be at a new all-time high, besting the 2015 MacBook Pro as the best design/feature set. If I can get a 13 inch Mac Pro with 4 USBc ports, SD card slot, one more external display, MagSafe and more RAM in 2021, I'm selling off my m1 Air and dropping serious coin as this has been my dream and may finally be the first time a laptop as my primary computer in my entire life. That said, this in the future and not today and while the Apple Silicon Macs are very impressive, its not enough to ballast the software shortcomings. Also, for the millions of Intel Mac owners, I worry about long tail support.
Desktops? Much less so. Apple's GPU performance is scattershot, and a desktop without the ability to upgrade its RAM or GPU sounds horrible.
The return to hard edges is wonderful, but Apple doesn't offer a pro mini, so yet again, I ended up with a larger phone that I want. As someone who lives an active life, I'd value some even easier to tuck away, but I also want the latest and greatest. There seems to be no compromise. I still miss the headphone jack, and I worry Apple will go portless to no-one's benefit. I have accessories that rely on the iPhone 12 beyond just charging, data, and audio, such as the Shure MV88.
Also, my iPhone XS had syncing issues with iOS14, which never were resolved no matter what I tried until I received iPhone 12. My mom had the same exact issue. The Apple support pages are flooded with people with this issue. If you're not on the receiving end of this, I'm sure you'd score it higher, but it is pretty frustrating that I was hit with some wacky battery issues and syncing in 2020.
The lightning port needs to go. It's a USBc world now. The lightning port is one Apple standard that I begrudgingly admit was a good idea for its time as it was a much more pleasant experience than mini/micro USB. Now we have USBc. The lightning cable standard should have died two years ago.
It still feels utterly suicidal to go caseless on an iPhone. I rolled caseless on the iPhone 4 and 5 without breaking my phone. The iPhone 6 was a different story. While I didn't expect to feel the speed bump from my XS, I did but I'd of traded it for longer battery life and durability.
In what's bound to be my most controversial take, iOS 14 beyond its privacy features, did not impress me. iOS 14 is still a mess. App organization is still the most tedious experience on mobile. The dashboards feel more gimmicky than useful. I relegated the few I like to the feed instead of anywhere on my screen.
It is kinda a stagnate year for the iPad, although I still wonder if the iPad Pro will be able to run macOS or a modified version of it when using a keyboard mouse combo.
I'm not a tablet person as it's too compromised, and the iPad Pro struggles to really be a pro device outside of its beautiful drawing capabilities. I constantly wonder "Who wants to make these sort of compromises?" Perhaps someone who's life is majority writing but creative professionals to developers, the iPad is a dead end still.
Apple also still has the bizarreness of a device that offers one set on Lightning port (kill already) and USBc (embrace it).
Despite my naysaying, the iPad still remains the best tablet by miles, and I wouldn't lie if I didn't want one for sidecar so I could draw. When I had an iPad 2 I found that I really didn't ever do anything beyond consumption and simplistic games and to this day, it still seems best suited for this. The limitations found on the iPhone are tolerable due to the contraints but nearing a laptop's size, the iPad still feels like a "big iPhone". There's certainly appeal in that but the iPad Pro feels more like a high end consumer device than anything professional beyond its beautiful pencil. Plenty of people love this product, and I do not. Perhaps we'll see the convergence of iPad OS with macOS with the ability to launch macOS apps on the Pro.
Watch: 4, Headphones: 1.5
I still hate that Apple has a virtual monopoly on its headphones by locking out other headphones makes from reading text messages and not licensing its pairing chipsets. The Airpods remain one of the most mediocre sounding headphones on the market. I have a pair of the PowerBeats, which I use a lot more out of convenience than actually loving the product. Killing the headphone port meant switching to a lesser bluetooth experience and Apple knew it and thus served up a way to de-suckify Bluetooth without letting anyone else have it. If I sound jaded, I most certainly am as its the Apple tax at its worst as Apple actively blocks people from having a superior experience. I bought a pair fo the AirPods Pro and returned them as they sounded worse than the Powerbeats, and worst than my JVC Marshmellows. I was stunned as I figured I'd be buying into moderately better audio quality. As product, they're exceptionally well designed. As headphones they're bad. The Airpods Pro are only incredible if you're willing to ignore that if on a level playing field, the Airpods would be just "eh".
The Airpods Max is the product that'll certainly have its proponents, and the wireless over-the-ear noise canceling bluetoth market is filled with mediocrity. I've tried and returned Momentum 3s and Sony WH-1000XM4. Thus far I've yet to find over-the-ear headphones that justify the money. For them to be called the best sounding wireless noise-canceling headphones, is a low bar to clear as wired, non-noise canceling headphones will best them at 1/5th the price of the Airpod Max. Apple likely has the best pair, but the price is absurd for the quality as it suggests to an audio connoisseur such as myself the truly high end, but it's clearly not. Then the case? Oy, bafflingly bad, and top it off, heavy and not IPX rated for working out. These are office headphones in a world without offices. If this had been priced even at $400 or truly matched their price class at least with less expensive headphones in the wired world perhaps I wouldn't be as bitter if Apple allowed others to its proprietary pairing. These very much feel like a product waiting for a revision.
The Apple Watch is in a class of its own. As a personal health device, it's unmatched. The blood oxygen sensor isn't medically accurate which makes it more novelty than anything else. It's kept me active during covid, with my 820 calorie a day goal. I also pretty much use my watch minimally outside of exercise or while driving but I still love it even if I use only about 3-4 apps on it. I'd be inclined to give the Watch a 4.5 if it weren't for the syncing issues that plagued it.
The embargo of custom watch faces remains one of the pain points. The iPhone received (mediocre) customization, so why not the Watch? The number of analog watch faces flummoxes me as it feels silly to me on a digital face. Custom faces would be nice for me.
Apple TV: 0.5
Overpriced. Bad Remote. No updates in 3+ years. Yeah, there's the Apple Health app, but that is a tough pill to swallow. I haven't owned an Apple TV since the Apple TV 2, so I can't comment on the OS improvements or lack there of. The remote is still trash. If Apple wants to convince anyone its serious about gaming on the Apple TV, then it should come with a remote.
iCloud is pretty good. I mean really, it is. Apple News more expensive than it needs to be, Apple Arcade turned out to be just ok. Apple TV had a few pretty good TV shows that I enjoyed at no cost with my new iPhone. I really want though Apple to encrypt my iCloud backups.
Apple News' design is still pretty bad but the rest of it is fine to good.
Hardware Reliability: 3.5
Now that we're past the butterfly keyboard, the self-inflicted wounds are over. The iPhones still feel built to break, which is funny as the Apple Watch does not.
I saw plenty of issues in the wild this year, like display issues, but the MacBook Air M1 feels like a mature product despite being a first-gen product.
Software Quality: 3
I'm at the avant-garde, so I tend to find the hard edges being someone who is web developer/UX engineer, which means a large toolset that spans everything: development tools (Docker, Webstorm, VScode, Xcode, Android Studio, Homebrew, Node, Ruby, Git, React, Webpack, Gulp), Visual Design (Sketch, Pixelmator Pro, Photoshop, Adobe XD, Figma, Axure, Illustrator), Video (Final Cut Pro, Premiere Pro, Motion, Compressor, After Effects), Audio (Cubase, Ableton, Logic, too many plugins).
Catalina was utter chaos. Big Sur is much better, although prone to nebulous errors when trying to install or run certain applications like the infuriating "app doesn't have permissions," which requires, at best, chmodding or, worse, self-signing code. I can generally navigate these issues, but I also operate outside of most people, and to require my skillset to just get things to go seems absurd.
As locked down as Catalina was and tossing out legacy like it was going out of style, Big Sur seems content with the field burning and doesn't require much more land. I have many thoughts on Apple's out with the old as Windows 10 can still run on 2006 Mac Pros and run applications written for Windows 98.
Big Sur has been hell to pay as Serato still doesn't have a solution for Big Sur. Adobe doesn't really have workable solutions still for some of its Apps on the M1. Apple seems contented to punch developers of both macOS and iOS in the face repeatedly.
Big Sur works extremely well on M1s and is a mild improvement over Catalina, which is all kinds of impressive.
iOS14 was moving in the right direction but still doesn't address how terrible app organization is on iOS or how bad folders are.
That said, the meaningful updates to Logic Pro and a lesser extent, Final Cut Pro were very welcome. Logic represents the best deal in music production, hands down. It can score a blockbuster movie or record, mix and master an album, and is now encroaching on Ableton. Final Cut Pro X still isn't for Hollywood and has some annoying features like the librarying as opposed to per-project assets, but it's a pleasure to use. Motion needs more TLC as essentially, and it's the same app it was eight years ago. Motion is very good but desperately needs more. Also, the educational bundle at $199 for FCPX, Logic, Motion, Compressor, and MainStage is the best deal in software today.
I still wish Apple would reboot Aperture with tight integration with Photos or at least make a "Photos Pro" app.
Developer Relations: 2
Xcode is still a monstrosity. They gave devs a break for the first $1,000,000 for 15%, which is wonderful. Wildly changing the OS to break app support is frustrating just from the perspective of a user.Social/Societal Impact: 3
Pledging money to help fight racism was nice, and while problematic for free speech, de-platforming Parler was another win for common decency.
Trying to force App transparency for privacy and also causing the cold war with FaceBook to become hot suggests Apple is on the correct side of history. Without Apple, who would champion privacy in the SV? It seems like no one else.
Still, iCloud isn't encrypted, and developer relations aren't great, which mars a solid year with Apple dancing the 2020 shuffle without blundering hard, and Tim Cook was out in front to talk race (even if stifled) in a way none of the other big tech firms were willing to do. It's not perfect, but engagement counts for something in a year where the fabric of reality has been politicized.
Apple's software the weakest link for Apple, and the feeling of macOS as a walled garden still persists even if it's more the hardware. After years of Windows playing catch up and offering better performance and longer tail support, its nice to see Apple toss out a beautiful transition to M1, but it also leaves a lot of asterisks around the legacy hardware and upgradability. It feels like the iOSfication of the hardware across the board. What was once only acceptable for MacBook Air is now standard for all Macs.
2021 is going to be one hell of a year for the Mac. The renewed focus on the Mac makes me happy as my professional and creative expression is entirely tied OS X's legacy as the mix of power and the polish of ease of use. I buy Apple computers for macOS entirely.