At the end of January, Jason Snell published his annual Six Colors Apple Report Card for 2018. This year 55 voters (hand-selected by Snell) graded Apple in 11 areas. I was one of them, and thought it only fair to publish my grades and remarks here at Daring Fireball. Comments in [brackets] are additional commentary I wrote now, and were not included in what I submitted to Snell.
I’d say it’s been an OK year at best. On the MacBook front they had decent MacBook Pro updates and the third-gen butterfly keyboard seems to have fixed the reliability problems with the previous keyboards. But these keyboards are not great. A few people really like them, but most people agree they feel worse than the old keyboards. I may be biased as a writer and a keyboard aficionado, but it used to be the case that Apple’s notebook keyboards were widely hailed as the best in the world — that’s no longer the case, and I think that’s a problem.
I like the new retina MacBook Air a lot, but it was overdue by at least a year.
The new Mac Mini is great, but we still didn’t get a new Mac Pro and none of the iMacs were updated. That’s not good.
Mojave seems fine overall but I personally don’t care about Dark Mode, and the new “Marzipan” apps — Home, News, Stocks, Voice Memos — range from “not great and a little weird” (Home) to “downright terrible” (the other three).
[A “D” may seem harsh here, but the more I think about these MacBook keyboards the more unacceptable I find the whole situation. Apple makes a great keyboard today — the standalone Magic Keyboard 2 has a terrific feel and is completely reliable.
I heard a story years ago about Steve Jobs after the release of the original iPad. Jobs had been on medical leave in 2009 and when he returned to Apple, he was focused almost entirely on the iPad. In 2010, after the iPad was introduced, he had a meeting scheduled with engineers on the MacBook team. The meeting was big picture — What’s the future of the MacBook?, that sort of thing. These engineers had prepared a ton of material to present to Jobs. Jobs comes into the meeting carrying an iPad. He goes to a then-shipping MacBook on a table and wakes it up. It takes a few seconds. He says something like “Look at how long this takes.” He puts it to sleep, he wakes it up. It takes a few moments each time. Then he puts the iPad on the table and hits the power button. On. Off. On. Off. Instantly. Jobs said something like “I want you to make this” — and he pointed to the MacBook — “like this” — and he pointed to the iPad. And then he walked out of the room and that was that.
Is this story true? I don’t know. But it sounds true — and MacBooks do wake up a lot faster than they used to. I’d like someone at Apple to go to the MacBook team with a Magic Keyboard and do the same thing. “I want you to take this keyboard and put it in these MacBooks.”
The MacBook keyboards, lack of iMac updates, and still-missing Mac Pro would’ve led me to give Apple a “C” for the Mac. I took off a whole grade for how embarrassingly bad the “Marzipan” apps are.]
On the hardware front, the iPhone XS and XS Max are great flagships, and months later I continue to be amazed by the quality and capabilities of their camera systems, both for stills and especially for video. There are some Android phones that are arguably as good as the iPhone for still photography but Apple is years ahead on video.
The iPhone XR is way more XS-comparable than I expected. The compromises Apple chose — LCD instead of OLED, a single rear-facing camera, aluminum instead of stainless steel — aren’t noticeable by most people. And the XR gets better battery life — noticeably better. After spending a few weeks using an XR full-time, I honestly question whether its LCD isn’t better than the XS’s OLED for my needs.
iOS 12 is one of my favorite iOS updates for iPhone in years. Apple promised back at WWDC that they were focusing on performance and they delivered. It’s faster and more reliable, and the new grouped notifications are a joy to use. iOS 12 on iPhone is Apple at its software best.
I really wish this were two categories, hardware and software. On the hardware front Apple had an “A” year. The new 9.7-inch iPad at a sub-$400 starting price is a terrific mass market tablet, now with Apple Pencil support. The new iPad Pros are, quite simply, the best portable computers ever made by anyone. They are astounding in every regard — display quality, performance (CPU and GPU), size and weight. They feel like artifacts from a few years in the future.
Software-wise, I’d be tempted to rate this year for iPad as “N/A”. It wasn’t good, it wasn’t bad — it was nothing. Which, effectively, is bad, because I think the iPad needs an “iPadOS” overhaul. The iPad has always been great for simple use cases. “It’s just a big iPhone” is, for many people and many use cases, a compliment, not an insult. But the iPad needs to scale better for advanced use cases — without complicating simple use cases — and iOS 12 wasn’t an advance on that front in any meaningful way.
Apple Watch: B
I don’t think Apple gets enough credit for its expertise in miniaturization. They’ve long been the best company in the world at making ever-smaller ever-more-powerful tiny personal computers, and their lead seems to be growing, not shrinking. Apple Watch exemplifies that.
My only beef with Series 4 hardware and WatchOS 5 is that there’s an aesthetic mismatch between new hardware and watch faces and old hardware and watch faces. The new WatchOS faces only look right on the new Series 4 watches, and the old faces only look truly right on the older watch hardware.
Apple TV: C
I don’t think Apple needed to come out with new Apple TV hardware this year, but they should have dropped the price on the existing hardware.
iCloud Photos is now one of the best sync services I’ve ever used. It’s fast and reliable, and it handles data that I consider invaluable — my family’s photos and videos. iCloud overall has gotten very good. But the 5 GB free tier is just ridiculous at this point.
Hardware Reliability: B
Software Quality: C
Developer Relations: C
[No remarks. ]
[No remarks submitted, but I wish now that I’d made mention of Lisa Jackson’s remarks on stage at the September iPhone XS/XR introduction. Given all the conspiracy theories about Apple and planned obsolescence, it was fascinating to see Jackson on stage touting the durability and longevity of iPhone hardware. Apple promised that iOS 12 would run faster than iOS 11 on older hardware and they made good on that promise. Apple is right to be proud of this, and it’s good for customers and good for the environment. And in the long run, good for Apple.]
In between Snell’s release of the 2018 report card and my posting this piece, Apple has announced that Angela Ahrendts is leaving in April. In the wake of this, there’s been a lot of commentary about the state of Apple’s retail stores, which, in turn, makes me think that “Retail” should be one of the categories on the Six Colors report card. If it were, I’d have given Apple a “C”.
The two best things Apple has done in retail during the Ahrendts era are opening architecturally amazing new flagship stores around the world, and the “Today at Apple” program in every store. But for me, personally, I don’t care about huge new flagship stores in Dubai or Paris, and I don’t partake in the “Today at Apple” classes. I care about two things: buying stuff and getting service at my local Apple Store here in Philadelphia.
I’ve disliked the experience of buying stuff at the Apple Store ever since they did away with queues for checking out. I just want to get in line, wait my turn, pay, and leave. Instead, the way to check out at an Apple Store is to wander around until you get the attention of an employee who has one of the handheld checkout iPod Touches. This can be maddening. My wife refuses to shop at an Apple Store for this reason. I know you can use the Apple Store app to check yourself out, but I don’t like it. Part of the reason Apple’s stores are too crowded is that people are wandering around trying to pay for things.
And getting technical support at Apple Stores is terrible now. In the old days you could just walk in with a broken or otherwise problematic device and get an appointment at the Genius Bar within the hour. Now, the Genius Bar is booked for days in advance — sometimes close to a week. In some ways that’s inevitable — Apple is way more popular now than it was pre-iPhone. But inevitable or not, the result is that getting support at an Apple Store now stinks. And frankly, the technical acumen of the Genius Bar staffers is now hit-or-miss.
“Today at Apple” is nice, but the primary purposes of an Apple Store should be shopping and service — and I think both of those experiences should be a lot better.