I just finished reading our Monday Morning Opener, which claims the death of the smartphone is closer than we think. That got me thinking. When it comes to innovation, weird design decisions and lack of product updates have kept me from making some major tech purchases in the last year.
Last summer, I had big tech plans, but I knew I’d have to wait. My wife and I were expecting to upgrade our 128GB iPhone 6s Plus phones to iPhone 7 phones. I desperately needed a new high-end powerful laptop to run my studio and my various projects. My wife wanted the biggest iPad she could possibly get to read PDFs and magazines on.
Nothing interesting happens from a product release perspective in the summer. But Apple was expected to release new phones and new laptops in the fall. As everyone knows, they did.
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Moving forward to this spring, we were awaiting a new 12.9-inch iPad Pro, since it lacked the camera quality of the 9.7-inch iPad Pro and had been out for more than a year. That announcement was expected last month, along with a refresh of the iPad, Mac Pro, and Mac mini. That never happened.
If you add it all up, I expected to spend close to $7,000 in the past twelve months on Apple gear. The two memory-maxed iPhone 7 Plus phones were going to cost a whopping $1,098 each (plus tax). The 15-inch MacBook Pro maxed with performance features was going to set me back an eye-watering $3,499. And the 256GB WiFi 12.9-inch iPad Pro (with the Pencil, ‘natch) was going to bleed me another $1,098.
Add it all up, and you’re looking $6,793 (plus tax, of course) right in the face.
Now, let me be clear. I am not made of money. I work for a living. I just use Apple products to do my work. I’m often in a race to get projects done on deadline. Anything that can shave hours or days off my schedule can mean the difference between sleeping or not sleeping. If a piece of tech can increase my productivity or solve a problem, it’s usually worth it. If. And only if.
But in this last year’s product cycle, Apple let Jony Ive run wild without adult supervision. The result was products that were elegant, but problematic.
It’s the jack, fact
Let’s start with the phones. For me, the iPhone 6s Plus is the best phone I’ve ever used. It’s one of the most useful pieces of tech I’ve ever had. Sure, it has its faults (mostly in the app launcher), but the combination of features, battery life, and speed was a ball knocked out of the park.
But for me, the big win was the 4K video camera. I didn’t even expect to use it when I bought the phone and it has since become indispensable when producing the videos that often accompany my DIY-IT project articles.
Key to that is the ability to plug a remote mic into the phone to capture good sound. You see where this is going, right? There’s a missing headphone jack in (or, rather, not in) the iPhone 7.
While I would have liked to upgrade from the max of 128GB on the 6s Plus to the max of 256GB on the iPhone 7 Plus, there was nothing else terribly compelling. The second lens didn’t do much for me, since I wasn’t concerned about portraits.
But the deal-breaker was the removal of the headphone jack. I use it. For real. For work. I wasn’t sure how well a conversion dongle would work, and I didn’t like losing the ability to provide a power cable to the phone while also using a mic.
The fact was, I just couldn’t see spending $2,196 (two times $1,098, one each for me and my wife) to lose a key capability I relied on. So rather than spending that on Apple, we kept it in the family budget.
Apple claimed that they needed the room used by the headphone jack. But somehow, Samsung has managed to push out the S8 with at least as large a set of features as the iPhone 7, and still keep the headphone jack. To be fair, Samsung made the boneheaded move of sticking the fingerprint scanner on the back (and the S8 doesn’t have a second camera), but still, they managed to keep the headphone jack.
No ports for you
What about the laptop? Here there were multiple issues. First, let me be clear. My current 2015-era MacBook Pro is underpowered. While storage was faster than I expected, I made the mistake of getting an i5 rather than an i7, not realizing I’d be doing 4K video production. But I’m making do.
That’s because the new MacBook Pro is, well, let’s get it out of the way… stupid. Let’s leave aside the teething pains the new machines had with dual video card reliability, and dive back into the damage done by Apple’s over-baked design team.
The new MacBook Pro removed the MagSafe adapter, one of the most elegant designs for power connection (with reduced chance of breakage) ever. The new MacBook Pro removed the SD card slot. Some of us still use SD cards. I use them a lot with 3D printers, to send models to those printers that don’t have a network connection.
And then, the new MacBook Pro removed all the USB 3 slots and replaced them with USB C. Yes, USB C is a fine format. But it’s not the only format. I still need to connect to some of those 3D printers via USB 3 to do firmware updates. I need USB 3 to talk to my video capture cards and my hubs.
USB 3 is necessary for connection to so many different and specialized devices. And, I’m sorry, but converter dongles just don’t always work reliably.
In one of the most egregious design blunders ever — up there with Windows 8 — Apple decided to remove all the USB 3 ports from the new MacBook Pro machines and replace them with USB C.
I was also disappointed that there was no model with 32GB RAM. I use a lot of RAM in my work. That said, I could live with 16GB of RAM. This wasn’t a deal-killer, but merely a disappointment. It’s supposed to be a Pro machine, after all.
Then they added the Touch Bar. Seriously. Someone thought this was a better idea than connecting a laptop to stuff we use? Who wants to glance away from the screen to select something? Way to kill any touch typing skills, Apple.
So desperate was I for more power, I actually placed an order for the machine. But because I had a month or so to wait until it was available, I eventually thought through the ramifications of all the failure points, and cancelled it. Instead, I reworked how I did video production using my existing MacBook Pro to require less horsepower, and soldiered on.
There went another $3,500 back into my account, at least until Apple introduces something more useful. If they ever do.
So last year
That brings us to the big iPad Pro. My wife has a Kindle DX, but it’s an odd machine, with an interface that feels like it comes from 1996. It also does a terrible job of rendering PDFs, and my wife needs to see full-page size PDFs.
She’s an active Windows user, so we thought about getting one of the Surface tablets, but since we’re iPhone users, it made sense to stay with Apple. I advised her to wait until March or so, because the 12-inch iPad was sure to be refreshed. It was getting pretty old and it was time.
As you no doubt know, Apple did not update the 12-inch iPad Pro. It’s a fine machine, but it would be like paying full sticker price for a car that may never have been sold, but is still two model years out of date.
If it turns out she really, really needs the larger format machine, we may still get the iPad, but we were expecting to throw down plastic in March. That never happened, and that money also stayed in the bank.
Think it through and spend wisely
Since I’m a product columnist, I probably give my purchases a bit more thought than the average consumer. But whether you’re considering buying gear for work or personal use (or a combination of both), these are ginormous expenditures. It’s important to think it through.
Three and a half years ago, I made a tough decision. I needed a very, very powerful desktop machine. I almost bought the ill-fated “trash can” Mac Pro, but I thought through my decision very carefully. I considered my workflow, the kinds of processing I needed, and my expected use. I got most of it right (I didn’t know I’d be doing so much 4K and 3D design), and decided on an iMac rather than a Mac Pro.
It proved to be an excellent decision because 41 months later, I’m still using that iMac, and have no reason to upgrade it. It completely blew away my previous 18-month PC upgrade cycle. It’s still super-fast and does everything I need (although, to be fair, I’ve been ogling those five-foot long monitors on The Expanse with some serious hunger).
The important thing about making technology purchases, especially when you’re looking at six or seven thousand bucks in a year, is carefully analyzing your needs and making fully-aware trade-off decisions.
For the new iPhone 7 phones, the decision was easy. They didn’t bring anything really new to the table that I needed and took away something critical I use each week.
The laptop trade-off decision was harder. Yes, the new model took away key features I needed and used, but my current machine is anemic. In the end, I just couldn’t bring myself to spend that much money, and lose that much capability, so I tried to find workarounds.
The jury is still out on the large iPad Pro. My wife does want to replace her Kindle DX, but her need hasn’t gotten to the point where she needs something right away. So, for now, that one is a wait and see.
Finally, because I know you’re going to ask, here’s why I’m not looking at a PC. At least not yet. If Apple keeps on letting Jony “minimalist” the usefulness out of their devices, even though I rely on a pile of Mac-only applications, I (and most other Mac professional users) might be forced to ditch the Mac.
What about you? How are you deciding on your technology purchases? Has Apple’s product decision driven you away from Macs or iOS? Or are you sticking it out because you find the rest of the product line valuable to you? Let me know in the TalkBacks below.
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