Six Colors
Six Colors

by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

Six Colors: Reviews Archive

By Jason Snell

13-inch MacBook Pro (2020) review: Two laptops, one keyboard

The most important feature of the new 13-inch MacBook Pro is the keyboard.

With the addition of the new Magic Keyboard design originally introduced in late 2019 with the 16” MacBook Pro to this model, all of Apple’s current laptop line is using a traditional scissor-switch keyboard with more travel and presumably more reliability than the “butterfly” keyboard design that took over all Apple laptops between 2016 and 2019.

The completion is the big story here. There’s nothing new in this laptop’s keyboard compared to that 16-inch MacBook Pro, or the 2020 revision of the MacBook Air. It’s the same keyboard, with 65 physical keys with scissor switches and decent travel. There’s a physical escape key and four arrow keys in the classic “inverted T” shape. It’s good. It’s the end, at long last, of a disastrous product decision.

Beyond the new keyboard, these are very modest revisions to the existing 13-inch MacBook Pro designs. The 13-inch model has not gotten the revamp that the 15-inch model did when it transformed into a 16-inch laptop last fall. Perhaps that will happen in the future, but this particular revision is all about adding that keyboard and doing some basic upgrades and tweaks.

And it will probably sell well to a lot of people who prefer smaller laptops and have desperately been waiting for a revision of the 13-inch MacBook Pro without that butterfly keyboard. Yes, this is the one you’ve been waiting for.

Apple’s 13-inch laptops seen edge on (top to bottom): iPad Pro with Magic Keyboard, MacBook Air, 13-inch MacBook Pro.

Two models in one

Since 2016, there have really been two different laptops living under the name “13-inch MacBook Pro.” There’s a lower-end model with two Thunderbolt 3 ports (on the left side), and a higher-end model with four ports (two on either side). Originally the lower-end model didn’t have a Touch Bar, but Apple added it to the low-end model last year.

There’s a big difference between the two models, one that’s been heightened with this set of updates. The low-end laptops start at $1299 and are powered by 8th-generation Intel processors. The high-end models start at $1799 and have received a boost to 10th-generation “Ice Lake” Intel processors. The low-end models are closer in base price to the $999 MacBook Air than to the high-end 13-inch MacBook Pro.

Apple furnished me with a high-end model for my review, so I can’t speak to the performance of the low-end models, though I’d imagine they’re not particularly different than last year’s version. They’ll be faster than the 2020 MacBook Air, certainly, especially in multi-processor performance, owing to the four processor cores versus the two on the base configuration of the MacBook Air. (There’s also a quad-core version of the Air available… for the same $1299 price tag as the base 13-inch MacBook Pro.)

Clearly Apple feels that there is room in its product line between the MacBook Air and the high-end 13-inch MacBook Pro, and for the last four years this lower-end model has served that purpose. It feels wrong, though, like it’s the vestige of an old laptop strategy that hasn’t quite faded away.

In any event, if you’re shopping for a new Apple laptop and you’re wary of the $1799 starting price of the high-end 13-inch MacBook Pro, you should consider the MacBook Air as well as the low-end Pro. They’re more alike than you might imagine, the Air is lighter and cheaper, and if you have no use for the Touch Bar, all the better.

The lower-end 13-inch MacBook Pro and the MacBook Air—too close for comfort?

There’s not a lot of news on the low-end model beyond the keyboard upgrade. Apple has boosted the base storage to 256GB, and held the price the same. Well done.

New processors on the high end

The high-end model has more going on. As on the low end, Apple has doubled the base storage capacity—it’s now 512GB—without changing the price. But the big story is the processor.

The high-end models use 10th generation Intel processors. These chips run at lower clock speeds than the previous generation, but are faster and more efficient due to the shrink of the process size to 10 nanometers. Integrated graphics performance is boosted in this generation, RAM speeds are faster, and the memory capacity has been doubled—16GB is standard and you can now configure the four-port 13-inch MacBook Pro with up to 32GB of RAM.

In my tests the new high-end model was definitely faster than last year’s high-end model, across the board. Though Apple claims that graphics performance should receive an extra boost in this upgrade (when compared to last year’s model), the Geekbench 5 scores only showed improvement in line with the general CPU performance. This may be an artifact of Geekbench itself; as I don’t have the previous model to test in graphics-intensive apps like Final Cut Pro X or games, I can’t speak to that.

(There’s also the not-inconsequential fact that the high-end 13-inch MacBook Pro can now drive Apple’s fancy Pro Display XDR at full resolution. I didn’t test this, because I am not fancy enough to own one of those displays.)

This isn’t an enormous upgrade over last year’s model, but it’s a measurable one. (And, of course, the keyboard is the spec most likely to draw upgrades from owners of more recent models.) And if you’ve been holding on to a 2015 MacBook Pro waiting to upgrade, you’re in for a very nice boost.

Where do we go from here?

Apple’s 13-inch laptops.

Keyboard aside, this is a strange update, if only because it holds back some of the improvements that Apple introduced to the 16-inch MacBook Pro last year. It sure would be swell if this 13-inch model became a 14-inch model with smaller bezels and an upgraded audio system—but alas, that is not this update.

As someone who doesn’t have any Touch Bar laptops in my house, every time I review a MacBook Pro I am reminded of its wasted potential. Very little has changed in the Touch Bar software since it was introduced. There’s still no way for users to customize it beyond some very basic choices, and there’s no third party access to the Control Strip. Apps that embrace the Touch Bar can create a rich set of controls, but beyond that, things get rough. (I was appalled to see that one of my favorite apps, BBEdit, still has only perfunctory Touch Bar support.)

Apple can make the Touch Bar better by opening it up. Give third-party apps more control over not only their own space, but access to the Control Strip. Let users assign their own Quick Actions and scripts. A little would go a long way here—but it’s been more than three years and it’s as limited as the day it was released. (Yes, BetterTouchTool will let you customize the Touch Bar—but it’s a hack, and it shouldn’t need to be.)

Whenever Apple makes its next move with the 13-inch MacBook Pro, I hope it’ll also reconsider its confusing decision to sell two entirely different laptops under the same name. The original low-end 13-inch MacBook Pro was intended to be a replacement for the MacBook Air, but it never managed to do it, probably because it was overpriced. Apple finally learned its lesson and released the Retina MacBook Air—but this low-end MacBook Pro remains. It’s appreciably worse than the high-end model in many dimensions, and the gap is only increasing. Perhaps if an equivalent upgrade to the 16-inch MacBook Pro is on the horizon for this class of laptop, it would be time to retire the two-port MacBook Pro for good.

But let’s leave all that aside. The most important feature of these new laptops, by a country mile, is the keyboard. There are legions of MacBook Pro users who have been hanging on, desperate to upgrade but not wanting to buy a laptop with a butterfly keyboard. For some of them, the 16-inch MacBook Pro was just too much—in size, in price, or both.

All of those people who were hanging on can finally let go. There’s a 13-inch Mac laptop, with a good keyboard, waiting for you. Actually, there are now three of them. One’s the MacBook Air, and the other two are the new 13-inch MacBook Pro.

By Jason Snell

Magic Keyboard for iPad Pro review: Living the dream

My iPad use has grown over the years. In 2014 I was frustrated by its limitations, but had started experimenting with writing on an iPad with Bluetooth keyboard. The arrival of the iPad Pro in 2015 crossed a threshold, and the iPad rapidly replaced all the places where I once used my MacBook Air.

As much as the Smart Keyboard made it clear that Apple endorsed the idea of writing on an iPad, and as good as the Smart Keyboard is, it still couldn’t quite match the experience of using a laptop. The Smart Keyboard was less stable when you used it on your lap, and while the membrane keys were surprisingly usable, they still weren’t a match for the real, physical keys you’d find on a laptop.

A few companies, most notably Brydge, offered accessories with a more laptop-like experience. When I considered the physical challenges of converting an iPad into a laptop screen—Brydge’s design requires you to slide an iPad into a couple of padded metal clips, and it has to be heavy enough to counterbalance the weight of the iPad—I became more convinced that Apple was never going to bother building anything that would just turn its thin and light tablet into a heavy laptop.

Less than five years after the iPad Pro and Smart Keyboard appeared on the scene, however, Apple has decided that it’s time for the full laptop experience on iPadOS. The new Magic Keyboard for iPad Pro isn’t just a physical keyboard that adds laptop-style weight and stability, though. It’s also got that trademark Apple fusion of software and hardware, thanks to a multi-touch trackpad and the full cursor support of iPadOS 13.4.

This is basically my iPad dream, fulfilled. But dreams are amorphous things, and they fall apart if you begin to interrogate them logically. The Magic Keyboard for iPad Pro isn’t a dream, it’s a real product, one that’s sitting in my lap right now. It’s one thing for Apple to decide that it’s time to offer a full laptop experience on the iPad—and an altogether different thing to execute that vision.

As I scrutinize the Magic Keyboard, it doesn’t fall apart as if it were a dream—it holds together, solidly. This is a product that isn’t for everyone, to be sure… but it’s exactly what I’ve been looking for.

Continue Reading "Magic Keyboard for iPad Pro review: Living the dream"

By Jason Snell

Review: Brydge Pro+ iPad keyboard with trackpad


Back in January, Brydge—the maker of my favorite iPad keyboard—announced that it was going to make a version with an included trackpad. I’ve finally gotten a shipping version of the Brydge Pro+, and have been able to use it with a 2020 iPad Pro running iPadOS 13.4, which includes Apple’s new trackpad support.

When the product was announced, I pointed out that iPad trackpad support just wasn’t strong enough to make the Brydge Pro+ a good option for most people. Not only did Apple’s Assistive Touch accessibility feature offer a cursor that was really just an awkward virtual finger, but the MacBook-like construction of the Brydge keyboard deck just emphasized all the ways that the product couldn’t supply a smooth, MacBook-like pointing experience.

The good news is that iPadOS 13.4 means that Assistive Touch is no longer necessary to drive an iPad with a cursor. Attach a Magic Trackpad 2 to an iPad and you will get an experience that really is very close to what you’d get on a MacBook. And Apple’s forthcoming Magic Keyboard for iPad Pro will bring that to a portable design that challenges the need for a product like the Brydge Pro+.

Still, I figured that the Brydge Pro+ would find an ecological niche to fill. It’s going to be $100 or $120 cheaper than the Magic Keyboard, and will probably offer a more traditional laptop feel than Apple’s cantilevered design.

Unfortunately, none of that matters if Brydge doesn’t get the trackpad right on the Pro+, and I’m sorry to report that it hasn’t. The trackpad on the Pro+ isn’t remotely close to Apple’s trackpads in class. Sometimes I move my finger across the trackpad and the cursor appears, but doesn’t move. Other times it moves, hesitates, and then moves some more. Two-finger scrolling is similarly unpleasant. The result is an imprecise, jerky experience. It’s no good. And there’s no support for navigating between apps via three-finger gestures, either.

I’ve been using the Brydge Pro+ to write this article, and I find myself actively avoiding using the trackpad, because every time I try it, I just end up frustrated.

I would have been disappointed by the feel of the Brydge Pro+ trackpad regardless, but now that I’ve seen Apple’s Magic Trackpad 2 working flawlessly with iPadOS 13.4, it’s an even starker difference.

I feel for Brydge, which clearly engineered this product for a pre-iPadOS 13.4 world, but it’s been left behind. Perhaps if the company can find a way to update the trackpad firmware to function better, the product can be salvaged. But right now I can’t recommend the Brydge Pro+ to anyone.

If you don’t need cursor support, the regular Brydge Pro will provide you with a laptop-style typing feel that’s excellent. If you do want a laptop-like experience with a trackpad on an iPad Pro, I’d recommend waiting for the Magic Keyboard to ship in May. (And if you’re using an iPad on a table or desk, use a Magic Trackpad 2.)

By Jason Snell

iPad Pro 2020 review: Small steps

The 2018 iPad Pro was a great leap forward, with a stylish new design, support for a new Apple Pencil, a USB-C port, and a powerful processor that was more than a match for PC laptops. In fact, you could make the argument that the 2018 iPad Pro was so far ahead of the game that it doesn’t really need much of an update, even a year and a half later.

That’s essentially the argument Apple is making with this early 2020 refresh to the iPad Pro. With a few small exceptions, these new iPad Pros aren’t substantially improved from their previous generation. Even so, they’re still faster than the mid-range MacBook Air Apple also released this week.

I got to spend several days using the new iPad Pro and a Smart Keyboard Folio—alas, no Magic Keyboard—and I can definitively report that unless you’re using an augmented-reality app or taking an ultra-wide photo, it’s pretty much exactly like its predecessor.

Augmented AR

This iPad looks great in AR, not just because of LiDAR but because it’s the only way to get the Magic Keyboard into your house before May.

So let’s start with the big hardware upgrade: The camera bump on the iPad Pro has expanded to a square resembling the housings found on the iPhone 11 family. In this case, the iPad Pro has gained a second camera and a new LiDAR sensor.

The camera is a 10 megapixel ultra-wide, allowing you to perform some of the same tricks you’d get from an iPhone 11. But there are some puzzling omissions. There’s no portrait mode, despite the presence of two cameras and a depth sensor. You also don’t get the option to integrate images that are just outside the frame of the wide camera but within the field of view of the ultrawide, presumably because that feature requires the A13 processor found in the iPhone, and doesn’t work on the A12Z processor found in the iPad Pro. There’s also no Night Mode. Basically, the iPad Pro is a state-of-the-art Apple camera—from 2018.

On the other hand, the iPad Pro’s LiDAR Scanner is pure 2020. This scanner projects infrared light onto objects as far as 15 feet away, and calculates how long it takes to bounce back. That’s all happening at the speed of light, of course, so we’re talking about nanoseconds—but it allows the sensor to build a depth map of the space around it.

The result is that Apple’s built-in augmented-reality engine immediately detects surfaces such as floors, tabletops, and walls. I was forced to wave my other Apple devices around a scene for a little while before they understood the geometry of the room I was in, but the iPad Pro knew immediately. I could quickly place an AR model on the floor, and when I slid it to a table, it immediately (and accurately) moved it there.

This precision should also aid in features Apple introduced with iOS 13, most notably people occlusion, since understanding the depth of a person’s location allows the AR engine to properly guess what should go in front of or behind that person.

For existing AR apps, the new LiDAR sensor will just build a better depth map—and those apps will work better. But developers can also make additional adjustments to take advantage of the increased spatial awareness caused by the LiDAR Scanner’s depth maps.

All our yesterdays

I’d like to gin up some disappointment to toss Apple’s way for not upgrading the iPad Pro to an A13-class processor, but it’s hard to do so. The A12X found in the 2018 iPad Pros is not really showing its age, and so it’s perhaps not surprising that Apple has more or less kept it around for this revision. Perhaps there’s an awesome new iPad chip in the offing, but it’s not the A12Z, which has the same processor cores as the A12X (four high-speed cores and four power-efficient ones), but has eight GPU cores instead of seven.

When I ran Geekbench 5 on the two iPads, the results were entirely what you’d expect: Identical scores on single- and multi-core tests, and a slightly elevated graphics score on the new iPad. It’s truly nothing to get too excited about.

If there’s any other performance to be gained on these iPads, it’s from a somewhat improved thermal system in the tablet’s internal design. A more efficient thermal design doesn’t change the fundamental speed of the processor, but the better a chip can be cooled, the longer it can run at higher speeds. This means that for extended activities that tax the processor, like a video encode, the new iPad Pro might be a bit faster than the older model.

Ghost features

Apple doesn’t talk about iPad memory, but if you recall, only the highest-end model of 2018 iPad had 6GB of RAM. This meant that it could go longer without quitting apps during multitasking, and if you pushed it hard, you could tell the difference. Reports say that the 2020 models all have 6GB of RAM, and while Apple’s keeping mum, that’s a nice upgrade if true.

There are also reports that it’s got a U1 chip, the same chip that Apple introduced in the iPhone 11 and enabled Ultra Wideband technology that might be used in future Apple products but doesn’t do much more than enhance the AirDrop interface slightly. Again, Apple won’t talk about it, and I can report that there’s no enhanced AirDrop interface on the new iPad Pro. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a U1 chip lurking inside, ready to be activated if Apple ever ships that much-rumored tracking tag product.

Apple does say that the new iPad Pro has a new microphone system. Like the previous model, it has five different microphones—but these use a new architecture that’s borrowed from the same source as the 16-inch MacBook Pro. I have to be honest—I recorded some audio on both iPads and couldn’t really notice any difference.

It’s important to accessorize

When I was a kid, the action figures were cool but their accessories were even cooler. Those Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock action figures were more exciting when they were exploring the universe in a Barbie Winnebago. (Hey, you work with what you have.) In any event, the new iPad Pro is a small update, but there’s a lot of fun action happening on the accessory front.

Perhaps most notable about all of Apple’s new accessories for the 2020 iPad Pro is that they’re also compatible with the 2018 iPad Pro. (Users of older models will notice that the camera cut-out is a bit larger than the actual camera bump on those models.) Apple could’ve mandated an update to the 2020 iPad Pro model just to get at the new accessories, but it chose not to, and I appreciate that.

Of course, the big attraction is the iPad Pro Magic Keyboard, which features an adjustable hinge, USB-C charging port, floating design, backlit scissor-switch keys, and a trackpad. The trackpad announcement comes with a major iPadOS update enabling cursor support. But Apple says the accessory itself won’t be available until May, and so all I can do is stare at pictures and wonder how it feels to type on, how stable it is in a lap, and how much it actually weighs. (Apple is not saying—and yes, I asked.)

Both the Magic Keyboard and the Smart Keyboard Folio are dark gray, the uninspiring choice of iPad Pro accessories everywhere, but I’m excited to report that Apple has added an embossed Apple logo on their backs—and the logo is oriented like you’d see it on a MacBook, in landscape. I love it.

The regular Smart Folio has the logo, too, but on that one it’s in portrait orientation, so you can’t win ‘em all. But I’m still excited that Apple has expanded the color options of the Smart Folio, beyond the monochrome and a pale pink, to include two “seasonal” colors—Surf Blue and Cactus. Those gray cases are so boring. I ordered a Surf Blue Smart Folio case and look forward to giving my iPad Pro some personality—when it’s not in a keyboard case, anyway.

Familiar buying advice

For years now, reviews of the new iPhone have to go out of their way to point out that most people won’t be upgrading from the previous model of phone—but from a model two or three generations back. That’s just how the upgrade cycle rolls.

This is that kind of iPad Pro update. If you’ve been thinking about getting an iPad Pro, or if you’ve been using one of the first- or second-generation iPad Pro models, this product was made for you. But if you’re using a 2018 iPad Pro, you can give this iPad a pass. The difference between your 2018 model and today’s 2020 version are relatively minor, so unless you care about AR or having an ultrawide camera, you can hang tight for the next generation of iPad Pro.

The good news is, even if you don’t upgrade, you’ll still get to take advantage of all of those new accessories for the new iPad Pro. And really, that Magic Keyboard for iPad Pro is going to be what we remember the most about this new iPad Pro. Unfortunately, that story won’t be complete until that accessory arrives on the scene in a few months. With any luck, our patience will be rewarded.

By Jason Snell

2020 MacBook Air review: No news is good news

[Author’s Note: I’ve updated this piece to change the chart at the conclusion of the story. I put the wrong numbers in the chart, and those numbers were wildly misleading about iPad Pro 2018 performance. I regret the error. I will update this chart with data from the 2020 iPad Pro when it’s available. -j.s.]

Here’s what you need to know about the 2020 MacBook Air: It’s everything that was great about the 2018 MacBook Air, but it’s cheaper and faster, with more customizable specs and—perhaps most importantly—the same Magic Keyboard as the 16-inch MacBook Pro.

Despite the keyboard and the $1099 starting price, the MacBook Air was already my go-to Mac laptop recommendation. What this new model has done is eliminate almost every caveat, warning, or footnote that might have come along with that recommendation. If the MacBook Air wasn’t definitively the center of the Mac world before—and Apple says it’s been the most popular Mac model “by far”—it certainly is now.

The key upgrade

If you’ve followed along with the ongoing story of Apple’s “butterfly” keyboard design, introduced with the 12-inch MacBook in 2015, you know that it’s been criticized for both its typing feel and its fragility. Apple instituted a special service program to deal with the repair issues.

This new MacBook Air model, thankfully, does not use that keyboard design. Instead, it’s got the same design as the 16-inch MacBook Pro introduced last fall. The keys use a more traditional scissor switch and offer about a millimeter of key travel. That’s not as much as in the previous, non-Retina MacBook Air, but it’s still pretty good. (And yes, this new MacBook Air also has a proper “inverted T” layout for arrow keys, as it was in the old days, allowing you to orient more easily based on key feel.)

I still prefer the feel of that older Apple keyboard, but given the choice between the keyboard on the new Air and the one from the previous generation, I’d choose this new one every time. In contrast, my wife—who uses a 2018 MacBook Air with the butterfly keyboard—tried the new keyboard and shrugged. Some people just don’t care that much about keyboards!

But if you’ve been holding out for a MacBook Air with Retina display that’s got a keyboard with more travel, you can end your holdout now. It’s here.

The right price

My 2018 excitement that the MacBook Air would be revived was tempered by the butterfly keyboard (did I mention I didn’t like it?), but more than that, it was by the price: $1199 (dropped to $1099 last July). After the MacBook and 13-inch MacBook Pro failed to catch on because of their high prices, I was hoping that the MacBook Air would give Apple a solid laptop option for $999. The MacBook Air was cheaper, but it couldn’t hit that magic price. (Though in fact, it has been hitting it via sales at various websites over the past year. I’ve bought two of the 2018 Airs for $999. But it wasn’t the “real” price.)

This 2020 MacBook Air finally sets the bar at the right place: $999. While that price will only get you a dual-core i3 processor, it’ll get you 256GB of storage, double the base storage available on the old $1099 Air. (You can also upgrade to 512GB for $200, 1TB for $400, and 2TB for $800.)

I wish Apple had hit this price two years ago, but I’m glad it’s gotten there today. $999 (and $899 for education) makes this Air a lot easier to recommend to price-conscious Mac laptop buyers. Fortunately, if you were hoping for more power than a dual-core i3, Apple has options for you, too.

Choices at last

Back in the old pre-Retina days, you could configure the MacBook Air’s processor to be much more powerful than the default. (I’ve got a 2012 MacBook Air with an i7 processor that’s only now starting to show its age.) But when the Retina MacBook Air debuted in 2018, it came with only a single processor configuration: a 1.6GHz dual-core Intel Core i5, with Turbo Boost up to 3.6GHz.

The 2020 MacBook Air lets users buy a faster processor if they want—and for the first time, there are four-core options for the MacBook Air. The $999 base model is powered by a 1.1GHz dual-core Intel Core i3, with Turbo Boost up to 3.2GHz. But you can also configure a 1.1GHz quad-core Intel Core i5, with Turbo Boost up to 3.5Ghz for an additional $100, or a 1.2GHz quad-core i7 with Turbo Boost up to 3.8GHz for an extra $250. While all models use Intel’s integrated Iris Plus graphics, Apple says that graphics on these models are up to 80 percent faster than the previous model.

I was only able to test the $1299 model that includes the quad-core i5 processor, so I can’t test whether the highest-end model meets Apple’s claims of speeds twice as fast as the prior model. But I was able to test the new laptop in Primate Labs’ Geekbench 5 and compare it to older Mac models. The results were encouraging, with a 32 percent improvement in single-core performance and 63 percent improvement in multi-core tests. (More cores helps.)

Apple seems to have hit the $999 price point by saddling it with the two-core i3 processor, while for the old $1099 price you get the mid-range processor with four cores. I’d expect the $999 model to be roughly comparable to the old model in terms of performance, but the good news is that if you want a bit more processing power, you can pay and get it. (And yes, you can take the $999 model and simply configure up the processor to the i7 model if you want to.)

Worth the wait?

If there’s a hint of things to come in my test results, though, it’s the performance of the iPad Pro. This isn’t the new 2020 model that’s due out next week, either—it’s the third-generation iPad Pro that was released the same day as the first Retina MacBook Air model. The 2018 iPad Pro was faster in single-core performance and 70 percent faster in multi-core performance.

Even if we accept that macOS and iPadOS are different beasts and that a Mac built around Apple’s own A-series processors wouldn’t necessarily score quite as high, it’s a clear sign that Apple’s state of the art iPad processor from 18 months ago is faster than the mid-range MacBook Air processor today.

Though rumors abound that Apple is going to be introducing ARM Macs, there’s no telling when that might happen and what form those computers might take. How compatible will they be with older software? Will Intel apps that haven’t been recompiled for ARM run in a slow code-translation layer? Will Apple have to work out bugs that come along with the transition?

If you don’t really need a new Mac laptop, maybe you should wait to see what happens with ARM. But if you’re someone who has been holding out for a new MacBook Air—and ideally one without that infamous keyboard—I wouldn’t recommend that you wait. This is the MacBook Air that you’ve been waiting for.

By Jason Snell

Review: Audio-Technica ATR-2100x microphone

The new ATR-2100x microphone (right) replaces a Mini-USB connector with USB-C.

For a while now my go-to podcast microphone recommendation has been the Audio-Technica ATR-2100. At around $100 it’s relatively cheap, sounds great, and thanks to its USB port it doesn’t require you to buy a separate USB audio interface. (It’s not just me—Marco Arment also really liked it.)

The ATR-2100 has been discontinued, and replaced with the new Audio-Technica ATR-2100x. After traveling for a week with the ATR-2100, I returned home to discover its successor waiting for me in a box on my desk.

The good news is that, so far as I can tell, the new microphone sounds just as good as the old one did.

One of the most important features of a microphone, especially one that you’re going to use in unforgiving spaces (i.e., noisy or echoey places like where most of us live and work and record podcasts), is the ability to suppress room echo and background noise, and the ATR-2100x does that really well.

Here’s how Marco describes it:

An amazing value for the money: it sounds great for the price, and pretty decent at any price, as long as you speak up very closely to it…. Compared to other inexpensive USB mics aimed at beginners like the Blue Yeti, the ATR2100x picks up far less room echo and background noise, and is much easier to travel with. But you have to speak up closely to it — if you’re using its desk stand, elevate it up to mouth level (with e.g. a stack of books) if possible.

This microphone also has a few other features that make it more flexible than other microphones. The big feature of this new version is that it’s got a USB-C port, rather than the previous model’s Mini-USB. In practice, I don’t think this port swap is especially meaningful—you could use the old microphone with a USB-C-to-Mini-USB cable—but we’re entering a world where USB-C cables will be common and Mini-USB cables rare and weird, so this is better.

Like its predecessor, the ATR-2100x also has a headphone jack, which is vitally important because it gives you immediate feedback of your own voice in your ears while also relaying audio from the device it’s attached to. It’s always better to hear your own voice in your ears as you talk (without any delay) to reinforce good microphone habits like facing toward the microphone when you talk.

Most importantly, both old and new models also include an XLR connector, meaning they’re compatible with external devices such as USB audio interfaces and portable recorders. And both XLR and USB ports can be used simultaneously, which lets me connect to my iPad for use with Skype while also recording my audio directly via an external XLR recorder. Since iOS won’t let me make a Skype call while also record my local audio, that’s a vital bit of flexibility.

The only significant difference is the replacement of Mini USB (left) with USB-C.

Beyond the USB-C port, there aren’t many other changes to the design of this model. The color scheme is different, the mute switch is slightly different (but just as noisy), and the LED that indicates the microphone is connected via USB is now a part of the same housing as the switch, rather than being separate. (Alas, it doesn’t change colors or turn off when the mute switch is on.) The included small, cheap mic stand has been redesigned—it’s still small and cheap, but it’s functional.

Overall, this is an exceedingly small upgrade, but that’s just fine—this microphone was already great. Pair it with a cheap windscreen (a must, because you need to be close to it to be picked up properly) and consider adding a shock mount and a better mic stand to create a low-cost podcast studio. Like I said, I recorded four podcasts on the road with one of these microphones last week. You won’t do better for the price.

Meet the 2019 models. Left to right: iPhone 11 Pro Max, iPhone 11, iPhone 11 Pro

By Jason Snell

iPhone 11 review: It’s one louder, isn’t it?

We all like to remember the huge leaps forward, but much of the progress Apple makes is incremental. Even when the devices come in the same wrapper, new technologies are being added on the inside. That’s especially important to keep in mind in a year such as this, where all of Apple’s new iPhones are incremental updates to old models.

If you’re using an iPhone 8 or earlier, these new models will bring with them all the new features Apple has added to the product line since the iPhone X in 2017. The upgrade is a bit less dramatic if you’re coming from an iPhone X-class model, since externally these models are dead ringers for the iPhone X/XS (iPhone 11 Pro), iPhone XS Max (iPhone 11 Pro Max), and iPhone XR (iPhone 11).

You’ve got to hand it to Apple—the most notable incremental improvements Apple has made to these models might be in the two most important features to smartphone users. First there’s battery life, and in the iPhone Pro models Apple has made an especially surprising leap. Then there are the cameras, because our phones are now the primary way we visually document our lives.

So yes, these are iPhones very much like ones we’ve seen before. But in true Apple fashion, they’re also improved—and in the best ways.

Continue Reading "iPhone 11 review: It's one louder, isn't it?"

By Jason Snell

Kindle Oasis (third-generation) review: Easy on the eyes

The new Oasis is identical to the older second-generation model, except for its adjustable color temperature.

I read all my books on a Kindle, and the $250 Kindle Oasis is the model I prefer. It’s not for everyone—the $130 Kindle Paperwhite is a better buy for most people. But the Oasis offers a collection of features that make it appreciably nicer than either of the lower-priced Kindle models, and after spending some time with the new Paperwhite, I’m more convinced than ever that the Oasis is worth the extra price if you’re going to use it a lot.

Amazon recently updated the top of the Kindle line, introducing a new third-generation Kindle Oasis that adds a few minor display improvements. There are more LED lights encircling the screen, giving this Oasis the most even lighting of any Kindle yet. (Kindle screens are reflective, not backlit, which makes them much more readable—but a bit trickier to light.)

Most people won’t notice the improved backlighting, but if you’re someone who is concerned with the amount of blue light wavelengths you receive in the evening, you are the target audience for the one major new feature in the third-generation Oasis. The color temperature of its lighting system is adjustable, so if you prefer a more orange hue in the evening, you can set it to adjust itself automatically—or you can just take control and make the lighting more or less blue anytime you like. (You can also turn all of that off and use the “normal” Kindle color, if you like.)

I’m not going to comment on the debate about whether blue wavelengths really affect sleep, but I will say that I am one of those people who finds warmer color temperatures more aesthetically pleasing. The lights in my house are warmer in temperature, and Apple’s introduction of TrueTone displays (which adapt to the existing color temperature of the room) has really hit that point home. If I’m reading in the dark, a redder light will also mean that my eyes adapt more rapidly when I turn off the Kindle, too.

That’s it. The rest of the Oasis is unchanged from the second-generation model, so far as I can tell. If you’d like to read the case for the Kindle Oasis in general over other models, read on.

Why it’s better than the others

The Oasis is oddly shaped because it’s designed to be as thin as possible except in the place where you grip the device. As a result, there’s a thicker (8.3mm) grip area that features the Oasis’s two physical page-turn buttons, and a thinner side (3.4mm) that helps the device weigh less.

Oh, the page-turn buttons! They’re great. Other Kindles require you to constantly move your fingers on and off the touchscreen in order to tap or swipe forward or backward. With the Oasis, you can rest a finger or thumb on the button and then just gently press to advance to the next page.

People will tell you that it’s just fine to find a grip that lets you slide a finger over to the screen, tap, and then slide back every single time you turn the page. Sure, it’s fine. But this is way better.

At 6.8 ounces, the Oasis is very slightly heavier than the other Kindles, but with that you get a much larger screen. The Oasis screen is seven inches diagonal, up from the six-inch screen found on all other current Kindles. This means more words on a page and fewer page turns, which is especially important if you’re reading at larger font sizes.

The Oasis is also the highest-quality device hardware I’ve ever seen from Amazon. The sides and back are a single piece of aluminum, giving this a premium device feel that the cheaper, plastic Kindle models lack.

The aluminum back gives the Oasis a premium feel that other Kindles lack.

It feels good, for twice the price

For me, Kindles are all about price and ergonomics. The Oasis doesn’t really do it on price, but it’s the best when it comes to feel. As someone who reads a couple dozen books a year, paying more for the best reading hardware makes perfect sense. And the pace of change in Kindle land isn’t particularly great; an Oasis will serve you well for many years to come. It remains the best Kindle you can buy, and is appreciably nicer than the Paperwhite on almost every front. And now with better lighting and an adjustable color display.

Yes, the $120 Paperwhite is the better buy. But the Kindle Oasis is a great splurge for people who simply want the best ebook reading experience around and don’t really mind that it costs twice as much as the step-down alternative.

By Jason Snell

Review: Logitech Slim Folio Pro

Logitech has been making keyboard cases for the iPad Pro since the very beginning. Its case for the original 9.7-inch iPad Pro was close to perfect. With the $130 Slim Folio Pro for the 2018 12.9-inch iPad Pro (the 11.5-inch model is $120), Logitech continues its commitment to making very good iPad keyboard cases—that just don’t seem to fit with the way I prefer to use my iPad Pro.

Logitech’s iPad cases have always wrapped the device in protection. Unlike the approach of a company like Brydge, which builds aluminum keyboards into which you clip the iPad by its corners, Logitech’s cases generally cover all four corners of the device. In the case of the Slim Folio Pro, you tuck the non-Apple Pencil side of the iPad into a large rubberized bumper, and then push two small rubberized bumpers over the other corners.

The result is a case that feels sturdy and protective, but it also means that every time you want to extract the iPad from the case, you’ve got to push those corner pieces off. If you’re someone who prefers to leave the iPad in the case most of the time, this is fine, but the Slim Folio Pro is a thick, bulky case, and I have a hard time believing that anyone would want to keep it on their iPad when they weren’t actively using the keyboard. (The Slim Folio Pro weighs 704 grams, almost identical to the Brydge Pro—but the Brydge is denser and slimmer.

Why not get a laptop?

When I write about iPad keyboards, the question I get most often is, “Why turn your iPad into a laptop instead of getting a laptop?” If you want my answer, check out the “Why not get a laptop?” section in my December 2018 story about the Brydge Pro keyboard.

As you might expect, the two corner pieces on this case are shaped the way they are so that they don’t cover up the magnetic charging area for the Apple Pencil. If you want to close the case, though, you won’t be able to charge the pencil—but Logitech does provide a loop on a magnetic flap that’s used to keep the case securely closed, making it less likely that you’ll misplace the Pencil when it’s not attached.

The keyboard itself is good, though the entire keyboard surface is made of gray plastic that feels a little cheap when compared to the aluminum-framed keyboards you’ll find in Apple’s laptops (or Brydge’s iPad Pro keyboard). The keycaps have a smooth texture and typing feel that remind me of classic Apple laptop keys. (That’s a good thing.) There’s a full function row, giving you control over keyboard backlighting, screen brightness, media playback, volume, and other shortcuts that users of Apple’s own Smart Keyboard Folio don’t have access to. The arrow keys are in the familiar inverted-T configuration that Apple has unfortunately moved away from in its own laptops.

While the Slim Folio Pro connects to the iPad via Bluetooth rather than Smart Connector (and charges via a USB-C port), it’s got a clever way of saving power: it only activates when you set the iPad in a magnetic slot on the front of the case.

Like Apple’s Smart Keyboard Folio, the Slim Folio Pro (and unlike Brydge’s keyboard) places the keyboard at the very front of the keyboard surface. This means it’s a different feel than you’d get on a MacBook, where the keyboard is pushed further back to leave room for a trackpad just below the keyboard. The edge of the iPad lands right behind the function row, about one-third of the way down the plane on which the keyboard sits.

Unfortunately, this design has a few side effects. First, it’s not at all adjustable. If you don’t like the particular angle of the iPad Pro in this case, there’s nothing you can do to change it. Second, at the very back of the horizontal keyboard plane where the case wraps around and provides support to keep the iPad upright, there’s half an inch of flexible material that serves as the spine of the case when it’s closed. I found that when I was typing with the Slim Folio Pro in my lap, the iPad had a tendency to rock back and forth as that flap of material slid back and forth. The result is that the case isn’t as stable on a lap as I’d like.

If you’re someone who doesn’t mind taking extra time to attach and detach your iPad from a case, the Slim Folio Pro provides a good typing experience and some protection for your iPad at a price that’s quite a bit lower than either Apple’s Smart Keyboard Folio or the Brydge Pro keyboard.

I get tired of people asking me why I use a keyboard with my iPad Pro rather than just buying a laptop, but I have to admit that if you’re going to snap your iPad into a big keyboard case that’s not particularly easy to remove, that argument gets a little bit stronger. The beauty of the iPad is that it can do something a MacBook just can’t—namely, be a bare screen without attached keyboard when that’s all you want.

The Slim Folio Pro traps the iPad Pro in a less than ideal form. Both Apple’s Smart Keyboard Folio and the Brydge Pro let you switch from keyboard to tablet quickly. Apple’s device excels because it’s small enough to carry around as a cover; Brydge’s excels because it provides the full laptop experience. I would choose either of those products over this one. But if you’re seeking value in an iPad keyboard case and don’t mind fussing with getting the thing on and off of your iPad, the Slim Folio Pro won’t let you down. It’s a solid product—as long as you know what you’re getting into. And out of.

By Jason Snell

Review: Brydge Pro 12.9 keyboard

I’ve spent six months using the 2018 iPad Pro with Apple’s Smart Keyboard Folio and a collection of external USB and Bluetooth mechanical keyboards. The Smart Keyboard Folio has been a solid traveling companion, and it’s a major improvement over the old thick two-layer Smart Keyboard, but I’ve missed what I had on the older iPad Pro, namely the laptop-style keyboard from Brydge that let me convert my iPad into a laptop shape when I needed it.

Six months into the life of the iPad Pro, Brydge’s new iPad Pro keyboards are finally starting to arrive. Back in December I briefly got my hands on a preproduction model, and two weeks ago I received one of the first $170 12.9-inch units off the production line and have been using it on and off since then. (There’s also a $150 11-inch version, which I haven’t used.)

While it’s taken me some time to adapt to some of the changes Brydge has made, I’m happy to report that this is still the best option for people who want the full laptop typing experience on an iPad Pro.

Why not get a laptop?

When I write about iPad keyboards, the question I get most often is, “Why turn your iPad into a laptop instead of getting a laptop?” If you want my answer, check out the “Why not get a laptop?” section in my December 2018 story about the Brydge Pro keyboard.

Continue Reading "Review: Brydge Pro 12.9 keyboard"

The $130 Kindle Paperwhite (left) and $90 Kindle.

By Jason Snell

Review: Kindle Paperwhite (2019) and Kindle (2019)

In the last few months Amazon has released two new Kindles, the $130 Kindle Paperwhite and the $90 base-model Kindle. Both of them are notable improvements on their previous versions, making it harder for me to declare which Kindle you should buy. The base-model Kindle is much harder to write off than it was before, but I think the Paperwhite still has a better combination of features for most users.

Why Kindle?

A lot of people think the entire dedicated ebook reader category has been made obsolete by tablets and smartphones. Not so! If you’ve never used an ebook reader before, you may not realize that their screens are dramatically different from computer, phone, and tablet screens. These are reflective screens—like ink on paper, you read them by light reflected off their surface, rather than light shining in from behind like those other screens.

These screens have some huge advantages: They use very little power, and they’re extremely readable in bright light. But they’re relatively low resolution and can only display black, white, and shades of gray, so they’re inappropriate for much more than text on a page. If you’ve ever tried to read a book while sitting in the sun at the pool, you can see why this sort of display is a perfect match for this category.

What’s more, these devices are unitaskers. You won’t be tempted to flip over to Twitter or get bugged by a push notification or an incoming FaceTime call. When I’m using my Kindle, I am reading, not grazing the internet. When I’m out and about without a Kindle, I’ll read books on my iPhone, but when I get home I’m right back to the dedicated reading device. If you are someone who reads a lot, consider buying a Kindle. (You can probably even check out books from your local library to your Kindle using a service such as OverDrive!)

A word about Kindle pricing

Amazon’s pricing model for the Kindle is complicated. The base prices of each Kindle model include “special offers”, which is Amazon’s euphemism for advertising. With special offers enabled, the screensaver on your Kindle when it’s turned off is an ad for a book, and to turn the Kindle on you’ve got to press the power button and then swipe the touchscreen to dismiss the ad. There are also small ad banners at the bottom of the main navigation screen.

It costs an additional $20 to turn off the special offers. You can order your Kindle without special offers or just pay the $20 later on the device to turn them off. I have talked to many people who find the special offers valuable, because they aid in discovering interesting books and point out sales going on in the Kindle store. I find the addition of an extra step every single time I turn my Kindle on to be enough of an interface impediment that I always pay the $20 to turn off special offers. The choice is yours.

For the Kindle Paperwhite and Oasis, Amazon also offers two storage-size tiers—8GB or, for $30 more, 32GB. Unless you are leaving the internet for years or have decided to use the Kindle as a repository for audiobooks as well as text, you don’t need the larger size. Ebooks just don’t take up much space. You can fit hundreds of books on an 8GB Kindle.

Amazon also offers an alternative networking upgrade on the 32GB models of Paperwhite and Oasis, one that adds “free” cellular connectivity to the party. For an additional $70 (keeping in mind you’re also paying $30 more for the larger storage capacity—though your $20 Special Offers charge is comped at this level) your Kindle will use LTE cellular networking when it’s not able to connect to Wi-Fi. It means you can download books in more than 100 countries without needing Wi-Fi, and you’ll never see a bill (other than that $120 additional charge from Amazon). Wi-Fi is so ubiquitous that this seems unnecessary, but you can pay $250 instead of $130 for a Kindle Paperwhite if you really want all the features.

Base-model Kindle upgrade

The “cheap” Kindle (which now starts at $90, up from $80 with the previous model) has lagged behind the rest of the product line in failing to offer an integrated light (first offered on the Kindle Paperwhite in 2012). There is nothing dumber than needing to clip on a book light in order to read a digital device in the dark.

Those days are over. The new ninth-generation Kindle has an integrated light, four LEDs that shine from the edges of the display to make it readable in any light conditions. It’s an enormous step up that makes the base Kindle a product worth considering as more than a disposable beach-reading device.

In most other aspects, the Kindle is still inferior to other models, though. The integrated six-inch display is the same size as the Paperwhite, but at 167 pixels per inch it’s about half the resolution. This means that text is less crisp and more jagged. If your eyesight isn’t great you won’t notice, but everyone else will. I also found that the Kindle’s display was lower contrast than the Paperwhite’s, with text appearing less black and more dark gray.

You can see the decreased contrast and resolution in the Kindle (top) when compared to the Paperwhite (bottom).

The Kindle’s display is recessed in its case, with a plastic bezel that surrounds it. Years of using Kindles with recessed bezels has taught me that it’s an inferior design, because the corners where the recessed screen meets the bezel are magnets for dust, crumbs, and other tiny bits of distracting debris. (And of course, since the Kindle screen itself is touch sensitive, you can’t just wipe that debris away—you’ve got to turn the device off and then try to jimmy that stuff out of there.)

The Kindle is the lightest of all three of Amazon’s ereader models, at 5.9 ounces, but all the models are within an ounce of each other, so I’m not sure it matters that much. (The Paperwhite is 6.5 ounces and the high-end Kindle Oasis is 6.8 ounces.)

The overall texture of the Kindle is what you’d expect for a low-end, cheap tech product. It’s hard plastic, and not particularly grippy. In other words, this is a utilitarian product that gets the key parts right—it’s got an E Ink screen and lighting—while avoiding most nice-to-have features that the higher-end models provide.


The $130 fourth-generation Kindle Paperwhite retains its crown as the Kindle most people should buy. It’s a lot cheaper than the high-end Kindle Oasis and appreciably nicer than the base-model Kindle.

The Paperwhite’s screen has 300 ppi resolution, almost twice the base model, bringing it up to more or less “retina” resolution in terms of displaying smooth type that’s hard to distinguish from ink on paper. I found the display to be appreciably better quality than on the base model, with higher contrast and more consistent lighting. The display on the Paperwhite is also flush with the front bezel, so there are no nooks and crannies for lint and dust and crumbs to get stuck.

The biggest improvement to this generation of Paperwhite is IPX8 waterproofing, so you can read in the bath or by the pool without worry. The last time I went to a beach resort I saw a zillion Kindles poolside, so it makes me think that adding waterproofing will be very popular.

Beyond that, the Paperwhite is simply made of better materials than the base Kindle. It’s got a grippy back that feels nicer than the hard plastic of the Kindle, although it’s not quite as swank as the aluminum back of the Oasis.

In other words, this generation of Paperwhite remains the best balance of features and price in the Kindle line. In my opinion, the Paperwhite has been the real Kindle for a few years now, and that remains the case. The base-model Kindle is getting better, but the better display, waterproofing, flush-front design, and nicer overall feel push the Kindle Paperwhite ahead.

By Jason Snell

2019 iMac review: The best of a bygone era

The 2019 iMacs are a contradiction. They are brand-new computers that somehow feel like the last members of a dying order. They are shells designed in 2012 that somehow contain 8th- and 9th-generation Intel processors. They represent Apple’s broad-appeal entry-level Mac desktop, but can also offer power to rival the performance of the base-model iMac Pro. They are part of a legacy that once represented the core of the Mac market, but now fills specific niches in a world devoured by mobile technology.

I had a chance to spend a couple of weeks with a top-of-the line 5K iMac with a 9th-generation Intel processor, and its performance was impressive. There’s no denying that the iMac is better than ever, just as there’s no denying that this is a product line that’s in need of reinvention after years of stasis.

Continue Reading "2019 iMac review: The best of a bygone era"

By Jason Snell

Review: iPad mini 2019 is a modern version of a small classic

When three and a half years go by without Apple updating your favorite product, you start to get a little antsy. In the case of the iPad mini, Apple has spent those years completely reconfiguring the iPad line, introducing multiple models of iPad Pro and creating a new low-price sixth-generation iPad—thereby making redundant the iPad mini’s role as the most affordable iPad around.

But at least in this case, the despair wasn’t warranted. It took a while, but here’s the fifth-generation iPad mini—instantly recognizable since it’s got the same shape and size as its predecessor, but now powered by the same A12 Bionic processor found in the iPhone XS. It’s amazing what a difference three and a half years can make.

Say hello to my little friend, again

The sixth-generation iPad has effectively usurped the iPad mini’s role as The Cheap iPad, meaning that as of now, the only reason to buy an iPad mini is because you want a small iPad. And there are plenty of people who do—from extreme mobile workers to people who want to slip an iPad into a purse or coat pocket to businesses who want simple point-of-sale terminals to children with small hands and keen eyes.

For several years, the iPad mini was my primary iPad. Then I switched to the 12.9-inch iPad Pro, which was a radical size change. It was quite a feeling to hold an iPad mini in my hands again after all this time. Coming from the 12.9-inch iPad Pro, the iPad mini is staggeringly small. If you’ve forgotten, it’s 8 inches (203mm) high and 5.3 inches (135mm) wide, weighs two-thirds of a pound (300g), and has a 7.9-inch diagonal display.

And yet despite its small size, that display packs in all the pixels of the 9.7-inch iPad—2048 by 1536 resolution—meaning it’s got a pixel density of 326ppi. This is a better screen than the low-cost iPad, though—it’s laminated, so it’s closer to the surface of the glass, and it’s got support for the P3 wide color gamut and True Tone. All it’s really lacking when compared to the iPad Pro display is ProMotion—this display refreshes at 60Hz, not 120.

Reporter’s notebook

For a while now I’ve been advocating for the idea that the iPhone should support the Apple Pencil, so it could be used as a sketchbook or notepad. The big problem with that theory is that it would really require a smaller Apple Pencil, and when Apple redesigned the Pencil last year, it didn’t go this route.

The iPad mini isn’t an iPhone, exactly, but it’s less than twice the volume and half again the weight of the iPhone XS Max. (It’s also got fewer pixels, owing to the XS Max’s higher-density display.) So if you imagine the iPad mini as a sort of reporter’s notebook or artist’s portable sketchbook, it starts to make more sense as the most portable device yet to support the Apple Pencil.

Today every new iPad being made supports the Pencil, but it’s important to note that all the Lightning-based iPads—the iPad, iPad mini, and iPad Air—all use the Lightning-based original Apple Pencil model. The new Apple Pencil, supported only by the 2018 iPad Pro models, is superior in a whole lot of ways—but if you buy one of these non-pro iPads, you’ll be left with the older model. Not that the old Pencil is bad, it’s actually quite good, but it’s a bit painful to go back to a Pencil without a flat edge, matte finish, and magnetic-induction charging. (You can also use the Logitech Crayon on any of them.)

Drawing on the iPad mini (or these other low-end iPads) will also not be able to take advantage of the faster digitizer rate, which combined with the ProMotion display dramatically reduces lag—the space between where the stroke you just drew is visible and where the tip of the pencil is right now. It’s not a bad experience, it’s just not as good as the experience on the iPad Pro—but you’re also using a much smaller and cheaper device. It’s all a matter of trade-offs.

Paperback reader

I’ve always preferred using a Kindle to read books, but I have to admit that the iPad mini is a pretty great size if you’re primarily planning on using it to read books, newspaper apps, and websites. The screen may feel a bit cramped when using productivity apps, but switching to the iPad mini from the 12.9-inch iPad Pro was like going from a coffee-table book to a trade paperback. Reading from apps while holding the iPad mini in vertical orientation in one hand was easy and pleasant.

However, the increased screen density of this device means you’ll probably need to crank up the default text size in your apps and in the Text Size setting in the Display & Brightness section of the Settings app. As on previous iPad minis, everything’s just a bit smaller, and unless your eyes are particularly keen (and young) you’ll need to slide that text size up a notch or two in order to get it back into comfortable territory.

I wrote a large chunk of this article on the iPad mini, and while it’s capable of all the same stuff as just about any other iPad, writing is probably not its forte. Several companies do make add-on keyboards for the iPad mini 4 (all of which will work with this model, since they’re identical on the outside), its eight-inch width in horizontal orientation is not really wide enough to fit a keyboard with normal size keys. I ended up using an Apple Magic Keyboard in a Studio Neat Canvas case, which worked fine. If you don’t mind tiny keyboards with ultra-compact keys, cases like the ones from Zagg or Logitech or even Brydge might work for you. It certainly would make this a remarkably compact and portable writing device. You just have to deal with a nonstandard, compact keyboard layout.

I should mention one of the best features of the design of this iPad mini, which is that it’s entirely identical to the iPad mini 4. That might bore people who were hoping for a complete re-think of the device, but it’s pretty obvious that wasn’t going to happen. And because Apple didn’t tweak the exterior even a little bit, every accessory made for the iPad mini 4 will work on the fifth-generation iPad mini. And at least for right now, many of them are quite cheap, because the iPad mini was considered a dead product. Old iPad mini cases and covers and keyboards should work fine with this device, provided they were designed for the iPad mini 4. (Apple made changes in design between the iPad mini 3 and 4 that broke compatibility; accessories build for other models are not likely to be compatible.)

Multi-iPad lifestyle?

As the iPad line expands—it’s a family of five now—the different models are better suited for different tasks. The iPad mini is all about that small size, and with Apple Pencil support it can serve as a sketchbook or basic notebook. It’s also an ideal size for reading books, newspapers, and other web content. At $399 it’s worth asking if we’ve gotten to the point where people will consider pairing an iPad mini with a larger iPad and using them for different tasks. The truth is, the iPad mini’s processor means it’s capable of doing almost anything its larger siblings can do—it just does them all on a smaller screen.

The new iPad mini doesn’t need to be all things to all people. It doesn’t even need to be the cheapest iPad in the product line. It just needs to be small and light while still providing the power of a modern iPad, and it does that quite well.

By Jason Snell

iPad Pro 2018 review: A computer, not a PC

You have to judge a product on what it is.

In starting the pricing of the 2018 iPad Pro models at $799 and $999, in comparing the power of the A12X chip inside to PC laptops, in replacing the Lightning port of previous iOS devices with the USB-C port found on Mac and PC devices, Apple is sending a clear message: The iPad Pro is not meant to be a toy or a curiosity or an alternate device. It is just as serious a device as a computer, Apple suggests, and if that’s true we should judge it accordingly.

But just because the iPad Pro needs to be taken as seriously as a computer doesn’t mean it should be judged as a PC. The iPad is not a computer, not as the term’s been defined for the past 40 years. It’s something new and different, and it excels in some ways that PCs don’t while also struggling to do some things that PCs do well.

No, the iPad Pro can’t do everything a PC can do—nor should we expect it to, because it’s not a PC. If you choose to use an iPad Pro rather than a MacBook or a Windows laptop, you are presumably doing so because some aspect of the iPad Pro makes it more appealing than those products. In other words, there’s something else it does better than those devices, making it worth the trade-off.

Better is to judge the iPad on what it is—and where its potential lies. While it’s misguided to consider the iPad’s path incomplete until it turns itself into a PC, it’s fair to ask if the spectacular hardware Apple’s developed here is being let down by its software.

The iPad Pro isn’t a PC, and shouldn’t be judged as such. It’s something new, and different. But being new and different doesn’t mean it gets a free pass. It’s still got to measure up.

You have to judge a product on what it is.

Continue Reading "iPad Pro 2018 review: A computer, not a PC"

By Jason Snell

MacBook Air review: Center of the Mac world?

Think back to the fall of 2010. The iPad was just a few months old, and Apple introduced a new design for the MacBook Air. The previous model was an impressively thin and light laptop (that could famously fit in a mailing envelope), but it was expensive and had a single USB port concealed beneath a weird flip-down door. But the new models—and there were two, at 13 and 11 inches—were entirely different. They were still thin and light, but now they offered two USB ports and a new wedge-shaped design.

In that moment, the MacBook Air went from being a bit of an oddball to being the heart and soul of the Mac laptop line—and since two-thirds of Mac sales are laptops, it’s probably safe to say that the MacBook Air is the definitive Mac of this decade. For the past eight years, its exterior design has largely remained unchanged, as other products have come and gone.

Just when we thought it was dead, after several years of essentially no updates, the MacBook Air has returned with a new version that’s clearly inspired by the classic design. It’s been so long since the last major MacBook Air update, in fact, that most of the “new” features on this device are simply a recap of all the changes Apple has made to other Macs the past few years, finally rolled into this one: a new keyboard, Retina display, Force Touch trackpad, Apple-designed T2 processor, USB-C/Thunderbolt 3, “Hey Siri”, and Touch ID.

Surprise! The definitive Mac of the 2010s is going to survive this decade. And while this MacBook Air is dramatically different from previous models in many ways, it’s also got a bunch of familiar touches that make it undeniably a MacBook Air. Like its predecessors, it’s not the computer for everyone… but it will probably be the most popular laptop among the (count ‘em) six models Apple currently offers.

Continue Reading "MacBook Air review: Center of the Mac world?"

The new space gray Mac mini (top) with its silver second-generation predecessor.

By Jason Snell

Mac mini 2018 review: The Swiss army knife of Macs returns

When the Mac mini was introduced at Macworld Expo in 2005, what caught the eye was the $499 base price, the lowest price ever for a Mac 1. In an era where the iPod was in the process of entirely rehabbing the Apple brand in the eyes of the general public, the Mac mini was for switchers—people who decided that the iPod was so good, maybe a computer made by Apple would be better than whatever PC they were using right then.

It was a good idea, and I suspect that the Mac mini drove a lot of switchers—or at least got them into an Apple Store, where perhaps they ended up walking out with an iMac instead.

Apple and the Mac are in very different place today, though. Most of the Macs it sells are laptops. The concept of the low-end desktop switcher feels outmoded. (Which is not to say there aren’t any, just that there maybe aren’t as many as there might have been in 2005.)

In the intervening 13 years, the Mac mini has become something different. As the one Mac without a built-in monitor that isn’t an expensive and large Mac Pro, it’s become a bit of a Swiss army knife, fitting as a tiny Internet or file server (I’ve had a Mac mini running in my house more or less constantly for more than a decade), running lights and audio in theaters and at rock concerts, and thousands of other small niches that are vitally important for the people who live in them.

Just last week, hours after an Apple media event, I found myself in an edit bay at the offices of Stitcher in midtown Manhattan, recording a podcast. The multi-microphone, multi-display audio setup was powered by—you guessed it—a Mac mini.

Apple has witnessed how the Mac mini has gone from being the best Mac it could build for $499 to one that’s a vital tool for professional and home users in a variety of contexts. And so, after a long time in the wilderness, the Mac mini has at last been updated—the right way. The last time the Mac mini got updated, Apple took away the highest-end configurations. This time, the Mac mini has been built with those many niche uses in mind.

  1. For the record, you had to pay an additional $50 for Bluetooth, $79 for Wi-Fi, and $100 for a SuperDrive, and you could max out the Mac mini at $1200 if you tried. ↩

Continue Reading "Mac mini 2018 review: The Swiss army knife of Macs returns"

By Jason Snell

iPhone XS review: The future, as promised, is now

It’s hard to believe that it’s been nearly a month since I took possession of an iPhone XS and XS Max. In the intervening four weeks I’ve taken photos and video, traveled on a business trip, gotten stuck in hideous commute traffic. That’s life. And throughout, the iPhone XS has proven itself as a phone that’s got all the benefits of the excellent iPhone X, with some subtle tech upgrades, a massively improved camera, and—perhaps most significantly—a bigger screen if you want it.

Same as it ever was

After a year with the iPhone X, switching the iPhone XS was not much of a disruption. (I’ve been using the same case as the one I used with the iPhone X.) Apple hasn’t perfected the process of migrating from one phone to another, but it’s coming ever closer. Back in 2015, Myke Hurley and I spent 90 minutes detailing all the annoyances in migrating to our new iPhone 6S models. On what should be one of the most fun moments on any tech enthusiast’s calendar—iPhone upgrade day!—we ended up getting frustrated with a long chain of annoyances that soured the entire experience.

Things are much better now, starting from the moment where your old iPhone senses that a new iPhone is in setup mode nearby. That kicks off a whole local information-exchange experience that gets you most of the way to upgraded with a minimum of password re-entry. I’d love for it to be even more frictionless, but it feels very much like Apple has done everything it can while also keeping its security model intact. Restoring Apple Pay only requires re-entering of CVV codes. Even restoring apps from the App Store seems faster than it used to!

Since biometric data is not transferrable between devices, of course you have to set up Face ID when you move to the iPhone XS. I’m still flabbergasted about how easy it is to set up Face ID—you tilt your head a couple of times and that’s it. Apple says Face ID is faster on the iPhone XS than on the iPhone X due to the faster A12 processor, and after a month I guess I can see it. It’s hardly a shout-from-the-rooftops improvement, but it’s faster—and it was already pretty great. Face ID all the things! 1

So let’s deal with this up front: The iPhone XS is a better iPhone X. I’ll get into the details in the rest of this review, but if you spent $999 or more on an iPhone X last year, and you’re not on some sort of annual replacement plan (or don’t have a family member to roll your phone down to), you can probably hold off on upgrading this year.

That’s not a condemnation of the iPhone XS, but a compliment to just how far forward the iPhone X pushed the iPhone line. It was a truly great upgrade.

Staring into the sun

The defining feature of the iPhone XS upgrade is the camera. But these days when you talk about a camera, you’re really talking about the combination of an image sensor, a set of lenses, signal-processing hardware, and complicated (machine-learning assisted) software running on powerful processors. This is what smartphone cameras are now, and as long as the laws of physics require smartphones to only be a handful of millimeters thick, that’s not going to change.

(I assume that eventually, the back of every smartphone will either be one giant light-sensitive surface or an array of dozens of cameras, intelligently capturing the scene around you and using powerful algorithms to create a perfect representation of what you saw. Either that or the cameras will migrate into our smart glasses or smart hats or some other smart object not yet devised.)

For now, though, we’ve got a camera so good that you can shoot straight into the sun and it kind of doesn’t matter, other than the risks of J.J. Abrams-style lens flare. A lesson anyone using a camera learns early on is that you don’t want to shoot backlit subjects, because the light from behind them will wash out the rest of the picture, and you’ll be left with silhouettes or a completely useless, blown-out image.

Using the iPhone XS camera has required me to retrain myself. You’re always going to be better off not shooting directly into the sun, but it matters a lot less when every shot you take is actually a combination of multiple shots and exposures capturing different portions of the image at different light levels, and sticking them all together on the fly into a single image that can show the sun, the sky, and the faces of the people who are feeling that sun on their backs. This is a technique Apple calls Smart HDR, and it is a remarkable step toward making iPhone photos match what your eye actually sees.

(Our eyes—and the powerful neural engine that processes the image signals coming from them—can see simultaneously in bright light and dark shadow in a way that our cameras just can’t. But the cameras are getting better all the time.)

Is the ultimate goal to make every photo out of an iPhone camera exactly match what you see in your mind’s eye when you look at the scene? Not necessarily, no. Part of the power of an experienced photographer is using the technology at their disposal to capture a specific image, one that doesn’t necessarily copy reality but represents some aspect of it. Photography is the art of finding a still image with very specific bounds in a dynamic, 360-degree world.

That said… when it comes to snapshots? Yeah, the ultimate goal is to save what you saw with your own eyes so you can remember it later. There are lots of apps that will let advanced photographers take advantage of the power of the iPhone XS camera to take amazing pictures—but by default, in the Camera app, the goal is rightly to capture that scene you want to keep forever. And if it involves two kids playing in the sand at the beach with the sun inconveniently setting behind them, then it needs to do everything it can to represent that moment despite the less-than-ideal conditions. That moment won’t come again and can’t be restaged.

This animation may give you some idea of the difference in detail between Smart HDR and non-HDR shooting on the iPhone XS.

In the past month I have taken a huge number of photos pointing more or less straight at the sun. I’ve taken shots on the side of a mountain with bright sunlight in the foreground and deep, deep shadow in the background. The iPhone XS did a great job rendering those scenes—in fact, in one shot on the mountain, I was standing in the sun and couldn’t see anything in the shadows, but the iPhone managed to reveal some of it. Comparing a Smart HDR photo and its single-exposure equivalent, I found that Smart HDR exposed detail in sunlit spots that would’ve otherwise been blown out. In a shot up from within a dark forest canopy, Smart HDR images were able to render the sky through the trees as blue with puffy clouds, as opposed to just a bright white.

I’m similarly impressed with the video-capture ability that Apple’s calling “extended HDR.” In essence, if you’re taking video at 30 frames per second or less, the iPhone actually captures pairs of frames, one stepped up in exposure, one stepped down, and then combines them on the fly into a single frame that includes more image information from both the bright and dark spaces in an image. Think about that for a minute—it’s capturing 4K video at 60 frames per second, analyzing two 4K frames, and merging them into a single frame every thirtieth of a second. It’s a staggering amount of processing power, but in the end all that matters is that now your video shows the details of light and shadow better than it did before.

And that’s all that really should matter. It’s nice that when it rolls out new products, Apple shows some of its work—tech nerds like me want to know what’s going on behind the scenes. But for just about everyone else, the point is that photos and videos look better and more like what we saw with our own eyes.

Is there more to be done on this front? Always. Google continues to push its computational photography forward in the Pixel line, with the latest model offering its own tricks to improve image resolution, low-light photography, and finding just the right fraction of a second to take the perfect image even if you pressed the shutter button at a slightly less optimal time. Our cameras are getting smarter and smarter. Eventually all we’ll have to do is point them at a scene and let them work their magic.

Large and in charge

The other notable thing about the iPhone XS is, of course, that it comes in two sizes. The iPhone XS Max is a return to the big-and-small buddy iPhone movie Apple’s been running for the past few years, but this time rebooted for the iPhone X. The XS Max is, in fact, so much like the standard iPhone XS that it’s uncanny how your perspective shifts when you use one of the models for a while.

An hour with the iPhone XS Max and the iPhone XS and iPhone X suddenly look like little toy phones. A day with the XS, and suddenly the XS Max seems like a monster.

The fact is, the two models are identical other than their screen size (and a little bit of extra battery thanks to the extra volume of the device). So you don’t need to shop for an iPhone based on features, as some people did with the iPhone Plus models—namely buying a larger phone to get access to a better zoom lens.

I’ve never been a fan of larger phones, but since the iPhone X was itself larger than the iPhone 6/7/8 series that preceded it, that means that it’s less of a size jump from the iPhone XS to the XS Max. I’d argue that the iPhone XS’s screen is plenty large and fits better in my hand, so the extra pixels of the XS Max aren’t worth the awkwardness of holding a larger phone. If you have larger hands than I do, you might feel very differently. There’s a phone for both of us!

If you have hands that are smaller than mine, though, you may not be as pleased. Certainly, many people are lamenting the death of the iPhone SE and the lack of an update to the (larger, but not as large as the XS) iPhone 8. The iPhone XS is the smallest 2018-vintage iPhone, and it ain’t small.

I get it. One size does not fit all. And I’m hopeful that at some point—perhaps next spring, midway between this year’s revisions and next year’s—Apple will roll out another phone model or two that are a little bit smaller.

But these phones, as well as the forthcoming iPhone XR, are a reminder that in terms of the global smartphone market, bigger is better. It’s never any fun to be a fan of something that is a niche of a much larger market, but here we are. If you don’t like chocolate or vanilla ice cream, it’s good that there are more flavors. Right now there aren’t very many flavors of iPhone. I hope that changes in 2019.

Leaving aside the issue of smaller phones, there’s also the issue of a larger phone—the iPhone XR. I got a chance to try one out for a few minutes after the iPhone launch event in September, and I’ve got to be honest: It seemed pretty great. The screen’s not an OLED like the iPhone XS Max, and it only has the one rear camera—but it costs $350 less than the Max, and it comes in a bunch of bright, pretty colors that the XS models don’t.

It’s an interesting gambit on Apple’s part, to expect some percentage of users to opt for the more expensive, higher-end phone when the lower-end model is largely just as well equipped, comes in fun colors, and is a big cost saving. But then again, at $749, it’s not like the iPhone XR is a bargain-basement model. Apple wins either way. Isn’t that just like them?

Well, here we are in the future

In 2017, Apple said that the iPhone X was the future of smartphones.

Now it’s 2018, and… the iPhone X is still great. Story checks out. After a year with my iPhone X, I can’t imagine going back to Touch ID or a phone with big bezels on the face.

The iPhone XS, then, is today’s phone, today. Yes, it’s a small step forward for the iPhone X, but the iPhone X itself was a big step forward. If you haven’t joined the X family yet, this is a great time to jump on. If you want a larger phone, the XS Max will suffice—as will the XR, probably.

Is this an incremental update? Sure, but most of Apple’s updates are incremental. It’s only after a few years that you really notice all the major changes that have been happening, bit by bit. Last year’s jump to the iPhone X was unusually dramatic, but this year’s iterative step is not without its own kind of appeal. I’ll miss the iPhone X, which led a mere year-long existence, but the iPhone XS is the same phone—only better.

  1. I’m looking at you, iPad Pro. ↩

By Jason Snell

Apple Watch Series 4 review: The invisible redesign

In the fall of 2014 the big question was: What is the Apple Watch good for? The company’s expansive answer was, essentially: What isn’t it good for? The result was a product that was new and interesting and weird and entirely unfocused.

In contrast, today’s Apple seems to have a laser focus when it comes to what the Apple Watch is for: Health, Fitness, and Connections. Can you do math problems on it? Sure. But it’s really a health guardian, fitness coach, and tool to help you stay connected with people and information sources that matter to you.

Better focus means better products. Apple has spent the last four years listening to and watching its customers, learning which features of the Apple Watch have resonated—and which ones haven’t. (Goodbye, Digital Touch!) Apple’s also got four more years of watch building and technological development under its belt.

The result is the Apple Watch Series 4, a new model that—combined with watchOS 5—makes it clear that Apple has left everyone else in the dust when it comes to smart watches. This is not a product for everybody—you can get a cheaper fitness monitor or a cheaper (or vastly more expensive!) timepiece. But if you need a device that fits into Apple’s areas of focus, the Apple Watch Series 4 will fit perfectly.

Continue Reading "Apple Watch Series 4 review: The invisible redesign"

By Jason Snell

iPad 2018 review: Practicality over luxury

The fact of our society is that nice things cost money and nicer things cost more money. What you buy depends on your means, but also your priorities. At $329, the new sixth-generation iPad doesn’t have a bunch of the features of the more expensive iPad Pro, but if those features aren’t your priorities, you can spend half what you would on an iPad Pro and get an iPad that’s faster than the 2016 iPad Pro.

For years I’ve driven a Honda Civic. It’s about as far from a luxury car as you can get. The new iPad is a little like that car: Not the fanciest thing you can buy, but it’ll provide you with a solid, reliable tool to get you where you need to go. There’s not a thing wrong with that.

Continue Reading "iPad 2018 review: Practicality over luxury"

By Jason Snell

Review: Twitterrific returns to the Mac, via iOS

I started using Twitter because of Twitterrific for Mac. When the Iconfactory first released the app, I signed up for a Twitter account and started chatting with my friends. That was ten years ago. Twitter has changed, mobile devices reign supreme, and Twitterrific for Mac stopped being updated many years ago. But as of Tuesday, it’s back, with a new version 5.0 funded by a successful Kickstarter.

This new Twitterrific for Mac is basically a 1.0 product, based on the code base of Twitterrific for iOS, an app that’s been continually updated during the span when the old Mac version had fallen entirely by the wayside. Using the iOS code base is what allows the new Mac version to exist at all, but it does lead to the occasional interface oddity.

On iOS, I use Twitterrific exclusively—don’t email me, Tweetbotists—but on the Mac I switched to the official Twitter app a few years ago. It’s not a great app, but it’s better since it stopped being abandonware. For the past few weeks, I’ve been using Twitterrific for Mac extensively, and I’ve found that it can mostly replace Twitter for Mac for me—but there are a few places where it definitely falls short. (Most of this can be placed at the feet of Twitter, which limits the access third-party apps have to Twitter’s rich data soup, while giving its own app full access.)

As an iOS user, there are features of Twitterrific for Mac that I take for granted, because they exist on iOS: The interface is colorful, with different colors for different sorts of Tweets. It’s customizable, with several different fonts and font sizes available. And there are some nice Mac-only developments, like the ability to open multiple windows with different accounts or aspects of your timeline. (It sort of makes me want the ability to view a couple of timelines when using Twitterrific on my iPad Pro in landscape view, I have to admit…)

This is essentially a 1.0 product, and there are several features of the iOS version of Twitterrific that are just absent here: You can’t manage lists, or set up muffles or mutes on people or keywords or hashtags. (The good news is, Twitterrific for Mac will sync muffles and mutes from iOS and honor them… you just can’t edit them on the Mac side.) The Today view, Twitterrific’s attempt to emulate the secret weapon of Twitter’s native app (the Notifications tab, which shows you who is retweeting and favoriting your posts) is also absent.

There are also several places where the app just doesn’t seem quite properly adapted to the Mac. Text sizes seem a little too large, even when I scale them down, especially when it comes to window headers. I frequently get frustrated that I can’t bring up a reply list by double clicking anywhere in a tweet—if you get too close to the text of the tweet, it thinks I’m selecting a single word of that tweet. (I’m never doing that.)

Because iOS relies on touch interaction, it has no real concept of hovering over something with your cursor—something that happens on the Mac all the time. Since Twitterrific hides the interaction icons on each tweet until you select a tweet, I have to click to select the Tweet, then click to reply. I’m okay with Twitterrific hiding the icons, but maybe when I move my cursor over the tweet, they should appear? It would save me a click every single time.

Back in the old days, I used to customize the color scheme of Twitterrific for Mac, which was a huge pain—you had to open the application bundle and edit a text file. Fortunately, Iconfactory has built theme editing right into the Twitterrific for Mac app, including support for importing and exporting settings. The Theme tab is a hidden feature you can activate by holding down the Option key while opening the app’s Preferences window. It’s not a friendly interface by any means, but that’s just fine—it let me tweak my settings and create a set of colors that was much more pleasing to me.

Overall, I’m happy with how Twitterrific for Mac is progressing. Right now I suspect its target audience is people who use Twitterrific on iOS and want their familiarity to cross over to their Macs. (I’m in that group!) I’m not sure it is quite ready to appeal to users of the official Twitter app or most other Mac Twitter apps, but with continued polish and addition of a few missing features, it could be in short order. But even today, it’s a more complete app than I expected when I backed the Kickstarter, and I’m happy to have it back on my Mac.