Apple’s Quiet Launch Brings Welcome Updates

on March 20, 2020

Apple skipped the virtual press event and launched its latest updates to the iPad Pro, MacBook Air, and Mac Mini via press release. Without executives on stage, it may have felt like a quiet launch, but Apple is delivering some key updates here that should make some serious noise in the market.

iPad Pro with LiDAR Scanner
Apple continues to iterate on its world-class iPad Pro form factor. The latest 11- and 12.9-inch versions of the high-end tablet feature a new A12Z Bionic chip, a Pro camera system with a 12MP Wide and a 10MP Ultra Wide camera, and five studio-quality microphones. Perhaps the most notable new hardware feature is the LiDAR Scanner, which Apple says can measure the distance to surrounding objects up to five meters away. The company says the scanner, combined with the new camera and new computer vision algorithms on the A12Z, will drive improved augmented reality experiences.

Rumors last year suggested that Apple had hoped to add the LiDAR Scanner to at least one version of the iPhone, but it wasn’t yet ready. Its inclusion here suggests we can expect to see it ship on one or more of this year’s phones, too (although its placement where the iPhone Pro’s current third lens resides brings up some interesting questions). LiDAR is short for Light Detection and Ranging, and I’m a little surprised Apple marketing didn’t come up with a better name for its version of this technology. Others have called similar technologies “time of flight” sensors, which isn’t much more user friendly. While the naming isn’t sexy, the capabilities should be. Essentially the LiDAR Scanner should drive much more robust AR experiences on the device. Apple points to instant AR placement, improved motion capture, and people occlusion.

I’m pleased to see Apple continuing to push forward with AR methodically. These new hardware features, coupled with continued updates to iPadOS, should result in some of the best AR experiences you can have on a handheld device. It will be interesting to see how developers utilize these new features to improve their existing apps and create new ones. It’s worth noting that mobile devices like the iPad also continue to be a primary way many enterprise organizations are testing the waters of AR usage. I expect commercial-focused SDKs and applications—such as PTC’s Vuforia Engine and Vuforia Studio—will begin to leverage these new features straight away.

The other big iPad-related announcement was the addition of touchpad support to iPadOS and a supporting product, called the Magic Keyboard, which is due to ship in May. The Magic Keyboard may well represent the most wished-for product of many die-hard iPad loyalists. It attaches to the iPad Pro via magnets, and it allows for screen angle adjustments. In addition to the all-important touchpad, it includes scissor mechanism keys (with 1mm of travel) and—super importantly—a Type C USB port for charging that leaves the existing iPad Type C port open for accessories.

I can’t wait to try out the new Magic Keyboard, and I’m pleased to see that it will work with existing iPad Pro models. From a design perspective—and without having used it yet—the biggest issue I have is that Apple continues to leave out a place to store the Apple Pencil securely. I’ve been using a $10 case that brilliantly holds the pencil where it can charge, and it never falls off in my bag. Microsoft cleverly addressed this same issue with its Surface Pro X Signature keyboard. It boggles my mind that Apple won’t make this simple feature available in its cases. Beyond that design issue, my other biggest quibble is Apple’s pricing for the Magic Keyboard, which starts at $299. Yes, there are some great new features in the product, and I rarely criticize Apple for its premium pricing, but that price tag is too high. Yes, Microsoft charges $269 for the Surface Pro X Signature keyboard, but that price includes the Slim Pen, whereas you must buy the Apple Pencil 2 separately from Apple for another $119. That means, all in, a new entry-level 11-inch iPad Pro with all the accessories will cost $1,167. That feels too high at a time when iPadOS still feels like a work in progress. Will I buy one? Yes. But at $299, it feels as if Apple missed an opportunity to cast a wider net with this product launch.

Updated MacBook Air, Mac Mini
I’m not happy with Apple’s Magic Keyboard pricing for the iPad Pro, but I am pleased that the company lowered the starting price for its updated MacBook Air to $999. The new notebook features the new Magic Keyboard, faster Intel processors, and a new base-level storage allotment of 256GB.

Each of these new additions is incredibly important. One by one, Apple is replacing the products in its lineup that shipped with the former flawed keyboard design, and now its entry-level buyers can once again buy a notebook with a keyboard that should last the lifetime of the device. The processor upgrade is also huge and moves the lineup from Intel’s 8th generation to its 10th generation products. Apple says to expect a 2X performance boost plus 80% faster graphics. The $999 product is a 1.1GHz dual-core Intel Core i3 processor; an extra $100 buys the 1.1-GHz i5, or $250 buys you a 1.2-GHz i7.

Apple also updated the Mac mini, increasing the storage of the starting $799 product to include 256GB instead of the previous 128GB. I’m happy to see Apple showing the mini some love again, although I would have liked to see a processor bump here, too.

A Strong Lineup in Uncertain Times
As we head into the second quarter of the year, Apple’s iPad and Mac lineups are looking quite robust. Pricing complaints aside, the iPad Pro continues to be one of the most technically impressive hardware products on the planet. iPad OS still needs work, but I’m hoping to see it evolve into something on par with the hardware in the next 18-24 months. The new MacBook Air addresses some of the primary issues many people had about the product and should return it to its former “easy recommendation” status. And more storage for the Mac Mini is a plus.

The real question Apple faces–along with the rest of the technology industry—is what the market will look like for the remainder of the year. As an increasing number of countries move to address the ongoing threat of COVID-19, we already see dramatically negative impacts on the world economy. While we’ve seen an early surge in technology buying as consumers and companies buy products to facilitate working and educating at home, we’re likely to see a significant slowdown in the coming months as everyone waits to see how things play out. Strange times, indeed.
As we find our way forward, please be kind to each other and stay safe.