Another September Apple Event, come and gone. This one was a real corker. I expect Apple to hold two public events at the end of the year: new iPhones and whatever in September, and then new iPads and whatever in October. If the newwhatsit is a fresh category for Apple, there’s generally a lot of info to unpack and historically not a lot to be gained by just lining up the media in a large room and then turning a firehose on us.
(I say “us,” but in truth, I watched the San Francisco event from the comfort of the sidewalk outside the Ed Sullivan Theater in New York. I already had tickets to Stephen Colbert’s second show. Sorry, Apple, but Colbert invited me first and I didn’t want to be rude.)
But Wednesday, we got the hose. New iPhones? Of course. But they also showed off an update to the Apple TV that’s so significant, it should be considered a relaunch. As well as a new iPad that’s got me rethinking my definition of a tablet I’ve been using since Generation One.
Les iPheunes Nouveax
I’ll begin with the expected: new iPhones. The iPhone 6S and 6S Plus look keep last year’s case designs but improve everything inside. New CPU? Check. Both phones have received a significant camera upgrade. Both models now shoot at 12 megapixels, thank Heaven, but the star of any new iPhone camera is its custom image processors. Apple wouldn’t be showing a certain demo photo if it didn’t look terrific, but I can’t help but notice that this new set of samples move past “handsome people at the beach at sunset” (which even a digital camera made by Edison in 1899 ought to be able to handle) and into the kind of shots that traditionally identify the limitations of phone photography.
Video has been bumped up to 4K resolution. The selfie camera is 5 megapixels. There’s a new “Live Photo” shooting feature (which you’re free to leave engaged all the time) that shoots the 12 megapixel photo you wanted, but also captures a few seconds of video around it. It’s a photo of your kid smiling, and if you care to linger it’s also a short clip of your kid giggling.
“3D Touch” is the most significant core enhancement to the iOS interface language since the beginning. The new iPhones’ screens are backed with force sensors. And unlike force touch on Apple Watch and the 2015 MacBooks, Apple is urging a consistent meaning for the gesture across all apps. 3D Touch seems to mean “dip deeper.” Tap an application to launch it, but a 3D Touch exposes a popup menu so that you can just create a new Facebook post without explicitly digging through the app to find the feature. 3D Touch on an item in a list (new emails, say) floats a popup so you can peek at the content without leaving the list of new messages.
Apple also added a new option for acquiring the new iPhone. You can buy an unlocked iPhone 6S or 6S Plus direct from any Apple Store and pay for it over two years in monthly installments of between $32 and $45, depending on model and configuration. ApplecCare+ extended coverage is included. After 12 months, you can swap your phone for the next iteration of the same device for no extra fees, which starts you off on another 24-month schedule of installments.
You can still buy price-subsidized phones on two-year contracts from carriers, still at the same pricing tiers as with previous iPhones (from $199 for the 16 gigabyte iPhone 6S to $499 for the 128 megabyte 6S Plus).
Mathematically, it’s a good deal. Particularly when you throw in the AppleCare, which includes two years of warranty coverage and the ability to accidentally destroy it and get it replaced for $100 twice. More carriers are moving toward plans like this one (selling in installments outright instead of selling at subsidized discounts).
I just have an annoying spiritual concern about the way it’ll encourage some consumers to just pay $30 a month forever, and keep wanting a new phone every year. I’m a firm believer in the need to inhale and exhale (optimally while watching 4K video of a rock garden) before buying a new phone. Isn’t your old one perfectly good? You’re sure it’s garbage? OK, then shouldn’t you at least spend a month looking around to see if maybe something else that’s been released in the past year will suit your needs better?
These are the annoying spiritual thoughts that entered my head as I learned about this. And, of course, they were delivered in my Dad’s voice.
Pre-orders on the new iPhones begin Sept. 12, and they’ll be available to consumers on Sept. 25.
The changes to Apple TV are huge, relative to the product on the shelves today. The new one is a much more powerful box and shows off the difference between Apple TV as originally conceived (a way to enjoy home media libraries on a TV) and what it needs to be in 2015 (something akin to an always-on, Internet-connected computer).
But relative to the Roku, Amazon’s Fire TV, or the latest stuff from Google? It would be glib to say that I thought Apple was merely playing catchup, but I’d be dishonest if I said that the demos on Wednesday initially left me excited. I just saw a long list of features — even voice search — that I’ve had on these other devices for quite some time.
Some new products impress me in the demo. Apple TV impressed me after I had time to sleep on it. The new Apple TV could potentially close a huge, historical gap in Apple’s lineup.
Its top of the marquee feature is so significant that other features seem to fade away behind it. Apple TV now runs a formal high-level operating system that Apple’s calling tvOS, which constitutes the device’s new center of gravity. The basic user interface looks the same (the grid of buttons has been refreshed, but not reinvented), but developers can now create brand-new Apple TV apps. A cable channel that wants to stream content to Apple TV doesn’t need to strike a content deal with Apple, and it looks like it’s going to be easy as pie for iOS developers to port games to the thing.
That last thing has clearly informed the design of the new remote. All of the things that are useful to games (and other apps originally conceived for phones) are there: accelerometers, a touchpad and a microphone.
The other purpose of the mic is right there in Apple’s name for that controller: Siri Remote. The remote responds to spoken commands, such as “Show me the latest Project Runway” or “Skip ahead five minutes.” Search runs across multiple apps. Siri can find you episodes of “Columbo” through multiple installed streaming apps, or (if you are a viewer of taste and sophistication) your own video library.
Siri Remote looks aces. It connects via Bluetooth, so you can finally stash the Apple TV box out of the room’s line of sight. Bluetooth also makes me wonder — OK, hope — that it can one day be used with Macs and iPads.
And Apple TV works fine with other Bluetooth input devices such as game controllers and keyboards.
New input controller, new OS, new app library, powerful A8 processor and now Apple talks about how much storage is on the Apple TV. The 32 gigabyte model is $149, with the 64 gigabyte one going for $199.
So, yeah: this is Apple’s newest home computer.
The obvious kinds of apps for Apple TV deliver entertainment: streaming music and video, and games. But go beyond that and the possibilities are intriguing. What if iOS developers ported the best iPad productivity apps to tvOS? The result would turn Apple TV into a slick tiny desktop that costs next to nothing.
No, an Apple TV running tvOS versions of my favorite iOS productivity apps wouldn’t be as powerful as a Mac. But a Chromebook isn’t as powerful as a Windows notebook, either and they’re intensely useful for many things.
At less than $200 a device, Chromebooks are also way way way more accessible for budget consumers and schools. And now, Apple has their own sub-$200 computer that connects to a screen and can also be connected to a keyboard.
Apple TV’s feature set is definitely familiar but I think Apple TV will turn out to be way more than the sum of its parts. As with so many of Apple’s other consumer devices, it’s a canvas that’s going to be defined by its app library. And Apple excels at motivating developers.
This could be reallllly interesting. At minimum, Apple no longer has a streaming box that sucks, so they’re already well ahead of the game.
Stay tuned for my thoughts on the new iPad Pro