Normally, I’d kick off with the latest iPhone lineup, but not in 2020 …
Any other year, the new iPhones would be Apple’s headline news, but this year they were – in my view – completely eclipsed by the new M1 Macs. So much so that I’m not even going to mention the Intel Macs Apple released earlier in the year; those are just holdovers until the M1 versions land.
Apple really seems to have pulled off a stunning achievement here, with truly dramatic improvements to both performance and battery life, while still ensuring compatibility with Intel apps. We’ve also seen a rapid rollout of native M1 apps.
The new MacBook Air has not only solidified its position as the default Mac for those who don’t need the capabilities of the more powerful machines, but has boosted performance to such a point that it is now a decent option for many of those who would previously have opted for a MacBook Pro.
We’ll of course see more M1 Macs to come, with even more impressive performance as Apple continues on its two-year total transition. This is a great start, and I’m excited to see what the later machines will offer. No question here on Apple’s report card rating: 10/10.
iPhone 12 lineup
This year saw a return to the classic slab-sided design not seen since the original iPhone SE. I’m a huge fan of that, greatly preferring it to the rounded sides of the more recent models.
For me, the biggest news was the smallest phone. I’d been calling on Apple for years to create a true next-gen iPhone SE, and the iPhone 12 mini is just that. The irony, of course, was that the superior camera features of the iPhone 12 Pro Max persuaded me to buy the largest model rather than the smallest, but I still think it’s fantastic that Apple made this phone. Check out Bradley Chambers’ diary series for more.
The vanilla iPhone 12 provides a lot of phone for $800, offering many of the features of the more expensive Pro model. Same chip, same display (bar brightness), same size, same front camera, most of the same video features.
The Pro provides a worthwhile step up on the photography front, with triple cameras, ProRAW, and LiDAR scanner for better auto-focus and Night mode portraits.
The Pro Max gives you all of the Pro benefits, of course, plus a larger camera sensor and a bigger screen.
All four got 5G, which will become more relevant than it is now as the infrastructure ramps up, but only US models got the fastest mmWave variant, which was a big disappointment for those living in big cities, where mmWave hotspots are likely to spring up pretty rapidly at busy places like transit stations.
I wasn’t expecting to be that interested MagSafe. I prefer charging stands to pads, so there wasn’t an immediate option to grab me there, and I wasn’t convinced that the MagSafe wallet would be as convenient as a normal wallet case. However, the wallet succeeded in winning me over.
To me, this is a solid lineup, with something for everyone – for the usual Apple demographic values of ‘everyone,’ of course – with particularly good news for photographers who use the iPhone as the camera they always have with them.
One disappointment was the lack of Touch ID on the power button to supplement Face ID. Obviously face masks have made Face ID a lot less useful than usual this year, and Apple’s timescales clearly meant that the design had been finalized ahead of the full extent of the pandemic. I fully expect to see this feature added next year.
Overall, though, I give the iPhone 12 lineup a well-earned 8/10.
The iPad Magic Keyboard
A keyboard accessory for an iPad wouldn’t normally be notable, but Apple really did pull off something special with its iPad Magic Keyboard. It’s not only a great keyboard, but the company also brought a trackpad to the device for the first time, which makes it a far more Mac-like device when using it as a laptop.
Additionally, Apple solved the greatest pain-point for iPad keyboard fans: switching between tablet and laptop modes. I was a long-time fan of Brydge keyboards, but inserting the iPad into the prongs was always a somewhat annoying process. With Apple’s keyboard, attaching and detaching the iPad couldn’t be easier.
My only complaints here are the price, which is definitely pushing the boundaries, and the distinct lack of Apple styling. The Brydge keyboard still looks much more like something made by Apple than the real thing does. So 2/10 for styling, but 10/10 for functionality.
Revised iPad lineup
Speaking of iPads, this year brought a worthwhile performance bump to the $329 entry-level iPad, but also gave us a whole new iPad Air. Offering most of the features of the iPad Pro at a $599 starting price was both unexpected and welcome.
For me, the 2020 iPad Air is the new default iPad. It’s such a big jump over the $329 model that I’d recommend it to anyone whose budget can stretch to it. Conversely, you now need a very good reason to opt instead for the 11-inch iPad Pro.
But Apple is no fool: if you want the largest screen, you’re still going to have to stump up for the Pro model even if the Air features were enough for you.
As with the iPhone, there’s now an iPad for everyone.
My only complaint would be no Pro-style iPad mini; it would have been great to see that updated with the same external dimensions but a larger display thanks to smaller bezels. I do, though, understand why Apple hasn’t done it: the main buyers of the mini are not consumers – who have mostly embraced larger iPhones instead – but enterprise customers who use them for things like warehouse inventory and electronic ordering systems for restaurant waitstaff. Those customers don’t care about new styling or larger screens.
All-in-all, though, the iPad Air means the new iPad lineup gets 9/10.
The Apple Watch lineup
Like the new iPad Air, the Apple Watch SE gives you a lot of watch from the money, and the new Family Setup makes it a viable option for kids in more wealthy families.
The $199 price point of the Series 3 also provides fantastic value for those content with a smaller display and willing to sacrifice features like fall-detection, ECG, and noise monitoring.
Apple hasn’t yet persuaded me to upgrade from my Series 4, however. The always-on display of the Series 5 didn’t seem particularly worthwhile to me, since the display comes on whenever I turn my wrist to look at it, and the Series 6 didn’t introduce anything persuasive either. However, that’s more of a testament to how good the Series 4 is.
Overall, it’s a great lineup, so 8/10 here.
For me, the original HomePod was and remains the most under-rated product in Apple’s lineup. People criticize the smarts of Siri against Alexa and Google Assistant, and think it’s too expensive as a smart speaker. But for me, it’s a really good speaker system first, and a smart speaker second. Most people don’t seem to appreciate just how good a speaker it is for the money.
But while the original HomePod is Apple’s unsung hero, the HomePod mini has been very well-received. It brings affordable multi-room audio to Apple households, and for most people, the sound hits the ‘good enough’ point. Having gone all-in on the full-size models for my multi-room audio, I don’t have a use for the mini personally, but for many, this was exactly what they wanted from an Apple speaker: 8/10.
Speaking of sound … Here Apple has gone in the opposite direction, creating a much more expensive big brother to its AirPods lineup. Not having tried the AirPods Max yet myself, I have to reserve personal judgment, but there has been a pretty consistent story in reviews: good sound, decent comfort, great noise-cancellation. Plus, of course, all the convenience of the instant-pairing feature which is the secret weapon of all AirPods.
The main criticisms have been That Case, and the price. As I noted previously, Apple has priced itself above some of the most popular and well-reviewed premium consumer headphones on the market.
The $549 price of AirPods Max has raised quite a few eyebrows. That is $150 more than the excellent Bowers & Wilkins PX7, which is arguably the product to beat in the wireless over-ear ANC headphone category. It’s $200 more than the Sony WH-1000XM4, which have also been given rave reviews. It’s $250 more than the Bose QC35 II, which completes the set of the most popular premium headphones in this category
That seems a hard sell to me, but again, plenty of people are buying them. I won’t give this one a rating until I’ve had a chance to try them for myself.
Apple had two service launches this year: Apple One, and Apple Fitness+.
Apple One – well, as this is just price bundles, it really comes down to how many Apple services you use, and whether or not you’ll save money on your particular mix. We outlined here the potential savings, and the bottom line is that some people will save worthwhile sums, so Apple gets credit for that for sure.
That said, it doesn’t work for everyone. As someone who has an annual Apple Music subscription and 200GB of iCloud storage, there isn’t an option for me unless I thought it worth paying a small premium for Apple TV+ and Arcade, which I don’t.
The biggest disappointment here is that Apple sticks to its laughable 5GB free iCloud tier. It’s long past time that Apple started offering a realistic amount of storage with an iPhone, and at least throwing in a year’s worth of supplemental storage with each additional Apple product you buy.
For all these reasons, I give Apple One 5/10.
Fitness+ had to be Apple’s most 2020 launch! With gyms closed in many parts of the world, and most of us getting less everyday exercise than usual, a home-based fitness service was well-timed as a 2020 launch, even though it would have been better launched much earlier in the year.
Personally, I find it hard to do exercise for exercise’s sake. I like walking and cycling as ways of getting around, but get very bored very quickly when it comes to pure workouts. But the reviews leave little doubt that this is a winner in terms of motivation and fun, and at $9.99/month it’s a pretty affordable service too, so I think has to get 9/10.
Apple has been coming under increasing antitrust pressure, most of it focused on the App Store. The company had long rejected all criticisms of both the advantages the company gives its own apps over competitor ones, and its 30% cut of app sales. Both things changed in 2020.
Apple quietly made five changes in iOS 14 which were designed to tackle accusations of favoring its own apps over competitor ones. It was a little late in doing so, but they were smart moves.
But Apple’s truly clever move was its Small Business Program. This allowed the company to do a complete U-turn on its previous stance that a 30% commission was normal and acceptable while protecting almost all of its revenue. Some 98% of developers saw their commission rate halved, while Apple still keeps the full 30% it takes from the biggest revenue generators.
Neither step will end all of the antitrust investigations, but the company has significantly dented any case that could be made against it. For sheer cunning, I have to ignore the lateness of Apple’s response and award it 9/10.
Human rights and social issues
I can see the heat rising from the comments already as I write this section, but I think it’s time to include this in my report card.
2020 has seen a continuation of human rights concerns raised over Apple’s supply-chain.
This is a tremendously difficult issue. Apple has a phenomenally complex supply-chain when you trace things right back to raw materials. The company may buy a circuit board from one supplier which has components made by a dozen different upstream suppliers, each of whom may in turn source elements from multiple suppliers who may themselves buy materials from more than one source. Some of these supply chains are six or seven levels deep, with multiple branches at each level.
It can also be incredibly difficult to prove or disprove claims. Apple unquestionably goes to great lengths to try to ensure that its suppliers comply with both the law and the company’s own code of conduct. At the same time, no audit process is perfect, and when suppliers or governments go to equal lengths to cover up wrong-doing, Apple may find itself an unwilling partner in breaches of human rights.
I do absolutely believe Apple would never willingly be complicit in breaches of human rights, and I give the company enormous credit for the steps it takes to guard against this. At the same time, however, there is growing reason to believe that it is now impossible to use suppliers in the Xinjiang region without running a significant risk of the involvement of forced labor.
It’s also undeniable that Apple’s desire for secrecy compresses production timescales dramatically, in a way which means huge use of contract workers – who often lack the protections and benefits enjoyed by permanent employees – and makes working hour violations much more likely. I know Apple can’t do anything about the fact that the world all wants the latest iPhone on launch day, but if it were less obsessed with secrecy, it could have production run over longer timescales in order to stockpile products ready for launch. This would unquestionably improve employment conditions in the company’s supply chain.
So I do think Apple needs to do more here. It’s not enough for Apple not to be knowingly involved in human rights abuses, it also needs to take greater steps to reduce the chances of being an unwilling and unwitting accomplice.
Apple has also historically taken significant tax-avoidance measures. Unlike tax evasion, tax avoidance is legal, and some even mistakenly claim that Apple has a fiduciary duty to its shareholders to minimize the amount of tax it pays. That isn’t true: a board of directors is free to behave in any way it reasonably believes to be in the long-term interests of the business, which can absolutely include taking into account the reputation of the company. Directors are also free to adopt values beyond mere profit-making, as Apple does with Accessibility features, spending way more on them than they generate in revenue. The duty in law is to be transparent with shareholders about how their money is spent, and investors can then choose whether or not to buy stock on that basis.
The company has taken some steps to use less aggressive tax avoidance, but it still behaves in ways that would not be open to small businesses, and which many consider unreasonable. Apple needs to consider what is right as well as what is profitable.
Like any business, Apple benefits from the things paid for by taxes: from an educated workforce through roads to deliver products to its stores to police forces to protect it from looting and so on. Nobody is asking for Apple to pay an unreasonable amount of tax, but simply to play fair. To abide by the spirit of the law, instead of hiring expensive lawyers to find clever ways to abide only by its letter.
Apple’s report card 2020: Overall
Without the first M1 Macs, 2020 would have been a reasonable year for Apple – but a relatively unexceptional one. The highlights would have been the iPhone 12 lineup, the new iPad Air, the iPad Magic Keyboard, and the HomePod mini.
But the M1 Macs are huge. The performance they deliver is just incredible, the new MacBook Air competing with older MacBook Pro models. As for battery life, Apple’s claims tend toward the optimistic, but here it seems the opposite – all the reports are that the machines do genuinely deliver all-day battery life, and that’s something many of us have wanted for a very long time. For me, this truly is the dawning of a new era in Macs, which remain my favorite Apple product.
On the broader front, Apple has done a lot to address its antitrust issues. I hope 2021 will see it do more in the area of social and human rights.
So, that’s my take – what’s yours? Please take our poll, and share your thoughts in the comments. If you need some help remembering everything Apple launched in the course of a busy year, you’ll find a complete list here.
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