NextDraft 

My thanks to Dave Pell for sponsoring this week at DF to promote NextDraft, his “quick, entertaining look at the day’s biggest and best stories, from the top of the news to the very bottom”. Pell is a news junkie’s news junkie, and a kindred spirit of mine. NextDraft is his Daring Fireball.

In normal times, NextDraft is a once-per-weekday newsletter, delivered either by email or a very nice iOS app. These are not normal times, and as the coronavirus crisis continues, NextDraft has gone to a 7-days-a-week schedule.

The once-a-day pace keeps you up to date on the news, but keeps you from being pestered by frequent emails or notifications. NextDraft is not about breaking news — it’s just a carefully curated and cleverly written daily update. You like email? Sign up for the newsletter. Hate email? Get the app.

Here’s the kicker: NextDraft is free of charge. There is no catch. I read NextDraft every day; you should too.


Curse Words

Cursor is an overloaded term. There are two discrete elements of modern computing that we loosely refer to as “cursors”:

  • The icon that moves around on the screen that you control with your mouse or trackpad.
  • The vertical bar that blinks in a text editing field to indicate where typed characters will appear.

For clarity, it’s best not to refer to either of these things as cursors. Instead:

  • Mouse/trackpad pointer.
  • Insertion point.

This terminology has been slightly confusing over the last week, since Apple’s surprise announcement of pointer support in iPadOS 13.4. In their marketing materials, Apple is calling pointers “cursors”. E.g, on the webpage for the refreshed iPad Pros:

The click-anywhere trackpad opens up a whole new way to work in iPadOS. It allows control of the new cursor in iPadOS, which is perfect for tasks like editing a spreadsheet, selecting text, or simply doing everything right from the trackpad.

From the Apple Newsroom announcement:

iPadOS 13.4 brings trackpad support to iPad for the first time for a more natural typing experience and added precision for tasks such as writing and selecting text, working with spreadsheets and pro workflows. Designed specifically for the touch-first experience on iPad, the cursor appears as a circle that highlights user interface elements, text fields and apps on the Home screen and Dock, giving a clear indication of what users can click on.

In neither of these cases is cursor ambiguous — in context, it’s completely clear they’re referring to the trackpad pointer. But as a general rule, it’s better to err on the side of precision, and pointer and insertion point always avoid ambiguity.

In its technical documentation, Apple is clear. In the updated Human Interface Guidelines:

Pointers (iPadOS)

iPadOS 13.4 introduces dynamic pointer effects and behaviors that enhance the experience of using a pointing device with iPad. As people use a pointing device, iPadOS automatically adapts the pointer to the current context, providing rich visual feedback and just the right level of precision needed to enhance productivity and simplify common tasks.

The iPadOS pointing system gives people an additional way to interact with apps and content — it doesn’t replace touch. Some people may continue to use touch only, while others may prefer to use the pointer or a combination of both. Let people choose how to interact with your app, and avoid condensing your interface or making changes that require them to use the pointer.

From Apple’s excellent Apple Style Guide (available free of charge in the Apple Books store):

cursor
Don’t use in describing the macOS or iOS interface; use insertion point or pointer, depending on the context. The term cursor is appropriate when you describe the VoiceOver interface and may be appropriate when you describe other interfaces and in developer materials.

“Other interfaces” would include the terminal/command-line, where the (perhaps) blinking insertion point is properly called the cursor.

When it comes to pointers, it’s worth noting the Apple Style Guide recommends getting specific:

pointer
OK in general references, but be specific whenever appropriate: arrow, crosshair, I-beam.

And, of course, the Apple Style Guide prescribes OK, never okay


Nikkei Asian Review: ‘Apple Weighs Delaying 5G iPhone Launch by Months, Sources Say’ 

Yifan Yu, Lauly Li, and Cheng Ting-Fang, reporting for Nikkei:

The Cupertino, California-based tech giant has held internal discussions on the possibility of delaying the launch by months, three people familiar with the matter said, while supply chain sources say practical hurdles could push back the release, originally scheduled for September.

“Supply chain constraint aside, Apple is concerned that the current situation would significantly lower consumer appetite to upgrade their phones, which could lead to a tame reception of the first 5G iPhone,” said a source with direct knowledge of the discussion. “They need the first 5G iPhone to be a hit.” […]

The engineering development of the 5G iPhone has also been affected by travel curbs introduced in the U.S., China and elsewhere to combat the coronavirus, two people with knowledge of Apple’s schedule said. The company was supposed to work with suppliers to develop a more concrete prototype for the new phones from early March, but it had to delay such close collaboration, which requires hands-on testing, until the end of the month, before postponing it again due to the worsening pandemic in the U.S., they said.

Of course Apple is discussing this. Nikkei’s report from Asian suppliers is, of course, focused on hardware, but on the software side keep in mind that iOS 14 might be delayed or severely scaled back as well. Apple might have to delay the launch of new iPhones this year, and they might want to delay them. “Always in motion is the future” a wise little fellow once said. Never truer than in the midst of this crisis.

Dumb and Dumber 

ABC 7 NYC reporter CeFaan Kim, on Twitter:

Multiple sources tell @ABC Pres. Trump turned to former Yankee Alex Rodriguez for advice this week. A source close to Rodriguez described the call as “pleasant” adding that Trump was seeking thoughts from A-Rod about the coronavirus response.

A-Rod: great player, fun announcer, but not exactly the sharpest knife in the box. So, yeah, he’s probably our next Secretary of Health and Human Services.

‘Slop Machines’ 

Fascinating profile by John Semley for Eater back in 2017:

Since it opened in April 1963, R.C. Farms has had a very particular relationship with the overflowing decadence of nearby Las Vegas. At the time, the Combs family operated a modest hog farm in Chula Vista, near San Diego. They established relationships with a local army base, collecting food scraps to be reused as pig feed. Every year the base would contract out the privilege of collecting their wasted food to the highest bidder, with a few local farmers vying for the deal. But in Vegas, tens of thousands of pounds of food were going to waste. “My dad came here to Vegas for his 70th birthday, to have little gambling vacation,” Combs said as we sat at the round kitchen table of his modest bungalow farmhouse. On that auspicious trip, Combs’s father wandered through a backdoor of the now-long-gone Navajo-themed Thunderbird Hotel, and he came upon a huge container full of food being thrown away — the same sort of stuff he was bidding on back in La Mesa.

Combs told me the story with a well-practiced, raconteur’s confidence. It’s a tale he’s likely told a hundred times before, slowly metastasizing with each telling into a bona fide legend: Imagine Jed Clampett happening across oil in his fetid swamp, except that the treasure is something that was being chucked away. Where the casinos saw only untouched shrimp cocktails and half-nibbled slabs of heat-lamp-warmed prime rib, the older Combs saw profit. He leased 150 acres north of the Strip, at the dead end of a dirt road, and installed his son to run the place. The young Bob (affectionately known as “Goof” to his family) arranged deals with several of the old-school casinos — the Desert Inn, the Stardust, the Sands, the Flamingo, the Sahara, the Tropicana, Caesars, the Riviera, and other locals-only joints. The business model was simple: collect buffet food scraps, reprocess them as feed, fatten hogs, send them off to slaughter.

From the Department of Unexpected COVID-19 Consequences 

Tiana Bohner, reporting for Fox 5 Las Vegas:

A Las Vegas farm relied on strip casinos as its main food source for 4,000 pigs. Now it’s getting creative to keep them full. “Pigs are a lot like us so they love sweets, candies, ice cream,” Las Vegas Livestock co-owner Hank Combs said. “They like meat and potatoes. They’re not a big fan of salads and produce, but they will eat it.

On a normal day, the farm would get 20 tons of food from casinos and restaurants across the valley. Once the strip shut down and casinos closed, their food source was cut off.

“You know we’re just one of the many stories out there in the world and I’m just trying to survive, keep the pigs fed, keep the employees employed,” Combs said.

It is fascinating the way this crisis is revealing how interconnected our world is. The repercussions are seemingly infinite. It makes sense, now that I read it, that Vegas area pig farms would purchase the surplus food from the casino buffets (20 tons a day!), but until this moment, it never occurred to me that pig farming could be massively disrupted by the closing of casinos.

Something to think about as I eat bacon for lunch.

How to Turn Trump’s Daily Virus Misinformation Show Into a Vector for the Truth 

Speaking of good journalism battling against misinformation, this is an important idea from Dan Froomkin at Press Watch:

These are not political rallies, or spin sessions, or even normal press briefings. These are urgent, emergency communications.

And if — rather than sharing credible updates, thoughtful guidance, expressions of empathy and reasoned optimism — Trump lies, spreads misinformation and toots his own horn during these emergency communications, that is the news. Each and every time he does it.

So rather than hide what’s happening, news organizations should respond by doing journalism – in this case, some journalistic jujitsu. When Trump spreads misinformation, the networks need to show viewers, in real time, the correct information. When he lies and contradicts himself, they need to provide the necessary context as he speaks. When he puffs himself up, they need to remind viewers of his massive failures.

Snopes Is Hiring 

Snopes:

Snopes.com is an independent publication owned and operated by Snopes Media Group. We are slightly more than a baker’s dozen of reporters, editors, developers, and professionals who are passionate about journalism, media literacy, and, of course, fighting misinformation. We work remotely — there is no official Snopes office — but we maintain a collaborative and supportive team dynamic.

Snopes managing editor Doreen Marchionni is a good friend and a great journalist. For the reporting jobs, they’re looking for folks with capital-J journalism experience. But they’re also hiring developers and communications specialists. I know there’s a lot of overlap with all of these jobs with DF readers, and good employers (with a fully remote work culture) who are hiring right now are few and far between.

It goes without saying that Snopes’s mission — countering misinformation with verifiable journalism — has never been more essential. Never. Even if you’re not looking for a job, you can support Snopes with a membership, and they’ll thank you for it.

Apple Releases New COVID-19 App and Website Based on CDC Guidance 

Apple Newsroom:

The COVID-19 app and website allow users to answer a series of questions around risk factors, recent exposure and symptoms for themselves or a loved one. In turn, they will receive CDC recommendations on next steps, including guidance on social distancing and self-isolating, how to closely monitor symptoms, whether or not a test is recommended at this time, and when to contact a medical provider. This new screening tool is designed to be a resource for individuals and does not replace instructions from healthcare providers or guidance from state and local health authorities.

Nicely designed, too.

The Apple A12Z Bionic SoC Is Just a Renamed A12X With an Enabled GPU Core 

Vaidyanathan Subramaniam, writing for NotebookCheck:

Essentially what this means is that, the A12X and A12Z are the same physical chip (pending the results of the A12Z floorplan analysis) with the same physical number of CPU and GPU cores. Anandtech feels that the A12Z could, in fact, be a re-binned variant of the A12X. Recent comparative benchmarks have also shown that the A12Z offers minimal performance improvements compared to the A12X.

The A12X has 8 GPU cores, but only 7 are enabled. The A12Z uses all 8 — that pretty much explains the “CPU performance is the same but GPU is slightly better” benchmarking differences completely.

Update: To be clear, this ought not be controversial in the least. See this thread on Twitter from Quinn Nelson.

Every Default MacOS Wallpaper in 5K 

Stephen Hackett:

Every major version of Mac OS X macOS has come with a new default wallpaper. As you can see, I have collected them all here. While great in their day, the early wallpapers are now quite small in the world of 5K displays.

Major props to the world-class designer who does all the art of Relay FM, the mysterious @forgottentowel, for upscaling some of these for modern screens.

Fun trip down memory lane.

The Talk Show: ‘The Subtle Difference Between Hand Sanitizer and Vodka’ 

Matthew Panzarino returns to the show. Topics include the brand new MacBook Air and iPad Pros, and, you know, global pandemics in the internet age.

Brought to you by these fine sponsors:

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Google Podcasts Now on iOS 

Zack Reneau-Wedeen, product manager for Google Podcasts:

But you should be able to find new favorites in minutes, not years. We’ve redesigned the Google Podcasts app to make it easier to discover podcasts you’ll love, build your list of go-to podcasts, and customize your listening. To support listeners on more platforms, we’re also bringing Google Podcasts to iOS for the first time and adding support for subscriptions on Google Podcasts for Web. Regardless of the platform you’re using, your listening progress will sync across devices, and you’ll be able to pick up right where you left off.

The new app is organized around three tabs: Home, Explore and Activity. The Home tab features a feed of new episodes and gives you quick access to your subscribed shows. When you select an episode you want to listen to, you’ll now see topics or people covered in that podcast, and you can easily jump to Google Search to learn more.

Seems to me that Google has never really made an effort to get serious about podcasts. Maybe this is it. I kicked the tires on the iOS client for a few shows today, and it’s pretty decent, and surprisingly iOS-like for a Google app. (Some strange decisions on line breaks with even slightly long words like “Coronavirus” though.) The integration with Google search for related topics is clever and unobtrusive — there if you want it, easily ignored if you don’t.

Two more things: (1) No iPad support — it just runs as an iPhone app on iPads; (2) I don’t get the icon at all. What is that supposed to be?

Update: A few readers have pointed out the oddness of shipping on iOS first. I’m not sure what the explanation is there, but on iOS, Google Podcasts is a brand-new app. It didn’t exist until now. On Android, Google Podcasts has been out for a while, and it looks mostly the same. When I was testing it today, I was playing with it on both iPhone and Pixel 4. The currently-shipping version on Android looks mostly the same, but lacks the main three-tab interface at the bottom.

As for the icon, folks say it represents a waveform. If you say so. To me it looks like a knock-off of the new Slack icon.

2018 Retina MacBook Airs May be Susceptible to Anti-Reflective Coating Issues 

Joe Rossignol, reporting for MacRumors:

Apple this week acknowledged that MacBook Air models with Retina displays can exhibit anti-reflective coating issues, as indicated in a memo shared with Apple Authorized Service Providers and obtained by MacRumors. “Retina displays on some MacBook, MacBook Air, and MacBook Pro computers can exhibit anti-reflective (AR) coating issues,” the memo states.

Apple’s internal service documentation for this issue previously only mentioned MacBook Pro and discontinued 12-inch MacBook models with Retina displays, but the MacBook Air is now mentioned in at least two places. Apple added a Retina display to the MacBook Air in October 2018 and all models of the notebook have featured once since.

I don’t understand how this is still an issue. My beloved 2014 13-inch MacBook Pro is afflicted with this, and I never bothered getting it repaired. Whatever causes this, you’d think Apple would’ve identified the problem after a few years.

Update: I have it on good authority that the MacBook Air, retina display or otherwise, is not covered by the repair program. Unclear to me is how widespread the problem is with Airs.

Safari Now Has Full Third-Party Cookie Blocking 

John Wilander, writing at the WebKit blog:

Safari continues to pave the way for privacy on the web, this time as the first mainstream browser to fully block third-party cookies by default. As far as we know, only the Tor Browser has featured full third-party cookie blocking by default before Safari, but Brave just has a few exceptions left in its blocking so in practice they are in the same good place. We know Chrome wants this behavior too and they announced that they’ll be shipping it by 2022.

We will report on our experiences of full third-party cookie blocking to the privacy groups in W3C to help other browsers take the leap.

Somehow I feel like Google could ship this in Chrome long before 2022 if they really wanted to.

‘What I Learned When My Husband Got Sick With Coronavirus’ 

Jessica Lustig, writing for The New York Times Magazine:

CK and I had settled in to watch “Chernobyl,” the HBO series about the 1986 nuclear accident and its aftermath, when T first felt sick and went to lie down in the bedroom. We stopped after three episodes. That time, when we would sit on the couch watching something together, is behind us. Now there is too much rushing back and forth, making sure T has a little dinner — just a tiny bowl of soup, just an appetizer, really, that he is unable to smell, that he fights nausea to choke down — taking his temperature, monitoring his oxygen-saturation levels with the fingertip pulse oximeter brought by a friend from the drugstore on the doctor’s advice, taking him tea, dispensing his meds, washing my hands over and over, texting the doctor to say T is worse again, standing next to him while he coughs into the covers, rubbing his knees through the blankets.

“You shouldn’t stay here,” he says, but he gets more frightened as night comes, dreading the long hours of fever and soaking sweats and shivering and terrible aches. “This thing grinds you like a mortar,” he says.

Brutal, heart-wrenching story, beautifully written.

Stay safe.

Tokyo Olympics Officially Postponed to Next Year 

Michelle R. Martinelli, reporting for USA Today:

A day after USA Today Sports broke the news that the 2020 Summer Olympics would be postponed because of the global coronavirus pandemic, it became official. The president of the International Olympic Committee, Thomas Bach, and Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe, announced Tuesday in a joint statement that the 2020 Tokyo Games — which were originally scheduled to begin July 24 — will be postponed. They said the Olympics “must be rescheduled to a date beyond 2020 but not later than summer 2021,” but they’ll still be referred to as the 2020 Olympics.

A surprise to no one at this point, but still a hell of a thing to see. This is the first time the Olympics have ever been postponed, and they’ve only ever been canceled during World Wars I and II.

Facebook, Google Could Lose Over $44 Billion in Ad Revenue in 2020 Because of Coronavirus 

Todd Spangler, reporting for Variety:

Ad spending is falling off a cliff amid the COVID-19 pandemic — and Facebook and Google, the two heavyweights in digital advertising, are expected to bear the brunt of the downturn in terms of sheer dollars lost.

The two internet giants together could see more than $44 billion in worldwide ad revenue evaporate in 2020, Cowen & Co. analysts estimate. That said, both Google and Facebook will continue to be massively profitable even with double-digit revenue drops.

Usage of both Facebook and Google is spiking, because everyone’s at home all day. But the general rule of thumb since the dawn of time is that the first thing to get cut in a recession is the ad budget.

‘Who Would Have Thought an iPad Cursor Could Be So Much Fun?’ 

Craig Mod, writing for Wired:

Move the pointer above a button and the circle morphs into the button itself, “snapping” into it, enveloping it like an amoeba, causing it to glow in a pleasing way. What this means is that the usual precision of a trackpad isn’t required to get exact hits on navigational elements. If you own an Apple TV, you’re already familiar with this vibe — it’s how the cursor on the TV “jumps” from icon to icon with a kind of sticky momentum. Similarly, on the iPad home screen, you can “lazily” slam the cursor around and have it lock onto applications with an eerie telepathy not experienced on a desktop OS.

The cursor itself, too, has momentum. It continues to glide on the screen for just a short millisecond after you stop moving your finger on the trackpad. This sounds more annoying than it is in practice. (And you can modify almost all these behaviors to your liking in Settings → General → Trackpad, and Settings → Accessibility → Pointer.) What I’ve found is that this momentum creates a subtle design cohesion between scrolling and scroll bounce, selecting applications, locking onto buttons, and just generally moving things around the screen.

Best piece I’ve seen on the joy and utility of iPadOS’s new pointer support. Five days in and I can’t imagine doing without it.

‘Something, Something, Something Murder’ 

Dave Pell:

The excellent Damon Lindelof is writing this exclusive, serialized story for NextDraft to help us, and him, through the quarantine. Chapters will update here periodically, but for the epic experience and all the day’s real news, get the free newsletter or app by touching the head below (please use a rubber glove).

Yes, NextDraft is this week’s sponsor at DF. No, this is not my official thank-you post. I just wanted to throw in an early-in-the-week link to Lindelof’s story, which I’m enjoying very much. Catch up now, but I think it’s best enjoyed in the daily serial format, which is why I’m jumping the gun with this link.

This week more than ever, we need some fun diversions.

‘100,000 Miles and One Week With an iPad Pro’ 

Matthew Panzarino, who went full-time on iPad Pro while traveling 18 months ago, reviewing the new iPad Pros for TechCrunch:

Lidar is a technology with a ton of promise and a slew of potential applications. Having this much more accurate way to bring the outside world into your device is going to open a lot of doors for Apple and developers over time, but my guess is that we’ll see those doors open over the next couple of years rather than all at once.

I think the lidar sensor in the new iPad Pro is sort of like the U1 ultra-wideband chip in the iPhones 11. (The U1 chips is also apparently in the new iPad Pros.) It’s there for the future more than the present.

The whole review is excellent, with a slew of insightful observations, but I particularly like this bit regarding multitasking:

With iPad Pro, no matter where I have been or what I have been doing, I was able to flip it open, swipe up and be issuing my first directive within seconds. As fast as my industry moves and as wild as our business gets, that kind of surety is literally priceless.

Never once, however, did I wish that it was easier to use.

Do you wish that a hammer is easier? No, you learn to hold it correctly and swing it accurately. The iPad could use a bit more of that.

Currently, iPadOS is still too closely tethered to the sacred cow of simplicity. In a strange bout of irony, the efforts on behalf of the iPad software team to keep things simple (same icons, same grid, same app switching paradigms) and true to their original intent have instead caused a sort of complexity to creep into the arrangement.


The 2020 iPad Pros

The new 2020 iPad Pros are, in most ways, minor spec bump updates to the 2018 iPad Pros. The camera system is better, there’s a new lidar sensor that greatly improves AR, and the built-in microphone system is noticeably improved. That’s about it.

That’s not a complaint. The 2018 iPad Pros were amazing devices, way ahead of their time in terms of performance. If it’s going to take two or more years between truly major updates to the iPad Pro, I want Apple to release a spec bump update mid-cycle. That’s what these iPad Pros are.

Performance

Let’s get this out of the way first. I’m using the phrase “spec bump” rather than “speed bump” to describe these new iPad Pros because they don’t really seem to be much faster than the 2018 models. Some numbers from Geekbench 5:

Single Multi Compute
2018 12.9″ iPad Pro 1,124 4,675 9,183
2018 11″ iPad Pro 1,118 4,543 9,059
2020 12.9″ iPad Pro 1,123 4,691 10,046
2020 Core i5 MacBook Air 1,127 2,854 4,950
2019 Core i9 16″ MacBook Pro 1,263 7,277 25,351
2019 iPhone 11 Pro 1,338 3,467 6,310

The thing worth noting is that the new iPad Pros sport a system-on-a-chip that Apple is calling the A12Z. The 2018 models use the A12X. Both are 8-core designs, with 4 high-performance cores and 4 high-efficiency cores. The way that works, basically, is that when your iPad is not breaking a sweat computationally, it uses the 4 high-efficiency cores; when it is breaking a sweat, it switches to the high-performance cores. The 8-core MacBook Pro scores better on the multi-core benchmark because its 8 cores are all, effectively, high-performance cores.

Worth noting too are the numbers from the A13-powered iPhone 11. The A13 is faster in single-core performance than even the Core i9 16-inch MacBook Pro, but the A12X and Z hold their own, and still come out ahead in multi-core.

Real-world performance may differ more significantly, but from what I can tell, A12Z CPU performance is unchanged from the A12X and GPU performance is only slightly improved. But iPad Pro performance was already great. Look at those numbers — the iPad Pro outperforms the new mid-range MacBook Air. The 16-inch MacBook Pro I’ve compared it to here starts at $2,800 and it weighs 4.3 pounds (2.0 kg).

One more spec tweak: the 2018 iPad Pro models came with 4 GB of RAM, except for the ones with 1 TB of storage — those came with 6 GB of RAM. Apple never talks about RAM with iOS devices, but it’s easy to tell how much RAM is in a device using third-party utilities. With the 2020 lineup, all models seemingly come with 6 GB of RAM. In practical terms, this means the new iPad Pros should be able to keep more apps running at the same time without reloading them from scratch. In my personal day-to-day use, I don’t notice the difference.

Lidar and Dual-Lens Camera

As promised, lidar vastly improves the AR experience. No more warmup period where AR apps want you to pan the device around to allow the system to orient itself and get a sense of your environment — you just launch the app and it’s ready. I mostly tested this with Apple’s Measure app. Measuring the sizes of furniture and countertops is much faster, easier, and more accurate. I just measured a 3-foot shelf here in my office and the Measure app pegged it at precisely 36 inches, on the button.

The lidar sensor also greatly helps with identifying walls and ceilings. It’s just as easy to use Measure to tell how far away something — again, say, a piece of furniture — is from the wall as it is to measure how big the thing itself is. On all other iOS devices — which is to say, all non-lidar-equipped iOS devices — Measure is not good at this.

In short, if you’re an AR junkie, you should jump all over the new iPad Pro. If you’re not an AR junkie — which is to say the overwhelming majority of you — well, it’s not that big a deal. I don’t mean to be dismissive of AR and ARKit. I think an AR revolution is coming, and the whole “use your iPhone and iPad as ARKit devices” effort on Apple’s part — and it’s a massive effort — is laying the groundwork for an AR-first device to hit the ground running with developer support from day one. But are there really people for whom ARKit-powered apps are so important right now that they’ll upgrade to a new iPad just for lidar support? I suppose the answer is yes — for example, developers working on ARKit apps and games. But for most people the answer is clearly no.

The new wide/ultra-wide dual-lens camera system on the new iPad Pros looks, on paper, a lot like the wide/ultra-wide dual-lens system on the non-Pro iPhone 11. And the results for regular still photography and video seem very comparable. But there’s at least one significant difference: the iPad Pro does not support Portrait mode with the main camera; the iPhone 11 does. (The iPad Pro does support Portrait mode with the front-facing self-portrait camera.) One reason for this, I suspect, is that the iPhone 11 has the A13 chip, while the iPad Pros have the previous-generation A12Z. The iPad Pro wide/ultra-wide cameras may in fact be the exact same cameras as the iPhone 11 — I don’t know, and Apple doesn’t make statements like that — but the iPad Pro can’t use the same software path for Portrait mode that the iPhone 11 does because Portrait mode makes heavy use of machine learning and that means the Neural Engine — but the A13 Neural Engine is far more powerful than that of the A12Z. This could be the sort of thing that just didn’t make it for a mid-cycle iPadOS 13.4 software release; it wouldn’t surprise me if the new iPad Pros gain Portrait mode in iPadOS 14.0.

In the meantime, I think supporting Portrait mode on the new iPad Pro would have required engineering effort that Apple instead chose to expend on supporting the lidar sensor for AR.

In theory, a lidar sensor could be used to help with still photography and video. One can imagine how it could help with Portrait mode in particular — using lidar for the depth map to blur objects and scenery in the background based on how far away they are. Lidar could also help with identifying eyeglasses, hats, hair, etc. It’s not that simple though. The lidar sensor in the new iPad Pro has tremendous accuracy on the Z axis (depth), but not so much on the X and Y axes. It just doesn’t project that many dots. But the iPad Pro makes up for the lack of X/Y accuracy when you pan the iPad Pro around, by continuously scanning the dots in real time as you pan. When shooting still photos or video, however, you can’t assume that the user is going to pan. The iPad might even be locked down on a tripod. I do expect Apple to eventually use lidar, or something like lidar, as a focusing and depth-map aid for photography, but they’re not there yet. This lidar system is clearly designed for 3D mesh generation, not 2D depth mapping.

The New Microphone Array

One other notable hardware change in the 2020 iPad Pro: Apple claims it now uses the same five-microphone “studio quality” array that they introduced with the 16-inch MacBook Pro in November. Indeed, it does sound better, and background noise is reduced. Here are recordings I made side-by-side with a 2018 iPad Pro and the new 2020 iPad Pro. I can easily hear the improvement — richer sound, higher quality, and less noise.

2018 iPad Pro:

2020 iPad Pro:

This Is All Just a Prelude to the Thing We Really Want to Review

I’ve been testing a 12.9-inch iPad Pro with 1 TB of storage since Thursday (five days ago). Apple included the updated Smart Keyboard cover. There are two differences from the Smart Keyboard cover for the 2018 iPad Pros — (1) the camera cutout has been embiggened to accommodate the larger camera/lidar system; and (2) the back of the cover now has an debossed Apple logo, oriented for landscape, natch.

Apple did not include the product I really want to test, and which all of you really want to read about: the new Magic Keyboard cover. It’s no surprise that Apple has not yet made them available for review: they’re not shipping until “May”, and with the exception of the original AirPods, I can’t recall Apple providing reviewers with hardware more than a week or so in advance of shipping.

The truth is I just don’t like the Smart Keyboard cover. I don’t like typing on it, and I want a trackpad.

What I do when I write on my iPad is use a Bluetooth or USB keyboard. Apple’s Bluetooth Magic Keyboard is a great option — I particularly like it in Studio Neat’s Canopy cover/stand. I also enjoy writing on my iPad using a standalone external mechanical keyboard. One reason I prefer a standalone keyboard over the Smart Keyboard cover is simply that the keyboards feel better. But another is that if you’re setting it up on a desk or countertop, there’s no need to magnetically snap the iPad into a case, cover, or stand. You can just prop it up, which makes it utterly seamless to pick it up with one hand and walk away from the keyboard setup when you just want to go somewhere else with the iPad. It also allows you to do something with the iPad that no dedicated laptop can do: orient the screen vertically rather than horizontally, which makes a lot of sense for long-form writing. Here, for example, is my setup as I write this very review.1

That said, I am deeply intrigued by the iPad Pro Magic Keyboard. In the meantime, we wait.

The Bottom Line

If you already have a 2018 iPad Pro, the only reason to even consider upgrading is if you’re somehow professionally involved with AR, or if you make serious use of your iPad camera. These are not new iPad Pros so much as tweaked iPad Pros. And the best part of holding onto a 2018 iPad Pro is that the upcoming Magic Keyboards are fully compatible with those models. Keep your 2018 iPad Pro and wait for the keyboard.

If you don’t have a 2018 iPad Pro, I can recommend these new iPad Pros with no reservations. Everything I wrote about the 2018 iPad Pros still stands. Rumors abound that Apple might release a more significant iPad Pro update at the end of the year, perhaps only in the 12.9-inch size. If you want to wait, wait, but waiting for rumored future products is a good way to tie yourself in knots and wind up waiting forever. If you need a new iPad now, these are the best iPads Apple has ever made, and arguably the best portable computers Apple has ever made, period. 


  1. That keyboard is a Keychron K2 with Gateron brown switches. I like it, but the Gateron switches are nowhere near as nice as the ones from Cherry. They feel a little cheap. ↩︎


Convergence on the Laptop Form Factor 

Nick Heer, responding to arguments that, with the upcoming Magic Keyboard, Apple is moving the iPad in the direction of Microsoft’s Surface lineup:

I’m going to irritatingly self-quote here from a piece I wrote a couple of years ago:

If there is a smartphone-to-desktop continuum, with the tablet somewhere in the middle, Microsoft has long approached it as skinning Windows with touch drivers and bigger buttons, while Apple chose to start by making a touchscreen phone and build up from there.

The addition of real mouse and trackpad support to the iPad is not just a slapped-on version of the MacOS cursor, but a clearly considered rethinking of what that should be on a system that is still primarily used by touch. I expect to see plenty more changes like this as Apple continues to add more advanced features to iPadOS — features that will probably be similar to aspects of MacOS, but reconsidered for a touch-based operating system.

See also: Tom Warren’s take for The Verge: “Apple Finally Admits Microsoft Was Right About Tablets”, which is a borderline jacktastic headline.

I think Heer gets this right. It’s not about iPad moving closer to Surface conceptually; it’s about moving closer to the laptop ideal. For certain tasks nothing beats the laptop form factor, and quite possibly never will. All computing platforms that are used for such tasks inevitably take on that form. What’s new this decade is the detachable 2-in-1 form — one device that serves as both a laptop with keyboard and trackpad and as a handheld tablet. Microsoft got there from one direction, Apple from another.

Facebook Donates Emergency Reserve of 720,000 Masks to Health Workers 

Reuters:

Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg said on Sunday that the social media company has donated its emergency reserve of 720,000 masks to provide health workers with more protective gear. “To help, Facebook donated our emergency reserve of 720,000 masks that we had bought in case the wildfires continued,” Zuckerberg said in a post, adding that the company is also working on “sourcing a lot more to donate.”

Next up: Zuckerberg donates his emergency stash of do-it-yourself haircut kits.

Inside the Xbox Series X 

I’m not into the whole Xbox-PlayStation console scene, but I found this detailed look at the internals of the upcoming Xbox Series X from Austin Evans to be fascinating. The only thing I found surprising is that it’s still going to contain an optical drive. It takes up so much space.

Update: I totally get the practical reasons for including the optical drive — compatibility with older Xbox games (going back several generations — very Microsoftian), helpful for people without fast broadband connections (modern games are huge), reselling games and buying used ones. I get it. Just saying that as an outsider, it looks archaic, especially amidst how cutting-edge the rest of the hardware is architecturally.

Foxconn Gives a Thumbs-Up 

Nikkei Asian Review:

Taiwan’s Foxconn, the top assembler of Apple’s iPhones, said it has secured enough workers to meet “seasonal demand” at all major Chinese plants, stressing a steady recovery from the labor shortage caused by the novel coronavirus epidemic on the mainland. The company issued a statement Sunday night saying recruitment goals have been reached “ahead of schedule at the plants.” This signals progress from early March when Chairman Young Liu told investors that Chinese plants were operating at roughly 50% capacity of normal.

The company also stressed that it has instituted rigorous measures to prevent infection. A total of 55,000 workers received PCR coronavirus tests, and over 40,000 people underwent chest X-rays, according to Foxconn.

I don’t know whether this is good news or terrifying.

Yes Plz Coffee 

My thanks to Yes Plz for sponsoring this past week at DF. Yes Plz sends outstanding coffee beans right to your door, along with a delightfully eclectic print zine — that’s right, a printed zine — covering topics like food, culture, and music.

As I wrote in my thank-you post last week, I love Yes Plz coffee. I’d recommend it wholeheartedly even if they weren’t sponsoring the site. It’s delicious. Last week, I wrote that I was drinking Yes Plz coffee while I posted. I can’t say that this week, because I drank it all. I’m out — waiting for a delivery of new beans that was sent yesterday. (You get a notice when a new batch is on its way.) Luckily, Yes Plz just added a new option for a larger bag of beans — I upgraded immediately. I make a lot of coffee at home in normal times; for the foreseeable future, I’ll be making all my coffee at home.

To that point — I checked with my old pal and Yes Plz honcho Tonx Konecny regarding how they’re holding up right now, and if it was OK to keep sending them new subscribers. Tonx’s reply:

Yes! We’re well stocked on raw materials, our small team and all of our production is isolated, and USPS is still going strong so we’re confident we’ll be able to stay fully operational.

World-class coffee delivered right to your door, on a schedule you control. That’s Yes Plz. Just what the doctor ordered in these stay-at-home times. Try it now — no hassle, no commitment, and you can pause or cancel anytime. They even have a special deal for DF readers: $5 off your first bag using promo code FIREBALL5 at checkout.

Anker’s $10 USB‑C to USB‑A Adapter 

If you do need a USB‑C to USB‑A adapter, my favorite is this one from Anker. It’s small and comes pretty close to color-matching Apple’s space gray aluminum. When you plug it in it has a nice snap. I bought a few a while back — I keep two at my desk and two in my travel bag. The only thing I don’t like about it is the prominent Anker logo, but because it’s USB‑C, I just plug it in logo side down to hide it. (Disclosure: I’m back on the Amazon affiliate gravy train; buying through this link will send a small percentage my way.)

USB‑A on the MacBook Air Wishlist? 

Jason Cross, in his MacBook Air review for Macworld:

Apple is still determined to make every USB port feature a USB‑C connector. We’ve been told that the ubiquity of USB‑C devices is just around the corner for years now, and it’s still not happening. Accessory makers keep cranking out mice, keyboards, storage devices, microphones, audio interfaces, and loads of other things with USB‑A connectors on them. Putting a single USB‑A port on MacBooks would not be a step backwards, it would be recognition that in the wide world of USB devices, that interface is still widespread, and we shouldn’t need a dongle or dock to use them.

It’s undeniable that the USB‑C revolution has been very slow in coming, but slowly but surely, it is coming along. I wrote in my first-look review of the new Air that I wish the MacBook Air had at least one more USB‑C port, on the right side of the machine, but I don’t think a built-in USB‑A port would be appropriate. Is USB‑A still in widespread use? Sure, but at this point USB‑A ports are backward-looking. SD cards remain in widespread use too, and they don’t belong built into the Air either. (MacBook Pros — there I can see the argument for built-in SD slots.)

Just like with the 1998 iMac going all-in on USB‑A, and the iPhone 7 dropping the headphone jack, Apple is helping drive the adoption of USB‑C by dropping USB‑A ports. Adding them back now would set back the whole industry.

Watch Gary Hustwit’s Design Documentaries for Free 

Oh You Pretty Things:

Filmmaker Gary Hustwit is streaming his documentaries free worldwide during the global COVID crisis. Each week we’ll be posting another film here. We hope you enjoy them, and please stay strong.

March 17 to 24: Helvetica — a feature-length documentary about typography, graphic design and global visual culture. It looks at the proliferation of one typeface as part of a larger conversation about the way type affects our lives.

If you haven’t seen Helvetica, or haven’t seen it in a while, it’s just so good.

Google Cancels I/O Entirely 

The Google Developers Twitter account:

A #GoogleIO update: Out of concern for the health and safety of our developers, employees, and local communities — and in line with “shelter in place” requirements by the local Bay Area government — we sadly will not be holding an I/O event in any capacity this year.

Makes you wonder about WWDC. I think WWDC will happen online, even if the current “shelter in place” regulations remain in place through June. Will recorded WWDC sessions be harder to produce remotely than they would with Apple employees on site, collaborating together? Of course. But a lot of WWDC sessions have been slides-only with recorded audio — meaning no video of the presenters — for years. Professional quality video is way harder to produce than professional quality audio and slides.

Also, WWDC is far more important to Apple strategically than I/O is for Google. I don’t think Google, as a whole, really gives much of a shit whether Android developers are taking advantage of the latest and greatest APIs. I’m sure the Android team does, but not Google as a whole. The other annual announcements at I/O are all a bit scattershot. Apple, on the other hand, really does want developers to take advantage of each year’s latest iOS — and to a lesser extent, MacOS, tvOS, and WatchOS — APIs. WWDC is so important to Apple strategically that I think they would go to more effort to pull off an online-only version this year than they do to put together a normal in-person WWDC — and Apple expends a tremendous amount of engineering and design staff time and effort on WWDC in normal years.

But it’d be foolish, given how much the ground has changed in just the last week, to say today that a complete cancellation of WWDC 2020 is off the table. Nothing is off the table at this point.

Three Weeks 

Josh Marshall:

February 26th, 2020. President Trump: “When you have 15 people, and the 15 within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero, that’s a pretty good job we’ve done.”

March 20th, 2020. Confirmed cases in the United States rise to 16,064.

It’s not “playing politics” to point this stuff out regarding the Trump administration’s response to COVID-19. It is essential that we, collectively, see that Trump is temperamentally unfit for the office. This was plainly obvious to those of us opposed to him all along. It should now be plainly obvious to anyone whose eyes are open. Three weeks ago he was confidently telling the world the U.S. would soon be “down to close to zero” cases. Instead, here we are with close to zero aspects of daily life that are normal.

U.S. Intelligence Reports From January and February Warned About a Likely Pandemic 

The Washington Post:

U.S. intelligence agencies were issuing ominous, classified warnings in January and February about the global danger posed by the coronavirus while President Trump and lawmakers played down the threat and failed to take action that might have slowed the spread of the pathogen, according to U.S. officials familiar with spy agency reporting. […]

Robert Kadlec, the assistant secretary for preparedness and response — who was joined by intelligence officials, including from the CIA — told committee members that the virus posed a “serious” threat, one of those officials said. Kadlec didn’t provide specific recommendations, but he said that to get ahead of the virus and blunt its effects, Americans would need to take actions that could disrupt their daily lives, the official said. “It was very alarming.”

Trump’s insistence on the contrary seemed to rest in his relationship with China’s President Xi Jingping, whom Trump believed was providing him with reliable information about how the virus was spreading in China, despite reports from intelligence agencies that Chinese officials were not being candid about the true scale of the crisis.

We didn’t have to be here. The story is not complicated — Trump ignored the danger until it was far too late. Why did he take China’s word over that of our own intelligence agencies and experts? Because what China was claiming was what he wanted to hear.

‘Some People’ 

Some people would like to thank Jason Kottke for writing this.

The Doctor Who Helped Defeat Smallpox Explains What’s Coming 

Absolutely full-stop must-read interview by Steven Levy with Larry Brilliant, the epidemiologist who helped eradicate smallpox:

Now the unthinkable is here, and Brilliant, the Chairman of the board of Ending Pandemics, is sharing expertise with those on the front lines. We are a long way from 100 million deaths due to the novel coronavirus, but it has turned our world upside down. Brilliant is trying not to say “I told you so” too often. But he did tell us so, not only in talks and writings, but as the senior technical advisor for the pandemic horror film Contagion, now a top streaming selection for the homebound. Besides working with the World Health Organization in the effort to end smallpox, Brilliant, who is now 75, has fought flu, polio, and blindness; once led Google’s nonprofit wing, Google.org; co-founded the conferencing system the Well; and has traveled with the Grateful Dead.

We talked by phone on Tuesday. At the time, President Donald Trump’s response to the crisis had started to change from “no worries at all” to finally taking more significant steps to stem the pandemic. Brilliant lives in one of the six Bay Area counties where residents were ordered to shelter in place. When we began the conversation, he’d just gotten off the phone with someone he described as high government official, who asked Brilliant “How the fuck did we get here?” I wanted to hear how we’ll get out of here. The conversation has been edited and condensed.

Read this and you’ll come out the end more informed than if you read 20 other articles on this pandemic. I found this exchange particularly salient, for perspective:

Are you scared?

I’m in the age group that has a one in seven mortality rate if I get it. If you’re not worried, you’re not paying attention. But I’m not scared. I firmly believe that the steps that we’re taking will extend the time that it takes for the virus to make the rounds. I think that, in turn, will increase the likelihood that we will have a vaccine or we will have a prophylactic antiviral in time to cut off, reduce, or truncate the spread. Everybody needs to remember: This is not a zombie apocalypse. It’s not a mass extinction event.

This is not just idle talk; Brilliant has spent his career truly contemplating extinction-event pandemics.

Jason Snell’s 2020 MacBook Air Review: ‘No News Is Good News’ 

Jason Snell, writing at Six Colors:

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.

Netflix Creates $100 Million Coronavirus Relief Fund 

Brent Lang, reporting for Variety:

Netflix has created a $100 million relief fund to help members of the creative community who have been left unemployed and without a way to earn an income during the coronavirus crisis. The streaming giant said the bulk of the funds will go toward supporting laid-off crew members.

“The COVID-19 crisis is devastating for many industries, including the creative community. Almost all television and film production has now ceased globally — leaving hundreds of thousands of crew and cast without jobs,” Netflix’s chief content officer Ted Sarandos said in a statement. “These include electricians, carpenters and drivers, many of whom are paid hourly wages and work on a project-to-project basis. This community has supported Netflix through the good times, and we want to help them through these hard times, especially while governments are still figuring out what economic support they will provide.”

Great move from Netflix. We need more like this from big companies that are well-positioned to financially weather this extended storm.

Unread 2 

Speaking of iOS feed reader apps, John Brayton’s Unread 2 recently shipped too:

If you are frustrated by feeds that include only article summaries, you will love Unread 2. Unread 2 takes Unread’s Readability view to the next level.

Unread 2 automatically determines which feeds contain only article summaries. When displaying articles from such feeds, Unread displays the full article text from the webpage. For any given feed, you can override Unread’s determination of whether to show feed text or webpage text.

In addition, Unread 2 can cache webpage text ahead of time. This gives you fast offline access to the webpage text and embedded images of such articles.

Unread is gorgeous, and takes an entirely different course than NetNewsWire on how to design a great iOS feed reading app. Unread is focused on eliminating chrome — it is a pure reading app. It’s like reader mode all the time, and the assortment of color themes is nicely curated.

There’s never been a better time to get back into RSS. My RSS subscriptions are largely about tech and design, and I keep political feeds in their own folder. It’s an oasis apart from general world news.

NetNewsWire 5.0 for iOS 

Speaking of Brent Simmons, the reborn NetNewsWire is now out for iOS (both iPhone and iPad):

It’s free and open source, and it includes support for Feedbin and Feedly syncing.

Just as the Mac version looks like a Mac app, this is very much an iOS app. It supports Dark Mode, context menus, multiple windows, Siri Shortcuts, and other iOS features.

iOS-assed iOS app doesn’t have quite the same ring to it as Mac-assed Mac app, but that’s what NetNewsWire is. I raved about NetNewsWire 5 for Mac when it shipped back in August, and I’ll rave equally about NetNewsWire 5 for iOS now. It’s exactly what I want in an RSS reader, and it has changed my daily reading habits significantly.

Mac-Assed Mac Apps 

Brent Simmons:

A few people have asked me, “What’s a Mac-assed Mac app?”

Answer: it’s a phrase I stole from my friend Collin Donnell to describe Mac apps that are unapologetically Mac apps. They’re platform-specific and they’re not trying to wow us with all their custom not-Mac-like UI (which often isn’t very accessible).

I consider NetNewsWire to be a Mac-assed Mac app, and it’s a point of pride.

Slack, on the other hand, is most definitely not — though it’s not only Electron apps that miss the mark of Mac-assed-Mac-app-ness.

I love this term. It’s better and more clear than just saying “native”. Native is ambiguous. Not to pick on Slack, but you can definitely argue that however odd Slack for Mac is UI-wise, it is a “native* app. But it sure as shit is not a Mac-assed Mac app.

Brent’s post is in the context of Proxyman, which I hadn’t heard of. It looks very cool — it’s a Mac-assed Mac alternative to tools like Wireshark or Charles for observing and debugging HTTP/HTTPS requests.


The 2020 MacBook Air

We waited a long time for a retina MacBook Air. When we finally got it back in November 2018, it was worth waiting for. Smaller, lighter, faster, better speakers, and — finally — a retina display. The MacBook Air has been and remains Apple’s most popular Mac — perhaps by far. When most people think of a “Mac”, what they think of specifically is a 13-inch MacBook Air. It’s the workhorse Mac — the best Mac for most people.

But that first crack at a retina MacBook Air wasn’t perfect.

Well, nothing’s perfect. But the retina MacBook Air had a few significant shortcomings:

  • The keyboard. Because the retina MacBook Air was so late to the modern MacBook era, it debuted with the third-generation butterfly-switch keyboard. That third-generation design really was much improved over the first two, especially, it seems, in terms of reliability. But it’s hard to find people who claim those butterfly keyboards are their favorite keyboards. And it’s really easy to find people who — reliability issues aside — just don’t like the way they feel.

  • Price. The MacBook Air is supposed to start at $999. It just is. But the retina MacBook Air started at $1199. And so Apple kept the by-that-time ancient non-retina MacBook Air around for a while just to occupy that $999 price point in the lineup. The way things should be, you ought not just be able to buy a MacBook Air for $999, you ought to be able to buy a good MacBook Air for $999.

  • Performance. Yes, the retina MacBook Air was faster than the non-retina MacBook Air models it replaced. But that’s because the non-retina MacBook Air models were really old. They were embarrassingly old.

With the new 2020 MacBook Air, Apple has pulled a Michael Corleone and settled all family business. I’ve spent the last day testing Apple’s $1,300 mid-range MacBook Air, with the quad-core Intel Core i5 CPU, 512 GB storage, and 8 GB of RAM. My thoughts and observations:

Performance

I’ve only had this machine for a day, so I don’t have any extensive testing results to report. But it’s solid. One significant difference between this MacBook Air and the previous generation is that it offers CPU options at all. With the previous retina MacBook Air, there was one and only one CPU option. From my 2018 first-look review:

There’s only one CPU option for the new MacBook Air: “1.6GHz dual‑core 8th‑generation Intel Core i5 processor, Turbo Boost up to 3.6GHz”. There are no build-to-order CPU options. I could be wrong, but off the top of my head, I think this is a first for a Mac notebook in the Intel era. MacBook Pros have a slew of different CPU options. The 12-inch MacBook, surprisingly, has three CPU options. Even the base model non-retina MacBook Air has two CPU options.

Why? I hate picking a CPU. Putting cost aside, I never know what the right balance is between performance and battery life. These are the sort of decisions I want Apple to make. That’s what they do with iPhones and iPads.

When you order a new MacBook Air, the only choices you make (other than color) are how much storage you want and how much RAM (8 or 16 GB). That’s it, and that’s how it should be.

Well, now we’re back to CPU options. I can’t say I love that, but the lineup doesn’t seem that confusing to me. The difference between the dual-core Core i3 and quad-core Core i5 seems pretty obvious: $300 will get you much better multithreaded performance. Unclear to me is whether the Core i7 is worth an additional $150. (And if you want quad-core multithreaded performance but are OK with just 256 GB of storage, you can upgrade the base model to the quad-core i5 for just $100 as a build-to-order configuration.)

With all the usual caveats that artificial benchmarks aren’t accurate indicators of real-world performance, here are some interesting numbers from Geekbench 5 (average of two runs, single-core / multi-core):

Single Multi
MacBook Air 2020 (4-core Core i5) 1,127 2,854
MacBook Air 2018 (2-core Core i5) 639 1,379
16″ MacBook Pro 2019 (8-core Core i9) 1,263 7,277
13″ MacBook Pro 2014 (2-core Core i7) 733 1,791
11″ iPad Pro 2018 (8-core A12X) 1,118 4,477
iPhone 11 Pro (6-core A13) 1,321 3,387

I’d wager heavily that in terms of performance-per-watt, Intel remains hopelessly behind ARM, but in terms of sheer CPU performance — especially single-core, which is what matters most for a lot of day-to-day stuff like using the web — this 10th-generation Core i5 is more than holding its own. Previously the MacBook Air was hit by a double whammy: it was slower and less power efficient. Now it’s just less efficient. Not bad for Intel.

What’s important, I think, is that it’s a good/faster/fastest lineup — not meh/good/faster.

Price

The new MacBook Air starts at $999, and that base model is a terrific computer for a lot of people. For a long time, it was hard to recommend Apple’s base model MacBook Air. No longer — especially because it now ships with 256 GB of SSD storage (up from 128).

As I pointed out in my initial thoughts on this week’s new products, until this week, if you wanted a MacBook Air with 256 GB of storage, it cost $1,300. Now, you can get that for $1,000 (and education customers only pay $900). That’s a big price drop — and you get a faster computer and a better keyboard to boot.

Keyboard

Surprising exactly no one, the keyboard in the new MacBook Air uses the same new scissor switches introduced back in November’s 16-inch MacBook Pro. (The new Magic Keyboard for iPad Pro, coming in May, does too.)

I love it.

If anything, it feels a little better than the 16-inch MacBook Pro keyboard. It has the same 1 mm key travel, very similar clickiness, but it maybe feels a little softer, in a good way. Or maybe it just sounds softer. This might not be the keyboard itself but rather a result of the very different case sizes. Compared to the third-generation butterfly switch keyboard in the previous MacBook Air, it feels downright luxurious. To my taste, this conclusively proves that less than 1 mm travel is too little travel.

The bottom line: Apple is once again making excellent, world-class, no-caveat MacBook keyboards, so something, however insignificant in the grand scheme of life, is right in the world.

Also, I remain a huge fan of the Force Touch trackpad. The 13-inch MacBook Air is (duh) a smaller device than the 16-inch MacBook Pro, and it has a correspondingly smaller trackpad. But even after months of using a 16-inch MacBook Pro day-in and day-out, this trackpad doesn’t feel too small at all. Again, if anything, it feels better to me.

Delightfully Close to Perfection

The things that haven’t changed with the MacBook Air — size, weight, display — didn’t need to change. They were already great. The things that have changed — price, performance, and for me personally, especially the keyboard — have all changed significantly for the better. These new MacBook Airs are a lot cheaper, performance is appreciably improved for both CPU and graphics, and the keyboard has gone from “well, it’s OK” to “damn, this keyboard feels so good it makes me want to write something”.

I mean, really, what would you change? Serious question.

I do wish there were at least one USB-C port on the right, just to make it more convenient when the nearest power outlet is on that side. But, come on, it’s not that big a deal to snake the cable around the back of a notebook this small.

An option to get a Touch Bar? I’ve lost count of the number of MacBook Pro owners I know, or whose opinions I’ve simply read, who wish they could buy a new MacBook Pro with good old-fashioned function keys instead of a Touch Bar — not because they want to save a few hundred dollars or because they particularly like function keys, but because they outright dislike the Touch Bar. Conversely, I’ve never met anyone who wishes that the MacBook Air had the Touch Bar. Me, personally, I’m ambivalent — I don’t dislike the Touch Bar, and in fact I like it in several ways, but I can’t say I miss it at all after a full day using this keyboard without one. Not one bit.

The speakers on this MacBook Air are great compared to Airs of old, but they pale in comparison to the rather amazing sound that comes out of a 16-inch MacBook Pro. But I’m not even sure that sound like that is possible out of a notebook as small as the Air. Compared to any other 13-inch notebook I’ve heard, these speakers are good.

The camera stinks, especially in low light. There’s no other way to put it. But it’s the same crummy “720p FaceTime Camera” as in all the other MacBooks. You can buy a $3,000 16-inch MacBook Pro and you’ll get the exact same camera. I think this is largely a factor of just how thin the lids are on MacBooks. Is there room for a camera with better optics and a bigger sensor?

So what’s left? For what it is meant to be, it’s really hard to complain about anything at all regarding this machine. Now that Apple has extricated itself from its butterfly keyboard thicket, it’s clear that Apple was onto something with this design language, which debuted with the no-adjective 12-inch MacBook in 2015.

Don’t overthink it. The new MacBook Air is what it looks like: nearly perfect. 


‘How to Correctly Use a Computer’ 

I love this new ad from Apple for the iPad Pro and Magic Keyboard. What’s not to love? Pitch-perfect use of Futura Bold on the title screen, a vaguely Brazil-like dystopian atmosphere to open, and, once the iPad part kicks in, some fun shots of the iPad Pro and Magic Keyboard in action out in the world. (Remember going out in the world?) One thing I noticed: not one appearance of the available-to-order-right-now Smart Keyboard cover — only the coming-in-May Magic Keyboard. The Magic Keyboard is hot; the Smart Keyboard is not.

But speaking of not hot: It’s impossible to miss that MacBooks are just as much the butt of the jokes as any PC. “Do not touch the screen.” “Your computer comes with a standard arrow cursor.” “You must stay within reach of a Wi-Fi signal.” “It does not have a camera; to connect one, refer to your instruction manual.”

I get it, all of these are things that make iPads fun and useful. The Mac can take it — it’s the mature workhorse platform. But it’s a little incongruous coming on the same day Apple launched its best-ever MacBook Air — featuring no touchscreen, no option for cellular networking, and the worst built-in camera in Apple’s product line. And, yes, a standard arrow cursor.

Apple Updates Mac Mini With Double the Storage Capacity in Standard Configurations 

One more update to the hardware lineup yesterday. No changes to the internals other than storage, though, which is probably why it wasn’t a talking point for Apple. Still though, it’s great to see Mac hardware getting updates like this mid-cycle.


Super Wednesday

Big news drop today from Apple. Long story short:

  • New iPad Pros. Same sizes and shapes (11 and 12.9 inches), faster CPUs and GPUs.
  • iPadOS 13.4 — coming this Tuesday — will include full system-wide pointer support for mice and trackpads.
  • A new $299 Magic Keyboard folio case for iPad Pros with an integrated trackpad and backlit keys.
  • New MacBook Air. Storage has doubled, performance is much improved, and prices have dropped significantly.

Long story longer:

Mouse and Trackpad Pointer Support in iPadOS 13.4

Above and beyond any of the hardware announcements, this is the most exciting news of the day for me. First, this is not the sort of feature one expects Apple to drop in a late-in-the-annual-cycle mid-March OS update. Clues suggesting serious mouse pointer support in iOS were gleaned from some sort of leak of iOS 14 (I presume, from the way 9to5 Mac has written about it, a device running an early build of iOS 14) but no one had any inkling this was coming now. (Steven Troughton-Smith came closest, with this prescient tweet yesterday.)

This mouse pointer support is rich and deep — it is far more than a simplistic virtual finger tip, and far more thoughtful and graceful and direct than a port to iOS of Mac-style mouse cursors.

First, when just mousing around, the main cursor is a circle instead of an arrow. A circle feels right; an arrow would definitely feel wrong. Similarly, it would feel all wrong for the Mac to change its primary cursor from the arrow to a circle. For me it boils down to the je ne sais quoi of the fundamental differences between iPad and Mac.

When you hover over a tappable button, the pointer disappears and instead you get a hover-state highlight around the button. Hover over an app icon in the Dock or on your homescreen, and instead of seeing the mouse pointer on top of the icon, you see a highlight around the icon, much like the way icons are popped on tvOS. When text editing, the cursor changes to an I-beam, of course, but it’s an all-new I-beam cursor, not the one you get in iOS while using the on-screen keyboard as a virtual trackpad (after a tap-and-hold on the spacebar or two-finger tap-and-drag on the key area). This new I-beam cursor is smart. It adjusts to the size of the text you’re editing — if you’re editing 16-point text you’ll get a smaller cursor; if you’re editing 48-point text you’ll get a larger cursor. (Lo these 35+ years after the original Macintosh, it suddenly strikes me as a bit silly that the I-beam cursor stays small even when editing very large text.) The new iPadOS I-beam cursor also is aware of where lines are in text fields, and “snaps” to the line.

These effects — hover states and size-appropriate I-beam cursor — should just work for existing iPad apps using standard UIKit controls. New APIs are rolling out now for developers who want to take additional advantage of mouse and trackpad support (like, say, if their apps use non-standard text layout engines).

These features are not exclusive to the new Magic Keyboard’s trackpad. iPadOS 13.4 lets you use these features with any iPad, using any (or almost any — I’m sure there are some weird exceptions) Bluetooth or USB mouse or trackpad, including Apple’s Magic Trackpad and Magic Mouse. It’s coming to everyone this coming Tuesday, March 24, and a new beta for developers was released earlier today.

Magic Keyboard for iPad Pro

This thing looks amazing. Real keys (with backlighting). It floats the iPad above the keyboard surface. You can apparently tear off the iPad from the keyboard with a single hand. And there’s no kickstand. It’s strong enough to hold the iPad Pro in place, adjustable to any angle from 90° to 130° — a significant range of motion.

Basically, this makes a “docked” iPad Pro a true clamshell laptop. It’s still going to be very top-heavy compared to a pure laptop, but that’s inherently true for any dockable tablet. On a pure laptop, the top part is only a display, and the display surface is lightweight plastic, not glass. On a tablet, the whole “computer” is in the top part, and the display is (relatively) heavy glass.

Apple’s Smart Keyboard covers have been… fine. But they’ve clearly been — if not afterthoughts, per se — at least sorta kinda on the afterthought spectrum. They seemed designed only for typing, and yet for typing alone, weren’t that great because they use those fabric-covered squishy keys. One of Apple’s decade-old arguments against touchscreen Macs is about the ergonomics of reaching up and out to touch a vertical or near-vertical display. And they’re right — it is uncomfortable to poke at a vertical display for more than a few seconds. But without a trackpad (and, of course, without trackpad support in the OS) that is the only way to do many things on an iPad in a Smart Keyboard. Clamoring for touchscreen support on Macs is unlikely ever to stop, but I feel strongly that iPads needed trackpad support — both for ergonomic comfort and for precision. Touchscreen support for Macs is, at best, a nice-to-have idea. (And if you ask me, it’s a feature that only sounds good.)

Apple’s Smart Keyboard covers have always been very limited in terms of viewing angles. The current ones have two slots; the older ones had just one angle. A proper laptop, of course, uses a hinge, with a range of motion that lets you adjust the display angle until it’s just right for you.

Put another way, with its Smart Keyboard covers, it has never seemed like Apple was even trying to be in the game for the best way to turn a tablet into a laptop form factor. With this new Magic Keyboard, if it works as well as it looks like it does, Apple quite possibly has jumped to the head of the pack. This is a setup that someone might consider even if they are primarily looking for a laptop, not a tablet. It turns it into a matter of OS preference, not form factor.

Magic is better than smart, at least when it comes to iPad keyboard covers.

There is no aspect of today’s product announcements that more makes me wish it had been feasible for in-person briefings and hands-on time than the hinge on the Magic Keyboard.1 It simply looks too good to be true that it’s strong enough to suspend the iPad Pro above the keyboard without flopping. Real keys, a real trackpad, no kickstand. It even has its own USB-C port to charge your connected iPad Pro via the Smart Connector, freeing the iPad’s own USB-C port for peripherals. It’s the first attempt from Apple at a way to use an iOS device primarily as a laptop. Talking to Apple about it, they claim the hinge and magnetic connection are more than sturdy enough to actually use it on your lap.

There’s no special name for the one and only color option, but judging from photos (and AR) it’s a very cool near-black. It makes me wish they’d switch the dark option for MacBooks from “space gray” to this near-black color — if you’re going to offer a darker option, go a lot darker. They’ve even added an Apple logo to the back — oriented for landscape. Put an iPad Pro in this case and it’s a laptop.

The only downsides: the Magic Keyboards are not available until “May”, and they cost $300/350 respectively for the 11/12.9-inch iPad Pros. That’s not cheap, but these don’t look cheap. And a bonus: they’re fully compatible with the previous generation 11- and 12.9-inch iPads Pros, including the camera cutouts on the back.


As an addendum to this section, I’ll also point out that Apple has collaborated with Logitech on a $150 Combo Touch Keyboard Case for the current (7th generation) 10.2-inch iPad and the 10.5-inch iPad Air (which also works with the 10.5-inch iPad Pro). It features both a trackpad and backlit keys, but it requires putting the iPad into a case and settles on a kickstand for support.

The Logitech keyboard features a row of function keys, for things like home, brightness, volume, and media playback; Apple’s Magic Keyboard does not. Neither keyboard features an Escape key.2

New iPad Pros

Other than the cameras, from the outside these look identical to the previous generation. (As noted above, the previous generation models are compatible with the new Magic Keyboard.) On the inside, the highlights of what’s new include:

  • Faster CPU and graphics performance with the A12Z chip. (Why A12Z instead of A12X? Because they needed a letter “better than X”. Not sure what they’ll do next time, though, since Z is the end of the alphabet. And as I’ve long held, no letter in the alphabet is cooler than X.)
  • Dual lens rear-facing camera system with wide and ultra-wide lenses.
  • A LiDAR sensor in the camera system — a first for Apple.
  • A five-microphone “studio quality” microphone array based on the same technology as the excellent microphone array introduced with November’s 16-inch MacBook Pro.

This is a solid update. I don’t think it’s enough to tempt most owners of the previous generation iPad Pros, but for a single generation, just about everything that could be faster is faster. In addition to CPU and GPU, that includes Wi-Fi (support for 802.11ax) and the latest and greatest LTE bands. The A12Z (I almost typed X, dammit) is now an 8-core design.

Prices are unchanged, starting at $800 for the 11-inch and $1,000 for the 12.9-inch. Entry model storage is now 128 GB, up from 64 GB. The largest storage option is 1 TB, which carries a $500 premium. Cellular connectivity remains a $150 upgrade.

The LiDAR sensor is — at least for now — specifically for AR. (I say “at least for now” because it seems possible to me that, come iOS 14, the LiDAR sensor could also be used as an aid for still photography and video.) LiDAR should make AR much faster on these new iPad Pros than other iOS devices — specifically when you first start and ARKit is mapping your environment.

One curious omission: Portrait mode photography is only available with the selfie camera. I call this curious because the combination wide/ultra-wide rear-facing camera system is seemingly very similar to that of the iPhone 11, which offers Portrait mode. (And again, Portrait mode in particular is a feature that could, in theory, make great use of a LiDAR sensor — the whole point of LiDAR is to create a depth map. A LiDAR-aided Portrait mode could come a lot closer to DSLR-quality bokeh, blurring background elements based on how far away they are from the lens.)

New MacBook Air

Last but absolutely not least. This is truly the MacBook Air we’ve been waiting for. Changes from the previous generation:

  • Much better base model performance.
  • Additional CPU options with even better performance, including quad-core Core i5 and i7 options.
  • Increased storage capacity, with the base model now starting at 256 GB.
  • The base model starts at $999 — with education pricing starting at $899.

As a general rule, I tend to round prices up a dollar. E.g. I wrote above that the new 11-inch iPad Pro starts at $800, when in fact it starts at $799. I do this because for me at least, it makes comparison math far more clear. I find the difference between $799 and $1,299 far more difficult to compute at a glance than the difference between $800 and $1,300. But I make an exception here for $999, because I think that’s such a psychologically powerful price point. From a consumer advocate perspective, there’s zero practical difference between $999 and $1,000. But $999 is magic.

When the retina MacBook Air debuted, it didn’t hit that magic price. It started at $1,199, with the old non-retina MacBook Air hanging around in the lineup. And that $1,199 model had only 128 GB of storage.

Today’s new MacBook Air models are terrific in two regards: they’re noticeably better computers at noticeably lower prices. Before today, a 256 GB retina MacBook Air cost $1,299 and came with a butterfly mechanism keyboard. Today, a 256 GB MacBook Air costs $999 and comes with the same scissor-switch keyboard as the 16-inch MacBook Pro. You save $300, get a much better keyboard, faster performance, and there is no tradeoff. It’s just better and costs less.

Or, you could spend that same $1,299 (it’s hurting me here not to type “$1,300” but I figure I ought to stay consistent within this section) and get a model with a quad-core Core i5 (instead of dual-core i3) and 512 GB of storage. Same price, way better performance, better keyboard, double the storage. 


  1. I saw a prerecorded video briefing/presentation on the new products, and I had an off-the-record phone call Q&A with a few Apple folks. For obvious reasons no one in the media had an in-person briefing. ↩︎

  2. It’s well worth pointing out that in iPadOS 13.4, you can remap hardware modifier keys in Settings → General → Keyboards → Hardware Keyboard → Modifier Keys. So if you’re using one of these Escape-less keyboards and wish you had an Escape key, just remap the Caps Lock key to Escape. ↩︎︎