My 2021 Apple Report Card

Last week I linked to Jason Snell’s annual Six Colors Apple Report Card for 2021. As I’ve done for a few years now — 2020, 2019, 2018 — I’m publishing my full remarks and grades here. It’s a good annual idea. On Snell’s report card, voters give per-category scores ranging from 1 to 5; I’ve translated these to letter grades. For what it’s worth, Snell shared with me that my scores were the 14th most positive among this year’s 53 voters — I’m voter “Fifty-Three” on the “Grading distributions of respondents” graph here. (I shall endeavor to return my ballot sooner next year.)

Mac: A

The M1 Apple silicon transition started in November 2020, but continued through 2021 with the new 24-inch iMacs in the spring and all-new 14- and 16-inch MacBook Pros in October. Both the new iMacs and MacBook Pros are fantastic machines: useful, beautiful, and fun. (The iMacs are especially fun because of their colors.)

MacOS feels like it’s in very good shape, both in and of itself, and as a peer to iOS for cross-platform features like iCloud integration, widgets, and now even Shortcuts. The Mac version of Shortcuts is a bit rough, which is putting it mildly, but it does work, and even in its rough 1.0 state, Shortcuts for Mac is useful.

I suspect some people might argue that Apple shouldn’t get a 5/5 for the Mac while we’re still waiting for pro desktop hardware — the big-display iMacs and the Mac Pro. But Apple’s roadmap for the Mac transition to Apple silicon is about as clear as it could be for something Apple doesn’t actually talk about. Those machines (and their corresponding M1-series chips) are coming.

iPhone: A

The iPhones 13 are very nice year-over-year upgrades. The cameras are better than ever (with the only downside being that the camera lenses on the Pro models are more pronounced than ever). Performance improved by typical margins, while at the same time battery life improved too. My favorite factoid: the iPhone 13 Mini gets longer battery life than the regular-sized iPhone 12. That says a lot.

iOS 15 is an incremental update, but an incremental update is exactly what was called for.

iPad: B

A fine year for iPad hardware, with the new M1-powered iPads Pro and the updated iPad Mini (modernized for the edge-to-edge display era). An uneventful year for iPadOS, more or less steady as she goes. For me, personally, my iPad is my “nice to have” computing device. I just don’t love it, or feel like I need it, the way I do with my iPhone and MacBook Pro.

Apple Watch: B

I bought a Series 5 Apple Watch two years ago and did not expect to upgrade to a Series 7. But, after reviewing it, I did — the bigger, brighter display (especially the brighter “always on” mode) and longer battery life are meaningful improvements. The Series 7 watches are just terrific. My beef is with the entry level Series 3 still being sold. As the Apple Watch platform continues maturing, selling four-year-old models at entry-level prices might be a good trade-off, but given the improvements from Series 4 through 7, Series 3 feels downright ancient. The Apple mantra is a range of products that span good/better/best. By today’s standards, Apple Watch Series 3 is less than “good”.

Wearables (including Watch): A

I’m a big-time AirPods Pro fan, but I totally get that many people do not like the feeling of sealed earbuds. Even putting the price difference aside, there’s an important spot in the AirPods product lineup for non-sealed “regular” earbuds. The third-generation AirPods are a great upgrade for that spot in the lineup. Unlike with Apple Watch Series 3 (which I no longer feel qualifies as “good”), a lineup of second-generation AirPods at $130, third-gen AirPods at $180, and AirPods Pro at $250 feels like a perfect good/better/best lineup. (I’d say AirPods Max are a different product category.)

Apple TV (Hardware/OS): C

The new Siri Remote is great — not just great compared to the much-maligned old remote, but great period. The updated $180 A12-based Apple TV 4K box is very good. But $150 for an A8-based Apple TV HD? Come on. If Apple wants to keep selling that box, it should be $99, tops. If they want $150 to be the floor for Apple TV hardware, it should be a better computer.

There’s a lot one can criticize about the tvOS experience, primarily surrounding the muddle that is the “TV” app. Apple’s “TV” app wants to be your gateway to the whole experience, but it can’t be, with apps like Netflix not participating. But, still, I’d say the overall experience of using Apple TV and tvOS as your entertainment center is the best there is. It’s a failing of Apple’s marketing that more people don’t know just how good Apple TV is.

Services: B

Apple One is a very good value. Apple Music is great. TV+ is good and getting better every month. Fitness+ seems like a perfect fit for Apple given Watch’s focus on fitness. But iCloud storage tiers are too small at every price point.

HomeKit/Home Automation: C

I think this whole endeavor needs a major kickstart. You want to go all-in on the Apple experience for your phone or computer or even TV, you know what to do. But if you want to go all-in on the Apple experience for home automation, it’s very muddled what you should do, where you should start, what you should buy.

Overall Reliability of Apple’s Hardware: A

No comment.

Apple Software Quality: D

If we’re talking bugs and glitches, I think Apple is doing well — although I know many will disagree with me there. But Apple’s software design is starting to scare the hell out of me. Look no further than this summer’s Safari tabs saga, across all three platforms. Perhaps it’s still true that all’s well that ends well, but I find it deeply troubling that these Safari UI redesigns ever made it past the whiteboard stage. And what the hell is going on with Shortcuts for Mac? Functionally it’s pretty good but design-wise it looks like it was made by people who have never used a Mac.

Developer Relations: D

Resentment over App Store policies continues to build. Rip-off apps continue to appear in the App Store.

Social/Societal Impact: B

I believe that climate/carbon is the societal area where a company like Apple can and should make the most difference, and I’m hard-pressed to think how they could be doing more than they are, practically.

We’re living in sensitive times on other social issues, and Apple seems to be managing that very astutely and honestly.