By John Gruber
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Let’s see if I’ve got every crooked detail straight from this week’s Apple product updates.
On the Apple TV front, the news is (almost) all good and the lineup actually makes more sense now. Apple has finally dropped the long-outdated 1080p Apple TV and now sells just two models, at reasonable prices: a 64 GB model for $130, and a 128 GB one for $150. Both now have the A15 chip that debuted in last year’s iPhone 13 lineup. The $130 model doesn’t have an Ethernet port and doesn’t support Thread wireless networking — the open protocol for smart home gadgets backed by Matter. The Ethernet port I can see. But I wish both models supported Thread. And we finally have a dead canary in the “Is the iPhone switching from Lightning to USB-C next year?” coal mine: the Apple TV Remote now charges via USB-C. (The remote is otherwise unchanged — including no support for Find My, alas, which is disappointing for the one Apple product I most frequently misplace.)
The new 10th-generation (no adjective) iPad moves to the modern all-screen / no-home-button design style. It gets the A14 chip that debuted with the iPhone 12 lineup two years ago, and has Touch ID on its side button. It comes in some pretty fun colors — yellow, pink, and blue — along with plain old silver. It looks a lot like the 5th-gen iPad Air that debuted in March this year, with one very significant difference: Apple moved the front-facing camera to the long (“landscape”) side, which positions the camera correctly when docked to a keyboard — which is exactly how most people who rely on the front-facing iPad cameras want to use them. And, like all the other all-screen / no-home-button iPads, it moves from Lightning to USB-C — but, bizarrely (on first consideration at least), is compatible only with the Apple Pencil 1, which has a male Lightning plug that is required both for charging the Pencil and pairing it with an iPad. So Apple now sells a $9 USB-C to Lightning adapter — with female ports on both sides — just for using an Apple Pencil 1 with these new iPads. (The adapter will henceforth be included in the box with new Pencil 1’s.)
The new 10th-gen iPads do not replace the home-button/square-corner-display 9th-gen iPads, because the new iPads cost $450 for 64 GB and $600 for 256 GB. Thus the 9th-gen iPads remain, unchanged in price at $330 for 64 GB and $480 for 256 GB. It makes sense if you now think of the 9th-gen iPad as the iPad SE — just without the “SE” name. The SE name stands for “older hardware design at the lowest price in the lineup”. That’s the 9th-gen iPad now.
The new 12.9-inch and 11-inch iPad Pros go from the M1 to M2 chips, and gain an intriguing new ability when used with a Pencil: hovering. Put the Pencil tip within about 1 cm of the display (12 mm, to be precise) and Pencil-supporting apps can detect it and use it to present hover effects. This seems very clever. But otherwise nothing else has changed. It’s still the case that only the 12.9-inch iPad Pro has the superior mini-LED display (“XDR” in Apple parlance). More bizarrely, the front-facing cameras are still on the short (portrait) side, and thus are still awkwardly placed when the iPad Pro is docked in a keyboard, laptop-style. This, despite the fact that professional users are the iPad users who likely spend the most time in Zoom meetings.
On the iPad keyboard front, the new 10th-gen iPad is not compatible with the Magic Keyboard used by the 11-inch iPad Pro and the iPad Air. Instead, Apple introduced a new product: the $250 Magic Keyboard Folio. It’s a two-part cover that depends on a kickstand on the back panel, which means it requires a flat surface (i.e. not your lap) and a deep amount of footprint space, such that it surely won’t fit on an airplane or train seatback tray. But its keyboard does have a function key row, including an Esc key. But as with the front-facing camera placement, I’d argue that it’s professional users who most use Esc, yet Apple’s iPad Pro keyboards — the $300/$350 Magic Keyboard and $180/$200 Smart Keyboard Folio (for the 11″/12.9″ iPad Pros, respectively) — are unchanged, and thus un-Esc-able.
So the iPad lineup as of this week — including accessories — isn’t where anyone would want it to be.
The front-facing cameras ought to all be on the long side. Whatever debate there was over this 10 years ago when the iPad was new, it’s settled in today’s world of iPad-as-laptop keyboards and ubiquitous teleconferencing for meetings. But here we are with brand-new iPad Pros that still have the cameras on the short side.
There ought to be just one Apple Pencil. But here we are with a truly all-new no-adjective iPad that still supports only the Pencil 1, despite the fact that the new iPad has a USB-C port yet Pencil 1 uses Lightning both for charging and pairing, thus necessitating an awkward and easily lost $9 dongle.1
In an ideal world, all 11-ish-inch iPads would support the same keyboard accessories. But here we are, with the new 10th-gen iPad only supporting the new Magic Keyboard Folio and the iPad Pro and iPad Air only supporting the Magic Keyboard. (Those latter two iPads also support the no-trackpad Smart Keyboard Folio, but I honestly have no idea who buys that thing other than people who’ve never tried iPadOS with a trackpad and thus have no idea how fun and useful it is. [Update, One Day Later: It’s about how much lighter it is.])
These frustrations mostly do make sense, though, when considering the current lineup as only a snapshot in time.
The front-facing cameras on the iPad Pro will — I bet with the next revision — move to the long side. But new hardware designs take time, and they surely take even more time during a pandemic that restricted both in-person collaboration and travel between California and China. Sometimes you just get a chip speed bump, and this generation of iPads Pro is one of those times. If you really want an iPad Pro with the camera on the long side, sit this cycle out. The M3 is probably only a year away.
Pencil 2 support requires significant internal components to support pairing and charging the Pencil inductively. That’s a significant factor in the $150 price difference between the new 10th-gen iPad and the iPad Air. And if the decision came down to moving the new iPad to USB-C and requiring a dongle for Pencil 1 support, or sticking with a Lightning port just to support Pencil 1, Apple made the right call. Better a dongle for the Pencil than another generation of iPads on Lightning. It’s also the case that schools are major buyers of low-priced iPads, and thus are major owners of fleets of Pencil 1’s. “The 10th-gen iPads still work with Pencil 1” is a feature, not a shortcoming, for schools.2
The one that I just don’t get, though, is the keyboard accessory schism. I don’t see why the new iPads couldn’t have been designed to work with the Magic Keyboard. And if there’s a market for the new two-piece Magic Keyboard Folio in addition to the cantilever-hinged Magic Keyboard, why couldn’t it have been designed as an option that worked with the iPad Air and 11-inch iPad Pro, too?
Here’s a spitball: Maybe my front-facing-camera-placement and all-iPads-should-support-Pencil-2 gripes are in conflict. The long side where the new iPad has the front-facing camera is the same long side where the iPad Pros, iPad Air, and iPad Mini have the magnetic attachment point for the Pencil 2. Maybe they both can’t fit in the middle of the same side? ↩︎︎
It’s also worth noting that Logitech has a new version of their $70 Crayon — a Pencil alternative developed in conjunction with Apple. Their Crayon 2 charges via USB-C and supports all iPads from 2018 onward, and, like their original Crayon, doesn’t require pairing. The biggest downside compared to Apple’s Pencils is that the Crayon isn’t pressure sensitive. ↩︎