Apple’s 2017 Hardware in Review: It Was the Year Of…

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As we close out 2017 and look forward to a new year just a handful of hours ahead, now is a great time to look back at the year that was. This was a VERY busy year for Apple, so rather than a completely exhaustive review, I’m just going to hit a few of the highlights with Apple’s hardware in 2017.

It Was the Year of the iPad’s Comeback

Back in March, Apple released it new 5th Generation iPad, which dropped the Air moniker to be simply named iPad once again. This device brought some major changes to the product lineup, as it married together upgraded internals with major concessions on screen design and size. The new iPad uses the larger original iPad Air chassis and has a non-laminated LCD display, but is still an upgrade over the original Air and anything previous in all respects, and over the iPad Air 2 in all but screen technology and size.

This was a shrewd move from Apple, and the resulting sales figures prove that it was the right decision. The concessions on construction allowed for a sizable cut in price for a new tablet, which was needed given the slow-moving upgrade cycle for the iPad. This new, lower-cost iPad also signified a shift in philosophy for Apple concerning its tablets. The Air 2 was too close to both specs and price of the original iPad Pro. This new iPad brought clarity to the lineup and a true difference between it and the Pro models in terms of both features and price.

Then in June, Apple announced and released two new iPad Pro models. One was an updated version of the two year old 12.9″ version, and the other was a new size for Apple. Their new 10.5″ iPad Pro brought a bigger screen in the same form factor as the 9.7″ model. Both models brought us the usual upgraded internals and camera, but also faster Apple Pencil recognition and movement speed, as well as new features like ProMotion.

The biggest and best new goodies also came later on in the same WWDC Keynote, as iOS 11 brought us a big surprise specifically for the iPad. Apple added vastly enhanced true multi-tasking, a usable Dock that can be summoned within apps, and true, OS-wide drag and drop between multiple open apps. While playing around during the iOS 11 Beta Period after I got my new iPad Pro, I found that you can have two apps open, have another in Slideover Mode that can be summoned from the side of the screen, and a video open separately. This capability made it to the release version of iOS 11, and is definitely a BIG step forward in capability for Apple’s Pro tablets.

Thankfully for those of us who are iPad fans, these moves prove Apple’s commitment to the platform. They have been rewarded with not just halting the iPad’s massive sales decline of the last two years, but also returning the iPad to growth and profitability again. This news may have faded into the background due to the craziness of the iPhone X release, but it is still one of the biggest Apple hardware stories of the year.

It Was the Year of Apple Watch Independence

The Apple Watch has been with us for a couple of years, but this is the year it felt like it finally arrived. A post-release LTE bug aside, the continued progression of watchOS and the addition of LTE feels like a turning point. In practical terms, it is only helpful in certain occasions and mostly for fitness and running. Despite that, the platform has a direction that points toward eventual true independence. The only thing holding it back now is natural progression and the limitations of current battery technology.

The other addition to the Watch came just a month ago, as Apple Music streaming finally arrived on the device. This may not be a feature that touches every Watch user yet, but this has basically transformed the device into a smaller, more mobile, and much more powerful iPod. Paired with AirPods, the Apple Watch feels like a modern reincarnation of that platform.

These changes to the Watch aren’t the arrival at a destination that the new iPad and iPad Pro releases were, but you can see the direction where things are headed. Also, all of the health news, studies, and accessories surrounding the Watch this year show that it is building momentum as a serious health platform, beyond just serving as a basic workout and fitness tracker. This has the potential to carry the Watch in entirely new and very interesting directions. When you add in the fact that Apple is alternating between positions one, two, and three in the wearables market while selling devices that cost twice as much as most of their closest competitors, it seems that Apple’s Watch has a very solid foothold going into the future.

It Was the Year of Looking Back and Then Forward With the iPhone

Back on January 9, we reached the 10th anniversary of the Steve Jobs’ original iPhone announcement. Looking back, this is a slice of time showing the master at work. It was Jobs at the height of his powers as a salesman, before illness began to take its toll. It’s a little sad to look back since he’s gone, but enough time has passed to appreciate the moment and just how momentous it turned out to be.

Next up was the 10th anniversary of the actual launch of the OG iPhone. The lines. The craziness. The issues with Cingular’s network. The bugs. The interface that was so good that none of that mattered.

It was anything but a smooth launch, if we take off the rose-colored glasses for a bit. Apple had to cut the price after the buzz of the launch wore off and sales dropped, which pissed off everyone who had already bought one. Then they had to apologize and hand out credits to the early adopters. That was the first of a few iPhone-related apologies over there ten years.

It took several updates before the first iPhone was truly stable, and even when it was, the EDGE cellular Internet speeds were an anchor. It took time for the platform to become a true mainstream phenomenon, but this was the launch that changed the tech world from the ground up.

Now we are over a month out from the launch of the iPhone X, which marks a major pivot point for the device. Leading up to this launch was the by far and away the craziest rumor mill since the original iPhone because, while we all had a good idea that a big shift was coming, no one knew exactly what the changes would be until fairly close to launch. It was back and forth, day after day. It didn’t matter how wild the rumor was, someone was running with it.

In reality, the Home Button, a staple of the platform, is now gone. It has been replaced by a new gesture interface that most have found easy to adjust to, but some have had their issues with. I expect Apple to adapt it and iterate on it as time goes on, but this is the way we will navigate the iPhone going forward.

Then there is “the Notch.” The section in the top center of the X that houses the camera and sensors used for Face ID caused quite the uproar in both print and commercials (thanks Samsung. You never disappoint). While the controversy over this distinguishing cut into an otherwise unbroken edge-to-edge screen has died down post-launch, it raged for months. And months. And months. It’s actually really surprising how quickly it died out once people started using the hardware.

Then there was the fact that, while early rumors suspected that Apple would be including some kind of facial recognition, another big point of debate of the iPhone X was whether it would retain TouchID, and if so, how. Early expectations were that Apple would have TouchID embedded in the display, but as we now know, Apple dropped the idea of including this in addition to Face ID early on in the design process. All of those rumors were either very old news or fabricated. This was a big sticking point with a lot of iPhone users. Many users, such as myself, were fine once they used Face ID and saw that it was largely easy to use and very accurate. However, there are still plenty of holdouts who either moved to Android or stuck with the iPhone 8 because of it.

There was no shortage of tech writers and bloggers, especially those who trend toward Google and Android, who took a lot of shots at the iPhone X after it was announced. Also, a surprising number of Apple fans expressed dismay, as well. It wasn’t innovative. It was too expensive. It was ugly (the Notch). Face ID would be terrible. Apple let us down by taking away TouchID. Apple is DOOMED! Again!

However, I have found it very surprising just how many of these same people changed their opinions after getting their hands on one and using it. Most reviews have been highly positive because the build quality of the device in the hand makes a huge difference with the X. It, like so many Apple products, is greater than the sum of its parts.

Besides the iPhone X, there are other unique aspects of this year’s phone launch that made it stand out from others. First off, there was the release of the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus as well, this year. Getting two new phones with upgraded internals, but the same hardware design of the last three generations was definitely a HUGE departure from the past. Apple also kept the iPhone 7, 7 Plus, 6S and 6S Plus, and the SE around, as well. That’s quite the crowded field. However, despite criticism over this approach, Apple’s sales numbers last quarter showed that it is working out just fine for them.

There was also the fact that both the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus and the iPhone X were announced at the same event on September 12, but the X wasn’t actually released until November 3rd. This time between and the iPhone 8’s lack of wow factor lead to a flood of negative press and predictions, including that Apple was struggling mighty with iPhone X production issues and would struggle to meet demand. This, in turn, would hurt early sales and wreck Apple’s Holiday Quarter. However, as we know now, those rumors also turned out to be false, as iPhone X wait times were far less than predicted.

While the iPhone X is notable for the media frenzy it caused, it is also notable for the new direction that it will carry the platform in. Preorders and sales have been high so far and early reports are that Apple is planning to release larger screen models next year that will also include the Face ID and its associated Notch. There are even some rumors of an SE with Face ID.

Whatever happens, the iPhone 8 is the end of the line for the Home Button and TouchID on the iPhone. This is the new direction going forward, and if Apple is willing to iterate on it as quickly as they have with Apple Music, Apple News, and the Apple Watch, then the kinks that exist should be smoothed out soon.

It Was the Year of Apologizing to Pro Users

Every once in a while, Apple’s brass will backtrack and admit that they are wrong about something. They don’t every time, but they will when they feel they have to. One such instance this year was their admission that the existing Mac Pro design was a mistake. The biggest issue with it was that the thermal design didn’t allow them to shift to a more powerful single GPU, which is the direction pro computing has moved since it was released. Because they boxed themselves into a corner, they ended up not updating it for three years, which obviously didn’t sit well with the kinds of users who need a pro machine.

Between last year’s MacBook Pro updates that didn’t go over very well, the aging Mac Pro and Mac Minis, and the company’s seemingly limitless focus on the iPhone, iOS, and the consumer market, many professional users expressed frustration that Apple has abandoned them and some even dropped the Mac in favor of Windows. The very public criticism from a group that the company used to have a strong grip on finally forced their hand to not only shift gears, but also let users know what they are doing in advance. That is definitely not something that Apple used to do.

While Apple has given some vague details on its coming Mac Pro, which may arrive either late 2018 or sometime in 2019, it made a good on a more realistic promise to pros for the short term. Apple took an existing product and souped it up to a truly pro-quality machine. The new iMac Pro is expensive and not easily altered or expanded, but it is definitely capable of of handing professional audio, video, VR, and development work.

Apple still has to make good on its promise for the new Mac Pro, and the sooner the better. However, the new iMac Pro is a show of good faith that they have heard the criticism and are changing course accordingly. It’s a good first step as long as the rest of the step follow quickly thereafter.

It Was the Year of Missing a Release Date

At the same jam-packed WWDC Keynote that brought us iOS 11 and the new iPad Pro, we also got our first look at Apple’s HomePod intelligent speaker. Unfortunately, that was the only thing we got, as Apple’s silence after the release of the iPhone X turned into a statement that the HomePod has been delayed until sometime in 2018.

This is the other side of the double-edged sword of stating hardware plans in advance. Apple was able to make their iPhone X and iMac Pro releases, as stated, but that is to be expected from a company like Apple. When you miss one, it gets a lot of attention. With that comes additional controversy that may not even be legitimate. However, once there is the potential for problems and a vacuum of information, people are going to fill it with their own conclusions. That’s just human nature.

When you take the struggles that Apple’s has had moving Siri forward, the massive growth of Amazon’s Alexa ecosystem, and the fact that both Google and Microsoft (actually Harmon Kardon, but it is based on Cortana) have managed to release their first intelligent speakers well ahead of them, there is legitimate room for speculation about what is going on. Are there problems with the hardware? Is Siri not up to the task? Are they pivoting off their focus on Music before the HomePod even releases? Only Apple can put all of those questions to rest, and it’s anybody’s guess as to when they will break their silence and get the HomePod out the door and into users’ hands.

Whew- It Was the Year of a Ton of New Hardware

And this wasn’t even all of it, but the Apple TV 4K hardly seems worth mentioning up against all of the above. It was a busy year filled with rumors, controversy, big hits, a few hardware bugs, and a missed deadline. Through it all, however, Apple’s sales have continued to be strong all through the year. Ultimately, it was the year of a series of very strong and successful hardware releases. The complaints and the controversy over hardware eventually melted away as each release came and went (well, except for one) and Apple’s stock price and valuation rose to record levels.

While the controversy over hardware, especially hardware released this year, has subsided, there is still plenty of turmoil over software that is still raging. But that’s a story I’ll get to (again) next year.

What stands out to you about Apple’s hardware releases this year? What are your highlights and lowlights? Let me know what you think in the Comments section below, on Flipboard, on our Facebook page, or on Twitter @iPadInsightBlog.

 


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