Sorry Apple, you’ve lost me…

Apple MacBook, iPad and iPhone

I’ve had this title for a post in my mind for some time. Apple’s offerings have always had a high price, but have made up for it in other ways. This is no longer the case. Yet as I write this, I still use Apple kit for my work and creative pursuits. So what gives?

Since the iPhone 7, Apple have not released an iPhone that interests me. I felt that Apple made a serious misstep by increasing the size of their phones beyond the iPhone 5. I distinctly remember Steve Jobs getting up on stage at the launch of the iPhone 5 and pointing out this was as big as a phone should be to fit in the hand and still be useable. He was right.

And yet, rather than introduce a “plus size” phone, keeping the one-handed version, the iPhone 6 started on the downward slope. If you have to include a gesture to enable people to slide the top of the screen display down, you’ve surely got to recognise something is amiss? (A gesture that I usually can’t get when I need it, and trigger when I don’t, for the most part, I might add…)

iOS circa the iPhone 7 was buggy as all get out. Apple, once renowned for their HCI guidelines, had crammed 7 different gestures on the /lock screen alone/. I found that I’d manage to hit the wrong gesture more times than I would get the one I wanted. And I’m not unfamiliar with technology. Admittedly, the X series, without the touch ID button, made a lot more sense of some of these UI choices, but still…

I’m also not a photographer. I don’t need the next 16 lense, bazillion megapixel camera. I like having a decent camera for capturing quick momentos, or for storing the latest whiteboarding session at work. I’m not out to win awards with my photos, use them in high-res print work, or even necessarily print them.

I don’t need animated emojis that respond to my facial expressions (I’m not sure entirely anyone that does, mind you…). Face ID is handy, but not essential, and raises all sorts of ethical questions re: data protection, government access, and facial recognition. So all of the things that the iPhone has brought since iPhone 7 have left me yawning.

What I want is a solid, easy to use, bug free, single-handed operation phone. And you’d think that with the open-source Android operating system that someone, anyone, would have picked up on, and met, that need. But apparently not…

About 18 months ago I decided I’d had enough, and bought a Samsung Android phone (a Galaxy S8) and it was the shortest-lived mobile I’ve had in 20+ years of mobile phone ownership. Sure, it was less than half the price of Apple’s flagship at the time. But the screen was too tall (even worse than the iPhone). All of the software “extras” that Samsung crammed in—pretty much replicating every Android standard app—were terrible to use, and just got in the way. While the iPhone had 7 gestures on the lock screen, there at least was only /one/ that opened it. Samsung had decided to provide 4 different ways you could do it, and they turned them ALL on by default. I spent weeks undoing things to get to a reasonably “vanilla” install, but even then it drove me batty.

I love the size of the Sony compact models, but when I tried them in store, their implementation of Android felt stale and outdated. None of the gesture niceties of the Google Pixel (the Pixel 2 had recently been released when I was scanning the market). I wish I’d spent the extra and gone for a Google Pixel 2 instead of the Samsung. But, honestly, the Google Pixel had no redeeming features over the iPhone. The camera was slightly better (see above as to why that didn’t sway me). The form factor was roughly the same, except for the much derided bezel. It was /slightly/ cheaper (by about $150 if I recall correctly).

Before I reverted to iPhone, I wish I’d found the Oppo that I bought my Dad. It was low cost, at least, with a clean Android implementation, decent performance. But, again, too big for one-handed use. I’ve heard really good things about OnePlus, but have never seen them available here in Australia.

So, alas, here I am, using an iPhone XS. Paying twice what I think the phone is worth—because I don’t use half of the things Apple have crammed in—features that get in the way at worst, uninteresting at best. Wishing that the “XS” actually meant “eXtra Small” (but it doesn’t). I’m only on iPhone because work covers my mobile costs and they had a preference for Apple kit for integration with a few things at work. I probably would still be on Android if that were not the case. Hardly a glowing endorsement of the Apple options…

As a musician, for the longest time I’ve sworn by Mac’s as the “creative’s choice” for music making. I’ve made music on everything from an eMac to multiple Mac laptops to an iMac. On every occasion they outshone their PC counterparts. I fell in love with the MacBook Air when it was first released, and it served me exceptionally well for both work and music.

In fact, it was a 2016 MacBook Air that I’ve been using for music production until very recently—with my increased recording activity, I’ve started hitting the boundaries of that model’s capabilities (it runs an Intel Core M, which was never designed for high-performance applications, so actually did a lot better than I was expecting.)

So, I started to look around…

Apple have not innovated in the laptop space in years. The much bally-hooed MacBook Pro 16” gives us what? It fixes a dodgy keyboard mechanism (not that I noticed the issue with the old design) and it allows the processor to run a little bit longer before thermal throttling kicks in. From what I’ve seen, in real world benchmarks it does /mildly/ better than the previous model, which /runs the same processor/. Get that? After more than a year in the market, Apple release a new laptop that uses the same processor, just allowing it to run closer to its true performance capabilities. And then there’s the screen—which by all accounts is nicely done—but innovative?

And all of their devices are massively overpriced. I’ve never been afraid of the Apple premium when it delivered a significantly better user experience. But this is simply no longer the case. This is apparent even moreso in their desktop line. The Mac Mini is low end in every facet except price. The iMac is underpowered compared to its competitors, whether you’re looking at the all-in-one form factor or “tower” desktop space, yet carries a significant premium.

I mean, look at the recently release Mac Pro, and laughed at the price. As the Ryzenshine hackintosh from Snazzy Labs demonstrates, the Apple system price is laughable for what you get, with an equivalent system built from parts coming in at /half/ the cost. And that’s running Mac OS X! (And unlike some hackintosh builds I’ve seen, the only limitations are around features I hardly use, unlike some that I’ve seen where you lose wifi and bluetooth.) And then there’s those screens, with the USD$1,000 stands. I mean, seriously, WTF? Now, even if you factor in labour for someone to build a system (I don’t think I’d be able to build the “Ryzenshine” system presented in the video, given my inexperience with PC building), you are still talking about a significant premium for the Apple system. 6 years in the making. And what does it bring us? A well-spec’d PC system, with some nice design touches on the grill and case opening mechanism. Again, nicely done, but innovative?

I’d only consider a desktop for music production (not for day-to-day/work use), as I no longer need the portability I once did for live performance. With this in mind, there are a stack of quality alternatives in PC land. I have looked seriously at a range of PC options, and if I was buying today, I’d honestly ditch Mac for a PC. There are just too many options that are far more powerful, at a significantly lower cost, to ignore. This is less the case in laptop-land, but still true to a degree.

I’d seriously consider messing around to setup a “hackintosh”, but even if I had to use Windows 10, I wouldn’t be too fussed. When I work on music, I’m pretty much exclusively in Ableton Live. It runs on Windows with the same UI as the Mac version. All of the plugins I’ve paid for support both Windows and Mac. So I’d actually spend very little time in Windows itself. My one concern is around drivers—for example, if I was to build from scratch, or needed to include Thunderbolt 3 (which I don’t presently, but could see needing in the future for connecting music devices), I’d be mildly concerned. But for a more mainstream brand, or from a well documented build (a number of which I’ve seen on YouTube), I don’t see this as a particular issue.

I’ve also serious considered shifting to PC for my work tasks. I’m tired of not having a Mac OS “two in one” or “convertible” option (that is, a touch screen + keyboard that you can flip to use without the keyboard), and the constant fan noise on my Mac when I am doing what are seemingly simple development tasks is really starting to get on my nerves. I love what Microsoft is doing with the Surface line-up (and I never thought I’d be praising Microsoft for anything, let alone hardware). I love a number of the competitor convertibles (models from Lenovo and HP have definitely caught my attention, especially the Project Athena products. Heck, even Huawei have done some nice things with their MateBook X series—and at a budget price point to boot.

I seriously considered Linux (Ubuntu specifically), but colleagues who had tried advised me against it. I also considered using the Unix sub-system on Windows. I work in VS Code as my primary IDE, so, like for music, I’d spend most of my time in an environment that was familiar. But there are apparently issues with running Docker, and some other incompatibilities, that for someone like myself, who is no longer a full-time dev and therefore doesn’t have the time nor top-of-mind knowledge to hack away at solutions to get things working, that just seemed like it wasn’t quite ready for prime-time.

In the end, I decided to save some cash and hold off buying /anything/. I’ve grabbed a USB-C SSD to transfer my music-making MacBook Air OS to run on my work laptop in the meantime. That’s enough grunt to keep me moving—though Ableton Live kicks the fan in the butt every time I start it up. But, genuinely, I’d be buying a PC for music and trying to work out the issues with the Linux sub-system on a Surface if I /had/ to put my own money down today. Hardly a glowing endorsement of the Apple options…

I was an early convert to the iPad. While people were scratching their heads upon it first being released, I let it sit a week and came to the verdict that there was something in this thing. And sure enough…

I last bought an iPad 5 years ago. That is an /eternity/ for me to hold onto a piece of tech. And honestly, it was probably 6 years ago, because that unit was a minor bump-up for more storage after 12 months. About a year ago, apps started to stop working, but I’ve persevered because I couldn’t justify the cost of the iPad Pro, and the lower-end iPad models just didn’t do what I needed or wanted.

Having decided not to upgrade my work laptop to a two-in-one, and seeing all the buzz around the release of iPad OS and its better handling of multitasking etc. I decided to give it a go. I have come to it considering if and how it can become a “laptop replacement.” My changing work responsibilities mean I’m doing far less coding, and I work mostly in the cloud for everything else—Google Suite for most things (I would love to use Keynote for presentations, but for collaboration at work we use Google Slides for our presentation materials).

Again the “Apple Tax” is at play—$100 for the pencil, and $149 for a keyboard, on top of the already steep price. I ended up deciding to try the Brydge keyboard, but stuck with the Pencil, and added a few more accessories to give it a whirl.

Spoiler alert: It (still) isn’t a laptop replacement. The Google Apps suite is designed for touch, and is painful to work with especially with a keyboard. The split screen feature is nice in theory, but I’m not gelling with it yet, after about 3 weeks use. I can’t seem to remember the hidden magic gestures to get it to do what I want. I’ve been adapting my work practices for nearly 3 weeks now, and it’s still not quite “there”. Lots of little things that I’m still having to reach to the laptop to do.

And, while it wasn’t a defining point in my decision, I was disappointed by the lack of innovative music recording apps, given the supposed firepower under the hood of the device.

All that said, I am starting to find its sweet spot, and un-learning old habits to the point where I can see how it might work well in my day-to-day practice.

Embracing the Pencil is going to be a key part to it (while I don’t think it’s $200 worth of value… another Apple over-priced object). I did my first presentation with it the other day, which is another area I think it will excel. I went with the 12.9” screen, partly for the additional “canvas” for Pencil, but also for the benefits in presenting without an external screen. And I’ve discovered the Bear app over the weekend, which fits very nicely with my current workflow. (In fact I’m writing this post in it…)

I’m considering a straight cover—the origami-like VersaCover from Moshi is high on my list, yet significantly cheaper than the Apple variant—for when I don’t need the full keyboard capabilities of the Brydge. So while it’s early days, I still see promise in how this might support and transform my workflow.

But I have to ask—is it really worth all the effort to change and update your workflow to work with a device? Rather than just getting a device that does what you need, but has a different form factor.

And we come back price…

Sure, I could have gone for a cheaper iPad. But the bezel, weight, reduced screen size, and physical touch ID button are just dated. And as is a common theme here, they’re underpowered compared to the competition. I like the larger screen of the iPad Pro, and my partner and I are appreciating the extra canvas for Pencil-supporting apps and light video editing.

So, I could have gotten a two-in-one for a little bit more, and that arguably would have been better suited to my needs (given I do still need to carry my laptop for development work—i.e. I never know when I need to rush out a patch to a bug or issue on our production server, which I need a fully-fledged OS to do). Is it really /that/ much better than a cheaper Android-based tablet? Is it really /that/ much more affordable than a two-in-one?

I’m leaning towards a “no” at this point. Hardly a glowing endorsement of the Apple options…

So what of the other product categories: Apple Watch and Airpods.

I was an early adopter of smart watches, being a pre-order customer of the (now defunct) Pebble Smartwatch. I’ve also tried the Apple Watch, but based on my experience with both, I find the whole concept too intrusive and distracting in my day-to-day life. By all accounts the current Apple Watch is hitting its stride—a refined experience that beats the competitors. But it’s an accessory, and not the main game in my view.

And the Airpods. What can I say. They pair easily with the iPhone. But… They don’t have the best comfort. They don’t have the best music playback sound. They don’t have the best noise cancellation. They don’t have the best voice performance. They don’t have the best price. (Again, that theme: overpriced for performance.) They are mediocre in every respect. And I’m talking Pro here, the original Airpods are even worse. Nuf said. (FWIW, I’ll be going for the Jabra Elite 75T when my current wireless buds fall over.)

I write all of the above as a life-long Apple fanatic. I first used a Mac 512K (if memory serves) in 1987. The first computer I became creative on was a Power Mac in 1995. I owned a Newton. I have had an eMac, PowerBook, iBook, MacBook, MacBook Air, MacBook Pro, Power PC 7600, 2 x iMacs. I have owned an iPhone 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, XS. An Apple Watch. iPad 2, 3 and 4 Gen.

And yet, I am now constantly on the lookout for alternatives in each of the product categories I use Macs for, because Apple no longer hold a significant advantage to justify the price premium.

Apple used to excel in 3 key areas:

  1. Usability—a beautiful and useful user interface that just worked. They still have a nice UI, but it hasn’t had a visual refresh in years, and Windows 10 and Android have significantly closed the gap.
  2. Integration—all the pieces working well together. They still do this well, but have not really innovated here in a /long/ time. And, again, Android in particular (if you’re a Google Suite user, as I am) has closed the gap significantly here as well.
  3. Innovative hardware—I’ve noted above, despite the interesting tubular Mac Pro, which I think was a pretty special bit of kit, Apple have not innovated on any of their platforms in years. They have gone from “innovative” to “polished”. Even Watch is just being incremented now.

And yet… I still find myself on a Mac laptop, writing this on an iPad, and using an iPhone.

It is so disappointing that I can’t love my Apple gear as much as I want to.

What’s more frustrating is that I am not able to get an alternative platform that does what Apple doesn’t (yet).

The thing for Apple is, if I was buying today I would go PC for my music production workstation. And probably for my work development laptop (I’m still looking at a good 2-in-1, like the Lenovo Yoga C940).

That’s two of the three categories I’m interested in. Which leaves the phone—for which I have to admit some nostalgia and curiosity factor for the Razr reboot… Clean Android is not that far off what I want. And Android, and the major manufacturer’s offerings, have advanced quite a bit since I last looked. My current iPhone has done nothing to hold on to me. It’s overpriced, and too big. Apparently there’s a smaller unit coming out next year, so maybe there’ll be more to consider then.

While I’ve had that blog post title in mind for some time, they’ve not quite lost me, yet. More to the point, I’ve not quite been able to shake free. I try to avoid jumping on the “Apple are doomed” memes, which come up periodically (which, as an aside, I’m surprised none seem to have arisen with advent of Jony Ive’s departure).

Sure, I’m just one customer. But if life-long fans like me are /actively/ looking for alternatives, Apple are going to find themselves in trouble before long. People like me are the “canary in the coalmine”—that if they don’t start to innovate in a post-Jobs era, they may need to draw upon that war chest of cash much more than they would like as the competition (finally) start to overtake them and the lose even more marketshare.

It’ll take a while for them to lose dominance in the smartphone category (their current cashcow), but no position is unassailable, even in that industry (/cough Nokia cough/). But in the laptop and desktop categories, Mac is falling almost to irrelevance. Which is a massive shame, because I am still a fan of the Mac OS, despite the advances in Windows 10. And without the hardware sales to back it up, I doubt continued investment would be financially viable for Apple.

And that’s not a happy prospect…