Apple's latest product upgrades: Here's what's worth your money -- and what's not
Surprise: Apple quietly introduced new AirPods, iPads and iMacs this week, just days ahead of a splashy launch event at its headquarters on March 25.
Translation: You can probably hold on to your wallet.
Apple sometimes puts out smaller updates without a big to-do, but usually not for three days in a row before a big scheduled event. Next Monday, Apple is expected to unveil new ways to get your money: subscription services for news and entertainment. By getting the hardware out of the way in advance, Apple is signaling how important services are becoming to its business in an era where upgrades don't generate much buzz.
Apple's newest products are incremental. None of the changes dramatically reinvent the design or capabilities of the products. The biggest happy news is for people who've been holding out on buying an iPad Mini and iMac -- they're both getting a welcome speed boost. The updated AirPod headphones will offer better battery life, but disappoint on other fronts.
The unsung winners from this week's announcements: People who buy last-generation and used Apple products. Any time there are new Apple products, the older stuff that still works great gets cheaper. Check eBay and sites with refurbished products such as Backmarket.com for some spectacular deals in the weeks ahead.
So how do you figure out if it's time for an upgrade? Here's a rundown on what's good -- and what's still missing -- from each of this week's updates.
Over the last two and a half years, AirPods have grown from the butt of jokes ("Are those Q-Tips hanging out your ears?") to the favorite product of commuters and people who spend all day on the phone. But the 2019 update (priced $159 to $199) doesn't move the needle much on simplicity -- or make them work for more people.
What's good: The battery in the second-generation AirPods promise an hour more of talking time, thanks to a more-efficient processor. This is useful if the primary purpose of your AirPods is making calls, but probably won't matter much for listening to music. (Even the first-generation AirPods could last up to 5 hours at a time for streaming music.)
A nice to have: For $40 more, you can now get AirPods in a case that charges wirelessly. To take advantage of this, you'll need to have access to wireless charging pads -- which are still few and far between. You can use first-generation AirPods with the new wireless-charging case, sold separately for $79.
And Apple superfans will like that the new AirPods listen out for the command "Hey Siri" to take your voice commands. The feature is an echo of Scarlett Johansson's in-ear artificial intelligence in the 2013 film "Her." But it's not clear how much additional utility you get out of talking to Apple's not-always-so-intelligent AI in your ear, as opposed to through an iPhone, Apple Watch or HomePod.
What's missing: Apple is sticking with its one-size-fits-all design with its second-generation AirPods, but the reality is not all human ears are the same. Would it kill Apple to make small, medium and larger versions? I have no problem keeping AirPods in place while jogging ... or headbanging. But many readers have told me AirPods simply won't stay put. Competitor products, such as Samsung's $130 Galaxy Buds, come with different-sized plastic tips, but you'll have to buy those in the aftermarket if you want custom-fit AirPods.
Also missing: noise-canceling capabilities and color options other than white.
Finally, Apple two years ago promised a wireless charger called AirPower that could charge the iPhone, Apple Watch and AirPods at the same time. This product, however, is still MIA.
Apple's iPad lineup has never been larger or most confusing.
What's good: A favorite reading device for many, the 7.9-inch iPad Mini is looking strong again. The new $399 Mini, last updated about two years ago, is now much faster, featuring the A12 processor also found in the iPhone XS and XR. The Mini also works with the Apple Pencil stylus, which you can use to doodle and take notes. The question is: Now that so many people have an iPhone XR or XS Max with a gigantic screen, does the Mini still hold much appeal?
Apple's also bringing back the $499 iPad Air as a faster, 10.5-inch version of its basic $329 iPad. The new Air is a good alternative to the $799 11-inch iPad Pro, given that the two devices are close in size and have the same processor.
What's missing: None of the new iPads adopted Face ID or the smaller-bezel design of last year's new iPad Pro. Most people won't miss those elements, but it does contribute to these new products feeling old right out of the box.
The $400 price on Mini is also surprisingly high, given that the larger-screen basic iPad is just $340.
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Apple's classic desktop computer is getting faster, but not really evolving.
What's good: The iMac, priced $1099 and up, is getting Intel's 9th-generation processors and new graphics options, which could help if you need to edit videos and photos. Apple claims that in some circumstances, the new iMacs are twice as fast.
What's missing: Macs have been behind the curve in getting upgrades that come to other Apple products. These new iMacs still don't have TouchID for entering passwords and making payments, even though it now comes on many Mac laptops. In 2019, shouldn't the iMac have FaceID, and the ability to automatically log in to the account of the person it recognizes?
And Apple lags far behind Microsoft (yes, Microsoft!) in re-imagining the form of a desktop computer. Microsoft's Surface Studio offers a big screen that's touch and pen enabled, and can also swivel down so you can work on top of it. Who says the desktop computer is dead?