Mac Power Users: #517: State of the iPhone »

This week on Mac Power Users, we start a new series in which we’ll be looking at each of Apple’s major platforms:

The iPhone has become many people’s primary device for many different types of tasks. On this episode, Stephen and David look at the current state of the hardware, software and services that make up Apple’s most popular product.

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Twenty Years Ago, Steve Jobs Showed Off the Aqua Interface for the First Time 

At Macworld 2000, Steve Jobs unveiled the user interface for Mac OS X. It was called Aqua.

Aqua, as seen in the Mac OS X Public Beta

I love how Jobs introduced it:

When you design a new user interface, you have to start off humbly. You have to start off saying “What are the simplest elements in it? What does a button look like? And you spend months working on a button.”

He then showed what a button looked like in Aqua, then radio buttons, checkboxes and popups. He took the audience on a tour of building blocks of the UI, including the now stoplight window controls that we are all so familiar with it today.

Apple’s press release wasn’t so humble:

The new technology Aqua, created by Apple, is a major advancement in personal computer user interfaces. Aqua features the “Dock” — a revolutionary new way to organize everything from applications and documents to web sites and streaming video. Aqua also features a completely new Finder which dramatically simplifies the storing, organizing and retrieving of files—and unifies these functions on the host computer and across local area networks and the Internet. Aqua offers a stunning new visual appearance, with luminous and semi-transparent elements such as buttons, scroll bars and windows, and features fluid animation to enhance the user’s experience. Aqua is a major advancement in personal computer user interfaces, from the same company that started it all in 1984 with the original Macintosh.

Aqua is made possible by Mac OS X’s new graphics system, which features all-new 2D, 3D and multimedia graphics. 2D graphics are performed by Apple’s new “Quartz” graphics system which is based on the PDF Internet standard and features on-the-fly PDF rendering, anti-aliasing and compositing—a first for any operating system. 3D graphics are based on OpenGL, the industry’s most-widely supported 3D graphics technology, and multimedia is based on the QuickTime™ industry standard for digital multimedia.

Aqua was a huge leap over the classic MacOS’ Platinum appearance, and far richer than anything on Windows at the time. It felt alive, with subtly pulsating buttons and progress bars that looked like they were some sort of modern-day barber poles, turned on their sides.

In his initial review of Mac OS X Developer Preview 3, John Siracusa introduces Aqua this way:

As anyone who’s seen the screenshots knows, Aqua looks very nice. Even in this very first private release, the attention to detail in Aqua is impressive. Everything appears sharp and polished. All the UI elements look just as good as they do in the screenshots on Apple’s web site. Some even look better.

All of this polish came with a cost in those early days: performance. Aqua was painfully slow on older machines, and it wasn’t really snappy on most Macs for a few years. I remember the first time I used a Power Mac G4, after only having used iMac G3s and thinking, “Oh, this what it is supposed to feel like.”

Today’s macOS is a far cry from earlier versions in terms of power and features, not to mention aesthetic. I mean, just look at how far we have come:

Despite all the changes, the core tenants of Aqua remain. The Dock. Window controls. Sheets. It’s mostly all still here, and that is a real testament to the work done over two decades ago on the original iteration of Aqua. It’s been able to keep up with the times, while still being itself, and that’s a pretty good test of user interface design over the long haul.

Some Bonus Reading:

iPad of the Decade: 2013’s iPad Air 

The 2010s are gone, so I thought it would be a good time to talk about what I think were Apple’s most influential products in the last ten years. Time to get some real work down and talk about the iPad.

The iPad 2 was a huge hit, and a big update over the original iPad. The iPad 3 brought with it a Retina display, but it was slower and heavier for it. The iPad 4 — released just seven months later — came with a much-needed improved CPU in the fall of 2012.

A year later, Apple took the wraps off an all-new iPad, dubbed the iPad Air. This tablet cribbed its design from the smaller iPad mini, complete with 43% thinner bezels on the long side of the screen and chamfered edges. It weighed just 1 pound, a full .44 pounds less than the iPad 4. I mean, in Apple’s official press photo, it looks like the thing is floating:

The iPad Air was 20% thinner than the iPad 4, and this new thinness was made possible by several advances. The 9.7-inch screen wasn’t yet laminated to the cover glass, but Apple’s engineers did what they could to shave as much space out as possible between components. The new A7 processor was far more efficient than the outgoing silicon, letting the iPad Air get by with less battery.

This iPad was remarkably different in the hand, something I noted in my review:

All of this adds up to something larger than just numbers. When picking up my wife’s iPad 4, I’m now surprised by how much the thing weighs. In a way that only Apple can, it’s managed to make its year-old product look and feel … gross.

This meant using a full-sized iPad out and about was easier than before. The iPad mini was smaller, but now the 9.7-inch model wasn’t the beast it once was.

That A7 CPU didn’t just mean the battery could be smaller, but it made the iPad Air 2x faster than the iPad 4, which was still struggling a but pushing so many pixels around. The iPad Air was the first iPad that felt fast, all the time, and I remember being really impressed with its performance.

Like the iPhone 6 I chose for the iPhone of the decade, I chose this iPad because it marked a real turning point in the history of its product line. The iPad mini may have pioneered the design used here, but the 9.7-inch iPad was far more popular. With the exception of the current iPad Pro models, every iPad continues to look like the iPad Air. I’m not sure a random person off the street could pick it out of a lineup of more modern iPads, actually. Apple flexed its hardware muscles with the iPad Air, and while it is not supported by iOS 13, the tablet itself still seems modern and fresh.

Connected #275: The Rickies (Early 2020) »

This week, on a very special episode of Connected:

Federico, Myke and Stephen review their predictions for 2019 and a new Chairman is named before everyone makes their choices for 2020, including the Risky Picks. Also, one of them gets a very special delivery during the show.

Conspiracies abound, my friends.

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iPhone(s) of the Decade: the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus 

With the 2010s coming to an end, I thought it would be a good time to talk about what I think were Apple’s most influential products in the last ten years. Today, let’s look at the iPhone.

When the 2010s started, the iPhone was still gaining steam, with the iPhone 4 released in June 2010. Today, it’s a juggernaut, and it demands both larger prices and larger places in our pockets.

It was hard to pick one iPhone release for this, but I’m going to go with 2014’s iPhone 6 and 6 Plus.

Yes, I can hear you. The iPhone 4 ushered in our age of Retina displays, the iPhone 5 brought LTE and the iPhone X seemed like magic compared to previous models.

Let’s consider the world in 2014. Samsung and other Android OEMs were shipping larger phones, and many in the iOS ecosystem longed for bigger screens and the improved battery afforded by a larger chassis. Apple had made the iPhone taller with the iPhone 5S, but just wasn’t enough.

At its September event that year, Apple delivered the 4.7-inch iPhone 6 and the larger 5.5-inch iPhone 6 Plus. Both came wrapped in a new design with rounded edges, cover glass that slightly curved to meet the phone’s frame and yes, a camera bump.

Ok, so that last one was a bit of a bummer, but the iPhone 6 felt smaller than it had any right to thanks to those smooth edges, as I wrote in my review:

The glass is now rounded at the edges, sloping down to meet the aluminum around the edges. This helps the phone feel smaller, and reminds me of the old “it’s like a river stone” claim Palm made about the original Pre. However, this means the iPhone 6 picks up weird light reflections around the edges. While these don’t affect the usability of the display itself, it can be distracting at times.

Gone are the flat sides and sharp angles where they meet the glass. The 6 has rounded edges, not unlike the iPad mini and iPad Air. This makes the phone feel thinner in hand than it actually is — a trick Apple used with the original iPhone and 3G — but it makes the device slippery. If your eyes are closed, the only way you can tell where the glass ends and metal begins would be the texture. On my phone at least, the seam is flawless all the way around.

To accommodate this larger screen, Apple moved the sleep/wake button to the side of the phone and introduced new gestures to go back and forward in applications, as well as “Reachability” to drop the top of the screen down to make it more … errr … reachable.

The rest of the physical design wasn’t quite as nice. The antenna lines were really noticeable on most finishes, the camera bump made the phone rock awkwardly when on a flat surface and those smooth edges made the phone easy to drop. Thankfully, all of those issues were resolved by slapping the phone in a case, which was probably a good idea, as this was Apple’s thinnest-ever iPhone and it was a bit to prone to bending.1

Don’t let that get you down on my pick, because we owe a lot to the iPhone 6. It sold in record numbers, affirming to Apple that the market did indeed want larger phones. The explosive sales of the iPhone 6 took Apple a little time to get used to, but it catapulted the company to new heights.

Just check out this Six Colors graph of iPhone sales. That big uptick is the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus doing their thing:

Likewise, that teeny-tiny-by-modern-standards camera bump broke the seal, giving Apple the boldness to grow the bump into the monster on the back of the iPhone 11 Pro that lets the phone take amazing photos and video.

The 6 Plus also introduced choice to the iPhone. While we had seen colors before, the addition of a second, even larger screen let Apple reach new customers who craved the largest possible iPhone.2

The design cues of the iPhone 6 are still felt today. The rounded edges are still with us today, and before glass returned to the back of the iPhone, the antenna lines had faded nicely into the aluminum. And of course, iPhones come in more sizes than ever now.

All of this adds up to why I think an iPhone that Apple dropped support for with iOS 133 is deserving of recognition here at the cusp of a new decade. iPhones owe a whole lot to the iPhone 6, and it fundamentally changed the iPhone forever.

  1. The 6 Plus in particular had another issue — it was not the most performant iPhone ever sold. With the 6S Plus, Apple doubled the RAM to 2 GB and things ran much more smoothly. 
  2. I ended up switching to an iPhone 6 Plus mid-cycle. I’ve hit my limit, though, as the iPhone 11 Pro Max is just too big for me. 
  3. To be fair, Apple has released several updates for iOS 12 to let older devices in on security updates. 

Mac of the Decade: MacBook Air (Late 2010) 

With the 2010s coming to an end, I thought it would be a good time to talk about what I think were Apple’s most influential products in the last ten years. Up first: the Mac.

When the original MacBook Air was introduced, it was positioned — both in price and marketing — as a high-end, ultra-portable notebook that was perfect for those who traveled a lot for work or just wanted the lightest Mac notebook possible.

Sadly, the first iteration of the MacBook Air was a pretty mediocre computer. The hinges proved to be fragile, the small port door was annoying and the computer was sllloooooowwwwwwwwwww. The iPod hard drive at the heart of the notebook made everything take longer than it should have, and the tiny fan inside the machine struggled to keep the Intel Core 2 Duo cool. MacBook Air customers often saw one whole core of the CPU shut down to keep things from overheating.

In hindsight, I think the original Air was a little bit ahead of its time — it really needed an SSD to truly sing, and the design was a bit compromised.1 However, a few years later, in the fall of 2010, Apple got it right.

Steve Jobs unveiled the second-generation MacBook Air at the company’s “Back to the Mac” press event, and he said the machine arose from a simple question:

What would happen if a MacBook and an iPad hooked up?

The answer was a remarkable new laptop that had a lot of iPad-like characteristics:

  • Instant on
  • Great battery life with 30-day standby time
  • Solid-state storage
  • Thinner and lighter than other notebooks

The new MacBook Air delivered on these promises, and defined a whole new class of laptops.

The new machine came in two sizes — 13.3 and 11.6 inches — and tapered down to a thin edge at the front of the machine. The keyboard and multi-touch trackpads were full-sized, and IO was way better than before. Each MacBook Air came with MagSafe, a pair of USB ports (one on each side) and a headphone jack. The 13-inch machine also shipped with an SD card slot.

Apple said that the lessons it learned building the iPhone, iPad and iPod made the MacBook Air possible, and it showed.

Gone was the slow spinning hard drive — every MacBook Air now shipped with an SSD as standard, and the LED backlit display sprang to life as soon as the notebook was opened.

Over the years, Apple would update the second-generation MacBook Air several times. USB 2 gave way to USB 3. RAM and disk options got more attractive, and both power and battery life got better as the machine matured. The 2013 model in particular was excellent with its bonkers jump in battery life.

The most important thing about this generation of MacBook Air is not the specs, but the era it helped birth. Jobs said Apple believed that all notebooks were going to look like this one in the future, and he was right. For years, PC manufacturers chased the MacBook Air, both in terms of design and popularity.

Like the white plastic MacBook before it, the MacBook Air was everywhere pretty quickly after going on sale. Users who found themselves needing a new notebook would often just buy a newer MacBook Air.

So why is this my Mac of the decade? Simple. It’s the most influential computer Apple shipped in the last ten years. That seemed really obvious for the first five years of its life, but I believe it still is today. Almost every notebook on the market is thin and light, and many are made of aluminum. Spinning media is all but gone in laptops, across the industry, and the 13-inch MacBook Pro today is actually smaller than this generation of 13-inch MacBook Air.

In late 2018, Apple revisited the MacBook Air, giving it a Retina display and an updated design. Apple was clear that it knows people love the MacBook Air, and I think it’s clear that the 13-inch MacBook Pro and 12-inch MacBook couldn’t spark the same emotion from users. Here at the end of the decade, the MacBook Air is the default Mac notebook, and that story started way back in 2010.

  1. You can learn more about the first MacBook Air in this video on the 512 Pixels YouTube channel and in this column over on MacStories. 

Mac Power Users #516: Looking Toward 2020 »

This week on Mac Power Users, David and I review 2019, and the changes it brought to the Apple ecosystem before talking about our hopes for 2020, both nerdy and not.

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