Thoughts on Apple’s October Update

Apple Inc. held its fourth event of 2021 on Oct. 18, revealing new software and hardware installments to add to what has already been an impressive 2021 collection for the tech giant. Apple’s first event of the year was in April and showed the introduction of AirTags and improvements to the iMac, Apple TV, and models of the iPad Pro. The Worldwide Developers Conference in June marked the second event of 2021, where the company showcased a number of updates to iOS, iPadOS, watchOS, tvOS, and macOS. September marked the third event, at which Apple emphasized refreshed models of the iPhone with bonus renovations to the iPad, iPad mini, and Apple Watch. Apple’s first three events introduced AirTags and showcased a number of updates to the iMac, Apple TV, iPad, iPad Pro, iPad Mini, iPhone, and Apple Watch. Perhaps the most anticipated updates of the year, however, were seen during last month’s event, when the company announced revolutionary updates in the lineage of the MacBook Pro along with modest upgrades to AirPods and HomePod mini.

Beginning with the third installment in Apple’s wireless earbuds line, the new AirPods 3 showed a notable improvement to the second generation AirPods with the addition of spatial audio. A feature that previously had only been available to Apple’s more premium AirPods Pro and AirPods Max, spatial audio claims to create a more immersive listening experience. Visually, the new AirPods received a revamp, making them look quite similar to the AirPods Pro save the absence of the silicone ear tip that is included in the Pro model. Otherwise, besides a slightly improved sound quality due to the replacement of drivers, the alteration of the Force Sensors on the stems to improve control of listening, and the addition of sweat and water resistance, the AirPods 3 stayed roughly the same as the previous model. With a current price point of $179, they are $50 more than the second generation AirPods and $70 less than the AirPods Pro. 

Personally, I believe that the AirPods 3 are not worth their price point. The addition of spatial audio is certainly an improvement from AirPods 2, but it does not dramatically change the quality of the listening experience such that it is worth $50 more. The other alterations I mentioned are merely tweaks to the Airpod’s usability, and ultimately do not offer significant changes to the listening experience. Because of this, I would pick the AirPods 2 over the AirPods 3 and save $50, rather than cough up the extra money for features I can live without. Cost not being a factor, the AirPods Pro are still Apple’s best earbuds, though AirPods 3 certainly surpasses AirPods 2 for second place for the reasons mentioned above. 

Compared to the new AirPods, the additions to the HomePod mini line were even more limited: Apple simply added blue, yellow, and orange designs to join the white and space gray colors that had previously been introduced. These new colorways cost the same $99 as the two original colors. There is really not much to opine about in terms of the HomePod Mini, besides the obvious fact that the new colors have the benefit of allowing a more customized aesthetic in one’s home.

It is also worth noting that Apple added a new Apple Music subscription option along with the new AirPods and HomePod mini called Voice. As the name might suggest, the Voice plan only allows users to voice control Apple Music features. Of course, this concept is not ideal for users who would prefer to queue their music visually on their screened devices such as iPhone, iPad, and Mac, but could potentially be popular for those who utilize non-screened devices such as HomePod mini and AirPods and those with visual impairments. At a price of $5 per month, the plan is among Apple’s cheapest Music plans, but is also one of the most limited.

Though the AirPods and HomePod mini additions piqued the interest of viewers during the event, the MacBook Pro was indisputably the star of the show. Put simply, Apple’s newest Pro version of their popular MacBook laptops received substantial upgrades in both usability and performance.

Beginning with updates to the screen, Apple slightly expanded the display by reducing the size of the surrounding bezels, reduced the top bar to a less intrusive notch around the webcam, and improved the overall quality of the display. Apple also enhanced the built-in speakers and webcam and added new ports on the side of the machine to improve user workflow. The keyboard was also remodeled to replace the old touch bar with real, fully-functional keys.

On the performance side, the MacBook Pro expanded on its new M1 chip by unveiling the M1 Pro and M1 Max chips. Like the base M1 chip, these new chips are designed by Apple to work seamlessly with Apple’s other hardware and software, giving them a leg up on the old Intel chips that MacBooks have used in the past. With increased numbers of CPU and GPU cores compared to the base M1, these new chips are simply a more powerful version of the M1 that allow for improved performance when doing computationally-demanding tasks. As expected, the new MacBook Pro also allows customers to choose between various sizes of memory and SSD storage, ranging from 16-64GB and 512GB-8TB respectively. While the new 14in and 16in MacBook Pros are certainly great machines, they come at a significant price, and the base model for the smaller machine starts at an astronomical $1999.

To me, the new MacBook Pro is clearly Apple’s most capable MacBook ever. With the powerful new M1 Pro and M1 Max chips, as well as new ports and improved screens, the MacBook Pro might be a great option for those who frequently do audio, photo, or video editing, computationally-demanding coding, and the like. For just about any other computer-user, however, the processing power of the MacBook Pro is unnecessary, meaning that more affordable machines are probably a better choice. For example, I would recommend the MacBook Air, which starts at $899 for students and $999, for everybody else. I believe that nearly all students fall under the latter of these two categories, although I wouldn’t blame Swatties for picking up the sleek new machine if their budget permits.

In any case, customers should know a few additional things about MacBook computers before making a purchase. For one, Apple doesn’t make it easy to upgrade a machine’s parts once it is assembled. This means that it is often a good idea to overshoot the amount of memory, SSD storage, and processing power you choose for your MacBook, giving yourself a bit of headroom if you need it in the future. Sure, there is always the option to buy an external GPU or SSD drive if need be, but these solutions pose an inconvenience to users that could make the cost of buying more memory or storage in the first place worth it — I personally would rather pay more for additional memory and storage in my device than save a couple of bucks and have to worry about remembering my external setup each day. Also worth noting is that despite the MacBook Pro’s new processing capabilities, it still is not the best at running video games. Simply put, for the price of a MacBook Pro, users could get a high-end gaming PC that would be significantly better in gaming performance than a regular computer, or even a decent gaming laptop if portability is an issue. 

Ultimately, I believe that the MacBook Pro will continue to be the machine of choice for computer scientists and creators, since the integration of Apple’s hardware and software is hard to beat. The AirPods 3, though not a substantial upgrade in my opinion, are still a reasonable choice for Apple fans who want a quality pair of wireless earbuds. I find it hard to imagine that anyone cares about the HomePod Mini, but undoubtedly someone is excited about the new blue, yellow, and orange colorways. As has always been the case for Apple products, the question of to buy or not to buy will come down to price: how much are you willing to pay for a higher-end product, the features of which you may or may not need? The answer to this question is unique to each individual, so it will be interesting to see just how many Swatties tote new MacBook Pros and AirPods in the coming months.

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