Apple in 2018: the good, the bad and the atypically incoherent

From the highs of new Macs to the lows of really old Macs…

It feels like time’s on a loop. Every year, Apple unleashes shiny new kit, and is immediately slammed by rivals. Rumours come thick and fast that Apple’s cut orders, or is about to axe its latest invention – before we’re told the company has enough cash knocking around to buy a medium-sized country outright. (Tim Cook: please don’t become a Bond villain.)

That said, for every smart Apple decision, there’s an arguable blunder – or at least there is in this list, because we’re doing balance like the BBC and serving up ten of Apple’s brightest moments from the past 12 months, followed by ten dimmer lights.

The good

iPhone XS Max

We liked the iPhone X a lot, but its narrow screen felt like a downgrade if you’d previously owned a surfboard iPhone 8 Plus. Enter the iPhone XS Max – everything that was great about the iPhone X, only bigger! Actually, it was more than that, with the ludicrously powerful A12 chip, a long-lasting battery, and a camera that made even the X’s decent snapper look old-hat.

iPhone XR

With Stuff having worn its natty skeptical cap-and-face combo when Apple revealed the iPhone XR, were were pleasantly surprised to find out it was brilliant. As our intrepid editor wrote, this colourful blower – the Product (RED) incarnation is especially gorgeous – does the business in terms of battery, screen and power. The loss of the iPhone XS’s telephoto lens is a pity; it being 250 quid cheaper is not.

iPad Pro 2018

The iPad Pro dropped the Home button but didn’t gain a notch. We loved it. The combination of beautifully conceived industrial design, raw power, and a gorgeous screen make it the best tablet on the market. The revamped Pencil also impressed, ditching an absurd charging mechanism (plugging it into the Lightning port) for snappy magnetic magic. Not made of cash? The standard iPad got a decent update, too.

Apple Watch 4

In our review of the Apple Watch 4, there was a suitable pun about hearty upgrades. And that’s because Apple’s new watch in the US has electrocardiogram functionality that’s saved people’s lives. Take that, Rolex! International users must wait, but can at least enjoy the device’s design revamp. The best bit: the display’s sleek rounded corners and increased size – to the point you can stuff it with enough complications to make your head spin.

MacBook Air

Frankly, we were starting to wonder whether the MacBook Air would fade into the ether. Nope. Apple instead reimagined the notebook Steve Jobs once pulled out of an envelope, bringing it kicking and screaming into the modern era. There’s now a Retina display, a much-improved keyboard, and plenty of power for consumer computing. Is there anything it doesn’t have? A range of ports – two USB-C is your lot.

Mac Mini

The Mac mini hadn’t been updated for years. Would Apple issue a tiny, affordable Mac that looked like an Apple TV? Would the mini just say: ‘fini’? In the event, the new Mac mini looked like the old one, albeit with a space grey paint job; inside, though, was the beating heart of a pro Mac – albeit with the GPU of a kitten. Still: top stuff for a Mac hub, or creative types.

Speed boosts for older devices

A new version of iOS shows up like clockwork every year, and it’s easy to become dulled to the features treadmill. In 2018, though, Apple’s most vital update wasn’t a shiny new bauble – instead it was doubling down on performance. So install iOS 12 on older kit and it’s likely to feel snappier, rather than like you’ve just gummed up its innards with treacle.

Screen Time

We at Stuff love our tech, and so you might wonder why we enthuse about an iOS 12 feature seemingly designed to make you use your iPhone and iPad less. Although Screen Time can do that – not least if you’re reeling from discovering your 60-hour-a-week Fortnite addiction – it’s mostly about arming you with stats and knowledge that provide awareness of how you’re using your Apple devices.

Virtual assistance

A raft of smaller features made iOS 12 feel more generally useful. Notifications can now be banished and silenced from Today view. And Siri regularly makes useful suggestions, providing shortcuts to context-sensitive actions. Given Apple’s privacy stance, the company also solved how to make Siri extensible – offload control to the user, so they can define their own voice triggers for app shortcuts.

Today at Apple

Scoff all you like about Apple’s slightly cringe-inducing advert introducing “inspiring free sessions happening every day at Apple”, because the underlying concept is pretty great. The idea is your local Apple Store is no longer just a place to buy shiny things, but a hub for creativity. Ideal if you want to learn to sketch, master video-editing, or have your kids race Spheros around a maze.

The bad

No new iMacs

Apple’s revival was built atop the original iMac; and although the latest one doesn’t resemble its Bondi Blue ancestor, it remains a key part of Apple’s line-up. At least, we think it does. It’s hard to tell, given that it’s been over 18 months since the non-pro iMac line was last updated. Right now, you’re just splashing out for ageing tech at a premium price-point.

No new Mac Pro

We know a new Mac Pro is on its way, which Apple has hinted will be a “modular system”, and, unsurprisingly, “something great”. And that’s lovely, but the existing Mac Pro just turned five. If nothing else, this points to Apple needing to keep its Mac line fresh, rather than allowing big chunks of it to regularly stagnate

No more iPhone SE

Got wee hands? Like tiny phones? Tough, because despite rumours that the iPhone SE would be revamped, Apple quietly killed it. Presumably, the company wants you to wrap your mitts around last year’s iPhone 8 if you won’t buy an XS. In this context, the new SE-like stylings of 2018’s iPad Pro almost seem like epic trolling.

AirPower going MIA

In September 2017, Apple revealed AirPower, its wireless charging mat on which you could blithely drop an iPhone, Apple Watch, and AirPod case, knowing they’d be fully juiced in the morning. A few references still exist in patents and Apple job ads, but this device not arriving in 2018 felt like an embarrassment.

Apple TV stalls

Apple has big plans for telly, but it’s hard to not feel cynical and disappointed about Apple TV. Technically, the unit is fine, but it’s ludicrously overpriced compared to the competition, and Apple seemingly remains clueless about how it could have been – could still be – a gaming powerhouse. At WWDC 2018, it was like the device barely existed.

Dark Mode on Mac

For years, Mac users clamoured for a dark mode, to work in blacked-out rooms without having a Retina display singe their actual retinas. But macOS Mohave’s take feels half-baked. Some apps come along for the ride, but too often (even with Apple apps), you get a chequerboard effect, marrying a dark UI with blinding white page backgrounds.

iPad apps on Mac

There had long been rumours Apple would mash together macOS and iOS. At WWDC 2018, Apple instead unveiled a technology to help developers more easily port iPad apps to Mac. The idea is to bring iOS’s diverse app ecosystem to the desktop. Right now, it’s a mess, with Apple’s ported Macs feeling alien. We hope things will greatly improve before the more widespread release in 2019.

Apple Music Connect shuttered

Remember those great times on Apple’s Ping? No? How about Apple Music Connect? Still no? Yeah – Apple should give up on the music social network thing, because it’s not going to happen. For the literally several of you who are heartbroken at Connect’s death, prepare for more pain: on 29 May, all content is going to be ‘disconnected’.

Price hikes

Apple’s never going to be a bargain-basement brand, but 2018 felt like the year Apple just wouldn’t stop ramping up prices. There were often good tech reasons, but it’s not a great look when the base Mac mini doubles in price, phones are well into four figures, and last year’s iPad Pro awkwardly sticks around because this year’s one is presumably deemed too expensive as an entry point.

Ringgate

It wouldn’t be a year in tech without an Apple ‘gate’ story. This year’s was ‘ringgate’, named after white rings the HomePod left on the kind of expensive wooden surfaces that people who buy expensive Apple speakers might place them. The silicone base was to blame. Still, it wasn’t all bad news: it opened up a whole new market for HomePod coasters.

The atypically incoherent

Apple prides itself on consistency. Operating systems and services talk to each other. Apps conform to strict guidelines, so you’ll have a fighting chance of mastering them from day one. But in 2018, something felt off.

We got two incompatible iPad Pencils, and iOS devices with two different charging connectors. Apple’s device naming is all over the shop. And in ergonomics, there’s an ongoing turf war between those who argue against touchscreens in a laptop form factor, and those who consider this logical evolution. Here’s hoping for joined-up thinking across the board in 2019.