Oh, Apple, you’ve released a lot of stuff this year. It’s like you barely knew there was a pandemic to slow you down. Five new iPhones, three iPad variants, a whole new processor for the Mac, the first over-ear AirPods, MagSafe chargers, two new Apple Watches and a tiny smart speaker. Oh, and there’s now a Fitness+ subscription to go with gaming, news and music.
So, of all these headline acts, which is the one that really sings to you? Your call may be different from mine, but here’s my take on Apple’s year, and oh what a year it’s been.
It’s a pretty tough choice, because Apple’s range is wide and the products have been pretty spiffy across the board.
AirPods Max are pricey but gorgeous and sound sensational. If you’re thinking of getting an Apple Watch, there’s never been a better time as you can choose between the budget Series 3, the powerful mid-range SE and the exceptional Apple Watch Series 6.
Maybe something more off-the-wall appeals, like MagSafe. The charger clips with a light-but-satisfying click to the back of the iPhone 12 models and you’ll never again wake up to find your phone didn’t charge overnight because you misplaced it. I’ll be honest, this was my pick of the year for quite some time because of its simple elegance and the prospect of more products to follow that will use this tech.
The phone is still charging wirelessly but it’s smart, too – even down to the way a MagSafe case flashes its color on the lock screen as you attach it.
If that’s too obscure, then how about the iPhone 12 series of handsets, which look like they are setting off a super cycle of sales? There’s much to like here, especially the little and large models, the iPhone 12 mini which is easily the most satisfying compact phone of the year, and the iPhone 12 Pro Max which is the ultimate Apple phone. Huge, with a giddily-attractive display, the Max has the best cameras Apple has ever included, epic battery life and a fetching selection of color finishes.
Or maybe it’s the most affordable iPhone that appeals, the iPhone SE? After all, its classic Touch ID button and modest proportions are matched by a low price and fearsomely powerful processor. Personally, I’d say the iPhone 12 mini beats it on every level except price, but the SE is a fantastic way to get a fast iPhone for not that much money.
Speaking of value, who knew Apple could make a smart speaker for just $99? The HomePod mini with its dinky profile and much bigger audio, offering a really serious alternative to the HomePod and to smart speakers from Google and Amazon, is certainly a contender. And it looks so cute.
But, no, we’re still looking for the perfect Apple 2020 moment. Let’s not forget the keyboards that 2020 launched, you know, the magic ones. Not only did Apple ensure that every MacBook Air and Pro now comes with a Magic Keyboard, its latest, slickest, most comfortable QWERTY, it also created Magic Keyboard cases for the iPad Pro and iPad Air, turning each of those tablets into capable laptop substitutes, complete with mouse support and a trackpad. Having a backlit keyboard for a tablet, one with plenty of key travel and a really comfy feel, is a significant accessory upgrade that other companies would struggle to match.
Which leaves us where?
Much as I love the iPhone 12 with its 5G connectivity, fast processor and tough Ceramic Shield front, or the iPad Pro with its improved cameras and LiDAR sensor, or the pleasure of placing the delightful AirPods Max on my head to listen to a movie soundtrack with Spatial Audio all around, there’s one standout winner from this year’s products. It’s not the most powerful, nor the most expensive, but for me it’s the most innovative. You’ll have guessed, perhaps, I’m talking about the iPad Air.
The latest iPad Air is just sensational. The switch to the glam looks of the iPad Pro was the first breakthrough move, giving it cachet, the beauty of the round-cornered display and, crucially, compatibility with the second-gen Pencil.
Then, decking it out in extra colors, especially the gorgeous green and sky blue, was the next masterstroke. Ensuring compatibility with the Magic Keyboard was a great idea. While the display is a touch smaller than the 11in iPad Pro at 10.9in, meaning the bezel is that bit wider, it still looks glorious.
Best of all, though, is the unlock system. Face ID is still reserved for the iPhone and iPad Pro, but to install Touch ID on the power button was genius. Apple wasn’t the first company to do this, but it’s easily the slickest version I’ve come across. Unlocking the tablet and going straight to the home screen in one press-and-release move is the best iPad interface yet, and I only hope subsequent iPad Pro tablets and, eventually, iPads will have this system in place.
Finally, debuting the mighty A14 Bionic processor in the iPad Air before the iPhone 12 was announced, was a clever move – even if it did leave customers wondering why they would spend the extra for the iPad Pro. The answer is that the fastest processor isn’t always the most advanced, and there are things the Pro can do the Air can’t. But for almost everyone, I’d say, the iPad Air is more than powerful enough, unless you really, truly need the bigger screen of the 12.9in iPad Pro.
Of course, 2021 will doubtless bring advances to the iPad Pro range, including a new display technology and, again doubtless, a processor which leapfrogs the one in the Air.
But in terms of a subtle but undeniable upgrade, with quiet but radical innovation – and in a mid-range rather than top-end price, no less – I’d say the iPad Air can’t be beaten. For me, it’s easily Apple’s product of the year.