My Apple Report Card for 2020
Every January, I look forward to Jason Snell’s roundup of commentary and grades from the Apple community about each of the company’s product lines and initiatives from the previous year. It’s fun to get a variety of perspectives, but I’ve always felt that the aggregate scores come out pretty accurate.
This year I wanted to add my own thoughts on each category without being swayed by everyone else’s opinion, so I’m rating them before reading Jason’s report. These are rated on a scale from 1 to 5, with 5 being the best.
This is an easy year to grade the Mac. Despite having the Apple Silicon Macs lined up for later in the year, Apple still put out solid updates to the 13” MacBook Pro and the iMac. Though the iMac design is long in the tooth, the more powerful processors and the option for nano texture glass were good to round out this generation.
And then the stars of the show: the M1 Mac mini, MacBook Air, and 13” MacBook Pro. By all accounts, these machines punch far outside their weight class, and the transition to ARM processors has been nearly seamless. My own experience with the new Mac mini has been very positive, and I intend to use the hell out of it for years to come. It really feels like we’re on the precipice of something special in the lifetime of the Mac, and I”m excited to be along for the ride.
The iPhone had a great year as well! I’m very happy with the return to flat edge design, and the raw power bridled in modern iPhone chips is undeniable. Add in a great camera system, and an expansion of the sizes of phones with the iPhone 12 mini, and you’ve got a winner of a year. Oh, and we also got an updated iPhone SE earlier this year!
The only knocks I have against the iPhone are the overhype of 5G, a lack of a high-refresh rate screen, and a personal vendetta on the rollout. 5G is just not a game-changer yet, and Apple led us to believe that it was the greatest thing since sliced bread. High-refresh rate screens have been commonplace with flagship Android phones for a few years, and the lack of a ProMotion screen in iPhones was a little disappointing. That’s not to say the screens are bad — they’re actually great — but I was hoping for a tad more. And the schedule of the iPhone rollout this year meant that by the time the iPhone mini came out, I was just outside the return period of the iPhone 12 Pro. Not really Apple’s fault, but it stings just a bit since that small phone seems like a great device.
The iPad had a bit of a funny year. The biggest and best of the line, the iPads Pro, barely had an update, even after two years. But iPad Air had a great leap forward to bring it basically in line with the 11” Pro model. It feels like there’s another shoe to drop for the iPad Pro line. Still, there’s little to complain about since the iPad has been ahead of the curve for a while. Plus, with the introduction of the Magic Keyboard, I feel like the story of the modular iPad has really been rounded out. I long for that flat, full-screen, and keyboard-plus-trackpad lifestyle.
iPadOS 14 could have been more feature-complete as compared with iOS 14. I’m looking at you, widgets, emoji search (finally coming in 14.5), and App Library. I’m looking forward to a more transformational 2021. But I’ve continued to be very happy with my iPad Pro and iPad mini overall.
Like with the iPad, I sat this year out as far as an Apple Watch upgrade, but I do think the Series 6 was a solid upgrade. Any time Apple can squeeze in a new health or fitness sensor into the same sleek case design without destroying battery life is, in my opinion, a miracle. I’m hoping the titanium model will stick around for at least another year because it’s been calling my name!
Even without a hardware upgrade, watchOS 7 was a great upgrade for me. I don’t know if I could even tell you everything that was included anymore, but the simple addition of watch shortcuts and sleep mode was a great improvement. I love that I can easily adjust my alarm for just the next day, and I was able to stop shoehorning theater mode for overnight sleep tracking. The biggest improvement day-to-day, though, was how Apple sped up animations. It made my existing hardware feel snappier, and that’s always a pleasant surprise.
Apple TV: 1
I briefly considered giving Apple TV a 2 because I’ve really enjoyed the films and shows that have come out on TV+. But those are part of the service, not the hardware, and will be rated next. We’ve been waiting far too long for updated Apple TV hardware, and it’s frankly embarrassing that the existing boxes are still for sale at the exorbitant prices they were introduced at.
My wife and I bought a 4K HDR TV earlier this year but haven’t been able to fully take advantage of its goodness because I refused to purchase an Apple TV 4K back in March, thinking that an update had to be just around the corner. 11 months later, and I’m still waiting. If a new model doesn’t blow us away with power, a mechanism for playing great games (like an Apple-designed controller), and a better remote soon, I don’t know what I’ll do.
I guess I’ve been mostly happy with the Apple TV HD I’ve been rocking for many years, but it’s showing its age and can’t deliver even the table stakes for modern content.
When Apple puts public focus on a particular area of its business, it can move mountains. This was true of the Mac ever since the “roundtable” a few years ago — which heralded the renaissance of the Mac, starting with the iMac Pro, then the Mac Pro, blessedly-fixed laptop keyboards, and finally the kick-ass M1 Macs. The same has been true of their services division.
I’m all in on Apple Music, TV+, Fitness+, and iCloud. I dabble with Apple Card and News+. Sure, each service has a few nitpicks, but overall I’m very happy with their value. Had Apple not (finally) introduced a bundled option with Apple One, paying for each of these would feel excessive. But the price came in a little under my expectations (which never happens with Apple prices), and I’m very happy to keep using and sharing them with my family.
That the paltry 5GB of free iCloud space continued into the Apple One era, and a miss with not offering a high-fidelity tier of Apple Music to go with AirPods Max, kept Services from getting full marks.
Not the best, but not the works. I’m glad for the few improvements to the Home app this year. But otherwise, I feel it’s been a quiet year for HomeKit. I still have a few random bugs in the system, but overall my devices seem to work. I don’t know exactly what I expect from HomeKit, but I’m still underwhelmed this year.
Perhaps CHOIP and more Thread radio devices will make a bigger difference in 2021.
Hardware Reliability: 5
I have very few complaints about hardware reliability this year. There were a few weird, but annoying, Bluetooth bugs in the new M1 Mac hardware was a spot of dirt on the overall sheen. My 2017 iPad Pro’s battery is showing its age. But that’s about it. Apple’s hardware is famously solid, but they’ve done a good job of not introducing any big new “gates” for a while and finally phased out the last one coughkeyboardscough.
Software Quality: 4
After a rocky 2019 with iOS 13 and macOS Catalina, 2020 was solid with iOS 14 and macOS Big Sur. For mobile, it felt like a quality-of-life update year, and I’d be hard-pressed to tell you exactly what comes with the 2020 updates besides widgets (which are great). But I’ve been happy with the operating systems. Even with a huge visual refresh on the Mac, I think the transition was smooth, and the new visuals feel at home already.
Keeping this category from a 5 are the minor bugs that aren’t show-stopping but are annoying. For example, my AirPods Max won’t remember that I want to keep “Off” as a setting that I can cycle the noise cancelation through. My Apple TV routinely skips back a few episodes after the current one finishes — we actually watch it happen on screen as though we’re scrolling back. AirPlay has been a little wonky the last couple of months. Again, nothing big but enough to be notable. Hopefully, the rough edges get rounded out before the new software season.
Developer Relations: 2
It’s been a rough year for developer relations, and I definitely think Apple could have been better. It’s almost hard to remember that the HEY vs. Apple, the Epic vs. Apple, and COVID-hurt businesses vs. Apple spectacles all happened in 2020, but they did. Some of these remain unresolved, and I wouldn’t say that Apple came out looking great in any.
Apple earned back a little goodwill by getting the increase in App Store commissions for small businesses in, but not a lot. It makes a big difference for those smaller developers, but there are too many hoops to jump through and “gotchas” to give them full credit.
Environment/Social Initiatives: 5
Apple continues to lead the industry in environmental efforts and social initiatives. Their donations and new projects were substantial. I continue to be impressed with how Tim Cook speaks on social justice very publicly and authentically. He could get away with saying less but truly puts his mouth where his money is.
My only new purchase in the wearables department this year was AirPods Max. Though the price hurt, I’ve been very happy with the purchase. I think it gets even better if you count HomePod mini in this category. These smaller, more affordable speakers sound great and have delivered the promise of whole-home Siri to my house. I might have expected other new AirPods, an introductory AR device, or a non-Apple Watch health device, but the ones that did ship have been solid.
In a year turned upside down by a global pandemic, Apple would have been given plenty of slack for “taking a year off”. Instead, they’re firing on all cylinders when it comes to their products. Only Apple TV and their developer relations dragged scores down. I’ll be very happy if they can earn back some credibility with those this year. I hope that as the world continues to get used to the way we’re working and living, it keeps working for them. We have a lot to enjoy from 2020, and hopefully, an even better 2021 to look forward to!
Average Score: 3.8
The entire Six Colors report card is well worth a read.