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Apple today announced new iPhones, Apple Watches, and, in a bit of a surprise, a new iPad mini. The latest gadgets offer a slew of improvements — some incremental, all more or less useful — and are likely to provoke a rush on the tech giant’s online store and a surge in the company’s stock price. Here are the five main things you should know as you consider upgrading your Apple kit for 2021.
The iPad mini is the biggest thing Apple announced
In addition to the usual improvements under the hood, it’s completely redesigned along the lines of the stylish iPad Air and Pro models, with squared-off edges, a TouchID sensor moved to the power button on top of the device, all packed around an 8.3-in screen. Apple ditched the lightning connector for USB-C (finally), added 5G cellular connection, and upgraded the front camera to include the slick iPad Pro’s Center Stage follow-you technology for video conferencing. The new mini is perfect for mobile professionals who need to take notes, read or entertain themselves on a plane without the larger screen of its bigger siblings. For everyone who liked the affordable iPad Air but wanted it a bit smaller for portability purposes, this is your jam. Starts at $499 and is available for pre-order now.
Not going to sugarcoat it: The Apple Watch Series 7 is a bit of a disappointment
Despite rumors that Apple’s wearable darling would get a design refresh, this year’s Watch models instead went for subtle refinements that increase the screen size while keeping the smushed lozenge design paradigm it’s had since day one. The new screen, which is 20 percent larger thanks to thinner borders, is an impressive engineering feat, with improved brightness and readability. Still, for anyone looking to upgrade from a Series 5 or 6, there’s not a lot here that’s compelling. Features that might tempt you to upgrade, however: 33 percent faster charging, according to Apple; increased dust and water resistance; and—as usual—new colors and bands. Starts at $399 and will be available “later this fall.”
Apple is building out its Fitness+ service
For those deeply enmeshed in the Apple ecosystem, you’re going to get more of what you love, with the addition of pilates, guided meditations, snow season workouts designed by two-time Olympic gold medalist Ted Ligety, and most excitingly, group workouts. Group workouts are likely to prove pretty popular, especially among the more competitive set. Building on the Apple Watch’s Competitions, Group Workouts on Apple Fitness+ will bring out your determination to crush your friends as you spin-cycle them into the dust. Fitness+ requires a subscription and an Apple Watch and will be available before the end of the year.
2021 iPhone models offer incremental upgrades
Before Apple started just numbering its phones sequentially, they had “S” model upgrades every other year. There was the iPhone 3G (way back) and then the 3Gs, then the 4, followed by the 4s, and so on until they ditched the practice in 2018. The “S” years got a reputation for being incremental. The cameras got a little better, the battery lasted a little longer. While this year’s iPhone 13 and iPhone 13 mini don’t bear the “S” moniker, they’re incremental updates over the iPhone 12 line from last year. Better chip, better battery, new colors, you know the drill. The “notch” on the front, which holds the front-facing camera and facial recognition system, is 20 percent smaller, which is nice, I guess, but there’s nothing terribly compelling to cause iPhone 12 users to upgrade. However, those still holding on to iPhone X and earlier models might want to give this one a look, as the camera, speed, and battery improvements will be far more dramatic. Starts at $699 for the iPhone 13 mini and $799 for the iPhone 13 and can be pre-ordered now. Available Sept 24.
But…the iPhone Pro offers next level software
The iPhone 13 Pro models, however, are a bit of a different story. From a hardware perspective, they tell a similar upgrade story as the iPhone 13 over iPhone 12. Better camera, better battery, yadda, yadda. But Apple is pushing a new “computational photography” paradigm that uses software to compensate for the inherent deficiencies of phone camera lenses. Deep depth of field that gives professional photography its look is simply impossible using the tiny little lenses found on phones. That’s just physics. So Apple (and Google, too) are using software to mimic the effects of long tubes of glass lenses you see on professional Nikons and Canons. With the iPhone 13 Pro and Pro Max (distinguished solely by its bigger screen and battery), Apple is taking to the next level with some software sorcery called Cinematic Mode. This mimics the “rack focus” technique you see in movies all the time, in which the focus changes mid-scene to draw your attention around the screen. Apple’s spin is that this is automatic and will work as you film. (You can also do it manually by tapping parts of the screen where you want the focus to shift. Or even during editing. The phone preserves the depth data of what the phone was “seeing” while it was recording, allowing you to change the focus of a scene to whatever you want in your editing software.) The demos really need to be seen to be believed. The catch? Cinematic mode, which is a software feature, is limited to the iPhone 13 line. Now, Cinematic mode is overkill for most phone owners who just want to record some video of their kids’ birthday parties. But for those budding guerrilla filmmakers, this is potentially a game-changer and could further democratize movie making. And given that Apple has upped the storage capacity of the Pro line to 1TB, it’s clear they’re making a play to be the device for journalists, documentarians, and indie directors—or anyone who wants to be one. Starts at $999 for the iPhone Pro and $1099 for the Pro Max.
This is an incremental upgrade for Apple’s iPhone hardware this year. Still, the real surprises are the iPad mini’s big design and performance upgrade and Apple showing off the power of its video imaging chops on hardware that can really take advantage of it. Should you upgrade? That depends on too many factors to make a one-size-fits-all declaration. But if you’re looking for a small but mighty iPad or have been itching to expand your creative horizons through low-budget filmmaking, you’ve got options in 2021.
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