Today was Apple's second big event in as many months, this time entitled "Unleashed." Instead of iPhones and Apple Watches, as were the focus in September, this was all about the Macs. Well, Macs and AirPods. If you are one who wants the power of a true pro-level MacBook, and the M1-powered models already available just didnt' do it for you, you're going to love this. If you're a fan of AirPods, but have wished for a refreshed version, you will also find something of interest. There was even a small Apple Music surprise, and new colors for the HomePod Mini smart speaker. Oh, and we found out that macOS Monterey will arrive on October 25.
MacBook (finally) Pro
The first M1 Macs are great. A good screen, long battery life, cool operation, and more all make M1 MacBook Airs pretty cool little machines. But it's no secret that the pro variant wasn't exactly, well, pro. There were some improvements, sure, but the ram topped out at 16GB, the USB capacity was limited, the screens were brighter, but not too different from what the Air had... For a lot of users, the M1 MacBook Pro felt more like a slightly improved Air, rather than the truly professional machine its users wanted. It even had the same chip as the Air, just set to run a little faster.
Well, no more. Apple loves its pro users, as it so often says, and today it showed those people just how much it cares. The new MacBook Pro, in 14- and 16-inch sizes, is completely reimagined. The speed is way above the M1, the screen is far better, the IO is much improved, and MagSafe has finally made its triumphant return to the MacBook lineup.
On the outside, the MacBook Pro is slightly larger than the M1 model it replaces. The keyboard is all keys, with the much-debated Touch Bar finally replaced by full-sized function keys. Yes, full-sized, as in not the half-height keys so many of us have known for years. The arrows are also in the inverted T shape, not the awkward setup where the up and down arrows were half height and stuck between left and right. Of course, the power button doubles as a Touch ID sensor.
As mentioned, the IO is quite a bit better than we've seen on a MacBook for years. There are three Thunderbolt/USB-C ports, any of which can charge the machine. An SD card slot, HDMI 2.0 port, and headphone jack (capable of handling high impedance headphones) give users a wide range of options compared to the strategy of USB-C for everything that we've seen in previous generations. An updated MagSafe port rounds out the IO, able to give the computer 50% charge in just half an hour.
The screen has changed, too. It extends closer to the edge of the laptop, so there's now a notch for the (newly upgraded, 1080P) camera. The display now uses mini LED technology, which, to put it very basically, just looks better. Specifically, mini LED screens use a different kind of backlight than LCD screens. This lets blacks be darker, light text on dark backgrounds be sharper, details stand out more, and the screen as a whole be brighter. Here's an article talking more about mini LED vs LCD vs OLED. As that article mentions, mini LED screens first came to Apple's product lineup earlier this year with the updated 12.9-inch iPad Pro. Now, the same technology arrives in Apple's high-end MacBooks, which is great news for those who need better detail and contrast, as is the screen's ability to be twice as bright as the M1 MacBook Pro. But that's not us, in all probability, so let's keep going.
The new MacBook Pro sports improved sound. The onboard microphones are quieter, but the focus was the speakers. With lower bass, larger drivers, and better tuning, Apple say this is the best audio in a MacBook. It even supports their new spacial audio format.
At the heart of this new machine is one of two upgraded M1 chips: the M1 Pro, or the M1 Max. Both variants have some commonalities: they have ten cores, two of which are low-power ones meant to handle basic tasks, leaving eight high-power cores to chew through more demanding tasks. Add to that sixteen or thirty-two graphics cores, and you get quite the powerhouse. Like the original M1, these new chips are good on battery, too, with the smaller MacBook Pro getting seventeen hours of battery life while playing back videos, and the larger model boasting an impressive twenty-one hours.
Thanks to the upgraded chips, you can spec your MacBook with a lot more resources than you could with last year's M1. The M1 Pro chip supports up to 32GB of ram, sixteen video cores, and the power to drive two 5K displays over Thunderbolt. The M1 Max can do even more: it can handle up to 64GB of ram, 32 video cores, and three external displays.
Apple provided a lot of comparisons between M1 Pro/Max and both the original M1 as well as the most recent Intel-based MacBooks. The short version: these new chips are really, really fast. The Pro beats Intel by 3.7 times in CPU tasks, and nine times in graphics. Even compared to the M1, it's up to twice as fast in the graphics department. The M1 Max has twice the graphics cores and even more CPU power to play with... Again, these chips are fast.
A bright, clearer screen, more ports, MagSafe, vastly upgraded M1 chips, and improved audio all add up to a truly pro-level MacBook. You can get your very own, if you want one; pre-orders open today, with delivery by next week. The starting price is $1,999 for the 14-inch, and $2,499 for the 16-inch. You can choose from silver or space gray. Here's a helpful article comparing these new models to other recent MacBooks.
Apple Music and Colorful HomePods
This section will be brief. HomePod Mini got a refresh, but not anything that will make you want to run out and get a new one--no upgraded speakers or faster processors here. No, all that changed was the color. In addition to the gray and white options we've had since the Mini launched, we now have orange, yellow, and blue to choose from. If you've ever wanted to make your HomePod Mini look like a pumpkin for Halloween, I guess this is your time. (Note: I haven't found any sources discussing the new colors in detail, so pumpkin orange may not be what you get. Go orange at your own risk.)
As for Apple Music, there's now a new tier. For $4.99 per month (about half of the individual tier with which the service launched), you can get voice-only access. In other words, if you usually access Apple Music through Siri on a HomePod or your phone, this might be a good option for you. The limitations of the plan aren't quite clear yet, but the general consensus is that you get access to the full song catalog through Siri. You also get Apple's playlists, like Chill Mix. What you likely can't do is add songs to custom playlists, download tracks, or add songs to your library. Again, though, information is still coming in, so we'll know more soon.
To listen to your new Apple Music, why not try some AirPods? AirPods Pro are still available, but now come in a MagSafe-compatible case. AirPods 2 are also still for sale, at a reduced price of $129, which includes the Qi-compatible case (I don't believe this model of AirPods can handle MagSafe.) The star of the show, though, is the new mid-range option: AirPods 3.
Physically, these new AirPods have a stem that looks like AirPods Pro. They also use the squeezing method for control, rather than the tap method used in AirPods 2. They lack ear tips, and don't offer active noise cancellation, though no one is sure whether they are meant to seal and prevent most sound, or allow sound in like AirPods 2. Also similar to AirPods Pro is the battery. This new model has six hours of playback, with twenty four hours more in the charging case. Also, the earbuds and case are both IPX4, meaning they can survive the sweat of a workout, or the soaking of rain during an outdoor walk.
But enough about all that--how do they sound? No one knows yet, of course, but Apple is making some good-sounding claims. They say there's a new driver, with lower distortion, more bass, and better highs. AirPods 3 also support Active EQ, which uses microphones to listen to how the sound coming from the earbuds is moving inside your ears. AirPods will tune the sound frequencies based on the shape of your ears to give you the best possible experience, such as slightly increasing some frequencies and reducing others. This is present in AirPods Pro and AirPods Max already.
Also coming to AirPods 3 from the higher-end AirPods line is Spacial Audio support. This is the feature that lets you turn your head and have the sound move. In movies, for instance, the audio seems to move to your left if you turn your head to the right. In music, you can "look" at an instrument or backup singer and the sound stage will shift, bringing the part you're focusing on to the center. Note that this requires compatible music and that you have the necessary operating system update on your device.
AirPods 3 can be pre-ordered today, and will be delivered next week. They are $179. If you're stuck between this new model and AirPods 2, this article comparing the two may help.
Until Next Year
That's it for today's "Unleashed" event, and is very likely all we'll get for big Apple events until 2022. AirPods 3, new HomePod Mini colors, voice-only Apple Music, and--the star of the show--a new MacBook Pro, powered by either M1 Pro or M1 Max. Will you be ordering anything? Maybe an 8TB MacBook Pro with M1 Max? That'd cost kind of a lot. But by comparison, those new AirPods seem like a steal, don't they? Or will you just take advantage of the price drop and grab AirPods 2 instead? Let me know in the comments!