Apple rumors have heated up in the past week, following the usual spring tradition. Apple doesn’t always have a keynote in the first quarter of the year, but when it does it’s a good time for it to update or announce products that aren’t necessarily central to its business. But the leaks and innuendo so far don’t have the air of inevitability that often accompanies Apple rumors yet, so I wouldn’t block off your calendar just yet.
But if you Want To Believe, the current best guesses point to something happening towards the end (or on the very last day) of March. Or somethings; the iPhone SE 2 (aka the iPhone 9), AirTag location beacons, Apple-branded over-the-ear headphones, an updated iPad Pro with a big square camera module, and even updated MacBooks with the better keyboard have all been rumored. Getting all of that at once would make for a Homer Car of an event — too many things unrealistically crammed into one package. So if this event even happens, I’d expect only a subset.
All of those rumored products are fairly straightforward. What has me thinking is a couple of other Apple rumors that are custom-designed to appeal to my particular obsessions.
The first is that Apple’s first ARM-based Macs may start showing up as early as next year. I am writing about this on an ARM-based Windows machine, the Surface Pro X. The software hassles I’ve dealt with are enough to keep me from recommending it to anybody, but it’s been useful for me to live with those hassles as part of my job.
I’m not suggesting Apple will face exactly parallel issues if it ever releases an ARM-based MacBook, but I’m guessing they will be in the same ballpark. And while I’d like to express confidence that Apple will navigate the issues of app compatibility, developer relations, emulation, and performance well, recent history with the Mac gives me pause.
Catalina, the latest version of the OS, is widely derided right now. Catalyst, the system for getting iPad apps on the Mac, has also not worked out especially well so far (to put it mildly). Apple’s recent software track record for the Mac makes it hard to give the company the benefit of the doubt that it can gracefully handle a processor transition.
I didn’t even lead with the easy criticism of the Touch Bar, the keyboards, or the recently-ended long dark night of the Mac Pro. Those things aren’t strictly relevant to an ARM transition, but they are examples of other hassles that have drained the reserves of goodwill that Mac users might otherwise feel towards a big shakeup.
I’m not saying Apple isn’t up to the task of switching Mac laptops over to new processors, but I am saying it is going to need to show its work early and often if it’s going to engender enough trust to bring users along for the ride.
Second, Mark Gurman at Bloomberg reports that Apple is considering allowing apps like Chrome and Gmail to be set as iOS defaults. I have been waiting for Apple to do this literally since the day the iPhone was able to run native third-party apps in the first place.
It seemed completely hopeless until, well, this report. It’s perhaps not a coincidence that many governments around the world are looking more closely at anti-trust and monopolistic practices.
Many of Apple’s default apps are very good. But on a whim, I have compiled a list of apps, services, or OS functions I would switch to a third-party default if I could, just off the top of my head: Safari, Messages, Calendar, Photos, Maps, Clock, Contacts, FaceTime, Reminders, Music, News, Notes, iCloud Drive, iCloud Keychain, Books, Podcasts, Voice Memos, and Siri. (Bonus though I may not use it: give third-party smartwatches fuller access to the OS.)
Whew — that list is much bigger than I expected it to be when I started it.
In some cases, Apple’s own iPhone apps are actually best of breed, so don’t take my list as a judgment of quality. Safari on the iPhone is easily the best mobile browser and iMessage offers secure messaging as the default, for just two examples. And I also recognize that the concept of “default app” gets fuzzy in some of these cases. Some of these functions also have replacement APIs, but they can range from pretty good (password managers) to pretty bad (third-party keyboards).
Anyway, the main reason I would want to switch away from most of the Apple apps and services I mentioned is that there are alternatives that work better across multiple operating systems and the web. It makes it easier for me to use the computer I want instead of being locked into Apple’s hardware ecosystem.
Plus, I can’t help but note that Android, Windows, and even the Mac all make it much easier to replace services and apps that ship with the OS with something you like better from a third party.
When Apple says that some of these default lock-ins are for user security and safety, I believe that’s at least partially true. I also believe that the fact that they make it somewhat more of a hassle for me to also use a Chromebook or a Windows computer is a feature of this system, not a bug.
A quick note: apologies for the long delay in newsletters — I was trapped in review land towards the end of last week. I may have some of my colleagues chip in on sending daily links in the future when I get busy, so please be nice when they pop up. For today, I limited the links to some big categories to keep things manageable. As always, I am honored to be in your inbox (mostly) every day.
Not Mobile World Congress
The world’s biggest smartphone show may have been cancelled, but the phones and tablets that would have been announced there still need to be announced. They’re trickling out now.
┏ Huawei made a 5G iPad Pro clone with wireless charging. There are clones and then there are clones. This is the latter — it looks so much like a modern iPad Pro that there’s no explaining it away.
┏ Huawei’s P40 lineup will launch March 26th in Paris. In another world where Huawei wasn’t banned from using Google’s apps, these phones would be set up as direct contenders for the crown of most-specced out Android phone. They still are, I suppose, but their appeal is significantly dampened now.
┏ Huawei announces the Mate XS foldable with a more durable display and faster processor. I remain unconvinced that the outside of the fold is the right place to put the screen, but admittedly I have also not really used a device like this for an appreciable length of time. Everybody is trying really hard to figure out how to make these screens durable, but I would put money on this not being the way that works out long term:
This time around, Huawei says it’s using a “quad-layer” construction for the screen on the Mate XS, which it says should make it more robust. Up top are two layers of polyamide film, which were stuck together using a clear adhesive. Below that is the flexible OLED display. Then there’s a softer polymer layer that acts as a cushion and a final layer to connect it to the main body of the device.
┏ Sony’s new Xperia 1 II adds 5G to its lineup of tall phones. Every year we think “Sony makes everybody else’s camera sensors, will this be the year that its own phones have good cameras?” I don’t know if this is that year, but Sony has lost the benefit of the doubt. But I’m still intrigued, as off the top of my head I can’t think of another example of a headphone jack coming back to a phone.
Realme is releasing the X50 Pro in Europe, China, and India at first, and while pricing details aren’t yet final, the company tells The Verge it should come in between €550-650 (roughly $600-700) in Spain and cost less in China. That still makes it by far the most expensive Realme phone yet, but one that gets the company onto the list of those producing high-performance 5G devices for 2020. And with Samsung setting the floor for its new Galaxy S20 range at $999, Realme still has room to provide a significant discount in the 5G space.
┏ Vivo’s Apex 2020 concept phone is coming on Friday. Android 11 is going to make it easier for companies to make “waterfall” displays, where the thing curves aggressively around the edge. In general Google has had to spend an outsized amount of time teaching the operating system how to ignore or deal with weirdly shaped screens. With all that effort going in, I think it’s fair to say that Android phones are going to keep coming in odd shapes for years to come.
┏ LG V60 ThinQ shown off in leaked press render. I once gave an LG phone a Participation Award for, you know, existing and being fairly competent. This phone looks like it’s going to exist and be fairly competent. Much as I love a good DAC and headphone jack, I’m not sure it’s enough of a differentiator to get LG back into the conversation.
┏ Google addresses Huawei ban and warns customers not to sideload apps like Gmail and YouTube. I’ve been pretty hard on app stores in this newsletter for being walled gardens that take too large a cut from developers. I think that’s all true, but it bears repeating that they have a major, major benefit: trust. I wonder if someday Google would consider offering an app store for its own apps on non-Google Play Android devices. I seriously doubt it — it would take away one of the major pieces of leverage the company has against carriers and in the fight against fragmentation — but it’s interesting to think about. Here’s Google’s warning:
Sideloaded Google apps will not work reliably because we do not allow these services to run on uncertified devices where security may be compromised. Sideloading Google’s apps also carries a high risk of installing an app that has been altered or tampered with in ways that can compromise user security.
Microsoft and Xbox
┏ Microsoft reveals more Xbox Series X specs, confirms 12 teraflops GPU. I’m sure people will argue endlessly about the teraflops, but the below is the part that matters most to me, aka what all those teraflops make possible. I don’t know when I am going to buy my next TV, but I am quite sure that I won’t buy one without Variable Refresh Rate.
Xbox Series X will also support 8K gaming and frame rates of up to 120fps in games. Microsoft says it has partnered with the HDMI forum and TV manufacturers to enable Auto Low Latency Mode (ALLM) and Variable Refresh Rate (VRR) on the Series X as part of its HDMI 2.1 support.
┏ Which Microsoft Office product is each Democratic presidential candidate?. All of Makena Kelly’s designations in this story are accurate. I will add that had he still been in the race, Andrew Yang would have been Microsoft Access: the database software that’s ignored by most people but passionately loved by its users.
At the beginning of the night’s events, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) tore into Buttigieg discounting his healthcare plan as just a “PowerPoint.” In a total weirdo move, Buttigieg responded by saying “I’m more of a Microsoft Word guy.”
┏ Samsung Galaxy Buds Plus review: better sound, even better stamina. Excellent review and video with Chris Welch. I’ve been using them too with various phones (including the Galaxy S20 Ultra) and agree with everything he’s saying here. The only missing feature is active noise cancellation, but the trade off to charging via USB-C instead of the AirPods’ proprietary Lightning is worth it for Android users.
The best thing about the Galaxy Buds Plus is how long you can listen to them uninterrupted. Samsung has managed to squeeze 11 hours of continuous battery life out of the earbuds, which now puts them at the top of the mountain. That’s even better than the Powerbeats Pro, which, until now, had been the longevity champion. Eleven hours will cover your entire workday or a long-haul flight with ease.
┏ Samsung Galaxy Z Flip review: temper your expectations. Here’s my review (and the reason I wasn’t able to send out a newsletter last Friday, apologies for that!). It really is the best folding phone, but that really doesn’t mean folding phones are ready for the mainstream yet.