Special Apple events are like presidential debates. Just like campaign teams, Apple skeptics start by artificially raising expectations. “Apple must announce its best iPad yet, and sell it for less than $100.” The Mac faithful respond with tweets, blogs, and headlines spouting talking points (Designed by Apple in California). Within minutes of the event’s conclusion, the anti-Apple pundits dismiss the new products as failures, declaring the company “out of ideas,” “predictable,” and “doomed.” Meanwhile, Apple fans dutifully praise Tim Cook’s poise and Craig Federighi’s charisma. One blogger even names the latest Smart Cover “the next cotton gin.” Never mind that the vast majority of the nation would take a more reasonable, middle-of-the-road perspective if really probed…this is Apple/politics: throw out nuance and pick a side.
Apple’s New iPad Line
“Apple is slowly becoming Microsoft,” said K. Alan Robbins, CEO of Moose WorldWide Digital, a software development company. “Growth, ever larger organizational hierarchies, and market share, by its very nature suppresses the innovators. iPad Air is a conservative, low-risk roll out that takes advantage of technology Apple already has.”
“There was something for everyone in today’s Apple announcement,” said Ben Reubenstein, CEO of Double Encore, a mobile application development studio. “Today’s releases as a whole define how far ahead they are of the competition. Only Apple can create products like these because of their tight control of both hardware and software.”
In an effort to avoid extremes (tech, political, or otherwise), I won’t proclaim Apple’s latest keynote a wild success or abject failure. Instead, here is an equally gimmicky, yet arguably more reasonable exercise: grading Apple on each new key feature and specification. Pencils out.
1. Size and Weight
A month ago, I listed “weight” as one of the seven areas where the (4th-gen) iPad fell short. Remarkably, the iPad had become a heavy tablet, surprising for a company so focused on optimizing hardware design. With the newly-launched iPad Air, Apple has built a device 20% thinner and 28% lighter than its predecessor, all while maintaining the Retina Display and 10-hour alleged battery life. That’s remarkable. This puts the pressure squarely back on bulkier rivals, like the Samsung Nexus 10, ASUS Transformer Pad Infinity and Sony Xperia Tablet Z.
“While critics focus on a lack of ‘game-changing’ new features in the iPhone 5s and the iPad Air, Apple is making the devices ‘disappear’ as much as possible,” said Jim McCarthy, CEO of Goldstar, an events and entertainment service. “This is a critical choice for Apple, and they seem to be aiming toward a future where the machine quietly goes away and serves the needs of the consumer faster—and better.”
It’s worth repeating: a camera should not be judged solely by its megapixel count. And I’ll gladly acknowledge Apple’s small improvements to “low-light shots” and “pixel size.”
All things considered, however, this is a missed opportunity for Apple. As I’ve noted before, it’s strange that a company so intent on promoting video-based calling would appear to have such little interest in improving its front-facing camera.
3. Pixel Density
The full-sized iPad has been in fine shape pixel-wise since the 3rd-gen iPad. Sure, the screen isn’t technically as sharp as an iPhone’s, but given standard viewing distances, 264 ppi (pixels per inch) across a 9.7-inch screen is plenty dense.
As such, the mountain lion’s share of the pressure was on the Mini, a light, portable device marred only by its 2010-era resolution (163 ppi). With the new Retina-enabled version, Apple has not only addressed the issue, but turned it into an outright strength. At 324 ppi, the iPad Mini with Retina Display is barely an apple-stem short of the iPhone’s 326 ppi, which is especially impressive for a device normally viewed some 30% farther away than a phone.
Sure, Apple’s primary reason for the 324 ppi was to match the iPad Air’s overall resolution (2,048-by-1,536 pixels), but in doing so, the company has created the most impressive mobile Retina Display yet.*
*Based on screen sharpness given average viewing distances. I assumed users would hold a 4-inch iPhone approximately 10 inches away from their eyes, an iPad Mini at 13.3 inches, and an iPad Air at 15 inches.
At a glance, not much has changed for iPad pricing. The $30 discount on the iPad Mini is welcome, but expected. Quietly, however, Apple has created an attractive line of options across the middle and high-end of the market. It’s getting harder to argue that Apple’s products are overpriced—at least when looking at its tablet line. With a $299 iPad Mini, $399 iPad 2 and iPad Mini with Retina Display, and a $499 iPad Air, only Amazon’s Kindle Fire HD provides a top-rated tablet at a notably cheaper price. (Granted, it remains to be seen how well the year-old Mini and 2.5-year-old iPad 2 will sell.)
I would have loved to see the price of the Mini drop even lower than $299, but still, Apple has announced its most appealing set of iPad price options yet.
With the iPad Air and new iPad Mini, Apple has doubled-down on its strengths while quietly taking a pass on its weaknesses. The company made an amazingly sharp, incredibly light device, even if it has mostly ignored external features like the cameras or a first-party keyboard. And maybe that’s all that matters.
“Apple faces a tough road ahead, but they’re not doomed,” said Brad Molen, a senior mobile editor at Engadget, “As long as Apple continues to make existing product lineups fresh to the consumer and continues to look into new form factors as a way to bring new consumers to its ecosystem—I believe the next few years will be a very exciting time for Apple.”
Overall Grade: B+
This article was written for TIME by Ben Taylor of FindTheBest.