Apple’s 2016 report card: Grading all the new hardware Apple released this year

As 2016 comes to a close, we’re looking back at the year in tech – and it’s impossible to look at the industry as a whole without assessing its star player, one of the most valuable companies on earth: Apple.

Apple’s financials are stronger than ever, thanks in large part to its booming iPhone business, but we thought it would be interesting to ditch the numbers for a moment and just focus on the products Apple released this year – specifically, all the new hardware. (Software is equally important, and worth an evaluation, but it’s impossible to compare with hardware. They’re apples and oranges. Let’s move on.)

This year, Apple released a new iPad, a new Apple Watch, a couple of new MacBook Pro models, and for the first time, three new iPhone models in a single year. Let’s take a look.


The iPhone SE

source
Apple

Announced: March 2016

Apple held four “special events” to announce new products in 2016: in March, June, September, and October. The big product announced during that first event in March was the iPhone SE, a new 4-inch iPhone that looks nearly identical to the iPhone 5S from 2013.

Why build another small iPhone? At that event, Apple said it sold 30 million 4-inch iPhones in 2015, for two main reasons: Some people want smaller phones, and for many, the smallest iPhone is their first iPhone. Hence, Apple had a couple of important reasons for the iPhone SE to exist.

The phone’s outside appearance may look dated, but the iPhone SE has all the same chipsets and power of last year’s iPhone 6s, plus a 12-megapixel camera with 4K video support. At $400, the iPhone SE is the very best small, mid-range phone you can buy – and one of the smartest decisions Apple made all year. (It’s just too bad the outer design wasn’t a little different.)

Grade: A-


The 9.7-inch iPad Pro

source
Apple

Announced: March 2016

This is what the iPad Pro should have always been. A lot of people – including my colleague Steve Kovach, who reviewed both the 12.9-inch iPad Pro and the 9.7-inch model – found Apple’s larger iPad Pro “just too dang big.” The smaller 9.7-inch version, in contrast, is perfect: as light and thin as the iPad Air 2, but with a better screen, more power, and the option to use it with Apple’s new pencil and keyboard accessories.

A couple of downsides: Like many recent iPhones, the new iPad Pro added a camera bump to make room for the improved camera that can shoot 4K video. Since, in my opinion, nobody should use an iPad to shoot videos, I am upset about both of these changes. And while the Apple Pencil is indeed a clever bit of machinery, Apple’s $170 keyboard is overpriced and outclassed by a significantly cheaper, way more functional keyboard cover from Logitech (which I personally love to use).

Grade: B+


The iPhone 7 and 7 Plus

source
YouTube/Marques Brownlee

Announced: September 2016

These are, without a doubt, the very best iPhones that Apple has ever made. It’s essentially the ultimate version of the iPhone 6: big, super fast, beautiful to look at, and easy to use – with a crazy-good camera, to boot.

Though it’s arguably not much different from the iPhone 6s (which was not much different from the iPhone 6), there’s not much to dislike about the iPhone 7 – except for the lack of a headphone jack. Apple’s new Lightning earbuds are fine to use, but I personally lost mine in the airport over Thanksgiving, and I learned the hard way that most stores don’t sell Lightning headphones just yet, or Apple’s dongles that can connect normal headphones to the Lightning port. Apple may think the move was courageous, but right now, it just feels a bit inconvenient.

Grade: A-


Apple Watch Series 2

source
Apple

Announced: September 2016

After the first Apple Watch debuted in 2014, there were high hopes for the sequel. We’d heard rumors of a front-facing camera for FaceTime, but we kept wishing for a more important feature: true independence from the iPhone. You see, right now, these starting-at-$350 wristwatches require an iPhone to work, answer calls, send texts, etc. For that price point, it would be great to be able to do those things without needing an iPhone.

Unfortunately, the Apple Watch Series 2 is not what we’d hoped for. It certainly adds some useful features, like built-in GPS and water resistance up to 50 meters, but those are essentially the only real additions here. It’s more or less the same Apple Watch as before – although if you were waiting for more fashionable bands and cases, Apple added a bunch of those, too. Here’s hoping this upgrade was just a placeholder, and we see a truly different Apple Watch experience in 2017.

Grade: C+


AirPods

source
Hollis Johnson/Business Insider

Announced: September 2016

Oh, AirPods. The idea sounds fantastic – they can do everything your wired earbuds can do, like control your music and activate Siri for tasks, but wirelessly! But the reality is, you might as well save your money and just buy the wired earbuds instead.

Not only are AirPods hard to find – they missed their October release date, and are just now starting to roll out in late December – they also cost $160. That’s $130 more than Apple’s wired earbuds, and yet, they also need to be continually recharged, they’re awkward-looking, and you will probably lose one, if not both AirPods. If you’re looking to drop $160 on wireless headphones, you can do so much better than AirPods.

Grade: C-


The New MacBook Pro

source
Hollis Johnson/Business Insider

Announced: October 2016

Lots of people were waiting for Apple to upgrade the MacBook Pro, and it finally happened in October. Unfortunately, it’s not what people were hoping for.

Apple again nailed it in the looks department: The new MacBook Pro, which is available in 13-inch and 15-inch varieties, is beautiful to look at. It’s slim and sleek – the hallmarks of the MacBook line. But these laptops are pricier than previous versions, likely due to the new touchscreen strip that replaces the function keys, which Apple calls the “Touch Bar.” While the Touch Bar is nifty, many reviewers found it not especially useful, either for regular people or the so-called “pro” market these computers are targeted at.

The MacBook Pro does have a few other nice additions, like Touch ID, but people have been largely critical of the laptop’s limitations. Lots of people are upset that a “pro” laptop from Apple doesn’t have 32 GB of RAM, which is critical for intensive tasks like editing or rendering video (Apple offered its own explanation for the absence). People are also upset about the lack of an SD card slot, which saves pro photographers a lot of time transferring data from their cameras. But most importantly, the vast majority of MacBook Pro reviewers found Apple’s battery life claims to be inaccurate. Apple advertised 10 hours of battery life, but many people have only managed to squeeze out 7 to 8 hours. Given the price of the computer, and all its drawbacks, this may be the first time many pro laptop customers will look outside Apple’s ecosystem.

Grade: B-


“Designed by Apple in California”

source
Apple

Announced: November

About five years and one week after the death of Steve Jobs, Apple released a hardbound book, available in two sizes, called “Designed by Apple in California.” The book is dedicated to Jobs, and it features 450 giant high-resolution photographs of Apple designs over the years, from the 1998 iMac to the 2015 Apple Pencil. The small version of the book costs $200, while the larger version costs $300.

This isn’t Apple hardware that you’ll use everyday, but it’s still worth noting its existence, since it is technically a product you can buy from Apple right now. It might only be good for your coffee table, but it’s an interesting look at Apple’s products from the inside out, and a nice homage to Steve Jobs and his legacy at Apple.

Grade: A


Overall, Apple’s hardware saw a few highs and several lows in 2016.

source
Reuters/Beck Diefenbach

In 2016, Apple showed the world that it’s still deeply invested in the iPhone and iPad, but the future of other projects are still up in the air.

The 9.7-inch iPad Pro was a good move, but the iPad still feels like it needs some new innovative features, and the price and functionality of iPad Pro-specific accessories leave much to be desired.

The iPhone SE was another smart move from Apple this year – hopefully, we continue to see many more 4-inch iPhones in the future, ideally with new designs and also some phone-specific features (why should larger iPhones get all the cool stuff like dual cameras?).

Aside from the iPhone and iPad, though, Apple’s other products in 2016 weren’t so hot.

The Apple Watch, which desperately needs some excitement, got minimal improvements instead. Hopefully this was considered an “S”-type upgrade that comes before a more meaningful upgrade next year.

AirPods are a good idea, but they’re not better than Apple’s cheaper wired headphones that have been around for years, in my opinion.

And finally, the MacBook Pro was perhaps the most disappointing Apple product released all year. You’d think Apple making a new MacBook Pro would be a slam dunk – just make it faster, add some more battery life, some more power, and call it a day. But that’s not what happened. Some of the features feel fancy, like that colorful new Touch Bar, but they’re not nearly as useful as they’d seem, at least not right now.

If Apple’s products this year are any indication of what’s coming in 2017, there is clearly a lot of work to do. All of these products listed above need their fair share of improvements, and of course, it would be great to see Apple introduce some of the rumored products in the pipeline, like those AR/VR goggles.

While many of Apple’s 2016 products were good, most of them, to me, lacked excitement or energy. Here’s hoping for plenty of surprises in the new year.

Overall grade: B