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Mossberg: Apple pours the latest tech into familiar gadgets

They won’t rock your world, but that’s not the point.

The Doctor Who Experience

Welcome to Mossberg, a weekly commentary and reviews column on The Verge and Re/code by veteran tech journalist Walt Mossberg, now an executive editor at The Verge and editor at large of Re/code.

Last week, Apple introduced both a new iPhone and a new iPad. Normally, such a dual unveiling would be blockbuster news in the tech and business worlds. But, this time, it wasn’t. That’s because both announcements were tactical business moves, products which lack breakthrough technology but aim to appeal to owners of older Apple models.

The company acted accordingly. It held the event in a smallish venue on its campus, rather than a big one in San Francisco. And it waited until halfway into an hour-long presentation before even mentioning the new products.

But that doesn’t mean the new iPhone and iPad are bad. In fact, I like them both. They’re just iterative: Smaller, familiar vessels for Apple’s latest technology. I’ve been testing them, and I believe they’ll appeal to a significant minority of users when they become available tomorrow.

Here’s my short and sweet review.

The iPhone SE

Large-screen smartphones have been wildly popular, and Apple’s own strong sales exploded over the last couple of years when it started making iPhones with 4.7-inch and 5.5-inch screens — and correspondingly larger bodies — than it had before. But the company noticed something: Some of its loyal customers were hanging onto their smaller iPhone 5 series models — the 5, 5s and 5c — because they preferred the narrower, shorter body and didn’t mind the smaller screen. In addition, first-time iPhone buyers in some overseas markets, like China, often were choosing the smaller models.


So Apple decided to bring back the four-inch form factor but pack it with nearly all the key components and features to be found in its larger, flagship iPhone 6s. And it cut the usual American iPhone starting price from around $650 unsubsidized to just $399, or about $17 a month on U.S. carriers’ installment plans.

The idea, of course, was to make it irresistible for the diehards to upgrade, and help sales abroad. I’m betting it will work. I already know two women who had refused to upgrade from their older 5-series iPhones, but are now planning to move to the SE.

And I think that’s a smart move for a small-phone lover. In my tests, the iPhone SE performed like a champ. For one thing, it’s wicked fast. It shouldn’t be any faster than the larger 6s, because its main and graphics processors are the same. But it feels faster to me, flying through scrolls and swipes. This may just be because I haven’t used a four-inch phone for awhile, or perhaps because the chips are having to move fewer pixels on the smaller screen.


The rear camera is also excellent. It’s been bumped up to the same great 12-megapixel version on the 6s. And the phone has an array of features introduced since the 5s came out in 2013. These include Apple Pay, 4K video recording, faster LTE and Wi-Fi, and new colors, including Apple’s oft-hyped rose gold, which just looks like pink to me.

Battery life in my trials was very, very good. While I didn’t perform a formal test, the new iPhone SE easily lasted a full 12-hour day for me — and still had 20 percent or more left in the tank. And that was after lots of testing, including streaming video and audio and downloading hundreds of messages.

If you or somebody you know is fine with the smaller screen, the only significant downsides are that, like all iPhones, it starts with a paltry 16 gigabytes of storage and, like the 5s, its front camera is just 1.2 megapixels. It also lacks a handful of features from the 6s that couldn’t be jammed into its smaller body. These include 3D Touch, which performs various actions when you press down on the screen, and a barometer, for measuring climbing stairs in fitness apps. It also lacks the second-generation, faster fingerprint sensor.

But I can strongly recommend the iPhone SE to fans of smaller iPhones who are looking for greater power and better features.

The 9.7-inch iPad Pro

Last fall, when Apple introduced a huge, 12.9-inch iPad with an optional snap-on keyboard and a stylus called the Apple Pencil, I had mixed feelings. While I admired the design and specs and imagined it would be popular with graphics folks and some enterprise users, I didn’t see it as a great fit for consumers used to the standard, 9.7-inch iPad.

For one thing, I found it too big and bulky to use comfortably. For another, I found few apps that took advantage of all that expanded screen space. And, third, while I found I could adapt to typing on the new keyboard, I yearned for shortcut keys and a trackpad, to eliminate constant reaching for the screen. And that was even before considering the $799 starting price, which soared well over $1,000 with more memory, cellular capability and the keyboard and stylus.

Tomorrow, Apple will start selling a second iPad Pro model, and this one knocks out two of my three gripes. It has the iPad’s standard 9.7-inch screen and is just as thin and light — less than a pound — as the iPad Air 2. It now has a million iPad-specific apps that know just what to do with a 9.7-inch screen. The keyboard is the same — good for basic typing, yet still not customized for an iPad with dedicated shortcut keys (it does have command-key shortcuts, but they are slower for some things). But, given that this version of the keyboard is narrower to fit the device, Apple has done an admirable job.

Oh, and this smaller iPad Pro starts at $599. That’s $100 more than the typical $499 iPad base price, but $200 less than its big brother. For that extra $100, it comes with 32GB of memory, double the paltry normal amount. It also has an advanced processor and graphics system; the ability to work with the Pencil stylus; the built-in keyboard connector; and much better cameras and speakers.

The screen is 25 percent brighter and 40 percent less reflective than the one on the iPad Air 2, with greater color saturation. And it has an all-new feature: The ability to automatically adjust the color temperature — not just the brightness — of the display based on ambient lighting.

After testing this new iPad, I’ve decided to upgrade. Even if you just use it to consume media and do light productivity, the improvements are noticeable and helpful. The screen is sensational, and when I compared it to my iPad Air screen, the improvement was obvious. The new True Tone feature, which seemed unnoticeable at first, suddenly seemed indispensable when I tried turning it off and the display turned to a shade of bright white I’ve been staring at for years, but which now seems unnatural.

The sound is greatly improved, with four speakers, one in each corner. I may not adore Apple’s keyboard, but it’s okay, and other keyboard makers will soon have different models that use the new connector.

Battery life was terrific. Apple claims 10 hours, but I easily got just over 12 in my test, which is based on playing video while collecting email, texts, tweets and Facebook posts in the background.


So I can recommend the new smaller iPad Pro as a strong upgrade, especially for people with older models — certainly the original iPad Air and earlier models.

But what about Apple’s other use case? The company says this iPad Pro, like the larger one (and like Microsoft’s Surface Pro tablet), can replace your laptop. Here, I’m not so sure.

I’m a big tablet fan. I already use my older iPads to do many productivity tasks: Work email, Slack and editing. The snap-on keyboard and Pencil will only make that better. But, like the Surface, the iPad Pro — even this new, smaller one — isn’t nearly as usable in my lap as a standard laptop, because the latter has a heavier, more stable base. And with Apple’s iPad keyboard, there’s only one screen angle, compared to an almost infinite variety on a laptop and the Surface.

Apple’s laptop-replacement argument does have one big difference from Microsoft’s. Because the latter has failed to develop a robust catalog of great tablet apps, most people I see with the Surface Pro seem to be using the old Windows desktop and its apps instead of newer tablet-style apps. Apple’s app store, on the other hand, offers a wide array of iPad-specific productivity apps for which the hardware is ideally suited. Its old-fashioned desktop and desktop programs are available on actual laptops called MacBooks.

These iPad-specific productivity apps vary widely in how well they stack up against Windows and Mac desktop apps. Some, like Microsoft’s own Office for iOS, work very well on the iPad. Others, like Google Docs, feel more cramped than on the desktop.

So, I wouldn’t think of the new iPad Pro as a full and complete laptop replacement — yet. But it’s certainly much more than a way to watch Netflix. Even more than previous standard-sized iPads, it’s a way to handle many common tasks once only possible on a heavier, bulkier laptop.

Honestly, with a keyboard I like better and just a few key improved apps, I could ditch the laptop for this.

The bottom line

With the new iPhone SE and 9.7-inch iPad Pro, Apple is trying to fill holes in its product line and encourage more upgrading. It reminds me of the days when the company sold a whole range of iPod models, from well under $100 to about $400, at roughly $50 intervals. The idea, then and now, was to cover the waterfront. You couldn’t go wrong with most of these iPods, and you won’t go wrong with these two latest Apple products.

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