When Apple announced the new lineup of iPads and Mac minis last week, I noticed a disturbing trend. We're used to Apple making the best products in every category and charging appropriately for them. When people complain to me that you can get Windows computers for less, I point out that you can't get comparable Windows computers for less.
But if you look across Apple's product lineup, many of the low-end offerings really stand out—and not in a good way. Many of them come across as unnecessarily hobbled devices, and while there might be a few instances where they'd be serviceable, I can't see myself recommending any of them. In fact, they remind me of Road Apples, devices Apple used to sell back in the 1990s that were underpowered, not upgradeable and soon terminated.
The base 21-inch iMac, for example, features a MacBook Air-caliber 1.4GHz processor and an Air-caliber videocard without the speed benefit of the Air's flash drive. These specifications might be OK, except for the fact that the iMac lineup is so lopsided. The difference is much more marked between the base 21-inch iMac and the midrange model than between the midrange and high end, despite the fact that the price difference is the same.
The base Mac mini features the same processor as the base iMac and only 4GB of RAM. The next model up almost doubles the processor clock speed, and does double the RAM and hard drive space for $200. The high-end model only gives you 0.2GHz more in clock speed and a Fusion Drive instead of a standard drive, but will set you back an additional $300.
Then there's the lineup of new iPhones and iPads. When Apple announced the new iPhones would ship in 16, 64 and 128 GB configurations, I thought it might have been a temporary fluke. But now the 2014 iPads ship in the same configurations. As someone who owned the limited-run 4GB original iPhone for two years, I know a thing or two about managing storage space, but a 16GB device in 2014 should really be offered at a discount.
In the past I've gone so far as to defend the 8GB iPhone 5c because, believe it or not, there are some people out there who mostly want the "Phone" part and not the "i" part. Personally, I'd rather squirt Sriracha sauce into my ears than talk on the phone—I was 24 hours into enjoying my iPhone 6 before I noticed the phone part had not actually activated yet. But I know these people who want their smartphone most for the phone part actually exist. Still, while 8GB might once have been acceptable if you were only interested in downloading a handful of apps, now that iOS updates want upwards of 5.8GB (what iOS 8 wanted on my iPhone 5s to update over the air), 16GB is a stretch and 8GB is a snapped rubber band. In fact, storage space may be the leading reason why iOS 8 has had a slower adoption rate than previous releases.
Storage isn't the only uneven price-for-feature ratio in the iPad line. The base iPad mini will run iOS 8, but with an A5 chip and 512MB of RAM, it doesn't run it very well. The next model, the iPad mini 2, has an A7 chip, 1GB of RAM and a Retina display for just $50 more. The difference between the iPad mini 2 and iPad mini 3—Touch ID and an additional color option—is not nearly as significant, but it'll cost you $100.
Pushing you up
Are you sensing a pattern here? Because I am. That's my mutant ability: sensing patterns that I'm deliberately trying to point out. In most of Apple's lineups, the difference between the low-end model and midrange model is huge while the difference between the midrange and the top end is much smaller. When it was just the iMac I shrugged. Not literally, of course. I mean, I've been working from from home for a few years now and I already talk to myself. If I start shrugging what's next? Interpretive dance? That's going to look weird through my office window.
But now that it's almost all of Apple's lineup it's starting to look... unseemly. I'm not completely naïve, I do understand that Apple's looking to make a profit here and, hey, that's what capitalism is all about.
But does it seem right that Apple—this is Apple we're talking about, remember—is selling devices you wouldn't recommend? Because these are not great machines. They might do fine with next year's software update but, then again, they might not. These devices are only viable options in very limited circumstances. And that's not Apple's usual modus operandi. Apple makes premium devices that appeal to the largest portion of the market possible, and gives you software updates for free. What good is a free software update if it ruins your user experience?
The problem is not so much that the low-end devices are underpowered. If Apple wanted to offer very cheap low-end machines, that would be fine. The problem is the huge gap between the low-end and the midrange. This seems like a gimmick to me, a trick designed to allow Apple to tout a low entry-level price and then drive everyone to buy the midrange device.
There are some outliers. The iPad mini 3 is the one device at the top of a lineup that doesn't seem worth the money. Meanwhile, the low-end MacBook Air is a terrific value. Across the entire set of product lineups there is plenty of value, but it's almost all at the middle and high end of each product line.
Tim Cook has said, "Our North Star is always on making the best products." In general, I think Apple does. Personally, I'd rather have even these half-hearted low-end products than those of their competitors because of Apple's focus on hardware and software integration and its superior ecosystem.
But are these low-end offerings the best products Apple could offer at these price points? I don't think so.