What started out with an earnings warning, stock drop, and store closures ended up being a very successful year for Apple. Nearly every product in Apple’s catalog saw a refresh, a couple of new ones joined the fray, and tens of millions of devices were sold to happy customers.
Here’s our 2020 Apple product report card, where we give each segment of Apple’s business a grade from A to F. Be sure to tune into the Macworld Podcast where our U.S. and U.K. writers debate everything that came out of Cupertino last year.
Michael Simon: First came the iPhone SE, which somehow made the iPhone 8 feel fresh again with a speedy chip, better camera, and lower price tag. Then we got OLED displays and 5G support across the board, better cameras, a new design, and a new charging and accessory system in the iPhone 12, along with a larger Max and a new 5.4-inch mini. Whether you’re comparing them to the iPhone 11 or the best Android phones of the year, the iPhone 12 lineup is among the best ever made and pushed the boundaries of what a smartphone can do. Grade: A
Jason Cross: The iPhone 12 is a great lineup, with good sizes, performance, and features across the line. That 5G is included without ballooning the price is a big feather in Apple’s cap. MagSafe has a lot of potential. And let’s not forget the iPhone SE, a really great budget alternative introduced early in the year. Yeah, I want an always-on display and ProMotion, but there’s no denying that these are stellar products. Grade: A
Roman Loyola: I usually buy a new phone every year, but this year I didn’t. My main reason for upgrading is 5G, and it’s just not widespread enough now to make the investment. That’s not Apple’s fault and that doesn’t mean that Apple’s offerings aren’t great—they are, as Michael and Jason point out. Grade: A
Michael Simon: Until November, the Mac was languishing through another year of perfectly fine and utterly forgettable products. But then the M1 landed. Apple shipped new models with the M1 chip and they were faster than nearly every Mac Apple has ever made while keeping the same prices (and even lowering it in the case of the mini). There’s plenty more I want to see—most of all a better webcam in the notebooks—but I’ve never been more excited for the Mac. Grade: A
Jason Cross: This is a hard one to give a grade to. The M1 is an absolute triumph, and has injected real enthusiasm and excitement into the Mac for the first time in years! But is the only thing preventing the Mac from completely treading water. Apple is behind the industry on industrial design, display technology (no HDR or high/variable refresh rates?), and Face ID should have come to the Mac, along with a much better webcam, a long time ago. Grade: B
Roman Loyola: The Mac was having a failure of a year until the M1 was released, but you could also say the the M1 was the reason the Mac was failing until November 2020. The M1 release was monumental, and 2021 for the Mac is going to be even bigger. Grade: B
Michael Simon: Like the Mac, Apple completely redeemed a lackluster year for the iPad with the launch of the completely unexpected, fully redesigned iPad Air. Among the highlights, the new iPad Air has a fantastic iPad Pro-style design, has a Touch ID scanner built into the power button, is as fast as the iPhone 12, and comes in colors other than space gray and rose gold. It’s so good, there’s really no reason to buy a Pro. Grade: A
Jason Cross: The hardware itself isn’t really stepping forward a lot, but the new iPad Air is a lot better than the old one. iPadOS 13.4 added mouse/keyboard support in a thoughtful way, and the magic keyboard is a great accessory. iPadOS is slowly breaking away from iOS, and needs to go faster. The iPad Pro update was lackluster, though, and the regular iPad is getting pretty long in the tooth. Grade: B
Roman Loyola: It feels like the iPad lineup is in flux, with non-Pro iPads feeling like Pro models, and the Pro models not getting much with upgrades. You can do more with the iPad and iPad Air, which is great in my book. Grade: B
Michael Simon: There’s no denying that the two watches Apple launched this year are the best smartwatches you can buy, but they still left something to be desired. Apple’s cheaper SE is missing several important features, including the always-on display, EKG sensor, and blood-oxygen sensor, and the Series 6 wasn’t much of an upgrade over the Series 5. Sleep tracking is meh, battery life is still an issue, and blood-oxygen tracking isn’t integrated as well as it is on the Fitbit Sense. And wouldn’t recommend the $199 Series 3 to my worst enemy. Grade: B
Jason Cross: The Series 6 is a modest step forward from the Series 5, with not a lot of real tangible reason to exist. The SE is a great idea but should be less expensive, and Apple should have stopped selling the Series 3. What Apple Watch needs more than anything is multi-day battery life, and year after year we get stuff we don’t need like faster performance. Sleep tracking could have been a killer feature if Apple hadn’t done such a bad job with it. Grade: C
Roman Loyola: The Apple Watch is the best smartwatch on the planet. That being said, it still needds better battery life. The sleep tracking feature seems basic, and Apple should improve it in future updates. Grade: C
Michael Simon: Apple launched two products at opposite ends of the audio spectrum in 2020 and both have their flaws. While the HomePod mini is priced much better than the original HomePod), it doesn’t sound as good as its older sibling or some other speakers in its class, such as the Nest Audio. Meanwhile, the AirPods Max offer active noise canceling and spatial audio to an over-ear design and studio sound but cost $300 more than the AirPods Pro, which aren’t exactly cheap. Both products were on my 2020 wishlist and both were something of a disappointment. Grade: C
Jason Cross: AirPods Max are great headphones, but quite a bit overpriced for what you get (and don’t get me started on that “Smart Case” atrocity). The HomePod mini is fine hardware at a reasonable price, but it’s the sort of product that really relies on Siri to make it great (as opposed to Apple Music being the star of the the bigger HomePod), and Siri just isn’t as good as it needs to be. Apple Music keeps making modest improvements, but its recommendations are still too poor to pull me from Spotify, and I too often find that it doesn’t have a song I’m looking for. Grade: C
Roman Loyola: The AirPods Pro are awesome…oh wait, that was 2019. If I ever see a stranger wearing AirPods Max, I may just stop them and ask them, “Why?” Apple needed to release a HomePod mini, but it also needed to released major Siri updates. Grade: D
Michael Simon: Not only did Apple launch a solid new service for the Apple Watch in Fitness+, but it also bolstered TV+ with some excellent new shows (Ted Lasso), movies (Wolfwalkers), and exciting production deals. It also brought Apple Music to Google Assistant devices. But the cherry was the fantastic $30-a-month Apple One Premier bundle that includes everything plus 2TB of iCloud storage for up to 6 people. Granted, Apple News+ still isn’t great and I’d love to see a stronger back-catalog of shows make their way to TV+, but I like the moves Apple made in 2020. Grade: B
Jason Cross: This was a rough year for Apple’s services. Apple One is the bundle we always needed, but it’s only a deal if you find most of Apple’s services worth paying for, and I’m not sure I do. News+ remains a poor experience. Apple Arcade, once so promising, has languished in large part because of Apple’s steadfast refusal to allow apps to be both sold in the App Store and listed in Arcade.
The only new service this year is Fitness+, and it’s a fine set of workout videos, but that’s all it really is. It doesn’t do anything really innovative, it doesn’t remind or encourage you to work out, it doesn’t do nutritional tracking like MyFitnessPal… it just feels too bare-bones.
Apple’s halo service seems to be Apple TV+, which suffered from an extreme lack of quality content this year. Ted Lasso is a delight, but Apple needs ten times the amount of new content per year for people to find enough good stuff to watch. Blame COVID for ruining production, but I very rarely found a reason to fire up Apple TV+ this year. Grade: D
Roman Loyola: In all, Apple One is a good deal, but TV+, Fitness+, News+ still feel like works in progress that can be satisfying at times and frustarting at others. Grade: C
New products: iOS 14, iPadOS 14, macOS Big Sur, watchOS 7, tvOS 14, numerous Apple apps
Michael Simon: Among the notable software changes in 2020: macOS was finally bumped to version 11 and got a visual refresh to go along with it; iPad OS continued to feel too constrained by its iPhone roots; the overdue Sleep app in watchOS 7 was a bit too basic; and tvOS 14 finally brought 4K YouTube and little else. But iOS 14 saved the whole year with a significant revamp to the Home Screen layout in iOS 14 that finally let people abandon the stale app grid. Grade: B
Jason Cross: I’m impressed by the improvements in iOS 14, especially the thoughtful Widgets and App Library. And I’m doubly-impressed by Apple’s moves to improve privacy and security, whether it’s “privacy nutrition labels” in the App Store or lights that show when your microphone or camera is being accessed. On the other hand, iPadOS 14 still doesn’t go far enough to differentiate itself from iPhone, and Apple still doesn’t have a clean and cohesive multitasking story on iPad.
While macOS Big Sur seems like a mostly cosmetic update, a ton of impressive work went on under the hood to enable the new Apple Silicon macs, and the fact that it’s all going so smoothly is an amazing testament to those engineers.
Nothing really wowed me about updates to Apple’s own apps. Improvements to the Maps app, for example, don’t seem especially useful. Rather, Apple’s suite of apps saw minor, predictable, but welcome changes all around. Grade: B
Roman Loyola: There was an update to Apple Clips, people! Grade: B
Michael Simon: While the Magsafe tech inside the iPhone 12 is certainly interesting, the accessories to go along with it, particularly the MagSafe Duo Charger, leave much to be desired. But I loved learning about it. Apple’s four events in 2020 were virtual, but they were better than ever, with slick production, engaging content, and no applause breaks. Here’s to more of those even when we can gather again. Grade: B
Jason Cross: This is a hard category to grade because it’s a potpourri of various things. Apple’s accessories were hit-and-miss. Apple’s MagSafe stuff was disappointing and overpriced, for example. On the other hand, the Solo Loop band for the Apple Watch is quite good (despite some early sizing challenges).
Apple’s move to eliminate power adapters from most of its products is ultimately the right call, but the adapters it sells should be better and cheaper.
The company’s heavy-handed approach to developers started to come to a head this year, and while it’s hard to find a clear hero or villain in this fight, it’s probably true that Apple needs to loosen up the reins quite a bit. Grade: C
Listen to the Macworld Podcast: Apple’s 2020 report card