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At Apple’s October Event, Specs Mattered More Than Usual, And That’s Okay

The big news involved more pixels and faster chips. That’s bad for showmanship, but good for the Mac and iPad platforms.

At Apple’s October Event, Specs Mattered More Than Usual, And That’s Okay

Far more than your average maker of computers, tablets, and smartphones, Apple likes to position itself as being disinterested in the dreary matter of technical specifications. If it can talk up something else at one of its events–industrial design, software, services, or, especially, the overall experience of using one or more Apple devices–it usually will. It certainly did at last month’s epic unveiling of the iPhone 6, iPhone 6 Plus, Apple Pay, and Apple Watch.

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Tim Cook and company talked a lot about that stuff at the iPad/Mac event which Apple held this Thursday, too–but most of what they had to say recapped news which the company had already announced, such as the details on iOS 8, OS X Yosemite, and how they work together. And marketing honcho Phil Schiller lavished attention on the one significant change to the iPad Air 2’s design: It’s 18% thinner than last year’s model. (It really isn’t an Apple event unless it features at least one product which has gotten meaningfully svelter.)

Retina iMacPhoto: courtesy of Apple

To a greater degree than I can remember at a recent Apple event, though, most of the news that was actually new involved technical matters, such as the iPad Air 2’s faster processor and the Retina-screen 27-inch iMac’s ultra-high-resolution 14.7-megapixel display. Those types of advances don’t make for the world’s most scintillating onstage presentation, which might help explain why an unusually high percentage of the event was devoted to a long bit involving Apple secrecy–complete with a telephonic cameo by Stephen Colbert–which felt as much like a comedy sketch as a demo.

Still, even if tech specs aren’t ideal fodder in terms of theatrical value, they can be important. For instance, when Apple announced the iPhone 4 back in 2010–the first Retina-display device–it kicked off a sweeping industry trend toward dazzling increases in screen resolution. Few things Apple has ever done have proved more influential.

It’s a testament to how daunting a technical challenge it was to bring Retina-class resolution to a desktop computer with a 27-inch screen that this iMac is arriving more than four years after the first Retina iPhone and more than two years after the first Retina MacBook Pro. All I’ve seen on its screen so far are images chosen by Apple because they look sensational–but boy, do they ever look sensational.

As droolworthy as the new iMac is–I find it pretty alluring even though I purchased my last desktop computer eight years ago, and may never buy another–it looks an awful lot like all the other iMacs of the past few years. Unlike last year’s radically retooled Mac Pro, it doesn’t give us an inkling of where Apple thinks desktop computers are going, except that it involves a place with way more pixels and (thanks to Yosemite) tighter integration with smartphones and tablets.

iPad Air 2 and iPad Mini 3Photo: courtesy of Apple

As for the iPad Air 2’s faster A8X processor, it’s the furthest thing from a surprise: It would be startling if a major new Apple product didn’t have a substantially zippier chip than the one before it. It’s also easy to be blasé about speed improvements given that the original iPad Air generally doesn’t feel sluggish.

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But that extra processing power isn’t about speeding up existing apps so much as enabling developers to build ever more ambitious apps. We saw that in the brief demos of two third-party apps, the Pixelmator image editor and Replay instant movie editor. Those two pieces of software appear to take advantage of the new iPad’s A8X processor in spades, and they should have lots of company in the months to come.

Here’s Pixelmator’s video sneak peek at its iPad version:

In a way, the Pixelmator and Replay demos were the most exciting moments in the entire event, because they were about the two tangible experiences that were new. And it’s Apple’s relentless upgrades to the iPad’s technical capabilities over the four and a half years since the launch of the first iPad that make apps like these possible.

I’m not arguing that Apple can live on tech-spec improvements alone. Assuming that the rumored 12.9-inch iPad is real and on its way, it’ll matter more than the iPad Air 2 does, because it’ll push the iPad into more direct competition with conventional PCs.

But with Apple, specs-oriented improvements of the sort we saw at Thursday’s event are often a sign that it’s pacing itself. It sticks with a hardware design that works well–as both the existing iMac and iPad Air designs do–and makes it capable of running sophisticated software even better than its predecessor did.

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It’s a strategy that works. But it also raises expectations for the models that follow. So if 2014 was a specs-oriented year for the Mac and iPad, it would be nice to think that 2015 might be one in which both product lines get industrial-design refreshes of the sort which Jonathan Ive normally rhapsodizes about in a video–one of a sort which was conspicuously absent at this product launch.

About the author

Harry McCracken is the technology editor for Fast Company, based in San Francisco. In past lives, he was editor at large for Time magazine, founder and editor of Technologizer, and editor of PC World.

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