Holiday 2012: Apple Year in Review

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2012 was an incredibly busy and prosperous year for Apple. We saw totally new designs for both computers and mobile devices, and updates to nearly every product line. The iPhone 5 and the iPad mini were probably their two most important announcements of the year, but they were also the two products that many predicted would be released. That said, there were many surprises this year, and one real milestone for Apple.

You have to give the designers in Cupertino a lot of credit. Even though their most anticipated products weren’t total surprises, they were still fundamentally different than anything else on the market, when unveiled. Look at the iPad mini. There are plenty of 7-inch tablets available, and some of them are really excellent products, but they all share the same display geometry. Every other small tablet features a short and wide 16:9 rectangular display. While this is a nice shape for watching widescreen movies, it’s not the most spacious for surfing the Web in landscape mode. That’s one of the reasons the iPad mini has a decidedly more square 7.9-inch display. It offers a richer Web-browsing experience, a more immersive app experience—and movies still look great.

Then there’s the iPhone 5. Every other popular smart phone features a large screen. Naturally, everyone expected the iPhone 5 to follow suit with a larger screen as well. When the iPhone 5 made its debut, it did indeed have a larger display; however, it was only taller, not wider. It was essentially in the opposite direction Apple went with the iPad mini. By not making the phone any wider, the user could still comfortably operate it in one hand, carrying out all of the touch commands with a single thumb. Also, the new 4" screen gives the iPhone 5 a 16:9 aspect ratio, so you can say goodbye to those black bars when watching an HD video. Apple continues to ignore the forces of market trends in favor of what they envision as a better user experience.

One Year, Three New iPads

The typical life cycle for an Apple model used to be a full year, but this old rule went out the window in 2012. Way back in March, a new, full-sized iPad with a 9.7” Retina display was released. It was officially named “The new iPad,” but for the sake of clarity (and sanity), we’ll refer to it as the third-generation iPad. Besides having a higher-resolution display than its predecessor, the third-generation iPad also featured a more advanced Apple A5X chip, a quad-core GPU and more RAM. In a surprise move, Apple discontinued this model in October, with the announcement of the fourth-generation iPad, which is officially known as “iPad with Retina display.”

This even newer full-sized iPad features a faster Apple A6X chip, a front-facing camera that’s capable of 720p HD video, improved Wi-Fi performance and the same 9.7-inch 2048 x 1536 Retina display. However, the most notable difference is its connector port. Gone was the ubiquitous 30-pin dock connector that had been on iPods since 2003, and in its place was the new Lightning connector, which is much smaller and doesn’t need to be oriented in a specific direction to be plugged in. The downside of the new port is that many people own speaker docks and other hardware that’s based around the old 30-pin connector. Adapters are available; however, Lightning doesn’t pass analog audio like the 30-pin connector did, so not all external hardware will operate as it did before.

The new Lighting connector first made its appearance as the dock for the iPhone 5, as well as the fifth-generation iPod touch and seventh-generation iPod nano, all of which were introduced on the same day. Since the Lightning connector is also used on the iPad mini and the fourth-generation iPad, it’s clearly the mobile charging/syncing format of choice for Apple, going forward.

If the full-sized iPad was the ultimate accessory for surfing the Internet on a sofa, the new iPad mini is the ultimate accessory for doing so more comfortably. As wildly popular as the larger iPads have been, you have to admit that they’re cumbersome to hold in one hand for any stretch of time. The late Steve Jobs was famously against the idea of a smaller iPad, but he also strongly opposed the original iPod mini, which quickly became the world’s most popular music player shortly after its release. It seems that history may repeat itself with this compact new tablet.

The new iPad mini is less than half the weight of the larger iPads. It’s also thinner and more affordable. Its multi-touch display has a resolution of 1024 x 768, which isn’t Retina quality, but will still look nice and crisp for most applications. It features many of the same internals as the iPad 2, which is a very capable device that has a lengthy battery life and runs cool. The rear-facing camera on the iPad mini can shoot 5MP stills and 1080p video, and a front-facing camera is available for video chat. Best of all, thanks to its 4:3 screen geometry, every app that’s available for the iPad format works perfectly with the iPad mini.

iPod Loops and Nanos

Not every piece of Apple hardware was predictable in 2012. The aforementioned fifth-generation iPod touch is one item that took us by surprise. Available in metallic Blue, Pink, Yellow, PRODUCT RED, Black/Slate and White/Silver color choices, the new iPod touch features the same 4-inch display as the iPhone 5, yet it’s 1.5mm thinner than the notorious smart phone. The rear- and front-facing cameras on the iPod touch were improved, it features the Siri digital assistant, and it comes with a cool new wrist strap called the “Loop” which connects to a circular anchor that pops out of its back.

Another surprise this year was the new, seventh-generation iPod nano. Its touch display is twice as large as the last generation, which means that you can watch movies and look at photos, in addition to listening to tunes. A built-in FM tuner lets you listen to the radio, and a DVR-like function lets you rewind live radio up to 15 minutes, in case you want to go back and hear something again. It has 16GB of storage, and it’s incredibly thin and lightweight. Like the iPod touch, the new nano comes in a variety of colors and has a Lightning connector.

Perhaps in its quest to design gadgets for every kind of person, Apple decided to try to create earphones that everyone could enjoy as well. This is no simple task, because everyone’s ears have different shapes and sizes. In the quest for the perfect universal earphone, Apple performed 3D scans of hundreds of people’s ears, in an attempt to find the commonalities among them. The result is the new EarBuds, which are available separately and included with the new iPhone 5, iPod touch and iPod nano.

Retina MacBooks, Pancake iMacs and Fusion Drives

The design of Apple’s MacBook Air is often imitated by competing manufacturers. However, in October 2012, Apple publically disclosed that its most popular Mac computer was the 13.3” MacBook Pro. The admission came during the introduction of the new 13.3” MacBook Pro with Retina Display. The Retina display was first brought to the 15.4” MacBook Pro in June, but far from simply slapping on a high-resolution screen to this line of notebook computers, the Retina MacBook Pros are completely redesigned machines with ultra-thin bodies and enormous power.

If you’re the kind of person who regularly burns CDs and DVDs, the new Macintosh computers that were announced in 2012 likely left you feeling a little slighted. Built-in optical drives are quickly becoming a thing of the past in Apple computers, but keep in mind that you can always buy their external USB SuperDrive. The new 15.4” MacBook Pro with Retina Display also lacks an optical drive, but it packs a great deal of power into a chassis that’s 25% thinner and 25% more lightweight than the previous generation. 

With a pixel density of 2880 x 1800, the 15.4” MacBook Pro with Retina Display uses its extra resolution muscle to make graphics and text appear sharper, while displaying high-resolution images at the same time. This gives photographers and videographers an unparalleled level of accuracy for reviewing their images in the field, and back at the studio, too. Plus, with its two Thunderbolt ports, two USB 3.0 ports, HDMI output and SDXC card slot, there is plenty of bandwidth for power-hungry peripherals and external production gear. You can think of the 13.3” MacBook Pro as simply a smaller version of the 15.4”, but it’s important to note that its resolution is 2560 x 1600, giving the 15.4” MacBook Pro the edge.

One of the ways that these new Macs take advantage of the increased pixel density of their Retina displays is with their operating system. Mountain Lion is version 10.8 of OS X, and it was released in July 2012. This wildcat introduced popular features from iOS to the desktop world, such as Notes, Reminders, Messages and AirPlay. Both Lion and Mountain Lion support Retina displays. The OS takes full advantage of this powerful display with useful applications like iPhoto, iMovie and Preview. Apple’s Final Cut Pro X and their photo-editing application Aperture are also both fully optimized for the Retina display on the new MacBook Pros, and an update to Photoshop CS6 is in the works.

While the new MacBook Pros with Retina displays may be the latest generation for this line of computers, the “older” generation also got a refresh in 2012. Apple updated both the MacBook Pro and the MacBook Air in June. They loaded them up with the latest Intel Ivy Bridge processors, two USB 3.0 ports and Intel HD Graphics 4000 processors. The standard 15.4” MacBook Pro has an additional NVIDIA GeForce GT 650M graphics processor that kicks in for more intensive work, and the MacBook Air’s flash memory can now be upped to 512GB. Even the venerable Mac Pro desktop tower got a little processor bump in June 2012, and can now come with a total of 12 cores of Intel Xeon E5645 processors.

The iMac is undoubtedly among the most iconic of all Macintosh computer designs, and in late 2012 it received an update that pushed its concept to the extremes. If the idea behind all modern-day iMacs is that they’re desktop computers where the guts of the machine are built into the display, the late 2012 iMac puts this concept into a compressor and squashes it flat. At just 5mm thick around the edges and a little thicker toward the center, the new iMacs are strikingly thin. The optical drive has again been omitted, but you could always add one on as an external accessory. They will be available in 21.5- and 27-inch models with quad-core Intel processors.

It seems like quad-core processors are the things to have these days for Mac desktops, and even the efficient Mac mini got upgraded this year to include the option for quad-core 2.3 or 2.6 GHz Intel Core i7 processors. Both the new Mac mini and the new iMac feature the option for a new technology called Fusion Drive. It’s a new storage system that utilizes a solid-state drive and a spinning hard drive that the computer sees as a single volume. The operating system moves the files that get accessed more frequently to the faster SSD drive, resulting in overall faster performance.

New Wireless Apple Gear for the Homestead

Apple gave the living room a little attention in 2012 as well. The Apple TV was upgraded to include support for 1080p video, which is really more of a necessity, rather than an exciting new feature. Much of the device remains the same: the physical design, the inputs and outputs, etc. The user interface received an overhaul as well, but this software upgrade was made available for the older second-generation Apple TV, too. Even though the updates to the new third-generation Apple TV aren’t extensive, it’s still a great home entertainment accessory for Apple users. The Apple TV is great for watching Netflix, YouTube and dedicated sports and news apps, but the killer feature it brings to your television is AirPlay. Any video, photo or song that’s playing on your iPhone, iPad, iPod or Mountain Lion-based Mac can be beamed to the TV wirelessly, through a Wi-Fi network to the Apple TV.

Speaking of Wi-Fi networks, Apple upgraded their AirPort Express in 2012 to include dual-band 802.11n support, which makes it possible for tablets and computers to connect over a 5-GHz network, and for iPhones to simultaneously connect over a 2.4-GHz network. The nice thing about Apple’s network devices is that you don’t have to concern yourself with this technical jargon. They’re really easy to get up and running, and equally easy to maintain. You can use the AirPort Express as your main wireless router, and you can use it to extend another wireless network to other areas of your home. It features an audio output as well, so you can use it to send music wirelessly to another room. 

With all of this momentum and an ever broadening user base, Apple seems to continually reach new heights. The ultimate indicator of this growth came in August 2012, when Apple became the most valuable company in the history of the United States. While the validity of this title is arguable when you compensate for inflation, it's still a remarkable achievement for a little homebrew computer company that two young dudes started up and ran out of their parent’s garage for the first couple of years.