2021 is nearly over. It won’t be missed. Still, Apple made us happy with amazing new hardware – but also made us grumpy with some bad things. And then confused everyone with a brand-new “soft, non-abrasive” accessory. (Really.)
Here, then, is our traditional end-of-year Apple review, giving you another chance to celebrate the best bits of Apple over the past 12 months – and another chance to moan about moments we’d all sooner forget.
New Apple silicon Macs
2020’s MacBook Air provided a taste of what was to come from M1 Macs – but gave us new innards inside an old case. With the 24in iMac, Apple showcased its design chops and silicon prowess. The 14in MacBook Pro went further, combining great design, pro-grade clout, power efficiency, a Mac user’s wish list and… a notch. We suppose you can’t have everything.
Certain Apple decisions in recent years whiffed of arrogance, with notebooks shedding ports and thinness being prized over everything else. But 2021 found Apple listening again: the MacBook Pro got its ports and function keys back, thinness took a back seat to battery life, and a terrifyingly awful Safari design was relegated to an option for people with no taste.
In a year of muted iPhone tones, it was great to see the 24in iMac bring colour back to our tech lives. Its shades are subtle on the front but bold on the back, and the collection recalls the explosion of colour from the range that followed the Bondi blue original. A nice change from deciding which shade of grey you fancy.
Helping you share what matters
Crack open any social media app and you’ll know people don’t need assistance oversharing. But Apple in 2021 found ways to help you share things that were meaningful, whether using SharePlay to watch a movie with friends all around the world, tracking an older relative’s vital health stats, or firing up Digital Legacy to ensure a loved one could access your iCloud data after you pass.
iPad ‘more Pro’
The iPad Pro remains hampered by Apple refusing to unleash its full potential. 2021 wasn’t the year the device got meaningful external display support. But Apple did update the multitasking system to move it from ‘frustrating mess’ to ‘actually useful’ along with radically upping the RAM ceiling for pro-grade apps from 5GB to 12GB.
Apple helped you see more with your devices in 2021. The iPad Pro (and, later, 6th-gen Mini and 9th-gen iPad) got Centre Stage, using the 12MP ultra-wide to keep you in shot during video calls. Meanwhile, a new macro mode for iPhone 13 Pro and iPhone 13 Pro Max made the mundane magical, giving you the opportunity to find beauty in small things.
iPad Mini 6
The iPad Mini has long provided you with the full iPad experience, broadly without compromise. But the 6th-gen iPad Mini went the extra mile, shifting to mid-range. It looks like an iPad Air you’ve left in the wash, and beats the Air in terms of portability, lack of heft and sharpness of screen. A black mark for ‘jelly scrolling’, mind, which nets the tablet a ‘bad’ entry too.
Apple’s previous ‘leave me alone’ toggle, Do Not Disturb, was effective but heavy handed. By contrast, Focus finds Apple thinking about meaningful device use in nuanced fashion. Your device examines what you’re doing and blocks distractions accordingly. In an un-Apple-like fashion, it’s also deeply customisable, letting you choose Home screens, apps and contacts for user-defined set-ups you can trigger with a tap.
Apple wasn’t first to the tiny trackers game, but AirTags proved welcome during 2021 for anyone ensconced in Apple’s ecosystem. Wily YouTubers started shipping them everywhere to see how they’d fare. (Spoiler: brilliantly.) Normal folks attached them to keys, making use of Find My to blare an alert when said keys were left behind. Even the battery can be swapped out with ease. (AirPods, take note.)
We’re specifically talking about Safari on iPhone and iPad here, which prior to iOS 15/iPadOS 15 wasn’t the most open nor capable of browsers. But in Apple rethinking extensions across all its devices, suddenly Safari became a playground for ideas, whether you wanted to power up the search field, block web page annoyances, or have your start page politely remind you that you’ve already got 56 open tabs.
We also liked:
- Accessibility evolving further, with per-app settings, masking sounds and Assistive Touch for Apple Watch.
- New privacy controls, such as ‘hide my email’ – even if that’s a bit ‘horse has already bolted’.
- Temporary extra iCloud space when upgrading your phone, giving you 21 days to transfer and check your data.
- The new Apple TV remote, where it’s now ‘magically’ possible to know which way up it is by touch alone.
- Erase all contents and settings in macOS Monterey, making it a cinch to set up an old Mac for resale.
Stagnant TV hardware
Even the biggest Apple TV fans uttered a collective ‘meh’ on discovering Apple’s new black box barely moved on from the old one – and retained a price-tag that’s perhaps best described as ‘ambitious’ when you pit it against the competition. The device was once described by Apple as a ‘hobby’ – and now appears to be one the company’s tiring of.
This wasn’t a year in which a software update automatically hurled your Apple kit into the heart of the sun. But it did too often feel like using Apple’s software was akin to receiving endless paper cuts. Widgets didn’t work, then they did – and then they didn’t again. Spotlight in Mail repeatedly failed. The iCloud sync hamster kept keeling over. Just Stuff’s bad luck? Judging by online forums, no.
The march of the notch
The 24in iMac escaped the notch, but the new MacBook Pro line did not. The notch isn’t terrible and is perhaps a necessity to get a better camera into a laptop with a thinner bezel. Moving the menu bar ‘up’ into that space was the most elegant available solution. Even so, we’re still not keen – and Apple had better not add a notch to the iPad.
Soon after the new iPad Mini launched, people started complaining about ‘jelly scrolling’, where one half of the screen lags as you scroll and snaps back when you stop. The phenomenon isn’t new, but was more noticeable on iPad Mini because it affects the device in portrait. Don’t look for it, though, if you’ve not noticed such scrolling before, because you can’t unsee it and will then forever spot the issue on other 60Hz displays.
Delayed OS features
The problem with an annual operating system release cycle is it sets expectations that everything will be fully baked on day one. Apple needs to revisit how it announces such things, because 2021 was the year of the delayed feature – to the point the much trumpeted Universal Control (which lets you move a cursor between multiple Macs and iPads) now won’t rock up until 2022.
Apple Arcade’s direction
Despite what detractors would have you believe, there are great titles on Apple Arcade. The problem is Apple appears to have ditched what initially made the service unique – a combination of big mobile exclusives and interesting experiments. Most new additions are freemium junk minus IAP or rebadged premium titles you may have already exhausted. And there are still no classic coin-op arcade titles . Boo and hiss.
The Epic lawsuit
We can’t sum up this mess in this small space. Suffice to say as Epic and Apple punched each other in the face with lawyers, no-one came out looking good. But one of the worst things was Apple’s increasingly disingenuous arguments about the dangers of sideloading, barely stopping short of suggesting adding apps from beyond the App Store could end civilisation itself.
Apple’s stance on streaming gaming remains awful, with App Store rules demanding each title be a standalone app – which isn’t required of, say, Netflix TV shows. Web apps are the way forward, judging by xCloud, but The Verge discovered emails from the Epic lawsuit that showed Microsoft tried hard to bridge the divide. Apple wasn’t interested, leaving iOS lagging behind Android as a leading gaming platform.
The year had barely begun when Apple climbed down over a threat to boot excellent utility Amphetamine for “encourag[ing] consumption of […] illegal drugs”. Later, iDOS was kicked off of the App Store for allowing file access. The App Store’s search ads continue to penalise app creators. Even an announcement about potentially lower App Store fees felt like a response to threats of regulation and the Epic lawsuit rather than sincere.
The iPad weather app
Trick entry, because there is no iPad weather app! Which is kind of the point. Apple now has an iPad weather widget, though, which when tapped opens weather.com in Safari. Apple has in the past said the lack of an iPad weather app is because it “would want to do something really distinctly great in that space”. But this shoddy iPad user experience – especially given that Apple owns Dark Sky – now comes across as embarrassing.
We also didn’t like:
- iPhone Mini sales are reportedly still in the toilet – although this one’s not Apple’s fault, just an Apple-related gripe. (We reckon Apple’s wee iPhone is lovely.)
- Shuttering Primephonic, while Apple works on its successor. Why not leave it up in the meantime?
- Macs not getting Centre Stage, despite the feature arguably being even more suited to Mac than iPad.
- Lightning still existing, leaving us juggling leads and dongles rather than going all-in on USB-C.
- Foreign feature lag continues, with sporadic rollouts of key features. We’d like to ‘look around’ in Apple Maps. We’ll have to stick to Street View in Google Maps…
An Apple cloth
In October, Apple released a new product that wasn’t cut from the same cloth as its other output. It was an actual cloth. Specifically, it was the Polishing Cloth, designed for cleaning your Apple device screens “safely and effectively”. At £19, you won’t have to cut your cloth to buy one. The snag: it sold out within days and delivery estimates now stretch long into January. Presumably whoever put in the initial order had cloth ears when told what a hot seller a piece of “soft, non-abrasive material” would be.