At 2pm GMT on Tuesday 30th October Apple CEO Tim Cook took to the stage to rapturous applause to deliver the news of the latest products from the tech giant. At the same time I opened my packet of crisps and chocolate, along with a fizzy beverage, and settled in for the event.
A new MacBook Air, Mac mini and a new model of the iPad Pro were debuted during the two hour event at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York.
This article will of course delve into the specs and features of the new products but I’ll also be sharing my thoughts on the latest tech from the perspective of a visually impaired person as I believe Apple have taken great strides in the field of accessibility for its disabled users.
First up we saw the uncovering of the new MacBook Air. Featuring a thinner, narrower and lighter design, the new MacBook Air also comes with a Retina display (at last!) The screen size is 13.3 inches and as its a retina, it makes the display four times sharper than the previous version with 4 million pixels on board. The screen is also 48% more colourful. This is good news for low vision users who rely on the Zoom accessibility feature. Previous versions of the MacBook Air will remember how fuzzy and unclear the screen would become once you zoomed in however we should notice a larger improvement here. For completely blind users, this won’t make any difference at all.
So, on that basis, why does this matter considering there are retina displays in other Macs that would suit low vision users? Ultimately for me it comes down to price. I don’t really need all the power and bells and whistles that come with a MacBook Pro so I would rather pay less for something that suits my needs but also meets them from the accessibility point of view. I do use Voiceover all of the time and Zoom occasionally so I like the idea of a lower cost MacBook with a more useful screen when I require it.
One other major addition to the new MacBook Air is Touch ID. It is already available in MacBook Pro’s but it has never made it to the Air. The key to use Touch ID is in the top right hand corner of the keyboard (previously the power key, and if you’re older, the eject key!) Not great for left-handed users like me but you can’t have it all. This feature will let you pay for items online more easily, unlock your MacBook and more. I am surprised though they didn’t just add Face ID as Touch ID seems a bit old fashioned nowadays.
One other feature that stood out for me was the speakers. Audio has apparently been improved and the Air is now 25% louder than the previous version with two times the level of bass and wide stereo sound. If you use your MacBook to record audio then you’ll be pleased to hear that there is now a three-microphone array for better recording quality. Overall sound is a major factor for me and while most Windows laptops let me down in that area, Macs and MacBooks have always been better so any improvement in this field is good news for me. Sometimes I just don’t want Voiceover in my ear. I’d rather listen from the computer but not through separate speakers.
In terms of ports, the new MacBook Air only has two thunderbolt 3 ports meaning you’ll need to start stockpiling dongles to connect to HDMI, USB 3 or other “older” connections. The good news though is that the 3.5mm headphone jack has survived another edition of a MacBook which is great news for those of us who use Voiceover as the bluetooth lag with VO is pretty awful for faster users. Maybe the new Bluetooth 4.2 standard that is included will be better but to be honest I don’t hold out much hope.
The base model on Apple’s website has the following specs and comes in at $1499 CAN (£1199 GBP, $1199 USD).
- 1.6GHz dual-core 8th-generation Intel Core i5 processor with Turbo Boost up to 3.6GHz
- Retina display
- 8GB 2133MHz LPDDR3 memory
- 128GB SSD storage1
- Intel UHD Graphics 617
- Touch ID
- Force Touch trackpad
- Two Thunderbolt 3 ports
Apple have finally announced a new Mac mini following the previous version being shown in 2015 with the latest spec bump back in 2017. The Mac mini has long been a favourite for developers and companies that run server farms, but it has also been a great machine for blind people who just want a desktop running Mac OS that they can either use without a screen (thanks to Voiceover) or use a custom display of their choice at whatever size.
The new Mac mini is definitely aimed more at the creative professionals market but is still reasonably priced enough for the average consumer. The design is the same as previous Mac minis but is now in a space grey colour rather than the previous silver colour.
There’s not much to say about the Mac mini other than it is the perfect way to get into Mac OS without spending a small fortune. It’s probably a better deal than even the new MacBook Air in my view, especially as I don’t need (in all honesty) a Retina display. I can just hook up any old monitor to it so I know that at least it is on and working.
And that’s another major benefit of the Mini versus other MacBooks now. Ports. It still has real ports. It’s got ethernet, HDMI, USB 3.0s, USB C and a 3.5mm headphone jack so really all you need and not a dongle in sight.
Also, if you care about these kind of things, it comes in Gold, Silver and Space Grey.
The price for the base model is $999 (£799 GBP, $799 USD) and has the following specs:
- 3.6GHz quad-core 8th-generation Intel Core i3 processor
- 8GB 2666MHz DDR4 memory
- Intel UHD Graphics 630
- 128GB PCIe-based SSD storage1
The final product to be launched by Apple at its New York event was the iPad Pro. The new design is thinner and narrower than before and is also considered (by Apple obviously) as not only the fastest tablet out there, but can even outperform other laptops and PCs on the market.
The other main feature of this new iPad Pro is Face ID which is new to the lineup of iPads and follows the integration into iPhones starting last year. Face ID has proven extremely popular and is arguably much more secure than Touch ID which we thought Apple was phasing out until we saw the new MacBook! I was very sceptical of Face ID when it came out because I feared that I would have to be able to look directly at my phone to log in. However days after the launch it became clear that this wasn’t necessary as Apple had considered this for blind people and added the option to turn off Attention Mode, meaning as long as the phone was pointing at your face, you didn’t need to be looking at it for it to recognise you. Hat tip to Apple for that one.
The iPad Pro comes in two sizes, 11″ and 12.9″ and features a liquid Retina display. There was hope that they would use OLED screens as seen in the new iPhone XS and XS Max however it is fair to say that the price would have skyrocketed if they had done this. From a low vision perspective I have found the new OLED screen on my iPhone XS is much easier to see for a longer period of time so I would have preferred that type of screen on a new iPad Pro, however life isn’t always perfect is it?
Apple are keen to stress that the iPad Pro is going to replace our PCs and desktop and therefore have added features such as gigabit-class LTE (meaning a faster connection via your SIM card) and also storage options ranging from 64gb to 1tb.
For those with enough sight to use it, Apple have also announced a second-generation Apple Pencil that magnetically attaches to the iPad Pro and wirelessly charges at the same time. A new touch sensor built into Apple Pencil also detects taps, introducing an entirely new way to interact within apps. Personally I’ve found it be useless to me, but others may argue.
There’s also a new Smart Keyboard Folio which adds a keyboard to your iPad and because it magnetically connects you don’t need to charge it up which is great. I had the previous version of the Smart Keyboard for my iPad Pro 10.5 but I stopped using it. It had a really annoying feature and a really great feature which made it difficult to give up. The bad point was that the keyboard itself was very thin with little keyboard travel and that meant I wasn’t always sure of when I was typing, however the good point was that as it didn’t connect via Bluetooth it didn’t have the lag – really good point. Hopefully the new one will be sightly better on the keyboard travel front but I doubt it to be honest. I’ll stick to my Apple Magic Keyboard for now.
The 11″ version starts at $999 CAN (£799 GBP, $799 USD) and the 12.9″ version starts at $1249 CAN (£999 GBP, $999 USD).
Overall I was impressed by the event and the products that they presented but I do feel Apple are going down the creative route first and leaving the consumers behind. The costs of Apple products are going up and up and while the quality is clearly going up with them, I feel as a fairly normal user that they getting further out of my reach.
I’ve also suggested on my radio shows that Apple have the most accessible and easy to use products out there, but as those prices increase I think even I will be reconsidering my relationship with the big fruit company.
The one shining light for me from this event was the Mac mini. Despite the rise in price, I think this will still be the favourite for blind and partially sighted users of Mac OS especially as it still contains actual ports and the ability to use whatever tech we want be it a braille display or a 27-inch monitor.
The new iPads look amazing and have got a lot to offer but as a voiceover user I am finding I want to limit the amount of devices I’m using so I now will use my iPhone XS and Apple Watch Series 4 and that’s it. Interestingly, my old MacBook Pro gets more attention than my iPad Pro these days. And the way that Apple are pushing this device into the hands of visually creative people makes me feel that this won’t change anytime soon.
The MacBook Air was actually the one piece of tech I was genuinely excited to see, and while the Touch ID is impressive and definitely attractive, the focus on the more expensive display means that while it is good for those of us who use Zoom, I don’t think the price point is going to make me make the leap.
Apple is still my number one choice of tech and no doubt will be for many years to come despite my regular threats to run off with an Android phone and Windows laptop. The accessibility is still top notch and while I am seeing major improvements in Android and on Windows I still love to spend time with my Apple products at home.
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