Apple's big week: Watches and MacBooks (and Outlook)

Apple's big week: Watches and MacBooks (and Outlook)

Last week was a busy one for Apple. Reviews of the new Apple Watch and MacBook arrived and both products went on sale in Apple Stores. Let me give you my quick reactions, and stick around at the bottom for some proof that Outlook 2016 is a dramatic improvement over the previous version of Outlook for Mac.

Apple Watch

Product reviews from Apple's handpicked first-wave reviewers dropped Wednesday after they'd all spent about a week with the device. Yes, the list included the usual suspects: CNET, The Verge, Bloomberg, USA Today, Yahoo Tech, Re/code, the Wall Street Journal. You may have read those reviews, or watched the videos, or at least seen excerpts. What you may have missed is the coverage from some less expected sources, like Self and Style and Men's Journal.

Those reviews are worth reading, if for no other reason than to contrast the views of people who aren't tech geeks like us with the ones who are. Also, with the exception of the Wall Street Journal's Joanna Stern and Re/code's Lauren Goode, all the other tech reviewers were men, while the Self and Style reviews were by women, and coming at it from a very different angle. Talk about commitment--Self's reviewer, Liz Plosser, started testing the watch less than a week after giving birth!

The reviews were all over the place. If I had to summarize, I'd say they were all generally positive, but with a bunch of caveats. A few were more raves. None were out-and-out pans. Even the middling reviews seemed to praise the Apple Watch as the best of the smartwatch crop, but expressed skepticism about the product category as a whole. That's probably about what you'd expect from the release of a first-generation Apple product.

I'm a little skeptical about whether spending one week using an Apple Watch (while simultaneously plotting and creating a review timed to make a big splash) is the best way to truly judge the product. It seems to me that a device like this will live or die in how it manages to integrate itself into the small moments of our lives. The entire premise of the Apple Watch is that it's bringing the best of your iPhone out onto your wrist, eliminating your need to use the iPhone for brief glances. It will take time to settle in and see if it really can do that--more than a week.

The Apple Watch also went on sale last week, and quickly the ship dates moved out from April 24 to sometime in June. One market research firm guessed that Apple sold a million watches in the U.S.. If you're curious about Apple Watch, though, you can see them in person in Apple retail stores. Functional Apple Watch units have been placed in small displays along with embedded iPads, so you can get a sense of how the device works. Apple's even scheduling "try-on" appointments where you can spend 15 minutes trying on different models and bands, though these models are locked into a demo loop, so you can't actually use them.

The new MacBook

Bearing its single USB-C port, the new MacBook shipped this week. I've been using one for about a week. You can check out my reviewer's notebook on Six Colors for more, but here's the short version:

This is a Core M laptop, so performance isn't impressive. Still, for most basic tasks--Office suite work, web, email--higher level performance isn't really necessary. I wouldn't encode video on it, but the fast SSD storage does offset a lot of the slowness of the processor. The graphics processor is powerful enough to drive the high-resolution display, so much so that Apple actually ships the laptop in a scaled-display configuration. (The interface is actually drawn at a resolution greater than the device's logical display resolution, and scaled down on the fly.) The result actually looks great, and I spent most of the time running it in an even more scaled mode, making this 12-inch display look like a 13-inch display.

I found Apple's claims of all-day battery life to be true, within reason. Again, if I edited a seven-track audio project in Logic Pro on the thing, it would suck that battery dry faster. But for email, a text editor, spreadsheets, stuff like that? Apple seems to have tweaked the MacBook's software to very aggressively save power whenever it can, and the result is a laptop that you don't need to plug in all the time.

That's good, because of course it's only got the one USB-C port, and it has to be used both for charging and for any external peripherals you might want to use. If the MacBook is being used for presentations, it'll need a video adapter. (Apple sells one, though they weren't in stock the last time I checked.) If you need to plug it into a USB device, you'll need a USB-A adapter. (Apple sells one of those, too.) Monoprice and Belkin have both announced USB-C cables and adapters. The USB-C train is leaving the station; it'll just take time for it get up to speed.

In the meantime, the MacBook is a beautiful piece of kit with a fantastic screen, a mediocre keyboard, and a pretty amazing haptic trackpad. It's great for people who want smallest,light, and stylish, and aren't going to stress out its processor. Mac users who need more power, or to attach lots of external peripherals, should probably consider a MacBook Pro or a MacBook Air, depending on if they care more about light weight or a high-resolution display.

Outlook upgrade

Last year Microsoft released a new version of Outlook for Mac, in advance of March's first beta release of the entire Office 2016 for Mac suite. Now longtime Mac IT publication and event producer MacTech has speed-tested Outlook 2016 against its predecessor, Outlook 2011. The short version of MacTech's results? Mac users who rely on Outlook should run, not walk, to the upgrade button.

MacTech found that in the majority of their tests, Outlook 2016 was more than 25% faster than the older version, and in more than a third of tests Outlook 2016 was more than twice as fast as Outlook 2011. In fact, the only area in which Outlook 2011 consistently outpaced its successor was in the time it takes to launch the app.

According to Neil Ticktin of MacTech, Outlook 2016 "used fewer resources at all times, often as much as 20 to 40 percent less CPU and memory," and especially excelled when idle--thereby extending battery life on laptops. Ticktin also attributed major speed differences to Outlook 2016's new SQLite database, which means that searches were between 2x and 15x faster then on the old version of Outlook.

You can read the whole thing at MacTech's website.

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