[This post was updated on Dec. 14, 2020, with the launch of Fitness+]
I bought into the beginnings of the Apple Ecosystem back in 2002 when I purchased my first desktop computer — an iMac, discounted thanks to Apple Education Pricing — and an iPod. I loved how they operated synergistically and, more important, that I didn’t have to invest in any anti-virus software.
I finally hopped on the iPhone bandwagon when iPhone 4 came on the scene and I upgraded over the years from the 5 to the 6 as well. Though Big B has remained an iPhone loyalist to this day, Apple lost me on the iPhone front after iPhone 6 until iPhone 11 came out last year — with its near DSLR-quality camera phone — but I’ll get to that later.
Over the years, we continued to build out our Apple Ecosystem with the iPod, iPod Mini and iPod Nano (yes, we had all three!), then — when The K Man was nearly two years old — our first foray into the iPad family. I’ll never forget the first time he drew something on the screen with his little finger and then held his finger up in the air, staring at it in total amazement. Miss Q has never known a life without iPad in it.
That first iMac of mine finally bit the dust after 13 years. And it didn’t exactly die — it merely slowed down so significantly that it made more sense to buy something new with faster processing and more memory to keep up with the times. I mean, 13 years with the same computing system is pretty impressive. So it was a no-brainer to choose another Apple desktop, which still lives in my rec room office to this day, even if it doesn’t see much use anymore since I’ve been working here, there and everywhere for so long. But it’s alive and well, as are the Magic Mouse and TrackPad I bought to go with them.
I used an employer-issued PC laptop for a long time and even tried (and loved) another PC hybrid laptop along the way, but they never interfaced well with the rest of my family’s chosen tech products, and we’ve always relied on that desktop in the basement when we needed to sync music, download photos and more.
I share all of this with you because — without fail — we keep coming back to the Apple Ecosystem’s total integration for so many reasons.
Whether you’re here looking for more info before you create your holiday wish list or buy something for a loved one; trying to figure out if you really need to add that cellular option for your Apple Watch; if the included amount of iCloud space will be enough; or if you’ve been thinking about how the various products work together or why you might switch from another brand to Apple to realize this same kind of techy seamlessness, I think you’ll find this comprehensive run-down helpful — especially since I’m not here to tell you that everything in Apple-land is perfection.
Speaking of gifting, be sure to check out my 2020 holiday gift guide for more great ideas for every member of the family.
So, let’s talk about the Apple Ecosystem and the products within it, whether it’s managing your at-home virtual classroom or editing the photos you can take with one of the new iPhones that has a DSLR-quality camera phone built in.
Which DSLR-quality camera phone should you get? iPhone 11 vs 12
I first got my hands on an iPhone 11 back in January 2020 (ahhhh, remember January? When our lives hadn’t been turned upside down? Good times…). Until then, I’d been an Android user for years — since the Motorola series of smartphones stole me away from the iPhone 6 with its longer battery life and then the Pixel wooed me with its camera.
It had been a long time since iPhone could convince me that its battery life and camera had improved. But the iPhone 11 did it, and I found my way back to the Apple Ecosystem. In fact, the iPhone 11 became my go-to camera for pretty much everything because of portability and the great-quality shots I could get without lugging around my DSLR or even my smaller mirrorless camera.
Nearly a year in, I can’t imagine functioning without FaceLock and Apple Family Sharing. I can’t go back to a phone without incredible video editing software. And I’ve learned to put a lot of trust into Apple’s privacy features.
So, now that the iPhone 12 (and 12 Pro) models are out, I wanted to give you my thoughts on both since I’ve had a chance to compare them. I know there are some of you that just go out and buy the latest tech no matter what, but there are many of you who consider those device deals from your carrier and you may wonder if upgrading will be worth it. Hopefully this will help.
Here are the key differences between iPhone 11 vs 12:
- iPhone 11 has an LCD screen vs the 12’s OLED display; that just means that the iPhone 12 will have deeper blacks, some extra vibrancy and saturation in other colours and, apparently, a wider viewing angle. To be fair, I don’t notice any of these enough that the display alone would sway me
- iPhone 12 models offer 5G connectivity (whether your carrier does is another story)
- The screen size is an interesting piece, because even though the iPhone 12 is actually a bit smaller, it actually has a bigger screen-to-body ratio
- The iPhone 12 is thinner, smaller and lighter than the iPhone 11 — it’s most notable if you don’t use a PopSocket or anything to rest your hand and you’re typing or watching something for extended periods. Once I rely on my PopSocket, I don’t notice the weight difference nearly as much
- Where iPhone 12 really wins, IMO, is its faster A14 Bionic chip; it just does stuff faster and feels even more responsive (not that I felt the iPhone 11 wasn’t, but after a side-by-side for weeks, I’m consistently drawn back to the 12). And the new Ceramic Shield display is a huge selling feature. You’re four times less likely during an accidental drop to see your screen break; and I can attest that even the iPhone 11 had impressive durability since I dropped it by mistake more than once without its case on and there isn’t so much as a hairline fracture on the screen or body
- In terms of the shape, I actually prefer the rounded shape of the iPhone 11 more; it just feels more comfortable in my hands during extended use, even if it’s slightly heavier. Once you put a protective case on them, though, the shape isn’t as noticeable
- The iPhone 12 doesn’t come with a charger. And though I know it’s more environmentally responsible, we tend to lose chargers like the Dickens around here. They’re like socks. That said, I can charge the iPhone 12 by plugging it into my MacBook Air using the new USB-C cord it came with, which I couldn’t do with the iPhone 11
- Let’s address battery life. Keep in mind that I’m a heavy smartphone user. I’m up checking Twitter and Insta DMs by 7 a.m. and then I’m on my phone nearly nonstop throughout the day in some capacity, setting it down for dinner and my kids’ bedtime and then back at it until my own bedtime, when I wind down with my meditation app by 10 p.m. I actually found that the iPhone 11 had a slightly better battery life; it was rare for me to see that red warning on the battery pack come up, even on my heaviest usage days, whereas I reach that almost daily just as bedtime is rolling around. Of course, I’m also (a) in the middle of shooting more photos and videos than usual because of my 2020 holiday gift guide, and (b) by the time the warning appears, I’m in bed right beside a plug so it’s a non-issue for me — but it’s one worth mentioning in case your days are longer than mine
- Both the iPhone 11 and 12 have excellent built-in photo and video editing software. While there are more options if you edit on an Apple computer, I’ve created full YouTube videos with titles and text overlays and really smooth transitions all from my phone. But the biggest pain point — which I’ve had since I tried to create my first portrait-style video using iMovie way back in February — is that you need to use a third-party video editing app unless you want iMovie to crop your videos shot in portrait and turn them into a square video. I really hope Apple fixes this in an upcoming iOS update because landscape videos aren’t the only thing people want to be able to create. (I mean, hello Insta-Stories!)
Whether you go with the iPhone 11 or iPhone 12, know that you’re getting a DSLR-quality camera phone either way. I can’t tell you how consistently impressed I’ve been with the camera since coming back to Apple. For me, that’s the No. 1 thing I need out of my phone — the rest is gravy.
One feature that’s consistent between iPhone 11 and 12 is the ability to create a photo that mimics a slow shutter speed. And while you won’t have quite as much control as you would with a DSLR/mirrorless, this is what really sets iPhone apart from other smartphones as a DSLR-quality camera phone. It definitely comes in handy when you’re shooting moving water, like a stream or waterfall, and haven’t lugged your bigger cameras with you. You need to be careful if there are people in the shot, since even their slightest movements will end up blurry and ruin the whole darn thing, and you’ll need to steady your iPhone on something or use a mini tripod before you take the pic. But the effects are stunning:
Here’s how to take long exposure photos on your iPhone:
- Be sure you’ve got your “Live” photo option turned on. This is essential.
- Steady your iPhone and take your pic.
- Exit out of camera mode and open your Photos app.
- Do NOT go into the “Edit” option, but instead swipe up from the bottom of your photo.
- Now look for the “Effects” option just below your photo (there will be four of them).
- Scroll all the way to the right until you find the “Long Exposure” choice. Select this.
- Wait for the magic to happen! Your photo, provided it was steadied well, should have all still subjects in the photo as is but your moving subjects (e.g. water during the day or car lights at night) in motion. Note that you can undo this at any time by repeating the steps above, but scrolling back to “Live” during the Effects step.
If you’re a content creator like me, you can definitely do plenty with the iPhone 11, but if photography is a big piece of what you do, there’s no question — not only do you need to upgrade to the iPhone 12, but I would also suggest investing a bit more to get the 12Pro. I haven’t tried the 12Pro Max nor do I think I would ever need its video capabilities, but someone who’s a big YouTuber or documentary film maker should definitely take a closer look.
The iPhone 12 and 12Pro both have a faster auto-focus, improved Night Mode and next-generation Smart HDR, which actually stitches a series of pics together to create the most optimal photo for you, doing a lot of behind-the-scenes work in the time it takes you to switch from camera mode to head into Photos to review your shots.
The difference between the iPhone 11 vs 12 at night is astonishing but even during daylight hours, you can tell a difference:
The 12Pro, though, has a 2.5x optical zoom that is really best shown rather than described. Here are three photos of the same owl my kids and I encountered on a hike a couple of weeks ago, all using the max zoom on the iPhone 11, iPhone 12 and iPhone 12Pro:
The other thing I really like about the iPhone 12 range is that Night Mode and Portrait Mode are available on both the front and back cameras. Portrait Mode gives me life, people! I use it all the time to compose beautiful pics with the subject in focus and that nice blur in the background:
There are other technical specs (like LiDAR sensors, HDR, Dolby Vision, frames-per-second, RAW, and more) but you’re better to hit up a tech blogger for that stuff.
Keep in mind that as part of the Apple Ecosystem, you have access to Apple Family Sharing — but your whole family must be using Apple products to make this work.
Apple Watch 5 vs 6 & do you need cellular?
I really felt that our Apple Ecosystem was complete once we were all on iPhones and we could share iCloud space and manage our kids’ digital wellbeing. And if you’d told me just a few months ago that I’d be putting a watch on every day, I’d have chuckled a little.
Because I have a phone. With a clock. What would I need a watch for?!
I hadn’t worn a watch for easily a decade. I’d tried various smart watches and a FitBit along the way, but they were all pretty short-lived. Either there weren’t enough features to keep me interested or the battery life didn’t last all day — or…something. There was always something.
So I didn’t expect much when I had the opportunity to test the Apple Watch Series 5. And, frankly, I probably didn’t use it to its full advantage at first either. But little by little, I started to notice things I really liked. Just by wearing it, every time I went to my MacBook Air to work, it automatically unlocked it. I’d get hourly reminders to stand and walk around for a minute. Then a friend added me and I knew every time she worked out or went for a walk, which made me want to go for a walk, too. Misplaced my phone? Oh, look: I can find it using my Apple Watch (and I do so at least a dozen times a day). Hiking with Miss Q one day, I managed to miss a cutoff for a trail, and since I’m pretty directionally challenged, having a compass on my wrist sure came in handy.
It was also the first smart watch I had that was water-resistant enough to come into the shower or swimming pool with me. That meant I only took it off to charge at night, instead of taking it off to shower and forgetting to put it back on.
Then, with the Apple Watch Series 6 up for review as well, I started an intense eight-week health program that would ultimately overhaul my fitness and nutrition that had gone completely by the wayside since March. That was nine weeks ago as I type this, and I can’t imagine tracking my fitness and staying accountable using any other tool.
But do you need to spend the extra money to get a Series 6 Apple Watch or can you make do with a Series 5? Allow me to give you my thoughts:
- With both the Series 5 and Series 6 watches, tracking your workouts and challenging your contacts to weekly fitness competitions, using the Challenges app (if you’re part of an organized program like I was with Coach Chris Smits), earning your “rings” (for daily movement, workouts and hourly stand goals) and overall accountability is exactly the same. You can also download Apple Music playlists to both models and leave the house without your phone and enjoy a walk or run with tunes, mobile-free
- Both the Apple Watch 5 and 6 share plenty of other key features: the design (including its 40mm or 44mm case) is the same; both have ECG functionality; both feature an always-on display; Emergency SOS and fall detection are available on both models; each offers water resistance of up to 50 meters; and both have a built-in GPS, compass and altimeter
- So, what else is new on the Series 6? Its display is reportedly 2.5 times brighter, it allows for both 2.4GHz and 5G WiFi, has a faster processor and something called the U1 ultra-wideband chip, which basically gives your watch the ability to detect other Apple Ecosystem products in its vicinity that are also U1-enabled
- I was especially excited about the Series 6’s blood oxygen monitoring but found myself using the built-in handwashing timer (set for 20 seconds, of course!) with more fervour. While checking my blood oxygen levels was really cool at first, I just don’t use it regularly enough that it would be part of my purchasing decision between the 5 and 6. Those with respiratory issues — especially those who rely on pulse oximeters — however, would be wise to consider upgrading to the Series 6
- Where the Series 6 beats out the 5 the most (for me) is that it charges way, WAY faster than the 5 and has a markedly better battery life. I have forgotten to take my Series 6 watch off at bedtime, slept in it all night and woken up with more than 20 per cent battery remaining; then popped it on the charger for ONE hour (just one!) and can make it through the rest of the day without needing to recharge it again until I go to bed
My fave features after all this time are the compass, the integration between the workout app and rings with my Health app, the calculator, the ability to text back and send FB Messenger replies using dictation or an on-screen writing pad, and — as I mentioned earlier — downloading playlists and using them on a walk or run with the AirPod Pro earbuds without requiring my phone. I’d also spend a lot more time searching for my iPhone without my watch’s ability to ping it, even if the volume is completely off.
Next question: do you need cellular on your Apple Watch? Although both the Series 5 and 6 Apple Watches I’ve tried had cellular options, I wanted to see if I really needed it and opted to not add it with my cellular provider on either. In the four or so months I’ve been testing them out, I haven’t once thought, “oooh, I really wish I’d added that cellular plan.” I also don’t find the sound quality for phone calls super amazing through the watch. They’re fine in a pinch, but there’s no comparison to the actual iPhone or sending a call to your AirPods.
Keep in mind, of course, that the last four months have been anything but real life and I leave my house to walk, run, hike with the fam, drive my kids to Forest School once a week and run essential errands. Perhaps I’ll feel differently come ski season when it would mean I could avoid finding the “right” pocket to protect my phone and carry it comfortably on the slopes, or once we “go back to normal,” but so far, I just couldn’t justify spending the extra money to have the cellular option.
Let me end this section with the straps; there are lots of options and I’ve only tried two of them: the Sport Band (which is “high-performance fluoroelastomer with a pin‑and‑tuck closure” that’s my everyday choice) and the Sport Loop (which is much lighter but holds water after a shower). I’m dying to try the new Solo Loop.
AirPod vs AirPod Pro
I’ve owned a number of wireless earbuds for several years, some with a wire between the two buds and some without, like Apple’s AirPods series. So when the iconic AirPod originals came to market, they immediately went on my Covet List.
Until I tried putting a pair in my ears.
I don’t know what kind of mangled ear canals I have but not only were AirPods not comfortable in my ears, they simply wouldn’t stay in properly even at a walking pace. So I passed.
Enter AirPod Pros. Hello, dreamy! These are among my most favourite of all current products in the Apple Ecosystem.
Are they hella more expensive than regular ol’ AirPods? YES. But for comfort, performance and battery life, this is one product where the upgrade price is absolutely, unquestionably worth it.
Aside from being exceptionally easy to get up-and-running (it’s a truly “plug and play” experience), AirPods Pro also far more comfortable for me than the original AirPods and come with a range of new features:
- I have to start with the ability to get a more customized fit thanks to the three tip sizes that come with your AirPod Pro package. I can attest that two of them (the small and medium) work for my own odd ear shapes, with one being Goldilocks-just-right
- Water-resistance — I mean, don’t go hit the swimming pool with your AirPod Pro headphones, but don’t worry about sweat or getting caught in the rain. I’m here to tell you that I sweat into them all the time (gross, I know) and have been out walking or running in the rain several times and have had no issues
- Adaptive EQ — that means that the lower and mid-range frequencies take your actual EAR SHAPE into account to create a more customized, immersive sound just for you
- Dolby Atmos spatial audio — if you’re watching a movie that uses Dolby Atmos and it there’s a train coming from the left, the sound you hear will mimic it and you’ll hear the sound coming in from the left because they track your head’s motion in relation to the device you’re watching, so the sound comes from the “right” place as a result
- Auto-switching — your AirPods Pro can now switch between devices as it detects which one you’re using in real time
- Pressure valve — apparently, AirPods Pro uses a tiny pressure valve that reduces pressure inside your ear. I clearly never experienced this kind of pressure before, or perhaps this is most notable in air transit, but this is not a feature I can tell you anything about from personal experience
- Battery — jeez Louise, the AirPods Pro battery life is outstanding! I use them every day for at least 30 to 60 minutes and recharge them once every week or two
- And I’ve saved the best for last — noise cancellation. Here’s a secret…sometimes, I’m not even listening to anything in my AirPods but I have them on if I’m trying to work on the same floor as my kids. Because as soon as I put them in, there’s not even a whisper of a noise but it drowns out almost everything in the background. Now, when I head out for a run, I tend to customize this a bit and set it lower so I can still hear the sounds of cars and people approaching, but HOLY WOW when you need it to cancel out the world around you — like if we ever get to go back to working in coffee shops — these are unbelievable. They also do well at reducing background noise for the person on the other end of the phone when I’m on a call, too
Both AirPods and AirPods Pro work with Siri, and while I can only tell you about my experience on the Pro front, I imagine it holds true for both. Siri works. Whether she’s reading me a text (to which I can reply using dictation) or I’m interrupting my music to call my husband and remind him of something that hit me in the moment, the integration is seamless.
Now for sound quality. Again, this isn’t a direct comparison but rather my thoughts on the AirPods Pro experience against all of the other wireless earbuds I’ve tried. Here’s how I’d describe it in three words: clear, rich and balanced. I’m not technically equipped to offer you anything beyond “they sound great.” So you’ll just have to trust me on this one.
And remember how I mentioned in the Apple Watch section that the sound from the watch alone isn’t amazing? Well, once your music or phone call is connected via Bluetooth from your watch to your AirPods Pro, you’d never know the difference between listening to the sound on your iPhone.
My biggest recommendation, though, regardless of your choice between AirPod vs AirPod Pro, is to get some kind of protective casing for the housing. Because this is how you charge the little guys, and if it gets broken and you don’t have Apple Care, you won’t be able to charge your earbuds. There are silicone protectors on Amazon that are inexpensive and effective enough that we haven’t had any issues to date.
The iPad: iPad 7 vs iPad 8 and the new iPad Air
Oh, boy — there are a lot of iPads I could write about. It seems like we’ve had them all, but realistically, we still use our big ol’ iPad 2 as the white noise machine in our upstairs hallway at night and our iPad Mini 4 is still going strong and houses lots of games and movies for road trips (remember those?!).
My kids have been using the iPad 7 in some capacity since spring but once we decided to put them in remote learning, we paired them with the Smart Keyboard and original Apple Pencil and designated them as learning devices. They mostly stay in our makeshift classroom (a.k.a. one wall of our now-cramped dining room — see homeschool room ideas) but are of course equipped with many of their favourite apps and of course educational ones, too, like these learning apps for kids of all ages.
Although our school board runs on Chromebooks, we’ve had fantastic success using iPads so far — even if it sometimes takes a minute to figure out workarounds when teachers send instructions with things like shortcuts that are designed for a Chromebook. The ability to write and draw means we aren’t wasting paper and we don’t have to take photos of the kids’ work to submit to teachers — they’re just built in as files. And the added portability is nothing to sneeze at either.
But most important, we can easily compare an iPad to a Chromebook experience for educational purposes because one of my kids worked on the latter during emergency distance learning from March through June. And, well, there is no comparison. The Chromebook (and, admittedly, it was a rather inexpensive one) lagged like crazy when searching the Internet or saving files and we frequently had to dump files out of the recycling bin and move others to a Google Drive to free up enough space for the thing to even keep working. These issues are nonexistent with the iPad.
The iPad 7 is fast and lightweight, and when you add the keyboard and all of the Google-related apps that the teachers use, it has easily replaced a PC or laptop.
Looking for the best parental control app? There you go.
Having recently swapped one of their iPad 7s out with the new iPad 8, you wouldn’t think there’s much of a difference just by looking at it. And that’s because, at face value, they are pretty similar. The device size is the same. The screen size is the same. The available storage is the same. The megapixels on the cameras are the same. Even the available colour choices are the same. Both can support iOS 14. Both interface with the overarching Apple Ecosystem equally. And neither work with the 2nd-Generation Apple Pencil.
So why on earth would you get an iPad 8 if you already had a 7? The battery life is slightly better and it’s all of that “under the hood” stuff that might convert you, like a much faster processing speed and more riveting graphics. There are improvements to the camera’s processing as well, but I honestly don’t know how many people are using their iPads for photography. We sure aren’t, unless you count the weird selfies I find of my kids.
If you’re using an iPad for gaming (beyond something like Minecraft or Crossy Road, I mean) or watching sports and action films, you’ll probably notice a difference with the extra speed. In our home academic setting, though, the differences aren’t big enough that we would go to the expense of upgrading.
But if you’re in the market for a new iPad, your REAL question should come down to the newest iPad (8) or the newest iPad Air (4) and how you outfit either with one of the available keyboards and/or Apple Pencils. Because this is where the stark differences set in.
Let’s start with iPad 8 vs iPad Air 4:
When Apple released the latest iPad Air in September, the first thing that caught my eye was its slim design and how it sits on the Magic Keyboard, almost like it’s floating…in, you know, air.
As the first Apple device to run on the company’s new A14 processor, it’s not just its appearance and new touch ID that deserves attention. But with the iPad 8 starting at CDN$429 (base 32GB model) and the iPad Air 4 (base 64GB model) starting at CDN$779, that $350 difference had better be worth it, am I right?
Here are the major improvements that the iPad Air 4 carries:
- A bigger screen size with higher resolution — all housed in a smaller footprint
- The fastest processing speed in a current Apple Ecosystem device, meaning it almost doubles the CPU speed (that is, how many things it can do at once) as well as its graphics capabilities
- Twice the storage than iPad 8
- Way more megapixels built into both cameras (an additional 4MP on the rear camera plus an extra 5.8MP on the front camera) — and that means 4k video is an option
- The home button is replaced with a more modern touch ID
- It uses stereo speakers when your iPad Air is playing sound in landscape mode
- And it can be used with the new Magic Keyboard and support the new Apple Pencil 2, which as you’ll read below are both huge advantages
There are a few more colour choices with the iPad Air and it’s also a teensy-weensy bit lighter than the iPad 8, but I don’t consider those very noteworthy.
Should you be using your iPad purely for, say, watching Netflix, playing low-res games, checking email and other such basic device needs, the real WOW factor of the iPad Air may not necessarily be realized. But once you stack an iPad 8 connected to the Smart Keyboard and Apple Pencil against an iPad Air 4 connected to the Magic Keyboard, there is really no comparison.
The former is entry-level while the latter is elite. The iPad 7 or 8 combo works beautifully for my kids and their academic needs. They can type, search, save and store information quickly and easily, and their little fingers work with the Smart Keyboard just fine.
But if you’re looking for a laptop-hybrid that offers touchscreen tablet functionality that can multitask faster than you can, I would — without question — choose the iPad Air 4 combo for myself and all of my adulting requirements. It takes productivity to the next level in a very compact footprint with the ultimate portability. I haven’t tested out its built-in photo and video editing software (I’ve only been playing with it for a little more than a week), but I dare say I could potentially replace my larger MacBook Air with it and still be able to manage my business with ease. And that is why it’s worth an extra $350.
This isn’t just because the iPad Air 4 is innately superior in so many ways to the iPad 8. No, it’s also because the Magic Keyboard runs circles around the Smart Keyboard and the Apple Pencil 2 puts its predecessor to shame.
So, let’s compare the Smart Keyboard vs Magic Keyboard:
This is really like comparing apples (see what I did there?) to oranges, because the two keyboards are so different — and not just in price, but in feel, functionality and design.
Like I mentioned earlier, my kids have no problem using their wee fingers to type on the Smart Keyboards, but when I’ve had to step in to review an assignment before they hand it in, I’ve definitely found the smaller keyboard (with letters that barely rise above the platform on which they sit) a somewhat clunky experience.
The Magic Keyboard, on the other hand, is much more akin to the typing experience on a laptop, including even a bigger keyboard like you’d find on a MacBook Air. The keys just punch better. Plus, and this is the kicker, it has a trackpad. I also much prefer the way the Magic Keyboard displays the iPad Air to how the Smart Keyboard holds on to the iPad 7 or 8. You can adjust the screen (with a tilt of up to 130 degrees), making something like a Zoom call or Google Meet better since you can angle the camera directly at your face instead of having it shooting from below — which is flattering for exactly no one. It improves the screen-viewing experience, too.
As if the keys themselves weren’t already better on the Magic Keyboard, they’re also backlit. Again, probably not a feature a kid would need but definitely something those of us who often work well past dark would find useful.
If you’re dumb like me and find yourself working a lot in bed or on the couch and have your laptop or tablet in the centre of your crossed legs or propped up on a pillow, there’s no way you’ll be able to type on the Smart Keyboard. It’s just not rigid enough. Let’s be clear — I’m not telling you to work like this. It’s terrible for your body so don’t do it. But, if you just won’t listen, then know that the Magic Keyboard will work for you.
Perhaps the coolest part of the Magic Keyboard — are you getting that I’m a fan? — is this: it has a built-in USB-C “pass-through port” in its hinge that charges your iPad Air. Why is that cool, you ask? It means that the USB-C port on the iPad Air is freed up if you want to plug in any of the new cables that come with AirPods Pro or iPhone 12, for example.
The only downside I can see so far is that the Magic Keyboard adds more weight to an iPad than the Smart Keyboard will. I’m fine with it because the rest of the advantages are so, so plentiful.
And, finally, how does Apple Pencil compare to Apple Pencil 2?
If you thought I was gung-ho on the Magic Keyboard upgrade, just wait until I tell you why the Apple Pencil 2 is significantly better than the original Apple Pencil.
And, don’t get me wrong, if I’d never tried both Apple Pencils, I wouldn’t have steered you away from the original. Because my kids love it and it’s been an instrumental virtual learning tool. They can write on documents their teachers assign rather than having to type, getting in extra writing practise (which I believe is important); they can use a blank “page” on their iPads to do long-form math problems and scribble/erase as much as they need to without going through hoards of paper; they can draw beautiful pictures in full colour and complete art assignments, sending them as files to their teachers rather than relying on me to take a photo of their work, email it to them, download it to their iPads and then upload it to Google Classroom.
But the charging and pairing process. Oof.
You have to charge and pair the original Apple Pencil to an iPad by taking off the VERY SMALL cap (that I still can’t believe we haven’t managed to lose) on one end of the pencil and then plugging that into the iPad’s lightning port. If you don’t have a designated container or spot to store said cap (we keep putting it back in the original packaging and putting that into each kid’s respective pencil holders on their desks) I recommend you find one. Because this thing is small. Really small.
Enter the Apple Pencil 2. It doesn’t perform any differently in terms of writing or drawing on an iPad (which will be welcome news to those who already have an Apple Pencil), but where it shows significant improvement is in how it magnetically snaps onto the iPad Air 4, both pairing and charging it while it sits there neatly. No tiny cap, no plugging in of things, nada. It’s also a bit less slippy in the hand than its predecessor because of both its shape and texture.
I’ve only just started using the Apple Pencil 2, but it has a natural feel and it’s light enough to spend hours holding it. I know. I’ve done it. I drew this using both old-fashioned brush strokes and some of the built-in features of the AutoDesk SketchBook app:
What I just figured out, mere days before publishing this post, was finding its magical, secret button. On the flat side of the Apple Pencil 2, there’s a non-descript area just above where you’d naturally have your index finger. You can double-tap here to choose a default action (think: switching between pen/pencil and eraser or showing the colour palette); I chose eraser and was surprised how effectively it worked without any kind of learning curve.
I’ve also just started using Notes to convert written notes (using printing or even messy handwriting as seen below) to convert my stream-of-consciousness thoughts into typed, easier-for-others-to-read information:
Pro Tip (literally): If you find your connectivity gets intermittent or stops at all when using an Apple Pencil, try tightening the tip — just the tip (sorry, had to be done). I was drawing this picture on the iPad Air 4 (with the Autodesk SketchBook app) using the Apple Pencil 2 and after about two hours, I could only seem to “draw” every few strokes…then not at all. I searched the interwebs for a troubleshooting solution and this was the culprit; it just needed a little tightening and it was back to normal.
And, you guessed it, of course the Apple Pencil 2 is more expensive. But I feel as strongly about this upgrade as I do about the AirPods Pro. Because I simply cannot understate how much I hate the idea of losing the little charging cap that belongs to the original Apple Pencil and then, God forbid, the charging tip itself gets damaged.
MacBook Air review
Within the last week or two as I’ve been pecking away at this post, there was a massive software update called macOS Big Sur. While it’s been specifically engineered for the new M1 chip in the latest iteration of the MacBook Air (which I don’t have), there are enough reasons to install this free software on your 13-inch MacBook Pro, MacBook Air and Mac mini, like:
- A fresh design for easier navigation (for me, it really comes down to having more cohesion between the way things look on all of my devices since the Mac dock icons now look exactly like they do on my iPhone and iPad)
- Safari, Messages, Maps and privacy have new enhancements (cough, cough… the biggest update to Safari since its original launch in 2003, not least of which means you can now stream video for up to 1.5 hours longer or browse the web for up to an hour longer on a Mac notebook compared with Chrome or Firefox)
- The all-new Control Center provides quick access to Do Not Disturb, displays and keyboard brightness controls along with other shortcuts. The display piece alone is a significant improvement for me because it’s a much faster route to share my laptop screen with my TV (more on the Apple TV 4k next)
And if your Mac is the hub of your family’s Apple Ecosystem like it is for us, you’ll want to make sure everything is up to date so it all operates optimally.
As I said way back up in the first few paragraphs of this (now extremely long) post, I’ve been using a Mac for a long, long time in some capacity. I’ve been using a MacBook Air since April and it rules my life — yep, probably even more than my phone. Sure, I can do a lot from my iPhone (like A LOT a lot), but my business and my family rely on having a hub where I can manage anything from a new blog post to Family Sharing to our (usually busy) calendar of activities to our tens of thousands of photos and videos.
The MacBook Air does all of that, and then some. Heck, there are features I’ve never even begun to use in the seven months I’ve had this gorgeous rose gold beast in my hands.
Things I love about the MacBook Air:
There’s a lot to love — and remember, I don’t even have the fanciest, newest one… For reference, I have the A2179 model. (You can compare the last three MacBook Air iterations here if you’re interested.)
- The price! You can still get this model since it came out in 2020, and you’ll find it for around $1,200 online at the Canadian retailers still selling it — this is incredible value for the machine you get
- Not only does my iPhone 12Pro pretty much offer a DSLR-quality camera phone but paired with the MacBook Air, I have photo and video editing software that’s so good I rarely need to jump over to Lightroom to brighten, enhance, crop and more
- It’s fast. I can’t compare to the M1 processor, of course, but I’ve never once felt a lag. Again, I’m not into tech specs; I’m just here to tell you that everything works — consistently — the way I expect a solid computing machine to work
- Its display is bright and beautiful
- It’s pretty light for a 13″ laptop and it’s super thin. If I was still going into the city for work and toting it around like I would’ve in The Before Times, I know I’d appreciate this
- There’s a headphone jack! I know so many people use wireless earphones, but I do prefer having the option
- The backlit, low-profile keys and the strike of those keys are juuuuuuuust right, and the keyboard itself is just spaced beautifully
- The trackpad is huge (so huge is YUUUUGE!)
- I love the Touch ID sensor and that my Apple Watch can also unlock the MacBook Air when I sit down in front of it
- The full integration of the Apple Ecosystem sits here and I can do everything, including using Siri and replying to texts if I’m in front of my laptop and my phone is across the room or even in another part of the house
And, best of all, Macs just do everything simultaneously with more ease than a PC. You can have 157 tabs open and run several apps at the same time and things just keep on humming in the background. I know because this is me to a T.
Oh — and I have still never needed to install anti-virus software.
Things I’d change or improve:
- There’s no USB port; that means I can’t plug in an older iPhone or iPad cord nor can I charge some other devices (such as the TOBI kids’ smartwatch I’ve been testing for my gift guide that comes only with a USB-enabled charging cord and suggests it charge via laptop). I know, I know — USB-C ports are the future. But for those of us who don’t get the latest and greatest every time new tech is launched, having a standard USB port would be most welcome
- I usually get one full day of battery life with average usage, but if I’m running lots of videos (like video meetings or Zoom’d fitness classes), it depletes quickly. This also probably has something to do with those 157 open tabs…
- The camera is just OK; I often think I look dull or faded when I see myself on Zoom or Hangouts (a-yo, vanity check!). It doesn’t matter how well-lit I am either…I’ve tried a ring light!
- I wish it were louder; even on full volume, if there’s anyone at home making even a bit of noise, I need to put headphones on so I don’t struggle to hear what’s coming out of the MacBook Air
- I have a love/hate relationship with the Display (found via LaunchPad > System Preferences if you haven’t updated to BigSur); it streams whatever’s on your MacBook Air screen to your TV but it can be glitchy or experience delays. Let me tell you, when you’re in the middle of a HIIT workout and it stalls, it’s no party. This may be directly related to our WiFi but we don’t seem to have other WiFi issues so I can’t be sure
Apple TV 4k review
It was part of the Apple Ecosystem we never knew we needed — but it’s become such a cornerstone of our experience.
However, full disclosure: we don’t actually have it hooked up to our 4k-enabled TV. That bad boy is in our rec room and it’s where our cable is, which I don’t watch, so I rarely even go down there. It’s a combined kid zone and man cave. I watch TV in my bedroom (don’t @ me). It’s a perfectly lovely TV with stunning graphics and incredible colour accuracy, but it’s not 4k so I’m not actually here to talk about the 4k part of this Apple TV.
We’ve had two other Apple TVs before — the first one that ever was and the third-generation model. I won’t even bother creating a comparison between older versions and the Apple TV 4k. There is no comparison. We’ve also used Roku and Chromecast products, so trust that this comes from someone who’s spent serious time with streaming devices.
This is everything you need to know about why I’m sold on this $229 product:
- First off, set-up is stupid easy
- The interface is crisp, clean and super intuitive
- Everything works FAST
- It comes with one full year of Apple TV+ for FREE
- Being able to shoot content from my phone or laptop up onto the TV screen is great for fitness classes in my bedroom (with the caveat I noted above in the MacBook Air section)
- It supports immersive sound from Dolby Atmos and you can even use Apple HomePods to create stereo sound effects
- I downloaded our cable provider’s app, so now I have cable TV in my bedroom for the first time
- We also downloaded YouTube, HayU, Netflix, DAZN, Amazon Prime and other news channel apps — I can watch everything from bed now!
- There are games! Fun games — especially tennis, which uses the Apple TV 4k remote as a motion sensor for you to play like you would with the WiiU or the old Kinect sensor. But I’m not allowed to play tennis anymore because I got a little fiesty and the remove flew out of my hand and hit the wall mere inches from our TV…
- Speaking of that remote, it’ll take some getting used to because it has a trackpad-style area on it that’s unlike anything you’ve had on a remote before and it’s extremely sensitive
- And hey — don’t like the remote? Don’t use it. Because you’ve got Siri built in and you can not only search for shows (across all of your installed apps at once!) but you can also enter passwords with your voice
- Aaaaand you can also use your iPhone to type in shows or passwords because, yeah, that Apple Ecosystem is always at work
I do wish it came with an HDMI cable, though.
Apple HomePod Mini vs Google Home Mini
As long-time nest thermostat and nest hello doorbell owners, we’ve been a Google Assistant-managed house for many years. The Google Smart Hub on our main floor speaks to our Google Home Mini upstairs, but also helps us manage our smart-home settings and devices with the added benefit of a screen.
So breaking away from our comfort and familiarity to try the Google Home Mini was tough. But with such an expansive Apple Ecosystem at our fingertips, I welcomed the opportunity to at least give them a whirl.
The first thing we did was ditch our old iPad in the upstairs hallway that was being used for a nighttime white noise machine. There are a range of Ambient Sounds available on the Apple HomePod Mini (white noise, rain, ocean…) and once you ask Siri to play one for you, it plays until you either wake up in the morning and ask Siri to stop or set a timer on it the night before.
One big bonus that we weren’t expecting was that there’s a little light atop the unit that stays on all night, creating the perfect hallway night light. It was bright enough that my kids didn’t ask us to keep the bathroom light on while they fell asleep but dim enough that it actually let off less light than the iPad screen did each night (we kept a clock on via the white noise app we were using).
So far, we’ve enjoyed using the intercom feature between the two HomePod Minis we have — one on the main floor along with the one in the upstairs hallway — and playing music, which you can do independently for each Mini (even playing different music on each, if you like) or holistically. Just ask Siri to “play music everywhere.” Place two HomePod mini speakers together in the same room and you can create left and right channels for truly immersive sound.
Music, incidentally, is one of the key differentiators of the HomePod Mini when it comes to at-home smart speakers. Vocals, instruments and especially bass come through with gorgeous sound — even at full volume. It’s fulsome and rich and instead of sending music to a specific “sweet spot” in your space, it treats the entire space as your sweet spot and the sound remains fulsome and rich no matter where you’re standing.
Gram for gram, it packs the most punch of any smart speaker on the market. This comes down to something called computational audio and since I’m not tech-savvy enough to explain that, I’ll direct you here instead.
And it’s all packed into a tiny package that’s nice enough to be part of any contemporary decor (we went with white but the grey is also really nice).
Siri’s updated intelligence also seems to include more humour than was already programmed, because when we asked for the weather one brisk morning, her voice actually shivered during her report.
Siri apparently recognizes voices of up to six different family members, but with only a week of HomePod Mini under our belts, I can’t tell you much about what this means in terms of customization. What’s irritating me so far is that every.single.time. I go into my Apple Home app on my iPhone, it asks me to set up my voice with Siri. I tried opening it 12 times yesterday and it continued to ask me each time.
At the end of the day, if you use an iPhone and want a smart speaker, you’d be crazy not to spend $129 on this little guy. It’s going to complement your existing Apple Ecosystem and allow you to text your contacts, make and receive calls without even having your phone within arm’s reach, add to a running grocery list, let you search the web hands-free (and also throw the results to your phone’s display).
Then there’s the “hand off” feature. Let’s say you’re listening to your favourite podcast or rocking out to some awesome tunes in your living room’s HomePod Mini, but it’s time to get in the car to pick up the kids from school — you can hand it off by bringing your iPhone close to the HomePod Mini and it’ll let you keep listening on your iPhone as you walk out the door.
Perhaps the most important thing to me when we plugged in our HomePod Minis was protecting our privacy. When you ask Siri a question, your request is randomized and not connected to your Apple ID. It’s not always listening, either; unless you say “Hey, Siri…” your private conversations are just that — private.
Side note: there’s also a ton of smart-home technology that the HomePod Mini supports, like lighting and blinds, that I haven’t had enough time to fully explore. It took a few tires to connect my Philips Hue Smart Outdoor Lighting to Apple Home, but I haven’t had enough time to properly re-organize all of the lights like I have them set up in the Philips Hue app). I’ll add more down the road when I get Philips Hue set up properly and my overall experience broadens. One advantage of using an Apple-created smart tech is that you don’t even need a bridge to connect and control it from your Home app; just place your iPhone near the accessory and — POOF! — it registers on your screen and practically sets itself up.
Time will also tell if we miss having a screen like we did with our Google Hub, because while I can send things like recipes from the Mini to my iPhone, it doesn’t appear that I can send it to my bigger MacBook Air screen.
What is the Apple Ecosystem without iCloud? It’s really the glue that keeps that seamless, end-to-end experience accessible and protected.
And while Google/Pixel still win on the included photo storage front the unlimited, free storage it once offered to all Pixel users is coming to an end in the middle of 2021. Photos and videos take up the vast majority of my storage with files and apps representing only a tiny amount of space.
So you can guess how quickly I ran out of the 5GB of storage that came with my Apple ID, right? I think it lasted a month. Which actually wasn’t a big deal before Google made its announcement about photo storage, because I simply set up all my iPhone photos to backup in the Google Photos app. It was working like a charm.
When that announcement came, I panicked. I didn’t care so much about not backing up files, but the idea of losing photos and memories? No way.
Here’s the price breakdown if you, too, need more than just 5GB of storage:
- 50GB = $1.29/month — not sharable with family members, though
- 200GB = $3.99/month — sharable with family members
- 2TB = $12.99/month — sharable with family members
To put it in perspective, though, for a content creator who has way too many pics and vids, you might want to keep that entire 2TB for yourself. I am personally using nearly 600GB of the available 2TB. If — and it’s a big if — I share this storage plan with my kids, there will be strongly worded rules about the number of crazy selfies they’re allowed to take each day.
For a normal family, 2TB of space is a LOT. It translates to something like 48,000 RAW 12MP photos. Make that 488,000 12MP photos if they’re compressed. It also looks like 70 hours’ worth of 4k videos.*
And if you subscribe to another Apple service, like Music or Fitness+, it’s worth considering the new Apple One+ that consolidates six services under one umbrella — for one flat-rate price. Since it’s shareable among up to five family members, there’s impressive value to be had here.
Make sure you do the math if you subscribe, or plan to subscribe, to more than one of the following:
- Extra iCloud storage
- Apple Arcade
- Apple News
There are three plans available (prices in CDN):
- Individual = $15.95/month — includes 50GB of iCloud storage, TV+, Arcade and Music, saving you $7 per month without bundling
- Family = $20.95/month — includes 200GB of iCloud storage, TV+, Arcade and Music, saving you $10 per month without bundling
- Premier = $33.95/month — includes 2TB of iCloud storage, TV+, Arcade, Music, News+ saving you $10 per month without bundling
Now that Fitness+ has launched, that $12.99 a month subscription will be shared among the four of us. I don’t know how many classes my kids will end up doing but even if you just do the math between Big B and me, $6.50 a month for unlimited monthly fitness classes is jaw-dropping.
My first impressions of Fitness+ — and be sure to watch my social channels as I take a closer look at that in the coming weeks and months — is that it’s going to be hard for any other fitness membership or service to beat the monthly price tag. The breadth of classes and genres available already in week one is staggering, and the integration within the Apple Ecosystem is, of course, seamless.
You don’t need an Apple Watch to use Fitness+ but if you want to see your heart rate and calories burned in real time on-screen, you won’t get that without one. But it’s absolutely possible to select and do classes without if you’re ready to pull the trigger on 13 bucks a month but not several hundred dollars upfront for a watch.
Here’s my overview so you can see what Fitness+ includes and how it works:
My kids are obsessed with Apple Arcade but beyond the free trial period, I wouldn’t have gotten it for them because they have enough gaming elsewhere. But bundling it makes it free. Same goes for News+ — never something I would have considered before Apple One+, but it turns out there’s a ginormous selection of newspapers and magazines that appeal to all of us (kids included). And by the time we bundle that in, it’s free, too.
By the way: you can pay for any of these subscriptions, including Apple One+, with iTunes gift cards. Hello, gifting.
DISCLAIMER: Apple Canada provides me with loaner units to provide information to readers. I am not compensated for any Apple content and my opinions are my own.