Recap of Apple's 'Spring Forward' Event (March 2015)

Member of the AppleVis Editorial Team

Spring Forward

Today, Apple unveiled four new things, a price change for the Apple TV, and minor updates to its existing line of MacBooks. We saw the Apple Watch, a 12-inch Retina Macbook, HBO Streaming, and Research Kit, a platform that will greatly enhance medical research and studies. We also got iOS8.2, which includes the Apple Watch app, and some small fixes and improvements.

The name of today's event was "Spring Forward", and if you missed it, you can watch the full video here. During the roughly two-hour presentation, Apple unveiled two new products that many argue will help the company to "spring ahead" of the competition, as well as a new software framework it hopes will help medical research to take huge strides forward. Plus, this event came the day after clocks were moved ahead an hour in most of the United States, often called "springing forward", and given that the Apple Watch was front and center today, the title just works on many levels.

HBO Now, and Cheaper Apple TV

In a surprise move, Apple started the show by announcing that it would be lowering the price of its Apple TV by $30, to just $69. This makes the device (which many think will become part of home automation in the near future) more affordable for more people. Of course, there turned out to be a good reason for this price drop: more people can sign up for HBO Now.

HBO Now is a streaming service from the HBO network. Users will be able to stream all of HBO's content, from TV shows to movies, for $14.99 per month. At launch, which is set for the first half of April, Apple will be the only partner. This means that anyone wishing to join the HBO party will need to be streaming from an Apple device--Mac, iOS, or Apple TV. It's worth noting that this service will be free for the first month, so long as you sign up in April.

The Apple Watch

The Apple Watch is a smartwatch. You wear it on your wrist, and it tracks your motion and heartbeat, while letting you see and interact with notifications from your iOS devices. It also helps you get--or stay--in shape, lets you pay with Apple Pay, can handle making or receiving phone calls, supports Siri, can send and receive texts, and much more. Plus, when it comes time to charge the Watch, there are no plugs or wires. You just hold it near its charging stand, and let the built-in magnets guide it into place so it can charge wirelessly. It's a tiny device, but can easily last all day on a single charge, and will charge from dead to 100% in two and a half hours.

At last year's September announcement, Apple revealed the Apple Watch and promised that it would be available in early 2015. We now have definite dates: you can pre-order the Apple Watch starting April 10, or visit a brick-and-mortar Apple Store to play with the Watch in person. Orders will ship--and people can take Watches home from Apple Stores--starting April 24.

We also have a better idea of pricing. The very cheapest model is $349, which will get you the 38mm version of the anodized aluminum Apple Watch, called the Sport, in silver or space gray. The next tier up, called the Collection, is made of stainless steel, and starts at $549 for the 38mm version. This one comes in polished steel or black. You can also get a 42mm version of either the Sport or Collection, which adds $50 to the price. The band you decide on is also a factor and can, for instance, raise the price of the Collection model to over a thousand dollars. Bands range from $49 to $449, depending on which material you want. A full breakdown can be found on the Apple Watch Bands and Accessories page.

There's one other model of Apple Watch that needs mentioning: the Edition. Like the other two, this comes in 38mm or 42mm and includes a band. Unlike the rest, though, it, and the buckle and other bits of its band, is made of solid, 18-karat gold. How much does an Apple product made of solid gold cost? About $10,000 to start, and it will only be available in certain areas and in a limited supply. By the way, if you want the most expensive Apple Watch possible, that'll be $17,000.

Why Do I Want One?

You may be wondering just what makes this device worth getting. Below, we've outlined the major features we know about so far, culled from Apple's past announcements, today's event, rumors and leaks, and the official Apple Watch website.

The burning question for most of us is this: will the Apple Watch be accessible? Here's our definite answer: probably, we think, maybe. We have a blog post about accessibility on the Apple Watch, which you should definitely read. It details what we think we can be pretty sure of, and where that information comes from. To summarize, the Watch will probably include VoiceOver and other accessibility features; again, please read that article for full details.

We do know that Siri will be integrated into the Watch. The demonstrations we saw today offered no sound or voice feedback, but that could easily be a setting you'll enable in the Apple Watch app on your iOS device. We know the Watch has a speaker, because it played notification sounds, but that's all we can say for sure at this point.

Since the AppleVis team doesn't get access to pre-release hardware, there are certainly still blanks in our knowledge. If you're reading this in April and you have a Watch, please leave a comment with what you've found out. We are also trying to get what we can out of Apple's Accessibility Team. When we know, you'll know, so keep watching this post and its comments for more details. Now, assuming this device is accessible, here are some other reasons you might want one.

Apps

Developers have been working on making their apps compatible with Apple Watch since last December, using the Apple Watch development kit, called WatchKit. Apple has said that plenty of big names are busy getting Watch apps ready: interact with your Facebook or Twitter feeds right on your wrist, play games, get directions, invoke Siri, chat, and much more. During today's demonstration, Passbook, Instagram, Messages, and even an app to stream security camera feeds and remotely unlock doors were all shown off. Apple reports that thousands of apps are in the works, so by the time you get your Apple Watch in April, there will be a plethora to try out. Of course, the list will grow quickly as more and more developers start taking advantage of this new platform. Needless to say, we can't offer any information on the accessibility (or lack thereof) of any of these apps.

Health

The Apple Watch is more than a smaller screen to display your phone's notifications. It can track your motion, heart rate, and other health-centric information, and help you get and/or stay healthy. It could remind you to stand up if you haven't for a while, or to take a walk if you haven't yet today. It can show you a graph of your heart rate, how many steps you've taken, how many flights of stair's you've climbed, how many calories you've burned, and more. It also constantly talks to your iPhone through Apple's HealthKit system, meaning that all your health data is always available. The health app on your phone will know your heart rate, because your watch knows it, for instance.

Imagine your calorie-counting app, or your workout tracker, knowing exactly what you've done for physical activity--because your watch told HealthKit. Plus, this will work on an older iPhone that lacks step tracking. Your watch can even display how close you are to your daily fitness goals, so you know immediately what you've done and what you still need to do to be as active as you want to be. Each week, your Watch can show you how you did for physical activity the previous week, and suggest a new "move target" (that's what Tim Cook called it) for the new week. Never has it been so healthy to be part of the Apple world!

Notifications

The Apple Watch doesn't vibrate to alert you of notifications or pass along messages. Instead, it delivers a kind of soft tap to your wrist. There are two tap intensities, giving you extra notification options. When a notification comes in, you can quickly see what it's about on your watch's screen, and even take action (snooze an alarm, reply to a text, and so on) right from the watch. Apps will be able to offer Watch-specific actions, but even if your favorite app hasn't yet gotten Apple Watch support, you can still see its notifications on your wrist. In other words, anything you get on your iOS device's lock screen today can be displayed on your wrist when you get your Watch, with no app updates required.

Communication

The Apple Watch is a quick and easy way to stay in contact with people. You can send texts, using the same dictation you already use on iOS; you can send an audio clip, just like the Messages apps in iOS8 and OS X Yosemite allow; and you can send a custom pattern for the Taptic engine in the recipient's watch to tap out on their wrist. You can even send your heart beat to a contact, so that their watch taps them each time your heart beats.

The first two make perfect sense, but many people can't see the value of the custom vibration scheme. Apple offered an example at last year's announcement: what if you and a friend have a code, where three taps means "want to get lunch?" A single tap in response means "yes", and two taps means "no". If you both agree on your usual lunch place and a time beforehand, then in four or five taps, you've essentially held a conversation.

For some, though, this idea goes beyond lunch plans. For those who are deaf-blind, or those who are somewhere speech just isn't an option, this is perfect. If you call your friend to come pick you up, you don't need speech to tell you what an incoming text says. You only need your friend to send you a prearranged number of taps, and your watch will let you know your ride is there. The same system could be used to let your ride tell you how many minutes they'll be, or that they are running a few minutes late. Users could set up all kinds of codes with family and friends, which could then be used to answer texts from that user. In theory, you could even tap out morse or braille codes, but that might be more trouble than it's worth. Still, the option is there, and it will be exciting to see how users invent new directions in which to take this tool.

Apple Pay

If you don't have an iPhone that can handle Apple Pay, (and since only the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus can,that's probably a lot of you), you're in luck. The Apple Watch includes the necessary hardware to complete Apple Pay transactions, so long as your iPhone is nearby. Instead of using your fingerprint to "sign" like you would with an iPhone 6/6 Plus, you enter a four-digit code on the watch itself when you first put it on for the day. So long as the watch hasn't left your wrist since that code was entered, you won't need to do anything but hold up your watch in order to pay. On stage, an Apple employee used a demonstration terminal to show this off; he simply held his wrist near the terminal, and within two seconds, the Watch played a happy little noise and (he said) tapped him on the wrist. That was it--no passcodes, no fingerprints, no need to pull his phone out at all. He held out his hand and… Transaction complete!

Even on older devices that don't support Apple Pay by themselves, you get all the security benefits of the platform, and can still take advantage of things like knowing when your card was last used or remotely disabling cards should you lose your iPhone. Even if you have the newest iPhone, you still get a bonus; namely, you won't need to take it out to make a payment if you have an Apple Watch. Who would've thought Apple Pay could get any easier?

But… Accessibility?

Of course, the big question for our corner of the digital world is still the accessibility of this device. As stated earlier, we're pretty sure it will have VoiceOver and an array of other accessibility features; we just don't know how, and how well, those features will work. We were all hoping that accessibility would at least get a passing mention at today's presentation, if only on a slide on screen, but no such luck. All we can do now is wait until April. If you have an Apple Watch, let us know what you find. We'll continue to dig, and will hopefully have additional information soon after April 10.

A New Macbook, and Updates Across the Board

The second big reveal was a completely redesigned MacBook. Imagine an 11-inch Macbook Air, but one whose keyboard extends from edge to edge and whose screen is actually 12 inches, due to a smaller bezel. Then take the Air and slim it down to just 13.1mm, 24% thinner than the Air, and lighten it to two pounds. Make it Apple's most environmentally friendly computer to date, with an Energy Star rating of 6.1, and throw in the trophy for "Most Power Efficient Mac Ever" while you're at it. That's the computer Apple showed off today, and it's called… Ah, they didn't actually give it a name, only the "New Macbook". It will come in the now standard colors of silver, space gray, or gold. Oh, and it only has one port, on the entire computer.

You read that correctly: this New Macbook has just one lonely little port, for charging, plugging in external monitors, connecting to hard drives, and doing anything else you care to do that requires a plug. No MagSafe, no Thunderbolt, just a single USB type C port. USB C is a new standard that isn't exclusive to Apple, but that has yet to be widely adopted. It's meant to replace chargers, all the different types of USB we have now, most kinds of display connections, and more. In other words, USB C can do in one port what other computers need several to accomplish, and it can do it in a connection that's just one third the size of standard USB.

The New Macbook has a headphone jack as well, but those are the only two ports on the entire computer. If you're wondering how this could possibly be a good idea, and/or you want to learn more about USB C, here's why a single-port Macbook could actually work.

Internal Changes

Apple bragged today that this is the thinnest, lightest Mac they've ever created, with Tim Cook holding it edge on and asking if the audience could see it, then joking that he couldn't even feel it in his hand. A lot of new technology had to happen for this Mac to become a reality, and whether you think the one-port design is a good idea or not, the computer itself is very impressive.

First, the screen is Retina quality, at 2304x1440 pixels. It's just 0.88mm thick, and manages to consume 30% less power than the screens in the Macbook Air line. As mentioned, the bezel is also thinner, though the requisite camera and microphones are still included on the frame of the lid.

The keyboard is also completely redesigned. Instead of the "scissor" mechanism used in current Mac keyboards, which is what gives the keys their signature feel, Apple came up with a whole new design, called a "butterfly mechanism". This is not only 40% thinner than the scissor setup, but it makes each key travel straighter. No more pressing the side of a key and not getting a response, Apple promises. They've also updated the backlight, using an LED behind every key instead of a larger light source behind the whole keyboard.

The trackpad is perhaps the most interesting alteration to the outside of this device. It's still multi-touch, of course, but it no longer clicks when you, well, click it. Actually, it does, but not because you pushed the whole thing down far enough to trip the clicky thing under it. This trackpad uses the same "Taptic" feedback mechanism found in the Apple Watch to provide the sensation of clicking, without needing to waste space letting the pad move at all. Put another way, if you tap the trackpad in the right way, you'll feel feedback provided by a tiny motor instead of a physical click. Apple says it will feel similar to what you're used to, with the advantages that you can tap anywhere on the pad (not just the bottom half), and you can vary the intensity of the click feedback.

The new design also employs the "force touch" technology from the Apple Watch, letting users perform a force touch to activate certain shortcuts. Force touch an address, for instance, and you get a map of where that location is; force touch a word on a webpage and you get Wikipedia's entry on the term; force touch an event to open it in your calendar. Presumably, apps will eventually be able to take advantage of this new type of interaction, but nothing was said about that today.

Finally, we have the internals. Apple has switched to an Intel Core M processor at 1.1GhZ, which can go up to 2.4GhZ in Turbo Boost mode. They've also started this machine out with 8GB of ram and a 256GB internal flash drive, and managed to cram the whole lot onto a motherboard only a third the size of the board in the 11-inch Macbook Air. They then stuffed it all into a shell that isn't screwed together like current MacBooks, but is instead machined from a single piece of metal. Using all flash storage, and a Core M processor, allows for one more major change: no fan. Similar to the way your iPad stays cool with no spinning blades, this New Macbook requires nothing to prevent it from getting too hot. It simply… doesn't ever get that hot in the first place.

The New Macbook has, in summary:

  • only two ports,USB C and headphones
  • a larger keyboard than the 11-inch Air, despite the whole machine being smaller than the Air
  • a 12-inch Retina display--again, the whole unit is smaller than the smallest Macbook Air
  • a 1.1GhZ Intel Core M processor, which can hit 2.4GhZ in turbo mode. You can upgrade to a 1.2GhZ CPU, capable of 2.9GhZ in turbo mode, when you configure the machine before buying it.
  • 8GB of ram and 256GB of flash storage, which you can double for $300 extra before buying
  • an entirely redesigned trackpad which can not only support the "force touch" gesture, but uses Apple's Taptic engine to simulate the feel of clicking, though the pad never actually moves.
  • a body made from a single piece of metal, letting the unit be that much smaller. This prevents after-market upgrades, though, which is why you have to configure your Macbook the way you want it beforechecking out.

This is thinner and lighter than any Mac to come out of Apple's labs, yet it can last all day on a single charge--Apple claims ten hours of use while watching movies, for instance. The starting price is $1299, or $1599 to get upgraded internals, and preorders begin on April 10.

Upgrades

Finally, Apple announced minor updates for its existing line of laptops, and seemed to indicate that the New Macbook will live alongside the other two models instead of taking the place of either. The Macbook Air will be getting a boost in the form of Intel's newest Core I processors, and the 13-inch model will also receive flash memory that can run up to twice as fast as what it has now. The Macbook Pro line will get the new processors, better flash, and--for the 13-inch model--the new trackpad introduced in the New Macbook. All MacBooks will also receive an updated thunderbolt port, which can run faster than before.

Research Kit

Apple has been getting deeper and deeper into the world of health, first with its HealthKit framework, and now with the Apple Watch. It has therefore decided to do even more in this arena: ResearchKit.

ResearchKit is a new framework from Apple, designed to let people start and manage huge medical studies. Apps can be built with this framework, and anyone who wants to can download the app, then join the study. As Apple put it (and I'm paraphrasing here), instead of having fifty or a hundred people at a time, for a few weeks, a researcher could have thousands, for as long as people keep participating.

The most details we got were on the app for studying Parkinson's Disease. With it, people can use motion sensing, audio recording, and touching the screen, all to record data about tremors in Parkinson's sufferers. What it would normally take a doctor to carefully analyze, requiring the doctor or patient to book appointments and travel, can now be done from home, on an iPhone. Other apps include diabetes studies, cardio health, asthma research (which will even use bluetooth inhalers and breath monitors), and an app to study post-treatment symptoms of breast cancer survivors.

That's only the start of it, though; Apple envisions thousands of studies using this platform in the coming years, and the massive amounts of detailed information should be a huge boost to medical science. To that end, Apple said it will make ResearchKit open source, letting anyone use it who wants to. It also said that no personal data will be collected without the user's consent, that users can easily manage all data sharing settings, and that it (Apple) will never see any data at all.

And That's Spring Forward

There it is. We got more details, pricing, and release dates for the Apple Watch; we got a lower-priced Apple TV, and a new HBO streaming service to use on it; a new framework, ResearchKit, for running massive medical studies; iOS 8.2, including an app to manage the upcoming Apple Watch; and an entirely New Macbook, smaller and lighter than an 11-inch Air but with a larger keyboard and screen, plus a completely redesigned trackpad.

Now it's your turn. Are you blown away, or underwhelmed? Do you want the Apple Watch? The new Mac? Will you be getting an Apple TV, now that it's so much cheaper? Does the New Macbook intrigue you, or are you confused about the tradeoffs Apple made in its design? Let's talk!

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