Thoughts on Apple's 2014 iPad and Mac event

Apple's Town Hall is small, almost intimate. A stark contrast from the cavernous Flint Center. It was a smart choice for the October 2014 iPad and Mac event. When updates are subtle and dense, it's good to see them close up. That was the case with the new iPad Air 2, and even more so with the Retina 5K iMac.

Apple's CEO, Tim Cook, kicked off the event with a review of the iPhone 6, iPhone 6 Plus, and Apple Watch — the updated starships in their lineup and the new shuttlecraft they'll be introducing early next year. That relationship, the phones becoming larger and more powerful windows into apps and the internet at the expense of pocketability and convenience, yet the watch more than making up for it with wearability and ultra-convenience is something I'm still pondering, and something I'm pondering even more after seeing the new iPads and Macs.

The iPad Air 2 was introduced in spectacular fashion. A laser cut the top off last year's pencil to highlight just how thin this year's iPad really is. Thinness, of course, translates into lightness, and lightness into usability. And this is the most usable iPad ever.

You can not only feel it when you pick it up and hold it, you can see it. Yes, it comes in gold now, but it also comes with a better display. It's laminated so that the pixels, like the iPhone's before it, seem painted inside the glass rather than beneath it. It's also anti-reflective now so there's even less glare.

There's a monstrous Apple A8X processor and Touch ID for authentication and authorization, including for Apple Pay online purchases. (No NFC means no in-store purchases.) There's a decent 8 megapixel, f/2.4 iSight camera now, not as good as the iPhone 6, maybe, but no longer as out-dated as the iPhone 4. (And, wisely, positioned by Apple as a camera with an amazingly big view finder.)

All of this is important because, despite bigger and more powerful phones and smaller and more portable MacBooks, the iPad will still be the best, most accessible, most inclusive computer for many, many people.

We're already seen how the iPad has brought productivity and creativity to the mainstream, from entrepreneurs to artists, and the ability to do more, faster, and while mobile, will continue to be transformative.

And as phones get bigger, they might take over some of the functionality of small tablets, but also free the potential for bigger tablets, much as the watch frees the potential for bigger phones.

But what of those smaller tablets? It's easy to attribute that to larger phones or shifting focus, but it's never wise to ascribe to malice what can be ascribed to the constraints that come at Apple's scale. Just like last year, when there apparently weren't enough Touch ID chips for anything but the iPhone 5s, this year there simply may not been enough Apple A8 chips on the new process for anything other than the iPad Air 2.

That may be why the iPad mini 3 got Touch ID, a gold finish, and nothing else. And that creates a strange price and positioning dynamic.

The iPad mini 3 is $100 more than the iPad mini 2, but that extra cash only buys you Touch ID and, if it appeals to you, the gold finish. Touch ID is an incredible technology, but one whose value may not be obvious unless you've tried it and come to depend on it. The original iPad mini is $50 cheaper than the iPad mini 2, but saving that cash costs you a Retina display and two generations of chipset and radio advances.

Again, this is best ascribed to Apple fitting the products they have to the price points they want to hit. The iPad mini 2 being closer in price to the iPad mini 3 would make more sense, but cost more money. So, by saving everyone $50 at the mid tier, they make the top tier seem even more expensive. It looks messy, but it's the better choice for customers.

With Apple getting ready to ship their smallest Retina display ever, the roughly 1-inch watch, it's hard to argue they're abandoning smaller devices. Of course, they're also starting to ship their biggest Retina screen yet as well...

Thanks to a custom timing controller (TCON), Apple was able to transcend the capacity of DisplayPort 1.2 — what's built into Thunderbolt 2 — and drive 14.7 million pixels now, today. And it looks glorious. The colors are vibrant, the blacks deep, and the refresh rate is fast enough that there's nary a trail in sight.

It looks so good I want to jump into it like a Looney Toon. It looks so good that people who don't need massive parallel computing power are turning from their Mac Pros to gaze lustily at the photo and video prowess of the new iMac.

Part of that is because the new iMac can't be attached to a Mac Pro using target display mode. Thunderbolt 2 doesn't have the capacity, Thunderbolt 3 isn't here yet (and won't be for a while), and current Mac Pros don't have Thunderbolt 3 ports anyway. Yes, that also means a theoretical 5K Thunderbolt 3 Display would likely require new Mac Pro and new MacBook Pro hardware to drive it anyway.

Both machines are ludicrously aspirational. One a Lamborghini, the other a Bugatti. If you really need either, you already know why and which. But this type of technology inevitably trickles down. Apple has shown us the future and it's Retina.

That's why the video showing the evolution of Retina from iPhone to iPad to MacBook Pro to iMac is so powerful. It's also why the diagram showing Apple's device and display range from the roughly 1-inch Watch to the 27-inch iMac is so telling.

Maximum mobility and convenience on one end, power and performance on the other, and you pick the one(s) that best suit(s) your needs.

If there was an overall message to the event for me, that was it. Tim Cook continued to expand his roll in product introductions, Phil Schiller continued to explain what made them interesting, Craig Federighi — with an assist from Supreme Allied Commander of Secrecy, Stephen Colbert — continued to present the accompanying software like a superhuman, and Apple in general continued to show its more engaging, more humorous, more human side.

You can see it in the skits, sure, but you can also see it in the imagery Apple has been using of late. Not lonely devices in perfect focus on stark white backgrounds, but devices in hands and in worlds, rich in the people using them and the world around them. They are still objects designed, but they're also objects being used by everyone. It's not entirely new, and not universal, but it's enough that it feels both notable and inclusive.

There were other announcements as well. The new Mac mini finally made an appearance. That's great news for kids, students, developers, home theater aficionados, IT administrators, and anyone and everyone who loves Apple's lowest-cost Mac. (Which is now lower cost than ever.)

It's got Thunderbolt 2 and USB 3 now, Haswell processors, and an option for Iris graphics. Given the ever-increasing delays with Intel's next generation Broadwell chipset, shipping now with Haswell makes sense. (Shipping earlier, of course, would have been even better.) Since the Mac mini isn't a portable, it's arguable how much the more power-efficient Broadwell platform would really benefit it. We can, however, likely blame Broadwell delays for the lack of Retina moving down to other, more portable Macs this year...

We also got OS X Yosemite, we're getting iOS 8.1 and Apple Pay, and developers are getting WatchKit — flowers to go with their WWDC love letter.

There's a turbulence to all this, and some pain as Apple once again grows and evolves. But there's an energy too. Apple's products have never been this broad, this extensible, this continuous, this personal, or this powerful.

How it all comes together, however, and how Apple crafts its next story, will be interesting and important to see.