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About an Apple Report Card

I don’t know how important this is to anyone, unless you’re a devoted Apple watcher. But it’s worth a read.

So Jason Snell of Six Colors, a former editor for Macworld, ran a survey involving a few dozen tech journalists, developers and podcasters, judging the worth of Apple products and services for 2017. It’s roughly, very roughly, the equivalent of a set of Rotten Tomatoes ratings.

The lose-knit panel of judges rated the products and services on a one-to-five scale. One of the categories covers product reliability, and I’ll get to that shortly.

So here we go:

The report card gives Macs one of the lower ratings, Grade: C, with an average score of 2.9, compared to last year’s C-.

So why?

Well, I suppose it’s because Apple appeared to set aside the Mac in 2016 other than the MacBook Pro with Touch Bar and a very minor refresh for the MacBook earlier that year. For 2017, there were promises early on of a forthcoming Mac Pro, probably arriving in 2018, and a pro version of the iMac. Apple said they liked the Mac mini, and the statement was repeated by Tim Cook some weeks back. But it hasn’t been updated since 2014, and its future is still up in the air.

By WWDC time, Apple started to give the Mac some love. The notebooks and the iMac were updated, and the iMac Pro was announced, basically a Mac Pro in an all-in-one configuration. It shipped in December.

Perhaps the most negative reaction came from long-time tech pundit Andy Ihnatko, who concluded, “I can’t think of a more dispiriting year for Mac users… not in the iPhone era, anyway. In an age when Windows hardware is vibrant and flourishing, the Mac is looking shabby and forsaken.”

That’s pushing it, but it’s a provocative talking point from someone who is good at writing statements with provocative talking points.

The iPhone?

It got a Grade: A, with an average score of 4.4 (but why not a 5?).

The iPhone X got most of the love, but then there’s the Throttlegate mini-scandal, where Apple updated recent iPhones to reduce performance, make them slower, if the battery was dying. A new battery fixed the problem, but after being inundated with class-action lawsuits and lots of negative publicity, Apple apologized and agreed to cut the price of a battery replacement from $79 to $29 for a number of models, at least until the end of 2018. iOS 11.3, due out in the spring, will let you check battery health, and turn off the throttling feature if you don’t mind risking a sudden shutdown. For all that I wouldn’t award an A, but I wasn’t part of this panel.

The iPad earned a Grade; A- with an average score of 4.1. The iPad Pro, particularly the 10.5-inch model, got high marks, as did the improved multitasking in iOS 11, bringing a Mac-style Dock and other features to Apple’s tablet. After several years of steadily eroding sales, they finally improved by decent margins. What more can I say?

Also receiving a Grade: A-, but with an average score of 4.0, was the Apple Watch. But wouldn’t that make it a B+?

Regardless, it appears that the prospects for Apple’s smartwatch are improving, and maybe some users are learning to love it rather than like it. One panelist suggested that the LTE feature of the Series 3 is an improvement but it “hasn’t been the game-changer” that he expected.

Now I’m not a fan of Apple TV. It earned a Grade: C+, with an average score of 3.2. My feeling is that it’s an underachiever. The addition of 4K and HDR were helpful, and maybe it does deliver the best picture in its class, but it’s too expensive. $179 for 32GB? Give me a break.

If you’re invested in Apple’s ecosystem, I’d recommend it. Otherwise, Roku is probably the best alternative. Or if you have a smart TV with a decent interface and collection of streaming apps, you may not need a separate box. VIZIO’s  built-in Google Chromecast feature, which includes Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, VUDU and a few others, does the job for me. You can also use the TV maker’s SmartCast app for iOS and Android to cast loads of other apps. I haven’t touched my third-generation Apple TV since early December of last year.

Other ratings include a Grade: B- for cloud services with the usual criticisms for iCloud and its perennial failure to be as seamless and reliable as it should be.

Apple’s HomeKit, another underachiever, was rated Grade: C-, or an average score of 2.7. But it’s still early in the game.

At a time where tech gear may be of hit or miss quality, the Six Colors panel gave Apple a Grade: A- or average score of 4.0, for hardware reliability. One user complained about keyboards on the MacBook Pro misbehaving due to dust, a costly repair. One panelist complained he had to spend $450 because one keycap broke. That’s not right!

Echoing my article about the increasing frequency of iOS and macOS updates, the panel gave Apple a software quality rating of Grade: C- or an average score of 2.7. Apple has to do better.

Certainly the password bugs in macOS High Sierra, where you could gain root access without a password, and, in a similar bug, App Store preferences, make you wonder what’s going on at Apple. These are foolish glitches, and there’s no excuse for them. The panel mentions other issues, suggesting the maybe Apple is releasing too many updates too quickly to give them the proper fit and polish.

There are other ratings categories, including developer relations and Apple’s environmental and social impact. But the most troubling issues are still about software quality and iCloud reliability. Apple clearly has lots of work to do.