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Apple's Mac and iPad Pro get some overdue quality time

The company has updated its iPhones with new technology like Face ID, while its tablets and computers have stayed essentially the same for years.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Editors' note, Oct. 31: Apple did indeed announce a new version of the MacBook Air, which starts at $1,199 (£1,199, AU$1,849) and features a Retina display, Touch ID and USB-C ports. The company also announced two new iPad Pros -- a brand-new 11-inch model that starts at $799 (£769, AU$1,229) and a redesigned 12.9-inch version that now starts at $999 (£969, AU$1,529). 

The 2017 version of the MacBook Air remains available, for now, starting at $999 (£949, AU$1,499) and the 10.5-inch iPad from 2017 is also still available and starts at $649 (£619, AU$979). The original article, published before Apple's event, on Oct. 29, follows.


Enough about iPhones. It's time for Apple's Macs and iPads to get some love.

Apple, which started out in 1976 as Apple Computer, hasn't done much lately when it comes to its laptops and tablets. In 2016, it redesigned its MacBooks for the first time in four years, adding a new Touch Bar and a butterfly keyboard -- features that have caused a lot of complaints and even lawsuits. Apple's laptops haven't seen many changes since then, and the company has delayed major updates to products like its Mac Pro.

Then there are Apple's iPad Pro tablets. Apple has added new screen sizes, but it hasn't really added major new capabilities or tweaked the design since the first iPad Pro hit the market in late 2015.

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The attention lavished on the iPhone is indicative of how important the smartphone line is -- it still makes up about two-thirds of the company's revenue. For the most part, Apple spends most of its time with upgrades to its iPhones, last year introducing the edge-to-edge screen and Face ID in the iPhone X, and this year adding the facial recognition system to its entire iPhone lineup. The new features make iPads and Macs look like they're stuck in the past, and even behind rival products from Windows PC makers.

But iPads and Macs remain a critical part of the universe of Apple products that hook a customer into its ecosystem. If you've got an iPhone and Mac, you're less likely to switch phones or computers to another vendor.

On Tuesday, Apple will host an event in New York at 7 a.m. PT/10 a.m. ET. The event is the second this year to take place outside California, a rare departure from the usual Bay Area venues. It's also only the second time Apple has ever hosted an event in New York. The first, in 2012 at the Guggenheim Museum, was to launch its iPad digital textbook software.

The company has chosen the Brooklyn Academy of Music in Brooklyn, New York, to introduce its new iPads and Macs. The venue hosts theater, dance, music and other programs throughout the year. During Apple's field trip outside the Bay Area in March, the company introduced a new, cheap iPad and tools for educators and students at the Lane Tech College Prep High School in Chicago.

As in March, Apple's making a statement with its venue choice. The spring event, in a high school, was all about getting teachers and students to buy less-expensive iPads for educational use. Tuesday's event, in a performing arts center, will likely focus on giving creators and others a reason to shell out at least $650 for a tablet, plus extra for an Apple Pencil stylus and keyboard. For many, the long-awaited refresh of a MacBook Air may be the most exciting news from the event.

"Over the last several years, what we've seen happen is Windows vendors have put out some of the nicest hardware," Technalysis Research analyst Bob O'Donnell said. "It's the kind of stuff in the past people thought only Apple could do. But now it seems Apple is having to play catch-up with some of these PC vendors."

Apple declined to comment ahead of its event.

New iPad Pros

When Apple introduced the first iPad in 2010, then-CEO Steve Jobs called it a "magical" device. Very quickly, it lived up to the hyperbole, essentially inventing the market for tablets. Rivals such as Microsoft and Samsung moved quickly to try to replicate Apple's success.

But after peaking in 2012 with 58.3 million iPads sold, there were 13 quarters of consecutive declines before a bump in mid-2017. In fiscal 2017, Apple sold only 19.2 million iPads.

It's been a rough few years. Consumers have been holding on to their tablets for longer and opting to purchase bigger-screen iPhones and Macs instead. Apple's launch of its Pro lineup in 2015, which has an optional Pencil stylus and keyboard case, has helped the lineup, but iPads are nowhere near the size of the iPhone business.

In the fiscal third quarter that ended June 30, iPad sales edged up 1.1 percent to 11.6 million units, but revenue slid 4.6 percent to $4.7 billion. That's likely because more people scooped up Apple's new, cheap iPad instead of opting for the older, pricier iPad Pros. 

About one out of every three tablets sold worldwide in the period came from Apple, according to Gartner. In the US, more than half of tablets shipped in the June quarter were iPads.  

By comparison, Apple sold 41.3 million iPhones in the quarter, while revenue soared 20 percent to $29.9 billion. About 12 percent of the phones sold around the world came from Apple, Gartner said, but Huawei surpassed it become the second biggest vendor. 

There currently are four iPad models to choose from: the old iPad Mini 4, 10.5 and 12.9-inch 2017 iPad Pros, and Apple's new, affordable 2018 iPad that the company introduced in March. But much of Apple's iPad lineup is feeling its age. The iPad Mini 4 was released in September 2015 and last refreshed in March 2017, and it costs more than Apple's latest full-size, "sixth-generation" iPad.

What we're likely to see is "the biggest revamp to the iPad Pro" since it hit the market in 2015, according to Bloomberg News.

Rumor has it that new iPad Pros will get bigger displays that take up almost the entire front of the device, and they'll lose the Touch ID fingerprint-sensing home button in favor of Face ID. The tablets may also have USB-C connectivity, as well as updated Apple Pencil styluses. Apple plans to release two iPad Pro sizes, 11 inches and 12.9 inches, according to Bloomberg.

One thing they won't have that's found in the iPhone X, XS and XS Max is an OLED screen, Bloomberg reported. Such technology is more expensive than traditional LEDs, but it produces blacker blacks and crisper images.

Apple likely will use Tuesday's event as its opportunity to appeal to creators. It's long tried to position the iPad as a productivity device, but that's a hard sell. Creatives, such as writers and artists, are one group that could actually find more work-related uses for an iPad, analysts say.

"The world has kind of settled into what a tablet does," O'Donnell said. "The notion that that the iPad is going to take over as main productivity piece, I think that's over except for a certain group of people."

Mac revamp

Another key target for creative types is Apple's Mac line. Its most ardent users have become increasingly frustrated by the lack of updates, lack of USB ports and the "butterfly switch" keyboard on Apple's latest computers.

Tuesday could mark big advances for people looking for cheaper Macs.

Apple is expected to finally update its popular MacBook Air. At $999, the computer has proven to be popular with schools, businesses and pretty much everyone who doesn't want to shell out the big bucks for a laptop.

But the MacBook Air has been update-free for years while the MacBook Pro laptops have included sharper displays and technology like the Touch Bar multitouch display built into the top row of the MacBook Pro's keyboard.

The 13-inch MacBook Air finally got new chips during WWDC 2017, but Apple has resisted including a high-resolution Retina Display in the device, despite pleas by customers and reviewers. It discontinued the 11-inch version of the MacBook Air in 2016.

Apple is expected to finally update the computer with a high-resolution screen -- but it's also likely dropping the "Air" name. And it's likely to keep pricing similar to the current MacBook Air.

"Apple needs something in the entry level, especially when it comes to college students and others," Creative Strategies analyst Tim Bajarin said. "Apple's goal is to get as many devices into hands of as many people as possible to tap into its services, but you don't necessarily do that by creating only high-end systems."

Don't hold your breath for big changes on the high-power Mac Pro, which hasn't gotten a big upgrade since 2013. Apple said in April 2017 that it's working on a big refresh of the computer, but a year later it said the device wouldn't hit the market until sometime in 2019.

One desktop that could get an update Tuesday is the Mac Mini. Apple's lowest-end computer hasn't been updated since 2014. The $499 computer is encased in a 7.7-inch-square frame, and users have to add their own display, keyboard and mouse to actually run the Mac Mini. The company also may introduce new iMac computers.

None of Tuesday's expected changes are likely to dramatically revitalize iPad and Mac sales. But they could go a long way toward keeping Apple's key customers happy.

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