In many ways, Apple (AAPL) is the preeminent technology company. It sets the high bar for excellence when it comes to design and performance in consumer-centric hardware and software. For that market and brand leadership, Apple has routinely commanded the highest prices (and fattest profit margins) within each category for which it has products. Undeterred by these prices, like many of my fellow early adopters, I’m usually at the front of line to receive communion at the Cathedral of Jobs, each and every year.
However, lately, some of Apple’s decisions have made me question whether the Cupertino-based behemoth is spreading its focus, and by extension, its product lines too thin. While Apple’s core hardware products—iPhones, iMacs, and Macbooks—continue to thrive year after year, some of Apple’s 2017 releases haven’t earned, for me, the hefty price tags they carry.
Here are four of the new Apple products you probably shouldn’t have bought in 2017:
9.7-inch iPad (2017 generation)
This isn’t unique to its tablet, but Apple’s insistence on bifurcating its product lines into weird names and numbers (and “Pro” lines) continues to frustrate me. For example, iPhone X comes after 8, but 8 is, actually, the 9th generation of the iPhone? What happened to 9? Will 9 come after X? Will 9 be called Y?
Nomenclature aside, I’m talking about the 2017-generation iPad (so the 7th gen? 8th gen?). Basically, this iPad is meant to replace the previous “iPad Air” line and differentiates itself from the pricier “Pro” model. Look, I know as well as you do that Apple wants to continually drive up average revenue (and profit) per customer, but this model iPad is where I could see the company cutting the most corners in order to deliver a still-profitable “budget model” in its tablet line.
The display on the low-end model iPad 9.7 is the first thing that stands out to me—and not in a good way. Instead of bringing it flush with the glass like latest iPhone displays, Apple sits its retina display slightly recessed from the panel, which makes it feel like you’re watching your cat videos through a diorama. Turns out, this design also makes the iPad more reflective and more prone to glare, which can be problematic for viewing if you’re not strictly nocturnal. The actual display also isn’t that different from the display on the older iPad mini model I purchased more than a year ago.
That difference becomes starker when compared to the new model iPad Pro’s gorgeous 120Hz screen with True Tone display. In fact, in addition to the better screen, the iPad Pro 10.5 also has a better camera, more advanced chipset, noticeably better speakers and audio, as well as compatibility with Apple Pencil and the Smart Keyboard. This makes it so much better as a working-on-the-go tablet, in addition to the basic news and entertainment hub needs it dutifully fulfills. Unlike its less impressive brother, the iPad Pro earns its $650 price tag. Apple calls the iPad 9.7 a “monumental leap,” but other than affordability, it doesn’t hold a candle to the superior iPad Pro.
If you’re shopping for a full-functioned tablet that can replace many (if not all) of your laptop needs, you should opt for the Pro line. But if you’re looking at the iPad 9.7 as a budget tablet, where you can read books and articles, video chat, or play movies to occupy your toddler, there are older iPad models (or even other tablet brands) that offer comparable functionality at half the cost.
Apple Watch Series 3 (with LTE)
While I wasn’t a fan of the original Apple Watch due to its limited functionality (I swapped it for a Moto X), I really liked my Apple Watch Nike+ 2 for the myriad of health and fitness use cases—even at that premium price. The second-generation model was a huge step up with the addition of GPS and water resistance along with an upgraded processor, longer battery, and better performance. Really, the biggest complaints on Series 2 I heard were from fellow runners who wanted to leave their phone at home when they went for a run or stepped out for an errand. Apple aimed to fix just that with the new Series 3 LTE model Apple Watch.
Phone-like use cases (i.e. text and talk) are really the main selling points for the Series 3 LTE vs. the Series 2 here. But having a conversation on the watch (without your phone) only kind-of works. The speaker on your wrist just isn’t that clear, meaning Apple needs you to buy some Air Pods or Beats Bluetooth headsets to accompany your Watch—cha-ching! While battery life with LTE turned off is much improved, making a call with LTE causes serious drain, basically relegating your Watch’s LTE usage to emergency calls only.
In my opinion, the Apple Watch LTE would maximize its utility by completely replacing my phone. To do that, it would need an impractically larger screen, better battery with LTE, many more apps for productivity, a better voice assistant (will discuss Siri more below), and a high-quality camera. But this makes no sense for Apple to do because it would also cannibalize its flagship iPhones. To Apple, the Watch is always an accessory for your phone, like the Airpods or the keyboard case for iPad. At nearly $500 though, this is one accessory you can do without, especially if you’ve went in for the perfectly functional Apple Watch Series 2 last cycle.
Apple TV 4K
The Geniuses at the Apple store told me that getting the full sense of the Apple TV 4K means hooking it up to your home theater setup and spending a week with it, which sadly, I didn’t get to do. I did, however, play around with it for an evening at a fellow technophile’s house. Sadly, I came away less impressed than I had hoped. It’s not all bad, so let me start with a few things I liked about this iteration of the Apple TV before I convince you to put away your wallet.
The high-resolution content is the biggest draw here, and it turns out Apple struck deals with major movie studios (but it doesn’t have Disney (DIS) yet) to offer 4K movies on Apple TV at a cheaper price than any other studio. Apple also committed to upgrading past Apple TV purchases to 4K automatically whenever they become available. I also really like the new user interface for the Apple TV 4K, which makes navigation and search incredibly smooth. The new remote felt like it had a better trackpad, but control still wasn’t as seamless as one would hope, especially when trying to use the on-screen keyboard for search. I suppose that’s what the Apple TV’s Siri voice integration is for.
Okay, so with those niceties out of the way, here’s why you skip it.
For starters, while 10 million 4K TVs were sold in 2016 in the U.S. and 15 million are expected for 2017, you probably don’t have a 4K TV just yet. Until you get one, you won’t take full advantage of everything the 4K Apple TV offers. Even then, for some of the most popular streaming services like Netflix (NFLX), YouTube, or HBO Go, Apple TV doesn’t yet support or can’t reliably deliver 4K-picture quality yet. Thankfully, AppleTV 4K is finally catching up to competitors like Roku, but this latest effort fails for both average consumer streaming use cases and for A/V spec nerds alike.
The purchase feels even more ridiculous when you compare Apple TV 4K’s $179 price tag to competitors like the Roku Ultra at $99 or the Google (GOOG) Chromecast Ultra at $69. There will be a time in the near future where the 4K-compatible Apple TV will become a staple in home entertainment, but 2017 is not its year.
Like the Apple TV 4K, the Homepod is another peculiar product where Apple is both late to market (the first-generation Amazon (AMZN) Echo came out back in early 2015) and almost twice as expensive (priced at $349 where even the most expensive Echo Plus is only $149 and Google Home sells for $129).
It makes sense, then, that Tim Cook spent most of the unveiling of Homepod at this year’s Worldwide Developers Conference focused on its benefits as a speaker and on Apple’s bonafides as a home for music and audio content. With better sound specs than its smart home competitors, it looks like Apple means to position itself against higher-end speaker players like Sonos and Bose over Amazon and Google.
The problem with the price is that it just doesn’t justify the use cases. Per NPR and Edison Research, smart speakers are mostly used to (1) play music/radio/podcasts, (2) get news and weather, or (3) set timers and alarms. At nearly $350, that’s a very expensive alarm clock—impeccable sound quality of your morning wake-up, notwithstanding.
Positioning itself as more “speaker” than “smart” is probably just as well because other than the upgraded sound quality, Apple’s Homepod will probably be inferior in every other way. The biggest problem for me is Apple’s Siri, which powers the Homepod. Even after some upgrades this year, Siri lags behind Alexa and Google on many parameters. Also unlike other Apple products, like iPhones which support millions of third-party apps, Homepod sits in a closed ecosystem, meaning only Apple Music — not Spotify—can be accessed using voice commands. Nor can you call your Lyft or make a Skype call hands-free.
Important to note here is that Apple also missed the 2017 impulse-shopping holiday season for Homepods, initially saying it would have a speaker ready by this December, but now not shipping until early 2018. This just solidifies my suspicions that Homepod is still a side hustle, not yet a focused effort for Apple as a company.
Unless you’re already in the market for a higher-end speaker system with a minimal integration with other applications and a second-tier voice assistant, this is one Apple product you’ll likely want to skip—at least until Siri catches up to the competition or Apple creates a robust, open platform for Homepod apps, in a similar way to what the App Store is for iOS.
Apple is at its core a luxury brand. We buy into its higher-priced products not just because of their (supposed) superior usability and functionality, but because of the association from the brand. We feel good buying expensive things from Apple. We like what it conveys about us to other people.
Sadly, it feels obvious to me that certain products (iPhone, iMacs, and Macbooks) get a lot more attention and priority than others. This becomes harder to stomach when Apple still charges a premium price for ostensibly inferior products. I’m sure some of my issues will be addressed with time and product iterations, and eventually these items will earn their hefty price tags. Until they do, however, your best bet is to hold onto your cash, or look to Amazon’s and Google’s more budget-friendly options as a temporary substitute.
Jay Kapoor is an investor in Madison Square Garden’s corporate venture group in NYC and enjoys writing about consumer technology, digital media, and commerce in his free time.