Despite the unique circumstances presented by being in the midst of a global pandemic, Apple had one of its busiest, and arguably most productive years in recent memory. In this hands-on video, I take a look back at my favorite Apple hardware releases of 2020.

Magic Keyboard for iPad

It seems like forever ago, but back in the spring of 2020, Apple released the highly-anticipated Magic Keyboard for iPad Pro. Of course, it wasn’t just a keyboard, but a full input utility that also incorporated a trackpad.

The Magic Keyboard was a remarkable product because it turned the iPad into a more capable productivity machine. Coupled with the new pointer input control that launched with iPadOS 13.4, the iPad Pro could function more like a laptop, allowing users to use the trackpad to interface with apps alongside traditional touch input.

Having real cursor input is something that many, including myself, have been clamoring for for years, so it was a bit surreal when the Magic Keyboard alongside iPadOS’ new touch input functionality, actually landed in the hands of users. After several months of using the iPad Magic Keyboard, it’s hard to imagine going back to how things used to be.

Video: my favorite Apple hardware releases of 2020

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iPad Air

The fourth-generation iPad Air saw Apple’s mid-range tablet, the long-running middle-child of the lineup, updated with a brand new design sans Home button. Inspired by the iPad Pro, the iPad Air 4 now features flat sides, a new “edge-to-edge” 10.9-inch Liquid Retina display, and a Touch ID sensor integrated into the Side Top button.

The fourth-generation iPad Air is currently the only iPad featuring Apple’s latest A14 system on a chip, even surpassing the iPad Pro in this regard. Perhaps more importantly, the new design finally allows an iPad without a “pro” designation, to utilize the 2nd-generation Apple Pencil, and of course, it features compatibility with the aforementioned Magic Keyboard. When you couple all of these features with the $599 starting cost, it’s clear that the iPad Air is, pound for pound, the best iPad in the lineup.

iPhone 12 mini

As a huge fan of the iPhone 4-era design, I’ve been waiting for a true successor to the original iPhone SE, and it finally arrived with the iPhone 12 mini. The real second-generation iPhone SE, which also launched earlier this year in 2020, feels less like the original iPhone SE, and more like an iPhone 8. The iPhone 12 mini feels more like the true follow-up to the original iPhone SE that we’ve been waiting for.

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Featuring all of the processing power of its larger siblings in a pint-sized 5.4-inch design, the iPhone 12 mini is my favorite iPhone in years. But it’s not just size the makes the iPhone 12 mini so appealing, it’s the design. The design of the iPhone 12 mini, with its flat edges sandwiched between two pieces of glass, has all of the makings of an outright classic.

Compared to super-sized smartphones like the iPhone 12, iPhone 12 Pro, or the ridiculously-large iPhone 12 Pro Max, the iPhone 12 mini is miles more comfortable in the hand. Meanwhile, you still get all of the amazing processing power, screen technology, and many of the same camera features that its siblings enjoy.

Despite how lovely this phone is, larger iPhones will no doubt outsell the iPhone 12 mini, perhaps multiple times over. Even someone like me, who acknowledges the beautiful and practical design of the iPhone 12 mini, still opts to carry around an iPhone 12 Pro Max as his daily driver. Large phones are a far worse tactile experience, but I’m addicted to having such a large display, and I suspect that many of you reading this are as well. With this in mind, it’ll be telling to see if the mini ends up being a one-off for 2020, or if it sticks around in the upcoming 2021 iPhone 13 product lineup.

M1 Macs

It’s still hard to believe that Apple made the transition from Intel to Apple Silicon with almost zero issues whatsoever. This transition probably even surpassed Cupertino’s lofty expectations as far as smoothness goes. The M1 Macs are one of the biggest advancements in computing in the last few decades, and rightfully walked away with 9to5mac’s Product of the Year award.

What makes the M1 MacBook Air, MacBook Pro, and Mac mini so impressive, is how well they work right out of the gate. From a software perspective, a person using one of these machines for browsing the web, word processing, spreadsheets, etc., would see little difference between it and an Intel-based Mac.

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Apple’s introduction of Rosetta 2 translation — a technology that allows most of the apps designed for Intel CPUs to function more or less like they always have — surpasses all expectations. And apps that are compiled as universal apps, taking full advantage of the M1 chip, perform even better. It’s a win/win scenario with very few downsides.

Thanks to the new architecture, these Macs generate much less heat than their predecessors. In fact, the M1 runs so cool and efficient that the MacBook Air outright omits an active cooler. As a result, the fan-less MacBook Air is dead-silent, but all of the machines are quiet; the MacBook Pro and Mac mini are inaudible in most cases, even when pushed. The efficiencies of the M1 also yield incredible stamina, resulting in true “all-day” battery life. So-called all-day battery life is not a new marketing term in Apple’s cache, but the M1 MacBooks are the first machines that truly live up to the claim.

As impressive as all of that is, I’ve been blown away by the performance of these Macs, which are the fastest Macs to date in single-core performance and, with each sporting 8 cores, are by no means slow in multi-core operations. But what’s really been impressive is how fast these machines are for specialized tasks, like working with HEVC-encoded (H.265) video. These machines, which come with 7 or 8 core GPUs embedded on the M1, outperform my 2019 Mac Pro when playing back, rendering, and exporting highly-compressed 4K H.265 video. 

While Intel Macs retain some advantages, like being able to install Windows on a separate Boot Camp partition, M1 Macs have shown their versatility. For example, users can already load Windows 10 for ARM on a Parallels virtual machine instance with performance that’s better than Windows for ARM running natively on Microsoft Surface hardware. 

If these Macs are already this good, how much better will these machines be two or three generations down the line? How crazy-fast would an Apple silicon-powered Mac Pro be? It’s exciting to think about the prospects.

HomePod mini

The HomePod mini is not the most desirable product on this list, but it’s a very important release for Apple and its users. This smart speaker is basically a tiny HomePod without the full gamut of fancy computational audio features. Due to physics, it’s also acoustically inferior to the full-sized HomePod. Yet, it compensates for these deficiencies with its cheaper price, more flexible placement, and, in some areas, more advanced technology.

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As someone who truly values the sound of the original HomePod, especially when two work together as a stereo pair, the HomePod mini won’t usurp the place of the originals that currently reside on my office desk. Instead, the HomePod mini will occupy rooms that either didn’t already have a HomePod, or areas like the kitchen, where I wouldn’t dare put a $300 fabric-covered speaker.

Although $99 for the HomePod mini is more expensive than competing miniature smart speakers from companies like Google and Amazon, the HomePod mini sounds better and provides Siri access in more places around your home. The HomePod mini’s Apple integration means that you can interact with all of your HomeKit devices, play Apple Music, query Siri about the latest news, play your favorite podcasts, make phone calls, check text messages, and more. For the cost of a single regular HomePod, you can deploy three HomePod minis to help blanket your abode with Siri access.

9to5Mac’s take

Let’s be real for a second: Apple is a multi-billion dollar company with virtually limitless resources, so while its 2020 productivity has been nothing short of impressive, when your pockets are that deep, it’s much easier to keep it together, even during a pandemic. With that said, products like the M1 Mac aren’t just your annual spec bumps — this is undoubtedly an industry-changing advancement — and, and least from the outside looking in, Apple pulled off an extremely arduous task that’s hard to get right when everything is normal, let alone during the middle of a pandemic. Needless to say, 2020 has been a remarkable year for Apple hardware.

What are your favorite Apple releases of 2020? Sound off down below with your thoughts.

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