[This Apple Ecosystem post was updated on May 2, 2023.]
I bought into the beginnings of the Apple Ecosystem back in 2002 when I purchased my first desktop computer — an iMac, discounted thanks to Apple Education Pricing — and an iPod. I loved how they operated synergistically and, more important, that I didn’t have to invest in any anti-virus software.
I finally hopped on the iPhone bandwagon when iPhone 4 came on the scene and I upgraded over the years from the 5 to the 6 as well. Though Big B has remained an iPhone loyalist to this day, Apple lost me on the iPhone front after iPhone 6 until the iPhone 11 came out (followed by the 12 and 13) — with its near DSLR-quality camera phone — but I’ll get to these later.
Over the years, we continued to build out our Apple Ecosystem with the iPod, iPod Mini and iPod Nano (yes, we had all three!), then — when The K Man was nearly two years old — our first foray into the iPad family. I’ll never forget the first time he drew something on the screen with his little finger and then held his finger up in the air, staring at it in total amazement. Miss Q has never known a life without iPad in it.
That first iMac of mine finally bit the dust after 13 years. And it didn’t exactly die — it merely slowed down so significantly that it made more sense to buy something new with faster processing and more memory to keep up with the times. I mean, 13 years with the same computing system is pretty impressive. So it was a no-brainer to choose another Apple desktop, which still lives in my rec room office to this day, even if it doesn’t see much use anymore since I’ve been working here, there and everywhere for so long and rely on the portability of my MacBook Air. But, it’s alive and well, as are the Magic Mouse and TrackPad I bought to go with it.
I used an employer-issued PC laptop for a long time and even tried (and loved) another PC hybrid laptop along the way, but they never interfaced well with the rest of my family’s chosen tech products, and we’ve always relied on that desktop in the basement when we needed to sync music, download photos and more.
I share all of this with you because — without fail — we keep coming back to the Apple Ecosystem’s total integration for so many reasons. (Not least of which is access to a DSLR-quality camera phone in the palm of your hand.)
Whether you’re here looking for more info before you create your holiday wish list or buy something for a loved one; trying to figure out if you really need to add that cellular option for your Apple Watch; if the included amount of iCloud space will be enough; or if you’ve been thinking about how the various products work together or why you might switch from another brand to Apple to realize this same kind of techy seamlessness, I think you’ll find this comprehensive run-down helpful — especially since I’m not here to tell you that everything in Apple-land is perfection.
So, let’s talk about the Apple Ecosystem and the products within it, whether it’s managing your at-home virtual classroom or editing the photos you can take with one of the new iPhones that has a DSLR-quality camera phone built in.
Which DSLR-quality camera phone should you get? iPhone 13 vs 14 Pro
I first got my hands back on iPhone territory with the iPhone 11 — back in January 2020 (ahhhh, remember January 2020? When our lives hadn’t been turned upside down? Good times…). Until then, I’d been an Android user for years, since the Motorola series of smartphones stole me away from the iPhone 6 with its longer battery life and then the Pixel wooed me with its camera.
It had been a long time since iPhone could convince me that its battery life and camera had improved. But the iPhone 11 did it, and I found my way back to the Apple Ecosystem. In fact, the iPhone 11 became my go-to camera for pretty much everything because of its compact footprint and great-quality shots I could get without lugging around my DSLR or even my smaller SONY mirrorless camera.
Within months of moving back to Apple, I couldn’t imagine functioning without FaceLock and Apple Family Sharing. I couldn’t go back to a phone without incredible video editing software. And I’ve learned to put a lot of trust into Apple’s privacy features.
Then came the iPhone 12 (and 12 Pro) models, followed by iPhone 13 (and 13 Pro), which are still very much out in the marketplace even with iPhone 14 now on the scene. I’ve spent enough time with the iPhone 14 Plus to know that the Pro’s size and functionality are more my jam, but for those who don’t need the extra bells and whistles and who prefer a larger screen, the iPhone 14 Plus is a beautiful option. It’s too big in the hand for me (I have tiny, child-like hands), but in my Dad’s larger hands and waning eyesight, it’s a better choice for him.
But the the iPhone 14 Pro is where my heart is, and now that I’ve had significant time with it, it’s time to layer that update into this post.
While I know there are some of you that just go out and buy the latest tech no matter what, there are many of you who are out there looking on Marketplace and who consider deals from your carrier, so you may wonder if upgrading will be worth it. Hopefully this will help.
First, the key differences between iPhone 13 vs 14 Pro:
- First off, neither the iPhone 13 Pro or 14 Pro come come with a charger. Just charging cords. And though I know it’s more environmentally responsible, we tend to lose chargers like the Dickens around here. They’re like socks. That said, at least I can charge either of them by plugging into my MacBook Air using the USB-C cord they come with, which I couldn’t do with the iPhone 11 — so there’s that
- There are fresh colours for the iPhone 14 Pro, like the gorgeous Deep Purple I’m sporting above with its slick matte glass back, but the overall design is basically the same as the 13 Pro
- One of the biggest and most immediately noticeable differences is the dreaded “notch.” People really had a hate on for those notches at the top of the iPhone; frankly, it never really bothered me. But, after upgrading to the iPhone 14 Pro and its new Dynamic Island where the notch used to be, I can say without hesitation that it’s a far superior experience. And it is, indeed, dynamic — shifting and changing based on what you’re doing or what it’s trying to communicate; whether it’s a podcast you’re playing or Maps directions, this small pill-shaped area where the notch used to be appears as soon as your iPhone is unlocked. It’s interactive, too. Let’s say you’re on a call but want to look at your calendar while you’re chatting. Your phone call can now be accessed again just by tapping on the Dynamic Island. It seems like such a small thing, but for me it’s been a massive perk to the iPhone 14 Pro upgrade
- The A16 Bionic chip in the 14 Pro means everything is faster, again
- Though the screen size hasn’t changed, ditching the notch and changing the bezels means you do actually get more screen with the 14 Pro
- In Canada, our iPhone 14 Pros still have a SIM tray; in the U.S., these have apparently disappeared in favour of eSIMs.
- If you’ve ever been frustrated by using your iPhone outdoors in sunlight, you’ll be glad to know that the screen on the iPhone 14 Pro is brighter
- One other key improvement with the 14 Pro is the Always-on Display; even if your phone is locked, you’ll still be able to see certain widgets at a glance
- Apple has made yet another camera improvement, which for Pro users like me is an area that’s always a huge draw. The 14 Pro comes with a 48MP sensor on the main camera (instead of the 13 Pro’s 12MP), allowing much higher resolution images, and even boasts some improvement on the selfie camera, too. Paired with Apple’s new Photonic Engine image processor and a new quad pixel sensor (with a 2x telephoto zoom mode), photos are absolutely stunning and are clearer as you zoom in than they were with the iPhone 13 Pro
- For those of you using iPhone to shoot video, the 14 Pro made a nice leap forward, making 4K/24 fps in Cinematic mode possible (and, if you haven’t used Cinematic Mode yet, don’t walk…run to your phone to check it out)
- Both models do really well in low-light — I mean, like, really really well (sans flash!) — but the 14 Pro does win by a small margin, so you need to assess how important this feature is for you
- So… battery life. Keep in mind that I’m a heavy smartphone user. I’m up checking social media by 7 a.m. and then I’m on my phone nearly nonstop throughout the day in some capacity, setting it down for dinner and my kids’ bedtime and then back at it until my own bedtime, when I wind down with my meditation app most nights by 10 p.m. I can get through average days without seeing the red battery life warning appear, but on a heavy filming day, I may not even make it until 3 p.m. without needing to recharge. The 14 Pro is supposed to be more efficient thanks to its faster chip plus a refresh rate that can scale down to 1 Hz, but the difference isn’t enough to have any noticeable impact on battery life in my experience; and, in fact, I think the battery might actually be a bit worse on the 14 Pro if I’m being honest and nit-picky. This is the one area I wish Apple could figure out, because it’s my biggest pain point
- My only other real pain point is with close-up shots. They’re still a bit…shifty. Especially with food photography, where I do a lot of close-ups to get that really crisp “food porn” focus in the front and allow the natural blurring effect to round out the periphery. This first started with the iPhone 13 Pro and has unfortunately continued with the 14 Pro; whenever I try to get within a few inches of my subject, the phone does this weird jump and changes from its main lens to the Ultrawide one. And, frankly, I hate it. It looks more pixelated and I simply don’t get the shot I want. Even with all of the other photo and video upgrades (hello again, Cinematic Mode!), I’d give them ALL up to eliminate that jumpiness
Overall, I feel like the jump from iPhone 12 Pro to 13 Pro wasn’t nearly as much as the upgrade from the 13 Pro to 14 Pro, and for the Dynamic Island alone, I’m a bigger fan of this upgrade than I was last year.
Whether you go with the iPhone 12/Pro, 13/Pro or 14/Pro, know that you’re getting a DSLR-quality camera phone no matter what. I can’t tell you how consistently impressed I’ve been with the camera since coming back to Apple. For me, that’s the No. 1 thing I need out of my phone — the rest is gravy.
The bottom line: if you’re a content creator and you have to save money somewhere, you can definitely do plenty with the iPhone 13 Pro. But if photography is a big piece of what you do, and you make real money from it, there’s no question — the iPhone 14 Pro should be given very serious consideration. Film-makers and YouTubers will certainly want to take a closer look at the 14 Pro Max.
We need to talk about the iPhone SE
Whether this one sticks around for the long haul is still anyone’s guess, but Apple’s least expensive iPhone, the iPhone SE, has been a great option for my kids. In fact, I think it’s the best cell phone for kids — and I wrote extensively about our experience with it here.
iPhone long exposure trick
One feature that’s consistent between iPhone 11 and 12 and 12/13 Pro is the ability to create a photo that mimics a slow shutter speed. And while you won’t have quite as much control as you would with a DSLR/mirrorless, this is what really sets iPhone apart from other smartphones as a DSLR-quality camera phone. It definitely comes in handy when you’re shooting moving water, like a stream or waterfall, and haven’t lugged your bigger cameras with you. You need to be careful if there are people in the shot, since even their slightest movements will end up blurry and ruin the whole darn thing, and you’ll need to steady your iPhone on something or use a mini tripod before you take the pic. But the effects are stunning:
Here’s how to take long exposure photos on your iPhone 11 or 12/12 Pro:
- Be sure you’ve got your “Live” photo option turned on. This is essential.
- Steady your iPhone and take your pic.
- Exit out of camera mode and open your Photos app.
- Do NOT go into the “Edit” option, but instead swipe up from the bottom of your photo.
- Now look for the “Effects” option just below your photo (there will be four of them).
- Scroll all the way to the right until you find the “Long Exposure” choice. Select this.
- Wait for the magic to happen! Your photo, provided it was steadied well, should have all still subjects in the photo as is but your moving subjects (e.g. water during the day or car lights at night) in motion. Note that you can undo this at any time by repeating the steps above, but scrolling back to “Live” during the Effects step.
Here’s how to take long exposure photos on your iPhone 13 or 14 Pro (yes, it’s different):
- Be sure you’ve got your “Live” photo option turned on.
- Steady your iPhone and take your pic.
- Exit out of camera mode and open your Photos app.
- Click on the “LIVE” icon above the top-left corner of your photo, which should bring up a drop-down menu of four different effects (Live, Loop, Bounce and Long Exposure).
- Tap on “Long Exposure.”
- Wait for the magic to happen! Your photo, provided it was steadied well, should have all still subjects in the photo as is but your moving subjects (e.g. water during the day or car lights at night) in motion. Note that you can undo this at any time by repeating the steps above, but tapping on the “Live” effects instead.
Apple Watch 7 vs 8 & do you need cellular?
I really felt that our Apple Ecosystem was complete once we were all on iPhones and we could share iCloud space and manage our kids’ digital wellbeing. And if you’d told me just a few years ago that I’d be putting a watch on every day, I’d have chuckled a little.
Because I have a phone. With a clock. What would I need a watch for?!
I hadn’t worn a watch for easily a decade. I’d tried various smart watches and a FitBit along the way, but they were all pretty short-lived. Either there weren’t enough features to keep me interested or the battery life didn’t last all day — or…something. There was always something.
So I didn’t expect much when I first had the opportunity to test the Apple Watch Series 5. And, frankly, I probably didn’t use it to its full advantage at first either. But little by little, I started to notice things I really liked. Just by wearing it, every time I went to my MacBook Air to work, it automatically unlocked it. I’d get hourly reminders to stand and walk around for a minute. Then a friend added me and I knew every time she worked out or went for a walk, which made me want to go for a walk, too. Misplaced my phone? Oh, look: I can find it using my Apple Watch (and I do so at least a dozen times a day). Hiking with Miss Q one day, I managed to miss a cutoff for a trail, and since I’m pretty directionally challenged, having a compass on my wrist sure came in handy.
It was also the first smart watch I had that was water-resistant enough to come into the shower or swimming pool with me. That meant I only took it off to charge at night, instead of taking it off to shower and forgetting to put it back on.
When I moved to the Apple Watch Series 6 alongside an intense eight-week health program, it helped overhaul my fitness and nutrition that had gone completely by the wayside since March 2020. Now in 2023, I can’t imagine tracking my fitness and staying accountable using any other tool.
But do you need to spend the extra money to get a Series 8 Apple Watch or can you make do with a Series 7 and save a few bucks? Allow me to give you my thoughts:
- Off the top, it’s worth mentioning that with all of the Apple Watches I’ve tried to date, from the Series 5 on, tracking your workouts and challenging your contacts to weekly fitness competitions, using the Challenges app (if you’re part of a semi-organized program like I run every few months with an ever-growing Facebook group), earning your “rings” (for daily movement, workouts and hourly stand goals) and overall accountability all runs exactly the same
- Design-wise, nothing much has changed either and the ECG functionality, Always-on Display, Emergency SOS and fall detection, built-in GPS, compass and altimeter, plus water resistance of up to 50 metres are still there, too
- With the Series 8, the only two real advantages over the 7 are a skin-temperature sensor and crash detection. Honestly, if you can get a great deal on an Apple Watch 7, go for it because the upgrades are minimal this time around
- That is, unless you’re trying to get pregnant. Or not get pregnant. Because apparently your wrist temperature can scientifically be tied to your fertility. This was news to me, but I’ve been out of the fertility game for a while
- Using improved gyroscopes and accelerometers, plus a couple of new motion sensors, Apple Watch 8’s crash detection works basically in real time. The point is that if your vehicle isn’t equipped with crash detection, your watch will automatically call emergency services and send notifications to your emergency contact(s)
- The Apple Watch Series 8 battery isn’t really supposed to be better than the 7 (which has very impressive battery life, BTW), but I do find that it can go into day two without charging and get me nearly to lunch
- In terms of charging time, the 8 is still pretty much the same as the 7 — going from nearly zero to 80 per cent charged in just 45 minutes. In fact, if you only charge these things for eight minutes, you can actually get an entire eight hours of sleep data, which is pretty remarkable. If you’re someone who wants to wear an Apple Watch nearly around the clock, upgrading to the Series 7 was a no-brainer but without any noticeable gains, an upgrade to the 8 doesn’t seem to be
My fave feature after all this time is still the ability to ping my phone. I keep my sound off, so it’s not like someone can just call my number to have it ring so I can go off in search of sound. Without this option, I’d spend a lot more time searching for my iPhone than I already do.
Next question: do you need cellular on your Apple Watch? Although the Series 5, 6, 7 and 8 Apple Watches I’ve tried had cellular options, I wanted to see if I really needed it and opted to not add it with my cellular provider on any of them. In the more than three years I’ve been using Apple Watches, I haven’t once thought, “oooh, I really wish I’d added that cellular plan.” OK, maybe on the ski hill. I just don’t find the sound quality for phone calls through the watch compare to the phone itself. They’re fine in a pinch, but there’s no contest with actual iPhone or sending a call to your AirPods.
Let me end this section with the straps; there are lots of options and I’ve tried a bunch of them:
- the Sport Band — a “high-performance fluoroelastomer with a pin‑and‑tuck closure,” this is my current everyday choice
- the Sport Loop — which is much lighter but holds water after a shower, and is the one I reach for least
- the Braided Solo Loop — it’s that rainbow-coloured band in the Apple Watch photo above, and it was my favourite for about six months until it started to stretch out and no longer provided a snug fit
- I still really want to try the original Solo Loop since it probably won’t stretch out like the woven alternative
AirPod vs AirPod Pro vs AirPods Pro 2 (and AirPods 3 vs AirPods Pro)
I’ve owned a number of wireless earbuds for several years, some with a wire between the two buds and some without, like Apple’s AirPods series. So when the iconic AirPod originals came to market, they immediately went on my Covet List.
Until I tried putting a pair in my ears.
I don’t know what kind of mangled ear canals I have but not only were AirPods not comfortable in my ears, they simply wouldn’t stay in properly even at a walking pace.
That’s why I was pumped when the AirPods 3 style came out, which reimagined the shape of the in-ear buds. And, yes, they are definitely more comfortable than the OG AirPods in my ears and, thankfully, they never fell out when I was testing them in the wild, but they still wouldn’t be my top pick.
And that’s because of the AirPod Pros. Hello, dreamy! These are among my most favourite of all current products in the Apple Ecosystem.
Are they more expensive than regular ol’ AirPods? YES. But for comfort, performance and battery life, this is one product where the upgrade price is absolutely, unquestionably worth it.
Aside from being exceptionally easy to get up-and-running (it’s a truly “plug and play” experience), AirPods Pro also far more comfortable for me than the original AirPods and come with a range of features that make the significant price jump worthwhile. I’ll note where the AirPods Pro 2nd generation buds have a leg up:
- I have to start with the ability to get a more customized fit thanks to the three tip sizes that come with your AirPod Pro package. I can attest that two of them (the small and medium) work for my own odd ear shapes, with one being Goldilocks-just-right. The AirPod Pro 2 set adds an XS size as well
- Water-resistance — I mean, don’t go hit the swimming pool with your AirPod Pro headphones, but don’t worry about sweat or getting caught in the rain. I’m here to tell you that I sweat into them all the time (gross, I know) and have been out walking or running in the rain several times and have had no issues
- When it comes to sound, the AirPod Pro options are definitely superior to regular AirPods
- Adaptive EQ — that means that the lower and mid-range frequencies take your actual EAR SHAPE into account to create a more customized, immersive sound just for you
- Dolby Atmos spatial audio — if you’re watching a movie that uses Dolby Atmos and it there’s a train coming from the left, the sound you hear will mimic it and you’ll hear the sound coming in from the left because they track your head’s motion in relation to the device you’re watching, so the sound comes from the “right” place as a result
- Where the AirPods Pro 2 win is with the addition of a touch sensor on the back of the buds that allow you to control the volume (it’s hard to believe we couldn’t before and I don’t ever want to go back to that place)
- Auto-switching — your AirPods Pro can now switch between devices as it detects which one you’re using in real time
- Pressure valve — apparently, AirPods Pro uses a tiny pressure valve that reduces pressure inside your ear. I clearly never experienced this kind of pressure before, or perhaps this is most notable in air transit, but this is not a feature I can tell you anything about from personal experience
- Battery — jeez Louise, the AirPods Pro battery life is outstanding! I use them every day for at least 30 to 60 minutes and recharge them once every week or three
- One of the biggest improvements with the AirPods Pro 2 upgrade is the addition of a U1 chip, which enables the Find My option; there’s apparently also a speaker now for low-battery alerts but I’ve literally never heard a single notification
- And I’ve saved the best for last — noise cancellation. Here’s a little secret…sometimes, I’m not even listening to anything in my AirPods but I have them on if I’m trying to work on the same floor as my kids or I’m out for a walk and don’t want to stop to chat with anyone (people are much less likely to start a conversation when you’re wearing earphones!). THESE THINGS ARE WHITE NOISE GOLD! As soon as I put them in, nearly all background noise gets pushed out. The AirPods Pro 2 ear buds do an even better job on something that I truly didn’t even think needed improvement. But, seriously, you have to adjust the cancellation or take out a bud to even think about having a proper conversation with someone who’s only a foot away. Now that life is getting back to normal and I’ve started working in coffee shops from time to time, I am never ever without my AirPod Pro 2nd-generation besties
Both AirPods and AirPods Pro work with Siri, and while I can only tell you about my experience on the Pro front, I imagine it holds true for both. Siri works. Whether she’s reading me a text (to which I can reply using dictation) or I’m interrupting my music to call my husband and remind him of something that hit me in the moment, the integration is seamless.
Now for sound quality. Again, this isn’t a direct comparison but rather my thoughts on the AirPods Pro experience against all of the other wireless earbuds I’ve tried. Here’s how I’d describe it in three words: clear, rich and balanced. I’m not technically equipped to offer you anything beyond “they sound great.” So you’ll just have to trust me on this one.
And remember how I mentioned in the Apple Watch section that the sound from the watch alone isn’t amazing? Well, once your music or phone call is connected via Bluetooth from your watch to your AirPods Pro, you’d never know the difference between listening to the sound on your iPhone.
My biggest recommendation, though, regardless of your choice between AirPod vs AirPod Pro, is to get some kind of protective casing for the housing. Because this is how you charge the little guys, and if it gets broken and you don’t have Apple Care, you won’t be able to charge your earbuds. There are silicone protectors on Amazon that are inexpensive and effective enough that we haven’t had any issues to date.
iPad & iPad Air
Oh, boy — there are a lot of iPads I could write about. It seems like we’ve had them all, but realistically, we still use our big ol’ iPad 2 as the white noise machine in our upstairs hallway at night and our iPad Mini 4 is still going strong and houses lots of games and movies for any of our road trips from Toronto.
My kids have been using the iPad 7 and 8 in some capacity since they did remote learning back in 2021, which we paired with the Smart Keyboard and original Apple Pencil and designated them as learning devices. Back then, they mostly stayed in our makeshift classroom (a.k.a. one wall of our now-cramped dining room — see homeschool room ideas) but are of course equipped with many of their favourite apps and of course educational ones, too, like these learning apps for kids of all ages. Now, it’s a free for all.
Although our school board runs on Chromebooks, we had fantastic success using iPads — even if it sometimes took a minute to figure out workarounds when teachers sent instructions with things like shortcuts that were designed for a Chromebook. The ability to write and draw means we didn’t waste paper and we didn’t have to take photos of the kids’ work to submit to teachers — they were just built in as files. And the added portability was nothing to sneeze at either. So, take note, homeschooling parents: the iPad should be a strong consideration in your learning tool box.
The newest iPads are fast and lightweight, and when you add the keyboard and all of the Google-related apps that the teachers and kids alike like to use, it can easily replace a PC or laptop in elementary school and transition beautifully for pure entertainment value.
Looking for the best parental control app? There you go.
In a toss-up between iPad 7 vs iPad 8? Having swapped one of their iPad 7s out with the iPad 8, you wouldn’t think there’s much of a difference just by looking at it. And that’s because, at face value, they are pretty similar. The device size is the same. The screen size is the same. The available storage is the same. The megapixels on the cameras are the same. Even the available colour choices are the same. Both can support iOS 14. Both interface with the overarching Apple Ecosystem equally. And neither work with the 2nd-Generation Apple Pencil.
So why on earth would you get an iPad 8 if you already had a 7? The battery life is slightly better and it’s all of that “under the hood” stuff that might convert you, like a much faster processing speed and more riveting graphics. There are improvements to the camera’s processing as well, but I honestly don’t know how many people are using their iPads for photography. We sure aren’t, unless you count the weird selfies I find of my kids.
If you’re using an iPad for gaming (beyond something like Minecraft or Crossy Road, I mean) or watching sports and action films, you’ll probably notice a difference with the extra speed. In our home academic setting, though, the differences aren’t big enough that we would go to the expense of upgrading.
But if you’re in the market for a new iPad, your REAL question should come down to whether the older iPad 8 can stack up to the newer models in terms of speed, functionality and accessory compatibility. We haven’t tried the iPad 9 or 10, to be clear, so this is where my advice ends.
iPad vs iPad Air
When Apple released the first iPad Air we had (8th gen), the first thing that caught my eye was its slim design and how it sits on the Magic Keyboard, almost like it’s floating…in, you know, air.
It was the first Apple device to run on the company’s new A14 processor, so it’s wasn’t just its appearance and new touch ID that deserved attention.
When we tested the iPad Air 5, she was a beauty. But with even the newer iPad 9 — at the time — starting at CDN$429 (base 32GB model) and the iPad Air 5 (base 64GB model) starting at CDN$749, that $3250 difference came with a you-had-better-be-worth-it expectation.
Should you be using your iPad purely for, say, watching Netflix, playing low-res games, checking email and other such basic device needs, the real WOW factor of the iPad Air may not necessarily be realized. But once we stacked an iPad 8 connected to the Smart Keyboard and Apple Pencil against an iPad Air 5 connected to the Magic Keyboard, there was really no comparison.
The former is entry-level while the latter is elite. The iPad 8 combo worked beautifully for my kids and their academic needs. They could type, search, save and store information quickly and easily, and their little fingers work with the Smart Keyboard just fine.
But if you’re looking for a laptop-hybrid that offers touchscreen tablet functionality that can multitask faster than you can, I would — without question — choose the iPad Air combo for myself and all of my adulting requirements. It takes productivity to the next level in a very compact footprint with the ultimate portability. I haven’t even fully tested out its built-in photo and video editing software, but I dare say it could potentially replace my larger MacBook Air. And that is why it’s worth an extra $320.
This isn’t just because the iPad Air is innately superior in so many ways to the iPad. No; it’s also because the Magic Keyboard runs circles around the Smart Keyboard and the Apple Pencil 2 puts its predecessor to shame.
I’m absolutely smitten with the latest iPad Mini. With its A15 bionic chip and Apple Pencil 2 support, crystal clear edge-to-edge display and landscape stereo speakers, this ain’t what a Mini used to be. In fact, I don’t even let my kids use the Mini, which I’ve designated as my personal TV alternative. I keep it on my bedside table and use it for everything from watching my reality TV shows to my beloved word games.
Touch ID adds security and convenience and the battery life is excellent. It’s also equipped with Center Stage, allowing you to stay centred in the frame while you’re on video calls or doing a virtual media tour — no matter how much you move from side to side.
Its compact footprint and slim design mean I actually consider taking it with me for airplane rides, and although I wouldn’t choose it over my iPhone 14 Pro for photos, it does take really good ones thanks to its 12MP sensor and Smart HDR. It can even record in 4k.
Big, big fan here.
Smart Keyboard vs Magic Keyboard
This is really like comparing apples (see what I did there?) to oranges, because the two keyboards are so different — and not just in price, but in feel, functionality and design.
Like I mentioned earlier, my kids have no problem using their wee fingers to type on the Smart Keyboards, but when I’ve had to step in to review an assignment before they hand it in, I’ve definitely found the smaller keyboard (with letters that barely rise above the platform on which they sit) a somewhat clunky experience.
The Magic Keyboard, on the other hand, is much more akin to the typing experience on a laptop, including even a bigger keyboard like you’d find on a MacBook Air. The keys just punch better. Plus, and this is the kicker, it has a trackpad. I also much prefer the way the Magic Keyboard displays the iPad Air to how the Smart Keyboard holds on to the iPad 8. You can adjust the screen (with a tilt of up to 130 degrees), making something like a Zoom call or Google Meet better since you can angle the camera directly at your face instead of having it shooting from below — which is flattering for exactly no one. It improves the screen-viewing experience, too.
As if the keys themselves weren’t already better on the Magic Keyboard, they’re also backlit. Again, probably not a feature a kid would need but definitely something those of us who often work well past dark would find useful.
If you’re dumb like me and find yourself working a lot in bed or on the couch and have your laptop or tablet in the centre of your crossed legs or propped up on a pillow, there’s no way you’ll be able to type on the Smart Keyboard. It’s just not rigid enough. Let’s be clear — I’m not telling you to work like this. It’s terrible for your body so don’t do it. But, if you just won’t listen, then know that the Magic Keyboard will work for you3
Perhaps the coolest part of the Magic Keyboard — are you getting that I’m a fan? — is this: it has a built-in USB-C “pass-through port” in its hinge that charges your iPad Air. Why is that cool, you ask? It means that the USB-C port on the iPad Air is freed up if you want to plug in any of the new cables that come with AirPods Pro or iPhone 12, for example.
The only downside I can see so far is that the Magic Keyboard adds more weight to an iPad than the Smart Keyboard will. I’m fine with it because the rest of the advantages are so, so plentiful.
And, finally, how does Apple Pencil compare to Apple Pencil 2?
If you thought I was gung-ho on the Magic Keyboard upgrade, just wait until I tell you why the Apple Pencil 2 is significantly better than the original Apple Pencil.
And, don’t get me wrong, if I’d never tried both Apple Pencils, I wouldn’t have steered you away from the original. Because my kids love it and it’s been an instrumental virtual learning tool. They can write on documents their teachers assign rather than having to type, getting in extra writing practise (which I believe is important); they can use a blank “page” on their iPads to do long-form math problems and scribble/erase as much as they need to without going through hoards of paper; they can draw beautiful pictures in full colour and complete art assignments, sending them as files to their teachers rather than relying on me to take a photo of their work, email it to them, download it to their iPads and then upload it to Google Classroom.
But the charging and pairing process. Oof.
You have to charge and pair the original Apple Pencil to an iPad by taking off the VERY SMALL cap (that I still can’t believe we haven’t managed to lose) on one end of the pencil and then plugging that into the iPad’s lightning port. If you don’t have a designated container or spot to store said cap (we keep putting it back in the original packaging and putting that into each kid’s respective pencil holders on their desks) I recommend you find one. Because this thing is small. Really small.
Enter the Apple Pencil 2. It doesn’t perform any differently in terms of writing or drawing on an iPad (which will be welcome news to those who already have an Apple Pencil), but where it shows significant improvement is in how it magnetically snaps onto the iPad Air 4, both pairing and charging it while it sits there neatly. No tiny cap, no plugging in of things, nada. It’s also a bit less slippy in the hand than its predecessor because of both its shape and texture.
I’ve only just started using the Apple Pencil 2, but it has a natural feel and it’s light enough to spend hours holding it. I know. I’ve done it. I drew this using both old-fashioned brush strokes and some of the built-in features of the AutoDesk SketchBook app:
What I just figured out, mere days before publishing this post for the first time, was finding its magical, secret button. On the flat side of the Apple Pencil 2, there’s a nondescript area just above where you’d naturally have your index finger. You can double-tap here to choose a default action (think: switching between pen/pencil and eraser or showing the colour palette); I chose eraser and was surprised how effectively it worked without any kind of learning curve.
I’ve also just started using Notes to convert written notes (using printing or even messy handwriting as seen below) to convert my stream-of-consciousness thoughts into typed, easier-for-others-to-read information:
Pro Tip (literally): If you find your connectivity gets intermittent or stops at all when using an Apple Pencil, try tightening the tip — just the tip (sorry, had to be done). I was drawing this picture on the iPad Air 4 (with the Autodesk SketchBook app) using the Apple Pencil 2 and after about two hours, I could only seem to “draw” every few strokes…then not at all. I searched the interwebs for a troubleshooting solution and this was the culprit; it just needed a little tightening and it was back to normal.
And, you guessed it, of course the Apple Pencil 2 is more expensive. But I feel as strongly about this upgrade as I do about the AirPods Pro. Because I simply cannot understate how much I hate the idea of losing the little charging cap that belongs to the original Apple Pencil and then, God forbid, the charging tip itself gets damaged.
MacBook Air review
Within the last week or two as I’ve been pecking away at this post, there was a massive software update called macOS Big Sur. While it’s been specifically engineered for the new M1 chip in the latest iteration of the MacBook Air (which I don’t have), there are enough reasons to install this free software on your 13-inch MacBook Pro, MacBook Air and Mac mini, like:
- A fresh design for easier navigation (for me, it really comes down to having more cohesion between the way things look on all of my devices since the Mac dock icons now look exactly like they do on my iPhone and iPad)
- Safari, Messages, Maps and privacy have new enhancements (cough, cough… the biggest update to Safari since its original launch in 2003, not least of which means you can now stream video for up to 1.5 hours longer or browse the web for up to an hour longer on a Mac notebook compared with Chrome or Firefox)
- The all-new Control Center provides quick access to Do Not Disturb, displays and keyboard brightness controls along with other shortcuts. The display piece alone is a significant improvement for me because it’s a much faster route to share my laptop screen with my TV (more on the Apple TV 4k next)
And if your Mac is the hub of your family’s Apple Ecosystem like it is for us, you’ll want to make sure everything is up to date so it all operates optimally.
As I said way back up in the first few paragraphs of this (now extremely long) post, I’ve been using a Mac for a long, long time in some capacity. I’ve been using a MacBook Air since April and it rules my life — yep, probably even more than my phone. Sure, I can do a lot from my iPhone (like A LOT a lot), but my business and my family rely on having a hub where I can manage anything from a new blog post to Family Sharing to our (usually busy) calendar of activities to our tens of thousands of photos and videos.
The MacBook Air does all of that, and then some. Heck, there are features I’ve never even begun to use in the seven months I’ve had this gorgeous rose gold beast in my hands.
Things I love about the MacBook Air:
There’s a lot to love — and remember, I don’t even have the fanciest, newest one… For reference, I have the A2179 model. (You can compare the last three MacBook Air iterations here if you’re interested.)
- The price! You can still get this model since it came out in 2020, and you’ll find it for around $1,200 online at the Canadian retailers still selling it — this is incredible value for the machine you get
- Not only does my iPhone 12Pro pretty much offer a DSLR-quality camera phone but paired with the MacBook Air, I have photo and video editing software that’s so good I rarely need to jump over to Lightroom to brighten, enhance, crop and more
- It’s fast. I can’t compare to the M1 processor, of course, but I’ve never once felt a lag. Again, I’m not into tech specs; I’m just here to tell you that everything works — consistently — the way I expect a solid computing machine to work
- Its display is bright and beautiful
- It’s pretty light for a 13″ laptop and it’s super thin. If I was still going into the city for work and toting it around like I would’ve in The Before Times, I know I’d appreciate this
- There’s a headphone jack! I know so many people use wireless earphones, but I do prefer having the option
- The backlit, low-profile keys and the strike of those keys are juuuuuuuust right, and the keyboard itself is just spaced beautifully
- The trackpad is huge (so huge is YUUUUGE!)
- I love the Touch ID sensor and that my Apple Watch can also unlock the MacBook Air when I sit down in front of it
- The full integration of the Apple Ecosystem sits here and I can do everything, including using Siri and replying to texts if I’m in front of my laptop and my phone is across the room or even in another part of the house
And, best of all, Macs just do everything simultaneously with more ease than a PC. You can have 157 tabs open and run several apps at the same time and things just keep on humming in the background. I know because this is me to a T.
Oh — and I have still never needed to install anti-virus software.
Things I’d change or improve:
- There’s no USB port; that means I can’t plug in an older iPhone or iPad cord nor can I charge some other devices (such as the TOBI kids’ smartwatch I’ve been testing for my gift guide that comes only with a USB-enabled charging cord and suggests it charge via laptop). I know, I know — USB-C ports are the future. But for those of us who don’t get the latest and greatest every time new tech is launched, having a standard USB port would be most welcome
- I usually get one full day of battery life with average usage, but if I’m running lots of videos (like video meetings or Zoom’d fitness classes), it depletes quickly. This also probably has something to do with those 157 open tabs…
- The camera is just OK; I often think I look dull or faded when I see myself on Zoom or Hangouts (a-yo, vanity check!). It doesn’t matter how well-lit I am either…I’ve tried a ring light!
- I wish it were louder; even on full volume, if there’s anyone at home making even a bit of noise, I need to put headphones on so I don’t struggle to hear what’s coming out of the MacBook Air
- I have a love/hate relationship with the Display (found via LaunchPad > System Preferences if you haven’t updated to BigSur); it streams whatever’s on your MacBook Air screen to your TV but it can be glitchy or experience delays. Let me tell you, when you’re in the middle of a HIIT workout and it stalls, it’s no party. This may be directly related to our WiFi but we don’t seem to have other WiFi issues so I can’t be sure
Apple TV 4k review
It was part of the Apple Ecosystem we never knew we needed — but it’s become such a cornerstone of our experience.
However, full disclosure: we don’t actually have it hooked up to our 4k-enabled TV. That bad boy is in our rec room and it’s where our cable is, which I don’t watch, so I rarely even go down there. It’s a combined kid zone and man cave. I watch TV in my bedroom (don’t @ me). It’s a perfectly lovely TV with stunning graphics and incredible colour accuracy, but it’s not 4k so I’m not actually here to talk about the 4k part of this Apple TV.
We’ve had two other Apple TVs before — the first one that ever was and the third-generation model. I won’t even bother creating a comparison between older versions and the Apple TV 4k. There is no comparison. We’ve also used Roku and Chromecast products, so trust that this comes from someone who’s spent serious time with streaming devices.
This is everything you need to know about why I’m sold on this $229 product:
- First off, set-up is stupid easy
- The interface is crisp, clean and super intuitive
- Everything works FAST
- It comes with one full year of Apple TV+ for FREE
- Being able to shoot content from my phone or laptop up onto the TV screen is great for fitness classes in my bedroom (with the caveat I noted above in the MacBook Air section)
- It supports immersive sound from Dolby Atmos and you can even use Apple HomePods to create stereo sound effects
- I downloaded our cable provider’s app, so now I have cable TV in my bedroom for the first time
- We also downloaded YouTube, HayU, Netflix, DAZN, Amazon Prime and other news channel apps — I can watch everything from bed now!
- There are games! Fun games — especially tennis, which uses the Apple TV 4k remote as a motion sensor for you to play like you would with the WiiU or the old Kinect sensor. But I’m not allowed to play tennis anymore because I got a little fiesty and the remove flew out of my hand and hit the wall mere inches from our TV…
- Speaking of that remote, it’ll take some getting used to because it has a trackpad-style area on it that’s unlike anything you’ve had on a remote before and it’s extremely sensitive
- And hey — don’t like the remote? Don’t use it. Because you’ve got Siri built in and you can not only search for shows (across all of your installed apps at once!) but you can also enter passwords with your voice
- Aaaaand you can also use your iPhone to type in shows or passwords because, yeah, that Apple Ecosystem is always at work
I do wish it came with an HDMI cable, though.
Apple HomePod Mini vs Google Home Mini
As long-time nest thermostat and nest hello doorbell owners, we’ve been a Google Assistant-managed house for many years. The Google Smart Hub on our main floor speaks to our Google Home Mini upstairs, but also helps us manage our smart-home settings and devices with the added benefit of a screen.
So breaking away from our comfort and familiarity to try the Google Home Mini was tough. But with such an expansive Apple Ecosystem at our fingertips, I welcomed the opportunity to at least give them a whirl.
The first thing we did was ditch our old iPad in the upstairs hallway that was being used for a nighttime white noise machine. There are a range of Ambient Sounds available on the Apple HomePod Mini (white noise, rain, ocean…) and once you ask Siri to play one for you, it plays until you either wake up in the morning and ask Siri to stop or set a timer on it the night before.
One big bonus that we weren’t expecting was that there’s a little light atop the unit that stays on all night, creating the perfect hallway night light. It was bright enough that my kids didn’t ask us to keep the bathroom light on while they fell asleep but dim enough that it actually let off less light than the iPad screen did each night (we kept a clock on via the white noise app we were using).
So far, we’ve enjoyed using the intercom feature between the two HomePod Minis we have — one on the main floor along with the one in the upstairs hallway — and playing music, which you can do independently for each Mini (even playing different music on each, if you like) or holistically. Just ask Siri to “play music everywhere.” Place two HomePod mini speakers together in the same room and you can create left and right channels for truly immersive sound.
Music, incidentally, is one of the key differentiators of the HomePod Mini when it comes to at-home smart speakers. Vocals, instruments and especially bass come through with gorgeous sound — even at full volume. It’s fulsome and rich and instead of sending music to a specific “sweet spot” in your space, it treats the entire space as your sweet spot and the sound remains fulsome and rich no matter where you’re standing.
Gram for gram, it packs the most punch of any smart speaker on the market. This comes down to something called computational audio and since I’m not tech-savvy enough to explain that, I’ll direct you here instead.
And it’s all packed into a tiny package that’s nice enough to be part of any contemporary decor (we went with white but the grey is also really nice).
Siri’s updated intelligence also seems to include more humour than was already programmed, because when we asked for the weather one brisk morning, her voice actually shivered during her report.
Siri apparently recognizes voices of up to six different family members, but with only a week of HomePod Mini under our belts, I can’t tell you much about what this means in terms of customization. What’s irritating me so far is that every.single.time. I go into my Apple Home app on my iPhone, it asks me to set up my voice with Siri. I tried opening it 12 times yesterday and it continued to ask me each time.
At the end of the day, if you use an iPhone and want a smart speaker, you’d be crazy not to spend $129 on this little guy. It’s going to complement your existing Apple Ecosystem and allow you to text your contacts, make and receive calls without even having your phone within arm’s reach, add to a running grocery list, let you search the web hands-free (and also throw the results to your phone’s display).
Then there’s the “hand off” feature. Let’s say you’re listening to your favourite podcast or rocking out to some awesome tunes in your living room’s HomePod Mini, but it’s time to get in the car to pick up the kids from school — you can hand it off by bringing your iPhone close to the HomePod Mini and it’ll let you keep listening on your iPhone as you walk out the door.
Perhaps the most important thing to me when we plugged in our HomePod Minis was protecting our privacy. When you ask Siri a question, your request is randomized and not connected to your Apple ID. It’s not always listening, either; unless you say “Hey, Siri…” your private conversations are just that — private.
Side note: there’s also a ton of smart-home technology that the HomePod Mini supports, like lighting and blinds, that I haven’t had enough time to fully explore. It took a few tires to connect my Philips Hue Smart Outdoor Lighting to Apple Home, but I haven’t had enough time to properly re-organize all of the lights like I have them set up in the Philips Hue app). I’ll add more down the road when I get Philips Hue set up properly and my overall experience broadens. One advantage of using an Apple-created smart tech is that you don’t even need a bridge to connect and control it from your Home app; just place your iPhone near the accessory and — POOF! — it registers on your screen and practically sets itself up.
Time will also tell if we miss having a screen like we did with our Google Hub, because while I can send things like recipes from the Mini to my iPhone, it doesn’t appear that I can send it to my bigger MacBook Air screen.
What is the Apple Ecosystem without iCloud? It’s really the glue that keeps that seamless, end-to-end experience accessible and protected.
And while Google/Pixel still win on the included photo storage front the unlimited, free storage it once offered to all Pixel users is coming to an end in the middle of 2021. Photos and videos take up the vast majority of my storage with files and apps representing only a tiny amount of space.
So you can guess how quickly I ran out of the 5GB of storage that came with my Apple ID, right? I think it lasted a month. Which actually wasn’t a big deal before Google made its announcement about photo storage, because I simply set up all my iPhone photos to backup in the Google Photos app. It was working like a charm.
When that announcement came, I panicked. I didn’t care so much about not backing up files, but the idea of losing photos and memories? No way.
Here’s the price breakdown if you, too, need more than just 5GB of storage:
- 50GB = $1.29/month — not sharable with family members, though
- 200GB = $3.99/month — sharable with family members
- 2TB = $12.99/month — sharable with family members
To put it in perspective, though, for a content creator who has way too many pics and vids, you might want to keep that entire 2TB for yourself. I am personally using nearly 600GB of the available 2TB. If — and it’s a big if — I share this storage plan with my kids, there will be strongly worded rules about the number of crazy selfies they’re allowed to take each day.
For a normal family, 2TB of space is a LOT. It translates to something like 48,000 RAW 12MP photos. Make that 488,000 12MP photos if they’re compressed. It also looks like 70 hours’ worth of 4k videos.*
And if you subscribe to another Apple service, like Music or Fitness+, it’s worth considering the new Apple One+ that consolidates six services under one umbrella — for one flat-rate price. Since it’s shareable among up to five family members, there’s impressive value to be had here.
Make sure you do the math if you subscribe, or plan to subscribe, to more than one of the following:
- Extra iCloud storage
- Apple Arcade
- Apple News
There are three plans available (prices in CDN):
- Individual = $15.95/month — includes 50GB of iCloud storage, TV+, Arcade and Music, saving you $7 per month without bundling
- Family = $20.95/month — includes 200GB of iCloud storage, TV+, Arcade and Music, saving you $10 per month without bundling
- Premier = $33.95/month — includes 2TB of iCloud storage, TV+, Arcade, Music, News+ saving you $10 per month without bundling
Even if we were ONLY going to use $12.99 a month of 2TB iCloud storage and $12.99 a month of Fitness+, that’s already $25.98/month. So for an extra $7.97 each month on the Premier Plan, it’s like we’re getting Apple Music for a $2-a-month discount.
My kids are obsessed with Apple Arcade but beyond the free trial period, I wouldn’t have gotten it for them because they have enough gaming elsewhere. But bundling it makes it free. Same goes for News+ — never something I would have considered before Apple One+, but it turns out there’s a ginormous selection of newspapers and magazines that appeal to all of us (kids included). And by the time we bundle that in, it’s free, too.
By the way: you can pay for any of these subscriptions, including Apple One+, with iTunes gift cards. Hello, gifting.
The Apple Ecosystem’s nod to wellness
My first impressions of Fitness+ back when it first launched were that it was going to be hard for any other fitness membership or service to beat the monthly price tag. The breadth of classes and genres available already in week one is staggering, and the integration within the Apple Ecosystem is, of course, seamless. That still holds true today, even if I have had to step away from the rigorous fitness routines I once enjoyed thanks to some early-onset osteoarthritis.
You don’t need an Apple Watch to use Fitness+ but if you want to see your heart rate and calories burned in real time on-screen, you won’t get that without one. But it’s absolutely possible to select and do classes without if you’re ready to pull the trigger on 13 bucks a month but not several hundred dollars upfront for a watch.
Here’s my overview so you can see what Fitness+ includes and how it works:
DISCLAIMER: Apple Canada provides me with loaner units to provide information to readers. I am not compensated for any Apple content and my opinions are my own.