The holidays are rapidly approaching, and when it comes to shopping for Apple products, there are few times of the year when you can save more than during the annual Black Friday-Cyber Monday period. Since there’s a good chance you’ll be hunting for Apple deals over the next few days, I wanted to point you in the direction of the best Apple products to buy — and help you skip this season’s bad choices.
Choosing an Apple Watch
After a very rough start with the original (now “Series 0”) Apple Watch, Apple began to turn its wearables fortunes around with the simultaneously released faster Series 1 and waterproof/GPS-ready Series 2 models — all of which have since been replaced by newer, better sequels. Every Apple Watch depends on an iPhone for setup and basic connectivity, but they keep growing more features and independence every generation.
Last year’s Series 3 looks the same as its predecessors from the outside, but it is even faster than the Series 2 while adding an altimeter for elevation tracking and the option of cellular calling (with a meager one hour of talk time). Apple dropped its price this year, and while it’s not the flashiest Apple Watch model anymore, it’s good for everything from time-telling to messaging and making the occasional phone call, all at reasonable $279 (38mm) and $309 (42mm) starting prices.
I would strongly recommend stepping up to the Series 4 models (full review here), which have noticeably larger screens, even faster processors, and improved heart sensors — with the ability to do electrocardiogram (ECG) scans. Collectively, the changes make Series 4 capable of quickly doing everything the original model should have done — more beautifully — and their subtly redesigned bodies are even nicer than before, especially the black or gold stainless models. Carriers appear to have the best Series 4 deals this year; Sprint is offering $100 off this model, and you may be able to save up to $200 on a high-end Series 4 purchase by buying two devices through T-Mobile.
Choosing an iPad
There’s one clear iPad winner for most people this year: the sixth-generation iPad (fully reviewed here) introduced back in March. Now with Apple Pencil support and an A10 processor, the standard 9.7-inch iPad includes 32GB of storage space for $329 or 128GB of storage for $429. Holiday sales are pushing both capacities’ prices down by $80 to $100.
If you have a lot more money to spend, consider the just-released 11-inch iPad Pro (fully reviewed here) instead. It’s packed with all of Apple’s latest technologies, including a laptop-quality A12X processor, a TrueDepth front camera with Face ID, a superior Liquid Retina screen, and the ability to hold up to 1TB of files. But it’s also expensive, with a 64GB model starting at $799.
I would advise you to skip the $399 iPad mini 4, which is now quite long in the tooth and facing much-needed replacement next year. Other models, such as the $649 10.5-inch iPad Pro and $999 12.9-inch iPad Pro, don’t offer as much value for the dollar as the options above but may strike you as a better fit for your needs.
Choosing an iPhone
Traditionally, Apple only markets its very latest phones — mostly the highest-end model — so that most customers focus only on whatever’s at the top of its totem pole. This year is different: High prices for its flagship iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max (reviewed here) have compelled buyers to look at lower-priced models, including last year’s phones, and there’s no single “best phone for everyone” in 2018.
My advice would be to look first at the iPhone XR (fully reviewed here) and determine whether it’s just right, too expensive, or too inexpensive for your budget. Starting at $749, the XR includes 90 percent of the features found in the $999 and $1,099 iPhone XS and Max models, leaving out things that relatively fewer people will care about. If something critically important to you is missing, spend more.
But you can also consider spending less. At $599 to $699, last year’s iPhone 8 and iPhone 8 Plus (review) are still very viable options — the 8 Plus has two rear cameras to the iPhone XR’s one, a fingerprint scanner rather than Face ID, and a 5.5-inch display inside a slightly larger housing, while the more compact iPhone 8 has a single rear camera and a smaller 4.7-inch screen. If it was me, I’d certainly go with the iPhone XR over the 8 Plus, but the iPhone 8 represents enough of a size and price savings to merit consideration.
Another very real option is the iPhone 7, which starts at $449. Normally, I wouldn’t suggest purchasing a two-year-old phone because it’s already around a third of the way through Apple’s iOS upgrade life cycle, but with next-generation 5G networks just around the corner, investing a lot of money in a 4G phone isn’t a great idea right now. If you just need something to tide you over for the next year or two, consider the iPhone 7, which has most of the iPhone 8’s features and design in a more resilient metal housing.
Choosing a Mac
For the first time in several years, it’s easy to recommend Macs again, as Apple finally updated its entry-level desktop and laptop machines. The hitch: They’re more expensive than before. You can now expect to spend at least $799 on a Mac, up from $499, but the latest Macs are faster and better than the ones they replaced.
The easiest Mac to recommend to pretty much everyone is the MacBook Pro with 13-inch Retina display (non-Touch Bar). It starts at $1,299 with a 2.3GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 processor and 128GB of storage, jumping to $1,499 for a 256GB model. It promises up to 10 hours of battery life on the go, and you can hook it up to a TV or monitor (with self-supplied cables) if you want to use a bigger screen.
Regardless of whether you’re a student, an average user, or a professional, it has enough power to do pretty much everything you might need. If you really want to step up, go with the entry-level quad-core 13-inch MacBook Pro with Touch Bar, which doubles both the processor cores and storage of the entry Pro model for a $500 premium. There are also much more expensive models if you need them.
I generally wouldn’t recommend Apple’s just-released 13-inch MacBook Air or its basic 12-inch MacBook. The 12-inch model has the same starting price as the Pro, but around half the CPU speed and a lower-quality display. Consider it only if you can live with a slow laptop and really prize its thinner profile. By comparison, the new 13-inch MacBook Air is $100 less than the Pro, but has a much slower 1.6GHz processor, lower-quality display, and only a small weight savings.
If you don’t need a portable computer, consider either the new Mac mini or the year-old iMac, based on whether you already have or want a 4K monitor. The screenless Mac mini is intended to be hooked up to a monitor, keyboard, and mouse you already own. Its base $799 configuration with a quad-core Intel i3 chip is seriously underwhelming compared with the $1,099 six-core Intel i5 model, which nearly matches Apple’s $3,000-$4,000 Pro desktops in power. Go with the cheap one if you’re on a tight budget, but splurge on the nicer model if you want something you’ll use for years to come.
Apple’s best desktop value is its $1,299 iMac with a 21-inch 4K Retina display built in. You get the keyboard and trackpad in the box, plus a top-notch monitor, a 3.0GHz quad-core Intel Core i5 processor, and a beefier Radeon Pro graphics card than the Mac mini or most MacBooks offer. If you need a bigger iMac, the $1,799 model with a 27-inch 5K Retina display is the right place to start. Skip both the Mac Pro and iMac Pro for now unless you’re okay with being disappointed when next year’s upgraded versions are released.
Accessories and other Apple holiday shopping tips
In past years, I’ve had plenty of Apple accessories to recommend from a wide variety of manufacturers, but this year I’m going to keep my “everything else” list short and sweet. Here are the five things I’d suggest you consider for an Apple fan.
- For Apple Watch, a Milanese Loop: The very best band I’ve tested for the Apple Watch is a classic design that is incredibly easy to put on and take off every day — the Milanese Loop. Apple sells 38/40mm and 42/44mm versions for $149 ($100 if bundled with a Watch), and they generally look and feel the best, but you can get highly similar versions at Amazon for $10 to $15. Be aware that they may be slightly color-mismatched or prone to fading over time; even so, you could buy a dozen for the price of an Apple version. (If you don’t like metal, consider Apple’s $49 fabric Sport Loop instead.)
- For iPad, an Apple Pencil: Apple now makes two different versions of the Apple Pencil stylus — a $99 version that works with the entry-level iPad and 2015 to 2017 iPad Pro models, and a $129 version that works with the 2018 iPad Pros. The less expensive model is a wireless and rechargeable precision writing tool with an awkward Lightning connector and no button, while the fancier one adds a tappable tool-switching surface and awesome magnetic recharging at a premium. If you draw or enjoy taking handwritten notes, these accessories are worth your time.
- For iPhone, a protective Spigen case: There’s no accessory more important to an iPhone than something that protects it from accidental drops. I personally use a sub-$15 Spigen Ultra Hybrid case on my iPhones, enabling much of the design to be both seen and protected by wraparound buffers. After years of use, my iPhones still look perfect; add a screen protector if you want to prevent face scratches.
- For Mac, a spare USB-C Power Adapter: With the release of the new MacBook Air last month, Apple has now switched virtually all of its laptops to USB-C power adapters — a decision that enables one charger to refuel any MacBook, and now the latest iPad Pros, as well. Pick the spare charger that matches the power needs of your largest device, then use it as needed in a second room of your house, at your office, or when you travel. They range from $49 to $79.
- For anyone, an iTunes gift card: When it comes to buying music, movies, books, and apps, people tend to appreciate the gift of choice more than any specific item you might pick. Around the holidays, you can get iTunes Gift Cards for 15 to 20 percent off their face prices, a nice savings that could help a lucky recipient pay for anything from a download to an Apple Music subscription. They’re available in denominations from $10 upwards, though discounted cards tend to only be available with values of $100 or less.
One accessory item that I’d love to recommend right now but can’t is Apple’s AirPods — truly wireless earphones that retail for $159. At a time when Apple’s transitioning its wired connector standards away from 3.5mm and Lightning ports, they’re impressively easy to use, nicely designed, and sound fine. But they’re also on the cusp of being replaced with an improved model. My advice: Save your cash until the new version is introduced, then jump right in.
Apple has announced that it will be holding a four-day “shopping event” starting on Black Friday and running through Cyber Monday, apparently with special offers each day. The company’s holiday specials have historically been disappointing compared to the deals offered by other retailers and largely focused on spotlighting or discounting high margin third-party accessories, so don’t hold off on purchasing a big ticket item elsewhere in hopes of an Apple deal. But the company could surprise everyone by offering something interesting this year, so consider visiting its online store to see what the deals are.
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