All the highlights from Apple’s WWDC 2017 keynote

Apple’s Worldwide Developer’s Conference (WWDC) took place this week, and the company spent a significant amount of time not on software announcements, as was common for past events, but with a lot of hardware announcements as well. This is quite odd because the company usually has a separate event for their hardware later in the year. The announcements that came at WWDC may have been put out due to pressure from investors, as Apple’s lack of information about their new products was starting to worry a lot of people. Still, we have a lot to run through today, so let’s get into it.

WatchOS 4

Apple’s Watch continues to make great strides in sales, and as a companion device it’s fairly decent when you tie it into the Apple ecosystem. It has its own uses as a separate device outside of that ecosystem though, and many people are buying it for that exact reason – it’s a smartwatch that can actually do a lot of useful things on its own. So Apple is making it do more with WatchOS 4.

Aside from the new time faces and the adorable Toy Story screensavers that pop up when you check the time, there’s also integrated task management powered by Apple’s Siri assistant. You still need a phone for this one, but it will pipe notifications and updates on your daily calendar, which you can scroll through and edit.

There’s also a new music player embedded into the Watch for the first time, as well as new fitness functions and indicators to tell you things about your workout. Bizarrely, Apple also announced that they’re working with gym equipment manufacturers to integrate training information into your watch for more accurate distance measurement and time-keeping. I doubt that there’s an open API for other smartwatch makers to tap into, so this will probably be exclusive to Apple for the time being.

MacOS High Sierra

Apple also revealed MacOS High Sierra, their latest incarnation of the Mac OS X operating system. In the middle of a few subtle jokes about weed and being fully baked, there’s some very interesting stuff going on under the hood here. The biggest change is the swap from Apple’s old disk format, HFS+, which was as patched up as it was ever going to be. Moving to APFS, Apple hopes to rid its platform of a lot of its quirks that pop up when it comes to working with storage both on the device and attached to it in large volumes. APFS has been implemented on the iPhone for more than two years now.

APFS is a bit like the ReFS improvements coming to Windows 10 Pro for Workstations, but it’s geared more towards personal computing and data security for individual devices. It’s leaner and faster than HFS+, with optimisations like batching up write operations instead of doing thousands of smaller ones in short bursts, native file sharing with Windows and Linux clients, and TRIM support for SSDs. It cuts down on the amount of writes to drives significantly to improve their performance and lifespan, it opens up new functions to support full disk encryption that includes locking away file system metadata, and it will also support file cloning and versioning without taking up more disk space.

In the case of the latter feature, MacOS High Sierra will allow you to have multiple versions of a file, but only the original file carries the data. The copies of that file, or the versions of it that have had incremental changes made to it only take up as much space as the changes themselves. In effect, you have file snapshots and versioning on your device without needing to make a full copy of the original. This means that whenever you open a file that’s been altered, MacOS opens up the original file, changes it and includes your edits, and then presents it to you in the relevant app that opens it. That’s pretty substantial. NTFS on Windows 10 can’t do that.

There are also some app improvements that I’ll gloss over. Safari gets some stability updates and now has “Do Not Track” browser protection with some machine learning bundled in, and the option to disable autoplaying videos on websites is enabled by default, which is a nice touch. Mail gets some improvements in the user interface, allowing split-screen composing of mails and improving the search functionality. Photos now includes editing tools that bring it up to par with the likes of Adobe Photoshop Elements. There’s also H.265 video support in the movie player now, allowing for GPU-accelerated playback of UHD 4K media.

Split-screen app support is now supported everywhere and for everything Apple makes on MacOS. Windows 10 has had this for a while, so it’s nice to see Apple following suit here. Siri also knows more about you now thanks to machine learning, and is that little bit creepier in reminding you about your hair appointment later today by also telling you when to leave to beat the traffic.

Metal 2 and VR Support

MacOS High Sierra ships with support for VR headsets and the SteamVR API from Valve. It also now has support for the VR rendering engines in Unreal Engine and Unity, and there’s support for the HTC Vive in the upcoming beta. Soon, the Oculus Rift will join in the pack, and hopefully we’ll see others like the Microsoft VR headsets join the crowd. This is a huge jump for Apple to make, and they seem fairly confident that developers on the Mac will want to use the platform over Windows for VR development, at least for things that aren’t fully 3D games. Support for the moment is quite slim on the feature side, but all the base functionality is there – support for viewport arrays to render objects properly instead of stretching them out in your peripheral vision, system tracing for performance monitoring, frame pacing on the GPU for VR workloads, and a full frame debugger. You could say things are getting pretty serious.

Apple has a graphics API called Metal that is built on the backbone of AMD’s Mantle rendering API, as well as the Vulkan API from Khronos Group. First included on iOS and now on MacOS, Metal has been used widely by Apple and its partners for a lot of general purpose GPU compute work, as well as rendering games with a close-to-the-metal API. Metal 2 is an update that doesn’t change things too drastically. Metal 2 is now used to power all of the transition effects and windowing management of MacOS High Sierra, giving it near-identical response times to iOS devices. Because it includes components from OpenCL, it’s also now used for GPGPU work inside applications like Final Cut Pro and the Photos app for video and photo editing, as well as GPU-driven machine learning for data mining.

Metal 2 also powers the VR capabilities of MacOS High Sierra, which means that any games made for SteamVR on Mac would have to use Metal 2 as well instead of OpenGL. This isn’t a bad thing, but it does fragment the platforms more, and the Khronos Group now has to upgrade their Vulkan-to-Metal translation layer to allow for games using Vulkan to pass on those commands to the Metal 2 API.

Also announced is external graphics support for Metal. Previously this was only possible for AMD Radeon GPUs on the old Metal API, and many patches and hacks were needed to get things working. Not only is Apple giving developers and users full support for external GPU enclosures, they’re also selling them to registered developers. For $599, Apple will sell you a Sonnet Thunderbolt 3.0 external enclosure with an AMD Radeon RX 580 graphics card. It looks like NVIDIA is missing out on this one.

iMac and iMac Pro upgrades

Apple had some things to update on their iMac lineup. These all-in-one desktops now ship with Intel Kaby Lake processors, and a new UHD 4K display option for the iMac 21-inch model. The base models now have support for two Thunderbolt 3.0 devices via a Type-C connector, as well as four USB 3.0 Type-A ports. On the baseline iMac 21-inch, Intel is including their new Iris Pro 640 graphics with 64MB of embedded DRAM to speed things up a little. Moving up to the 4K option also gets you a Radeon RX 555 or RX 560 graphics depending on which model you choose with a 4K display, with up to 4GB GDDR5 VRAM.

The iMac 27-inch gets display upgrades along with the smaller model, increasing brightness and improving colour reproduction by offering 10-bit dithering support. It too ships with Kaby Lake processors in the Core i5 and i7 families, as well as a 5K display as standard with a Radeon RX 570, RX 575, or RX 580 graphics card with up to 8GB GDDR5 VRAM. Apple previously had an Intel Iris Pro 6200 GPU in this model, so it’s a big step up in graphics horsepower. The same Thunderbolt 3.0 and USB 3.0 support is brought over from the updated 21-inch model.

Apple also announced the iMac Pro, shipping in December 2017. This is the fastest iMac they’ve ever built, offering up to an Intel Xeon 18-core, 36-thread processor, 128GB of registered DDR4 ECC memory, multiple SSDs in RAID for storage as well as Fusion drive capability, built-in 10GbE networking, and graphics courtesy of an AMD Radeon Vega Pro GPU, in one of two configurations with up to 16GB of HBM 2 memory. It’ll come in one colour – dark grey, as will all its peripherals.

The fact that it ships on December, however, is somewhat concerning. This machine is at least twice as fast in terms of GPU horsepower compared to the Mac Pro desktop, and almost 70% faster in CPU benchmarks compared to the older Xeon chips in the Mac Pro. Apple’s need to have a desktop offering might just go away entirely if this is the kind of powerhouse they can build for consumers, and so it might end up killing off the Mac Pro line for good. The inclusion of an 18-core Xeon is also troubling – this is based on Intel’s new Skylake-X processors on the new X299 platform, which launches in Q3 2017 with a small selection of Kaby Lake-X and Skylake-X processors at first. AMD’s Radeon Vega Pro graphics is also launching on 27 June, so this puts Apple fans and businesses that wanted this kind of hardware now in a spot.

It’ll sell well, no doubts there, but at a baseline asking price of $4,999, I’m left wondering if Apple wouldn’t have been better served with a switch to AMD’s Threadripper or EPYC platform which will be available long before Intel’s offering.

iOS 11 for iPad and iPhone coming soon

Yep, iOS 11 was also announced – no surprises there. The latest version of Apple’s mobile operating system makes a few changes to the overall user experience. The first is that both the iPhone and iPad now get access to a file management application natively supported by Apple that includes support for remote shares and cloud storage from Google Drive, Dropbox, and other similar services. The interface supports drag-and-drop organisation, so you can manually duplicate your files from iCloud to Dropbox if that’s needed. On the iPad, the dock is now customisable, bringing it closer to the MacOS user experience.

There are improvements to all of the base apps, which Apple spent a lot of time on. Siri on iOS also knows a lot more about you thanks to machine learning, and will contextually serve up notifications and reminders for particular things during the day based on the time and your physical location. Photos supports more editing tools, and there’s something similar to, but not exactly like, a system-wide clipboard that copies almost anything you can think of from one app into another through a drag-and-drop action. This is device-specific though, because on the iPad you can do it between any app, while on the iPhone there’s limited space for doing the same.

Glossing over the rest of the bigger announcements, there’s better support for the Apple Pencil for productivity work and document markups, Siri now does voice translations for you, Apple Pay now allows you to transfer money between devices via NFC or through the Messages app (which means that Apple Pay is now similar to a Bitcoin wallet in some respects), support is enabled for H.265 video with HDR and True Tone mapping on supported devices with the right camera sensor, there’s support for new devices using AirPlay2 like remote speakers, Augmented Reality support with an AR SDK available for developers, and CoreML, which is an API that uses machine learning to allow applications to become smarter about your personal preferences and activities day-to-day.

Macbook, Macbook Pro, and Air upgrades

The 2016 Apple Macbook Pro lineup also gets some upgrades. The displays are a little bit brighter this time around to help with glare, the NVMe SSDs are 50% faster thanks to updates on both the controller and the flash memory side, and all models are now updated with Kaby Lake mobile processors, including the Macbook which now uses Kaby Lake Core M processors. The configurations remain more or less the same, with the Macbook Pro 13 still using Intel Iris graphics, this time without embedded DRAM. The Macbook Pro 15 now includes a Core i7-7700HQ quad-core processor, as well as a rebranded AMD Radeon Pro 555 graphics card. All the connectivity and display options remain the same. The only price drop is for the Macbook Pro 13 non-touch, which drops from $1499 to $1299 – there’s a catch, though, as the SSD drops from 256GB to 128GB in size.

The Macbook Air lineup also gets a small upgrade, moving to a slightly faster processor from the Intel Broadwell mobile family. It’s not much of an improvement, only 200MHz at most on the clock speeds, and everything else remains the same.

New iPad Pro with Apple A10X chipset

Finally, the iPad Pro gets an update. It moves from the Apple A9X processor to the new A10X system-on-chip, which is a six-core processor split up into two groups for efficiency and performance modes respectively. The GPU gets a big upgrade, and is the first one designed in-house by Apple themselves, but the only notable spec that we get is that it has “twelve cores”. There are new storage sizes as well, starting from 64GB for the base model, moving to 128GB, 256GB, and then finally 512GB of storage space. The cameras are lifted from the iPhone 7 family and feature the same sensors and lenses, and the same optical image stabilisation. Oddly enough, Apple wasn’t courageous enough to remove the headphone jack here. As a result, all the new iPad Pro models are more expensive than the models they replace, but only by $60 at most.

The display upgrades are a little more substantial, and deserve a talking point. The displays on these tablets are a little better – up to 600 nits of brightness, HDR capability, True Tone colour mapping to make whites appear more realistic, and a higher pixel count. The iPad Pro 9.7 gets an upgrade to the display, which is now a 10.5-inch display inside the same chassis, minimising the space the bezels take up. Apple is also implementing, for the first time, variable refresh rates. Their implementation picks up where Intel’s adaptive refresh technology stopped in 2009, offering different refresh rates depending on the content on the display. If you’re browsing the internet, reading a book, or working on documents, the display runs at a 24Hz refresh rate to save on power and heat. Consequently, this also downclocks the GPU and switches to the more efficient triple cores at the same time. When watching a video or movie, the display runs at 48Hz with the GPU only slightly underclocked to meet the performance demands.

At full blast, the new iPad Pro’s display runs at 120Hz refresh rates. This increases the fluidity of the animations in the OS and improves system responsiveness, and given Apple’s increased reliance on the Pencil for input, means that having a display that refreshes faster will naturally result in less display lag between actions taken with the Pencil and what you draw on your display. Faster refresh rates only solve the problem of perceived lag on the output, so aside from use with the Pencil, there’s no need for it particularly.

That’s all of the important updates from Apple’s WWDC conference. There’s some interesting stuff here, but the big announcements, like the iMac Pro, are so far away that interest in these products may wane in the interim while other manufacturers beat Apple to the punch in offering powerful all-in-ones with Vega graphics and more cores.

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