The Inside Story of Apple’s New iMacs
Retina displays, rechargeable input devices, a force touch trackpad, and more power. Not bad for a truck.
Early this year, the top-secret laboratory where Apple designs its Macintosh accessories was bedeviled by a crisis on tiny feet. It had to do with the reinvented mouse the team was designing to accompany a new set of iMac computers that will be released today. The input device, dubbed the Magic Mouse 2, would look to users exactly like the previous model. But on the inside and underneath, everything would be different, mainly because Apple was switching to a rechargeable lithium battery instead of the previous replaceable alkaline ones.
Late in the process, everything seemed to be going fine. The internal lithium battery was custom-engineered to fit the cavity. The redesigned antenna — necessary to deal with the potential interference from an internal battery — was working well.
But one thing was totally unacceptable.
The mouse didn’t sound right.
That’s what Apple engineering leaders Kate Bergeron and John Ternus told me recently, when I became the first reporter to venture into the Input Design Lab. The occasion for my visit was the release of a new family of iMacs. As usual, this iteration — something more than a “bump” and a lot less than a clean-slate reinvention — has a number of features designed to jar current owners, dissatisfied Windows users, and undecided first-time buyers into action. The most visible is the introduction of Retina screens into the whole product line: one option for the smaller, 21.5-inch iMac now sports a 4K Retina display, and all 27-inch models use the state-of-the-art 5K display. The monitors also use an exotic new technology that shows more colors than previously, allowing for startlingly detailed photos and scalpel-sharp text display.
The other big advance is a new set of accessories: wireless keyboard, trackpad, and mouse. Unlike their immediate Bluetooth ancestors, these wireless input devices eschew the removable batteries that always seem to be going dim, and instead use lithium batteries that charge exactly like iPhones and iPads, through a cable that connects to the slim port that Apple has labeled “lightning.” The Magic Trackpad 2 also integrates the Force Touch function that was first introduced in the Apple Watch and now appears on the Macbook and iPhone 6s. (Force Touch is a technology that lets you press down harder than you would with a click, triggering a different set of reactions from the software.)
The prices of these new improved iMacs — which also have the expected upgrades in microprocessor and graphics chips — are the same as the previous models. But as with all of Apple’s products, the attention to detail has bordered on fanatical.
The suspect mouse sound stirred consternation and late nights in the maze of workspaces located in a nondescript office building a few miles away from Apple’s Infinite Loop headquarters. This is the Input Design Lab, though employees refer to the venue as Vallco Parkway, the street where it’s sited. Behind doors that outsiders rarely venture past are an array of exotic machines, many custom-tuned, that measure and test the latest Apple wares. These were put to use to fix the problem.
The culprit appeared to be the little polycarbonate runners on the bottom of the mouse. “We changed the foot architecture,” says Bergeron, Apple’s VP for Ecosystem Products and Technologies. (Translation: you pound on her keyboards.) “And it changed the friction characteristics of the sound.”
“When we did the previous mouse we spent so much time dialing those feet, the material, the geometry, everything, so that it sounds good and feels good when you move it on the table,” says Ternus, whose title is VP for Mac, iPad, Ecosystem and Audio Engineering. “But then you change the mass of the product and you change the resonant frequency of the product and all of a sudden the feet that we loved weren’t great anymore. They weren’t what we wanted.”
What exactly was wrong with it? I wanted to know.
“It had just changed… kind of… the sound,” says Ternus, who has been working for Apple since 2001. “They all make a noise — the question is getting a noise we like. It sounded… not right.”
“Yeah,” agreed Bergeron, on the extended Mac team since 2002. “Not right. You just don’t like it.”
There are many reasons why Apple is the world’s most valuable company. Tim Cook is celebrated as a supply chain Maester who has internalized the focus on innovation that his predecessor inculcated in the culture. Jony Ive has drawn global raves for making Apple a design icon. Its marketing and branding practices set industry standards. But a visit to the lab where its legacy products — computers — are made suggests another reason.
Sweating the details.
A less-than-perfect noise isn’t a product killer, or even an official bug. Nonetheless, Apple’s engineers were determined to make sure the new iMac’s Magic Mouse 2 made a better sound as it glided across the desktop.
Of course, as far as iMacs are concerned, a larger question lingers: Why even bother with a desktop computer? After all, only a month ago, Apple CEO Tim Cook, showing off the new and humongous iPad Pro and its new keyboard, proclaimed, “iPad is the clearest expression of our vision of the future of personal computing.” Does that make iMacs relics of a fading past? Steve Jobs himself foreshadowed the question in 2010. “PCs are going to be like trucks,” he said at the D Conference that May. “They are still going to be around [but only] one out of x people will need them.” Could it be that in the mobile age, iMacs, even shiny new ones, are dull engines of computational load bearing?
“It’s not that simple,” says Phil Schiller, Apple’s senior VP of Worldwide Product Marketing. “We are in an amazing time where there are different ideas competing for your computing life. That’s great — we love that. And we have thought long and deep about what choices we want to offer customers. One is iPad — it can do many things you want to do on a PC, so many that people choose to make it their primary computing device, and it can do that. That’s more true with the iPad Pro than it’s ever been. But that’s not everybody. There are other people who will decide that nothing does the things they need in their lives as well as a Mac.”
Schiller, in fact, has a grand philosophical theory of the Apple product line that puts all products on a continuum. Ideally, you should be using the smallest possible gadget to do as much as possible before going to the next largest gizmo in line.
“They are all computers,” he says. “Each one is offering computers something unique and each is made with a simple form that is pretty eternal. The job of the watch is to do more and more things on your wrist so that you don’t need to pick up your phone as often. The job of the phone is to do more and more things such that maybe you don’t need your iPad, and it should be always trying and striving to do that. The job of the iPad should be to be so powerful and capable that you never need a notebook. Like, Why do I need a notebook? I can add a keyboard! I can do all these things! The job of the notebook is to make it so you never need a desktop, right? It’s been doing this for a decade. So that leaves the poor desktop at the end of the line, What’s its job?”
Good question. And the answer?
“Its job is to challenge what we think a computer can do and do things that no computer has ever done before, be more and more powerful and capable so that we need a desktop because of its capabilities,” says Schiller. “Because if all it’s doing is competing with the notebook and being thinner and lighter, then it doesn’t need to be.”
Which brings us to the new iMac product line. Despite the fact that Apple revenues and profits are dominated by its iPhone success, it still considers Macintosh as a serious part of its business, and according to Schiller, this iMac is a significant part of that. (Apple does not break out iMac sales from the Macintosh numbers, which lately have been a bit below five million per quarter. It sells about ten times as many iPhones than Macintoshes.) “We care about it deeply,” says Apple’s VP of Macintosh Product Marketing Brian Croll, who has been with the company since 2001.
The importance goes beyond the numbers: History will mark the iMac as a critical product in Apple’s revival after the return of its co-founder. It is no accident that the just-released Steve Jobs movie ends with the launch event of the first iMac in 1998. Though, as with almost everything in the movie, screenwriter Aaron Sorkin plays fast and loose with the facts, the iMac did symbolize a new approach for Apple that would characterize its subsequent revitalization. I spent a couple of days hanging out with Jobs in the run-up to that release and he made it clear that he believed it was absolutely necessary to make a great desktop computer for the consumer. “This is our soul,” he told me.
In a sense, the eye-popping display of the new Retina iMacs are a continuation of that tradition. “The display is the theater for the software,” Jobs told me just before that first iMac launched, and with the new models, Apple has built a proscenium that could host The Lion King.
Of course, Retina displays on the whole iMac line became an inevitability from the moment that technology was introduced on the iPhone in 2010. It migrated to the Macbook in 2012 and then to the iPad and even the Apple Watch. “We really, really wanted to get Retina to the iMac,” says Ternus. “It was screaming for it.”
As Apple’s Senior Director for Mac Hardware Tom Boger explained to me, the iMac’s display incorporates not just a denser screen resolution but a wider color palette that requires a new technology. Even compared to the Retina screen on the current $2,500 iMac, the new ones are improved, he says. “We’ve given these a wider color gamut. Basically means they have a bigger palette of colors they can display,” he says. All high-end displays aspire to represent the full range of colors that the human eye can possibly see, which is a giant technological challenge. The previous industry standard was called sRGB (Standard Red Green Blue), which captured a pretty good chunk of the color spectrum. Currently, Apple’s Retina displays deliver 100 percent sRGB. “We are very proud of that — a lot of monitors don’t even do a hundred percent of sRGB. So that was really good,” says Boger. “But about ten years ago the film industry got together and said we could do better than that, they said there were more colors in the world that we could be showing in our films. So they created a new color standard, called P3. It’s actually twenty-five percent larger than SRGB.” By supporting P3, these iMacs deliver richer color.
“Color is a big deal, but [previously] we didn’t have the pieces to do it,” says Ternus. Apple had come up with a solution that involved a new way of coding the LED (Light Emitting Diodes) that would generate high-intensity reds and greens that, passed through a color filter, would create the entire gamut of colors. Then the team had to find the suppliers that would implement the scheme. One alternative was a technology called quantum dot, but Apple rejected it because it required cadmium, a toxic element. “Eventually we found this path with our LED suppliers that got us everything we wanted without the environmental downside.”
One question is how much it will transform the experience for regular users. In A/B tests for certain photos Apple showed me, I could indeed see a difference, not only in the color popping, but in additional detail that the expanded palette revealed. But don’t expect to see dramatic difference in your iPhone shots: the P3 effects will really explode only with dense-pixel images like raw data from DSLR cameras and other high resolution pictures. Movies are another issue; currently, you can’t download a 4K movie from the iTunes store. Apple acknowledges that the P3 is really an offering for the pro market.
“The pros are so tuned to [color palettes], they will see it immediately,” says Croll. “The consumer will look at it and say, ‘Gee, I don’t really know why, but it looks better.’”
There’s one thing, however, that is conspicuously not in the new iMacs — a touch screen. While Microsoft and others now believe that multi-touch should extend to the desktop display, Apple believes this is dead wrong. “From the ergonomic standpoint we have studied this pretty extensively and we believe that on a desktop scenario where you have a fixed keyboard, having to reach up to do touch interfaces is uncomfortable,” says Schiller. “iOS from its start has been designed as a multi-touch experience — you don’t have the things you have in a mouse-driven interface, like a cursor to move around, or teeny little ‘close’ boxes that you can’t hit with your finger. The Mac OS has been designed from day one for an indirect pointing mechanism. These two worlds are different on purpose, and that’s a good thing — we can optimize around the best experience for each and not try to mesh them together into a least-common-denominator experience.”
(Speaking of Microsoft, Schiller says he has read about but not tested its new products announced last week, to surprising acclaim. He does note that Microsoft’s full-blown entry into computer hardware is tacitly a belated admission from Redmond that Apple had it right all along. “It’s amazing that one event validated so much of what Apple does, and held us up as the gold standard. And that’s flattering.”)
Apple is still committed to multi-touch control across the product line — it just believes that on the desktop, touch control should be a hands-down experience. Apple has been methodically introducing the multi-touch gestures from its mobile operating system into desktop accessories like the Magic Mouse and the Magic Trackpad. But this iMac iteration may well be remembered for the new input devices with internal rechargeable batteries. “The driver was environmental,” says Schiller, referring to the notion that Apple’s toxic footprints would be considerably lessened by eliminating the need for constant discarding of AA batteries. A two-hour charge lasts over a month. But if you lose track of how low the charge is, plugging the input device into the USB port for just a minute gives you a half a day’s worth of work. Also, those who have previously fumbled to make a Bluetooth connection will be happy to learn that plugging the mouse or keyboard into the Mac instantly pairs the devices.
Fixing the battery inside the devices, though, forced the Mac team to do some considerable redesigning. Until now both the standard wireless keyboard and trackpad were characterized by a small bedroll at the top that held the batteries. It determined the entire user experience, creating what Apple’s people call a “diving board” effect.
For the keyboard, removing the battery chamber meant that Apple could shrink the device while actually making the keys larger. “We have been trying to improve our input technology for a long time and earlier this year, as we saw in the MacBook, we finally got to a point where we broke through and said precision in keys and typing is something that we really want to do quite well,” says Bergeron.
Though the key caps on the Magic Keyboard are larger than on the previous version, Bergeron also revealed that one prototype had even bigger keys. “We did a lot of development early on and probably went down a path that was more extreme than it needed to be, so we backed up a little bit.” The result, she says, is very minimalist. “We made the surface area as much of the keys as you can, and minimized the border around that keyboard to take up as little space on the desktop as possible. It weighs less than the one before, and it maintains rigidity.”
The Magic Trackpad 2 is most drastically redesigned. Its surface area is 29 percent bigger, wide enough to accommodate the frequent swipes imported into the Macintosh experience from the iOS multitouch world. “The whole touch experience requires a trackpad that’s larger,” says Croll. “Our belief is that [iMacs] are insane multitouch devices — when your hands are down.” Because it can lie flat, no matter where users click on it, they can get results with the same degree of force. It uses high-performance glass, tested to withstand a drop. And perhaps most important, the trackpad now supports Force Touch — one more step towards the inexorable mesh between the desktop and mobile experience. In fact, porting Force Touch to the desktop illustrates Schiller’s vision of how features can percolate throughout Apple’s product line. Remember, Apple first came up with the idea for its watches, and this year it has moved to the iPhone, and now to iMac. “We’re actually a combined team,” says Croll. “The people developing iOS are the same people developing OSX. So they are carrying both models in their heads.”
The iMac may be a truck, but Apple is making sure that it has all the bells and whistles of its sports cars.
My visit to the Input Design Lab dispelled some of the mystery of how Apple plans various iterations of its product line. Though from the outside it appears that the company follows a strict schedule — and a cottage industry devotes itself to creating unofficial calendars of product releases — executives insist on the Orson Wellesian principle of no launch before its time. In the case of the new iMac, features came from a combination of factors. The feasibility of the always inevitable Retina screen. The necessity to include Force Touch on the desktop. An eco-urge to jettison repleaceable batteries. And the usual Moore’s Law bonanza of cheaper chips and components. (One bonus I haven’t mentioned: the Fusion Drive option, which combines a hard disk and flash memory for speed and ample storage, is now much cheaper.)
Still, once a deadline is set, the team has to concentrate on getting the product out the door. And in the case of the mouse with the sound that just wasn’t right, that meant finding a harmonic solution.
Fortunately, Apple has a vast array of machinery at Vallco Parkway to help in just these instances. One machine, for instance, is dedicated to testing a mouse on different surfaces and measuring the friction. Another machine setup involves putting a mouse or typewriter keyboard in an anechoic (ultra-soundproof) chamber and measuring precisely — really precisely — where a noise is coming from. In this case, it was the way that the new mouse feet interacted with the surface. The original Magic Mouse maximized the surface contact from its runners. But that approach didn’t work with the new version. “It was a little bit sticky — not in an adhesive sense but it didn’t glide the perfect way we wanted it to glide across the table,” says Bergeron. That resulted in the not-right noise.
“The solution was to reshape the high density polyethylene (HDPE) feet. “By actually riding more on the edge this time it was a better experience,” says Bergeron. “Geometry turned out to be the variable that dominated the experience.” After creating runners made of several new mixes, the team organized a bake-off to choose the best one. Ternus explains that the process “involves getting a core group of people from engineering and design together and looking at different samples and saying, ‘Yeah, this is the one, this sounds right!’ And then we go for it.”
And then they go for it again. “Even after all these years with Mac, there’s so much to do,” says Croll. “It’s almost like a roller coaster, where you get off, and then run to the front to do it again. There’s so much more to do.” As you’d expect, work is well underway for the next iMac iteration.
But they didn’t show that one to me.
Photographs by Jason Henry, unless otherwise noted.