Apple products are as popular as ever — but figuring out what to buy, and when, is tricky business.
Some such gadgets have predictable schedules. New iPhone models usually drop in the late summer. Others show up without warning. A new version of Apple’s HomePod speaker was unveiled last month and not over the holidays, as you might have expected. Updated Macintosh computers — including a long-anticipated upgrade to the Mac mini desktop machine — dropped on the same day.
Cost is another issue. Apple hardware tends to be pricey, which can give pause to those who want to buy multiple such devices in a given month or year. You have to weigh your choices carefully — perhaps with a focus on lower-cost Apple offerings that are not of lesser quality but are easier on the pocketbook.
I am coming off a severe, months-long illness when such considerations were the farthest things from my mind. Now, mostly recovered, I am getting caught up with the various Apple releases over the past months — and grappling with how to make the most of my household’s limited budget. I wrote this article to help focus my thinking, and to pass advice on to you.
Note: I won’t always steer you to the most affordable gear. In some cases, I will suggest something pricier because I see it as a better value, or more appropriate for your needs.
Apple’s iPhone releases have tended to come just as Minnesota’s leafs start to turn, so I have traditionally spent October with a loaner handset giddily capturing the explosions of color in my neighborhood. I missed last year’s autumnal pageantry because of my illness, and I have been playing catch-up with an iPhone 14 Pro since then.
Get it: My advice to people who ask me what iPhone to buy never changes. Those, like me, who are obsessed with getting the most out of their iPhones’ photography features should absolutely splurge on a high-end Pro model (budget permitting). This year, that is the 6.1-inch iPhone 14 Pro, starting at $999, and the 6.7-inch iPhone 14 Pro Max, starting at $1,099. Both were released in September.
The iPhone 14 Pro gives users lots of control over their photography by allowing them to prioritize either low-light capture or hyper-detailed photos (via a new 48-megapixel main camera) in better-illuminated locations. There’s a 3X telephoto lens, four optical zoom settings, an improved Ultra Wide camera, a redesigned flash, and a stabilized Action mode for videos of people or animals in action.
Skip it. Other iPhone 14 Pro features are cool but not vital. One of the most dramatic is the Dynamic Island, a black oval at the top of the screen that can enlarge and morph to display alerts, provide multimedia controls, show sports scores or your Uber’s whereabouts, and more. It’s exclusive to the iPhone 14 Pro line, and I like it, but I don’t miss it when I’m on older iPhones.
The iPhone 14 Pros have great safety features — such as detecting when you are in a crash in order to summon emergency services automatically, and letting you ask for help via an overhead satellite if you are in a remote area with zero bars. But so do the new iPhone 14 and 14 Plus models (the ones without “Pro” in their names), and those start at $799.
Even that is too fancy for my wife and daughter. Each recently bought an iPhone 13 mini, which at 5.4 inches is deliciously portable, and starts at just $599.
September saw the release of the much-awaited 2nd-generation AirPods Pro earbuds that look similar to the 3rd-generation AirPods (without “Pro” in the name) released in late 2021 — but there are important differences.
Unlike the $179 AirPods, the $249 AirPods Pro include rubber eartips in several sizes for a snug ear-canal fit that creates a sound-isolating seal. This isn’t new, but Apple has added a fourth set of tips in a new size for better customization.
Get them. The new AirPods Pro have new or improved audio capabilities that will be the clinchers for many. One of these, active noise cancellation, blocks exterior sounds so you can focus on your music or podcast. “Adaptive” transparency mode is a bit different, letting in exterior audio if you’re needing to pay attention to your surroundings, but reducing the intensity of super loud, potentially harmful noises like sirens and power tools.
This worked great for me when I walked by a wood chipper in use while on one of my walks on Summit Avenue. ANC did a nice job of blocking out most of the racket. When I switched to adaptive transparency mode, I could hear the commotion but it wasn’t painful.
Skip them. The AirPods Pro and their AirPods cousins are not at the top of my list for one reason others might have overlooked or disregarded: They can be alarmingly easy to lose. Even with the rubber eartips, the AirPods Pro have a way of popping out of my ears and sending me scrambling as the buds skitter across the floor. This is why I’d mostly use them at home — and even there I’d be frantically hunting them down at times.
Consider the $199.99 Beats Fit Pro from Apple subsidiary Beats by Dre. These buds lodge firmly in your ear courtesy of little rubber stabilizing “wingtips,” and have active noise cancellation along with a (non-adaptive) transparency mode.
But the earbuds I swear by are Apple’s most affordable — the $69.99 Beats Flex from Beats by Dre. These are less likely to get lost because they are attached to a cable with integrated controls that wraps around my neck — I even take these earbuds to bed with me sometimes.
The Beats Flex lack the AirPods Pro’s audio sorcery, but they have the best physical ear-canal sealing courtesy of eartips that I can cram deep into my ears for superb passive audio blocking.
My tech-expert friend Josh Centers calls the Beats Flex the best bargain in Apple audio.
The big Apple Watch news in October was the Apple Watch Ultra, an extra-large model aimed at hardcore sports enthusiasts and seemingly intended to compete with the chunky sports watches that bicyclists, hikers, runners and swimmers have been using for ages.
Get it. The Ultra pushes a lot of my buttons.
As a more-than-casual athlete, I am excited about the watch’s exclusive hardware and software features for advanced fitness tracking. As a klutz who has shattered more than one Apple Watch screen, I like that the Ultra is more ruggedized than traditional Apple Watch models. I am grateful for the new Action button that can be programmed for a variety of uses — I use it to turn on the flashlight or activate a siren.
And, not getting any younger, I like having an extra-big, easier-to read screen (even if the watch’s bulk gets on my nerves sometimes).
Skip it. At $799, an Ultra is a bit hard for me and other budget-conscious consumers to justify.
The new Apple Watch Series 8 is only $399 and the upgraded SE model is just $249. Go for a Series 8 if you want a complete suite of health-monitoring features, including blood oxygen and ECG apps — but the SE does not skimp on safety features, such as crash and fall detection.
The big Apple tablet news in October was the release of the 10th-generation iPad, which did away with the classic Home button and gained modern styling (along with a USB-C port) like that of the iPad Air, iPad mini, and iPad Pro models.
Get it. A big reason to buy this $449 iPad has to do with videoconferencing. This is the first iPad to emulate a laptop by positioning its selfie camera near one of its longer edges — meaning the camera is top and center when the iPad is being used in landscape mode with an add-on keyboard, and not weirdly off to one side. If you do lots of video chatting, you’ll appreciate this feature. I tried it and it’s great!
Skip it. If that feature isn’t important to you, give other iPad models a look. For lots of folks, the 9th-generation iPad starting at $329 is the right choice. This tablet has retro styling with a Home button, but it is plenty powerful for average users and therefore a bargain. No wonder it’s the most popular iPad.
If you have a bit of extra cash to burn, consider skipping the 10th-gen iPad for the one next up in the food chain — the $599 iPad Air. It looks almost identical but it has a superior screen, a faster USB-C port, and is compatible with the second-generation Apple Pencil stylus; the 10th-generation iPad works only with the older, clunkier first-gen Pencil, which I loathe. Also, the iPad Air has an M1 processor like the one on recent Mac models, and it therefore supports more software features than less expensive iPads.
My pal Josh says the iPad Air is the best iPad for most people. I heeded his advice, buying an Air last year, and I’ve never regretted it.
Most Mac buyers want laptops — and Apple offers great choices. One of the most appealing (and affordable) is a new version of the MacBook Air, a longtime favorite that got a long-needed revamp in June. It runs $1,199 and up.
Get it. If you’ve been biding your time for an Air with freshened looks and more juice under the hood, buy now.
The new version dispenses with the classic “wedge” profile for a flatter, more modern appearance. It has a higher-resolution webcam, and a bigger and brighter display. It brings back the greatly missed magnetic MagSafe charging cable that easily detaches from the Air when yanked to prevent catastrophic damage.
The Air uses Apple’s M2 processor. This chip is only incrementally speedier than the M1 chip found in the previous Air model, but it offers impressive performance and battery life (and it runs more quietly than many Intel-powered laptops that can sometimes sound like hairdryers).
I’ve had an M2 Air on loan from Apple for a while, lending it to my daughter when I was ill, and we love it. We’ll hate to see it go.
Skip it. My wife and daughter are in the market for Apple laptops — but the M2 Air isn’t under consideration because my wife always look for deals and (surprise) the M1 Air is still available starting at $999.
In fact, the M1 Air can be had in “refurbished” form, meaning it’s not brand new but quite close to it — with the same warranty, free tech support and optional AppleCare extended service plan. My wife is excited to pay just $849, and has zero qualms about such a purchase after having used her current Air refurb mostly issue-free for more than a decade.
By the way, Apple this month released upgraded versions of its 14- and 16-inch MacBook Pro notebooks, which have more advanced M2 Pro and M2 Max chips intended for power users. The notebooks start at $1,999, and they go way, way up from there. Average users should just get an Air (or the also recently updated 13-inch MacBook Pro, which has older styling but the same M2 chip as in the Air, at a similar price).
The all-in-one 24-inch iMac with built-in display is the best-known desktop Mac, and it’s lovely. But this M1-powered Mac is one to avoid for now because it’s long overdue for an M2 upgrade.
The display-less, super-compact Mac mini, though, has just been upgraded to the M2 chip, so this is the right time to consider buying.
Get it. The M2 Mac mini might be the Mac for you if mobility is not a requirement, and if you crave decent power at a nice price. It starts at just $599 — or $100 less than the previous version. Think about that: an M2 Mac for less than $600. I’ve decided it is my next Mac.
Skip it. Remember refurb? At some point you should be able to score a sweet deal on a M1 mini — but not right now. Apple, as of this writing, was offering a refurbished M1 for $649, or more than you’d pay for a non-refurb M2 mini. Wait this out if you are not in a rush.
Also, when considering a Mac mini, keep in mind that you have to supply your own display and input devices. This can really crank up the collective cost if you want a premium monitor similar in quality to the iMac’s panel. But if you’re like me and already own a display you like, the mini makes a lot of sense.
A version of the Mac mini for power users has an M2 Pro chip and starts at $1,299. This is not an exorbitant price, but most average users don’t need that much power.
There’s only one Apple-branded Mac display that is remotely affordable, the 27-inch Studio Display, released in March at a starting cost of $1,599. Your only other option is Apple’s Pro Display XDR aimed at high-end users — and starting at (ouch) $4,999.
Get it. I’ve had a Studio Display loaner for a while and I’ll be sad to return it. It offers a lot for the money: A 5K-resolution glass panel comparable to that on the now-discontinued 27-inch iMac, an integrated 12-megapixel webcam, a built-in six-speaker audio system that can negate the need for exterior audio hardware, and an anti-reflective coating.
You can get an optional “nano-texture” option that further reduces screen glare for an additional $300. Another $400 gets you a tilt- and height-adjustable stand — the basic stand only tilts. My review loaner included neither of these extras, and I was mostly fine with that.
Skip it. The Studio Display is the best Mac display I’ve ever used but I can’t justify the cost, and I’m delighted with the display I own. That’s LG’s 23.7-inch UltraFine Display, which was released in 2019, and still wows me every day. This is an Apple monitor, in a way, since LG created it and a bigger UltraFine version in consultation with Apple when it did not have a monitor offering of its own.
The 23.7-inch UltraFine would still be my display choice today because of its Apple-quality 4K-resolution panel, its generous selection of ports — three USB-C ports and two powered Thunderbolt ports (or one more Thunderbolt port than on the Studio Display), and its height adjustability, all at no extra cost. It costs $699.95, and you can buy it directly from Apple.
The 23.7-inch UltraFine does not provide a built-in webcam, but its 27-inch 5K sibling does. That display runs $1,299.99 — but at that price you might consider spending just a bit extra for the Studio Display. (Tellingly, you can’t get the 5K UltraFine directly from Apple.)
If you are not in a rush, consider that 5K-resolution alternatives to the Studio Display are on the way from the likes of Dell and Samsung, and one of them might turn out to be a better choice for you.
The most surprising Apple product release in recent memory is the $299 HomePod, a cylindrical speaker nearly identical to a HomePod model that Apple discontinued in March 2021. It was assumed at the time that the original HomePod was a lousy seller needing to be jetissoned — but apparently it just needed fine-tuning for re-release at the same price as the old one.
Get it. The original HomePod sounded great, and the overhauled version should be similar — I’ve not tried one yet.
Its features include support for HomeKit and Matter, two technologies for controlling the latest smart-home gadgets. It incorporates humidity and temperature sensors, as well. If you can afford two HomePods, you can deploy them as stereo pairs (but you can’t pair a first-gen HomePod with a second-gen version despite their physical similarities).
Skip it. Most folks don’t need a HomePod because they can get Apple’s $99 HomePod mini. This cute little orb won’t sound as good as its big brother, but it seems just fine to me, and it can be used in stereo pairs. The large HomePod’s smart-home features are also found in the mini. And the mini is available in a selection of cheerful colors, not just boring black or white.
Apple TV 4K
I am a fan of the Apple gadget that connects to a TV for video streaming, gaming and more. In fact, my wife and I got rid of our Xfinity cable box and TV service years ago, and we went all-in with an Apple TV (along with a YouTube TV service that gives us all the channels we need).
Apple updated the Apple TV in October. There are two models that are similar in price, and deciding which one to get may be the easiest Apple buying decision you will ever make.
Get it. The $149 Apple TV 4K has 128 gigabytes of storage, the option to get online via wired Ethernet instead of Wi-Fi, and a future-proofing technology called Thread (related to Matter) that will be critical for linking to smart-home devices in the coming years.
Skip it. The $129 Apple TV 4K has half the storage, no Ethernet and no Thread support.
Apple doesn’t sell junk, in my experience. Even its most affordable hardware tends to be of superb quality — unlike other tech manufacturers that sometimes cut corners to lower prices.
So stand firm if you are at an Apple retail store and an employee is nudging you to get a premium device — not that such pressure tactics are rampant at such places, in my experience.
Stick to your budget, confident that you’ll get hardware that will likely last you a long, long time.
But are there reasons to sometimes splurge? For sure.