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3 Design Changes To Watch For From Apple, From Incremental To Exciting

If we're expecting new iPhones and a new Apple Watch, why are we already yawning?

3 Design Changes To Watch For From Apple, From Incremental To Exciting

After sending out an event invite featuring a pretty bokeh photo of devices in a darkroom, Apple is expected to announce its latest products on September 7—including updates to the iPhone, MacBook Pro, Apple Watch, and more.

Usually, Apple's autumn events are like high-tech magic shows: We all gather around as Tim Cook and Co. stride on stage, say alakazam, and pull a steady succession of new devices out of their hats. This year, though? If the rumor mill is to be believed, Apple may have significantly fewer tricks.

Here's a breakdown of what we're expecting from Apple. Spoiler alert: We may see a lot of incremental updates—along with one that could significantly shift Apple's design needle.

Incremental Design News: The iPhone 7

[Rendering: via MacRumors]

Due to the amount of time it takes for an iPhone to ramp up to full production, iPhone 7 parts have been leaking out since March, so we've got a pretty good idea of what's in store, design-wise: not much.

The iPhone 7 will probably look almost exactly the same as the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6s before it, with four exceptions. First, and most majorly, the iPhone 7 will be dropping its headphone jack, which it has had since the very first iPhone. Second, the iPhone 7 will have slightly different antenna lines than the previous two models. Third, the cameras will be significantly upgraded to feature a wider lens on the iPhone 7, and a dual-lens setup on the iPhone 7 Plus. And finally, instead of a clickable home button, the new home button will be flush with the screen, simulating the physical sensation of a click with haptic feedback, similar to how the trackpads on the new Retina MacBooks work.

Otherwise, everything is expected to be pretty much the same—just slightly upgraded. It's possible you'll even be able to use your existing case.

Like Intel's CPUs, iPhones have historically held to a fairly predictable tick-tock cycle. The tick is a major hardware redesign, with the "tock," a minor spec bump of the same design, coming the following year. But again like Intel's CPU pipeline, it appears that the evolution of the iPhone is slowing down to a tick-tock-tock cycle. Rumors right now peg the iPhone 8 coming in 2017, not 2016. Being the 10th anniversary iPhone and first major redesign since the iPhone 6, it's suggested that the iPhone 8 will finally get rid of its iconic home button in favor of an edge-to-edge screen.

The great Cambrian period of rapid-fire smartphone evolution has ended. We've already seen the mass extinction event: Apple and Samsung have wiped out pretty much all of their Western smartphone competitors over the last decade, although the likes of Xiaomi, Oppo, and Hauwei are still challenging them in China. In addition, carriers are phasing out handset subsidies, slowing the rate at which people upgrade their phones. Couple that with the fact that Apple's already reached the point of diminishing returns on making the iPhone any thinner or lighter, and what it all boils down to is there's just not that much room for sizable industrial design improvements anymore.

Which is not to say that the iPhone 7's slightly updated design won't have ramifications. Losing the 3.5 mm jack is a wildly controversial move on Apple's part, causing even Apple pundits to scratch their heads. That said, it'll likely open up a new, billion-dollar industry of Lightning-equipped headphones and headphone adapters—jump-started by Apple's own new Lightning-equipped Earpods and its wireless AirPod headphones, which are also expected to debut next week.

As for the changed home button? If that rumor holds true, Apple will have successfully addressed one of the most common reasons iPhones break: Their sole moving part stopped working. It also paves the way for next year's iPhone, which is rumored to make the iconic home button virtual.

Exciting Design News: The New MacBook Pro

It's been four years since Apple revamped the MacBook Pro's design, so it's well past the point of needing an update—which makes it the one product that could see a major design overhaul. Bloomberg reports that the event will also give us our first look at the next-gen MacBook Pro laptop.

Predictably, Apple seems to be planning on using this refresh to shave some millimeters and milligrams off of the device, making it lighter and svelter. Apple's fetish for making its devices thinner well past the point of good sense is justifiably mocked—any environmental benefits of making a gadget that weighs less is counterbalanced by the sacrifice of upgradeability—but in the MacBook Pro's case, a pared-down design overhaul makes sense. Right now, it's a bit of a clunker, at least compared to the current Retina MacBook, or even the MacBook Air, which has gone without an industrial design overhaul for an astonishing six years.

But a thinner, lighter MacBook Pro is the least of the design changes we're expecting here—it may look much different than current models, thanks to three major changes. First, the function row of keys (F1, F2, F3, and so on) is expected to be replaced with an OLED touch panel, which will change what an exact button does contextually within macOS. If you're in an email, for example, F1 might reply all; in a browser, it might refresh, and so on. In addition, the new MacBook Pro is expected to have a wider trackpad, making it better for doing design and creative work. Finally, the power button will be upgraded to feature a TouchID sensor, much like the iPhone and iPad lines, allowing users to log in to their Macs with just their fingerprint.

That OLED touch panel is probably the most interesting innovation Apple's got up its sleeve this year. Given the fact that the Mac-maker has been steadily working to remove moving parts from all of its devices—remember, Apple has already put trackpads in the MacBook Pro and Retina MacBook that use haptics to simulate a click, and rumor has it that the iPhone 7 will have a similarly "fake" home button. Is the OLED touch panel, then, a test run for a future keyboard that is nothing more than a large, multitouch OLED display with haptic feedback? That's probably a ways off, but if so, it could significantly change what we think of as a "laptop."

Incremental Design News: The Apple Watch 2

It's also believed that Apple will unveil an updated Apple Watch. But if you're waiting for the Apple Watch 2 to significantly upgrade the Apple Watch's current capabilities, think again. Rumor has it that the next Apple Watch will be almost identical in function and appearance to the current model. The next Apple Watch is thought to have a slightly faster processor, as well as an internal GPS radio for more accurate fitness tracking. Otherwise, if you hated the first Apple Watch, or didn't see the point in the first place, there may be little to recommend the Apple Watch 2. Heck, even die-hard Apple Watch fans might find themselves hard-pressed to upgrade. But at least there'll probably be new straps to choose from.

Everything Else (And One More Thing?)

[Rendering: via MacRumors]

These aren't the only announcements Apple is expected to make, of course. With the last iMacs refreshed in October 2015, and the last MacBook Airs given an update in March 2015, it seems likely Cupertino will use the iPhone 7 event to give both computers a spec bump, probably to use faster Intel Skylake processors. (The Retina MacBook's last update was in April, so it probably won't see a speed bump.) As for iPads, no one expects any upgrades there until early next year, when it's believed Apple will unveil a new 10.5-inch iPad Pro, to sell side-by-side with the 12.7-inch model currently on sale. You can also expect Apple to announce release dates for iOS 10 and macOS Sierra, but we already know all about those.

So let's summarize. What we're expecting from the next Apple event is: two new iPhone models that will look largely identical to the ones that preceded them, as well as lose one of their features; a slightly upgraded Apple Watch 2; and a totally new MacBook Pro. If that seems anticlimactic, well, it's probably not just you.

It's always possible, of course, that Apple has a surprise up its sleeve—but it's been years now since Apple has been able to surprise anyone with a major hardware or software announcement: It's just too big and conspicuous for that anymore. So if you want to skip live-streaming the iPhone 7 event and just read our recap later, chances are you won't be missing much.

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