Apple's Most Questionable Design Decisions in Recent Memory
Apple has always emphasized the depth of thought that goes into the design of its products. In the foreword to Designed by Apple in California, a photo book released by the company in 2016, Jony Ive explains how Apple strives "to define objects that appear effortless" and "so simple, coherent and inevitable that there could be no rational alternative."
But every once in a while even Apple gets it wrong, and a tech company's coherent rationale for the way a product should be designed can translate into end-user irritation, or even a customer's personal hell. Here we take a look back at a handful of Apple's most questionable design decisions in recent memory. See if you agree, and let us know in the comments of any other Apple products that you think didn't live up to their billing.
1. Magic Mouse 2
Announced way back in 2015, the Magic Mouse 2 was heralded at its launch as yet another Apple innovation, due to its touch-sensitive surface that can recognize swipes and gestures as well as clicks. On the face of it, the sleek curves and glossy, seamless top surface of Apple's mouse makes it come across as a paragon of Apple design, until you come to charge it.
In an oft-queried decision, Apple opted to put the charging port on the underside of the Magic Mouse 2, suggesting to many that it had sacrificed usability for design. Arguably, Apple could have located the port on the front edge of the mouse, like most other wired and wireless mice, which would have allowed users to charge it while using it at the same time. But no.
In October 2023, eight years later, Apple announced the latest iMac, which boasts various neat functional design tweaks, like the Ethernet port in the charging brick, for instance. The Magic Mouse 2 comes included with the new iMacs and even sports several colors to match the all-in-one machines, but Apple still expects users to flip over their mouse and plug in a (now also dated) Lightning cable, which makes it not only unusable but also slightly pathetic-looking.
Apple's Magic Mouse 2 originally went on sale in the United States for $79 and that's the same price you'll pay for it today.
2. Apple/Siri Remote (2015-2021)
It's hard to downplay the amount of venom that's been aimed at the original Siri Remote since Apple first included it with the Apple TV in 2015, and if you never got to use the thing, that might seem a bit harsh.
After all, it had a clickable touchpad at the top that responded to swipes and gestures for navigating tvOS, and two uncomplicated columns of buttons clearly positioned below for controlling media playback. It even had an accelerometer and doubled as a game controller.
All good, you might think. But in practice, most users agreed it was an absolute clanger and an ergonomic disaster. The consensus was that Apple's Remote design was too small and too thin, which meant when it wasn't making your hands look worryingly huge it had gotten lost down the back of the sofa or between the cushions.
Then there was its non-intuitive button layout, which could be gauged best by the level of frustration that attended mistakenly pressing the Siri button to get back to the menu. Even now, few will have forgotten the very high sensitivity of the glass touchpad that sometimes made onscreen navigation a bit like watching Olympic curling.
How to charge your Apple TV Siri Remote: 1. Attempt to plug the Lightning cable into the infrared port. 2. Turn the remote around and plug the Lightning cable into the Lightning port. pic.twitter.com/MBhrg6Ogwm — ᴺᴼᵀ Jony Ive (@JonyIveParody) August 30, 2020
All of this of course assumed you hadn't been holding it backwards, which almost every user did on at least a weekly basis. Thanks to its uncompromising symmetry, one end of the remote was practically indistinguishable from the other in low light. Not only that, the remote only came in black and had no backlighting to speak of, as though Apple had intentionally set out to make locating it in the dark an essential part of your weeknight entertainment.
In a move that likely saddened no-one, Apple banished the Siri Remote to the annals of tech history in 2021 when it unveiled the latest Apple TV 4K and a much-improved, all-new Siri Remote with a new clickpad interface offering five-way navigation.
3. Apple Pencil (1st Gen)
Another device that falls into the goofy-looking-when-charging category is the first-generation Apple Pencil, which was released in 2015, the same year as the Magic Mouse 2. Apple built a male Lightning connector under the cap that allows it to be plugged into an iPad for power, which sort of makes sense if you think about it.
In most situations when the Apple Pencil runs out of power, there's an iPad right there to plug it into, and to be fair, it charges pretty fast, offering around 30 minutes of usage after being plugged in for only 15 seconds. In that sense, it just works. But there's no getting around the fact that also just looks weird.
This could arguably be a case of Apple choosing function over form, but it doesn't appear to have taken into account the potential damage that could be inflicted on both devices if you accidentally wack the pencil on something when it's plugged in. How many iPad Lightning ports have been killed as a result remains unknown.
When the Apple Pencil is plugged in and charging, you obviously can't charge your iPad (unless you plug the pencil into an iPhone, say) and unless you're using the iPad in landscape orientation, it makes using your tablet awkward. In other words, you can't charge the pencil and the tablet at the same time.
Apple still sells the first-generation Apple Pencil for $99, but thankfully it adopted magnetic charging for the second-generation version, while the third-generation gained a more practical USB-C port on the side, bringing a partial sense of harmony to the iPad lineup.
4. AirPods Max Smart Case
When Apple unveiled its $599 high-end AirPods Max over-ear headphones in 2021, there was as much online chatter about Apple's included Smart Case as the headphones themselves.
Apple says the case is designed to put the AirPods Max into an "ultra-low power state that helps to preserve battery charge when not in use." Granted, that's useful when your headphones don't come with a proper off switch, but it's the odd look of the case that seems to trigger unusual associations in the mind.
The Smart Case quickly birthed an avalanche of memes, which have irreverently compared it to all sorts of things, from handbags to lingerie, and even body parts. Bra comparisons aside though, most would agree that Apple seems to have de-prioritised the practicalities of travel in its pursuit of iconic fashion. Nilay Patel, writing for The Verge:
I have no idea what's going on with the AirPods Max case, which is a goofy one-piece contraption that's folded and glued over on itself to form a case. It looks very much like a purse when wrapped around the headphones, which is at once fun and clever and also not the point of a headphones case that needs to survive in a backpack. It does not appear very protective, feels like it will get dirty fast, and generally does not hold a candle to the nice hard cases that come with almost every other set of premium headphones.
You'd expect a case that comes with a pair of premium headphones provides good protection when tossed into a backpack, but when it comes to Apple's Smart Case, many users would urge you to think again. The lack of coverage offered by the case material leaves the headphone's metal so prone to scratches that you'd be forgiven for erring on the side of caution and carrying them in your hand instead for everyone to see. And maybe that's the point.
5. Butterfly Keyboard (2015-2019)
Apple in 2015 and 2016 introduced updated keyboards for its pared-down MacBook and MacBook Pro machines, debuting new butterfly keys with home switches beneath each key that minimized thickness without losing that satisfying press under the fingers. Sadly, it wasn't long before Apple's butterfly keyboard was called out as one of the company's worst design decisions thanks to their rage-inducing penchant for failure.
All butterfly keyboards in MacBook Pro, MacBook, and MacBook Air models introduced between 2016 and 2019 (and 2015 in the case of the MacBook) had butterfly keys that simply couldn't stand the test of time. The mechanism was so delicate and fragile that the tiniest piece of grit could break a key. What made things worse was Apple's laptop construction, which meant replacing that single borked key required taking your MacBook to an Apple repair center where the entire machine had to be completely disassembled.
In 2016, instead of replacing the keyboard wholesale, Apple introduced a second-generation version, suggesting the issues had been fixed. However, broken keys continued to be reported, much to Apple's chagrin. Rather than admitting defeat, however, Apple continued to beat its favorite dead horse by tweaking the butterfly mechanism in successive machines released in 2018 and 2019. But the complaints didn't go away.
In May 2018, a spate of class action lawsuits were brought against Apple on behalf of users who had been affected by broken butterfly keys and were angry that Apple had refused to honor its warranty obligations and fix the keyboards for free.
A month later, Apple implicitly acknowledged the issues when it launched an "extended keyboard service program," for MacBooks equipped with butterfly keys, and in May 2019, the program was expanded to encompass all MacBook models equipped with a butterfly keyboard, although an outright admission that it had put its faith in a bad design was never forthcoming.
In a notable swipe at Apple for its refusal to accept its design was intrinsically flawed, the Wall Street Journal's Joanna Stern published an editorial typed up on one of the defective keyboards, but without corrections. The article went mainstream, publicly embarrassing Apple.
We'll likely never know how widespread the keyboard problems were, but we do know Mac users breathed a collective sigh of relief when Apple unveiled the 2019 16-inch MacBook Pro with a redesigned "Magic" keyboard with a scissor switch mechanism featuring 1mm of travel, an inverted "T" arrangement for the arrow keys, and a physical Escape key next to the Touch Bar.
6. Mac Pro (2013-2019)
"Can't innovate, my ass," remarked Apple's Phil Schiller during the announcement of the redesigned Mac Pro in 2013. It was a moment of on-stage hubris that would go down in Apple lore, on par with Steve Jobs' "You're holding it wrong" in the face of iPhone 4 antenna issues. Schiller's snipe was directed not at the audience in attendance, but at armchair critics who pointed at the existing Mac Pro's lack of upgrades and claimed Apple had largely abandoned its pro user base and was out of ideas.
Apple believed its radical vision for the future of the pro desktop proved the naysayers wrong. Indeed, despite its relatively niche market compared to the appeal of its other smash-hit products, Apple was showing it had gone to great engineering lengths to innovate. And innovate it had. Apple said its new Mac Pro offered twice the overall performance of the previous generation while taking up less than one-eighth of the volume, thanks to its unified thermal core. Everything inside was cooled by one large fan at the top, which could spin more slowly than smaller fans and keep the Mac quiet under heavy load.
Intel Xeon processors were twinned with dual AMD FirePro workstation GPUs, enabling the machine to deliver seven teraflops of computing power. But while the powerful hardware and the black aluminum cylinder that housed it all was unmistakably Apple-esque in its ambitions, there were notable concerns. Everything was cleverly designed to improve thermal dissipation, but that meant expansion had to be served externally by Thunderbolt 2 ports.
Most creative pros couldn't overlook its lack of internal slots to upgrade graphics cards and add more memory. Even Apple seemed unsure how to update its internals – as recently as 2019, it was possible to buy a trashcan Mac Pro from Apple without hardly an update in the six years since its release.
Days since Phil Schiller said “Can’t innovate anymore, my ass” and revealed a new Mac Pro: 1,351 Days since the last Mac Pro update: 1,351 — Marques Brownlee (@MKBHD) February 20, 2017
Apple was all too aware of the criticism its Mac Pro redesign had attracted, and ended up doing something out of character. The famously secretive company hardly ever reveals its plans for new products, but felt it had to assuage growing concerns from the Mac's pro base that the company had lost its way.
At a meeting with reporters in 2017, Apple executives apologized and admitted the 2013 Mac Pro model had been a mistake, having been designed into a thermal corner. To rectify the situation, Apple promised a new modular Mac Pro system more akin to its traditional "cheese grater" tower design, along with a new external display. This time Apple did deliver on its promises, and the "trashcan" Mac Pro was laid to rest in 2019.
7. Touch Bar (2016-2023)
Apple's Touch Bar, a strip of glossy OLED goodness that first graced MacBook Pro keyboards in October 2016. Apple called it "a breakthrough interface that replaces the traditional row of function keys with a brilliant, Retina-quality Multi-Touch display."
Initially it was met by Mac users with intrigue and a sense of untapped possibility, where a swipe on its tiny screen made you feel like a starship captain. Users marveled at its ability to offer emoji suggestions with unsettling enthusiasm and adapt dynamically to whatever app was in use – a feature both cool and occasionally bewildering.
Over time, however, the novelty wore off. Creative professionals were made to feel dead inside by the lack of tactile feedback and inability to map shortcuts, and stayed mad at the loss of physical function keys forever. The dynamic controls, though customizable, often didn't provide enough value to justify the learning curve or the loss of physical keys. The absence of an Escape key was also a significant point of contention. Most users simply forgot the Touch Bar was even there. Apple's "breakthrough interface," it seemed, was the technological equivalent of a chocolate fountain at a party — fancy and eye-catching, but not really the practical tool you'd use daily.
The Touch Bar proved stubborn, however, and maintained its land grab for several years. Then in 2019, out of nowhere, Apple released a 16-inch MacBook Pro with a Touch Bar – plus a physical Escape key. Two years later, the Touch Bar was removed completely from higher-end MacBook Pro models, and full-size physical function keys were restored.
The Touch Bar would limp along for a little while longer, finding a short-term haven in the 13-inch MacBook Pro. But in November 2023 the model was discontinued, and with it the Touch Bar, just over seven years after it was introduced. It was the end of an era for another hardware feature that just never caught on.