#1548: Apple updates all platforms, Apple’s Q1 2021 shatters records, Nomad wireless charging mat
Last week, Apple released watchOS 7.3, iOS 14.4, iPadOS 14.4, and tvOS 14.4. The updates address numerous security vulnerabilities, including two serious exploits, and the watchOS update adds a new face to celebrate Black History Month. Apple completed the update cycle this week with macOS 11.2 Big Sur, which also fixes a handful of bugs and many security vulnerabilities, including those nasty exploits. Despite the world’s broader economic problems, Apple posted a massive Q1 2021, shattering sales records and seeing double-digit growth in all of its product categories. Finally, if you’re pining for Apple’s now-canceled AirPower charging mat, Julio Ojeda-Zapata reviews the Nomad Base Station Pro, a wireless charging mat that lets you put up to three devices down anywhere. Notable Mac app releases this week include SoundSource 5.3, Quicken 6.1, and Security Update 2021-001 (Catalina and Mojave).
watchOS 7.3, iOS 14.4, iPadOS 14.4, and tvOS 14.4 Address Serious Security Exploit
In its first updates of 2021, Apple pushed out updates to all platforms other than macOS, and macOS 11.2 Big Sur appeared a few days later (see “macOS 11.2 Big Sur Improves Bluetooth, Squashes Bugs,” 1 February 2021). Unusually, the most significant update this time around is for watchOS 7.3, which adds a fun new African-themed watch face for Black History Month. iOS 14.4 and iPadOS 14.4 receive a few welcome tweaks, as does HomePod Software Version 14.4, but Apple doesn’t list any changes to tvOS 14.4. The updates also address a serious security vulnerability that Apple says may have been actively exploited in the wild.
From a feature standpoint, there’s no need to install these updates quickly. However, given the serious nature of some of the security vulnerabilities, we recommend updating sooner rather than later. Give things a day or two, but if no problems crop up right away, push the button and get these updates.
The most notable feature in watchOS 7.3 is a new Unity watch face to celebrate Black History Month. It features the three colors of the Pan-African flag—black, green, and red—in a pattern that shifts as the watch moves. You can add the face to your Apple Watch in the Watch app on your iPhone by tapping the Face Gallery tab, tapping the Unity face, and tapping Add.
The release notes for watchOS 7.3 also advertise the new Time to Walk feature of Apple Fitness+, but it was already available in watchOS 7.2 (see “New Apple Fitness+ Perk Encourages Users to Take a Hike,” 25 January 2021).
Good news for international Apple Watch users! Irregular heart rhythm notifications are now available in Japan, Mayotte, Philippines, Taiwan, and Thailand, and users in Japan, Mayotte, Philippines, and Thailand can now access the ECG app.
Finally, the release notes detail a bug fix for the Zoom feature that could render Control Center and Notification Center unresponsive.
The security notes for watchOS 7.3 describe 30 security fixes, one of which is a kernel vulnerability that could allow a malicious app to elevate privileges. Apple says it may have already been exploited in the wild.
watchOS 7.3 is a 165 MB download for an Apple Watch Series 4. To install the update, open the Watch app on your iPhone and go to My Watch > General > Software Update. Remember that the watch must be on its charger and charged to at least 50%.
iOS 14.4 and iPadOS 14.4
The iOS 14.4 update offers three tweaks: the capability to recognize smaller QR codes, an option to classify Bluetooth device types in Settings > Bluetooth so you get audio notifications on the right device, and notifications if the camera in an iPhone 12 model can’t be verified as an authentic Apple camera.
That last note is interesting. Independent repairman Hugh Jeffreys tried swapping the rear cameras in two identical iPhone 12 models, only to find that they did not work properly and often froze the Camera app. Swapping the cameras back fixed the problem. The implication is that the cameras in the iPhone 12 are coded to the phone and would have to be reprogrammed by Apple, thus preventing third-party repair, even when using genuine Apple parts. We’re curious to see if iOS 14.4 changes this behavior in some way.
iOS 14.4 also fixes bugs that:
- Caused image artifacts in HDR photos taken with an iPhone 12 Pro
- Prevented the Fitness widget from displaying up-to-date Activity data
- Delayed typing and prevented word suggestions from appearing
- Brought up the keyboard in Messages in the wrong language
- Prevented audio stories from the News app in CarPlay from resuming properly after being paused for spoken directions or Siri
- Caused Switch Control to block answering phone calls from the Lock Screen
On the iPad side of the fence, iPadOS 14.4 is also out, with a subset of those changes.
iOS 14.4 and iPadOS 14.4 address a total of 43 security vulnerabilities, including one for the aforementioned kernel exploit and another for a WebKit vulnerability that could allow a remote attacker to cause arbitrary code execution. This second vulnerability has also been reported in the wild.
You can install the 344.6 MB iOS 14.4 update (on an iPhone 11 Pro) from Settings > General > Software Update. The iPadOS 14.4 update weighs in at 310 MB on a 10.5-inch iPad Pro.
HomePod Software Version 14.4
Apple also rolled out HomePod Software Version 14.4, which takes advantage of the U1 chip in newer iPhones to hand off music from a nearby iPhone to a HomePod mini, get personalized listening suggestions on an iPhone when it’s next to a HomePod mini, and automatically display media controls on an iPhone when it’s next to a HomePod mini.
Left to its own devices (an amusing phrase in this context), your HomePod should update itself. If you don’t want to wait for that to happen, open the Home app, and if an Update Available button appears, tap it. Otherwise, touch and hold the HomePod tile, tap the gear icon to enter settings, and then tap Install near the top of the screen.
Last and definitely least, Apple has released tvOS 14.4. It suffers from a complete dearth of release notes apart from details of 31 security fixes, including the kernel exploit. To install the tvOS 14.4 update, go to Settings > System > Software Update, or just wait until it installs on its own.
macOS 11.2 Big Sur Improves Bluetooth, Squashes Bugs
Hot on the heels of other recent Apple operating system updates (see “watchOS 7.3, iOS 14.4, iPadOS 14.4, and tvOS 14.4 Address Serious Security Exploit,” 26 January 2021), Apple has released macOS 11.2 Big Sur to improve Bluetooth reliability and fix bugs that could:
- Cause external displays to show a black screen when connected to an M1-based Mac mini with an HDMI to DVI converter
- Prevent edits to Apple ProRAW photos from saving in Photos
- Inadvertently turn off iCloud Drive entirely after the user disabled iCloud Drive Desktop & Documents syncing
- Prevent System Preferences from unlocking after entering an administrator password
- Make the Globe key fail to show the Emoji & Symbols pane
If those bugs don’t seem earth-shattering, that’s because the focus of the macOS 11.2 update seems to have been on security, with 43 security fixes. Two of the vulnerabilities—the same ones addressed in last week’s updates to Apple’s other operating systems—may have been actively exploited in the wild. However, no mention was made of a recent vulnerability discovered in the
sudo Unix utility.
The macOS 11.2 update advertises itself as being a 3.25 GB download on both an Intel-based iMac and an M1-based MacBook Air, although the latter Mac’s download window inexplicably reports 4.18 GB instead. You can only install the update using Software Update; Apple appears to have stopped releasing standalone downloads for Big Sur updates.
Given the severity of the exploited security vulnerabilities, we recommend installing macOS 11.2 soon if you’re already running macOS 11.1. Wait a few days to make sure the community doesn’t find unanticipated problems, and then update.
However, for those who haven’t yet updated from a previous version of macOS, we recommend waiting a few more weeks to determine if macOS 11.2 will give fence-sitters sufficient confidence to make the jump to Big Sur.
Apple Weathers the Storm to Shatter Records in Q1 2021
Apple continues to ride high on uncertain seas. Delivering its Q1 2021 financial results, Apple announced profits of $28.8 billion ($1.68 per diluted share) on record revenues of $111.4 billion. The company took in 21% more than it did in the year-ago quarter, with profits up 35% (see In Apple’s Q1 2020, iPhone Rebounds and Wearables Soar, 28 January 2020).
Apple CEO Tim Cook seemed almost apologetic about Apple’s success in a crumbling world, kicking off the quarterly investor call with an outline of the company’s various charitable efforts, such as its recently announced racial equity initiatives (see “Apple Launches New Racial Equity and Justice Initiative Projects,” 13 January 2021), its long-standing partnership with Product Red, and a pledge to invest $350 billion in the United States economy.
But that financial success could not be ignored: the company saw double-digit growth in all of its product categories and in all the geographic sectors it serves. Even FaceTime had an up quarter: Cook said that Apple handled the highest number of FaceTime calls ever over the holiday season. He also said that the quarter saw 1.65 billion Apple devices activated.
Apple saw a 17.2% year-over-year increase in iPhone revenue, up $65.6 billion from $56 billion in the year-ago quarter. CFO Luca Maestri specifically called out the iPhone 12 Pro and 12 Pro Max as big sellers, and he said that iPhone 12 customer satisfaction ratings were at 98%. Maestri said nothing about the iPhone 12 mini and rumors that its sales have been disappointing—nor did analysts ask him about that.
One interesting benchmark: by the end of the quarter, users had activated over one billion iPhones.
The Mac line saw a 21.2% year-over-year revenue increase, which Maestri credited to the new lineup of the MacBook Air, MacBook Pro, and Mac mini powered by Apple’s new M1 chip. The Mac brought in $8.7 billion in Q1 2021, up from $7.2 billion in Q1 2020. Mac sales rose in all geographic sectors, and he noted that Macs were achieving an average 94% customer satisfaction rating. Taking into account Apple’s relatively low market share in the personal computer market, the vibrant sales performance of the new M1-based Macs led Cook to predict a rosy future for the venerable product line.
The iPad had an outstanding quarter, with an almost startling 41.1% year-over-year revenue jump, bringing in $8.4 billion in revenue for Apple, up from $6 billion in the year-ago quarter. Cook ranked the iPad product line as the best Apple has ever had, pointing out that some people were purchasing the devices to serve as replacement laptop computers, while others were buying them in addition to laptop or desktop devices. The need for remote computing devices during the pandemic certainly contributed to the product line’s quarterly success. However, Cook also mentioned the effect of increasing sales in the education market, with iPad school deployments in Japan and Germany being the largest ever.
Wearables, Home, and Accessories Results
Apple’s miscellaneous bucket of Wearables, Home, and Accessories also did very well, with a 29.6% year-over-year revenue increase. At $13 billion in revenue, the category was $3 billion above the year-ago quarter. AirPods of all types, including the new high-end AirPods Max headphones, boosted the category’s results with extremely strong demand during the holiday season (“Apple’s One Last Thing for 2020: AirPods Max,” 8 December 2020). Despite the new headphones’ $549 price tag, Cook said that supplies would be limited for the foreseeable future. Cook also praised the strong sales of the new softball-size HomePod mini, which lists for just $99.
The Services sector, which has been surging in recent quarters, also performed admirably, posting a 24% year-over-year revenue increase. Apple gave much credit to the new Apple One service bundles, along with Apple Music, iCloud, and other services. App Store subscriptions also rose. However, Apple probably can’t credit Apple TV+ much, as most of its customers are still on a free trial, now extended for a second time, through July 2021. Services brought in $15.8 billion this quarter, compared with $12.8 billion in the year-ago quarter.
Apple’s sales increased in all geographic sectors. Business in China was especially strong, showing 57% revenue growth, which Cook credited in part to the introduction of the 5G-capable iPhone 12 line. Cook said that 5G networks are well-established in China so the demand was already there—though he was quick to point out that it wasn’t just iPhones and 5G affecting Apple’s China results: Mac and iPad sales there exceeded “company averages” as well.
Sales in Japan also grew during the quarter, with revenue increasing by 33.1%, thanks in part to record iPad demand there. Rounding out the list, Europe saw 17.3% growth, the Rest of Asia Pacific grew 12.3%, and the Americas increased by 11.9%.
Cook noted opportunities for growth in both Latin America and India. Although sales in the latter region have doubled in the last year, he described Apple’s market share there as low enough to offer plenty of headroom for growth.
Apple Can’t Even Give Its Money Away
Can anything slow the Apple juggernaut? For a few months, it appeared that Apple had cooled down, but even in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the company is back to smashing records and dazzling investors. Every participant on the quarterly call began by heartily congratulating Tim Cook. In fact, the praise was so effusive and repetitive that, if you were only half listening, you might have thought he’d just had a baby.
Interestingly, one of the few areas in which Apple seems to be failing is in its mission to give its cash hoard away. In its Q1 2021 press release, Apple said, “We also returned over $30 billion to shareholders during the quarter as we maintain our target of reaching a net cash neutral position over time.”
Despite giving away $30 billion in the past quarter, Apple now has a cash stash of $195.57 billion, which is actually up 2% from a quarter ago. The company literally can’t give money away fast enough. Perhaps it could consider sending stimulus payments to every Apple user.
Or at least increase the free iCloud storage tier from the embarrassingly small 5 GB.
Nomad Multi-Device Charger Aims to Be AirPower’s Heir
Wireless phone charging can be a straightforward proposition: Buy a simple, decent-quality Qi pad for about $30, plug it in, place your iPhone on the charging surface, and wait for the battery to top up.
The annoying thing about Qi charging pads is that you must place your iPhone on them just so, or it won’t charge. Precise placement aligns the metal charging coils inside the iPhone with the corresponding coils in the Qi charger.
Apple planned to liberate us from this first-world torment with AirPower, a wireless charging pad that would have accommodated multiple Apple devices at the same time. AirPower never saw the light of day, reportedly because of serious heating issues (see “Apple Cancels AirPower, Can’t Take the Heat,” 29 March 2019), but the AirPower idea hasn’t died. As Apple has pivoted to MagSafe for ensuring proper positioning, others have introduced AirPower-style products.
I have been testing one such accessory, Nomad’s Base Station Pro, an attractive and ruggedly built multi-device charging pad that doesn’t replicate all of AirPower’s advertised features but is a nifty feat of engineering all the same. Notably, the Base Station Pro does not require precise alignment of iPhones.
The Base Station Pro is as much tech proof-of-concept as a shipping product. It’s intended to showcase Aira FreePower, a free-placement charging technology that aspires to be AirPower’s heir—and then some. Aira’s creators aim to put charging surfaces everywhere: built into furniture, integrated into vehicle cabins, fused onto coffee shop counters, and so on.
That’s cool, but potential Base Station Pro buyers have a more immediate dilemma: Is it worth $199.99 when you could pick up a trio of Qi pads for a lot less?
Fancy but Flawed
The Base Station Pro is costly in part because of fancy physical construction. Rather than utilitarian plastic or rubber, it offers a leather-sheathed charging pad on a sturdy aluminum base that’s only a half-inch thick. It’s similar to older Base Station pads, but the Aira tech jacks up the price even more.
The Base Station Pro has one obvious shortcoming: Aira charging does not support the Apple Watch. Nomad works around this by providing a free clip-on aluminum mount for the watch puck—but you have to add your own power adapter separate from the Base Station Pro’s 30-watt USB-C adapter. It’s a kludgy hack that creates cable clutter but doesn’t look terrible.
As promised, the Base Station Pro permits flexibility in the placement of iPhones and AirPods cases. Devices can be askew instead of painstakingly aligned, but they each need to occupy about a third of the surface, as shown below.
The Aira tech claims edge-to-edge charging via an internal board incorporating 18 overlapping hexagonal charging coils—but I found my AirPods case would sometimes fail to charge if it was too close to one of the Base Station Pro’s edges.
Don’t bother trying to add a fourth device. I tried charging two iPhones, one at each end, plus two AirPods cases in the middle. That is a no-go; a trio (not a quartet) of charging lights on the charger’s front edge was a tip-off that I had overreached—only one of my AirPods cases would charge in this scenario.
If you’re charging just two devices, the Aira tech is even more forgiving about the positioning. You can put two iPhones (or an iPhone and AirPods Pro case) on the pad just about anywhere, at almost any angle.
The Base Station Pro charges at 7.5 watts, the maximum iPhones support with standard Qi accessories. By comparison, the iPhone 12 models charge at 15 watts when using Apple’s MagSafe, except for the iPhone 12 mini, which charges at 12 watts.
You may run into a few issues when using the Base Station Pro, Nomad warns:
- Charge times may vary depending on the devices’ positioning.
- Charging might slow down if the ambient temperature exceeds 74°F (23ºC).
- Devices may go into a slow-charging mode once battery levels top 80%, meaning they might not fully charge overnight.
Another issue became apparent when Apple released the iPhone 12. The MagSafe magnets interfered with Aira charging, so they charged more slowly and less reliably than older models—if at all.
Problems with iPhone 12 hardware on pre-existing wireless chargers have been a somewhat common problem, albeit one that Apple at least partially addressed in iOS 14.2 (see “Apple Releases iOS 14.2, iPadOS 14.2, watchOS 7.1, HomePod Software 14.2, and tvOS 14.2,” 5 November 2020).
Nomad has its own potential solution. You can update the Base Station Pro’s firmware by connecting it to a Mac and running an updater app. Nomad said a recent update “made some marked improvements to the experience. The experience is a lot better today than it was when the iPhone 12 first launched.”
I can attest to that. I found charging to be unreliable when I started testing the Base Station Pro, but performance has been far more consistent lately. It has been my primary charger for the past two weeks with no major issues. Nomad says it has another software update coming soon that will make additional improvements to the charging experience.
Worth the Cost?
So should iPhone users seriously consider dropping $200 on the Base Station Pro? The answer may not be simple. Weigh the following factors:
- How much of a hassle is device alignment on regular Qi pads? It is a non-issue for me; performing this ritual on my pads has become second nature after a bit of initial trial and error. When I asked Nomad and Aira whether freeform positioning is worth the extra cost, they sidestepped the question and pointed to the Base Station Pro’s premium construction as the value-add. That, at least for me, is a strong argument for sticking with standard Qi chargers.
- Can the alignment problem be solved in other ways? MagSafe is one way to go, with three of Apple’s $39 MagSafe Charger mini-pads collectively costing $82.99 less than one Base Station Pro. Upcoming third-party MagSafe chargers look to be even less expensive. However, as Josh Centers noted in “MagSafe Is Cool, but Is It Worth the Trade-Offs?” (6 November 2020), the strength of the MagSafe magnets prevents me from picking up my iPhone with one hand. This isn’t a significant hardship, but I keep forgetting the charger is magnetic and trying to walk off with my phone, yanking the cord. The Base Station Pro does not have this problem—just grab and go.
- Would the Base Station Pro work well as a family charger? Yes. In a household with three or more Apple or Android smartphones, it would be a classy way to go.
Other multi-device wireless chargers exist, often for quite a bit less money. But study them carefully before buying. A fancy but flawed one that crossed my desk is Belkin’s $129.99 TrueFreedom Pro, a pleasingly hefty, leather-topped Qi pad. It matches the Base Station Pro in permitting flexible positioning thanks to an internal mesh of overlapping coils. But the TrueFreedom Pro charges only two devices at once and does not accommodate the Apple Watch in any way.
The TrueFreedom Pro also suffers from issues with the iPhone 12. On its product page, Belkin describes it as “not compatible with iPhone 12 models.” I was able to charge my iPhone 12 devices, but Belkin told me it might be slower and less reliable than with other smartphones. Unlike the Base Station Pro, the TrueFreedom Pro lacks firmware updating, meaning any iPhone 12 incompatibilities are baked in.
The Bottom Line
Though I loved using the Base Station Pro and look forward to seeing it improve via firmware updates, it’s a tough sell given simpler, less expensive options. Standard Qi chargers don’t look fancy and are not always the fastest around, but they charge my iPhone overnight just fine. If I need speedier charging, I plug in a Lightning cable. Granted, fiddling with an iPhone’s position on a standard Qi pad until the charging kicks in can be annoying. But with a bit of practice, it becomes automatic.
So is the flexible positioning on the Nomad Base Station Pro a reason to pay more? Sure, if you can afford it, it’s a snazzy accessory. But for those on tighter budgets, save your money.