Apple in 2021 — best and worst of the year

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(Image credit: BRITTANY HOSEA-SMALL/AFP via Getty Images)

Apple’s 2021 was pretty eventful with a flurry of virtual events and lots of new products unveiled. The iPhone 13 understandably took center stage, but there was plenty of other notable announcements, including an all-new MacBook Pro 14-inch and MacBook Pro 16-inch, AirPods 3, AirTags and iMac 2021.

We also saw a new iPad 12.9-inch, iPad mini 6, iPad Pro M1 and new Apple TV 4K. Then there was the software, with Apple releasing iOS 15, iPadOS 15 and macOS Monterey, as well as watchOS 8.

Apple also unleashed new software experiences like SharePlay, new services like the Apple Music Voice plan and the new self repair initiative for iPhones. Along the way there have been plenty of Apple highs but also some lows. 

Here are the 5 best things Apple did this year — and the 3 worst. 

The best of Apple 2021

iPhone 13 battery life boost

iPhone 13 Pro Max in grey, held in front of water

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

The iPhone 13 and iPhone 13 Pro series delivered better performance and cameras as we expected — including the compelling Cinematic mode for video — but we weren’t expecting this big a jump in battery life. Thanks to a larger battery and more efficient A15 Bionic chip, the iPhone 13 lasted over 2 hours longer than the iPhone 12 on our iPhone 13 battery testing, which involves surfing the web over 5G. The iPhone 13 Pro endured for 2:40 more and the IPhone 13 Pro Max made our best phone battery life list with a runtime of 12 hours and 16 minutes. 

MacBook Pro 2021 — giving the people what they want 

The MacBook Pro 2021 (14-inch)

(Image credit: Henry T. Casey)

It was a long time coming but it was still a very welcome sight. Apple finally added an SD card slot and HDMI port to a new MacBook Pro 14-inch. Apple also finally ditched the controversial Touch Bar in favor of physical menu keys and upped the power with new M1 Pro and M1 Max chips. Add in a dazzling mini-LED display and sharper 1080p webcam and the new MacBook Pro is a winner for those willing to pay a premium. Even with the notch. 

Apple self repair for iPhones  

Close-up image of Technician hands tried to remove, take of, change or replace Apple iPhone 6 battery degenerate or damage.

(Image credit: Poravute Siriphiroon | Shutterstock)

File this one under “better late than never.” Likely in response to ongoing pressure from right-to-repair advocates and the prospect of government intervention, in November Apple announced a new Apple Self Service Repair program, making the unprecedented move of giving users the opportunity to fix their own iPhones — and providing the tools and parts for them to do it.

The program is initially going to be available in 2022 in the U.S. for iPhone 12 and iPhone 13 displays, batteries, cameras and more. The program will also expand throughout 2022 to include repairs for M1 Macs will gradually become available in more countries.

iPad mini 6 is a very pleasant surprise 

The iPad mini 2021

(Image credit: Henry T. Casey)

We were skeptical about whether the world still needed a small tablet but the iPad mini 6 proved us wrong. Apple increased the size of the display from 7.9 to 8.3 inches, and it’s an awesome screen for watching shows, reading comics and surfing the web. You also get fast A15 Bionic performance, Apple Pencil 2 support and nearly 11 hours of battery life.  In other words, the iPad mini 6 is better than your typical big-screen phone and is one of the best tablets if you’re willing to pay $499 for it. 

iMac 2021 redesign and M1 power

Apple iMac 24-inch

(Image credit: Future)

We knew the M1 processor was coming Apple’s all-in-one PC but the iMac 2021 24-inch review exceeded our expectations. As our Alex Wawro wrote, it “delivers speed, beauty, and great sound in a slim new design.” The M1 chip didn’t flinch when we had 30 Chrome tabs open, two separate videos streaming, and Steam downloading and installing games in the background. Plus, the 4.5K display makes movies and games look fantastic, and the new chassis is just 0.45 inches thin. The iMac 2021 is especially awesome for those working from home, thanks to its 6-speaker audio system and sharp 1080p webcam. It's our No. 1 best all-in-one computer period. 

The worst of Apple 2021

Apple CSAM controversy 

iCloud

(Image credit: Shutterstock)

It seemed like a noble idea. Apple's plan was to simultaneously scan iPhones and iCloud for known (child sex abuse material) CSAM images. It was supposed to be implemented by the end of 2021 as an update to iOS 15. Despite multiple reassurances, the announcement was met with a huge outcry from privacy advocates and technology-policy experts. It also seemed arbitrary that it took 30 offending images to trigger a human review. After defending the program, Apple ultimately backtracked

Apple issued this statement in September: "Based on feedback from customers, advocacy groups, researchers & others, we have decided to take additional time over the coming months to collect input and make improvements before releasing these critically important child safety features."

AirTags and stalking 

Apple’s answer to Tile, the AirTags are affordable and easy-to-use trackers with ultrawideband technology built in.  But they’re almost too effective. We’ve seen reports of AirTags being used by thieves to steal cars and of rogue AirTags being used to stalk women. Apple has addressed some concerns with updates and by releasing an Android app that’s designed to scan for nearby AirTags that are not yours, but some privacy advocates say more measures are still needed. 

Lobbying against alternative App Store payment methods

App Store

(Image credit: Shutterstock)

As part of the Apple vs Epic Games trial Apple was ordered to open up its App Store to alternative payment methods, which would give customers more choice. But Apple argued that it would compromise security and privacy. In early December an appeals court granted a stay that the puts enforcement on hold until the appeals court can fully hear the case. And this process will likely take months. There must be a way to allow exterior payment methods without hurting users — even if it hurts Apple’s bottom line. 

Mark Spoonauer is the global editor in chief of Tom's Guide and has covered technology for over 20 years. In addition to overseeing the direction of Tom's Guide, Mark specializes in covering all things mobile, having reviewed dozens of smartphones and other gadgets. He has spoken at key industry events and appears regularly on TV to discuss the latest trends, including Cheddar, Fox Business and other outlets. Mark was previously editor in chief of Laptop Mag, and his work has appeared in Wired, Popular Science and Inc. Follow him on Twitter at @mspoonauer.