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Practical Mac

Since its founding, and especially following the introduction of the original iMac, Apple has established itself as a company synonymous with good design. Its products are eye-catching and innovative, but not always in the ways and for reasons that most people expect.

Looking at the products Apple has announced at the end of 2013 reveals a different and much more effective use of design than that early company-saving iMac.

After a relatively quiet stretch during the spring and summer, Apple revamped most of its lineup in September, starting with the iPhone 5s, iPhone 5c and improved iMacs. Slimmer MacBook Pros debuted in October, along with two new iPads: the iPad mini with a high-resolution Retina screen, and the iPad Air, a new design for the large-screen iPad. Apple also revealed details about the new Mac Pro, itself a radical design departure, which begins selling in December.

All this design work isn’t just about making the products attractive to entice purchasers. Unlike most computer companies, Apple doesn’t need to rely on “shelf appeal” to compete against other similar machines in an electronics store. (It solved that problem handily a decade ago by introducing its own stores.)

Instead, the products’ designs affect how you use them every day.

That wasn’t always the case. At one point, Apple needed attention, and quickly. The translucent blue-green shell of the original iMac was a statement: This computer — and this company — are unlike all others. Apple created its own style and ushered a boom in translucent plastic that ended up in all sorts of unlikely and unrelated products.

No one needed to see the exposed backside of a CRT screen, but that wasn’t the point. And when Apple expanded from Bondi Blue to a rainbow of colors, the appeal became decorative, not just unique.

Now look at the latest iMac. Gone are the colors (and, thankfully, odd variations like the Flower Power iMac), replaced by a brilliant color screen (measuring either 21.5- or 27-inches diagonally) and a stand. When you’re using a modern iMac, you’re immersed in what you’re doing.

The innovations here are on the inside, with an optional Fusion drive that starts up from a fast solid-state drive (SSD) but still offers the considerable breathing room of 1 terabyte (TB) of storage. It features powerful Intel Haswell processors and faster 802.11ac Wi-Fi.

Although to be honest, I don’t think most people are comparing specs between Macs and Windows PCs the way they used to. In most cases the machines are fast and capable — unless you’re in professional situations where you need to eke out every last bit of performance, but that’s a small subset of computer purchasers.

Most buyers want to know what a computer can do for them. Is it better than others for presentations? For spreadsheet work? Is file compatibility an important need? Is a software package available only for one platform?

And yet, I can’t help but be struck by the iMac’s design every single time I approach it. At its edges, the case is 5 mm thick. Apple couldn’t flatten every component, so the back expands to a gentle bump; including the stand, the iMac is 8 inches deep. But you don’t see that; you see the thin edge and — so help me — experience a sense of viewing the impossible illusion that the “computer guts” have somehow vanished.

OK, it’s one thing to feel good about a device, but more important is the physical feel and interaction with it. This is where the new iPad Air and the Retina iPad mini make an impact.

The Retina iPad mini is actually slightly thicker (0.29 inches) than the regular iPad mini (0.28 inches), and about 20 to 30 grams heavier, depending on whether you’re measuring the Wi-Fi-only model or the Wi-Fi-plus cellular model. (The original iPad mini is still available in a single 16 GB configuration, but don’t bother: The additional $100 spent on the Retina model gives you a longer useful life.)

The iPad mini is all about feel: It’s light enough to hold in one hand for a long period of time (such as while reading), it slips into most coat pockets, and it doesn’t take up much space or add much weight to a purse or bag. I know a lot of people who switched to the original iPad mini for those attributes, and who will be buying the Retina version to take advantage of the incredible screen.

Right now, though, the epitome of Apple design is the iPad Air. The previous two generations of iPads were relatively heavy and bulky — and I say this as someone who’s toted the third-generation Retina iPad with me daily almost everywhere for the past year.

The iPad Air is what I imagine Apple set out to design with the first iPad, but couldn’t because of the components at the time. (Keep in mind we’re talking development that occurred just four years ago.)

The appeal of the iPad Air design is, foremost, its weight. It’s a third lighter than the third- and fourth-generation full-size iPad models. It’s not quite light enough to hold one-handed for an extended period of time — that’s the sweet spot for reading that the iPad minis and Amazon Kindles occupy — but it’s still an improvement, especially if you use it frequently during the day.

It’s also thinner, both in depth (0.29 inch) and width (6.6 inches), while retaining the same 9.7-inch Retina screen.

We typically don’t appreciate the effort required to make design jumps like the iPad Air. High-tech components like processors and batteries improve steadily, so of course the ones available now are better than those of last year. It’s not that easy, though. The battery in the iPad Air by itself doesn’t suddenly offer better performance in a smaller size, compared with the one in the fourth-generation iPad released a year ago. The battery technology is about the same as it was.

In fact, the iPad Air’s battery actually holds less energy than its predecessor: 32.4-watt-hour compared to 42.5-watt-hour. (That’s good news because it means recharging the iPad Air takes less time.) But the Air maintains the same 10-hour battery performance because the Apple-designed A7 processor is much more energy-efficient than the earlier processors, while still dramatically outperforming them.