Apple in 2021 review: iPhone 13 and monster MacBook Pros lead a stellar year

Plus: AirPods 3, 24-inch iMac, iPad mini 6 and Beats Fit Pro wireless earbuds

Apple HomePod, iPhone and AirPods 3
(Image credit: Apple)

Apple had a seriously great 2021. Despite the ongoing global semiconductor shortage, a shortage that meant the Apple Watch Series 7 wasn’t on sale in the usual quantities as quickly as normal, Apple still managed to ship huge numbers of really incredible products including the iPhone 13, the AirPods 3, the new iMac 24-inch and new versions of every current Apple OS.

In a year when it could've been forgiven for taking its foot off the pedal a little, we got even more radical new versions of existing products – including the new MacBook Pro 14-inch and 16-inch, plus the iPad mini 6th Gen – as well as a whole new product in the form of AirTag.

Let's take a look back at how the 2021 went for Apple, and all the key new things it introduced, and how successful they were.

Apple iMac

(Image credit: Apple)

Apple in 2021: AirTags and the 24-inch iMac in April

Spring is sprung, the grass is riz, we wonder where our car keys is. Not any more thanks to AirTags, Apple’s portable Tile-style trackers: cheap by Apple standards, they work really well and while they’re a minor product they’re awfully useful, and are pretty great value.

The big deal this month was the iMac 24-inch (2021), which we called the world’s coolest desktop. It’s a bit stingy on ports but it is a wonderful home or work machine that’s available in a good selection of fun colours that makes us happily nostalgic for the very first iMacs. The screen is better than 4K, and Apple’s chip means it’s extremely fast. It's perhaps a little weak on graphics power for a pricey desktop, but the bigger version coming soon is said to solve that, using the chips from the new MacBook Pros…

April also saw the launch of the M1 iPad Pro, which is faster than the old Intel 16-inch MacBook Pro. In our iPad Pro 12.9-inch (2021) review we said it offered “incredible video performance and ridiculous power”, and we fell in love with its mini-LED screen. And the Apple TV got a minor update along with these too, with a new Apple TV 4K model.

MacOS Monterey

(Image credit: Apple)

Apple in 2021: macOS Monterey, iOS 15 and watchOS 8 in June

May brought us new Apple Music Lossless and Spatial Audio, the latter of which has been fascinating. Is Dolby Atmos music just some new fad or a meaningful new way for artists to add dimension to what they produce? It feels like people are still learning how to make the most of Dolby Atmos, so it might be a while before can make a full judgment, though we like what we've heard so far.

The big event was at WWDC in June when Apple showed off new versions of all its current operating systems: macOS 12 Monterey, iOS 15, iPadOS 15, tvOS 15 and watchOS 8.

None of these felt revolutionary, it has to be said. In some cases, it barely felt like there were any changes at all – in iOS 15's case, the change people talked about most was they didn't like the new way that the Safari web browser works.

Of course, there were upgrades included, but the software upgrades were perhaps the most shrug-inducing part of Apple's year.

Apple Watch Series 7

(Image credit: Apple)

Apple in 2021: iPhone 13, iPad mini and Apple Watch Series 7 in September

All the leaves were brown and the sky was grey when Apple had its California Streaming event to show off its most important product: the iPhone. This year’s model is of course the iPhone 13, along with the iPhone 13 mini, the iPhone 13 Pro and the iPhone 13 Pro Max. Apple also released the operating systems we saw at WWDC in the summer at this time.

We're big fans of what the iPhone 13 models brought to the party – there were no giant changes, but they meaningfully upgraded the parts of the phone that people use the most, with the battery improvements especially making them a bona fide upgrade over older models.

Apple also introduced the iPad mini 6, a very welcome refresh, and the ninth-generation iPad. We like the mini a lot: in our iPad mini 6 review we said that “it feels like the ultimate expression of what Apple always wanted it to be: a highly flexible computer in the smallest possible space.”

Last but definitely not least there was the new Apple Watch Series 7, the best smartwatch you can buy today. It’s the best Apple Watch to date, and that bigger screen really does make a big difference without making you look like you’ve strapped a dinner plate to your wrist. It seems like a small difference (and, compared to previous model upgrades, it is), but you'd be surprised how much you notice the difference in practice. The Apple Watch SE and Apple Watch Series 3 remain on sale as cheaper options. 

Apple MacBook Pro 16-inch 2021 on white background

(Image credit: Apple)

Apple in 2021: AirPods 3, even better MacBook Pros and new HomePods mini

Apple’s final event of 2021 was October’s “unleashed” event. That brought us the mighty 14-inch and 16-inch MacBook Pro (2021) which offer fantastic displays, class-leading performance and exceptional battery life. As we said in our review the 16-inch is probably overkill for anyone other than creative pros, but the 14-inch MacBook Pro is the ultimate go-anywhere, do-anything laptop of today. 

The event ended on a high note with the announcement of the AirPods 3, which now come very close to Apple’s best true wireless earbuds, the AirPods Pro: all that’s really missing is noise cancelling. That means it’s a good time for the AirPods Pro to get an update, and that’s said to happen in 2022 – a year that even by Apple standards is already looking packed with new and interesting Apple products. 

While the third generation AirPods were announced at Apple’s final 2021 event, that doesn’t mean they were the final Apple product announcement of 2021. That honour goes to the Beats Fit Pro (whose shape apparently offers a hint of what the AirPods Pro 2 are going to look like) and the HomePod mini, which got some fun new colours. 

It’s just a shame that Apple decided to stop making the bigger Apple HomePod: we’ve got a pair and they sound absolutely spectacular even years on, especially since Apple added Spatial Audio this October.

Carrie Marshall

Writer, musician and broadcaster Carrie Marshall has been covering technology since 1998 and is particularly interested in how tech can help us live our best lives. Her CV is a who’s who of magazines, newspapers, websites and radio programmes ranging from T3, Techradar and MacFormat to the BBC, Sunday Post and People’s Friend. Carrie has written more than a dozen books, ghost-wrote two more and co-wrote seven more books and a Radio 2 documentary series. When she’s not scribbling, she’s the singer in Glaswegian rock band HAVR (