Lately, the thought of opening my Macbook first thing in the morning flushes me with dread. There are many reasons for this to be so, but the one at the forefront of my mind when I rise is also the most primal: I know my Macbook will be miserably cold to the touch.
Like stepping barefoot onto a frigid floor, picking up an aluminum Macbook that has sat overnight is a rude shock. But it’s just one of a suite of seasonal adjustments one considers as winter finally descends on Apple-using New York. Not all of us have to scrape a windshield, and my super will shovel my building’s fucking walk, but we’re all bound together by the way in which our personal electronics fail to account for the new reality that is freezing weather.
Maybe this true for all brands of electronics. I definitely know it’s true for Apple products. My iPhone will die without warning at 30 percent. My earbuds—now like little ice cubes I place in my ears, with stiffened cords that hang from my head like uncooked angel hair—will randomly go on the fritz. I’ll start typing on my computer after bringing it along on the walk home from the train, and it will feel like I’m placing my wrists on a hockey rink.
Apple is proud to let us know that its goal is the pursuit of absolute perfection. To that end, the company pushes its hardware and software into the red: Its products need to be the lightest and the thinnest but also the fastest, most powerful and most durable. Certainly, Apple charges enough money that this isn’t an unreasonable expectation.
But winter is not exactly the season of refinement and optimization. It’s the season of redundancy and bulk. Apple’s approach to hardware is either ignorant or in denial of this. The company has switched to slim, lightweight aluminum in place of plastic and cut down the number of ports on its products, all the while focusing on the biggest slenderizing move of all: shaving down the size of its batteries.
Yet the ideal battery, in terms of size and weight, is more or less the opposite of the ideal battery in terms of, you know, power. Thus Apple has a page on its website titled “Maximizing Battery Life and Lifespan,” and if you scroll down the page you’ll come across a hilarious graphic.
According to Apple, anything under 32 degrees is dangerously cold for its phones, tablets, and watches, and anything under 50 degrees might put your multi-thousand dollar laptop at risk. On Monday night in New York, the temperature dropped to 18 degrees, though with the wind chill Apple’s own weather app said it felt more like seven degrees. It won’t be 50 degrees here—at which point my computer will be back in its “comfort zone”—for at least another four months.
Whatever. Something has to give, right? We have no choice but to go along with the tradeoff, buying products that are lighter and faster even if they are seasonally frazzled. Still, I find it curious that Apple puts its own products in peril at temperatures annually experienced by some Americans, but not others.
One group of Americans who don’t regularly experience temperatures at which point phones and tablets become uncomfortable are those who live in a specific slice of California. In San Francisco, the annual average low temperature is about 50 degrees. In Mountain View, adjacent to Apple’s headquarters in Cupertino, it rarely drops below the mid-40s. In Palo Alto it might dip below 40 but almost never below freezing, and in none of those locations does it really ever get up in the 90s, at which point you have to worry about your devices dying in the other direction.
Given its wealth accumulation and worldview, it’s easy to see Silicon Valley’s relationship with the rest of America as them versus us. And when it comes to the personal electronics they design and build for us to buy, it really is: Most Apple employees never have to worry about the temperature limitations they bake into their own products because the weather is good enough where they live that it doesn’t matter anyway.
If Tim Cook and his frightened but prolific underlings had to work out of, say, the Rust Belt, might they care a bit more about what the environment does to their phones and tablets five or six months out of the year? If Johnny Ive had to wake up in the morning and cradle his iPad like it was a chicken breast he pulled out of the freezer, might it be made out of a different material?
Who knows. In reality, those are useless questions. Apple is building an exquisite and expansive new campus in Cupertino. It has touted the compound’s reliance on green energy. On a recent episode of 60 Minutes, Cook explained that the office will often be able to eschew air conditioning in favor of letting the area’s natural breeze flow through the halls, and that breeze sure as hell isn’t 32 degrees Fahrenheit.
Illustration by Jim Cooke