I watched the Apple special event last week, even though there were so many leaks that I didn’t expect very many surprises. To me, one of the great things about Apple’s events is the story they tell and how they show their hardware and software working together in ways that solve problems for real people. So, while knowing (or at least, having a very good idea) of the hardware and some of features that were going to be a announced, I was excited to hear what Apple had to say about it all.
Apple announced new iPhones, Apple Watches, and a new AppleTV. This was an update event with no new product categories announced. Apple showed an evolution of several of their products. While many are calling the iPhone X a revolutionary product, to me, it’s also just an evolution over what came before. All the updates look great. More on those below.
I was very impressed, even touched, with how Tim Cook opened the event and dedicated the Steve Jobs Theater at Apple’s new corporate campus, Apple Park. It was a wonderful tribute to Steve Jobs and his legacy. And, it was a great reminder about how Apple approaches product development, focusing on creating great products that customers love. I know there are many who are quite cynical about Apple and other large companies, believing that their only purpose is to take our money. Certainly, Apple is in the business of making money. But, having followed this company for many, many years, as well as working at its main competitor for a couple decades, I can tell you that money is not the only, nor even the main, focus of this company. I truly believe that they want to make great products first, and that they care about what their customers think about those products. All those years at Microsoft, it was very rarely the same. There are major differences in the products these companies produce and the way people feel about them.
Apple announced some solid updates to the iPhone line. I expected the mainstream phones to be called iPhone 7S and iPhone 7S Plus. Instead we got iPhone 8 and iPhone 8 Plus. I believe this is because they changed the body of the phone by adding a glass back. All past “S” models kept the same body and focused only on internals. These new iPhones follow a familiar update history: many updated components making the device clearly better than its predecessor. The main updates, in my mind, are (as always) the cameras, wireless charging, and the updated displays.
The iPhone has become the most used camera in the world. Each new generation of iPhone improves on the camera in various ways, but until the iPhone 8 is released and put through its paces, we won’t know exactly what these improvements mean for picture quality. I can’t wait to see.
Wireless charging is an interesting feature to add. Android phones have offered this feature for some time. For me, this is not a killer feature and not a reason to upgrade. I’m sure it will be nice to simply lay your phone down on the (not included) power mat and have it charge. But I’ve never found it that difficult to plug my devices in. I can even do it in the dark! Still, this will appeal to a lot of people. And, when Apple ships is own AirPower mat next year, with the ability to charge your phone, Apple Watch, and AirPods all at the same time, that may well change my mind.
Apple hasn’t told us very much about the new screens on the iPhone 8. They’ve added True Tone, a feature they first introduced on the iPad Pro. This feature uses a sensor to match the colors of the screen to the ambient lighting conditions. It sounds kind of hokey, but it really makes a big difference. When I first got my iPad Pro, I coudn’t believe how much better the screen looked. And, when reading on my iPad, if I pick up my phone, the difference in screen color is amazing.
iPhone X & Cameras
The iPhone X looks like a fantastic phone. The design is stunning and I’m sure it’s much better in person. It has a beautiful large screen, great new cameras, and a new way to unlock the phone using your face. While I think it’s a great phone with amazing updates over previous iPhones, I do think Apple is over-hyping it a bit. It still seems evolutionary to me. Oh, it’s certainly more evolutionary than the iPhone 8, and more so than any previous year’s new models. It’s just that Apple makes it sound as if this is a groundbreaking new product, and I don’t think it is. It’s a better iPhone. And I am excited about it and where Apple is taking smartphones.
There are a lot of great new features in the iPhone X, but I want to focus on one: photography. I’ve loved photography for a long time. Years ago I wanted to learn more about photography. I bought a DSLR, took a photography class and really got into the whole process. I loved it. I would spend time around town taking photos. I took my DSLR, along with tripod and various lenses & filters, on vacation a few times and loved setting up shots and capturing our adventures. What I didn’t love was lugging all that equipment around. I also didn’t love that when I wanted to take a picture, that involved getting the camera out of my over-full backpack, maybe changing the lens, maybe setting up the tripod, taking off the lens cover, and then framing the shot and capturing it. And once all that was done, I had to do the reverse and put all that equipment away. Oh, and then there’s the process required to get the photos onto my other devices. I got a lot of great pictures but the entire process felt too heavy and too slow.
A couple years ago I decided that perhaps the iPhone had a good enough camera that I didn’t need to lug my DSLR around anymore. I figured I’d try to live with my iPhone as my only camera on several trips and see what happened. If I really missed being able to zoom way in on something, use a tripod, or use some filter, I’d revert to taking my big camera. Guess what? I have not missed my big camera. Sure, there have been a few times where I would have liked to have it. For example, we recently took a three week trip to the UK and drove around the country. There were a couple times that having that big camera would have allowed some pretty spectacular shots. Instead though, I was able to pull out my iPhone at a moment’s notice, snap a shot, and continue on. I would not have wanted to carry around all that extra equipment just for those few times.
Returning from that trip and reviewing the hundreds of photos I took put it all in perspective for me. I had a lot of great photos. I actually enjoyed that trip more without my DSLR. I was more present, able to move quickly to capture something, and then continue on. I could easily view, edit, and share my photos instantly, no matter where I was. It was clear: I was done with the big camera for good. I have not used it in over two years.
All that leads me to iPhone cameras. Shortly before the trip to the UK I bought the iPhone 7 Plus. Since I was giving up my DSLR, I wanted the best phone camera I could have. The camera in the iPhone 7 Plus was amazing. I loved having the optical 2x zoom and it really captured stunning photographs. But, that phone is so big! It didn’t bother me too much while on the trip, as I was always wearing pants that had pretty big pockets. But, when we got home and I started wearing normal jeans again, it became a bother. It didn’t fit well in my pockets, was uncomfortable when sitting down, and I was noticing how difficult it was (for me) to use one-handed. One night I picked up my wife’s iPhone 7 and was reminded of how much better that size felt in my hand. I guess I had forgotten how perfect that size is for me. I had had the iPhone 6 and the iPhone 6S prior to the iPhone 7 Plus, and was ready to go back to that size. It was an agonizing decision as I really didn’t want to give up that camera. But in the end comfort and day-to-day use won out.
Now, with the iPhone X, maybe I can have a comfortable size with the best camera. The phone is only a little larger than the existing iPhone 7. The cameras sound awesome. Not only does the phone still have two cameras, allowing for a 2x optical zoom and portrait mode, but both cameras have optical image stabilization. This means clearer zoom shots, better portrait shots, and overall better low-light pictures. There are myriad other updates to the camera as well, that suggest some amazing new possibilities. The iPhone X is going to be an awesome camera!
There are many other new features in the iPhone X: a new OLED high-resolution screen that is edge-to-edge, True Tone, Qi charging, and many of the same features found in the iPhone 8. And, of course, there is FaceID to unlock the phone. There is much to digest and I’ll talk more about these things in a future post.
Apple announced the Apple Watch Series 3. The biggest news here is that Apple Watch gets cellular connectivity. There’s also a new processor that is 70% faster than the series 2, which allows Siri to finally talk on your watch! The new watch also has a built-in altimeter. The series 3 is available in both cellular and non-cellular versions.
I have an original Apple Watch and love it. When I first got it I wasn’t sure what I would end up using most. After almost three years of ownership, the main things I do are: check the time, weather, and date, get notifications, track workouts and fill my rings, and use ApplePay. I don’t really use apps on the watch per-se. Of course, some apps provide richer notifications, which I like, but I don’t spend any appreciable time using the watch with apps in the way I do on my phone. It’s really a way to get quick information, whether the time or to see who is messaging me. I’ve worn a watch since I was a kid and this watch really has become indispensable as a way to get information quickly.
I think the addition of cellular to Apple Watch is the main draw for the new watch. While I don’t see this as replacing an iPhone in any way, there are a couple scenarios where I think this will be a huge new feature: workouts, running out for quick errands, and those times you just forget to grab your phone. All of these situations will become better because you can stay connected and not worry about being able to be reached.
Apple also announced the new Apple TV 4K, which supports 4K resolution with high dynamic range (HDR). HDR in particular will provide a greatly improved picture for movies and television with its ability to show more colors and higher contrast. I think the biggest surprise here is that Apple is upgrading movies & television shows you’ve purchased to 4K for no charge. And, the price going forward for that content will be the same that we’ve been paying for HD content. I think this is a big win for 4K content and will help drive adoption.
What Will I do?
Every year Apple releases great updates to some set of their products. And every year I struggle with what to do. Since I retired I’ve been living a more frugal life. My wife and I downsized homes (quite a major downsize), got rid of a very large number of our possessions, and have focused on traveling and living a simpler life.
So, what does that mean for buying new technology? We have a simple test, or rule, we try to apply to help us overcome the desire to just always upgrade: is there some meaningful feature or benefit that we really will use? I know that it’s easy to construct a yes answer to that question in almost any circumstance. But we really try to stick to that
For example, earlier this year when Apple released the new 10.5″ iPad Pro, we both looked at it and asked that question. I decided to upgrade because I was moving away from my Mac and going to be writing. Spending all my computing time writing on the iPad lead me to want a larger screen for the work I’d be doing. My wife, on the other hand, did not upgrade her 9.7″ iPad Pro. She loves it and uses it for almost all her computing needs. But she didn’t see a compelling upgrade. She also has a MacBook Air that is seven years old. She’s held off upgrading that for the same reason: for what she needs, it’s perfectly suited.
That said, we have decided that we will be buying some new products this year. We both are getting new Apple Watches. The scenarios I mention above are ones that we both run into. Always being connected will be a great feature for both of us. I’m also looking forward to being able to swim with my watch, since we spend a good deal of time visiting family in Florida every year.
We are also buying an Apple TV 4K. We use our Apple TV all the time. We don’t have cable (another one of our downsizing decisions) so NetFlix, Hulu, and iTunes provide a lot of what we watch. When we moved, we had an old rear-projection big-screen television that we used for movies. That would not fit in our new, smaller place, so we bought a new 4K television. I’m looking forward to seeing what 4K and HDR will mean for picture quality.
I usually upgrade phones every year. As always, there is no real need to upgrade. My iPhone 7 works perfectly and I love it. It’s the best phone that I’ve ever owned. But each year, the call of the camera is the thing that eventually leads me to getting the new phone. This year is even harder to resist, because I know I can get back to the plus-sized camera without having to get a plus-sized phone. I’m not sure yet if I’ll upgrade, but I have a month or so to decide. My wife has already decided that she is not upgrading her iPhone 7. She loves it and doesn’t see any new features that are compelling enough for her to make the switch.
As some of this new equipment arrives, I’ll update you with my impressions. Until then, I hope this post gave you a high-level overview of what’s coming from Apple.