Fitter, happier, more productive

Fri Sep 17, 2021

Apple’s California Streaming event will probably achieve the one thing that most benefits this overtaxed planet - slowing down the upgrade cycle.

Apple’s marketing guys tried their level best to feed the hype machine. They put together a slick online presentation that included musical performances, famous directors making movies with iPhones, and over-the-top, bombastic animations ill-suited to the iterative stature of each feature being illustrated.

A case in point: this animation of a massive avalanche pelting huge boulders down onto the new Apple Watch screen to illustrate… an IP6X certification (dust resistance).

With no new sensors, no new design (despite the erroneous rumours of a square chassis), and not even a new chipset, the only thing going for the Apple Watch Series 7 is a screen with 1mm shaved off the bezels and slightly faster charging. Oh, and improved dust resistance of course. Such feature paucity makes me feel good about getting the Series 6 last year: my analysis back then was spot on - the Apple Watch reached it’s peak in 2020.

Apple’s crack marketing team also decided to inflate the importance of this year’s iPhone upgrade by calling it the iPhone 13 instead of the iPhone 12S. I totally get it - “S” year upgrades (same external design with updated internals) don’t sound as exciting. But in cold hard reality, that is exactly what the iPhone 13 is - an “S” year upgrade.

That’s not to say that “S” year upgrades are bad - many tech enthusiasts actually prefer the refinements offered on a time-tested design rather than the riskier early adoption of a new design. I went with the 6S partly for this reason, and it has indisputably stood the test of time.

Let’s take a closer look at these “S” improvements. Once again, there are four new iPhone models (base model, mini, Pro, and Pro Max). As always, I encourage you to read the upcoming reviews - and there will be many - for the nitty-gritty details. However, here’s a list of the main new features as I see it:

  • The new A15 chip. Likely more efficient, but not faster than the A14. The Pros get an extra GPU core in the chip this year.
  • A bigger battery for a couple extra hours of screen-on time.
  • A screen that can hit a higher peak brightness in SDR.
  • A 2o-percent smaller notch. Notch Watchers rejoice? More on this later. And yes, I did just coin the term Notch Watcher for rabid fans of my Notch Watch segment. So far, I am the only member 😊
  • Improved camera system of course, the same as every year. A diagonal camera layout because of those bigger sensors. The Pros have even better cameras.
  • Starting storage of 128GB on the base model, instead of 64GB.
  • Only the Pros get the 120Hz adaptive refresh rate (ProMotion).

Oh, I forgot to mention the new colours. But hells bells, switching from “Pacific Blue” to “Sierra Blue” on the Pro isn’t exactly a gamechanger (for the record, though, Pacific Blue looked nicer). However, in my opinion, the blue on the base model (unfortunately no cool name - just “blue” - poor show crack marketing team), is nicer than last year’s.

So, at first blush, the only visible difference between the iPhone 12 and 13 is the smaller notch and the diagonal camera layout. The rest are internal improvements, as per usual in an “S” year.

It’s been said many times that the iPhone has become a camera - a camera that just happens to have a built-in phone. That constant push for better point-and-shoot photography and video hasn’t changed and it’s a strategy that seems to be working out for Apple.

The new Cinematic Mode that automatically focuses on the subject in frame and blurs the background is genuinely impressive. Indeed, the cumulative camera updates over the past five years has left my 6S so far behind, you can barely see it in the rear-view mirror.

Camera improvements aside, the other updates are either negligible or completely inconsequential, depending on how you see it. Unsurprising, given that smartphone innovation has plateaued. But as I alluded to upfront, slowing down the relentless upgrade cycle is a good thing for everyone.

Being the richest company in the world, Apple doesn’t even have to think about spending an obscene amount of money trying to convince you to upgrade every year. But it’s all a big game - they know it, and since you’re smart (you’re reading this, so you must be) - you know it too. They aren’t desperate for your business and they’ll spend even more gobs of money telling you how environmentally responsible they are.

To be clear, the green angle isn’t all lip service - Apple’s phones last a long, long time. Optimizing iOS to run on really old phones is actually a point of pride for Apple’s engineers. They can afford to play both sides.

Given the sheer volume of iPhone sales - let’s not forget that the iPhone is arguably the most successful product in the world - it’s more important for Apple to keep their supply chains in check. No longer small and nimble, they can’t pivot quickly or push radical hardware changes to market without first procuring a mindboggling number of components along with the manpower to assemble them.

For example, look at the “new” iPad Apple announced: by sticking with the exact same form factor since 2013, these uncontested tablets are pure profit. In the presentation, Tim Cook confirmed that these base-model iPads outsell all other fancy iPad models that have slimmer bezels, Face ID, and other myriad of improvements.

The all-too-familiar shape of the Apple Watch is another case in point, although there is a compelling conspiracy theory out there that the “real” Series 7 was scrapped at the last minute due to manufacturing issues. Looking at the circumstantial evidence, this theory seems outlandish enough to be plausible.

If true, then the mellow Californian vibe Apple was trying to convey to the public and to investors in the presentation was actually a cover-up for mass panic and scrambling internally. Slapping together a product at zero hour is no easy feat, so if this actually happened, then hats off to the Apple engineers’ impressive improvisational skills. They deserve a raise and a stiff drink. However, if the Series 7 was actually a patch job, consumers should stay well away from it.

More realistically, it’s more likely that the leaked square design is for the Series 8. There’s no way Apple could ramp up mass production of an alternative design in a matter of months, right? Hardware is usually nailed down years in advance. Even so, I do wonder…

So, the only product with significant design changes revealed at the presentation was the neglected iPad mini. Neglected no more, the mini was given a makeover, transforming it into a mini iPad Air.

The squared-off design with thin bezels and Touch ID in the power button looks great, but more than ever, it looks like a giant iPhone. Even the marketing video aggressively pushed the idea of portability and 5G. Not once did this video show somebody lying in their bed at home watching Netflix, which is the main use case for iPads.

So why not just throw a SIM card in there and call it the iPhone SuperMax? Right now, the iPad mini is just a confusing niche product. The irony of such an unimportant product in Apple’s catalog being dusted off and revealed as the most beautiful Belle at Apple’s annual Ball is not lost on me.

But hey, there’s always next year. For those already looking ahead to 2022, you can bookmark the MacRumors iPhone 14 rumour roundup page now.

Notch Watchers will note that the hole-punch design for 2022 is gaining more traction, with 2023 still being the earliest date for an all-screen design. Whether the hole-punch rumour pans out depends on whether Apple can move Face ID sensors under the screen (ostensibly easier than moving a selfie camera under the screen).

However, there is one thing that doesn’t quite sit right with me about the rumoured hole-punch design: from the front, the iPhone would look identical to the Samsung Galaxy S21. Apple would essentially erase the iconic look of the iPhone and cause widespread brand confusion. I doubt they would be okay with this.

Prolific leaker Jon Prosser has taken iPhone 14 leaks one step further by claiming next year’s design will go full iPhone 4. He claims the glass sandwich (glass sitting on top of antenna bands), the round volume buttons, and even a camera module flush with the chassis will all return. Okay, so the hole-punch is an intriguing possibility, but bringing back every single design element of the iPhone 4?

I call bullshit.

I could see an homage to the iPhone 4 or subtle references that harken back to the classic design, but resurrecting the iPhone 4 beat for beat comes off as nerdy fan fiction. Besides, Apple already did the iPhone 4 homage thing with the squared-off design of the iPhone 12 - I just can’t see them beating the same horse two years later.

So there you have it - new Apple products to help you become fitter, happier, and more productive. For me, this song choice encapsulates the feeling of ennui that often accompanies Apple events. Incidentally, did you know that Thom Yorke thought this track was “the most upsetting thing I’ve ever written”?

There’s always a flip side. In California Streaming, maybe the beautiful drone shots of California and shiny new colours was enough of a distraction. Or maybe there is something shifting in shadows that even Californian sunshine can’t quite dispel.


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