Notch Watch: Special Edition

Thu Sep 29, 2022

I’ve been obsessing over the iPhone’s notch since 2017. Not only do I pen an ongoing segment here called Notch Watch, but I even created a dedicated Notch Watch website.

However, I’ve reached a turning point - an editorial dilemma if you will - as the notch’s days are surely numbered. All my complaining over the “dreaded notch” will soon have to… evolve.

At Apple’s annual September event, Apple introduced the iPhone 14 and iPhone 14 Plus. These do still have notches. They also still have everything the iPhone 13 had last year, including the old A15 chip. We’ll chat more about this later.

But with the iPhone 14 Pro and iPhone 14 Pro Max, Apple tried really, really hard to change the notch narrative. And you know what? They might have done it.

Instead of a notch, the Face ID sensors and selfie camera have been moved into a pill-shaped cut-out that only Apple could get away with calling the “Dynamic Island”.

Yes, there is nobody else on this planet who could take this bombastic name seriously. As a case in point, Joanna Stern at the Wall Street Journal hilariously rowed out to a literal island in a canoe for her iPhone 14 Pro review. Amazing. The tech press have even started calling the old notch the “Static Peninsula” - with tongue firmly in cheek.

But goofy name aside, the Dynamic Island - sorry, I just can’t - the pill cut-out (henceforth called “the island”) is now far more than it appears to be.

The island is essentially a software UI around the cut-out that effectively displays status notifications with some really cool, fluid animations - if you’re not familiar with the island yet, watch the promo video and you’ll quickly get the idea.

Instead of determinedly ignoring the unsightly blemish, Apple is flipping the script and forcing you to look at it all the time. By leaning into it and making it fun and interactive, Apple is trying to trick us into loving it. Ah yes, the old validation feedback loop - it’s classic psychological conditioning.

It’s a good idea. No, it’s a really great idea - but I hate it. While the notch started out as a design compromise, it has now evolved into an elaborate ruse. Visually - I can’t believe I’m saying this - the notch is actually nicer. It doesn’t cut into the height of the screen as much as the island does. And it doesn’t leave that tiny sliver of useless display floating above it. The island also looks objectively worse when viewing video in landscape mode.

But perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the island is its longevity. Firstly, its arrival indicates that a true full-screen iPhone is many, many years away, which is just sad. Apple wouldn’t pour all this work into a feature that will go away next year.

Secondly, when the full-screen dream iPhone does arrive - say four years from now - will the now-beloved island just vanish as if it were never there, like in an episode of Lost? After tricking people into falling in love with it, would Apple really yank away their precious plaything?

My personal take is that the island will stick around in some capacity - even on a full-screen iPhone. Perhaps it will momentarily disappear when watching video. Or it will evolve further, becoming less of an island and more of a fluid notification area at the top of the display. The status icons and animations could stay, but the black pill shape would no longer be necessary.

The more pressing question though, is what will happen to Notch Watch?

Well, after thinking about it, I’ll keep the name for now. After all, the notch is still there on the regular iPhone 14.

Oh man, the iPhone 14. With the exact same form factor and A15 chip as last year, the iPhone 14 is essentially a rebranded iPhone 13. Sure, some of the iPhone 13 Pro parts have trickled down to the 14, but dude, this phone is aggressively iterative.

The same can be said for the Apple Watch Series 8, which only has two minor new features over the Series 7 - crash detection and a wrist-temperature sensor. Right now, the temp sensor is only used so that women can estimate when they ovulated. Neither of these features apply to me - I don’t drive much (which hopefully decreases the odds of being in a severe car crash), and I don’t have ovaries. I can gladly say that my Series 6 will serve me well for years to come.

If you want to go big or go home, then you need to drop over a grand (Canadian of course) on the beefy Apple Watch Ultra. That extra thickness gets you more protection and a longer battery life so that you can go scuba diving or climb a mountain. Or so that you can just be a poser, of course - there are plenty of those people out there.

Personally, I’m not into large watches (not a huge fan of the design either, but the titanium looks good) nor do I have a large amount of cash lying around.

Paying more to get more was the theme of this year’s Apple event, but guess what folks, we’re heading into a major recession. Apple’s more affluent customer base may be immune to it, but one can’t help but feel that Tim Cook has gotten a little too good at maximizing profit.

Thankfully, Apple products are still high quality and still last a really long time. If you’re spending too much money every year on the latest and greatest just to get a few iterative features, well, that’s on you. There’s no shame in being a few years behind - believe me. I love shiny new things as much as anybody, but let’s be real - there are more important things to invest in. And there’s nothing sweeter than the delayed gratification of waiting five or six years to leapfrog multiple generations and get a massive upgrade.

That pep talk was more for me than for you by the way, but hey, like and subscribe if you agree.

So, there was a third product announced at the September event - the Airpods Pro 2. When the first-gen Airpods Pro came out, I was impressed by the upgraded specs compared to the regular Airpods. And while I am less blown away by the tech this time, these new second-gen Airpods Pro seem like a meaningful upgrade - especially in terms of sound quality and improved active noise cancelling.

Out of all the products announced, I’d have to give the award for “Most Improved” to these buds. Guys, you know this - the first gen of any product is more of a Beta test and a good second gen always fixes mistakes and makes a significant leap ahead.

The second gen looks almost identical to the first, which is why there is less surprise and delight this time, but perhaps Apple feels they nailed the design on the first try. Still, I continue to be intrigued. A large part of my intrigue is due to the fact that I haven’t jumped on the Airpods bandwagon yet and I love to try new product categories. I bought some cheap wireless earbuds from AliExpress, but you know how that goes (I had to superglue one of the earbuds back together after it spontaneously broke in two).

If the first-gen Airpods Pro drop in price, are they a good deal? Or since you’re dropping a couple hundred anyway, should you shell out another hundred for the second gen? Tough one. Some people wear earbuds all the time, especially if they commute on public transit. If that’s you, I’d say the upgrade is worth it, especially if you have no cash-flow problems (you should be good since you don’t own a gas-guzzling, money-burning car, right?).

If you do have cash-flow problems, you shouldn’t even be looking at those first-gen Airpods Pro. Even with a price drop, they’re still too expensive. Hit up AliExpress instead.

Interestingly, the Airpods Pro adopt a lot of technology from hearing aids. Well, without us even realizing it, these have quietly become de facto hearing aids for young and old people alike. Young people can wear them at loud concerts and turn on Adaptive Transparency mode so they don’t damage their hearing. Older folks can turn on Conversation Boost mode to boost the volume of a person talking in front of them. That’s pretty cool.

Some housekeeping

I’ll wrap up with some small, but linguistically significant site improvements. Firstly, I’ve renamed “Blog Posts” on this site to simply “Posts”. I’ve done this to partially address the ideas in Matt Gemmell’s rhetoric of writing - ideas which have stuck with me. To recap: In these dark times, the word “blog” has “connotations of the ramblings of some random person, without authority or polish”.

Gemmell also condemns the word “post”, but I’ve had a change of heart and don’t really have a problem with it anymore. The alternatives, such as “longform piece” sounds a bit pompous and self-important in my opinion.

Secondly, I’ve changed “Status Updates” to “Snippets”. The impetus for this change is the recent Verge re-design. I think the new layout looks terrible on a desktop monitor by the way, but Nilay Patel has explained that they are working on it, so I won’t go on about it. Everybody designs “mobile first” these days, and who can blame them.

Anyway, to wean their reporters off using Twitter for short-form posts, the Verge has introduced an in-house feed they call “Storystream”. I have to congratulate them for coming up with this brilliant idea which I implemented five years ago.

Anyway, it got me thinking about the naming of my version: “Status Updates”. Call it what you will - a “feed”, “Storystream”, or “micro-blogging”, I think we can all agree that “Status Updates” doesn’t quite capture the fun idea of brief, random commentary. There’s no standard term for it though and I’ve come to really like the word “snippet”, so why not - it works better and is more fun than the dry, IT-sounding “Status Update”.

Now that the Verge is bringing link posting back in a big way, I’ll try do it more often.

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