The iPhone twelves

Thu Oct 29, 2020

This year, Apple is releasing four iPhone twelves: the iPhone 12 mini, the iPhone 12, the iPhone 12 Pro, and the iPhone 12 Pro Max. Under Tim Cook’s reign, the sparse product lines of the Steve-Job era are truly gone.

There used to be only one choice - the iPhone. Gruber’s favourite Andy Warhol quote comes to mind here. The iPhone has always been an expensive object, but there was only one choice. At least you knew - whether rich or poor - everybody had the same one as you (the very best one). You could save up for it and feel really good about getting one.

Now, if you want the “halo” device (the very best, the most prestigious, the most capable), you’ll have to throw down an extremely eye-watering $2194 CAD after tax. That is quite simply, sad. And out of reach for most people.

The confusion over an expanding product line (I wouldn’t call it bloated just yet, but it’s on the way), is compounded by the muddled differences between models. If it were simply a difference in size, that would be easy enough to understand. But the differences here are more niggling, even esoteric. What exactly is the real-world consequence of upgrading to a 2.5× ƒ/2.2 lens instead of a 2× ƒ/2.0 lens? Or recording in Dolby Vision 4K at 30fps versus 60fps?

I’m not even going to try and parse it all. But if you held a gun to my head today and forced me to click the “Buy” button, I would get the iPhone 12 Pro. Not because I fully appreciate the long spec sheet. No, I just think that “Pacific Blue” colour is particularly fetching.

After hanging onto every leak throughout the year, the final release of new iPhones is always somewhat deflating. It’s the exhaustion of running a long race, only to feel no elation at crossing the finish line. Note to self: I’ve got to scale back next year and just enjoy the run without trying to “see” the finish line the whole time.

Let’s start off talking about what I didn’t like.

I didn’t like Apple’s hard sell on 5G. I guess the 5G transition is inevitably going to be awkward as all manufacturers in the industry have to appease the carriers or risk missing the 5G-hype train. However, one can’t help but assume that Apple offset the extra cost of 5G components by removing the charger and headphones from the box. This move seems miserly given that they also raised the phone’s base price.

Nobody likes being overly cynical when it comes to climate change and reducing emissions, but the environmental angle Apple played up seemed like pure spin. Including a USB-C charging cable when most customers only have USB-A chargers means most people have to buy a USB-C charger anyway. Apple’s pricey new MagSafe Charger doesn’t come with a wall charger either. That omission is certainly an encroachment - if not a full incursion - into “Cash Grab” territory.

I’m not sure about the new design yet - I’d have to hold the phone in the hand to fully make up my mind. However, the new design of the iPhones this year looks really sleek, but isn’t actually “new” at all. In a design choice that feels more recursive than innovative, Apple brought back the flat squared-off edges of the iPhone 4. Apple took a very safe approach and rebooted itself instead of exploring a new design paradigm. I can’t fault them for doing it: the squared-off design is well-liked, nostalgic, and timeless. It just doesn’t feel particularly original to me.

But then again, the iPhone 4’s design wasn’t original either: it was resurrected from an abandoned early prototype called “the sandwich”. The “sandwich” design was not pursued back then because the internal components made the phone too fat for Steve Jobs’ liking. Steve’s favourite quote, “good artists borrow, great artists steal”, seems apt here because Apple is stealing from itself. Although this doesn’t feel as slimy as, say, Samsung’s constant aping of everything Apple does.

But anyway, I don’t want to linger too long on the negative - let’s talk about the good stuff. There is a lot to like about the new iPhones this year.

I’ll admit that my appreciation of the iPhone has been influenced of late by the book The One Device: The Secret History of the iPhone by Brian Merchant, which I picked up on sale and am currently reading.

After reading about the excruciating process of birthing the iPhone, the aesthetics on the new iPhone don’t impress me as much as the internals (except for that fine Pacific Blue colour of course).

Apple’s silicon team continues to do some of the best work in the industry. The A14 bionic chip is the first commercially-available product to be manufactured using the 5-nanometre process. Let’s take a minute to appreciate what that means.

In 1952, the Raytheon hearing aid came out. It was the first product to feature one whole transistor.

In 1954, the year my Mother was born, the first transistor radio was released. This radio had a grand total of four transistors.

Fast forward to the first manned moon landing in 1969 - the Apollo spacecraft’s bulky onboard computer was cutting-edge tech at the time and featured 12,300 transistors.

Enter the microchip, a miniaturized circuit which allowed transistors to be spaced mere nanometres apart. In 1971, the first microchip had 2,300 transistors that were spaced ten thousand nanometres apart from each other.

Ten thousand nanometres. Think about that. There are only 5 nanometres between each transistor on the A14 chip. This insanely-tight atoms-wide spacing allows the A14 to sport a mind-boggling 11.8 billion transistors.

It is no exaggeration to say that the speed and efficiency of the A14 is unparalleled.

In my previous post, I mentioned that an upgrade from my 6S to the 12 would be amazing. And it certainly would be. The iterative advances every year since the 6S was released add up to an extremely refined device.

The iPhone 7 brought us IP-certified water and dust resistance (at the expense of the headphone jack - RIP). The iPhone 8 added wireless charging. The iPhone X heralded a new design direction with OLED, Face ID, and smaller bezels (and the bane of my existence - the notch). The iPhone XS and XR pushed this new design forward with improvements in all areas, as well as proliferating the new design across the product line. The iPhone 11 and 11 Pro doubled down on photography with two rear cameras on the 11 and three rear cameras on the 11 Pro. And now we have the expanded iPhone 12 line with higher-resolution OLED, 5G, a retro design, MagSafe, and a “ceramic shield” instead of glass to increase shatter resistance (unfortunately at the expense of scratch resistance it seems). The Pros also get LiDAR, ostensibly for better low-light focusing, but is really for Beta testing AR applications for the future “Apple glasses”.

Without fail, every year has brought both CPU and camera advances to iPhone hardware. We can thank Google for pushing machine learning in phone photography to the point where the algorithms have become ridiculously good at compensating for smaller camera sensors. This healthy competition has put camera improvements at the forefront of smartphone innovation these days, so much so that what you are really buying is a portable camera that happens to include a phone.

Yes, the iPhone 12 would be an extremely nice upgrade, but I’m still not going to get it. I’ve already talked about some of my reasoning in my previous post: Namely, my slim hope that Apple will address the notch next year, and the fact that my 6S still runs the latest version of iOS. I can add a couple more reasons though.

I don’t know about you, but I find buying a fragile slab of glass for over a thousand dollars kind of stressful. Swaddling your shiny new baby in a case and screen protector - especially in the first few years of ownership - is a must.

Any blemish in the first year goes straight to the heart. I still remember the pain of dealing with dead pixels (twice) on my new 6S.

Do I have any dead pixels now? Yes. Do I care? No.

Now I frequently go caseless. Slapping a screen protector on a five-year old phone would be a joke. The scratches don’t bother me. If my phone plummets onto the floor, I don’t even blink. You just can’t pay for that kind of freedom.

Also, reading The One Device really opened my eyes to the iPhone’s human impact. Manufacturing an iPhone takes a toll on thousands of people, most of them in developing countries.

At the very beginning of the iPhone’s manufacturing lifecycle, the mining of rare-earth metals and other required elements falls onto the poorest of the poor. Given the unregulated wild-west nature of the mining industry in countries like Chile or Bolivia, freelance miners are not uncommon and child labour is still a sobering reality.

In the middle of the manufacturing lifecycle, components are assembled by young assembly-line workers, mostly in China. These jobs are soulless, repetitive, and mind-numbingly boring. Couple the boredom of assembly-line work with a management style that “motivates” through humiliation, lies, and punishment, and it is no surprise that suicides are an ongoing concern.

And finally, at the end of the manufacturing lifecycle, you have tons of toxic e-waste being shipped out of wealthy countries at great expense, just so we don’t have to deal with it. This e-waste gets dumped in some hellhole in Asia or Africa. Thousands of desperate scavengers, many of them young children, try to make a living by picking through the reeking refuse, looking for electronics to recycle. I think it’s safe to say that they don’t have any PPE to mitigate exposure to toxins as they wade through poisonous sludge or burn the metals off circuit boards.

So, yeah, owning an iPhone is a huge privilege, and I have no problem with using mine as long as I can before getting a new one. I’m not trying to be sanctimonious and know full well that I’m hardly an eco warrior. The truth is, I could probably use it a lot longer after the software support runs out, but I just don’t have to - or want to. I’m grateful, humble, and aware of the privileged position I’m in.

Having said that, I’m still an unapologetic tech enthusiast and am looking forward to whatever innovations come next. I do need some time to rest and recover before feasting at the all-you-can-eat rumour buffet. And as I said earlier, I should really cut back. However, I can’t help throwing a snack-size Notch Watch out there just to get the juices flowing a little:

Leaker Ice Universe claims that the iPhone 13 may have a smaller notch - but shorter in height, not in width. Shortly after Ice made this claim, a patent surfaced that suggests Apple is looking at under-display sensors. But even if they are actively pursuing it, it seems unlikely they would perfect it by next year. Being perfectionist isn’t a bad trait, but it kind of excludes fast-and-furious risk taking on the bleeding edge.

So there you have it. If there are any more advances on the notch front in the next year, I’ll be sure to write about it.

If you’re still reading this, then you should probably re-evaluate your priorities! Over here in my world (i.e., in my unique time, place, and circumstance), it’s almost the Halloween weekend. I think there will be slim pickings for the kids if we go trick or treating. Anecdotally, I’ve heard about people building candy chutes and slides or using long tongs to maintain their distance from the infected hordes. But driving through my neighbourhood, most houses don’t have Halloween decorations up at all. I think a lot of lights will be turned off this year.

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