six colors

by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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Dan Moren for Macworld

Siri Shortcuts: Opening up Siri’s next chapter ↦

In 2011, Apple announced that its newest iPhone would incorporate a brand new virtual assistant, based on an app developed by a company that Apple had acquired: Siri. This fall’s release of iOS 12 marks seven years since Siri’s debut, meaning that the virtual assistant would be roughly in first grade by now.

Over the intervening years, Siri has grown in fits and starts, expanding its features and its knowledge base, often with only a little fanfare from Apple. On rare occasions, Apple does devote some attention to the virtual assistant, such as when it produced a whole video dedicated to the relationship between action star—and impossibly cheerful human—Dwayne Johnson and the intelligent agent. But more often than not, Siri’s presented as a facet of Apple’s other products.

In iOS 12, Apple’s made perhaps the biggest improvement in Siri’s history, by adding the Siri Shortcuts feature. Shortcuts unlocks a lot of functionality for the virtual assistant and makes it truly customizable for the first time, but it also brings to light the virtual assistant’s frustrating shortcomings.

Continue reading on Macworld ↦


Linked by Jason Snell

Todd Vaziri on Apple’s “Mission: Impossible” video

Todd Vaziri is an Apple fan, and he has also worked on a few movies you’ve probably seen in his position at Industrial Light and Magic. Todd’s credits include entries in the “Star Wars”, “Star Trek”, and “Mission: Impossible” franchises.

And so who better to compare and contrast Apple’s event-opening video with “Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol” via a YouTube video?


Podcast

The Rebound

The Rebound 205: Six Million Ham Sandwiches

This week, on show we almost called “Two and a Half Hosts” Dan and John are joined by some guy named Lex for about a third of a show. We discuss iOS 12 and the new Shortcuts features, then spend a surprising amount of time talking about productivity suites. Because who’s going to stop us?

Episode linkMP3 (45 minutes)


Podcast

Clockwise

Clockwise #259: Like Android, But Prettier

This week, on the 30-minute show that’s complex, nuanced, and fast, Dan and Mikah are joined by special guests Federico Viticci and Jean MacDonald to discuss the most exciting new features of iOS 12, our experiences with Shortcuts, what the HomePod still needs, and what iPhone and iOS 12 features we’re going to be explaining to our non-techy friends and family. Plus, Olympic sports we’d like to see.

Episode linkMP3 (29 minutes)


Overcast 5 (left and right) gives me podcasts pre-loaded on my wrist; Intervals Pro (center) acts as my running coach.

By Jason Snell

Running down that dream: Podcast and interval training on an Apple Watch

The day the Apple Watch was introduced, four years ago 1, I immediately envisioned a use case for it that would be the perfect way for me to embrace a universe where I could strap a computer on my wrist. It involved using a pair of wireless headphones to listen to podcasts while using a “Couch to 5K” app to get me in running shape.

This summer, I achieved this goal. It took this long because watchOS needed more time to evolve on a bunch of fronts. Third-party apps needed better control over the device, especially to run (and play audio) in the background. The entire device, originally designed to be a remote screen for code that ran on its companion iPhone, needed to be able to run more reliably on its own. Bluetooth audio connectivity needed to get better. AirPods needed to exist.

But last month I was able to walk out the door of my house with nothing in my pocket but a house key, and go for a run with my favorite podcasts playing in my ears and a running trainer occasionally interrupting (and tapping my wrist) to tell me whether it was time to run or walk.

Interval training

The App Store is littered with Couch to 5K apps, the kind that get a person who hasn’t run in a long time (that’s me!) back into shape. They work by gradually increasing the amount of running you do over time, generally by alternating periods where you walk and run, with the run time slowly getting longer until on one fateful day you’re just told to run for 11 minutes. I’ve done this program before. That’s an interesting day.

watch-run-5k
Intervals Pro now offers an entire Couch to 5K training program.

But my goal was to run without an iPhone swinging around in the pocket of my gym shorts. And finding a Couch to 5K app that could reliably run without any iPhone nearby proved impossible. (If there was one out there, I never found it, and I tried a bunch.)

In May I mentioned my plight on the Upgrade podcast, and Listener Ben replied by pointing out an app that wasn’t designed for Couch to 5K programs, but more generally for interval training. It’s called Intervals Pro, and while I had to crib a Couch to 5K program from a different app and manually enter it in, once I had done that, Intervals Pro was capable of guiding me through a workout while my iPhone stayed at home.

Things are even better now. Intervals Pro was recently updated to add a Couch to 5K workout pattern, so no data entry is required. You just tap on which day of the program you’re in, and the timers begin. I’ve set the app to speak each event—essentially, the Siri voice says “Run in 5 seconds,” and haptics begin firing every second, ending in a large tap that is your final prompt to begin running. It works perfectly. The watch app even shows distance, pace, and heart rate, and the newest version offers audio playback controls, too.

Podcast playback

The other piece of the puzzle was getting podcasts to load on my watch and play back while I’m running 2. When watchOS 5 was announced, I had been keeping my eye on its release, because Apple is finally including a Podcasts watch app. But I’m an Overcast user, so it would be a bit messy—I’d have to manually adjust which podcasts I had listened to across devices.

Turns out I didn’t need to wait. I got to beta test Overcast 5 for a month, and developer Marco Arment added a standalone Apple Watch app that plays back audio that’s been automatically synced to the watch. Generally, if I walk right out of the house with my watch and AirPods, I will find my current podcasts loaded without having to pre-load any of them. (In the beta there were occasional hiccups where podcasts wouldn’t sync, but I haven’t noticed any in the final, shipping version.) Play status data syncs both ways, so when I go back to my iPhone, it knows that I got 20 minutes into the next episode while I was on my run.

A dream realized

I don’t love running—that is an understatement—but it’s a whole lot more pleasant when I’ve got podcasts to listen to, and I’m much more likely to do it if I’ve got a coach telling me when to run and when to rest. And now I’ve got that, reliably, on my Apple Watch.

Perhaps most impressively, these two apps—Overcast and Intervals Pro—play well together. When Intervals Pro needs to talk, it dips the Overcast audio and talks. It would be nice if it recognized that Overcast is spoken audio and paused the audio entirely, but that is a level of polish that will come in time. The two apps keep on running, and I guess that means I’m going to keep on running, too.


  1. September 9, 2014. I remember it well. It was my last full day on the job at IDG! For me and a whole bunch of other people. Great timing. ↩

  2. Yes, some apps did offer offline podcast playback on Apple Watch before this, but they were really unreliable and labor intensive to sync, when they worked at all. watchOS 5 has changed the game. ↩


Jason Snell for Macworld

Why the iPhone is more expensive than ever ↦

In the aftermath of last week’s Apple announcements, it’s so easy to refer to the $749 iPhone XR as a low-price, bargain model, in contrast to the $999 iPhone XS and the $1099 iPhone XS Max. But just three years ago, $749 was what Apple charged for the most expensive new iPhone in its product line, the iPhone 6S Plus.

It’s never been more expensive to walk into an Apple Store and walk out with an iPhone. Changes in the way wireless carriers approach their customers have led, unsurprisingly, to changes in the buying behavior of those same smartphone users. The change in buying patterns then affects Apple, which makes its own changes to compensate.

There’s a lot going on here, and while the end result is that Apple is very slowly cranking up the average selling price of the iPhone, it doesn’t necessarily mean that most people are spending more money on iPhones than they used to.

Continue reading on Macworld ↦


By Dan Moren

Quick Tip: Typing a Tab character in iOS

While I was playing around with Shortcuts the other night, I ran into a dilemma. The “Combine Text” action offers the ability to output text separated by a custom delimiter, and I wanted to use a tab character. 1

However, as you eagle-eyed readers surely know, the iOS keyboard lacks a Tab key. Searching around for an alternative, I came across a few suggestions, including copying and pasting a tab character from another app, but one that I uncovered on a message board was particularly simple: use Dictation.

That’s right, if you tap that microphone icon on the keyboard and say “Tab key,” iOS will insert a tab for you. That’ll work pretty much anywhere you can use Dictation, including in Shortcuts. So I was able to output tab-delimited data into a file for future reference.

Dumb? A little. Useful? For sure.

Update: A suggestion from reader FJ: you can also create a text shortcut on the Mac that contains a tab, though you have to put in another character as well; this shortcut will then sync to your iOS devices. A little more cumbersome, but nice if you’re in a place where you can’t use Dictation.


  1. The workflow I was creating has the goal of ultimately outputting data that could be easily pasted into a Numbers spreadsheet. Though, as it turns out, that’s a bit stickier on iOS.  ↩

[Dan Moren is a tech writer, novelist, podcaster, and the Official Dan of Six Colors. You can email him at dan@sixcolors.com or find him on Twitter at @dmoren.]


By Jason Snell

Ferrite 2: iOS audio editor adds templates, noise removal

Ferrite in action.

Most of the podcasts I make, I edit on my Mac using Logic Pro X. But when I’m traveling (or just don’t want to sit at a desk) I edit on Ferrite Recording Studio, a spectacularly good multitrack audio editor for iOS.

Developer Wooji Juice has just released version 2 of Ferrite. It’s still free with an in-app purchase to unlock a bunch of pro-level features, and users of the previous version will need to pay $15 to unlock the new pro features introduced with version 2. With all that said, this is a professional audio editor that costs about $20 all-in. It’s a fantastic value, and the app I am most hoping will make the transition from iOS to the Mac in 2019.

ferrite2-template
Using a Ferrite template saves time.

A few of the new features really hit the spot for me. You can now create project templates within the app, allowing you to get a project set up just the way you like it, with theme music, show art, audio tracks for guests, the works—even placeholders for things like filenames and episode numbers. Once it’s all set, you can just tap on the icon next to the template and Ferrite lets you fill in the blanks and open a fresh, new project based on the template.

I’m also really excited about the new audio preproduction features, which let you pre-process audio tracks in order to level their volume and remove background noise. Even when I edit podcasts on iOS, I’m generally using files that have been pre-processed on my Mac, including noise removal and volume leveling. To test Ferrite’s preproduction feature, I rebuilt a podcast project on iOS using source files, and compared the result to the project I built on macOS using desktop noise-reduction and compressor utilities.

Ferrite 2 can adjust levels and remove noise on a per-file basis.

The results were really good. I noticed a few places where the Mac version was still superior, but both were vastly superior to an export with the unprocessed audio files—background noises were audible throughout and volumes were highly variable. This is going to be a major step forward when I am producing podcasts entirely on iOS, with no ability to use a Mac to prep my files. (It does take a while to process the files on my first-generation iPad Pro, and currently you have to process each file individually. Hopefully Wooji Juice will make batch processing these files possible in the future.)

And it’s a little thing, but you can now specify the export filename for your project. Previously it would use the title of your project as the source for the filename, so when I export my final MP3 from Ferrite I’d get a file out called something like The Incomparable - Bad Batman Movies.mp3 instead of the much-preferable theincomparable368.mp3.

Ferrite 2 also features a new built-in eight-band equalizer and spectrum visualizer, to tweak the quality of each of your tracks. There’s enhanced support for presets, with the ability to store presets inside templates, sync them via iCloud, rename them, and back them up via iTunes. And in a win for accessibility, Ferrite’s support for VoiceOver has gotten a major upgrade to make it easier to navigate between tracks.

If you edit audio on iOS, I can’t recommend Ferrite Recording Studio highly enough.


By Dan Moren

Give new life to old extensions in Safari 12

Among yesterday’s barrage of updates was a seemingly minor one: Safari 12. While the most notable news of Apple’s latest browser might have been the long-awaited ability to display favicons in tabs, there were a handful of other changes, including a few to extensions that may be unpopular.

Firstly, Safari no longer supports extensions cryptographically signed by developers themselves. The browser also implements a new Safari App Extensions API, which doesn’t have all the features of the previous, now deprecated extension API, causing some developers to cease work on extensions1

The good news is that there is still a way to run these extensions for the time being. (My thanks to my friend John Siracusa for letting me in on the secret.) But this approach does come with a few caveats:

  • Developer-signed certificates can potentially be unsafe, which is one reason why Apple is not allowing them anymore. If you’re going to use this feature, I’d recommend limiting it to older extensions that you already trust, not necessarily as a way to bypass security restrictions for new extensions.

  • Sooner or later, this trick will probably stop working, and/or older extensions will no longer function correctly with new versions of Safari. It’s unclear when this might happen—you may get a couple years out of them yet, and perhaps by the time they do, sanctioned alternatives will become available.

  • One downside to this approach, based on my testing with the Mojave public beta, is that every system update re-enforced the new rules, meaning that you might potentially have to perform this procedure again in the future.

Those warnings out of the way, here’s how to actually run those old extensions on your Mac.

Terminal

Extensions are stored in ~/Library/Safari/Extensions. Fortunately, Safari 12 doesn’t remove the extension files for deprecated or inactive extensions. Drag any extensions you want to save from here onto your desktop; I recommend putting them into a folder.

The next part of this requires a little command-line trickery, so fire up Terminal, navigate to that directory you just created on the desktop (or just type cd followed by a space in the Terminal window and drag the folder you just made on your desktop into the Terminal window).

Type xar -xf followed by a space and the name of the extension file, and hit enter. (Tip: If you type the first few characters and hit the Tab key, it’ll autocomplete the rest.) Repeat for each extension file. You’ll now have a folder of source files for each extension.

Safari

Now open Safari. If you don’t already have the Develop menu in the menu bar, go to Safari > Preferences, click on the Advanced tab, and check the “Show Develop menu in menu bar” option.

There should now be a Develop menu between the Bookmarks and Window menus; from it, select Show Extension Builder.

The first time you open the Extension Builder, you’ll be asked whether you really want to use it instead of Xcode: you do. Click Continue.

At the bottom of the Extension Builder window click the Plus (+) button and choose Add Extension. You’ll get a standard Open dialog box; navigate to that folder on your desktop where you put your extension files and choose the folder with the extension name; it’ll have the extension .safari extension. (You can select multiple extensions by Command-clicking the folders, otherwise you’ll have to perform the Add Extension command multiple times for each different extension.) Click Select.

You’ll now see your old extensions in the left hand column, with information about them in the pane on the right side. Click the Run button in the top right-hand corner; you’ll be prompted for your password. Repeat this step for each extension you want to run.

And voilà: you’re done. Your extensions should now be running and should appear in the Extensions pane of Safari’s preferences. As I said above, it’s not a permanent solution, but if you’re looking to eke a little more life out of much-loved extensions, this will hopefully tide you over for now.


  1. Safari Keyword Search has been an indispensable piece of software for me over the past many years, and I am devastated to see that the writing is on the wall for it, especially with no real alternatives.  ↩

[Dan Moren is a tech writer, novelist, podcaster, and the Official Dan of Six Colors. You can email him at dan@sixcolors.com or find him on Twitter at @dmoren.]


Linked by Jason Snell

Apple resources for new OS releases

You may not know this, but Federico Viticci isn’t the only person writing lots and lots of stuff about what’s in iOS 12 and how you can use it. Apple employs an entire staff of people to build documentation and how-to guides, and they’ve been hard at work updating stuff for iOS 12 and other new releases. Here are some links, thanks to my old pal Chris Breen, who now works at—let’s see here—oh! Apple.


By Jason Snell

Overcast 5 adds Siri Shortcuts, watch playback, and search

overcast5-now-playing
Overcast 5’s redesigned Now Playing screen allows for better discovery of playback controls, show notes, sleep timer, and even direct support for podcasts.

My podcast player of choice, Marco Arment’s Overcast, was updated Monday to version 5.0 in conjunction with the releases of iOS 12 and watchOS 5. It’s a huge update that unlocks a bunch of new features that I have been anxiously awaiting, in one case for years.

Most noticeable is the redesigned Now Playing screen, which now features show art at a slightly reduced size so that two areas can appear on either side of the art, indicating that there’s more interface to be discovered by swiping left or right. To the right is information about the episode, including show notes and chapter markers. To the left are playback controls, including Smart Speed and Voice Boost. There’s nothing dramatically new here in terms of features—it’s just a redesign that attempts to make show notes and playback controls more discoverable.

At the bottom of the Now Playing display are icons that give you direct access to a sleep timer, sound output controls, and (for podcasts with some sort of support system) a direct link to support the podcast you’re listening to. (Tapping on the link brings up a web link that’s set by the podcast.)

For me, the best new feature of Overcast is the return of Apple Watch playback. The app previously made an attempt at supporting Apple Watch, but watchOS just wasn’t advanced enough to reliably transfer and keep playing audio. Now it is. I’ve done several runs this summer with the beta version of Overcast running on my Apple Watch, playing to a pair of AirPods (with no iPhone in sight), and it has worked flawlessly.

Overcast 5 on watchOS 5. You can toggle between iPhone remote and on-watch modes (left), view playlists on your watch (center), and get a quick status view from the Now Playing screen (right).

Overcast looks at your podcasts and playlists and makes some decisions about what episodes it thinks you’ll want to listen to, and transfers specially encoded versions (with Smart Speed and Voice Boost baked in) to your Apple Watch at appropriate moments—generally overnight, when your Apple Watch is plugged in. You can also force the app to send a podcast episode to the watch, using the same interface as you’d use to add a podcast to a playlist.

The Overcast watch app now lets you remote control your iPhone playback (including volume!), or—by tapping on an icon—control playback directly from the device. I’m able to leave my house with only my Apple Watch and a pair of AirPods and run with podcasts filling my ears the entire time.

Overcast also now supports Siri Shortcuts. You can’t arbitrarily name a podcast via Siri and expect it to play in Overcast, but you can choose to enable Shortcut phrases for specific playlists or podcasts, as well as to resume playback and navigate through podcasts. (There are lots and lots of shortcuts available, including toggling Smart Speed and Voice Boost on and off, moving in chapters, and even adjusting playback speed.)

Search a long-running podcast’s archive for keywords.

I set up shortcuts for the two playlists I use the most, as well as for resuming playback, and I can basically control Overcast handsfree now when I’m driving. It’s fantastic.

One other major feature that’s been added to this version: search. You can now search the metadata (titles and show notes) for downloaded podcast episodes, or drill down into a specific show and search its entire feed for keywords. As someone who listens to numerous podcasts with enormous back catalogs, this is a great addition.


Podcast

Upgrade

Upgrade #211: You Will Pay

What a time! iOS 12 has arrived and we’re waiting for delivery of new Apple products. This week Jason and Myke discuss their favorite features of the new update, which new devices they’ve bought, why phone carriers ruin everything, and the fallout from Apple’s decision to focus on larger and more expensive phones this time around.

Episode linkMP3 (1 hour, 35 minutes)


By Jason Snell

iOS 12 adds powerful search to Photos

In iOS 12, searching in the Photos takes a big step forward—while leaving macOS Mojave trailing, alas. Search results in Photos on iOS are incredibly rich. When you search for something, you won’t just find the photos that match, but you’ll also see all the Moments and Albums that contain matching photos.

The real power, though—and the place where iOS 12 really has it over macOS—is the ability to combine search terms.

If you want to search for a dog, you can type in dog and tap on the Dog category (this is important—you must tokenize each query, as Photos is not smart enough to figure out what you mean otherwise), and you’ll see all the photos that Apple’s machine-learning technology has identified as containing dogs. On that search-results screen you’ll also see a bunch of suggestions for related items that are often found with dogs—people, locations, even years or seasons.

If you tap on one of these items, they’ll be added to your search query, so now you’ll see all instances of, for example, a particular person and a dog.

When I searched my photo library for dog, I found 729 items. Adding the category snow dropped the total number of items to just three—and all them were my dog in the snow.

This is incredibly powerful. If you want to find photos with specific combinations of people, places, or actions, you can do it in seconds. I searched for my son by name and then added the second search term swimming and instantly found 57 photos. Ten years of pool parties, found in just moments.

It’s a pretty big upgrade, especially if you have a large library. And it makes Apple’s automatically generated machine-learning categories much more useful by letting you connect them to people, places, or other categories.

Now if only it also worked on the Mac….

[Don't miss all our iOS 12 coverage.]

[Don't miss all our Photos app coverage.]


Jason Snell for Tom's Guide

Why Price Won’t Stop People from Buying the iPhone Xs Max ↦

The iPhone XS Max is the most expensive iPhone ever made. Its 6.5-inch display is the biggest on an iPhone ever. And its name is certainly the most ridiculous. This is, to be sure, a phone of extremes. And yet many of my friends say they’ll be getting an iPhone XS Max the first day it’s available. I guess another superlative we need to apply to the iPhone XS Max may be in its appeal to a certain type of customer.

Let’s break down what makes the iPhone XS Max such an interesting product.

Continue reading on Tom's Guide ↦


Linked by Jason Snell

iOS 12: The MacStories Review

Federico Viticci’s exhaustive review of iOS 12 is live. Every year, it is the definitive review of iOS. This year we get Siri Shortcuts, which is a huge step forward for iOS productivity.

You should read it. It’s delightful. Or listen to the audio version, narrated by Myke Hurley.

[Don't miss all our iOS 12 coverage.]



Dan Moren for Macworld

The iPhone Xs: An innovation dilemma ↦

In a financial conference call during the last year, Apple CEO Tim Cook described the iPhone X as setting up the next ten years of smartphones. It’s easy to see now what Cook meant by that: this week, the company updated all of its new iPhones to follow the design example set by the iPhone X.

But even as it unveiled the iPhone Xs Max and the iPhone XR, the company ran into a struggle when it came to the iPhone X’s successor, the iPhone Xs. How do you take what was formerly your most advanced iPhone and distinguish it from the rest of your now equally advanced line-up?

That’s one reason why during Apple’s event, about halfway through Apple’s description of the iPhone Xs, I started to get a bit antsy and, much as I hate to admit it, a little bored. The more the company leaned on the impressive specs in the iPhone Xs’s A12 Bionic chip, the more I started to suspect that it was because the bulk of the improvements in this new phone were in the kind of speed and capacity increases that aren’t necessarily obvious to most users.

Continue reading on Macworld ↦


By Jason Snell

Apple Event Notebook:  iPhone

Here I am, emptying out the rest of my notebook from Wednesday’s Apple event at the Steve Jobs Theater. First up was my stuff about the Apple Watch Series 4; now it’s time for the main event, the iPhone itself.

For smart shoppers who love big phones

Statistic of the day: The iPhone XR costs $350 less than the iPhone XS Max to start. That is a wide gulf, and I think it’s purposeful on Apple’s part. The gap between those prices allows the iPhone XS Max to be very clearly defined as a high-end device; in a sense, the $1099 (and up!) price tag is a label of quality and distinction.

But for smart shoppers who love large phones, it’s hard to imagine that the iPhone XR won’t be a success. In fact, it may be just as well that the iPhone XR isn’t ready for sale just yet—because I suspect the people who order iPhones the moment they become available are far more likely to be buying the iPhone XS Max.

For a less casual iPhone user? The kind who wanders into an Apple Store in early December and looks at all the iPhones, only to realize they can buy into the iPhone X line and get a big phone, all for $250 less than the smaller iPhone XS? That’s an iPhone XR sale.

Colors are fun, not the kiss of death

yellow iPhone XR

For years I’ve been begging Apple to bring fun colors to the iPhone, and here they are. They are gorgeous. The yellow pops, the blue is attractive, and the coral kind of blew my mind.

Now, colorful iPhones don’t have a fantastic history. The iPhone 5c crashed and burned. But I don’t think the iPhone XR will be another iPhone 5c. The 5c was recycled old tech, last year’s model with a new name and a plastic back. The iPhone XR has this year’s A12 processor, the same front sensors as the iPhone XS, and a glass back that doesn’t feel cheap at all.

My only aesthetic complaint is that I don’t love the lack of color matching between some of the models—the yellow model is bright yellow on its glass back, but the anodized aluminum frame seemed almost gold to me. Then again, color’s not really my thing—and I’d almost certainly buy the blue one if I had to choose.

Are there differences between the XR and the XS Max? Sure, a few. The LCD screen isn’t nearly as high density as the XS Max’s, nor can it manage the high dynamic range that the Max’s OLED screen can. It only has one camera on the back, so it can’t do an optical zoom, and its portrait mode will probably be a little bit less authentic feeling because it can’t use parallax between two cameras to build a depth map.

All true, and yet: $350. For a lot of people that will be the end of it. And they won’t be wrong. It’s a great value compared to the XS Max.

Boiling the frog

In that previous paragraph, I was about to write that the iPhone XR is “a great value,” full stop. Tricky Apple—this is how they get you. The fact is, the iPhone XR costs what iPhone Plus models cost until last year. It’s cheaper only in comparison to the iPhone X and XS.

Apple continues to boil the frog in terms of iPhone prices. This year there’s no new iPhone at the $699 price of the iPhone 8—which was already $50 more than the starting price of the iPhone 7.

iPhone unit sales are flat, but revenues are up, because the average selling price of an iPhone keeps going up. The iPhone XR is the cheapest new iPhone, but even in the context of last year’s increased prices, it’s not cheap.

When is a Plus a Max?

Why the iPhone XS Max name? Maybe Apple just got tired of the Plus name. But it’s also possible that Apple felt that Plus implied a level of stepped-up functionality that the Max just doesn’t offer. The iPhone X grabbed the two-camera setup previously limited to Plus models, so now the XS Max is only really different from its little buddy in terms of screen size and battery life.

Those are big differentiators, for sure, but it’s not a better phone in any real way. Just bigger. To the max, I guess.

A12 Bionic is the “S” feature

Phil Schiller
Phil Schiller loves the Neural Engine.

Truth be told, the iPhone XS is not a huge step forward from the iPhone X in terms of features. That’s not terrible, since most people upgrading to a new iPhone this year will be coming from phones they bought two or more years ago—and the iPhone X was that huge step forward.

Still, on these “S” years Apple tries to find little ways to differentiate this year’s model from last year’s. The big phones are obviously different because they’re big. But beyond those variations, what’s new?

What I found interesting is that Apple embedded the A12 processor, and specifically its expanded-core Neural Engine, into most of its descriptions of how this model year was better than last year. It’s all about machine learning, signal processing, the ability for CoreML to run nine times faster than on the iPhone X—and how that feeds improved camera features, better Animoji, improved AR performance, and the like.

It’s a little esoteric, but you have to work with what you’ve got. And if I’m being honest, it’s possible that the Smart HDR feature in the Camera app (powered by that Neural Engine, of course!) will be worth the upgrade on its own.

Apple talks computational photography

The laws of physics make it awfully hard to build a better iPhone camera. Sure, the advances Apple is making in terms of sensors and lenses will make a huge difference—but it’s still a thin phone that can only gather so much light.

So is it any wonder that Apple has decided to lean into computational photography? Not that it hasn’t been using custom hardware and software to improve photos for ages now, but this year it became an even bigger piece of the marketing equation.

The reason for this is that Apple feels it has an advantage it can press—namely, its chipmaking prowess. That improved Neural Engine, connected to the iPhone’s image signal processor, gives Apple a lot of hardware power to play with, on which it’s built custom software to make your photos look better.

This is a hot area right now, and Google is investing massively in photography technology of its own. Some might argue that taking pictures really is the killer app of the smartphone, or at least a huge part of any phone buying decision. Apple can’t be left behind here.

While Apple prides itself on creating “magic” technology that “just works”, at an event like this, the company needs to point out that there are actually a trillion operations going on behind the scenes to create great photos on the iPhone XS. Me, I loved it. The idea that every time you take a picture on your iPhone, you’re actually taking many different pictures that are all processed and merged together using machine-learning algorithms? That’s cool. And it’s worth the reminder, on stage.

Apple knows the market

Tim Cook
Tim Cook knows iPhones.

I’ve heard a lot of people complaining about how Apple has killed the iPhone SE and failed to update the classic iPhone 6/7/8 design, meaning that the iPhone X is the smallest new iPhone. Why does Apple hate people with small hands and pockets?

Apple doesn’t hate you. It hates small markets, though, and prefers to make products that serve large markets. None of us have to like it, but the smartphone market has spoken—and Apple’s surely been listening. Worldwide, so many people prefer big phone screens. Apple was late to the game with the iPhone 6 Plus, and it reaped a huge reward in pent-up demand from people who were just waiting for a bigger iPhone. Now Apple makes two big iPhones.

Will Apple ever make a smaller iPhone again? I suspect that it will, and that the iPhone SE might even return. Or maybe it’ll be called the iPhone 9. Regardless, I doubt it will be in the form of an iPhone 5. More likely the “small” iPhone will be the size of the iPhone 6/7/8. It’s not just the price tag of the iPhone that keeps getting larger, it’s the phone itself.

Jony Ive, voiceover artist

My last observation isn’t directly about the iPhone, but about how Apple used Jonathan Ive as the narrator for two videos during the presentation. Traditionally Ive has narrated videos that put the newly announced product into context in terms of why it was designed the way it was. Accompanied by loving close-ups of product contours, of course.

Now maybe my memory’s cheating, but it struck me during Wednesday’s event that these videos have evolved over time to the point that they’re just product videos, with very little to do with specific design choices.

I don’t mind Ive just being a voiceover artist. He’s pretty good at it. But he’s no longer playing the role of Apple Design Explainer so much as Apple Narrator.


Podcast

Download

Download #71: Small-Screen Enthusiast

This week on Download, I was joined by Christina Warren, Jeff Gamet, and Stephen Hackett to discuss the new Apple announcements. It’s a good conversation.

Episode linkMP3 (50 minutes)