By Jason Snell
September 7, 2016 7:45 PM PT
Apple’s annual iteration: Thoughts on the Sept. 7 media event
Here are some first thoughts about Apple’s media event on Wednesday, September in San Francisco, at which the company introduced the iPhone 7, AirPods, and the Apple Watch Series 2.
The iPhone 7
It’s an unusual step for Apple to release a third iteration of the same design, but the iPhone 7 looks and feels an awful lot like the iPhone 6 and 6S. As you might expect from a new iPhone, the relatively small changes to the exterior belie the changes that are going on in the device’s insides.
But first, the outside. With repositioned antenna lines and some new colors—not one, but two new blacks to replace Space Gray!—this new phone does look a little different from the previous 6 models. And of course, the headphone jack is gone. The “iPhone” label on the back of the phone is printed using San Francisco, Apple’s new go-to typeface.
I was a fan of the black phone option on the iPhone 5, and I admit to just not loving Space Gray as an appropriate replacement for my Darth Vader phone. Now that Space Grey has been ejected into space, we have some new black models—a bead-blasted “black” and a shiny “jet black.” The shiny sure is pretty, but I think that basic black is probably the one I’d choose. (The other iPhone colors—silver, gold, and rose gold—remain intact.)
This summer there were some rumors that Apple was going to introduce more real colors into the iPhone line, going farther beyond the relatively monochrome and metallic options it’s been offering the past few years. (I can’t even see the pink in the rose gold—thanks, color blindness!) I was really hoping Apple would use this opportunity to expand the color palette to include blue and green models, at least. It wasn’t to be.
At long last, the base iPhone storage tier has risen from 16GB to 32GB. This probably should’ve happened a year or two ago, but it’s good that it finally happened. (Now let the countdown begin for critics to suggest that it’s time that Apple move to 64GB as the base storage in the iPhone. How does 2017 sound?)
On the inside, of course, Apple continues its constant iterative product process. This iPhone is faster than the one that preceded it and faster still from the the iPhone 6 that most people will be upgrading from. Two years ago I sat in Cupertino’s Flint Center waiting for the iPhone 6 announcement and seriously thought that Apple had reached the limits of performance it could pack into its smartphone. The iPhone 5S had been a somewhat incremental improvement, as had the iPads of the period.
Welp. Since then, the power of the iPhone’s processor has resumed its streak into the stratosphere. This year’s A10 Fusion chip comes with two pairs of processor cores, one set designed for raw performance and the other for energy efficiency. The iPhone intelligently switches between the two based on the needs at any particular time. The result is not just a faster iPhone, but one with better-rated battery life than Apple’s ever claimed on an iPhone before.
Finally, there’s the camera. Both models got an update, and as you might expect, Apple is continuing to improve the iPhone camera, with better sensors, smart image processing, an improved flash, and built-in optical image stabilization. The iPhone 7 Plus even features two lenses, enabling 2x optical zoom (and 10x digital zoom). It’s all good, though I admit that my fantasies about what could done with a two-lens system on an iPhone ran away with me. (It’s a better camera—two better cameras, on the iPhone 7 Plus—but it’s not revolutionary.)
I have to admit to some bafflement about the way the other major software feature tied to the iPhone 7 Plus camera was rolled out. The soft-background “bokeh” effect, featured on Apple’s invitations to the event, won’t be enabled when the iPhone ships next Friday. Instead, it will be enabled in a software update later this year.
I’m all for Apple shipping software when it’s ready. Still, I can’t recall the last time Apple introduced a major new hardware feature and then did the Kenner Star Wars thing and put a promissory note in the box.
I’m also a bit disappointed with the feature itself. It very cleverly apes the effect found in a camera with a very short depth of field, fuzzing out the background, but it’s a fake: The iPhone doesn’t really have an ability to behave like one of those cameras, but its two camera lenses allow it to do some depth perception, detect the portion of the image that’s in the foreground, and then apply a live blur filter to the background to make it look like a bokeh. Hey, we live in a world that’s been recolored by Instagram filters, so I really shouldn’t care that sometimes the bokeh isn’t real. There’s no Polaroid film in my iPhone, either.
The headphone jack and AirPods
Okay, so the headphone jack is gone. What I wanted to see on Wednesday was how Apple explained its decision, because in the past I had struggled to find a good reason for the change. BuzzFeed’s John Paczkowski has written the definitive answer to this question, from people at Apple who were involved in the decision.
It boils down to this: The headphone jack was old, it took up too much space on the inside of a very space-constrained device (one to which they wanted to add a larger camera and sensor), and it had to come out sometime. And meanwhile, Apple has been building a nifty set of wireless headphones. Put all of that stuff together, and you’ve got a reason why now is the time for Apple to pull the trigger on an event that it considered an inevitability.
I’m impressed that Apple is including a 3.5mm audio jack adapter in every iPhone 7 box, as well as selling it for the quite reasonable price of $9. That’s the kind of move that says, “We know some of our customers will be unhappy with our decision, so we’ll try to make this transition easier for them.” It’s a good move. A much better move than telling people to pay $29 if they have a problem with it.
The AirPods themselves? I wish they fit my ears better, because they’re an amazing piece of technology. If I was at Apple and knew that the AirPods were about to arrive, I’d be emboldened to kill the headphone jack, too. They’re smart, small, and priced about the same as other premium wireless earbuds. I got to try a pair at the event today, but I’ll save those details for a follow-up. Suffice it to say, I was impressed. (Like the current EarPods, they don’t really fit my ears, though.)
The Apple Watch Series 2
I always joke with my Upgrade co-host Myke Hurley that you can’t call something a “first annual” anything—events don’t become annual until you hold a second one a year later. The same could be said for Apple Watches—it’s not a series of products until you release the second one. So here it is, the Apple Watch Series 2.
As with the iPhone, I have to say that this new watch is all about Apple’s iterative design process. This isn’t an Apple Watch designed for people who bought the first model (with a few exceptions)—it’s for all the people who have been waiting to see if they want to buy an Apple Watch. It’s also very clearly part of an ongoing march to the Apple Watch that we know is inevitably coming, but just isn’t here yet.
First, if you’re someone who swims, the Series 2 is for you. My friend Lisa is an avid swimmer, and she’s been waiting for a swim-capable Apple Watch for a while now. With its increased water-resistance rating, Apple is now able to officially encourage people to use their watch in the water, something it pretended you couldn’t do with the original model.
I was impressed with Apple’s attempt to focus the Apple Watch on fitness subjects. One of the big issues with the 2014 launch of the Apple Watch was that the demo was completely unfocused. The answer to the question, “What does the Apple Watch do?” was “What doesn’t it do?” This year the answer is clear: It does a bunch of stuff to help you in your fitness and athletic endeavors, and other stuff too. This isn’t to say that non-fitness-oriented people couldn’t use an Apple Watch, but at least the focus on fitness gives Apple a clear direction and something to strive for with the product.
The addition of GPS to the Series 2 is nice, I suppose, but I always run with my phone in case there’s an emergency. I can’t see a scenario where I’d go running with just the watch until it has both GPS and cellular capabilities. This is one step along the way, and if you’re someone who does prefer to run without a phone, you’ll finally be able to get GPS-accurate distance data and location data synced back to your iPhone when you get home. That’s great stuff, but I think I’ll wait for the additional features of Series 3, whenever it arrives.
I like the idea that Apple’s keeping the original Apple Watch design and band compatibility, and even keeping the original watch around in order to make the base of the product line more affordable. Except… did it really do that? The new Apple Watch Series 1 is not the original Apple Watch at all! It’s got a new, faster processor—though none of the other fancy features that went into the Series 2.
I don’t know why Apple did this—isn’t the whole point to sell old hardware at a lower price point?—but I’m happy about it. Buyers of the Series 1 will be getting a more powerful device that will (presumably) last longer. We’re all going to have to remember that the Apple Watch (2015) isn’t the same as the Apple Watch Series 1, though. Close… but not the same. You’ll win Apple pub trivia with that one someday.
The Mac and iPad
Unsurprisingly, there was no word about the Mac and iPad. Not even a knowing wink. Walking into the event, John Gruber and I were talking about the lack of Mac stuff. I expressed my wish that Apple would do one small media event on the Apple campus in October, as it did two years ago, in order to roll out new Macs. John pointed out, quite rightly, that Apple had kissed goodbye to the Town Hall conference center (with caveats) back in the spring. But… what if Apple did that because at the time, the plan was to launch those new Macs this summer at WWDC? And then delays pushed the Mac back, farther and farther…
Well, perhaps an October event, one last hurrah, at Town Hall could happen. Or perhaps they’ll get released via press release. Or perhaps there won’t be any new Macs till 2017. The only thing we know for sure: There were no new Macs, or iPads, at this year’s September Apple media event.
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