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Six Colors

by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Jason Snell

Apple Event Notebook: iPhone

Note: This story has not been updated for several years.

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.

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