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by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Jason Snell

My easter basket of reactions to Apple’s iPhone event

It’s a shame they don’t show movies in the Steve Jobs Theater, or at least not ones that I’ve ever been invited to. It’s a fantastic venue with a staggeringly bright digital projection system, but the star of the show might be the sound system. Tuesday’s Apple presentation didn’t just look good from my seat a dozen rows back in the SJT; the bass in the music breaks rumbled my seat spectacularly.

Anyway, sound systems aside, here are my reactions to Tuesday’s big event:

Apple’s slow roll continues

iPhone 15 Pro lineup

It’s been 13 years since I published a John Gruber column in Macworld about Apple’s iterative approach to product design, but it holds true to this day. Everyone (understandably?) wants Apple to constantly blow minds with revelatory product introductions that will change our lives and the world as we know it. But the truth is, the revelations are few and far between.

Most of the time, Apple just iterates, pushing everything forward. Most people don’t buy every single new model of every Apple product, so they experience that iteration multiplied by two or three or four, many years of improvement dropped into a new phone all at once. (My wife is getting an iPhone 15 next week; she’s been using an iPhone XS for years, and it’ll be an enormous upgrade for her.)

When did the iPhone leap forward? The early years were heady, as early years in just about any product category can be, but after the groundbreaking release of the iPhone 6 in 2014, the only real quantum leap in iPhone tech was the iPhone X in 2017. It’s a slow roll. But roll it does, and today, the amazing cutting-edge iPhone X is so outmoded that it’s not eligible to be updated to iOS 17.

As I watched Apple roll out the iPhone 15, knowing that it was keeping most of its powder dry for the iPhone 15 Pro, I was struck by what a good deal the basic, standard, boring base-model iPhone is. Not only is it perhaps the most affordable iPhone in years, but it’s managed to accumulate a whole lot of great features that debuted in the high-end Pro phones, like the Dynamic Island and a 48MP camera sensor.

Almost every Apple event is greeted with raspberries from a portion of the audience that expects nothing less than revelation. But it’s not Apple’s job to excite that crowd. Its job is to keep pushing the iPhone forward so that everyone who’s finally ready to upgrade has several years of improvements to get excited about.

What’s in a chip name?

a17 pro chip

On podcasts for the last few weeks, I’ve been grousing about the word Bionic sticking around in Apple chip names. It’s a strange bit of branding in that it basically doesn’t mean anything, and yet Apple insisted on using it to dress up its march of A-something-teen processors. As a kid, I loved “The Bionic Woman” and “The Six Million Dollar Man,” but surely it was time to move on.

This year, Apple has done so—but with a twist. The new iPhone Pro chip is called, well, A17 Pro. Pro like the phone, but also Pro like M2 Pro, Apple’s higher-end Mac chip.

It’s given me all sorts of thoughts that another appearance of Bionic never would. Is this a case of Apple’s marketing just re-using a word it uses for devices and chips in order to simplify things?

I suppose it could be, but what happens next year? Will the base-model iPhone 16 be powered by an A17 Pro chip? (Apple’s marketing of the iPhone 15—”No wonder it started as a Pro chip”—suggests that’s a possibility.) But still, does it mean that every A-series chip into infinity will be “Pro”? Or does the existence of the A17 Pro chip imply that there will also be an A17 or A18 non-pro chip, maybe someday?

I don’t know what Apple will do, but surely it would be a cleaner approach going forward to have the iPhone 16 be powered by an A18 chip and the iPhone 16 Pro to be powered by the A18 Pro chip. Does Apple want to make two separate Phone-class chips, or is that a waste? Would the non-Pro chip power low-end iPhones and HomePods and Apple TVs and the like, while the Pro chip would power the iPhone Pro and some selection of iPads, maybe?

It’s a mystery. This all could have been avoided if Apple had opted for a different name, but this one is going to make me ponder the future spread of the Apple silicon product line for the next year.

What does the A17 Pro mean for the M3?

All signs point to the A17 Pro being the foundation of Apple’s M3 series of chips for the Mac, which may begin arriving this fall or early next year. All the chips in generations of Apple silicon have the same CPU, GPU, and other component designs, but the Mac versions are scaled up, and some other features are added in.

Based on Apple’s claims, the A17’s CPU is up to 10% faster, and the GPU is up to 20% faster—though the A17 Pro has one more GPU core than the A16 Bionic did. Apple also claims the Neural Engine is twice as fast.

It’s hard not to imagine how Apple’s next-generation GPU cores (including hardware-accelerated ray tracing) might manifest themselves in the next wave of Mac releases. Apple’s announcement of some console games coming to the iPhone for the first time with the iPhone 15 Pro makes me wonder about those games also coming to the iPad and Mac.

Did Apple build a better set of GPU cores so that the iPhone 15 Pro could run console games, or does the iPhone 15 Pro run console games because Apple built a better set of GPU cores? It may be that Apple’s focus on creating more graphics power for the Mac has ended up rubbing off on the iPhone a bit, too. Sure, there have always been game demos at iPhone events, but that’s because they’re a great way for Apple to brag about how fast their chips are. Is this more of the same, or is something more going on here? I don’t know.

What to do with 48 megapixels

three camera zoom levels

Last year’s rollout of the 48-megapixel sensor in the iPhone 14 Pro was… restrained. The new sensor was impressive, but 48MP captures were limited to RAW format. Otherwise, the sensor was being used to provide better sampling and generated 12MP output. The only supported camera presets were the full-frame 1x mode and the 2x mode, which used the center of the sensor to generate a picture.

What a difference a year makes! Now Apple’s targeting 24MP for its regular output and has provided a bunch of presets between the 1x and 2x zooms that match equivalent focal lengths. And, of course, you can now opt to shoot a 48MP HEIF image, which is smaller than the enormous RAW file and perfectly suitable for a lot of uses.

But the photo story doesn’t end there. I was struck by how far Portrait Mode has come. When it was introduced, it was a very special feature that involved using two cameras to estimate depth information so that the camera software could digitally blur backgrounds to create a pleasing depth effect.

Today, not only is the iPhone Pro equipped with a LIDAR scanner and three cameras, but it’s also got so much horsepower that it can run a sophisticated machine-learning model designed to detect subjects and backgrounds. The result is the creation of depth maps for images with such confidence and speed that Apple’s now capturing depth data whenever it thinks it’s appropriate—meaning that if you shoot a picture but aren’t in Portrait Mode, well, you can just edit that photo later and blur the background anyway. (And on top of that, you will be able to change the focus point from one subject to another after the fact.)

It goes to show you that it’s not just about the sensor but the software and hardware built around it.

You’re my satellite

roadside assistance screen

Last year, Apple (somewhat surprisingly) announced satellite-based communication features for the iPhone 14 series. The announcement included a carefully worded statement that the features were “free for two years” with the purchase of an iPhone, which set a ticking countdown clock that is—let me just check my watch—about halfway through.

This year, I wondered if we might get some clarity about what Apple’s long-term intentions are for satellite features. And… nope! The space can has been kicked down the space road. New iPhones will still come with two years of free satellite connectivity, which now includes a roadside assistance feature.

I wonder if this feature was always planned or if it’s the result of an influx of “my car broke down” messages to emergency providers who really don’t want to be dispatching tow trucks. Either way, Apple seems to have decided to route that information to a separate dispatcher. In the U.S., where the feature is rolling out first, it’s the American Automobile Association.

So what’s next? Surely, next year, Apple will need to explain what happens to iPhone 14 buyers who are coming to the end of their free two years. I’d imagine that they’ll be offered a monthly or annual service to continue unlimited access or, alternatively, a per-incident charge to their Apple-linked credit card. (The last thing you want to do if you’re Apple is tell someone, “We’d like to save your life, but you didn’t subscribe to iCloud Plus.”)

There’s a bandwidth issue here, too, as Apple’s satellite partner, Globalstar, needs to expand its capacity. It just signed a $64M deal with SpaceX to launch 17 more satellites in 2025, with Apple footing 95% of the bill and getting access to 85% of the capacity.

As Globalstar’s network expands its reach and breadth, I have to imagine that Apple will eventually open up the satellite feature for arbitrary text messaging, so you can send a status report to a loved one from a remote location that’s a bit more than the current pin drop in Find My. But that expansion might require waiting for the expanded network to arrive.

Also, keep in mind that since most iPhones are sold to people who have sat out an upgrade for more than a year, the number of phones with access to the Globalstar network will increase by quite a lot over the next few months. I assume they’re carefully managing the bandwidth, but that might be reason enough to keep the satellite features of the iPhone pretty strictly limited for now.

Easter basket

Finally, a few remaining short takes:

Reinforcement of Vision Pro. I think Apple felt it was important to keep Vision Pro in the public consciousness (or perhaps return it there?) at its most-watched media showcase of the year. Rather than just touching base, though, it went ahead and introduced a new feature that allows iPhones to capture stereo video through the two parallel cameras on the back of an iPhone held in horizontal orientation.

I imagine the stereo effect will be subtle since those lenses are a lot closer together than human eyes are, but I like the idea that Apple can use the popularity of the iPhone to boost the amount of content available for the Vision Pro.

I imagine any recent iPhone with those horizontal lenses will be able to capture stereo video, not just the iPhone 15. And I assume if you’re on a non-stereo device, you’ll be able to view those videos normally as a single capture.

A restrained Apple Watch Ultra update. There are no sales figures, obviously, but from what I can tell, the Apple Watch Ultra seems to have been received quite well. And yet this year’s Ultra 2 announcement was less than a lot of observers expected, most notably in the fact that it’s still only available in the one shade of titanium.

Let’s acknowledge that Apple’s titanium metallurgy department was kept pretty busy with the iPhone 15 Pro this cycle, so the Apple Watch Ultra was not a priority. Still, I might have been tempted by a black variation, and it wasn’t there. (Boo hoo, I know.)

I have another theory, though: Apple famously plans its hardware designs years in advance, way too early to materially react to success or failure in a single model year. So perhaps the plan for the Apple Watch Ultra was always restrained. Obviously, the arrival of a new System-in-Package for the Series 9 would require a commensurate update on the Ultra side, but leaving the exterior design and finish untouched was probably a prudent move.

Apple had other fish to fry this year, but I would expect the Apple Watch Ultra to spread its wings a bit more in terms of design and color in the coming years. In the meantime, I’m holding on to my black titanium Series 7.

Someone check on Apple’s Color Czar. I understand Apple leaning into the titanium finish of the iPhone 15 Pro and creating a series of subtle color variations using a vapor-deposition technique. The phones look great, and it’s not like pro-level iPhones have ever come in bright colors.

But I don’t know what Apple’s doing on the iPhone 15 side. The colors are incredibly pale. Anyone seeking a vibrant option is really out of luck. I do think the new ion-infusion technique they’re using in the glass looks great on the camera bump, and I admit that the camera bump is usually the only part of the phone that peeks through someone’s case. But still… I don’t think it’s too much to ask for at least one iPhone to have a brighter, more forward color.

Not this year. This year, you can have any color you want, as long as it’s either black or found in an easter basket.

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