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Sep 122017
 

Apple now offer a bewildering line up of too-many and too-similar phone choices.

Today was Apple’s official launch for its new range of iPhones.  The event started off with a short tribute to Steve Jobs, but some of us were wondering what Jobs would have thought of the event and the products to be featured there.

Jobs was famous for ensuring near-total secrecy of products prior to their launch, whereas the details of this latest iPhone launch have been leaked every which way for weeks and months and not a single surprise remained.

Jobs was also famous for his categorical statements about the iPhone, which he limited to a single form/model/size, because his choice of size was, he told us, perfect and therefore not needing multiple versions.  What would he make of today’s launch of three different iPhone models, and an overall iPhone lineup that now has Apple offering eight different models simultaneously (SE, 6S/6S+, 7/7+, 8/8+, X).  There are four different screen sizes across the range (4″, 4.7″, 5.5″ and sort of 5.8″), some with buttons, some without; some with “3D” touch-sensitive screens and some without; some with headphone jacks and some without; and some with wireless charging and some without.  And each model series with at least two different memory capacity options.  Is it possible to have a less cohesive and more fractured series of products?

Needless to say, the selective remembering of Jobs and his iPhone legacy that we were offered up carefully avoided answering such difficult concepts.

After almost exactly an hour of other material (we discuss these – the new watch and Apple TV products – below), Apple finally turned to the item that everyone wished to know about.  Its new iPhone range.  In brief, we were totally unsurprised, and sadly underwhelmed, and we also noticed the awkward way the presenters stressed empty phrases like ‘our best ever iPhone’ (something of course said of, and expected of, every iPhone) but while the superlatives were abundant, the specifics supporting them were not so obviously present.

New iPhone 8 and 8 Plus

As had become universally known, there are three new phones.  The first two are the iPhone 8 (4.7″ screen, starting at $699 for a 64GB unit), and the iPhone 8 Plus (5.5″ screen, starting at $799 for a 64GB unit).  256GB units will also be available.  Phones can be ordered on Friday 15 September, and will be available on 22 September.

The pricing is of course way high, and while Apple would argue this is because they are including more GB of memory than earlier and less expensive model phones, the truth is that most of us don’t need 64GB of memory.  How about also offering a 32GB unit, more than enough for most people, or even a 16GB unit, satisfactory for most?

The new iPhone 8 phones have a glass front and back.  No, this is not new, it is the same as was briefly the case way back with the iPhone 4.  The glass is being used again now to allow for a wireless charging capability.  So, yes, many years after other companies started featuring it, this year Apple is now supporting wireless charging.  Even more astonishingly, Apple has decided to support an industry standard – Qi – rather than seek to impose its own restrictive unique protocol.

The screens have better color on them, and of course, there’s a new faster processor chip inside the phone, same as always.

The camera capability seems to have been improved, and the 8 Plus offers dual 12MP sensors (for ‘normal’ and ‘telephoto’ settings).  The regular 8 has a single camera lens/sensor.  Battery life is similar to the 7 series, and perhaps slightly inferior to the 6S series.

And, unless we’ve missed something, that’s about it for the ‘major’ changes in the 8 series of phones.

New iPhone X

There had been intense speculation about the third of the three phones Apple was expected to release, with the general expectation that it would be a stunning leading edge product (and with a stunning four figure price, too) – a ‘show off’ celebration of the tenth anniversary of the original iPhone, and showing some type(s) of amazing innovation, just as the original iPhone did.  But by the time today’s launch finally came around, just about every aspect of this new product had been leaked, including even its name, the iPhone X, and none of the leaked features seemed innovative or stunning at all.  Note that this model name is pronounced ‘ten’ not ‘X’ – it is the Roman numeral for ten, not the letter X.

This phone is supposed to be the first example of an industry leading phone from Apple in a long time.  But even the original iPhone, ten years ago, was a curious mix of ‘ahead of the curve’ and ‘behind the curve’ features, and while Apple has a reputation for being an innovator, in truth, precious few phone innovations came first from Apple, and sadly, the model X is no exception.

The screen ‘notch’ at the top of the iPhone X is an inelegant workaround to the need to place sensors on the front of an otherwise all-screen phone.

The new iPhone X certainly shows that Apple can still design an astonishingly attractive phone.  It too has glass on both sides, with stainless steel rather than aluminium for the sides.  Unlike the other two phones, which still have the traditional button at the bottom, this phone is almost all display, with a ‘virtual’ rather than real button (you know, like the three virtual controls on the bottom of Android phones for many years….).  But there’s a curious notch at the top of the screen for sensors, making for a rather strange seeming display shape.  There are, in total, an astonishing eight different sensors at the top – an infrared and regular camera, a speaker and microphone,  a proximity sensor, two illuminators, and an ambient light sensor.

There are now new swipe functions to be learned to compensate for the lack of the button.  Ugh.  We understand that more features sadly equate to more complex user interfaces, but the initial promise of the iPhone (a drop-dead simple intuitive interface) has become more and more compromised over the years.  Without the button at the bottom, how do you now log-in to the phone?  Of course there’s a way, and of course you’ll learn what it is, but it is just another little pinprick of pain rather than pleasure.  As for the various new ‘swipe up from the bottom’ functions, I’ve just finished leaning about ‘swipe this way or that way to go to a search screen that used to be visible at the top’ and so on, and now one is expected to layer another series of ‘gestures’ and ‘swipes’.  Did you even know that different things happen if you swipe with one or two or more fingers?  The interface has moved beyond the point of simplicity.

There is a new facial recognition system to allow approved users to log in, rather than the former fingerprint sensor that had been built into the button.  Apple says you won’t be able to fool it with a photograph (that’s probably due to the infrared sensor looking for body heat), and it won’t be upset by hats or beards (because the recognition is all about lips/nose/eyes) and will work in low light at night (the infrared sensor again).

One of the things I liked about the fingerprint reader was that you could register up to (I think) ten fingerprints, and they could either be of all your fingers, or of the fingers of selected trusted friends and family members.  It is not clear if the facial recognition will allow for multiple faces.

Because the screen goes almost all the way to the edges, it is larger than the iPhone 8 Plus, with a 5.8″ diameter, and with a resolution of 1125 x 2436 pixels.  This gives it a stunningly high dpi of 458.  This compares to the 8+ and earlier 5.5″ screened phones with 1080 x 1920 pixels at 401 dpi.

But unless you hold the phone right in front of your nose, your eyes probably won’t resolve the extra pixels (generally, at arms-length distances, about 350 dpi is all the eye can individually resolve).  But we’ll not criticize the phone for having ‘too many’ pixels, and are happy to see them all (if only we could).

The screen uses an OLED panel (again, a case of Apple catching up to the rest of the market) and has high contrast and vivid color.  It is certainly a lovely screen.

Because the screen is almost bezel-less, the phone is actually smaller than the iPhone 8+, and only very slightly larger than the iPhone 8.  The larger screen on a smaller phone concept is certainly appealing, but nothing new.  Indeed, the ironic thing is that the new iPhone X now looks for all the world like a generic Android phone, due to losing its distinctive button at the bottom, and for people who like to conspicuously show off their expensive gadgetry, this more generic look might reduce the appeal of the model X rather than enhance it.

A careful parsing of Apple’s claims for battery life suggest the phone might be slightly better than the iPhone 7 and 8, and comparable to or perhaps not quite as good as the 7+ and 8+ models.  This is a disappointment – we’d have loved to be able to luxuriate in freedom from battery worries during a full day of phone usage.

It is of course important to remember that battery life issues are not so much a concern for a brand new phone with the battery capable of giving its full charge, but become increasingly a problem as the phone ages and the battery capacity diminishes.  So if the phone’s battery life is already problematic on day one, imagine how much more of a challenge it will become on day 100 or (possibly even) day 1000.

The phone will sell for $999 with 64GB of storage.  It will be available to order on 27 October, and be available on 3 November.  In other words, Apple slightly ‘cheated’ by announcing the phone today, because it is still almost six weeks away from being orderable and seven weeks away from being deliverable.

New Watch

Apple opened their release event, after almost 20 minutes of corporate jingoism, by releasing a new version of their lackluster watch product – not that you’d think that to be the case, of course, based on their claims for the success of the watch in its previous two incarnations.

The new watch will be available on 19 September, and a new version of the watch’s operating system will be released at the same time.

The watch itself, dubbed the ‘Watch Series 3’ has its own built-in cellphone, rather than relying on your regular phone.  Will that mean you need another line of service from your wireless provider?  (Answer, apparently yes, of course.)

It also has the de rigueur faster processor such as every new product always has *yawn*, and now allows you to stream music to the watch.  Why would you do that, instead of streaming it to your phone, one wonders?  What will be the battery life implications?  Apple is silent on that point, but we note the watch will support only up to one hour of phone calling, so we’d expect the music streaming life would be similar.  They quote a test, here, but read the fine print – the test isn’t streaming over the wireless data connection, but rather via low power Bluetooth direct from your phone.

The display seems unchanged in terms of size and pixel count.

The watch will come in new color options, and band options, and pricing will start at $329 or $399, depending on if you want its built-in wireless feature or not.

New Video Streaming Box ‘Apple TV’

The next item featured was a new version of their Apple TV video streaming product.  At last, it has caught up to the rest of such devices, and now will support both 4K resolution and HDR as well as the standard qualities and resolutions.  This is good, but it is catching up to the rest of the market, not innovative.

They are also supporting more content providers, but nowhere near the number supported on the less expensive and generally superior Roku products.  Pricing starts at $179, and it will be available in a week.

For more information on current video streaming options, please see the article we wrote just a few days ago, and now updated to reflect Apple’s latest TV product.

Missing Features?

The ‘silent guest’ at Apple’s party were all the missing features – some new, some longstanding – that these phones suffered from.  Some are pinpricks of annoyance we’ve come to reluctantly accept, some make it hard to view their phones as anywhere near as state of the art as they claim, and some render the phones quickly vulnerable to technological obsolescence.

We write about this in our companion analysis piece, Apple’s Growing Jumble of Obsolete Under-featured Phones.  You really should read this before deciding to spend the $1000 or thereabouts on one of Apple’s new phones.

 

iPhone X or iPhone 8+?

You would pay an extra $200 to get an iPhone X instead of an iPhone 8+ (and $300 more compared to the iPhone 8).

This gets you a slightly larger screen and a phone size smaller than the 8+ but slightly larger than the 8.

Don’t get too hung up on screen size though, because not the entire size of the screen is fully usable, so the slight increase in size is slightly deceptive.  But the design of the iPhone X is definitely more modern, and more in line with recent models of the Samsung family of phones, for example.  Somehow, Apple’s thick bezels around its screen and physical button at the bottom now look even more dated than ever before.

In addition, the question isn’t just ‘would you pay $200/300 extra for an iPhone X’ but really, the question has to be ‘would you pay $1000 for an iPhone X’.  There are an abundance of Android phones costing as little as $200 with almost as many features as the iPhone X.  Would you pay $800 more than a good quality Android phone to buy Apple’s new top of the line phone?

That is the big question, which leads on to our next point.

Other Buying Choices Too

Your choice is not only limited to the 8/8+/X.  You also still have the 7/7+ and 6S/6S+ too (and the small screen sized SE).

If you don’t already have an iPhone with a big screen, which of these three families/generations of phones should you get?  The 6S series phones are priced from $449, the 7 series from $549, and the 8 series from $699, as well as the X for $999.

Each phone is slightly faster, but – here’s the thing – my even older model 6 phone is perfectly fast enough for everything I use it for.  The cameras get slightly better, but, again, the improvements are only things a photo enthusiast would notice, and such people probably are using dedicated cameras, not phone cameras, anyway.  The screens are almost identical, and the only other points of note would be the inability to plug regular headphones into the 7/8/X phones, and the wireless charging to be offered on the 8/X phones.

The newer phones add a few more frequency bands as well, but the impact of this, on most of us, most of the time, is close to zero.  Again, I’m happy with my model 6 and its data coverage most of the time.

If you can’t, yourself, see a clear value/reason to get a model 7 or 8 or X, then, for all intents and purposes, there is no reason to do so.  Get the model 6S or 6S+, and save yourself at least $250 in the process.  Or, save yourself even more, and get a $200 Android phone, which for all intents and purposes will be as capable as the 6S phone.  We detail a variety of Android phones, some priced as low as $50, that you should consider as alternates, in another companion piece to this article.

About the Wireless Charging

So about the only new feature on the iPhone 8/8+ is the wireless charging.  Maybe this is something you really want.  But if it is – you can relax.  There’s no need to replace your current iPhone at great cost.  Simply choose the appropriate sized wireless charging case for your particular iPhone model, at a cost of about $20.  Instant wireless charging!

And one more thing.  While Apple is adding wireless charging to these new phones, it is not providing a wireless charger.  Fortunately, those are under $20 each, too.

So – is the wireless charging feature really all that big a deal?  Not really, but happily it is, and has been for some long time, already easy to add to your current iPhone if you want it.

Will the New Phones be a Success?

Apple has now slipped to the third position in terms of phone sales (first is Samsung, and now second is Huawei), and its volume of phone sales has been falling.  The markets are already anticipating these three new phones will drive a new surge in phone sales.

The problem in market share is due to Apple’s phones being increasingly more expensive than similar Android phones.  These new phones do nothing to address the ‘value’ problem that is increasingly playing against Apple.

The problem in actual units sold is not only a market share problem, but also due to people being slower to upgrade their phones.  Whereas in the early days of iPhone models, each new model had a clearly understood and obvious new ‘must have’ feature, these days there are seldom any entirely new and ‘must have’ features, merely minor tweaks on what is already present.  As a result, few of us still change our phones every year, and we’re more likely to keep them for three or even four years.

The problem is made worse because just about everyone has already upgraded from an older ‘feature phone’ type phone to a modern touch-screen based smart phone, either an iPhone or one of the many Android models available.  So there is no longer that part of the market feeding new smartphone sales as well.

More recently, ‘must have’ new features have been focused around ‘generational’ leaps forward with the iPhone, with the most recent one being the release of the iPhone 6 and 6+, three years ago.  Those two phones finally saw Apple catch up with the larger sized screens of their competitors, and that excited a large number of iPhone users to upgrade.

The iPhone 6S series was very little different to the iPhone 6, and last year’s iPhone 7 was also very little different.  Will the iPhone 8 and 8+ now give the people who bought an iPhone 6 (or 6S or 7) a compelling reason to upgrade?  We think not, the 8 series is still part of the same generation as the 6/6S/7 series.

In Apple’s favor is that many of the people who bought iPhone 6 phones, three years ago, will be feeling about ready to get a new phone.  They might feel they are entitled to now treating themselves to a new phone, having virtuously sat out the 6S and 7 releases.

But will people who bought an iPhone 7 last year feel the need to turn it in and get an iPhone 8 now?  We challenge anyone – indeed, anyone with a 6, 6S or 7 phone, to point to anything they’ve wished they had or could do with their phone and which the new iPhone 8 (or X) can do (other than wireless charging which is a solution to a problem most of us never even knew we had).  Indeed, the battery life on the 6S series of phones seems to possibly be better than on the new 8 series phones.

You’ll notice the preceding discussion largely ignores the model X.  We love the larger screen and the lack of the ugly and excessive bezel which has looked increasingly old-fashioned on iPhones for some years now.  But we feel this phone was rushed to market prematurely, and expect that next year’s model (XI?  XS?) might complete some of the things not yet fully optimized – perhaps even adding a fingerprint sensor to the rear of the phone, addressing the probable missing high-speed wireless connectivity, and with better battery life.

There’s no way we’d buy an X today.  Next year’s improved X?  Maybe.  But not if we were to buy an 8+ today!

Which points to the other minor problem Apple now has.  It is cannibalizing itself with so many different models.  People are no longer forced to buy the latest model at the highest price – now they can reach back one or even two generations, and buy phones almost as functional (because they are part of the same ‘generation’) but at massively reduced pricing.

Smart people will buy a 6S+ phone.  Except, of course, if you bought a model 6 phone, you’d not want to swap a three-year old phone for a ‘new’ phone with two-year old technology in it, in which case, you’ll probably wait and see what happens to the X and its successor, next year.

Summary

Yes, these truly are Apple’s best phones, ever.  But that has been true every time Apple releases a new model of iPhone, so that’s nothing special.

Apple CEO Tim Cook claims that the iPhone X is the ‘biggest leap forward since the original iPhone’.  We understand he is paid to be the company’s biggest cheerleader, but even so, the sad reality is that all this phone does is catch up with features that Samsung and others have offered for years.  A (small) leap forward within the Apple universe – yes.  But anything more than a broader marketplace catchup?  No.

We’re increasingly being tempted away from all the models in the iPhone product range by the new generation of bargain priced highly featured Android phones – see our related article.

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  2 Responses to “Should You Line Up for an Iphone 8 or X?”

  1. Quite right about facial recognition ID. They’re replacing something that doesn’t require replacing. Fingerprint ID is convenient, flexible and reasonably secure. “Good enough” as Steve used to say. It seems like Apple is now channeling the 20th century’s auto manufacturers, adding or subtracting bits of shiny stuff simply to say there’s a new model available.

    And — ahem! — $1,000 for a phone? Seriously? £1,000 here in the UK. I bought a new generic brand recently for £69. Looks remarkably similar to the iPhone X in all sorts of ways. Would I pay 14 times as much for 10%-15% more capability? Not a chance.

  2. […] Apple have just announced their newest three phones, priced at even higher prices than last year’s models, and culminating in a breathtaking $1150 for a top of the line iPhone X with extra memory.  (We review and analyze their new iPhone 8, 8+ and X models here.) […]

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