Sep 122018
 

Apple’s new iPhone XS Max (left) and XS, with an 8 Plus i the middle to show relative body and screen sizes

If it is September, then not only is Fall making its transformational presence felt, but it is time for an “Apple Spring” with their annual event announcing another year’s worth of iPhones.

This year’s event cast off still more of the Jobs legacy, with CEO Tim Cook in white sneakers, light tan Dockers style trousers, and an open-neck blue button-down shirt.  No hint of the black turtle-neck sweater and jeans that was Jobs’ trademark and widely copied for some years after his passing.

One of the other legacies of the extraordinarily transformational Jobs era that has clearly been discarded is the lack of any apparent attempt at secrecy.  Whereas, during his reign, people would go into these release events truly with no idea of what to expect other than optimistic speculation, the last few years have seen increasingly detailed leaks preceding the event, and this year seemed to leave almost nothing unknown prior to the event, except for, perhaps, the exact pricing of the three new phones that were expected to be released.

New Apple Watch

As an opener for the main event, Apple treated us to the latest version of its electronic watch product.  There was a time when its watch justified a special event on its own, and now that it is folded in as merely the ‘warm up’ item for the iPhone release, we can probably guess that notwithstanding Apple’s hype and bluster, the reality is that the watch has been a disappointment.  When did you last see a person with an Apple watch?

The new watch is to be known as the Apple Watch Series 4.  It has less bezel and more screen than its predecessors, and a smaller case size.  Oh yes, and rounded corners, too.  And some new designs for the watch’s screen.  Although the watch usually has its screen on standby, if you wish to activate the screen, you can now gaze mindlessly at moving bubbles that ‘splash off the edges’ of the screen.

Apple says the speaker is now “50% louder”.  That’s not a term that a sound engineer would use, but probably it means it is a little more than 1db louder, which in real world terms is an almost imperceptible difference in volume.  Doubling in volume is usually the smallest difference in volume that most people notice, and a ten time increase is readily apparent.  But 50%?  Chances are you’ll not notice.

There are some other changes too.  For example, a new accelerometer that can measure up to 32g.  Never mind that your body would be crushed to mush at g-forces considerably less than 32g, and who only knows how well the rest of the watch will stand up to that force, too.  But at least the accelerometer will be fine.  And the usual, inevitable, faster processor.  Alas, no increase in battery life, which is still rated at 18 hours of typical use.

Apple is continuing to push the health monitoring benefits of owning a watch.  This is an interesting and probably very sensible ‘pivot’.  The earlier use-case for the watch (as a new connectivity tool to supplement and even potentially replace our phone) having largely failed to capture the public’s imagination, they are now telling us that their watch may save our life, with more detailed automatic heart monitoring, detecting if we fall over and offering to call emergency services, and so on.

A new Series 4 watch is priced from $399, adding a cellular connection capability pushes the starting price up to $499.  The earlier Series 3 watch can now be had from $279.  The watches can be ordered starting from Friday (ie 14 September) and shipments will start the following Friday (21 September).

New iPhone XS and XS Max

Another vanished element of Steve Jobs was his earlier fierce insistence that there was only one ideal size for a phone screen, and that was (of course) the 3.5″ diagonal screen of the early model iPhones.  Apple has long trailed behind the rest of the industry as a result, being always a few years (and inches) behind the rest of the industry in terms of screen size, until the release of their iPhone 6 which saw them finally come out with notably larger screen sizes (4.7″ and 5.5″) and a welcome move towards the rest of the industry.

The iPhone X saw a sort of larger screen as measured by the diagonal (5.8″) but this was achieved by making it longer and skinnier so the actual area of the screen remained almost unchanged (13.1 sq in, less a bit of space for the ‘notch’ and largely wasted area on either side that probably ends up at almost the same net space as the 12.9 sq in of the all-usable space in the 5.5″ diagonal screened ‘Plus’ series phones).

The new iPhones this year start with the iPhone XS.  One of the ‘problems’ of the iPhone X is that many people pronounced this as “X” like the letter “eks”, rather than 10, as in the Roman number X for 10.  So we wonder how many people will pronounce this as the iPhone Excess rather than as the Ten S.

The XS phone has the same 5.8″ 2436 x 1125 pixel display as last year, again using a high contrast OLED material.  It is a lovely display, although there’s nothing particularly bad about Apple’s standard LED displays, either.

New is a second XS model (there was only one model X last year).  This is the XS Max.  It has a larger 6.5″ display, with 2688×1242 pixels – it has the same 458 ppi density as the XS.

One has to wonder if the “Max” means that Apple will never, ever, come out with a still larger display.  Certainly, Apple is now returning back to a position near the front of the pack with a 6.5″ display.

Interestingly, the thinner bezels and long narrow screen size mean that the actual case size of the XS Max is actually very very slightly smaller than the former 6+/6S+/7+/8+ phones (with 5.5″ screens).  The XS Max measures 6.2″ x 3.05″ and is 0.30″ thick and weighs 7.34 ounces.  The iPhone 8+ is 6.24″ x 3.07″ and the same thickness, weighing 7.13 ounces.

So while the display is large, the phone itself remains acceptably sized.

The distinctive notch remains in the top center of the screen.  There had been some mild speculation, months earlier, that the notch might disappear in this year’s models, but it is remaining in place, and the copying of the notch concept by some Android phones seems to suggest that it may be a semi-permanent fixture.  If you’d been holding out until the notch concept disappeared, you might now be forced to accept they’ll be around for another few years.

Needless to say, like every preceding model of iPhone, there’s a new better/faster processor inside.  This is always semi-amusing, because each year we’re told how stunningly amazing that year’s new processor is, but then, 12 months later, it is no longer at all amazing, and the newer better faster processor brings about what we are told are enormous improvements (according to Apple) that 12 months ago no-one realized were even necessary or possible.

Apple spent some time highlighting some of the uses for the new faster processor.  It seemed that pretty much all the benefit will be in better game experiences.

It was unclear if the rear cameras on the XS series phones were appreciably better than last year.  In both cases, the two cameras have 12 MP resolution and the same f1.8 and f2.4 lenses.  The wide angle camera is said to have a new sensor.  They are very good cameras in the original X phone, so leaving them much the same is not a problem.

The front camera is again 7 MP and f2.2 and we’re told it is ‘twice as fast’ but we’re not told what that means.  Does that mean twice as fast to focus?  To take a picture?  Or twice as fast in terms of light gathering/aperture (clearly not this meaning because the lens has the same aperture rating as last year)?

The phones will now record audio in stereo rather than mono.  That is nice, but anyone serious about recording sound is going to want external microphones and some way of connecting them to the phone.

Good news on the battery life front.  The XS is said to have ‘up to’ 30 minutes of extra battery life compared to the X, and the XS max up to 90 minutes of extra ‘daily use time’ (whatever that means).  They have slightly better battery life than the model 7 and 8 phones.

The new phones will be available for order on Friday 14 September, with shipments starting on 21 September.

Great New Feature – Dual SIM

And now, after all of this (I’m writing this more or less in the same sequence of Apple’s presentation), a surprise bonus feature that will be great for international travelers.  Dual SIM capability.

This means you can have two different phone numbers with two different providers, simultaneously.  I usually need to travel internationally with two phones – one being my US phone with my T-mobile SIM in it, and the other being a second phone with a local SIM in it from a wireless service provider in the country I’m visiting.

Even if you don’t regularly travel out of the country, Dual Sim can be very useful at home – for example, you can have a work number and a home number, both on the one phone.

Dual-SIM has always been a tricky technology to implement.  There are associated issues, such as how to specify which SIM provides your cellular data service, and how to choose which SIM to use when placing a call, are both SIMs active simultaneously, and so on, and different phones approach these with varying degrees of elegance or clumsiness.  Here is the detailed information on Apple’s approach.  It seems to be moderately functional, but also moderately complicated, and for sure, you’ll now want to make sure that all the phone numbers you store include the international country code as well.

In our case, when we travel, we like to use our T-mobile phone for non-speed sensitive data (ie mainly email) because of the wonderful unlimited free international slow data that T-mobile gives, while using the other phone for fast data needs (ie mainly web pages).  It is not possible with most dual SIM phones to have two data services simultaneously, or to specify which apps use which data.  So, dual SIM is good, but not without some convenience compromises.

Apple says it will use one eSIM rather than physical regular SIM plus have a physical slot for a second regular SIM.

For us, the dual SIM capability is the best of the new enhancements and the deal point that might see us reluctantly spending way over $1000 for a new phone.  Our iPhone 6+ is now four years old, so we can’t be accused of needlessly upgrading more frequently than we should!

New iPhone XR

The event then moved on to a third new phone, named the iPhone XR.  This too was widely anticipated, and the rumor mill even got the name of the phone correct.

It comes in more and brighter colors than the other two phones.  It has a 6.1″ display, halfway between the two XS screen sizes, but with a slightly lower quality LED panel, offering only 1792 x 828 pixel resolution at 326 dpi.  At a casual glance, it looks the same as the XS and XS Max phones, and signifies that Apple will no longer be offering tradition designed phones with the touch button at the bottom.

Apple should have done that last year, because its uneasy combination of the traditional design 8/8+ and new design X phones made it unclear which way the future phones would go, and also provided less ‘fashion’ impetus for people who like to conspicuously show off their newest phones.

The screen resolution is unfortunate – it can’t play regular HD video at a 1:1 pixel correspondence, but has to discard some picture quality to squeeze the 1920×1080 (2.1 million pixels) of picture data into the 1792×828 pixel screen, which when adjusted to the same aspect ratio means 1472 x 828 actual pixels, a total of only 1.2 million pixels of picture data.

We understand that Apple wishes to have a clear differentiation between the entry-level XR and full features XS/XS Max phones, but it nonetheless is a disappointment that it moved as far back on its screen functionality as it did.  However, let’s not overstate this – the chances are that most people won’t notice any difference in video quality at all, especially because most video isn’t streamed to phones in full HD quality, anyway.

It has a single front and rear camera, and all the same sensors in its notch as do the other phones.  It also has the dual SIM capability.  It has 90 minutes longer battery life than the 8 Plus phone, although we’re not told which measure of battery life is being used for this.

The XR can be ordered starting on 19 October, with shipments starting on 26 October.

Pricing

In addition to the three new phones released today, Apple will continue to sell model 8 and 7 phones, but unusually, the first model iPhone X has vanished without trace, and will no longer be sold at all.

This gives Apple a broad range of price points and products – an amazing seven different models all currently for sale.

Model Storage Price
XR 64GB $749
XR 128GB $799
XR 256GB $899
XS 64GB $999
XS 256GB $1149
XS 512GB $1349
XS Max 64GB $1099
XS Max 256GB $1249
XS Max 512GB $1449
8 and 8+ 64 or 256GB $599/$749 or $649/$849
7 and 7+ 32GB or 128GB $449/$549 or $569/$669

 

So – which phone is best for you?  Please keep reading.

Which Phone Should You Buy

Apple truly does now have a broad range of good phones, and it might seem slightly confusing to choose the one best suited for you.  So here are some ways to help you choose.

If you’re considering a traditional style of iPhone with a button on the bottom, then you need to choose between an iPhone 7 or iPhone 8.  We prefer the larger 5.5″ screen, better resolution, and longer battery life of the Plus model, but this adds to the price and slightly to the bulk/size of the phone.

There is an important difference between the way the iPhone 7 and 8 models are configured.  The 7 series come in 32GB or 128GB storage capacities, whereas the 8 is offered in 64GB or 256GB.  We are concerned that many people might find 32GB too small.  We are currently using 42.5GB of our 64GB iPhone’s capacity, of which 6.3GB is photos, and almost all the rest are apps.  It would be possible to trim down the apps by 5GB or more, and to copy off most of the photos, so we could get our usage down below 32GB, but we’d all the time be struggling to stay within that capacity.

Unless you know for sure that you’re only going to use some basic apps and will regularly be taking your photos off the phone, the chances are you might find 32GB inconveniently inadequate.  64GB is fine for most people, though.  In other words, don’t choose the 32GB model iPhone 7.

So when you then compare the 128GB version of the 7 series, priced at $549/$669, against the 64GB version of the 8 series, priced at $599/$649, you’re only paying $50 more if you want the smaller screen, and actually paying less for the larger screen unit.  Probably this means that, for most people, an iPhone 8 is the better choice of traditional style iPhone.

If you want a modern looking phone but have no need for the advanced capabilities of the XS, the XR at $749 is perfectly good, compared to the XS at $999.  Unless you clearly see something you’d be missing out on by spending $250 more for the XS, stick with the XR.

If you want the absolute biggest and bestest phone, though, then of course, go for the XS Max, and probably choose to pay extra for the 256GB version to ensure you’ll not have storage capacity problems in the foreseeable future.  It is hard to clearly see any reason to go higher up to 512GB.

Table of Screen Sizes

The actual screen sizes now are :

Model Diagonal Pixels Density Sq In
XS Max 6.5″ 2688 x 1242 458 < 15.9 *
X and XS 5.8″ 2436 x 1125 458 < 13.1 *
XR 6.1″ 1792 x 828 326 < 14.0 *
8+/7+/6S+/6+ 5.5″ 1920 x 1080 401 12.9
8/7/6S/6 4.7″ 1334 x 750 326 9.4
5 series 4″ 1136 x 640 326 6.8
4 series 3.5″ 960 x 640 326 5.8
Earlier models 3.5″ 480 x 320 163 5.8

* * = One needs to allow for some lost space where the notch is and the diminished value of the screen on either side of the notch.

The Missing Product

One thing was missing from the release event.  There had been rumors of a refresh of Apple’s iPad products being announced, too.

Alas, that did not happen, and in particular, their lovely large screened iPad is now getting very long in the tooth.  While we still love our iPads and other tablets, we do have to observe that the earlier hype about tablets taking over all types of computing seems to have been totally off-base, and laptop type computers (and desktop computers too) still retain their primacy for ‘real’ productive uses.

Summary

These three new phones represent a more tangible step forward in phone features than Apple has offered for many years.  The associated lowering in price of the traditional design iPhone 7 and 8 series now gives Apple a broad range of phone styles, features, and prices.

Most people will either buy an iPhone 8, the XR , or the XS Max.

But, before you do so, don’t overlook that excellent Android phones are available, from prices starting below $100.  Do you really need to pay up to almost $1500 for an iPhone when $150 or less will get you a high quality Android phone instead?  We’ll update our various phone buyers guides in the next few days to reflect the new choices, both within the Apple universe and Android.

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