By John Gruber
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When is the right time to ship a product? In particular, a hardware product? The answer, sometimes, is not when it’s done, but rather when it’s useful.
The original Apple Watch was too slow. It was too dependent on being tethered to an iPhone. The user interface was too unfocused. But it was useful in some meaningful ways — primarily fitness tracking and as a convenient display for notifications.
With WatchOS 2 and 3, Apple focused the experience on fitness tracking and notifications. With last year’s Series 2 hardware, performance improved and the screen got much brighter, making it far more legible outdoors.
With the addition of cellular networking in Series 3, Apple Watch gains something essential: independence. It’s not just a cool feature. It’s aimed smack dab in the middle of the two things people like best about Apple Watch: notifications and fitness. When are you separated from your iPhone? When you’re exercising. What do you miss most when you’re away from your phone? Messages and phone calls.
Phone anxiety is a weird, and, for me at least, irrational thing. I know that mankind survived for millennia without the ability to communicate with each other out of earshot. But once you get used to having your phone with you at all times, you get used to feeling that if anyone needs you, they can get you.
Apple Watch Series 3 with cellular networking completely alleviates this anxiety. It is not a replacement for a phone, and is not supposed to be. But it lets you leave your phone at home when you go for a run, or in your locker while you’re at the gym, or in your hotel while you go to the beach, and not worry in the least that you’re out of touch.
Audio quality for phone calls on the watch is very good. People I called via the watch said I sounded great, and I could hear them loud and clear. And all of my testing of phone calls on the watch took place mid-day on busy city streets — full of traffic and pedestrians — here in Philadelphia. People won’t know you’re calling them from your watch if you don’t tell them.
Siri sounds great on the watch, too: crisp and clear. The hardware performance improvements surely help here — the S3 dual core CPU is “up to 70 percent” faster, and the new W2 chip for wireless improves Wi-Fi performance “up to 85 percent”. (The W2 also makes Wi-Fi and Bluetooth more energy efficient, and, it seems obvious, is one of the reasons that cellular networking is possible at all.) The effect of these performance improvements isn’t that it makes Apple Watch Series 3 feel fast, but that it makes it feel not slow. When you dictate a text message to Siri and it just works, without delay, it just feels like it should.
But it really feels like a big difference that Siri now talks back to you. The non-talking Siri on previous Apple Watches now feels half-baked to me. (And, at least here in the U.S., you get the new improved Siri voice that also ships with iOS 11.)
The only thing I don’t like about the addition of cellular networking to Apple Watch is out of Apple’s hands: the monthly price to add it to a cellular plan. AT&T and Verizon are both charging $10 a month per watch. I don’t expect it to be free, but $120 a year feels like too much for a device that I’m using instead of the iPhone I’m already paying (a lot) for. With our Verizon family plan, it also costs $10 a month to add an iPad. But an iPad is a device we use in addition to our phones, not instead of.1 I think $5 per month is the right price. (And DF readers in Canada and Australia report that that’s about what it costs from the carriers in those countries — this is perhaps a U.S. problem, not a worldwide one.)
Battery life has been fine. “All day” is about right — charging at night, using it all day, and I’ve had plenty left in the tank when I went to bed again. That said, I’ve been testing a 42mm watch. I can’t speak to the battery life of the 38mm models. This is what I expected, but it’s kind of exciting when you think about it. Apple turned Apple Watch into a goddamn cell phone, without making the device thicker2 or heavier, and it still lasts all day.
It’s worth thinking about that. Apple is a company that is driven to make its devices thinner and thinner. To the consternation of many users, when Apple creates more efficient chips, they tend to keep battery life the same while making the devices thinner, rather than keep the devices the same size and extend battery life with bigger batteries. But in the early years of a new product line, they don’t do that. iPhone stayed the same basic thickness until the iPhone 4. In those early generations, it was more important to add essential missing features, like 3G networking, a better camera, and a faster processor, than to make it thinner. Apple Watch might stay the same size for a few more years.
There’s no way to review this watch without mentioning the red dot on the digital crown. All cellular equipped Series 3 watches, including all the stainless steel models, the ceramic Edition models, and the Hermès models, have this red dot. I don’t get it. It’s not that it looks bad in and of itself, but it draws unnecessary attention. I would much prefer this watch if it were black. Also, red doesn’t go with everything, and a huge part of the fun of Apple Watch is swapping bands. Apple sells a lot of watch bands that clash with the red dot.3
My two big wishes for future generations of Apple Watch: a camera and some form of always-on display.
A camera is the one thing I miss when I leave my iPhone at home and go for a run. I have no idea how a camera could work ergonomically on a watch. Maybe it’s just not feasible. But it is mildly frustrating when I’m out on a run and see something interesting that I’d like to photograph. In the same way that always carrying a phone gets you used to always being in contact with friends, family, and colleagues, always carrying a camera gets you used to always being able to take a photo.
Raise-to-wake works about as well as I could hope, but as someone who regularly wears mechanical watches, trust me, it’s no substitution for always being able to glance at your wrist for the time. With the current Apple Watch displays, the problem is obviously battery life (and perhaps burn-in too). I don’t know what the answer is, technologically, but I feel like Apple has to be working on this, and that it’s coming in some future model.
A third, bonus wish for the future: stronger, more precise haptic feedback from the next generation Taptic Engine. The Taptic Engine in Series 3 is unchanged from Series 2. It’s not bad, but I wish it were better, especially for the stainless steel models.
This is not a full review of everything new in WatchOS 4, but there are two features I want to point out.
First, I love the new option to show the app screen as a simple vertically scrolling list of apps, sorted alphabetically. The honeycomb design — which is still the default in WatchOS 4 — has frustrated me ever since the original Watch. It’s a bad design in several ways:
The new simple scrolling list of named apps solves all of these problems. I’d go so far as to say that Apple should have made this the default. The honeycomb design is a violation of the adage that design is how it works. The honeycomb looks cool, especially when you pan around, but it works like shit, and it’s a reminder of the unfocused nature of the original Apple Watch.
(Update: To toggle between these views of apps, 3D touch on the app screen. You get a choice between what Apple calls “grid view” and “list view”.)
Second, there’s a new feature in WatchOS called “Auto-launch Audio Apps”. It’s in the Apple Watch app on your iPhone, in the General: Wake Screen section. What happens with this is that when you initiate audio playback on your iPhone, if there’s a corresponding WatchOS app on your watch, when you raise your wrist that app is what you see, instead of your watch face. This was on by default with my review unit, which I set up as a new watch, and I noticed it while listening to podcasts in Overcast. Because I wasn’t expecting it, I was irritated at first, and thought about disabling it. But now that I know it’s there, I really like it. I don’t know how much of this to attribute to WatchOS 4, and how much to attribute to the performance improvements in Series 3, but there is zero lag involved. No spinner while the app launches or anything like that. When I play podcasts from my iPhone, my watch just automatically turns into a remote control for audio playback. It’s nice. ★
It’s worth noting here that a Series 3 Apple Watch’s cellular networking will only work in the country in which you purchase it. That’s because the link between it and your iPhone is handled by your carrier. The watch’s cellular connectivity is an extension of your carrier account. ↩︎︎
To be pedantic, as Jeff Williams pointed out on stage at the event last week, the casing for Series 3 watches is unchanged in size, but the covering on the back of the watch (ceramic on all cellular models, composite on non-cellular ones) is 0.2mm thicker. Not 2mm thicker — 0.2. As Williams described it, that’s “two sheets of paper”. Side-by-side it is indistinguishable in thickness compared to a Series 2, but I admire Apple’s exactitude. ↩︎
While I’m talking about aesthetics, allow me to plop in an unrelated suggestion: try the “Bold Text” option in the Brightness & Text Size section of Settings. When you toggle this, the watch warns you that it will need to restart. That warning kept me from trying this option for a long time, because it takes Apple Watch so long to restart. I was worried that if I didn’t like the way Bold Text looked, I’d have to wait for two reboot cycles to get back to the default setting. But it’s not really a full reboot. WatchOS just needs to restart its presentation layer, much like on iOS when you switch to zoomed mode. And I really like the way Bold Text looks. Small text in complications just looks cooler, more like the way I’d expect small text to be printed on a nice mechanical watch. Seriously, give it a try. ↩︎︎
I was tempted to write this review under the conceit that there was no such thing as the iPhone X. Just don’t even mention the iPhone X, and consider the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus as though they were the only two new phones coming from Apple this year. That conceit would work, insofar as the iPhones 8 are excellent year-over-year upgrades compared to their iPhone 7 counterparts.
But ignoring the iPhone X would actually do an injustice to the 8 and 8 Plus, because so much of what is inside the X is also inside the 8’s. These phones are in no way shape or form1 some sort of half-hearted or minor update over the iPhone 7.
These new iPhones look and feel great. I’ve been testing a silver iPhone 8 and gold iPhone 8 Plus since last Wednesday. Whether you like the way their polished back glass looks is subjective, but I like it a lot. Feel-wise, there’s no question in my mind that glass is better than aluminum. My personal iPhone 7 that I’ve been using for the last 11 months, however, is the jet black model, which in hand feels very similar to the glass of the iPhones 8. With both the iPhone 8 and iPhone 7 in my pocket I can’t tell them apart by feel, but that’s only because my 7 has the jet black finish.
I’ve never owned a Plus-sized iPhone, and last year my review unit did not have the jet black finish, so I found the 8 Plus with glass back to be a revelation. I prefer it so much to any previous Plus-sized iPhone I’ve tested that it almost feels like a different form factor, not just a different material. I’ve always found the Plus unwieldy, and part of that is that aluminum is slippery enough that, combined with the size of the device, it just felt like something I had to consciously think about to avoid dropping. However, just like the jet black aluminum finish, the polished glass back of these new phones is grippier. That grippiness is a nice feature for the 4.7-inch size, but for the Plus, I think it’s a necessity — it makes it far more pleasant to hold and use.
This is the fourth Plus-sized iPhone Apple has made, and it’s the first time that I personally would seriously consider buying one. (I probably would have thought the same thing if I had tested a Plus with the jet black finish last year, though. The difference for me is all about the grippiness.)
I’ve spent the last five days testing one iPhone of each finish: a jet black iPhone 7 and a matte black iPhone 7 Plus. On Friday I devoted an entire piece — “Black vs. Jet Black” — to help pre-orderers decide between the two, based on my initial impressions. Long story short, my initial impression was that black looked better, and jet black felt better. I stand behind my initial description of jet black as the grippiest iPhone Apple has ever made. I also stand by my prediction that Apple wasn’t joking around about the footnote on the iPhone 7 web page:
The high-gloss finish of the jet black iPhone 7 is achieved through a precision nine-step anodization and polishing process. Its surface is equally as hard as other anodized Apple products; however, its high shine may show fine micro-abrasions with use. If you are concerned about this, we suggest you use one of the many cases available to protect your iPhone.
After just five days — more than half of which I’ve spent using the matte black iPhone 7 Plus — this jet black iPhone 7 has a few “micro abrasions”, to use Apple’s own term. I can only see them when I’m looking for them, and only when I reflect light off the surface at the perfect angle, but they’re there. This is after two days of careful use, and never putting it in a pocket that contains anything else. The back surface of this phone shows more wear after (effectively) two days of use than my space gray 6S does after nearly a year.
After six days of daily use, this iPhone 8 shows no scratches or “micro-abrasions” whatsoever. With a wipe on my shirt to remove fingerprints, it could pass for mint new-in-box condition. The iPhone 8 Plus I’ve been testing has not been in my pocket every day, but it too looks flawless.
I don’t mind the micro-abrasions on my jet black iPhone. After nearly a year of daily use, almost all of it sans case, its back is covered with these fine scratches. That’s what I expected based on Apple’s warning last year. There’s no such warning from Apple this year. I think these glass backs are going to hold up nicely.
Color-wise, I can’t say much about space gray, since I don’t have one to test. But that’s the one I’d buy if I were going to buy an iPhone 8, because I always prefer black or space gray or whatever name Apple is calling the black one this year. But the silver looks nice, and the new gold is very interesting. Rather than two golds — a yellow gold and a pink rose gold — Apple has honed in on one true gold this year, a sort of slightly rosy gold. The back glass panel is a sort of taupe. It looks like a slightly different color under different lighting conditions.
A lot of people out there have been asking me who the iPhone 8 is for, other than people who can’t or don’t want to spend $999 or more on an iPhone X. One group, I think are people who’ll want this gold color.2
Now, everything I’ve written about what’s new about the exterior of the iPhone 8 is moot if you put your phone in a case, and from what I’ve observed, I’d guess 90-95 percent of iPhones in use are in cases. Some cases have clear backs, which do show the color and design of iPhone back. I think it must be so weird to be a hardware designer at Apple, though, working to make these devices that look beautiful, knowing that 90+ percent of the people who buy them will put them in case within minutes of unboxing them and never take the case off.
In a lot of ways, I think the iPhone 4/4S design was the pinnacle of the iPhone’s perfection. No camera bumps, no notches. So much symmetry, including a symmetric feel between the front face and back, because both were made of glass. Those backs were prone to shattering when dropped, and I’ve always suspected that’s what led them to switch to an aluminum unibody case with the iPhone 5. We’ll see how durable this new “most durable glass ever in a smartphone” is (those are Apple’s own words), but in terms of look and feel, I’m glad glass is back.
I asked Apple last week what exactly was “bionic” about the A11 chip system. The answer, translated from Apple marketing-speak to plain English, is that The Bionic Man and Woman were cool, and the A11 chip is very cool. I think they’ve started giving these chips names in addition to numbers (last year’s was the A10 Fusion) because the numbers alone belie the true nature of how significant the improvements in these chips are. Going from A10 to A11 is like going from 10 to 11 mathematically, which implies a 10 percent improvement. That’s not the case at all here — the A11 is way more than a 10 percent improvement over the A10. So they’ve given it a name like “Bionic” to emphasize just how powerful it is.
I wrote about the A11 Bionic chip last week in my thoughts and observations on the event, and I don’t have much more to say here, but I’ll repeat this line:
The specs aren’t what matters — the effects are what matters. But the specs are what we can measure, and the faster the chips are, the better the effects are in the user experience.
Apple isn’t using the power of the A11 simply to make the things older iPhones do faster. They’re using it to power new features, like the lighting effects in Portrait mode on the 8 Plus and the various machine learning stuff.
Six days is not a lot of time to spend with a new phone, let alone two new phones. Photography is one area where I don’t yet have a handle on how much better these iPhones are than their predecessors. The lighting effects in Portrait mode, though, are interesting. This feature is still in “beta”, but man, I’ve already taken some shots of my wife and son that I just love. There have also been a few where the edges of their hair have confused the hell out of the iPhone’s depth sensing. But the original Portrait mode last year shipped in similar state, and got better quickly. When it works, though, it’s amazing. (And when it doesn’t work well, you can always revert to the plain no-lighting-effect Portrait mode shot, with nothing lost.)
From a high-level perspective, a camera is three things: a lens, a shutter, and a surface on which to focus the image. That surface used to be film; today it’s a digital sensor.3 For the most part, if you wanted to improve the image quality, you had to improve (or change) the lens or the film. Over the decades, there were breakthroughs based on electronics — automatic focus and exposure are the ones that spring to my mind — but the biggest technical factors in photography were based on the simple physics of light passing through a lens and being focused onto a sensor surface.
What’s interesting to me is that some of the camera improvements Apple is talking about with the iPhone 8 aren’t about that. Yes, the sensor has been improved, and is apparently even better at capturing colors in a wide color gamut. But the advances in phone photography are driven more by computing — both hardware and software — than by advances in lens optics or sensors. There’s just not much more that can happen between such small lenses and sensors. The real action is in hardware and software.
Here’s one example from the iPhone 8, in Apple’s own words:
The intelligent, Apple-designed image signal processor in the A11 Bionic chip detects elements in a scene — like people, motion, and lighting conditions — to optimize your photos before you even take them. It also delivers advanced pixel processing, wide color capture, faster autofocus, and better HDR photos.
Apple is so confident in their improvements to HDR that with the iPhone 8, by default HDR is simply engaged automatically, and iOS no longer stores separate HDR and non-HDR images. HDR just turns on when iOS thinks you need it, and it simply leaves one image in your camera roll. The Settings app has options to enable manual HDR mode and to save HDR and non-HDR versions of images, but until I run into a problem, I’m sticking with the defaults. HDR is no longer something I need to think about.
In addition to the fact that the glass backs look and feel nicer, they also allowed Apple to add inductive charging to the iPhones 8 — a feature the industry and, alas, Apple itself insists upon calling “wireless charging”. Don’t get me started. Inductive charging is not wireless. But it is nice. Apple supplied me with a review unit of Belkin’s $60 wireless charging pads. Other reviewers were given Mophie’s, which is also $60. It’s convenient and works great. Design-wise the Belkin pad is what it is — it looks Belkin-y. My biggest complaint is that the plug that goes into the wall is enormous and ugly. I’ll probably buy the Mophie one simply because I prefer black to white, and their wall plug has to be better than Belkin’s.
I’m glad Apple decided to support the Qi (pronounced “chee”) standard, which several Android handsets already support. This is an area where Apple has been behind its competition. You know how like 10 years ago, hotels started buying bedside alarm clocks with built-in 30-pin iPod docks? And then they were rendered useless when the iPhone switched to Lightning? And how those Lightning docks are utterly useless to Android users? If they start switching to Qi charging pads, it’ll just work for everyone, and that’s a good thing.
The iPhones 8 also now support “high-speed charging” when you connect them to a Lightning cable attached to a high-wattage charger. In the box, both the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus both still come with the same rinky-dink 5-watt charger that all iPhones have shipped with since 2008’s iPhone 3G. iPhones have long charged faster when connected to one of the larger 10- or 12-watt chargers that ship with iPads.4 I went out and bought one of Apple’s 29-watt chargers that ship with the MacBook ($49 bucks, not cheap). I also bought a USB-C to Lightning cable ($25 for 1 meter, $35 for 2 meters — also not cheap). Anker makes a 30-watt USB-C charger that sells for under $30, but I figured I’d test fast-charging with Apple’s kit.
The bottom line: it’s faster, yes, but not that much faster. I ran the iPhone 8 battery down until it powered off. I plugged it into the 29-watt charger, and got the following results: after 15 minutes it was back to 27 percent, at 30 minutes it was at 54 percent, and at 45 minutes it was at 72 percent. But then I did the same thing with my year-old iPhone 7. After 30 minutes it was at 43 percent, and at 45 minutes it was at 65 percent. (I didn’t pay attention to where it was at after 15 minutes.) The iPhone 8 does charge faster than an iPhone 7, but not by much.
There’s one major difference between these displays and those of the iPhones 7 — True Tone. This is a feature where the device uses a 4-channel ambient light sensor to detect the color temperature of your surroundings. It then adjusts the color temperature of the display to match. I love True Tone. Back in March 2016, Apple introduced the first True Tone device: the 9.7-inch iPad Pro. Describing the feature, Phil Schiller said something to the effect of “Once you get used to it, you can’t go back.” I took this as a sign that it would be coming in the iPhone 7 last year, too. It didn’t.
But the iPhones 8 have it now, and it’s great. True Tone, though, is the sort of feature that you don’t notice, but rather that you notice the absence of in other devices. It ruins you. When I flew home last week, I spent the first few hours of my flight using the iPhone 8. I find phones to be convenient devices on planes — and the flaky nature of in-flight Wi-Fi is a good stress test for battery life. Two or three hours into the flight, I needed to check something on my personal iPhone 7 — I don’t remember what it was exactly, but it was something from an app I didn’t have installed on the review unit. When I took my iPhone 7 out of my pocket, my first thought was “What’s wrong with the display, why is everything gross and blue?” Then I remembered: True Tone.
(Battery life, by the way, has been fine. 4 hours into my flight last week and the iPhone 8 was still at 50 percent — that was pretty much non-stop use.)
The pricing has changed slightly since last year. Last year’s entry model iPhone 7 cost $649. This year’s 64 GB iPhone 8 costs $699. Apple, of course, has no explanation for this. But RAM prices have gone up so much in the last year that it’s probably the biggest reason.
Each phone comes in two sizes: 64 GB and 256 GB. The iPhone 8 costs $699 and $849; the Plus $799 and $949. I like this change from three sizes to just two. And even more than that, I like that after years of languishing with 16 GB base models, Apple has quickly moved to 64 GB as the base model capacity.
No one is going to describe the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus as having a radical new design. But they do have new glass backs that are the biggest change to their finishings since this general form factor started with the iPhone 6. The displays have gained True Tone. The cameras are significantly improved, both for still images and video. (Did I mention that both the 8 and 8 Plus can shoot true 4K video at 60 frames per second when you use the new HEVC format instead of the more compatible H.264?) The iPhone 8 Plus gets the new Portrait mode lighting effects. Both phones have the amazing A11 Bionic chip. They get inductive charging.
These are solid year-over-year updates — at least as impressive as the iPhone 7 was over the iPhone 6S. If they hadn’t debuted alongside the iPhone X we’d be arguing about whether these are the most impressive new iPhone models since the iPhone 6. There’s a lot to love about them and nothing to dislike.
But they did debut alongside the iPhone X, and because of that almost nobody is excited about them. There’s no use pretending otherwise.
But it’s worth noting that it’s just as instructive to compare the iPhones 8 to the iPhone X as it is to compare them to the iPhones 7. The iPhone X certainly has much to offer: the edge-to-edge 5.8-inch OLED display, the form factor that’s easier to hold and pocket than the Plus, the front-facing sensor array for Face ID and depth mapping with the front-facing camera, and an even better camera system on the back (with optical image stabilization for both lenses — the iPhone 8 Plus only has OIS for the wide angle lens). But the A11 chip (including the improved image processing that I described above), inductive charging, True Tone — all of these things in the iPhone X are also in both iPhone 8 models.
Pretty good for a boring update. ★
Well, I guess the shape and form are actually the same. I need a new idiom here that includes the word “finish”. ↩︎︎
Another group are people who value familiarity over being on the bleeding edge. You, the sort of person who reads the footnotes on Daring Fireball iPhone reviews, are not that person. But an awful lot of regular people out there just want a nice new iPhone that looks and works like the one they’re replacing. ↩︎
No offense to you photographers still shooting on real film. I love your work. ↩︎︎
I’ll go so far as to call the rinky-dink 5-watt charger the new 16 GB storage tier — a nickel-and-dime move whose time was up a few years ago. Oh, and one more nickel-and-dime move: Apple only includes a USB-A-to-Lightning cable in the box. The Google Pixel I bought last year included two cables, USB-A and USB-C. And Apple is the company selling laptops that only include USB-C ports. If you buy a new MacBook or MacBook Pro and a new iPhone 8, you’re spending upwards of $2,500 and Apple still requires you to buy a separate $25 cable if you want to connect that new iPhone to your new MacBook or to use the MacBook’s high-wattage charger to power your phone. That’s embarrassing. ↩︎︎
Apple made this decision well over a year ago. Perhaps the fundamental goal of iPhone X was to get as close as they could to an edge-to-edge display. No chin whatsoever. There were, of course, early attempts to embed a Touch ID sensor under the display as a Plan B. But Apple became convinced that Face ID was the way to go over a year ago. I heard this yesterday from multiple people at Apple, including engineers who’ve been working on the iPhone X project for a very long time. They stopped pursuing Touch ID under the display not because they couldn’t do it, but because they decided they didn’t need it. I do believe it’s true that they never got Touch ID working, but that’s because they abandoned it in favor of Face ID early.
I don’t know why recent supply chain rumors suggest Apple was scrambling to get Touch ID working on iPhone X as late as this summer, and no one at Apple seems to know either. Disinformation campaign from competitors?
There is clearly skepticism out there about Face ID. Some people think Face ID is going to suck, and a lot of people are flat-out assuming that they’re going to miss Touch ID. We saw the same thing with Touch ID when it was announced, and the skeptics were very wrong. I haven’t used it personally, but I am pretty sure already that the skeptics are going to be wrong about Face ID too. This piece at Ars Technica by Ron Amadeo is going to age poorly, I suspect.
The only time I’ve spent playing with an iPhone X was about 10-15 minutes in the hands-on area after the event, and I did not get a chance to try Face ID. But I spent time — both officially, as a member of the media, and unofficially, as a friend — with several Apple employees who are already carrying an iPhone X as their daily-use phone, and from what I observed and from what they told me — and again, several of these employees are engineers, not PR or product marketing folks — it just works. You don’t have to think about it. According to them, you get used to not thinking about it very quickly, and when you go back to a Touch ID device, it feels broken that you have to touch the button to unlock the device.
One of the places where I saw it working — instantly and effortlessly — was a really dark room. It just works.
The name: I was wrong about what Apple would call it, but I still say every single point I made arguing that they would and should pronounce it “ex” was correct.
The notch: It offends me. It’s ungainly and unnatural. Clearly, the ideal of an “all-screen” design — to use Apple’s own words — has no notch at all. This is not that. But what I dislike more than the notch isn’t the notch itself but that Apple is fully embracing the notch in software. I really wish their software design rendered the “ears” with black backgrounds while using apps. I’d be fine with embracing the notch on the home screen and lock screen.
It’s the front-facing equivalent of the camera bump. It offends me because it’s not just imperfect but glaringly, deliberately imperfect. But — again, exactly as with the bump — I understand why it’s there. I don’t like it but it wouldn’t keep me from buying the phone.
When using an iPhone X (again, based on a severely limited amount of time) the notch seems less noticeable than when looking at promotional photos of it. But that’s in portrait orientation. In landscape, the notch looks like a joke. I think Jony Ive either lost a bet or lost his mind. It looks silly, and to pretend otherwise is nonsense. I’m OK with this because I never use my phone in landscape other than when using the camera, watching videos, looking at photos, or playing games — and iOS 11 hides the notch with black bars by default in those use cases. But this looks just awful — and that screenshot was taken from Apple’s own video advising developers on how to handle the notch in their UIs.1
But just like the camera bumps we’ve been living with since the iPhone 6, it’ll be fine. Notch be damned, I know already that I would rather own an iPhone X than an iPhone 8 or 8 Plus.
The design: The iPhones 8 look and feel every bit as nice, if not better, than the iPhones 7. But the iPhone X, in my brief hands-on time with it, feels like a step up. I think stainless steel just feels nicer in hand than aluminum. It doesn’t feel too heavy, but it is noticeably heavier than an iPhone 7 or 8. It’s hot.
Of course it’s not what everyone is talking about, but iPhones 8 are a sweet fucking upgrade over the iPhones 7. True Tone displays make a huge, instantly noticeable difference. The regular iPhone 8 has significantly improved image stabilization. Both models have significantly improved camera sensors. HDR photography has been improved so much that on iPhone 8 it no longer saves two versions of the photo (with and without HDR) — you just get the HDR version because it’s always better. Sure, they look just like the iPhones 7 from the front (and are even case compatible with their corresponding iPhone 7 models), but the glass backs look new and very cool.
I don’t know how the iPhone X/iPhone 8 split is going to play out sales-wise, but it is very clear that Apple did not (no pun intended) phone the iPhones 8 in. I think a surprising amount of the new technology in the iPhone X is also in the iPhone 8.
This is a very easily understood update: it’s about optional cellular networking and increased performance. Apple’s watch strap game is on point — I saw several new straps that I liked a lot, and (shocker) I’m pretty picky about watch straps. The most popular new color is that sort of deep purple — I noticed a lot of Apple employees sporting it.
Craig Federighi, demonstrating the new animoji feature by turning his face into an animated pile of poo: “If you were wondering what humanity would do when given access to the most advanced facial animation, now you know.”
This chip apparently benchmarks faster than some MacBook Pros, both in single and multi-core. Not recent MacBook Pros — today’s MacBook Pros.
Apple’s A-series chips achieved desktop-like performance in single-core a few years ago. But this level of multi-core performance is new to the A11. The difference is the new Apple-designed “second-generation performance controller”. The A10 chips have two high-power cores and two low-power cores. When the A10 needs high CPU performance, it uses the two high-power cores; when it doesn’t, it switches to the two low-power cores. So with A10 chips, you’re always getting dual-core performance.
Thanks to the new performance controller, on the A11 all six cores are available at the same time. When you need the highest performance, it uses all six cores. The A11’s two high-power cores are 25 percent faster than the A10’s. That would be an impressive year-over-year boost in and of itself. But the low-power cores are each 70 percent faster than the A10’s — and there are twice as many of them, and they’re always available.
Apple barely spent any keynote time on the new performance controller because “speeds and feeds” aren’t what the iPhone is all about. But from a chip design and performance perspective, this is astounding. Apple is pulling ahead of other chipmakers — both Intel and Qualcomm — like Secretariat pulling away from the pack in the Belmont Stakes.
You can’t bring this up in public without a certain segment of Android fans losing their goddamn minds over it. “I thought specs don’t matter?” they say, and point to articles I (or whoever else brings this up) wrote in the past arguing that specs aren’t the only thing that matters. Here’s the thing. I would still want to use an iPhone if Apple were using off-the-shelf Snapdragon processors and Samsung were the company producing these proprietary A-series systems-on-a-chip. It’s the same reason I remained a Mac user even during the years when Mac CPUs were hopelessly behind Intel’s in performance. For me, it’s the overall experience that matters, and that’s largely defined by the software platform.
But Samsung isn’t the company with the proprietary chips that blow away the industry commodity chips, Apple is. So iPhone users get the best in both regards: they get the iOS experience and Apple-designed hardware, and they get the vastly superior CPU and GPU. And Android users who want industry-leading performance are shit out of luck. This is unprecedented in computing history. Windows users who want the best CPUs have always had that option. Android users don’t, because the best chips, by far, are Apple’s, and they’re proprietary.
The specs aren’t what matters — the effects are what matters. But the specs are what we can measure, and the faster the chips are, the better the effects are in the user experience.
First, inductive charging is not “wireless”. Here’s what I wrote back in June:
Wi-Fi is wireless. No one would accept wireless as a description for an internet connection that required the device to be in physical contact with a charger, even if it were magnetic rather than a port you plug a cable into.
So Apple Watch, for example, does not use wireless charging. Apple describes it perfectly as “magnetic charging”. It sounds like this is what might be in store for the next iPhone. That’d be cool — but it wouldn’t be as cool as being able to charge over the air.
If we call inductive charging “wireless” now, what are we going to call it when it really is wireless in a few years?
That off my chest, I am looking forward to having this feature. This is one area where the iPhone was indisputably behind the competition.
One aspect of Apple’s announcement that I don’t think was clear is the relationship between the upcoming AirPower (slated for early next year) and Qi. The best way to think of it is that AirPower is to Qi what AirPods are to Bluetooth.
Qi is an industry standard defined and managed by a consortium, just like Bluetooth. The only products Apple announced this week that support Qi for charging are the new iPhones.
AirPower is going to be a superset of Qi with a layer of non-standard Apple technology on top of it to make it better, just like how AirPods are a superset of Bluetooth with non-standard Apple technology on top. So iPhone 8 and iPhone X can charge on any Qi charging pad, like the Belkin and Mophie ones that Apple promoted on stage. Likewise, AirPods can be used as a regular Bluetooth headset connected to any Bluetooth device.
But AirPower can do things Qi cannot — it can charge Apple Watch and the upcoming new AirPod case. Apple Watch and the AirPod case are not Qi devices — you cannot charge them on a Qi charging pad. That’s similar to the way AirPods (and the Beats headphones also equipped with Apple’s W1 chip) can do things regular Bluetooth headsets cannot — in particular, the seamless pairing process, and the lower audio playback latency enabled by the W1.
The main difference between the non-standard aspects of AirPower compared to AirPods is that Apple is pledging to offer their improvements to the Qi consortium. If the consortium accepts them, third-party companies will be able to make AirPower-like charging pads that do work with Apple Watch, the new AirPod case, and more.2 Apple has never hinted that they might offer their W1 chip technology to the Bluetooth consortium.
The difference makes strategic sense. It’s a competitive advantage for the iPhone, iPad, and Mac that they can offer a superior wireless headphone experience because W1 is proprietary. It’s not just about keeping other headphone makers from offering it, but also about keeping Android devices from taking advantage of it. Apple benefits from the fact that standard Bluetooth is inferior. But Apple wants to see inductive charging pads go mainstream, with public installations in restaurants, airports, etc. Apple would rather see those ubiquitous charging pads support all Apple devices, not just iPhones.
AirPower doesn’t seem to be better than standard Qi in the way that Apple’s W1 chip is better than standard Bluetooth. Instead, AirPower seems to just enable inductive charging for more devices. ★
The last perfect iPhone was the iPhone SE. I’m not saying the iPhone SE is the best iPhone. I’m just saying it’s the last one that is perfect in design. No camera bump, no notch, perfect back, perfect front, perfect sides, every button feels nice and is well located. ↩︎
I’m not doing so well on predictions lately, but I feel like it’s a safe bet that the next generation Apple Pencil will be able to charge via AirPower. Maybe the Magic Mouse and Magic Trackpad too, since your desktop is a perfect place to put an AirPower. This could even explain the ungainly location of the Magic Mouse’s Lightning port. ↩︎︎