By John Gruber
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If Apple Watch Ultra were the first (and thus only) Apple Watch, people would lose their minds. It’s big and very unsubtle. It makes a statement on the wrist.
But the Ultra is not the first Apple Watch. We’re eight generations in with the Series lineup. If anything, arguably Apple is overdue to offer something like the Ultra: an entirely different expression of what an Apple Watch can be. Ultra is definitely not for everyone. But it is also definitely for a lot of people.
I’ve neither dived nor climbed nor gotten lost nor really done anything a damn bit dangerous or exciting, but I’ve had a lot of fun wearing it for the last week.
Here’s a thing I’ve learned over the years as a somewhat serious watch enthusiast. A lot of people are very self conscious about wearing a large or even large-ish watch. “I’ve got small wrists, I don’t know if I can pull it off” is a sentiment expressed dozens of times per day, every day, on watch forums the world over. But it’s almost never the case that you, the wearer, look bad wearing a too-big watch. It’s that the watch itself looks too big. It’s the watch, not the wearer. But we humans are self-conscious beings, and a first-person perspective of your own wrist is not at all like the perspective of others looking at your wrist.
What I’m saying here is that if you go to a store and try on an Apple Watch Ultra, there is a very good chance your reaction is going to be “This is way too big for me.” If you’re thinking that because you don’t like the way it looks, well, then Ultra is not for you. Your watch should make you happy every time you look at it. But if you’re thinking “this is too big for me” because you’re worried about how others will think it looks on your wrist, you’re overthinking it. If you like it, wear it. People — men and women alike — with even small wrists can get away with surprisingly large watches. Buy the watch that makes you happy. That’s my advice for any watch.
If you’ve got large wrists, on the other hand, you might try on Apple Watch Ultra and react, “Finally.”
With the Series, uh, series of Apple Watch models, we’ve always and only had two sizes. Over the model generations, those sizes have been described by Apple in ever-increasing sizes:
From a subjective perspective though, these watches have been the same sizes: smaller and larger. Side-by-side, a new Series 8 41mm watch looks the same size as an original Series 0 38mm one, and a new Series 8 45mm looks the same size as an original 42mm model. This is most evident in the fact that the straps and bands made for the original Apple Watch still fit the Series 8 models, and vice-versa.
Even though there have been two sizes of Apple Watch cases from the get-go, the WatchOS experience on-screen has been unified. If you wear the smaller Apple Watch, you get the same on-screen experience as on the larger models, just scaled to fit the smaller display.
Apple Watch Ultra feels like a different size class entirely. For the most part, though, you get the same on-screen content from WatchOS as on the regular Series models. You just see more at a time, like when reading a text message or email. There is one watch face unique to Ultra, the Wayfinder face that Apple is using in most promotional and marketing photos. But all the other WatchOS watch faces are more or less the same on Ultra, just scaled bigger.
The Ultra is thus not akin to the iPhone X — a dramatically new design that heralded the future of the entire platform. The rest of the Apple Watch lineup is not going to evolve in an Ultra-like direction in the coming years. But the larger and (for the first time on Apple Watch) perfectly flat display crystal gives it a different feel while using it. It’s unabashedly a computer on your wrist. The Calculator app, for the first time, feels perfectly usable without pecking at the buttons with particular care. The on-screen QWERTY keyboard that Apple added last year to WatchOS 8 is surprisingly usable. Switching between, say a 41mm and 45mm Series 8 feels like the same experience, just scaled differently. Switching between a 45mm Series 8 and the Apple Watch Ultra feels different, not just bigger.
Titanium is a remarkable material. I’ve been wearing the Ultra full-time for just short of a week, and every time I put it on, I expect it to be a lot heavier than it is. There’s no getting around the fact that the Ultra looks big. But it does not feel heavy on the wrist. The case surface has a different finish than the Series 5–7 models that were offered in titanium. On those Series models, the titanium surface had a brushed finish. On the Ultra, it has a sort of textured finish. Micro-pebbled perhaps describes it. It’s definitely not perfectly smooth, let alone polished, but it’s also just as definitely not brushed. However the texture is best described, it very much befits a rugged sports watch. It feels good and in my opinion looks good.
The lip surrounding the display crystal is raised, but not by much. Perhaps by the thickness of an index card.
The orange accent color of the Action button and Digital Crown are a delightfully opinionated touch. (You can get your Action button in whatever color you want, so long as it’s international orange.) The larger Digital Crown with far more pronounced knurling is a delight to twist. Good resistance, great haptic feedback.
The Action button is, functionally, the biggest difference between the Ultra and the Series models. As I wrote last week, an extra button is a big addition to a device that heretofore only had two, and even moreso given that the Action button is the first hardware button on Apple Watch that’s user-configurable at the system level and can be assigned app-specific functions by third-party developers. The Digital Crown and side button are controlled by the system.1 The Action button is controlled by the user, via a new top-level section in Settings. Options for what happens when you press the button:
On the watch itself, you just get to change which of these actions the button performs. To configure them — say, to choose which Workout to start, or which Shortcut to run — you need to use the Watch app on your paired iPhone. Unadventurous me has, thus far, assigned the Action button to the stopwatch, flashlight, and Shortcuts. I’ve found the flashlight and Shortcuts options the most useful (mainly because, if I want quick access to the stopwatch, I’ve always been able to add a stopwatch complication to a watch face). Assigning a shortcut to the button has infinite potential, but it sure seems to take Shortcuts a long time to launch them on WatchOS. The flashlight is surprisingly useful, which speaks to how bright the Ultra’s 2,000-nit-max display can be. (The Series 8 and SE displays have a maximum brightness of 1,000 nits.)
There’s also a toggle (on by default) to press-and-hold the Action button to activate the (surprisingly loud) siren.
One learning-curve issue with the Action button is that at first, you can inadvertently press both the Action and side buttons when you only intend to press one or the other. If you squeeze them at the same time, the Action button wins out. It’s a muscle-memory thing though, and I quickly adapted my grip on the watch when trying to press either button, so as not to press both.
A week wearing an Apple Watch Ultra makes me wish the Series models had an Action button too. Why not? Three total buttons is not a lot of buttons for a digital watch.
Apple continues to excel with original watch strap design and engineering. My review unit kit included two of the three new straps designed specifically for Apple Watch Ultra: the nylon Alpine Loop, in both orange and green, and the “high performance elastomer” (read: very nice rubber) Ocean Band, in yellow.
The Alpine Loop comes in three lengths; Apple sent me both large (orange) and medium (green). The large strap fits me, but the medium fits me better. What you want with a strap like the Alpine Loop is for the G-shaped buckle — which, of course, is made of titanium with the same finish as the Ultra watch case — to fall on the underside of your wrist, opposite the watch. If it’s too long — as the size large is on my wrist — you can still fasten the strap, but you wind up with a double layer of strap almost all the way around your wrist.
The Ocean Band is nice, and is one size fits all. (There’s an optional extra-long bottom piece meant for fitting over a diving wetsuit.) It also sports titanium hardware for the buckle and cleverly-adjustable keeper. I find it to be very comfortable, particularly because the rubber has a nice stretch to it. The shade of yellow on the one Apple provided me is a little Big Bird-y to my eyes. I’d like to see the Ocean Band in orange.
Given how much larger the Ultra case is, it’s a very nice touch that it still shares the same-size strap connector slot as the 42/44/45mm Series watches. I’ve tried a few of the bands from my 45mm collection on the Ultra, and I’ve tried the new designed-for-Ultra bands on my Series 7 and the Series 8 review unit Apple sent me. They all fit each other, but to my eyes, “regular” 45mm straps look better on the Ultra than the designed-for-Ultra 49mm straps look on a Series watch. A regular 45mm strap on the Ultra just looks a bit narrow and tapered. It looks like you’re dressing the Ultra up by slimming the strap down. The 49mm straps look too wide on a 45mm watch. There’s no accounting for taste in watch straps, though.
There’s a long tradition in dive watches of metal bracelets. The Rolex Submariner — the most iconic of dive watches — comes exclusively on bracelets that match the material of the case (stainless steel or gold). Apple’s stainless steel Link Bracelets are among the few original Apple Watch bands the company still makes, but they don’t get much attention. I own the space black Link Bracelet — it’s the one that came with my Series 0 watch, and thanks to the DLC coating, it still looks almost as good as new. I kind of dig the way it looks attached to the Ultra — the space black bracelet and untinted titanium case make for a nice contrast. It plays.
I don’t own the silver link bracelet to try it, but I suspect it doesn’t play paired with the Ultra. Brushed stainless steel and titanium are too different to be considered a match, but too similar to have deliberate contrast. I wish Apple were committed enough to the Link Bracelet to make a new one in titanium to match the case of the Ultra. (I also hope that future generations of Apple Watch Ultra are available with a space gray or black coating.)
According to Apple, the Ultra case is 34 percent bigger by volume than the 45mm Series 8, but the battery inside the Ultra is 76 percent bigger. I think this is mostly because titanium’s high strength allows the Ultra case to have more room inside than if it were made from aluminum or steel. Regardless of the reasons, battery life on the Ultra is, as promised, seemingly double that of a Series model. 24 hours after a full charge, it has still had between 45–50 percent remaining. And — see below — I’ve been wearing it to sleep.
The Ultra-exclusive Wayfinder watch face uses distinctive typographic features of the San Francisco font family. Numerals have alternative glyphs (crossed 0, 1 with bottom bars, open-topped 4, and alternative designs for the 6 and 9), and the uppercase I has bars. It’s a neat look that befits the Ultra’s rugged, sporty brand image.
By default, Wayfinder starts with 8 complications — 4 in the display corners, and 4 inside the analog dial. Like the Infograph face, that’s a lot of information, if you want it. Personally, I find the in-dial complications distracting, so I removed all the in-dial complications other than the date. It’s my favorite face for the Ultra, and might be my second-favorite Apple Watch face overall. (Utility remains my favorite for the Series models.)
Wayfinder has a Night Mode feature that isn’t available on any other watch face. Twist the Digital Crown and the dial changes from full color to red-on-black, a retina-friendly color scheme in dark lighting. Night Mode looks cool, and I wish other watch faces (for all Apple Watch models) had this ability.2
I’ve been fortunate so far not to have any experience with crash detection. Glad it’s there, though. (I asked Apple, and if you’re in a car crash while wearing a new Apple Watch and carrying an iPhone 14, if both devices detect the crash, they’ll communicate with each other and place just one emergency call.)
The flagship feature for the thermometer is retroactive ovulation prediction, which is a fantastic feature for women. When HealthKit debuted in 2014, it was controversial that it didn’t include menstruation tracking as a feature. Now we have an entire generation of Apple Watch hardware with temperature sensors whose primary purpose is ovulation prediction.
The temperature sensors do work for everyone, though. But not in the sense of a normal “What’s my body temperature right now?” thermometer. If you wear your Apple Watch Series 8 or Ultra to sleep, and use the explicit Sleep Focus mode, after five nights you should see data appear in the Health app under “Wrist Temperature”. Apple’s documentation explains this in detail, and has a screenshot showing what the data should look like in Health. I do like wearing an Apple Watch to sleep, because I can see it in the dark, and I’m vaguely interested in the basic gist of my sleep patterns. But I do not like or want to explicitly put it into Sleep Mode when I go to bed. For one thing, Sleep Mode turns the entire watch face off; to check the time in the middle of the night, you need to twist the digital crown or tap the display for an extended moment. I just want to blearily glance at the watch. For another thing, I find it fiddly to need to “do something” before I nod off, like putting the watch into a specific mode.3 It would be a significant improvement for future generations of Apple Watch if the wrist thermometer were like the other health sensors and just worked all the time. This initial thermometer is better than nothing, but seems like a stopgap.
I’m tempted to make the following analogy: Apple Watch Ultra is to the Series watch models as the first iPad was to the iPhone. That analogy is an exaggeration, though — the Ultra is bigger, but it’s not that much bigger.
As I wrote at the outset, it’s good that the Ultra isn’t the first and only Apple Watch. It’s too big (and too expensive) for most people’s tastes and needs. But it’s not that big. It’ll look big and chunky on smaller wrists, but I saw several women trying it out in the hands-on area after its introduction, and it totally works as a big and chunky women’s watch. It’s also not that expensive for a titanium watch packing a lot of technology inside — GPS, cellular networking, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, compass, a rich library of third-party apps, and all the various health sensors. But I can’t shake the feeling that if Apple Watch Ultra were the one and only Apple Watch, WatchOS would allow it to do more. In the way that iPad, to this day, has seemed hamstrung by the fact that iOS is designed first and foremost for iPhones, the Ultra seems limited by the fact that WatchOS is designed first and foremost for the Series models.
If WatchOS allowed it, I think one could credibly use Apple Watch Ultra as their only cellular device. It’s not going to happen, but that’s because I can’t imagine ever seeing Apple launch a “Who needs an iPhone?” marketing campaign. But if some other company could make a watch with Ultra’s feature set, cellular capabilities, and battery life, I think they would pitch it as an alternative to carrying a smartphone. You want to cut down on your screen time? Cut down your cell phone to the size of a large watch. The biggest missing feature would be a camera. Very few people have any desire not to carry a modern smartphone with them, of course, but the Ultra seems that capable as a standalone device. The display is that big, the speakers that loud, the battery life that long.
I’ll emphasize again that my analogy to the iPad is exaggerated. But I can’t shake the feeling that I ought to be able to do more with the Ultra. Something about the flat display makes it feel meant to be touched, not just viewed. It almost feels more like having an adorable little iPhone Nano strapped to my wrist than a huge Apple Watch. If WatchOS were more capable and independent, it really could be more of an iPhone Nano. ★
One arguable exception to this is the side button, which can be configured in Settings to pause a workout in the Workout app — e.g. if you want to pause a running workout while waiting at a traffic light. But while that’s a setting in the user’s control, I’d still argue the side button is wholly a system button. Only Workouts — a first-party app from Apple — has the ability to offer this setting. ↩︎
I was chatting with Austin Mann after the keynote event two weeks ago, and he suggested that the Ultra’s red-on-black night mode would be a useful feature for the Camera app on iPhone. That seems like such a clever idea that I couldn’t bring myself to steal it without giving him credit. ↩︎︎
If you just wear an Apple Watch to bed without putting it in Sleep Focus mode, the watch will still collect sleep-related data. I’ve been using David Smith’s excellent Sleep++ app to collect and view this data for years. Sleep++ is even more useful if you do use the explicit Sleep Focus mode. ↩︎︎
There are two super interesting innovations with the iPhone 14 Pro and Pro Max. There aren’t any interesting innovations with the iPhone 14 or 14 Plus — which fact itself is actually pretty interesting, strategically.
The first super interesting thing about the iPhone 14 Pro models is the most obvious. It’s the feature Apple is highlighting, including putting its name on a title card, in TV commercials that began running last week. It’s the feature every other major phone maker has, I’ll bet, already assigned teams to rip off.
The best ideas in any creative field often follow a counterintuitive pattern. The ideas are, in fact, original, highly innovative, and spring from very creative minds. But if well-executed — always a big “if” — once experienced, they seem incredibly obvious. The Dynamic Island is one of those ideas. Not only does the Dynamic Island now strike me as the obvious answer to what should be done with a sensor array cutout in a phone display,1 it’s so cool, so fun, so useful that it feels like an obvious reason why you should have a sensor array cutout in a phone display in the first place. When the iPhone X introduced the notch, there were a lot of people who thought Apple should have hidden it by drawing a black notch-height border across the top of the display. Only a fool would argue that the Dynamic Island would be better off hidden like that.
The Dynamic Island feels like a user interface element that deserves to be there, almost exactly as it looks, even if there were no front-facing sensor cutouts. It’s not merely some clever idea to do something useful with the cutout space, it’s an incredibly clever idea for a permanent on-screen UI for live activities, status, certain notifications, and small interactions. The fact that it completely and elegantly disguises the sensor cutout array is just the icing on the cake. It’s like watching expert sleight-of-hand magicians vanish an object. The fact that you know you’re being fooled makes it even more fun. Dynamic Island is a genius idea and Apple has knocked the initial implementation out of the park.
I’ve been using an iPhone 14 Pro (space black) since last Thursday. One week in and I’m hooked. I have a regular iPhone 14 to test too, and I’m doing side-by-side comparisons with my year-old iPhone 13 Pro, but those phones feel outdated. Inert. Less fun and less useful. The Dynamic Island is that good.
I was walking around in Manhattan yesterday using turn-by-turn directions in Apple Maps and listening to a podcast in Overcast and I was keeping track of both, at the same time, while texting in Messages. The interactions are so lightweight it doesn’t feel like multitasking in a traditional sense because it doesn’t feel like you’re doing any context switching. Apple Maps, of course, has been updated to fully support Dynamic Island-specific APIs. Overcast, of course, has not (yet). But because Overcast uses Apple’s existing NowPlaying APIs, and Apple has connected those NowPlaying APIs to the Dynamic Island, Overcast — as well as any other third-party apps that support NowPlaying (just about every major audio playback app) or CallKit (e.g. Skype, WhatsApp, and Google Voice) — get very credible Dynamic Island support for “free”, right now, including audio waveforms. Long-press on Overcast’s minimal view in the Dynamic Island and, with a bit of haptic feedback, it morphs with a delightfully organic animation into an expanded view with playback controls, larger album art, etc. Everything you get in the Lock Screen widget-like view. This expanded view can be used creatively by developers. As suggested last week in Apple’s keynote, a sports app using Live Activities to show the score of a game could use the expanded view to show rich details about the current state of the game. Who’s on base in the Yankees game? How close to another three-and-out punt are the Dallas Cowboys?
These expanded views are like little versions of the apps that just live up there in the Dynamic Island. The Music app on MacOS — née iTunes — has had a miniplayer window right from the start. Here’s Steve Jobs demoing it — “Boom”. In Music’s preferences, you can set the miniplayer to float atop all other windows on your desktop, so you can see it and use it even when using other applications. It’s a very new experience on iOS but instantly feels natural and completely unobtrusive.
There are a lot of different ways Apple could have gone with the basic idea of the Dynamic Island. They could have enabled a lot more functionality — made it more like vertical split-screen multitasking. But instead of increasing complexity system-wide, the Dynamic Island increases simplicity. It’s a major new feature but it reduces the cognitive load of using or checking the status of more than one app at a time. “Useful new feature” always sounds good, but new features generally increase complexity. The Dynamic Island is that rare gem that reduces complexity while adding utility.
Here’s a nice touch: When you start playing audio in an app, or initiate a phone or VoIP call, and you swipe up from the bottom of the screen to go to the home screen, the app you’re leaving doesn’t minimize into its home screen icon like it usually would. Instead, the app minimizes into the Dynamic Island, and the Dynamic Island sort of absorbs the app in a very organic animation. The Dynamic Island feels not merely like a shape or dedicated area at the top of the screen, but like a real thing with personality.2 I have genuine affection for it already.
As a postscript related to the Dynamic Island, there’s a fascinating and important question that, as I publish this, I’m not sure we know the answer to. To wit: how are all these Live Activity features going to work with notched iPhones, including the brand-new iPhone 14 and 14 Plus? Apple is not going to turn the notch into a Dynamic Peninsula. But so where are things like live sports scores or updates on the arrival time for your hailed Uber or Lyft going to be displayed on iPhones other than the 14 Pro models? The answer seems to be that for iPhones without the Dynamic Island — which is to say every iPhone other than the 14 Pro models — Live Activities will only be viewable on the Lock Screen, or when the app responsible for them sends an update. Without the Dynamic Island, there’s no way for the user to invoke a Live Activity except by pulling down from the top left of the screen to go to the Lock Screen. Here’s what Apple’s developer documentation currently states:
Live Activities come in different views for the Lock Screen and the Dynamic Island. The Lock Screen view appears on all devices. Devices that support the Dynamic Island display Live Activities using the following views: a compact leading view, a compact trailing view, a minimal view, and an expanded view for the Dynamic Island.
The expanded view appears when a person touches and holds a compact or minimal view in the Dynamic Island and when a Live Activity updates. On an unlocked device that doesn’t support the Dynamic Island, the expanded view appears as a banner for Live Activity updates.
To make sure the system can display your Live Activity in each position, you must support all views.
This means that Dynamic Island isn’t just a cooler-looking presentation of a feature on other iPhones. It’s an entire incredibly useful interaction model and set of features that are exclusive to the iPhone 14 Pro and Pro Max. If this remains the case, I’d say that the Dynamic Island alone is a reason to upgrade to a 14 Pro, and a reason not to even consider buying the 14 or 14 Plus. Would I pay $200 — the price delta between the same-sized Pro and regular iPhone 14 models — just to get the Dynamic Island? Yes.
The second super interesting thing about the iPhones 14 Pro is the always-on display. It is really weird. Not weird because it’s a bad idea, but weird because battery life has always been, and remains, a precious resource to be conserved on smartphones. And, until now, one of the surest ways to run down your battery has been to leave your phone in an unattended state while the display remains on. When you look over to your side at your desk, where your iPhone rests face up, and the screen is on despite your knowing that you haven’t touched it in a while, it feels wrong. Like there’s a bug in iOS that’s preventing the screen from going to sleep or something. Over and over and over this past week, I’ve glanced at this iPhone 14 Pro in the always-on state, and I experienced a micro jolt of panic: Whoa, why is the screen on? Oh, yeah, always-on....
The first thing I’ll emphasize is that always-on mode is pretty darn bright, and it is full color. If you use a colorful Lock Screen wallpaper, you’ll be looking at a colorful always-on display. It’s bright enough that you could use the phone without much concern even if the always-on state were the brightest the display ever got. You can see it clearly in bright sunlight. There have been Android phones with always-on displays for years, but many of them — when locked — are just black screens with dim white text for the time and date. On those phones, the always-on state is very distinctive from the actually-on state. On iPhone 14 Pro, at a glance, the always-on state looks like the actually-on state.
The always-on display I’m most familiar with is on Apple Watch, which added the feature three years ago with the Series 5 models. As a lifelong watch wearer, gaining an always-on display never seemed weird for Apple Watch. What seemed weird to me were the first four generations that didn’t offer it. (I spent a lot of words in my review of the original Apple Watch complaining about the not-always-on display.) I did not expect an always-on display for iPhone to be hard to grow accustomed to, but for me, so far, it has been.
In a way, the always-on display mode for iPhone 14 Pro is the opposite of the Dynamic Island. The Dynamic Island I took to immediately — a where’ve you been all my life? feature. The always-on display is still startling me every time I glance at it. I suspect I will get used to it, but if I still feel so unsettled by it a few weeks from now, I might try turning it off and seeing if I miss it. Because the other difference from the Dynamic Island is that I’m still not sure what purpose it serves. (The answer, I suspect, is Live Activities, which aren’t shipping until iOS 16.1. Being able to see updates to a Live Activity on an always-on display sounds potentially useful.)
Technically, the always-on display is impressive. I don’t know what kind of difference in battery life it makes by disabling it, because I’ve just left it on, as it is by default, for the week I’ve been using this phone. While testing new iPhones, I tend to use them far more than I do in day-to-day life. I’m shooting more photos, taking more videos, and running battery-sucking tasks like benchmarks that I seldom run during the other 51 weeks of the year. It’s hard to test and examine a new phone for a week while simultaneously gauging typical-day, typical-use battery life. That said, I’ve been getting the general battery life I’d expect from a new iPhone that didn’t have an always-on display. I don’t know if that perception is going to hold up in the long run, with my actual day-to-day usage, but at the moment, battery life is not a factor in my ambivalence toward the feature.
Onward to the interesting, but not super interesting, aspects of the iPhone 14 Pro. It’s another solid year of camera improvements for the 14 Pro models. A nomenclatural change from Apple that I fully endorse is that they’re now calling the 1× camera the “main camera” instead of the “wide camera”. Calling 1× “wide” and 0.5× “ultra wide” broke my brain. The 1× camera is what most people use most of the time, and what some people use almost all the time. It is the main camera.
This year’s main camera is unlike any previous iPhone camera. Instead of a 12 MP sensor, its sensor is 48 MP. But unless you’re shooting RAW,3 it produces 12 MP photos. In 1× mode, the main camera is binning those 48 megapixels to increase image quality by treating each 2 × 2 square of 4 actual pixels as a single virtual pixel to produce 12 MP images. And the main camera now offers, in addition to 1×, a 2× focal length. Because it’s a 48 MP sensor, the main camera doesn’t need to upscale (a.k.a. “digital zoom”) from a 1× original to produce 2× output. Instead, 2× just uses a crop of the sensor’s center 12 megapixels — without binning — to produce an optical 12 MP image. It’s two focal lengths from one camera and lens.
I did not have time over the past week to create a deep investigation into the iPhone 14 Pro’s image and video quality. But from what I’ve seen so far, 2× mode looks great. It should produce higher quality output than the dedicated 2× camera on, say, the iPhone 12 Pro — particularly in low light — and so far, I think it does.
|iPhone 14 Pro||35mm Equivalent|
Having spent the last year with an iPhone 13 Pro — equipped with 0.5×, 1×, and 3× cameras — I’m delighted to have 2× back as an optical focal length. In day-to-day usage, I’ve found 3× to be an awkward focal length — too zoomed-in for most of the scenes and portraits I’ve wanted to shoot, but not long enough for situations where I’d want a telephoto lens with a lot of throw. 2× iPhone lenses have always been roughly equivalent to 50mm lenses in traditional photography, and that focal length is considered normal. That’s really the term photographers use to describe a lens that is neither wide angle nor telephoto: normal. It’s the closest to the way our eyes perceive the world. When I shot on film 20 years ago, I seldom took my 50mm prime lens off my camera. It’s just a terrific focal length, and I expect to use the 2× focal length on the main camera a lot.4
Action mode is a new feature for video on all iPhone 14 models, pro and non-pro. It’s effectively a much more effective image stabilizer, sort of like a software gimbal. I used it while chasing some of my nieces and nephews around at a backyard birthday party over the weekend, and the results are impressive. It does require a lot of light — computationally it’s doing so much with each frame that it requires a fast shutter speed. But outdoors is where most “action” scenes occur.
All of the iPhone 14 models being sold in the U.S. this year are eSIM-only. iPhones have supported eSIMs since 2018, but I’d never used them before. For obvious reasons, when you review and test multiple phones per year, throughout the year, just swapping a SIM card between phones is super convenient. You just pop the SIM out of phone A and stick it into phone B and boom, your cellular connection is now active on phone B. No waiting for your carrier to deactivate phone A and activate phone B. But surely the overwhelming majority of iPhone users have never taken their SIM cards out. For almost everyone, physical SIM cards are antiquated, and I think Apple made the right move going eSIM-only here. SIM trays are the new floppy drives.
I went ahead and moved my own personal Verizon account from a SIM card to eSIM on this review phone so I could truly use it as my own. I did the transfer during the setup process for the new phone, while choosing how to transfer/restore data from my old (personal) iPhone 13 Pro to the new (review unit) iPhone 14 Pro. It took a few minutes for Verizon to process, but it just worked. Thumbs up from me. We’ll see how it goes when I try moving the eSIM to other devices throughout the year. But for the overwhelming majority of people, this seems great.5
Apple also provided reviewers with pre-paid eSIMs, so I’ve been able to test dual SIM support. It works pretty well, overall, but even after adding my temporary review unit secondary phone number to my iCloud ID, my group chats in iMessage have been fragmented for reasons I don’t understand. Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve found that iMessage never works consistently if you have more than one phone number in your iCloud ID. Multiple email addresses: fine. Multiple phone numbers: inconsistent confusion.
One concern I’ve heard from DF readers is about international travel. The old way of getting cell service while traveling internationally is to stop by a vending machine at the airport upon arrival and purchase a prepaid SIM card with a certain amount of data. You don’t need to do that anymore. You can prepay — before you leave home — for eSIMs from a bunch of different companies for over 190 different countries. GigSky is one such company. Airalo is another. There are a bunch of others. You get an eSIM with 10 GB of data, for 30 days, for about $20 for just about any country in Europe.
All iPhone 14 models support up to 8 eSIMs, with up to 2 in active use. So you can just buy a prepaid eSIM before you leave home, set it up on your iPhone, and activate it when you arrive. I asked a few friends who travel internationally frequently and they all raved about the eSIM experience for temporary local data service. So not only are eSIM-only iPhones not a problem for international travel, eSIMs seem superior to the physical SIM way of doing things for that. (You can’t lose an eSIM, for one thing.)
Speaking of losing things, Apple’s talking points promoting eSIMs mention security. This actually never occurred to me before, but apparently thieves know it all too well: pop the SIM card out of a lost or stolen phone, and location tracking for the phone is greatly hindered. That can’t happen with eSIMs.
Last but not least: Apple has been putting U.S. customers on eSIMs for all new iPhones purchased in Apple retail stores since last year. I was not aware of this until Apple informed me, which means it doesn’t seem to have been a problem.
The regular iPhone 14 is clearly just an iterative improvement over the iPhone 13. Chip-wise, the iPhone 14 stays on the A15 “Bionic” from last year. But it is a very small upgrade from the iPhone 13. This was an uncomfortable marketing dance for Apple during the keynote, because heretofore, the non-Pro new iPhones got the latest version of the A-series chips each year. Last year, the regular iPhone 13 models (including the 13 Mini) got an A15 chip with a 4-core GPU. The iPhones 13 Pro, however, got A15 chips with a 5-core GPU. That 5-core GPU A15 is the chip in the iPhone 14 and 14 Plus. “One more GPU core” sounds like no big deal. “25 percent more GPU processing” sounds like a nice year-over-year upgrade. (More on this last year’s Pro chip goes in this year’s non-pro phone strategy below.)
The A16 chip in the iPhones 14 Pro seems, in my decidedly non-rigorous testing, to be about 10-15 percent faster than the 5-core A15, both in CPU and GPU processing. That’s not jaw-dropping, but it’s about the best we could hope for in a year when the chips haven’t moved to a next-generation fabrication process at TSMC. It’s also the case that benchmarking CPU and GPU performance and getting “scores” to compare for peak performance is just a terrible way of evaluating chips for mobile phones. For desktop computers, for computationally-expensive tasks, yes, benchmarks like that still matter. But what in the world is anyone doing with their phones that makes these benchmarks all that relevant regarding 10 or 20 percent differences in performance? Nothing. Using benchmarks like this to evaluate phone chips is like taking an electric vehicle to a racetrack and driving it with the pedal to the metal until the battery is dead, and using that to decide how efficient it is for daily driving in the real world.
Consider this hypothetical example. Let’s say a company comes out with a new system-on-a-chip for phones. Call it the X1 chip. A year later, they come out with the X2. In every single benchmark — single- and multi-core CPU, GPU, machine learning — the scores for the X2 are exactly the same as those of the X1. But, phones with the X2 get 20 percent longer battery life than phones with the X1. Is the X2 a significant year-over-year upgrade? Yes! A 20-percent improvement in battery life while maintaining CPU and GPU performance would be impressive (presuming performance and energy efficiency were already “good” in the X1 chip).
That’s the factor that gets overlooked in year-over-year silicon improvements when you only look at benchmark scores. The A16 is a bit faster. But battery life, according to Apple’s published specs, is effectively unchanged. Getting faster without reducing efficiency is a significant win. One step forward, without a step back.
The other silicon-related news this year is what Apple is calling the Photonic Engine. Here’s how Apple describes it:
This dramatically improves photos taken in mid to low light, like indoors, right before the sun sets. Photonic Engine builds on the incredible computational photography capabilities of iPhone and furthers our image pipeline by doing Deep Fusion earlier in the process. Deep Fusion uses our powerful Neural Engine to take the best parts of multiple images on a pixel-by-pixel basis and combine them into an image that increases dynamic range and brings out extraordinary detail in low light. Photonic Engine now applies Deep Fusion to uncompressed images, enabling use of more data for more detail, more colors, and brighter colors. Photonic Engine combines with hardware capabilities for a big leap forward in low-light photo capabilities. Photonic Engine is a big advancement in computational photography and delivers better results in challenging lighting environments.
Basically, on the iPhone 13 models and earlier, Deep Fusion worked on the compressed JPEG or HEIC imagery; now it works on the RAW data direct from the sensor. This isn’t an A16-exclusive feature, because the non-pro iPhone 14 models have it too, but it is exclusive to this year’s new phones. iPhone 13 Pros running iOS 16 don’t get the Photonic Engine, because, I presume, it’s a hardware improvement to the pipeline between the camera sensors and the image signaling processor on the chips. Apple “silicon” isn’t just the SoC; it’s everything inside the phone that connects to the SoC. This level of integration across everything related to “hardware” is very difficult for the Android world to compete with.
In terms of room for improvement for future A-series chips and image signal processing, 4K ProRes video is still limited to 30 FPS max on the iPhone 14 Pro. Get your shit together, Apple. (It would be a lot of fun to transfer 4K 60 FPS ProRes video files at the USB 2.0 data speeds offered by Lightning.)
As mentioned above, the iPhone 14 Pro I’ve been using as my main phone for the last week is space black. It’s my favorite stainless steel iPhone colorway ever, by far, no question. In the entire history of the iPhone, I think it’s second only to the black/slate iPhone 5 from 2012. (Yes, the one whose coating chipped over time. That visible wear and tear made the iPhone 5 look better, not worse — like a leather wallet or denim jeans. And yes, I dug my own iPhone 5 out of my museum to check if I still have as much affection for it as I recall. I do.6) I generally like buying anything that’s available in black in black. But this space black is a terrific black. For me, this might be as good as Apple’s ever going to get with stainless steel and a matte glass back.
I’m pretty sure I’ve registered this same complaint every year since the iPhone X, but I still wish Apple weren’t using stainless steel for the iPhone Pro models. It certainly looks nice that it’s polished to a high gloss, but steel is just so damn heavy. My tastes run toward smaller phones (pour one out for the Mini lineup, which, I fear, is gone for good), but also toward lighter phones. There’s no accounting for taste in colors, of course, so setting color aside, every single thing about the iPhone Pro models is better than the non-pro ones except for weight (206g vs. 172g, a factor of 1.2×). But weight really matters for something you carry with you almost everywhere. Two years ago I purchased an iPhone 12 rather than 12 Pro simply because I preferred the feel of it, both in hand and in pocket, and because by the fall of 2020 it seemed pretty clear I wouldn’t be traveling much, if at all, before the iPhones 13 arrived the next year and thus wouldn’t regret carrying the second-tier camera system. I miss the weight and feel of that phone to this day.
If ceramic is impractical as a material for iPhones (and I suspect it is, but man, those ceramic Apple Watch Edition models were nice), I hope that the Apple Watch Ultra heralds a possible switch from stainless steel to titanium for the iPhone Pro next year or thereafter.7
The iPhone 14 Pro Max unit Apple provided me with is deep purple. It’s fine, but it’s not as fun and nowhere near as purple as the purple iPhone 12 (non-pro) Apple released in April last year. Look at that purple iPhone 12. That’s a fun color. I really don’t get why Apple doesn’t release any iPhone Pro models in bold fun colorways. The “deep” in “deep purple” translates, to my eyes (and those of others), to “clearly but subtly tinted in good lighting when viewed from just the right angle, but otherwise looks gray”. Personally I’m as happy as Darth Vader with a freshly polished helmet with the 14 Pro’s space black, but for the untold millions of people out there who love fun colors, there remains no such thing in the iPhone Pro lineup. Seems inexplicable to me that “fun bold colors” and “best possible iPhone” have been mutually exclusive since the Product Red iPhone 7 special edition in March 2017.
Apple also provided me with a blue iPhone 14. It seems a bit unsatisfying to my eyes — too baby blue for anyone who wants a neutral colorway, but not nearly bold enough for someone seeking something fun. But it’s definitely blue, in all light, from all angles.
In 2013, the new flagship iPhone was the iPhone 5S. If they’d followed their pattern from the previous few years, they’d have kept 2012’s iPhone 5 in the lineup at reduced prices. Instead, the new 5S replaced the 5 at the top of the lineup, and Apple introduced the iPhone 5C — a phone with the iPhone 5’s internal specs, but on the outside, an all-new and distinctive design that Jony Ive described, quite aptly, as “beautifully, unapologetically plastic”.
Apple, of course, didn’t explain why. Conventional wisdom speculated that the chamfered edges of the iPhone 5 were too expensive to produce, or that the black/slate model chipped too easily. (The dark version of the iPhone 5S was space gray, not black/slate.) I don’t think that was the reason at all. I simply think Apple wanted one iPhone and one iPhone alone to look like the best one, the king of the hill. Both from the outside — and from the inside, looking at the specs. The problem with the idea of selling the iPhone 5 at a lower price alongside the then-new 5S was that next to each other, the 5S didn’t look newer enough.
That strategy didn’t seem to work at the time. People I know who owned the 5C loved the thing and loved its “unapologetically plastic” design, but it didn’t seem to sell particularly well. In the 6 / 6S / 7 era, Apple went back to selling the prior years’ models at $100-increment lower prices. But Apple clearly never gave up on the basic idea of introducing two distinct tiers of new iPhones each year, with the flagship design sitting distinctively atop the lineup. Starting with the iPhone X and iPhone 8 five years ago, there have been two new iPhones each year: a good one, and an even better one. Even before they started using the word “pro” for iPhone names, there’s been one new model that’s pro (and pro-priced), and another new model that isn’t.
|2017||X||8 (and 8 Plus)|
|2018||XS (and XS Max)||XR|
|2019||11 Pro (and Pro Max)||11|
|2020||12 Pro (and Pro Max)||12 (and 12 Mini)|
|2021||13 Pro (and Pro Max)||13 (and 13 Mini)|
|2022||14 Pro (and Pro Max)||14 (and 14 Plus)|
The basic idea of introducing two tiers of a product each year is simple: market segmentation. Considering that the iPhone is Apple’s most popular product ever — and quite arguably the most successful product any company has ever made — it makes a lot of sense. But more subtle is Apple’s strategy for moving older models down the lineup at lower prices each year. Only the non-pro iPhones move down the line. The iPhone X was replaced by the XS. The XS was replaced by the 11 Pro. And no iPhone named “Pro” has ever moved down the lineup at a reduced price. If you want to buy an iPhone 14 Pro or Pro Max, you better buy it sometime between now and next year’s iPhone 15 event.
That means no 6.7-inch iPhone has ever been sold at less than the $1,100 starting price of the first one, the 11 Pro Max. (Which only had 64 GB of storage!) The iPhone 14 Plus breaks that pattern, starting at $900 (with a reasonable 128 GB of storage). And, I expect both the iPhone 14 and 14 Plus to remain in the lineup a year from now at $100 lower prices. If Apple keeps both sizes in the lineup for two years, you’ll be able to buy a 6.7-inch iPhone 14 Plus in 2024 for just $700. Big displays are no longer an exclusive upsell to the iPhone Pro tier.
Now, though, a new pattern has been introduced: only the iPhones Pro get the new generation A-series chip. The iPhone 14 thus is sort of a modern version of the iPhone 5C concept: an industrial design that is less premium-looking but more fun and colorful than the pro models, with the SoC from the previous year’s pro models. I’ll eat my hat if, next year, the A17 isn’t exclusive to the iPhones 15 Pro and the regular iPhones 15 don’t get this year’s A16. Chips now join display quality, camera quality, telephoto lenses, and premium materials as differentiating factors between the iPhones Pro — which, I’ll repeat, are only sold at the very highest prices — and the non-pro iPhones. Hardware costs money.
More interestingly — super interestingly, even — the Dynamic Island now introduces a software user experience differentiator. Because Live Activity views are only available on the Lock Screen of notched iPhones (and as fleeting non-user-invokable notifications, like Apple Maps’s turn-by-turn directions have been for years), Apple has now introduced major new software features that are only available on the iPhones Pro, via the Dynamic Island. There is a hardware component — the smaller sensor array and behind-the-display proximity sensor — but all of the Dynamic Island functionality could be exposed to notched iPhones, just in less cool-looking ways. That’s a design choice Apple has (apparently) made, not a function of production costs. It’s not just that the Dynamic Island looks better than the notch. It provides utility that just about any iPhone user would enjoy. At least any iPhone user who ever listens to music or podcasts, makes phone calls, hails rides with Uber or Lyft, or follows live sports. And the only way to get it is with a new iPhone 14 Pro.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the very same year Apple stopped holding 6.7-inch displays as an exclusive feature for the premium-priced Pro models is the same year they introduced the compelling Dynamic Island. I expect the Dynamic Island to remain iPhone-Pro-exclusive for years to come. It might come to the non-pro new iPhones in a few years, but if it does, that will coincide with some new iPhone-Pro-only flagship star-of-the-TV-commercials feature. ★
For a few days after last week’s keynote, I was thinking, vaguely, that perhaps MacBook Pros could go from a notch to a Dynamic Island eventually. Upon further consideration, though, I don’t think it would work. For one thing, the mouse cursor would disappear under the parts of the Dynamic Island that really are housing sensors. Yes, the cursor disappears under the MacBook Pro notch today, but it disappears under the whole notch, not patches of it. The entire point of the Dynamic Island is to create the convincing illusion that there is no sensor array cutout on the display, but a mouse cursor would continually spoil that illusion. The Dynamic Island concept is inherently touchscreen-exclusive. (Another factor: it’s weird enough that the MacBook Pro notch interrupts the menu bar. It’d be downright annoying for a Dynamic Island to dynamically push menus around as it expands and contracts. I suppose, on the Mac, the Dynamic Island could be of fixed width to avoid that issue, but then it would lose a lot of its playfulness and personality. “The Static Island” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.) Lastly, the Mac just doesn’t need it.
I don’t think an iPhone-style Dynamic Island will ever come to iPads, either. For one thing, I’m inclined to think iPad bezels will never shrink to the point where the sensor array won’t fit behind them. For another, iPads now have mouse pointer support when connected to a trackpad and the same illusion-ruining factor I mentioned about the Mac would apply. But here’s an idea: perhaps the Dynamic Island would come to the iPad purely in software. The iPad hardware sensor array would still be hidden in the bezel surrounding the display, but iPadOS could render a pure software Dynamic Island on screen. That, I think, would work completely. You could rotate the iPad and the Dynamic Island would always be at the top. The mouse pointer wouldn’t disappear under any actual hardware sensors. It’d just be a black stadium rendered entirely by software. It could actually be more elegant than the iPhone’s Dynamic Island because there’d be no sensors to disguise. ↩︎
I strongly suspect that Apple considers the ProMotion display to be essential to the Dynamic Island experience. Running its animations at 120 FPS makes the Dynamic Island feel alive. It sells the illusion that this ever-present black stadium is entirely a feature, not a tradeoff. Again I’ll turn to the analogy to sleight-of-hand magic: it’s not enough to perform the trick with the correct mechanics, the motion has to be perfectly smooth, too. ↩︎︎
In Settings → Camera → Formats, you can choose between 12 and 48 MP resolution for ProRAW. Approximate file sizes: 25 and 75 MB. ↩︎︎
If you tend to shoot almost everything on your iPhone at 1× simply because that’s the default, I encourage you to try using 2× for more day-to-day shooting if you have an iPhone that offers it. Using a normal lens does for your photography muscles what lifting weights does for your actual muscles. (I wish there were an option in Settings → Camera → Preserve Settings that allowed you to keep your last-used focal length each time you open the Camera app. There are times when I’d like to leave it at 2×.) ↩︎︎
While I’m talking about initial setup, let me repeat my recommendation from last year: I cloned my existing iPhone 13 Pro to new iPhone 14 devices this week both by restoring from iCloud Backup and using the direct device-to-device Quick Start transfer. I highly recommend the device-to-device transfer. It might take a bit longer, but it moves almost everything, including your login credentials for almost every app. My biggest complaint about restoring from iCloud Backup is that while your data all gets restored, your login credentials don’t. ↩︎︎
I also have extraordinarily fond affection for the original iPhone. Is the original my favorite iPhone design ever? In some ways, of course. For chrissake just look at Evans Hankey’s personal original iPhone, after years of use. It might be the single most beautiful object in the entire Designed by Apple in California book. ↩︎︎
Regarding titanium’s advantages versus steel, consider last year’s Apple Watch Series 7 lineup at 45mm:
Stainless Steel: 51.5g
Titanium sits almost exactly halfway between aluminum and steel, weight-wise. And a device designed to be solely available in titanium might prove even lighter, as the structure can be designed with titanium’s extraordinary strength-to-density ratio in mind. Another comparison: the Apple Watch Ultra weighs 61.3g and the 45mm stainless steel Series 8 weighs 51.5g, but the Ultra is a lot bigger. The Apple Watch Ultra is closer in weight to the 45mm steel Series 8 than the steel Series 8 is to the aluminum one (38.8g). ↩︎︎
One meta question heading into last week’s event was what form it would take? We knew it was back in the Steve Jobs Theater — the first event there since 2019 — but would it go back to the way things were pre-COVID, with much of it taking place live on stage? Or would Apple stick with the new entirely pre-filmed format — a format necessitated by COVID but fully embraced by Apple as an opportunity with new potential — and effectively just show a movie to those of us in the theater?
I knew we had the answer when Tim Cook took the stage, live, at 9:57am PT. Cook is uber-punctual. Steve Jobs often took the stage for keynotes a few minutes late; Cook is always precisely on time. So when he took the stage at 9:57 I knew he’d do a short live introduction for those of us in the audience, followed by a filmed presentation that would roll exactly at 10:00 sharp.
Media reaction to this was, at least from the peers I spoke with, mostly positive. A few people had an “If they’re just going to show us the same movie they’re streaming to everyone, why are we even here?” take, but it’s obvious that the real value of being invited to attend live has always been about what happens after the keynotes, not seeing them on stage live. The hands-on areas after keynotes are useful not just for seeing and touching the products — colors, in particular, demand being seen in person — but for impromptu off-the-record conversations with Apple folks and other invited guests. A few years ago I got to spend time after a keynote chatting with an up-and-coming filmmaker who shared my interest in The Shining. Interesting things happen when interesting people are in the same place. Interesting things don’t happen over Webex group meetings.
I think the new pre-filmed format is a win overall. I also personally generally prefer watching movies to live theater — those who prefer live theater might feel differently. There’s certainly more drama with a live presentation — with this format, entirely pre-recorded, we’ll never see an Apple feature demo fail again. That drama energizes a live presentation. Something has been lost.
These pre-filmed product introductions move faster — the transitions between scenes happen at the speed of energetic cinema, not the speed of a human being walking across a large stage to hand the slide clicker to the next presenter. This allows Apple to cover the same amount of information in less time. My gut feeling is that last week’s 90-minute presentation would have taken a full 2 hours if it had been on-stage in the traditional way. And the new format allows Apple to use far more employees to make the presentation. I lost count during last week’s show, but clearly there were more than a dozen Apple folks who got presentation time during the show. That just isn’t possible to do gracefully with an on-stage live presentation, and I think it’s an overall win to have more employees included to tell the world about what they’ve been hard at work creating. Just like with WWDC sessions, it’s also a win for would-be presenters who find speaking in front of a live audience too stressful.
As for what Apple introduced last week: Sometimes Apple has two or three products ready to announce, and whether those products really go together thematically or not, that’s what gets announced at an event. In this case though, the iPhone/Watch/AirPods triumvirate really do go together well. And, as noted by my Dithering cohost Ben Thompson, Cook’s pre-recorded opening monologue emphasized that perfectly. Cook said:
Products that are intuitive and easy-to-use, that have a unique integration of hardware and software, and that are incredibly personal. Today we’re here to talk about three products that have become essential in our lives: iPhone, AirPods, and Apple Watch. They’re always with you, whenever and wherever you need them, and are designed to work seamlessly together. On their own, each is industry-leading. Together, they provide a magical experience.
As Dizzy Dean said, “It ain’t bragging if you can back it up.”
Apple spent a lot of time in the keynote talking about very unpleasant things: car crashes,1 getting lost, needing emergency help when out of cellular service range, and some health issues. In the opening short film featuring real people who wrote letters to Apple thanking them for the emergency help their Apple devices provided them, we even saw a recreated plane crash site and a garbage man who fell and got trapped in the trash truck’s compactor.
These are unpleasant things. It’s easier and more natural to market the fun aspects of a new product. Prior to Ralph Nader’s 1965 book Unsafe at Any Speed, auto makers resisted even putting seat belts into cars — let alone marketing them as features — because they worried about consumers thinking that the existence of seat belts implied that cars were unsafe.
But people do care about safety, both for themselves and their loved ones. People will buy products for these features. Years ago, Volvo made waves by basing their advertising on passenger safety features. They showed their cars being destroyed in crashes, including being driven right off the roof of a building.
So I think Apple is doing the right thing, not only by engineering custom chips for crash detection (in both new iPhones and Apple Watches), but emphasizing all these features. (Jason Snell has a whole column at Macworld about this.)
The new AirPods Pro are the best single expression of Apple as a company today. Not the most important product, not the most complicated, not the most essential. But the one that exemplifies everything Apple is trying to do. They are simple, they are useful, and they offer features that most people use and want. Most people use headphones. A lot of people use them every day — in noisy environments. AirPods Pro are — for any scenario where big over-ear-style headphones are impractical — the best headphones in the world.
But they’re only $250. Expensive compared to generic wired earbuds, yes, but for a flagship product from Apple, affordable. And Apple even said during the keynote that AirPods Pro are their best-selling AirPods. People who consider buying any AirPods gravitate toward the best ones.
I don’t lose my AirPods charging case often, but it happens, and the fact that the first-gen case wasn’t findable was frustrating. A company that makes $29 AirTags ought to be able to make a findable AirPods case. And now they have.
What I like best about AirPods Pro, and why I say they’re the single best expression of Apple today, is that there’s nothing left to complain about them. They set out to do few things but they do all of those few things well, and in ways that typical users can discover and use. Their default settings are perfect. They look great. There’s no feature creep, and no subscription services charge to use them. You buy them, you set them up, you use them. They integrate very well with all of Apple’s other products. They really just disappear into your daily life.
Is the Ultra a rugged extreme sports watch? Or a premium Apple Watch for anyone who’d prefer a bigger look on their wrist, bigger display on their watch, and longer battery life? It makes perfect sense that the answer is “both”.
A few impressions from the hands-on area after the keynote: The orange on the action button (and accenting the digital crown) is chef’s kiss. I like this orange accent better than the red accent Apple has been using for cellular-enabled Series models’ digital crowns. I don’t dislike that red, but I love this orange. The action button itself seems so useful because the other two buttons — the pushable crown and the next-to-the-crown side button — are (and always have been) system buttons. The WatchOS system controls what those buttons do — not apps, and not the user. The action button is for apps to control and/or for users to define. We’ll see how that works in practice, but my first impression is that the action button seems so useful it ought to be on the Series 9 models next year too. (My friend Matthew Panzarino is very proud of this piece he wrote back in 2016.)
Series 8? Incremental update, obviously. The new SE is more interesting. Last year Apple had a lineup where the previous SE model started at $280, and the entry-priced $200 model was the ancient Series 3 — a model so outdated that it isn’t even eligible to update to WatchOS 9 this year. For some people, those are watches that are just a few months old. It’s a bit of a bummer that the entry price no longer hits that magic “$199” mark, but this new SE is a remarkably better watch than the Series 3. The new SE comes with the new S8 and W3 chips; the old Series 3 had the five-year-old S3 chip. The new Apple Watch SE models are Apple Watches we can wholeheartedly recommend to friends and family. You can obviously spend more to get more with the Series 8 and Ultra, but what you get with the new SE is all good.
The Ultra starting at $800 surprised me. Watching the keynote, I was guessing “$999” and wouldn’t have been surprised if it had started as high as $1,250, like the Hermès models do. But at $800, it’s only $50 more than the price of a 45mm Series 8 in stainless steel. And it’s $50 less than the 45mm Series 7 (and 44mm 5 and 6) were in titanium. Starting this year, the Series 8 models are available only in aluminum and stainless steel,2 and titanium is exclusive to the Ultra. It’s hard to imagine Apple pricing the Ultra at anything less than “$799”.
Short take: solid year-over-year updates, the Dynamic Island is the most exciting new UI concept from Apple since the iPhone X’s reimagined iPhone experience, and it’s quite surprising to me that prices remained unchanged for U.S. customers. (It’s alas also unsurprising, given the strength of the U.S. dollar, that prices have gone up 10-15 percent in most other countries.)
My informed understanding is that every location in the keynote — except for the subway car/jackhammer/cafe set piece for the AirPods Pro demo — was real. They were all shot practically. Jeff Williams really was standing on a cliff. Mike Huish, CEO of Huish Outdoors, really was on a boat when he introduced the new Oceanic+ app for Apple Watch Ultra. All practical locations except that one set piece that was obviously a set. (Can’t get much more obvious than pulling back and revealing the stage.)
What comes around goes around. Carrier deals are back in a big way, including seemingly generous trade-in offers. I know that the existence of these carrier deals isn’t new this year, but it seems like they’re growing ever bigger promotionally.
One thing that was new at the event for media invitees: magnetometer security screening and (I think — hope? — random) pat downs. It seemed more weird that, in hindsight, there was so little security in the old days, not so much weird that there was more security last week.
The screen and sound system inside the Steve Jobs Theater are simply amazing. I suspect, in all seriousness, the best that money can buy. My one gripe: the stage is a very high-gloss black, and it reflects the screen. If on-stage presentations are a thing of the past and future use of the theater will be mostly used for showing these films, Apple ought to look into a less reflective coating for the stage. It’s so reflective that at a glance it sometimes creates the illusion of a 4:3 aspect ratio with the stage floor as part of the display. Like this shot from Joanna Stern on Twitter.
It still feels fresh and invigorating to attend something like this in person. A lot more hugging than there used to be. ★
Kudos to Apple for always referring to car crashes, never car accidents. Calling them “accidents” is a euphemism that distracts from just how dangerous motor vehicles are, and once you consider that no one ever talks about “plane accidents”, you’ll never say “car accident” again. ↩︎
Like last year, the darker steel Series 8 models are “graphite”, but the Hermès models are “space black”. This is a bit of a shame and I don’t get it — I find space black far more distinctive and interesting on Apple Watch than graphite. From the original Series 0 models onward, Apple’s space black stainless steel created the wonderful illusion of there being no clear distinction between where the sapphire crystal ends and the steel case begins. Apple’s marketing photos don’t do justice to just how black space black looks. Space black Apple Watches look like perfect little glossy black shapes on your wrist. To me, the space black models exemplify the iconic Apple Watch object. Perhaps Apple agrees with me and they’re segmenting the colors like this just to steer more people who love the look of space black on the watch to the Hermès premium-priced models. But if you don’t want to use an Hermès strap it feels like a waste of money to spend $600 more just to get a blacker black watch. ↩︎︎