Thoughts and Observations on Apple’s iPhone XS/XR and Series 4 Apple Watch Introductory Event

The Event and Venue

I just re-read my “Welcome to the Steve Jobs Theater” piece from last year, and my description of the venue holds up well. It truly is a magnificent venue. Before, during, and after the show, it feels like something big is being announced. That feeling just couldn’t be conjured at the old Town Hall facility on the Infinite Loop campus. WWDC feels big, of course, but that’s because there are like 5,000 or 6,000 people in the audience and it’s held in a cavernous convention hall. Apple’s numerous events in San Francisco could have a “this is a big deal” feel — especially the recent ones that were held at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium — but what the Steve Jobs Theater provides that no venue in San Francisco ever could is seclusion. Apple Park really feels like it is its own world. Putting “Park” in the complex’s name was exactly right. In terms of sight lines and feeling like you’re isolated from the rest of the world, the effect is very similar to being in one of the theme parks at Walt Disney World. As you walk the pathway uphill from the Visitor Center to the theater, ambient music plays from hidden speakers. The only thing man-made you can see from the pavilion atop the Steve Jobs Theater is Apple Park’s Ring building, seemingly on the horizon. The foliage and grass filled in significantly since last year. It even smelled better this year — last year the odor of fertilizer for the grass still wafted in the air.

It’s simply beautiful, inside and out. The experience of attending an event there is just very, very Apple. Steve Jobs would have loved it.

Last year I complained about the hands-on area being crowded. Apple had an altogether new table layout this year, and it really helped.

Apple, I suspect, wants to be conservative about using this space for events. Many of us expect Apple to hold an event some time in October, to introduce new iPad Pros and updated MacBooks. They might hold that at Apple Park too — the new iPad Pros look to be major updates, worthy of a major event. But I wouldn’t be surprised if they held it elsewhere. And I really doubt they’ll ever hold more than two public events here in a year. It’s extraordinary to think about how much they spent to build a facility they intend to use only a handful of times per year. (They do use the theater internally, for company events.)

Apple Watch Series 4

All three products (counting XS and XS Max as a single product in two sizes, which, as I’ll explain later, is how to think about them) are interesting, but to me, the Series 4 watch was the standout of the show. The XS and XR iPhones are refinements to the landmark X that was announced last year. The Series 4 watch is a landmark redesign.

I would argue that the landmark iPhone models were the original, the iPhone 4, the iPhone 6, and the iPhone X. It’s kind of interesting to me how the Apple Watch’s evolution has paralleled the iPhone’s. A first-generation model like nothing seen before, good enough to change an entire industry but deeply flawed in certain obvious ways. Second and third generation models that simply address those obvious flaws. And then a fourth generation model that takes things to an altogether new level, particularly pertaining to the display and the physical case of the device.

Series 4’s display improvements (bigger, stretching corner to corner) and case redesign are subtle compared to iPhone 4’s retina display and utterly new glass-backed steel-framed case, but watches (well, most watches) are inherently subtle things.

The Series 4 displays take up so much more of the face of the watches that the new 40mm watch’s display is larger than the display on the old 42 mm models — the new small watch has a larger display than the old large watch. With the exception of the Photos watch face (which Apple added to early models only grudgingly, knowing it looked bad but also knowing people would want it), previous Apple Watch faces all took advantage of the way OLED’s deep black could blend in almost seamlessly with the surrounding black bezel to effectively hide the corners of the display. A sharp-cornered rectangular display doesn’t look good on a round-cornered device. The entire concept was to blur the transition from the edges of the display to the bezel. The Series 4 watch faces embrace the corners of the display, celebrate the corners even, enabling fun and colorful watch faces that Apple surely never even considered for previous models. All previous Apple Watch faces were dark; most of the new ones are bright and colorful. It’s a big change.

A few millimeters shaved here and there can make a huge difference in how any sort of watch looks on your wrist. Without even considering the displays, the new Apple Watches simply look better, both off and particularly on the wrist. They sit better.

The ECG feature is getting a lot of attention, and I think justifiably so. Jeff Williams put it well when he said something to the effect of “We know this feature is going to save lives.” I don’t know if that’s going to be dozens of lives or thousands, but no matter the number, that’s really a hell of a thing. Yes, Apple is the world’s most profitable company and they’re not giving these watches away, but both of these things can be — and I believe are — true: Apple wants to make a ton of money selling Apple Watches, and Apple, institutionally, from engineers and designers right up to C-level executives, cares deeply about this health and fitness stuff.

The fall detection features are an interesting example. The feature could be useful for anyone, of course. Even the healthiest, strongest, able-bodied-est person can slip on ice or fall down, say, five steps. But it seems obvious to me this feature will be most useful for people most at risk of falling (and most at risk of needing help after a fall) — the elderly and people with significant medical conditions. Just at the event itself in the post-show hands-on area, I spoke to several people in their 40s or 50s who said the same thing: they were already considering buying Series 4 watches for their parents for this feature alone.

There is no Edition model of Apple Watch this year. I’m not sure what to make of that. The original 18-karat gold Edition watches never made sense to me. It’s clear that was a mistake — they never sold well even by the standards of $20,000 watches, and working with gold didn’t help Apple with other products. The Ceramic Edition models, though, I thought were great. They looked good, felt good, and weren’t that much more expensive than the steel ones. And ceramic seemed like a material Apple might work with again.

The new gold stainless steel option is intriguing. It’s not my style, but I’m certain it’s going to be popular. I would describe it as being a non-blingy gold. It looks premium, not cheap in the least (which is how I feel about Apple’s gold anodized aluminum), but it’s not a Goldfinger gold-bars-in-Fort-Knox gold like the original Apple Watch Edition was. There’s a slight bit of brassiness to it and maybe a touch of pink. And the color exactly matches the gold iPhone XS and XS Max — I asked and Apple confirmed they’re using the exact same process on both.

iPhone XS

The XS is exactly what I expected: a classic S-model upgrade to the iPhone X. More energy efficient in some ways (CPU), impressively faster in general (particularly the GPU), and a lot faster in certain very specific ways (Apple Neural Engine). These improvements are most noticeable with the camera (which has a new lens system and a significantly better sensor) and AR. I saw some AR demos after the event and the difference between the iPhone XS and iPhone X was astounding. If you think Apple is blowing smoke about the Apple Neural Engine being 9 times faster than last year, try some ARKit apps side by side.

iPhone XS Max

The XS Max is exactly what I expected: just a bigger version of the XS. It has a bigger display, but the displays are otherwise identical. It has a bigger battery, and thus gets a bit more battery life (Apple says about an hour). Otherwise, the XS and XS Max are equals. That was never true of the Plus-labeled phones — the Plus models had slightly better cameras and displays with higher pixel density.

iPhone XR

The XR is not what I expected. I figured it would be less than a X-class iPhone. Maybe it would have last year’s A11 chip. Maybe the camera would be a bit worse than the wide angle camera on the XS. Maybe it would have “first generation” Face ID. None of that is true. My guess that they’d call it iPhone 9 was based on my wrong assumption that this would be a mid-range iPhone. It’s not. It’s absolutely worthy of being called an iPhone X.

The differences between the XR and XS are very few, and mostly very obvious. The XR has an LCD display, not OLED. One side effect of this is that the bezels surrounding the display are slightly wider — because of LCD backlighting, Apple couldn’t get them as close to the edges as they can with OLED. It only has one camera on the back, but that camera is exactly the same as the wide angle camera on the XS models. Same A12 chip, too, so photos and video shot on the XR get the same “computational photography” improvements.

The XR is not a new mid-range iPhone like the iPhone 5C was. The 5C shipped alongside the 5S but it had the internals of a year-old iPhone 5. The XR is a new premium iPhone. Last year’s iPhone X ushered in a new super-premium tier, which is now occupied by the XS and XS Max.

The one compromise that sticks out is the XR’s lack of 3D Touch. Not because I particularly like 3D Touch — I don’t — but because it makes for a confusing mishmash of what you can do on which iOS devices. No iPad to date has had 3D Touch, and now we have a new premium iPhone that doesn’t have it. The iPhone XR does have a “Haptic Touch” feature that takes the place of 3D Touch, but only in a few places: the flashlight and camera shortcuts on the lock screen, and I think in Control Center. In my very limited time with a XR after the event, it seems like a long press with a tap when it triggers. They might be doing something to detect the size of your touch area on the display, such that a light touch held for a long time won’t trigger it. I think the reason it can’t work everywhere 3D Touch works is because it’s really just a long press. Apple can’t use Haptic Touch on home screen icons, I think, because a long press already has meaning there: it enters you into jiggle mode. They can use it for the flashlight and camera lock screen shortcuts because a long press has no meaning there. Same for Control Center. Those are the places where I use 3D Touch most, so I actually think this Haptic Touch fallback will turn out just fine for XR users (and iPad, if they use the same thing there).

Incredibly, the XR actually has one significant advantage over the XS models: longer battery life — even compared to the XS Max. Look at Apple’s excellent iPhone comparison page and scroll down to the Power and Battery section. (Here’s a screenshot for posterity.) For the first item — overall daily battery life — they no longer give a single number. The XS and XS Max are instead compared to the iPhone X (up to 30 minutes and 90 minutes more, respectively). The XR is compared to the iPhone 8 Plus (up to 90 minutes more). But look at the specific numbers down the list. For “Internet use”, the numbers for the XS, XS Max, and XR are 12, 13, and 15 hours. For “Video playback (wireless)”, the numbers are 14, 15, and 16. It’s not a huge difference but it sure is intriguing. All three new iPhones get excellent battery life, but the iPhone XR — according to Apple — gets the best.

The Names

I honestly believe most people in the real world spent the last year pronouncing the X in “iPhone X” as ex, not ten. With these XS and XR names, that’s only going to get more pronounced. I really find it hard not to say ex-arr and ex-ess. A Roman numeral is hard enough. But to put two alphabetic characters next to each other and expect people to treat one as a Roman numeral and the other as a letter is too much. They look like ex-arr and ex-ess so people are naturally going to see them and say them as ex-arr and ex-ess.

Think about this. If the naming system is “X_”, where the leading X represents 10 and the underscore is a letter of the alphabet, we could have an “iPhone XX”, which Apple would have you believe should be pronounced ten-ex. Madness. Apple wouldn’t do this, of course, but it shows how illogical this X-as-ten naming scheme is.

As for the S and R letter, here’s what I think. An S suffix has been Apple’s go-to naming scheme for any new iPhone with a nearly identical form factor to the previous year’s model. The only time they’ve ever offered an explanation for this was during the introduction of the 3GS, when Phil Schiller said, “The S simply stands for ‘speed’.” No explanation has been given for the letters Apple has used since. Whether the S still stood for “speed” with the iPhones 4S, 5S, 6S, and now XS, Apple has never said. It seems to me to mean “It looks almost exactly like last year’s iPhone but has cool new stuff inside.

The C in “iPhone 5C” seemed rather obviously to stand for “color”, but Apple never confirmed that. Some speculators thought the XR would be named the XC for the same reason — the rumor mill had suggested for months that the new 6.1-inch LCD model would be available in a variety of sporty colors. I think Apple avoided that because when they use these letters, they use them in the same way. The XR iPhones are indeed colorful, but as I wrote above, the 5C debuted as a mid-range iPhone with year-old specs; the XR is a premium iPhone with this year’s specs. So they needed a new letter, and R was it. After the event, I tried asking several people who would know what the R stood for. Even completely off the record, no dice. The only answer I could get was, “We don’t like to talk about what the letters mean.”

Here’s my genuine guess. The R doesn’t stand for any particular word. I can’t even think of any words starting with R that describe the iPhone XR. I think Apple thinks “iPhone XR” looks cool, sounds cool, and because R immediately precedes S in the alphabet, it subtly implies the XR’s place in the product lineup — it’s less than an XS but only just so.

It also occurs to me that in recent years Apple doesn’t have anyone narrating iPhone commercials. They just play music and show title cards. How would someone who doesn’t watch Apple keynotes even know they’re supposed to be pronounced ten-ess and ten-arr? Everything I wrote last year regarding why I thought it would be pronounced ex, not ten, stands up. Why choose names they know will be mispronounced by most customers?

My only guess — and again, a genuine guess, because I’m telling you, they do not like to talk about why they choose the product names they do — is that they don’t care that millions of people will pronounce them ex-arr and ex-ess. They don’t care that ex-ess sounds like “excess” even though it’s used in the name of a cell phone that costs almost $1500. They think the X’s look cool and they go with their guts and that’s all there is to it.

Regarding capitalization, there’s some lingering confusion over whether Apple is capitalizing these names as “XS/XR” or “Xs/Xr”. That’s because on their website and in some printed materials, they’re using small caps for the S and R, and with the iPhone XS, a small caps S is very difficult to distinguish from a lowercase S. But a quick glance at the iPhone XR product page will make this clear — a small caps R looks nothing like a lowercase one.


  • AirPower: I wrote about AirPower’s absence earlier this week. What I’ve heard, third-hand but from multiple little birdies, is that AirPower really is well and truly fucked. Something about the multi-coil design getting too hot — way too hot. There are engineers who looked at AirPower’s design and said it could never work, thermally, and now those same engineers have that “told you so” smug look on their faces. Last year Apple was apparently swayed by arguments that they could figure out a way to make it not get hot. They were, clearly, wrong. I think they’ve either had to go completely back to the drawing board and start over with an entirely different design, or they’ve decided to give up and they just don’t want to say so.

  • AirPods: A few weeks ago I tweeted, “I wonder how many people have put off AirPod purchases while waiting for the AirPower-compatible case?” A bunch of people replied that they were doing just that. People are waiting for new AirPods, or at least the new AirPods case. And the only reason to wait for the case is AirPower. So the AirPower debacle is even hurting AirPod sales (at least to some degree — there are obviously many people buying AirPods every day).

  • AR: The Steve Nash basketball demo — Homecourt is the name of the app — was great. I’ve seen a bunch of ARKit demos that made me think “That’s very cool”. This was the first one that made me think “That’s very useful”. I played competitive basketball in high school and then for years afterward recreationally, and there’s no doubt in my mind that coaches are going to use this app. No sensors on the player, no sensors in the ball or on the rim, just an app and your iPhone — and tremendously useful training information and analysis.