By John Gruber
Multi — Multiplayer collaboration for macOS. Point, draw, and control,
in any app.
Aaron Tilley and Yang Jie, reporting for The Wall Street Journal under the not-at-all-clickbait-y headline “Inside Apple’s Spectacular Failure to Build a Key Part for Its New iPhones” (News+ link):
The new iPhone models unveiled last week are missing a proprietary silicon chip that Apple had spent several years and billions of dollars trying to develop in time for the rollout. The 2018 marching orders from Apple Chief Executive Tim Cook to design and build a modem chip — a part that connects iPhones to wireless carriers — led to the hiring of thousands of engineers. The goal was to sever Apple’s grudging dependence on Qualcomm, a longtime chip supplier that dominates the modem market.
The above lede sets the stage correctly, and if anything, undersells the contention between Apple and Qualcomm. Qualcomm does dominate the modem chip market, but that might even be putting it too mildly — they’re effectively the only game in town for good 5G cellular modem chips. And Apple’s reliance upon Qualcomm for cellular modems is more than just begrudged — it is despised. Even if Apple and Qualcomm got along, Apple would have a problem with its reliance upon a single company for a core technology. But Apple and Qualcomm do not get along, at all.
But everything that follows the above lede is dubious at best, and in parts, a nonsensical and rather transparent hit piece. It reads like it was fed to Tilley and Jie by Qualcomm, and they bought it hook, line, and sinker — despite obvious glaring problems.
Apple had planned to have its modem chip ready to use in the new iPhone models. But tests late last year found the chip was too slow and prone to overheating. Its circuit board was so big it would take up half an iPhone, making it unusable.
This simply makes no sense at all. It’s an impossible scenario. It sounds like something from an anonymous troll on Twitter/X, not a report in The Wall Street Journal. But it was reported by the Journal, so let’s ponder just how ridiculous this one paragraph is.
First, the timeline just doesn’t add up. We’re supposed to believe not just that Apple was only testing the feasibility of a modem chip for the iPhones 15 “late last year”, but also that the chip “was so big it would take up half an iPhone, making it unusable”. It’s true that a modem chip that “takes up half an iPhone” would be unusable, but so why would such a chip even be considered for possible use in this year’s phones? It could be the best-functioning 5G modem in the world — faster performance and more efficient — and it simply couldn’t be used if it were that big. It’s not even close. Look at the teardown from an iPhone 14 to see how small Qualcomm’s X65 modem chipsets are.
It’s certainly possible that “late last year” Apple tested a prototype for an Apple-designed cellular modem, and that prototype was large, performed slowly, and ran too hot. That’s how component development works: functionality comes first in early large prototypes, miniaturization comes after. You don’t have to be a systems engineer to see how that makes sense. Why waste time on miniaturization for a component that isn’t known to work well enough?1
But there’s no way they were testing such a thing for this year’s iPhones. The lead time on hardware is years not months. And because Apple needs to produce hundreds of millions of new iPhones each year, the lead time for iPhone hardware designs is longer, not shorter, than most products. Apple not only knows today the cellular modem that will be in next year’s iPhone 16 models, they probably already have decided on the modems, along with just about everything else, for the iPhone 17 two years from now.
Apple — which hasn’t publicly acknowledged its modem project, much less its shortcomings — is estimated to have paid more than $7.2 billion to Qualcomm last year for the chips.
Apple press release from 2019: “Apple to Acquire the Majority of Intel’s Smartphone Modem Business.” I’m not sure how they could acknowledge the project more clearly than that.
Back to the Journal:
Engineering teams working on Apple’s modem chip have been slowed by technical challenges, poor communication and managers split over the wisdom of trying to design the chips rather than buy them, these people said. Teams were siloed in separate groups across the U.S. and abroad without a global leader. Some managers discouraged the airing of bad news from engineers about delays or setbacks, leading to unrealistic goals and blown deadlines.
Here’s where the Journal’s story starts to smell like a planted narrative from Qualcomm. We can’t know that Qualcomm is behind this, but we do know that Qualcomm threw shade at Apple’s modem efforts with a press release about a renewed deal between the companies the day before the iPhone announcement event. How better to follow that up than a new story painting a picture of technical ineptitude and managerial chaos inside Apple’s modem team, set to appear the day before the iPhones 15 hit customers’ hands? This narrative especially suits Qualcomm if they’re concerned about their own engineering talent defecting.
“Just because Apple builds the best silicon on the planet, it’s ridiculous to think that they could also build a modem,” said former Apple wireless director Jaydeep Ranade, who left the company in 2018, the year the project began.
The Journal’s first named source is a former Apple employee who admittedly left the company before they even began their own modem project, and his keen insight is that a company that is good at one thing might not be good at an altogether different thing.
Apple isn’t expected to produce a comparable chip until late 2025, people familiar with the matter said. There could be further delays, these people said, but the company believes it will eventually succeed.
If Apple isn’t expecting to produce a 5G modem chip comparable to Qualcomm’s until “late 2025”, why would they have been testing a chip in 2022 hoping to put it in today’s iPhone 15? A project that is not yet four years old suddenly slipped an additional four years behind schedule? The story refutes itself.
Apple found that designing a microprocessor, essentially a tiny computer to run software, was easy by comparison. Modem chips, which transmit and receive wireless data, must comply with strict connectivity standards to serve wireless carriers around the world.
“These delays indicate Apple didn’t anticipate the complexity of the effort,” said Serge Willenegger, a former longtime Qualcomm executive who left the company in 2018 and doesn’t know the current state of the Apple chip. “Cellular is a monster.”
The second named source is a retired executive who spent his entire career at Qualcomm, and whose keen insight is to emphasize that the field where Qualcomm is the undisputed industry leader is very difficult.
Apple’s push to build more of the various semiconductors used in its products stretches back more than a decade. In 2010, the company began using its own processing chips in iPhones and iPads. The chips helped Apple outperform many of its Android rivals, which relied on chips from Qualcomm, Taiwan-based MediaTek and other makers.
Apple silicon outperforms “many Android rivals”? Please do share the ones it does not outperform. But those A-series chips are “easy”.
The company in 2020 began replacing processor chips from Intel, used for years in Mac computers, with a proprietary chip that allowed its laptops to run faster and generate less heat, improvements that helped boost flagging Mac sales. The Apple chip also saved the company an estimated $75 to $150 on every computer.
Apple’s universally hailed M-series chips are certainly helping Mac sales, but it’s wrong to say Mac sales were “flagging” on Intel. In fact, the final quarter of Mac sales before the debut of Apple silicon models — the third calendar quarter of 2020 — was, at the time, the best sales quarter the Mac had ever had. This, despite the fact that the Apple silicon transition had been announced in June that year at WWDC. The Mac was breaking all-time sales records before the switch.
Apple code-named its modem chip project Sinope, after the nymph in Greek mythology who outsmarted Zeus. It began taking shape in 2018, following the directive of Cook, Srouji, and others for Apple to build its own wireless components, said Chris Deaver, a former Apple human-resources executive and co-founder of BraveCore consultants.
Deaver, the third named source in the Journal report, worked at Apple in human resources from 2015-2019, and co-authored an upcoming book whose pre-order description reads, “From the thought leaders who helped Tim Cook transition Apple from ‘thinking different’ to ‘working different together’ — a timely guide that helps leaders be more creative and creatives be better leaders”. You will never guess the color palette of the book jacket.2
Srouji flew to Munich to greet Apple’s newly acquired Intel wireless employees in December 2019. He told a gathering that the modem-chip project would be a game changer for Apple, the next step in the company’s evolution, said people who watched the meeting. He said the chip would distinguish Apple devices, as Apple’s processors had done.
As Apple filled the project’s ranks with Intel engineers and others hired from Qualcomm, company executives set a goal to have the modem chip ready for fall 2023. It soon became apparent to many of the wireless experts on the project that meeting the goal was impossible.
So it was in 2019, not “late last year”, that Apple hoped for its own cellular modems to be suitable for the iPhones 15 this year. Again, this is all from the same WSJ report.
Apple found that employing the brute force of thousands of engineers, a strategy successful for designing the computer brain of its smartphones and laptops, wasn’t enough to quickly produce a superior modem chip.
The implication here is that Apple silicon is designed by the proverbial infinite monkeys typing on infinite typewriters — in complete contradiction of Brooks’s Law.
Modem chips are trickier to make than processing chips because they must work seamlessly with 5G wireless networks, as well as the 2G, 3G and 4G networks used in countries around the world, each with its own technological quirks. Apple microprocessors run software programs designed solely for its iPhones and laptops.
Again and again, this story emphasizes that SoC’s — comprising CPUs, GPUs, neural processing units, and more — are easy, but cellular modems are uniquely difficult. The nonsensical spin in this paragraph is that cellular modems are made difficult by the variety of networks around the world, and Apple’s CPUs are made easier by the fact that they need only execute software “designed solely for its iPhones and laptops”. Let’s leave aside the fact that this clunky phrasing omits form factors like watches, tablets, and desktop computers, and instead consider that Apple silicon is so performant that, via Rosetta 2 translation (technology that I’m sure was also easy to make), the slowest Apple silicon Mac ever made (an M1 MacBook Air with 8 GB RAM) runs software compiled for Intel processors faster than any Intel Mac Apple ever shipped. Apple silicon not only doesn’t exclusively run software “designed” for it, it runs software compiled for Intel chips better than Intel’s own chips do.
Apple executives who didn’t have experience with wireless chips set tight timelines that weren’t realistic, former project engineers said. Teams had to build prototype versions of the chips and certify they would work with the many wireless carriers worldwide, a time-consuming job.
The second sentence here implies that Apple’s modem project executives didn’t expect that they’d need to build prototypes or that worldwide carrier certification would be time-consuming — because I’m sure Apple had no difficulty getting the iPhone certified across all supported carriers prior to the start of this project in 2019.
Executives better understood the challenge after Apple tested its prototypes late last year. The results weren’t good, according to people familiar with the tests. The chips were essentially three years behind Qualcomm’s best modem chip. Using them threatened to make iPhone wireless speeds slower than its competitors.
The company scratched plans to use the chips in Apple’s 2023 models, and the planned rollout was moved to 2024. Eventually, Apple executives realized the company wouldn’t meet that goal either. Apple instead opened negotiations with Qualcomm to continue supplying the modem chips. Apple’s licensing deal with Qualcomm expires in April 2025, though it can be extended for another two years.
I cannot emphasize enough how goofy the idea is that “late last year” Apple was still hoping to use its own cellular modems in this year’s iPhones.
Here’s what the Journal is declaring a “spectacular failure”: High-end cellular modems are essential components that are very difficult to engineer, and Qualcomm owns the entire market. Apple bought Intel’s second-tier modem business for $1 billion in 2019 and set an ambitious goal of producing its own modems that match or surpass Qualcomm’s by 2023. They missed that best-case-scenario target and thus are still buying modems from Qualcomm and will continue to for at least the next year or two. Not only is this not a “spectacular failure”, not a word of it is news.
Apple has the cash and the desire to keep pursuing its modem chip, according to people involved with the project. “Apple isn’t going to give up,” said Edward Snyder, a managing director of Charter Equity Research and a wireless industry expert. “They hate Qualcomm’s living guts.”
Finally, a named source in this cursed story who said something accurate. ★
For example, consider this passage from a February report by Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman about Apple’s progress to invent a blood glucose monitor for Apple Watch:
Apple’s system — more than 12 years in the making — is now considered to be at a proof-of-concept stage, said the people, who asked not to be identified because the project is confidential. The company believes the technology is viable but needs to be shrunk down to a more practical size.
Engineers are working to develop a prototype device about the size of an iPhone that can be strapped to a person’s bicep. That would be a significant reduction from an early version of the system that sat atop a table.
That’s how prototypes work. But no one is proposing, with a straight face, that an iPhone-sized blood glucose monitor might go in next year’s Apple Watch. ↩︎
Deaver announced the book on LinkedIn a month ago, and one of the comments on his post reads, “Thank you for the early peek into your book Chris 🙏🏽😊 It’s very insightful 👏🏽👌🏽”. That comment is from ... Jaydeep Ranade, the second named source in the WSJ report. It’s enough to make a cynical person think that Aaron Tilley fishes for disgruntled former employees willing to be named sources by just clicking around on LinkedIn. But I’m sure it’s just a coincidence that one of the four named sources in the story happened to comment on the LinkedIn post of another. ↩︎︎
Blah blah blah, something something something about how most people don’t upgrade their phones every year, so we ought not review new ones based on year-over-year comparisons. But, I get a new iPhone every year. A lot of you probably do too. So let’s just lean into a direct comparison between the iPhones 15 Pro and last year’s 14 Pro. After just under a week testing them, with the iPhone 15 Pro Max as my primary, I’ve got four reasons to consider upgrading.
I’m putting this first, even above the camera. Camera improvements are objective. The differences between titanium and the previous material for top-tier iPhones, polished stainless steel, are in many ways subjective. But the reduction in weight and better feel in hand are just so dramatic. Everyone uses their phone in different ways. There are some people out there who never take photographs or shoot video with their phones. But everyone carries and holds their iPhone. Making it a nicer object in hand is a huge win for a handheld tool.
We shy away from admitting it, at least of late, but gadget lust is real. People are drawn to exquisite objects and premium materials. New cars, new cameras, new watches (or newly-purchased old watches). Phones have been playing this game since long before Apple entered the industry. If you’re old enough, you remember the first time you saw a Motorola Razr. The way they snapped shut. The cool buttons. I remember thinking, Damn that’s cool. And before that era, this was cool.
I don’t think there’s any reason Apple used stainless steel for six generations — 2017’s iPhone X through last year’s 14 Pros — other than the fact that it looked cool, and looked premium. As I wrote last year, reviewing the iPhones 14 Pro, “It certainly looks nice that it’s polished to a high gloss, but steel is just so damn heavy.”
Our long national nightmare of too-heavy iPhones is over.
Titanium is an upgrade in every way. First, it makes for dramatically lighter devices. I’ve been testing all four new iPhone models, Pro and non-pro alike, and while the Pro models are a few grams heavier than the corresponding non-pro models using aluminum frames, the weight difference in hand is negligible. To compare cameras side-by-side, I’ve been walking around with three phones — the new iPhone 15 Pro Max and regular 15 Pro, and my year-old 14 Pro — and I had to put cases made from distinct materials on the phones to tell them apart in my pocket, because the new 15 Pro Max feels about the weight of last year’s regular-size 14 Pro. It’s not the same weight, but it’s surprisingly close: 221g vs. 206g. The new regular-size 15 Pro weighs just 187g, compared to the aluminum iPhone 15 at 171g. But those numeric weight values don’t do justice to the feel. These new titanium iPhones Pro just feel strikingly lighter and better-balanced than the stainless steel iPhone Pro models they replace.
I also strongly prefer the way these new titanium frames both look and feel to the touch. My review unit 15 Pro Max is in natural titanium, and the 15 Pro is blue. Both are quite handsome. (And the blue titanium is a close match to the Midnight MacBook Airs.) Polished stainless steel is nice, of course, but it never jibed with my conception of the iPhone as a tool, like a traditional camera. You don’t see high-end cameras made from stainless steel — too heavy, too polished. The finish on the titanium frames of the iPhones 15 Pro is just terrific. It’s elegant, not industrial, but it conveys a certain let’s get to work seriousness. For pure hand feel alone, I’ve preferred the non-pro iPhones in the 11–14 models. Now, I clearly prefer the feel of the 15 Pro models. It’s the best feel of an iPhone in hand since the lovely iPhone 5 and 5S, way back when iPhones were little slivers of a thing a decade ago. Looks-wise, the textured titanium is somewhat reminiscent of the brushed stainless steel of the iPhones 4 and 4S.
The buttons — side, volume, and Action — all have great clickiness and no wiggle. The button edges are crisp but not sharp.
Even if you, like many people, put your iPhone in a case the day you buy it and never see or feel the titanium again until the day you take it out of the case to trade it in for a new one, you win, because your iPhone 15 Pro will be so much lighter and better balanced. The titanium look and feel is a subjective win for those of us who go caseless most or even just much of the time. But it’s an undeniable win in weight reduction even for the always-cased.
Apple first used titanium in a product back with the 2001 PowerBook G4, the laptop that defined the basic roundrectilinear shape and metallic finish of Apple’s laptops to this day. That machine still looks remarkably modern for a 22-year-old computer, but it didn’t take long for Apple to abandon titanium for aluminum. Apple’s material science chops weren’t ready for titanium then — those PowerBooks were painted, and the paint flaked over time. I’d argue they aged well, developing a patina, as watch collectors say, but they aged, and aged quickly.
Apple is fundamentally a computer company, but materials engineering is an essential arm of the company. How many years did we listen to Jony Ive-narrated introductory videos talking about aluminium and unibody construction? We take unibody laptop frames for granted now — they’re just the way almost all high-quality laptops are made across the entire industry — but it was a revolutionary technique at the time of introduction.
Apple is proud enough of its use of titanium in the iPhones 15 Pro that an entire segment of the keynote last week was presented by Isabel Yang, a materials science engineer. It’s a significant breakthrough, especially at the scale with which Apple needs to produce all iPhone models, particularly the Pro ones. I’ve long suspected that the Edition models of Apple Watch have been a testing ground for materials they might someday use in high-production-quantity devices. Ceramic made for arguably the most beautiful watches Apple has ever made, but seemingly didn’t go anywhere — it was never even rumored as a potential material for the iPhone. The titanium Edition watches from Series 5–7, however, strike me as the devices that paved the way for last year’s Apple Watch Ultra and, now, the kings of the Apple lineup, the iPhones Pro.
It’s a rousing success that makes for the best feel in hand, by far, of the modern (post-X) iPhone era, and is unmatched by any competing phone maker. Top-tier Android phones are made from aluminum, Apple’s mid-tier material. Titanium is better functionally — it’s stronger — and just as importantly, it’s just fucking cool.
There are three major new camera features in the iPhone 15 models this year.1 First is a significant upgrade to the main camera (the one that covers the ranges 1×-2× optically). Second, Portrait mode has seen its biggest year-over-year improvement since the feature debuted. Third, and exclusive to the 15 Pro Max, is a new 5× telephoto camera, with a 120mm equivalent field of view. (The regular 15 Pro’s telephoto remains at 3×/77mm; the non-pro iPhones 15 have no telephoto lens.)
Main camera first. Last year Apple introduced a new 48 megapixel sensor for the 14 Pro main camera. It still produced 12MP images by default, clustering the 48MP sensor into a matrix of “quad pixels”. Each 2×2 square of 4 native pixels on the sensor was used to create 1 pixel of the image. This technique traded detail for extra light sensitivity. You could opt to shoot ProRAW to get 48MP images with the iPhone 14 Pros, but that really is a professional feature. I consider myself a semi-serious prosumer photographer, but when it comes to shooting formats, I shoot very simply — using the built-in Camera app, and the default format (HEIF). I care a lot about my photos, but I really do just point and shoot.
Last year the iPhone 14 Pro offered four “lenses” from the three back cameras: 0.5×, 1×, 2×, and 3×. 0.5× was the ultra wide hardware camera. 3× was the telephoto. Both the 1× and 2× “lenses” were from the same main camera, though. At 1× the camera system quad-binned the entire 48MP camera sensor; at 2× it used a 12 MP crop from the center of the camera sensor. The result is that for 2× photos, you still got a 12MP image, with far more detail and resolution than you’d get from shooting at 1× and then cropping to the center of the image in post.
This year with the iPhones 15 Pro, the ultra wide and telephoto situations are similar, except that on the Pro Max the telephoto is 5× instead of 3×. But the “Photonic Engine” image processing pipeline for the main camera on both 15 Pro models is more advanced this year. Here’s how Apple describes it:
The Photonic Engine uses a new 48MP frame in our image pipeline, enabling iPhone to combine the best of low light — 12MP images with large quad pixels — with the best of detail — a 48MP image with individual pixels. This approach is an industry first, and it enables a new default resolution for the Main camera — a 24MP image with more detail, great low-light performance, and all the features users expect from an iPhone camera — Deep Fusion, Smart HDR, Live Photos, and zero shutter lag.
Take photos at 1× and compare to 12MP photos of other phones — you see more details when you zoom in, especially when looking at hair, skin, or the texture of clothing.
Effectively, this is a next-generation step into computational photography. With quad pixels, you can easily see how the iPhone 14 Pro generated 12MP images from a 48MP sensor. It’s grade school division: 48 ÷ 4 = 12. But there is no 24MP sensor in the 15 Pro main camera. The Photonic Engine takes several images from the sensor for each photo, including a 48MP one for detail, and a 12MP quad-pixel one for low-light and noise reduction, then computationally fuses them together to produce a single 24MP image. Apple is having its cake and eating it too, merging the benefits of a sensor with many small pixels with the benefits of a sensor with fewer large pixels. You don’t need to know that this is happening, you just get more detail in your photos from the main camera.
I mentioned above that both the 1× and 2× “lenses” on the iPhone 14 Pro use the same physical main camera. With the iPhones 15 Pro, Apple has added additional virtual lenses:
When shooting HEIC or JPEG (i.e. when you’re not shooting ProRAW), all focal ranges from 1.0 to 1.9 produce 24MP images. It’s effectively using computational photography to do optical zoom in this range from a the fixed-length main camera. In a certain sense it’s cropping, but it’s far removed from any simplistic cropping. There’s nothing magic about these particular stops between 1× and 2× other than the fact that 28 and 35mm equivalents have long been very popular focal lengths in traditional photography. You can “zoom” to any focal length between 1–1.9× and you’ll still get a 24MP image: 1.4×, 1.7×, 1.9×, whatever. 1.2× and 1.5× get special treatment in the Camera app simply because 28 and 35mm equivalents are so popular, and I believe Apple’s image processing pipeline is optimized for these lengths. [Update: I originally wrote that you get 24MP images from 1.0–2.0×, but that was slightly mistaken — once you go from 1.9× to 2.0×, resolution drops to 12MP, presumably because at 2.0× the iPhone is using a precise center crop of the 48MP sensor.]
By default, when you repeatedly tap the 1× focal length button in the Camera app viewfinder, it cycles between 1.0/1.2/1.5×, and momentarily shows you the traditional equivalent after switching (24/28/35mm, respectively). You can adjust these options in the Camera section of the Settings app, including changing the default from 1× to 1.2× or 1.5×. For example, to simplify your options, you might consider turning off the preset for 1.2×/28mm, so that the 1× button in the viewfinder just toggles between 1.0 and 1.5×. I’m not sure what I want to do yet, personally, but I’m leaning toward keeping all three available, but changing my default to 1.5×/35mm, which I consider generally more natural looking for scenes and more flattering to human subjects.
You could always get the equivalent of these focal lengths by “zooming” to 1.2× or 1.5× in the Camera app, but now you keep more native resolution from the image sensor.
It’s also worth noting that this improvement to the Photonic Engine comes to the non-pro iPhones 15 too, on their main camera, which also now sports a 48MP sensor. However, the non-pro iPhone 15 models don’t get the feature that treats 1.2×/28mm and 1.5×/35mm as discrete “lenses”. And the hardware story is not as simple as “This year’s non-pro iPhone 15 gets the 1× camera system from last year’s iPhone 14 Pro”. The 1× lens on the iPhone 15 and 15 Plus is a 26mm equivalent focal distance; the 1× lens on the iPhone 14 Pro (and this year’s 15 Pro models) is a 24mm equivalent. In my brief testing, the 1× hardware lens on the iPhone 15 models is noticeably inferior (or, if you prefer, less pro) to that on the Pro models, including last year’s iPhone 14 Pro. Shooting side-by-side in the same lighting, images from the iPhone 15 look flatter and lack vibrancy and contrast compared to those from the iPhone 15 (or 14) Pro. The camera system on the non-pro iPhones 15 seems fine, but if you care about photography, you want to get an iPhone Pro. It’s not just that the iPhones Pro have a telephoto lens and the non-pro ones don’t; the images from the main camera are noticeably better on iPhones Pro.
Another significant improvement this year is a much-improved Portrait mode. Apple claims improvements that boost detail and dynamic range, but the main improvement is that you no longer need to manually select Portrait mode before capturing. You can simply capture images using the regular still photo mode, and if a person, dog, or cat is detected, Portrait mode will be available via an “ƒ” button in the viewfinder, and you can toggle it off and on while shooting, and make adjustments to the background blur and focal distance in post. You get the same on-the-fly Portrait mode with the front-facing camera, too, on all iPhone 15 models.
I expect this to make a significant practical difference in my photography. In many situations, shooting candid pictures of friends and family, I just take out my iPhone, open the Camera app, frame the image, and start shooting — quickly and discreetly. When the moment feels fleeting, I don’t feel like I have time to futz with a manual switch to Portrait mode. A quick check of my Photos library shows that out of about 2,800 photos I shot with the iPhone 14 Pro in the last year, 233 were in Portrait mode. Those are some of my favorite photos of the last year, but I expect to wind up with way more Portrait mode photos this year, thanks to the dynamic on-the-fly application of Portrait mode. It’s a can’t-lose feature, because if you’re ever unhappy with the way a picture looks in Portrait mode, you can simply turn it off in post, and you’ll wind up with the same image you would have had even if this automatic Portrait mode feature didn’t exist.
Lastly, now seems like a good place to reiterate that these new features all work with zero shutter lag. To date this has been a hard and fast rule for Apple’s Camera team — everything happens instantaneously, and can be previewed live in the viewfinder before you capture. It’s intriguing to ponder what features Apple could enable if they allowed iPhones to “develop” photos for a few seconds after capture, but I think I understand why they don’t. Once you allow some features to take post-capture processing time, it’s a slippery slope to an overall camera experience that feels slow and laggy. The iPhone camera has always felt fast and snappy, and the iPhone 15 lineup is no exception.
That brings us to the elephant in the room: the 5× lens exclusive to the iPhone 15 Pro Max. If you prefer a larger iPhone, well, you’re in luck, because you get that lens with the iPhone size you prefer. But if, like me, you prefer the regular-size iPhones, but, all things considered, would prefer the longest available telephoto lens, you have a decision to make.
Qualitatively the new 5× lens seems about as good as the recent 3× telephoto iPhone Pro lenses. Which is to say it’s fine, for a telephoto lens on a tiny (relative to “real” cameras) phone, but it’s nowhere near as good as the main camera. The 3D sensor-shift module seems to work like a charm to keep things stable — a real challenge at focal lengths like this. If you find yourself frequently wishing for more than 3× optical zoom with your current iPhone camera, you’re probably going to like this 5× lens a lot.
Me, though, I just don’t shoot many telephoto lens pictures or videos. Again, looking at my personal Photos library (and using Smart Albums to sort images by camera and lens), out of roughly 2,800 photos I’ve taken with my iPhone 14 Pro, only 170 used the 3× telephoto lens. As a point of reference, 417 were shot with the ultra wide 0.5× lens, which includes all macro shots. Tallying up my lens usage for the last year reiterates my gut feeling: my ideal hypothetical iPhone might be an iPhone 15 Pro Mini, even if that meant having only two camera lenses instead of three, if those two cameras were the same 0.5× ultra wide and 1× main cameras as the actual iPhone 15 Pro models.
The biggest potential problem I might have with that hypothetical iPhone 15 Pro Mini of my dreams would be battery life, not the missing telephoto lens. I do occasionally use the telephoto lens I have, and I’m sure I will again this year, but not enough to justify an overall larger phone. Your mileage, of course, may vary. Some people love shooting with long lenses. Me, though, even when shooting with standalone cameras that use interchangeable lenses, I’ve only ever bought prime lenses in the 28mm to 50mm range. I zoom with my feet.
One hitch with the iPhone Pro Max having a 5× telephoto lens is that if you really want a 3-4× focal length for framing, it needs to be digitally zoomed from the main camera. In my testing this doesn’t seem to make much difference, but more talented photographers might disagree. I tend to think that when I do want a long lens with extra reach, I might as well go really long.
In past years when the Plus-sized iPhones have had exclusive camera lenses, those lenses made their way down to the regular-size iPhones in the next model year. So I suspect Apple’s plan is for next year’s iPhone 16 Pro and Pro Max to both have 5× telephoto cameras based on this tetraprism design. I hope so, but if that doesn’t happen and 5× remains exclusive to the Max, so be it. The main camera is where the action is for me — and that main camera has seen another terrific year-over-year upgrade with the 15 Pro models.
It’s a little thing, literally, but I dig the new Action button.
A decade ago I was bewildered by the fact that of all the things Android phone makers had shamelessly copied from the iPhone, the mute switch wasn’t one of them. But then the iPad dropped its physical mute switch, and I could see the trade-off inherent to a physical switch: software control. With a physical mute switch, silent mode can’t be controlled by software, because software can’t flip the physical switch. (Carmakers, to name one common example, face this same dilemma with dashboard knobs and switches.) If a hardware button, knob, or switch has state, then that statefulness can’t be controlled by software unless the software can push, twist, or flip the physical controls.
If you just want a mute toggle, the new Action button is, I think, as good if not better than the old mute switch. No matter what action you assign to the button, it activates with a long-press, but that long-press delay is pretty short — it’s just long enough to avoid accidental activations, and is short enough that it never feels slow. When assigned to toggling silent mode, you get a quick series of haptic taps when it goes into silent mode, and one haptic tap when it goes out of silent mode. It’s easy to tell the haptics apart, if you’re using it without looking at it (like, say, if your iPhone is in your pocket or purse).
Because I’ve been spending a lot of time testing the new cameras, I’ve spent most of the last week with the Action button assigned to the Camera app. For many years now Apple has offered a shortcut to jump into the Camera app from the lock screen. There’s a button you can long-press in the lower-right corner of the lock screen, but the quickest way is to swipe right-to-left anywhere on the lock screen. I went into this thinking I might leave my Action button set to toggle silent mode, on the grounds that we already have these shortcuts for jumping into the Camera app, but one thing that’s become clear to me these past few days is that assigning the Action button to Camera is super useful when you want to jump to the Camera app while your iPhone is unlocked because you’re already using it. It’s cool and useful to have a button that always jumps you right into Camera no matter what state your iPhone is in.
So at the moment, I’m a bit torn between assigning my Action button to act as a mute switch or as a Camera launcher. Which brings me to another intriguing option: Shortcuts.
I created a simple workflow in Shortcuts that shows a menu with three options: Photo, Video, and Mute/Unmute. The Photo and Video options jump you to the corresponding shooting mode in the Camera app, and the Mute/Unmute option reverses the current setting for Silent mode. Shortcuts has built-in actions to enable and disable Silent mode on the device, but doesn’t have a built-in way to get the current Silent mode state. For that, my shortcut uses an action from the excellent free (and aptly-named) Actions utility by Sindre Sorhus. When Silent mode is engaged, the command is “🔊 Unmute”; when Silent mode is off, the command is “🔇 Mute”. (Now that there isn’t a physical switch to inspect, when Silent mode is engaged, the iPhones 15 Pro show a bell-with-line-through-it icon in the status bar, in the top left corner next to the time or carrier name. But it felt clever to make the menu item in my shortcut dynamically reflect the current state.) Here’s the shortcut, if you’re interested, and here’s a screenshot showing it in, err, action.
Is a menu like this a good use of the Action button? I’m not sure yet, but it sure is fun. The iPhones 15 Pro now have a dedicated hardware button that anyone can program using Shortcuts. I love it. One DF reader emailed me last week wondering if you can assign the Action button to act like an old-school Home button. You can, with Shortcuts. I can’t wait to see what others come up with.
[Update: I made a better version of this shortcut. Instead of showing a menu you need to choose from, it opens the Camera app unless the phone is face down or upside down, in which cases it toggles the state of Silent mode. I’ve been using it this way for two days now and love it.]
The overwhelming consensus seems to be that Apple only switched from Lightning to USB-C with the iPhones 15 due to the regulatory mandate from the EU. And, conversely, that Apple stayed with Lightning this long — and if not for the EU regulation would stay with it for years to come — because they’re rolling in revenue from MFi licensing fees.
To the first part of that — that Apple only switched because the EU forced their hand — I say Well, maybe. It’s obviously a factor. The EU is too big a market for Apple to walk away from. But the USB-C mandate doesn’t kick in until next year, and existing devices from 2023 and earlier will still be allowed when the regulation does kick in. So the iPhones 15 could have had Lightning ports and remained available in the EU for years to come. It’s next year when Apple would have to switch.
And if Apple really wanted to stick with Lightning, they could, in theory, make USB-C iPhones only for the EU market, and limit them all to the same USB 2 transfer speeds as Lightning. That would make for a supply chain hassle, to be sure, but it seems like less of a hassle than making iPhones with two SIM card trays just for the Hong Kong and Chinese markets.
As for the second part of the consensus thinking on why Apple has stuck with Lightning — that it’s an MFi licensing money grab — I say Hogwash. Multiple sources have confirmed for me that MFi licensing revenue for Lightning devices and cables is negligible, just a rounding error by Apple’s standards. But consider the arrogance of thinking that Apple would spitefully hold the iPhone back just for a bit of licensing revenue. That Apple would knowingly make the iPhone worse for no benefit other than their own financial bottom line. That’s bonkers. I think the opposite is true: Apple pulls no punches when it comes to making the iPhone as good as it can possibly be for the most customers, even to the detriment of Apple’s other devices. For one thing, it would make more sense for bleeding edge Apple silicon to be designed first for the Mac, and to trickle down to the iPhone in subsequent years. But instead, Apple silicon is designed for and ships first for the iPhone, and then flows up to the Mac and iPad. The iPhone gets Apple’s best silicon (now on a 3nm process, the first in the world for any consumer product), best displays, and best materials (now titanium). It is the best device Apple can possibly make given the constraints of reasonable pricing and the inordinate scale at which it needs to produce them. No effort is spared — year after year after year. And nothing, not even a global year-plus-long pandemic, could knock it off its annual schedule. Apple loves all its products, but it loves the iPhone most.
And but we’re supposed to believe that Apple deliberately made the iPhone’s charging and data port worse, for years, for a fistful or two of dollars? My god, the sheer arrogance it takes to believe that Apple takes for granted an iota of the iPhone’s success and enduring popularity.
The simple fact is that Apple kept all iPhones on Lightning while it thought staying on Lightning was the best choice for the most customers. I know that there have been engineers inside Apple — engineers who helped invent both Lightning and USB-C — who’ve been advocating for the iPhone to switch from Lightning ever since USB-C debuted in MacBooks in 2015. Maybe Apple should have switched sooner. But there were good reasons not to, mostly surrounding the trust involved in building an ecosystem. When they switched from the 30-pin connector to Lightning, Phil Schiller said it would be the connector for “the next decade”. That was the iPhone 5 in 2012.
In actual use, I have to say it is a little weird having USB-C on the iPhone. I got curious and connected an iPhone 15 Pro to my iPad Pro to see what would happen. The first time, the iPhone started charging the iPad. That wasn’t what I expected, and from what I gather, isn’t supposed to happen. I unplugged the cable and tried again, and the same thing happened: the iPhone charged the iPad. I unplugged the cable and swapped one side of the cable for the other, and this time the iPad started charging the iPhone, as though the cable had a direction for charging. Craziness. I tried again and the iPad (a 2018 11-inch iPad Pro running iPadOS 17) crashed. I expect Apple will straighten this out, but I’m surprised it’s buggy at the moment.
Overall, though, it just isn’t that big a deal. It’s nice to know that 10 Gbps USB 3 transfer speeds are available for the iPhones 15 Pro — 20 times faster than the USB 2 limit of 480 Mbps (which remains the cap on the non-pro iPhone 15 models). But it’s irritating, as with all things related to “USB-C” cables, that you’ll need special (and more expensive) cables to achieve those transfer speeds, and there’s no way to identify which cables support which transfer speeds just by looking at them, unless they have the Thunderbolt logo on the connector — but expensive, thick Thunderbolt cables are overkill for USB 3 data transfer. The cables that ship with all iPhone 15 models are nice, white2 braided cables, but are not high-speed USB 3 cables. (These cables from Monoprice are good options.)
The reason Apple opposed (and continues to oppose, even as their product line falls into compliance) the EU’s USB-C port mandate isn’t because they wanted to stick with Lightning forever. Why did they start migrating the iPad lineup from Lightning to USB-C back in 2018 if they were all-in on Lightning forever? The big problem isn’t that they’re required to ship USB-C ports in all products next year — it’s that they’ll be required to continue shipping USB-C ports in perpetuity until the regulation is revised or rescinded, and regulations like this tend never to be revised nor rescinded. If you think USB-C is a “forever port” that will never be bettered by a superior design, you’ve got nothing to worry about. But Apple doesn’t think that way. Someday there will be a port that’s better than USB-C, and that’s when this EU regulation is going to pose a problem, because that future port is almost certain to be a proprietary one, not an open standard from the USB consortium, among whose members there exists but one company that I know of that had the good taste never to ship a single product using the gross Micro-USB or Mini-USB ports. Which of those companies is pushing for something better than USB-C?
There will be a successor to USB-C eventually. It’ll probably be invented by Apple. The best we can hope for is that that successor will be inductive, or even over-the-air wireless, and thus not subject to the EU’s plug mandate. ★
There’s a fourth major new camera feature this year for the 15 Pro models: shooting spatial video, ideal for consumption on the forthcoming Vision Pro. But shooting spatial video on the iPhone 15 Pro is “coming later this year”. Apple has not made available to reviewers pre-release software that enables it, nor was it available to demonstrate last week at the event in Cupertino. So not only have I not been able to try shooting it, I haven’t even been able to see what a spatial video looks like when played back on an iPhone display. So, a mere footnote it is for this feature. ↩︎
Among the oft-quoted Alan Kay’s numerous aphorisms is “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.” A sort-of corollary to that, which I believe, is that the best way to appreciate new technology is to go back to using an older version.
A few weeks ago I was running late for an appointment I’d be walking to here in Philadelphia. Most everywhere I walk, I wear my AirPods Pro 2, but that day I couldn’t find them, and I was late enough that I didn’t have time to search. I was terribly worried I’d be alone with my own thoughts for the entire journey, but my old first-generation AirPods Pro were sitting on my desk, and they still had a charge, so I wore those instead.
I remember thinking last year, when I first upgraded from the original AirPods Pro to the AirPods Pro 2, that the new ones sounded at least a little better and that both Transparency and Active Noise Cancellation modes were much improved. But going back to the original AirPods Pro for just one afternoon walking around the city really brought home just how much improved the AirPods Pro 2 are. Transparency mode and Noise Cancellation are way better, and more strikingly, just the audio quality difference alone was obvious. After a year as a near-daily user of AirPods Pro 2, I now find the audio quality of the first-generation ones to be thin and tinny. I was downright blown away by the difference.
Last week Apple announced a minor revision to the AirPods Pro 2. They now come with a USB-C charging port on the case (instead of Lightning), and some sort of upgrade to the H2 chip in the earbuds of the revised models will enable low-latency lossless audio with the Vision Pro headset when that product ships next year.
I’ve been wearing a pair of the revised AirPods Pro 2 earbuds since last week, paired with my year-old iPhone 14 Pro and a few other devices. I obviously can’t say anything about their special capabilities when paired with a Vision Pro, but in all regards related to currently-shipping features, they’re better than ever.
As of today a firmware update is available for all AirPods models. For the second-generation AirPods Pro — both the year-old ones with Lightning and the new ones with USB-C — this is a major feature update. Tweaked features include the option to mute/unmute yourself with a click of an earbud stem while using AirPods during a phone or VoIP call, and improvements to both Transparency and Active Noise Cancellation modes. But the update also brings two new features.
The first new feature is Conversation Awareness, which Apple describes thus:
When you’re wearing AirPods Pro and need to speak with someone nearby, Conversation Awareness automatically lowers the volume of what’s playing, enhances voices in front of you, and reduces background noise.
When enabled (all AirPods options are set in the Settings app on iOS or MacOS), Conversation Awareness really is completely automatic. If you’re listening to music or a podcast and just start talking to someone, or if someone else just starts talking to you, it kicks in. It’s very clever, but whether you’ll enjoy it highly depends upon your listening environment. In my 5+ days of testing, it kicked in too frequently amidst a crowd of people, none of whom were talking to me. Sometimes on city sidewalks, oftentimes in a grocery store. In an urban environment, there are just too many people talking around me, and the AirPods have no way of knowing that they’re not talking to me, for this feature to be anything but an annoyance overall. But it’s definitely accurate: it always kicks in when I start talking, and every time it has kicked in when someone else was talking near me, even when they weren’t talking to me, I could tell whose voice it was that the AirPods detected. File this feature under “Not for me personally, but you might love it.”
The second new feature is a new listening mode: Adaptive Audio. One way to think of Adaptive Audio is as a mid-point between Transparency and Active Noise Cancellation (ANC). That’s how Apple describes it:
The H2-powered AirPods Pro now feature Adaptive Audio, automatically prioritizing sounds that need your attention as you move through the world. By seamlessly blending Active Noise Cancellation with Transparency mode when you need it, Adaptive Audio magically delivers the right mix of sound for any environment.
Feel free to roll your eyes (or ears) at technology being described as “magical”, but damned if I can come up with a more apt adjective. In my (admittedly brief) testing time, Adaptive Audio seems more like a next-generation, even smarter replacement for Transparency mode. I’ve set mine to toggle between just two modes when I long-press either AirPod stem: Adaptive and ANC. If you’d like, you can add regular Transparency as a third mode you toggle between, but I haven’t yet found an environment where I’d want plain Transparency instead of Adaptive. Transparency with AirPods Pro 2 has been great as an urban pedestrian; Adaptive is even better. It just automatically Does What I Want™ in seemingly every context. I hear traffic and passersby, but even loud trucks and buses passing by don’t keep me from clearly hearing the podcast (typically) or song (less typically) I’m listening to.
Perhaps my usage scenarios are in the sweet spot for what Adaptive Audio is good at — the opposite of how my usage scenarios are not good for Conversation Awareness. But from my time using them, I don’t even see why Adaptive Audio isn’t a replacement for Transparency. For me, so far, it’s just Transparency but better, with more on-the-fly dynamic adjustments. It’s fantastic. (Perhaps battery life is one reason to keep plain Transparency mode around, but I have zero complaints about the battery life I’ve gotten these past five days.)
If you already use AirPods Pro, you know there are cute sounds that play when you switch modes. Each mode gets its own unique tone, and the tones for Transparency and Active Noise Cancellation sort of sound like the opposite of each other. The tones suggest “opening” and “closing” the world around you as you toggle them. Adaptive Audio has a new tone, which I’d describe as spritely or joyful. It’s the sort of sound you can imagine a fairy’s magic wand making in a kid’s movie. It’s a fun sound for a fun mode, and I can’t help but take the joyfulness of this tone as a subtle suggestion from Apple that this is the “best” mode for most people in most scenarios, other than the obvious situations where you want full-on immersive Active Noise Cancellation.
The Vision Pro is Apple’s initial foray into spatial computing. But Vision Pro is not Apple’s first product in the world of augmented reality: AirPods Pro (and to a lesser degree, at the moment, AirPods Max) are. We humans are visual creatures and we naturally tend to think of augmented reality as a primarily visual experience, but AirPods Pro offer profoundly enjoyable and useful augmentation of the aural world around you. Starting today, Adaptive Audio takes that to another level.
Adaptive Audio is only available for the AirPods Pro 2, which means I’m only going to be more irritated if I ever again find myself wearing my old first-generation AirPods Pro out of necessity. At this point AirPods Pro 2 are as much better than the original AirPods Pro than the original AirPods Pro seemed from the original non-pro AirPods. They’re far more than wireless earbuds — they’re clever, powerful, delightful computers you put in your ears. I’ll close with what I wrote about them a year ago:
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. ★
Was Tuesday’s “Wonderlust” event mostly predictable? Yes. Does that mean it was boring? For some people, yes. But for most people, it was the biggest tech news event of the year, just like Apple’s iPhone event is every year of late.
That’s weird and new, historically — and for many tech enthusiasts, disappointing. The way tech has traditionally worked is that company fortunes wax and wane over the course of each decade. And the big new “tech product of the year” not only changes from one company to another every few years, it changes across product categories. From PCs to PDAs to digital cameras to iPods.1
But for the past decade, the biggest event on the entire tech calendar has been Apple’s annual introduction of new iPhones. You can argue that it should not be the biggest event of the year, but it objectively is, media-coverage-wise. I’m not sure I know a single person who isn’t at least aware of the fact that Apple just announced new iPhones this week. That alone is extraordinary. It’s a lot like the Super Bowl, which often isn’t even the best football game of the year, let alone sporting event, but is undeniably the biggest. Even people who don’t watch it know when the Super Bowl is played. But even the Super Bowl is just a U.S. phenomenon — the iPhone event is worldwide, more like the World Cup or Olympics, but the World Cup and Olympics are only held every four years.
And in the same way that the Super Bowl garners media attention from far outside the world of sports journalism, so too do the iPhone events attract media coverage from outside the world of tech. There’s just a totally different and unique vibe attending the iPhone events in person. There’s a buzz, a sense of hustle and anticipation, and most of all a palpable sense of unimaginably high stakes that pervades these iPhone events from the perspective of a media attendee. You can say these events are boring because they’re predictable, but Apple needs every iPhone generation to be a hit product, the press knows it, and the press is always looking for a slip-up to dwell on, like the antennagate nonsense controversy back in 2010 with the iPhone 4.2 Die-hard sports fans are annoyed by all the non-sporting aspects surrounding the Super Bowl, like the attention focused on the halftime concert performers and even the TV commercials. Die-hard tech fans are likewise annoyed by the “what planet have you been on?” coverage of new iPhone details the rest of us knew were coming for like the last year. Exhibit A: this week’s mainstream news coverage being utterly dominated by the switch from Lightning to USB-C.
The Steve Jobs Theater is a wonderful place and these iPhone events are, to me, fascinating experiences. (I shot a video Tuesday that attempts to capture the layout and experience of the post-keynote hands-on area scrum.) But they’re not at all interesting in the sense of “Boy I wonder what Apple is going to announce today.” It’s more like intense interest regarding how Apple chooses to frame announcements that we all know are coming. And it makes perfect, but boring, sense, to pair the introduction of new iPhones with the introduction of new Apple Watches and, this year, updated AirPods Pro.3
Again, though, this isn’t how the tech industry is “supposed” to work. All things come to an end, and eventually that truism will apply to the iPhone, but the fact is that for over a decade Apple’s September iPhone events have been the Super Bowls of technology. Iterative phone designs from the same company, year after year after year. No other event compares. You can add the next 10 events together — including Apple’s — and you won’t get the cumulative electricity of the iPhone event. This, despite the fact that the iPhone events are predictable. There’s never been anything like it, quite possibly never will be again, and a lot of tech enthusiasts resent it.
But there’s no denying that this is true. Apple has a formula and that formula continues to work.
The 20-minute “Mother Nature” sketch in the keynote, with Octavia Spencer in the titular role, has been widely panned. I do think it went on too long — the whole segment (sketch plus details) in fact was just 10 minutes long, not 20. But seemingly everyone, including me, felt like it lasted 20 minutes, which is never a good sign.
But I get it.
The message is this: most companies today are making promises about their future environmental impact. But Apple hasn’t just been making promises. They’ve been accomplishing truly great feats on this front. It’s no fucking joke that you can now buy an entire Apple Watch that is carbon neutral. Apple has made drastic changes in the materials it uses, the way it ships products around the world, the way it packages them, the ways it produces its own electricity, and more. What they wanted to make clear is that this whole area is one of the company’s highest priorities, truly part of its institutional moral compass, with implications for everything Apple does, and that they’ve already accomplished great things. And that most other companies are basically just greenwashingly full of shit on this stuff.
But how can Apple make this point? They can’t just put Lisa Jackson up there and call out other companies as corporate liars, even though they are. Comedy is the answer. Comedy lets you say things that can’t otherwise be said. Satire, parody, and farce are all deceptively powerful ways to communicate serious arguments.
The problem with this segment was simply that it wasn’t funny enough. It was a great concept but the result was merely OK. It needed more of a Tina Fey 30 Rock pace — funnier jokes and more of them. (Was Apple hamstrung by the WGA strike on this? I can’t help but wonder if so. The skit looked fine — it was the writing that felt limp.)
One landmark aspect of this segment was Apple’s declaration that they’re done with leather. No more leather iPhone cases, no more leather watch bands — including from Hermès. Their lucrative partnership continues, but with fabric and rubber straps alone. (Unless you buy an Apple Watch from Hermès itself.) Apple has replaced its own leather iPhone cases and watch straps with a new material they call FineWoven. I spent time in the hands-on area playing with both the new phone cases and watch straps, and I like the FineWoven material. The keynote emphasized only the ethical angles, vis-à-vis leather: carbon impact and animal rights. But for the iPhone cases at least, I think FineWoven is just plain nicer than the old leather ones. I personally like nice leather goods, but I always felt like the leather Apple used to produce iPhone cases was, at best, OK. In particular I don’t think it weathered well, and I have never been a heavy user of iPhone cases, generally carrying mine un-cased. Put all the ethical issues aside and pretend that Apple were still selling leather iPhone cases alongside these new FineWoven ones, and I’d rather buy a FineWoven one. I’m not entirely sold on the FineWoven Apple Watch straps based on my hands-on experience, but at worst, they seem pretty nice. (Apple’s leather watch straps were less expensive than the Hermès ones, but also very clearly not as nice.)
Pre-orders for the new cases have already begun arriving, and reactions to the new material are mixed. I’m curious how it’s going to weather over time, especially the watch straps, but my first impression is that this is a quality upgrade over Apple’s leather products, not just an ethical one. I don’t think the FineWoven material is nicer than fine leather, but I do think it’s nicer than the leather iPhone cases Apple made, and perhaps on par with their own previous leather watch straps. And one thing that it’s not is faux leather. As Jony Ive might describe it if he were still at Apple, it’s unapologetically fabric.
It seems like the iPhones 15 — non-pro — are exactly what we could have hoped for: effectively, the iPhone 14 Pro without the telephoto third camera.
That leaves me to carp about the colors, which strike me as bland and washed out, with the exception of black, which, as usual, is a very deep black indeed. Color trends change seasonally, and I should probably trust Apple’s designers more than myself to stay on top of trends, but man, this lineup looks bland. Maybe pale hues are “in” this year, but I highly doubt that down the road anyone is ever going to say “Remember how great the iPhone 15 colors were?” Compare and contrast with the universal affection we all seem to share regarding the original iMacs.
New this year: the regular iPhones 15 have frosted glass backs; heretofore the non-pro models had been glossy, and the Pro models frosted/matte. For the first time, the Pro and non-pro iPhones feel very much alike in hand: brushed metal sides, frosted glass backs, very similar sizes, and finally, similar weights.
The iPhone 15 displays are brighter, with the same contrast ratio and maximum brightness as the displays in the 15 Pro models. Missing from the non-pro iPhone 15 models, though: ProMotion dynamic refresh rates, and the always-on display mode. In turn, the lack of an always-on display means that the new StandBy feature in iOS 17 is much more useful with the Pro models. With the non-pro iPhones 15, StandBy will only show until the display times out and goes to sleep; with the iPhones Pro (including last year’s 14 Pro models), StandBy is always on.
The color selection for the Pro models fits recent trends: black (which is really more of a very dark gray), white, and a color of the year. Last year with the iPhones 14 Pro, that color was purple. This year it’s blue, and it’s a nice but quite dark blue. Intriguingly — and adding more grist to the argument that Apple just doesn’t have much fun with colors of late — there’s also “natural titanium”, which isn’t literally natural but is achieved through a PVD tint that looks like what people think titanium naturally looks like. On its own, “natural titanium” looks like a neutral brushed metallic shade. Side-by-side with the iPhone 15 Pro in white, however, you can see that Apple’s “natural titanium” is warmer. It doesn’t look at all gold, but there’s a wee touch of yellow to it. The overall effect of the natural titanium models is “premium gray”, sorta kinda along the vibes of a classic Aston Martin DB5. The white ones, I think, could fairly be described as “silver” — both truly color-temperature neutral and seemingly shinier. Neither the natural nor white titanium on the iPhone 15 Pro matches the titanium body of the Apple Watch Ultra, but natural is closer.
The 15 Pro and Pro Max feel so much lighter in hand compared to all of the stainless steel iPhones in the post-iPhone-X era. Assuming they prove durable in real world usage, the shift from polished stainless steel to titanium is a huge win, just based on weight alone. But I also prefer the look and feel of it — slightly textured rather than highly polished. I think of my iPhone as a tool, not jewelry; a polished finish never seemed appropriate, the way it does for the steel Apple Watch models.
The rounded edge of the frame — a design change that is also in the aluminum non-pro models — is also a win. This feels like an optimal middle ground between the completely round sides of the iPhones X/XS/11 and the flat sharp-edges sides of the iPhones 12/13/14. Look for this form factor to hold steady for three generations, too — Apple is a company of patterns.
The Action button seems great. Out of the box it defaults to acting as a mute toggle, but it’s easy (and arguably fun) to choose another action. Built-in actions include: flashlight, launching the Camera app, starting an audio recording in Voice Memos, and Magnifier. But the options literally go infinite when you assign it to execute a Shortcuts workflow.
I wasn’t expecting the iPhone 13 Mini to remain in the lineup, but now it’s official: it’s gone. What a shame. It obviously wasn’t popular enough but every single person I know who bought an iPhone 12 Mini or 13 Mini loved it, and dreads the idea of their next iPhone being bigger.
If you’re not paying close attention, it’s easy to mistakenly believe that the only change to the AirPods Pro 2 is the connector on the charging case. But the USB-C AirPods Pro 2 are actually different earbuds too, effectively more like a version 2.5 or something. From Apple Newsroom:
AirPods Pro (2nd generation) are upgraded with USB‑C charging capabilities, additional dust resistance, and Lossless Audio with Apple Vision Pro. With iOS 17, all AirPods Pro (2nd generation) level up with access to new audio experiences like Adaptive Audio and Conversation Awareness. [...]
AirPods Pro (2nd generation) with MagSafe Charging Case (USB‑C) will enable Lossless Audio with ultra-low latency to deliver the perfect true wireless solution with Apple Vision Pro. The H2 chip in the latest AirPods Pro and Apple Vision Pro, combined with a groundbreaking wireless audio protocol, unlocks powerful 20-bit, 48 kHz Lossless Audio with a massive reduction in audio latency.
The change from Lightning to USB-C is obvious. The increased dust-resistance is nice. But the ultra-low latency (single-digit milliseconds, I’m reliably told) lossless audio from Vision Pro is interesting. (And I suspect, will be considered a bit annoying to people who already own AirPods Pro 2 with the Lightning case.)
On the surface, camera features and GPU specs don’t seem related, but they share one thematic similarity: they’re two areas where Apple is behind the industry state-of-the-art. iPhone cameras aren’t behind the state-of-the-art for phone photography, of course — they’re probably the best, and undeniably among the best. But they’re not the best cameras, period, full stop, in the world. Apple wants them to be, and is pursuing this relentlessly year after year. And while Apple Silicon GPUs are also undeniably market-leading for phones, they’re just as undeniably not market-leading in PCs, where Nvidia reigns supreme. I firmly believe Apple wants to do to Nvidia with GPUs what they did to Intel with CPUs — match or surpass them in pure performance, and utterly blow them away in performance-per-watt.
On the photography front there were two major new features announced Tuesday. The first is a new generation of portrait photography, where Portrait mode can be applied to an image after it was shot as a regular still image. I’ve wanted this feature ever since Portrait mode debuted. While capturing, you don’t have to do a damn thing. You just frame your photo and hit the shutter. No switching modes. But on-device machine learning will decide on the spot whether Portrait mode can improve the image (which will only happen automatically if the subject is a person, dog, or cat), but you can enable it, disable it, and adjust it to your heart’s content in post.
The second is the iPhone 15 Pro models’ ability to capture spatial video. I had speculated over the summer that it would be cool if Apple could launch this for iPhones this year, and they did it. Clearly the optimal way to watch spatial videos will be with a Vision headset, but the best way to capture them — especially in terms of the old adage that the best camera is the one you have with you — will be with iPhones. I considered it a lock that iPhones would eventually be able to capture spatial video memories, but to me it’s a sign of operational excellence and cross-device collaboration that Apple pulled it off this year, with iPhones that will ship months ahead of the first-generation Vision Pro. (The ability to shoot spatial video using an iPhone 15 Pro isn’t available yet — it’s “coming later this year”. And the hands-on area units didn’t have the feature, nor any example spatial videos preloaded. So the only thing we know about the feature is what was broadcast in the keynote.)
With regard to the A17 Pro, let’s start with the name. Apple uses “pro” in a lot of different ways for a lot of different products, but one thing they’re pretty consistent about is that “Pro” products are the only ones with “pro” components or features. (Note, for example, that ProMotion dynamic refresh rates are only available in the iPhone Pro, iPad Pro, and MacBook Pro.) So I think Apple has once again tweaked their two-pronged annual iPhone strategy: I bet next year’s iPhone 16 and 16 Plus will get an A17 SoC, but I will also bet that chip will not be the A17 Pro. Maybe that will be the A17 “Bionic”, maybe just the no-adjective “A17”, but I do not think it will be the A17 Pro that’s shipping in the iPhones 15 Pro.
What might be different in the non-pro A17 next year? I suspect the GPU might not be as beefy (perhaps, with binning, it will offer 5 cores instead of 6), and I suspect it might have 6 GB of RAM (like the A16 Bionic chips) instead of the 8 GB of RAM in the A17 Pro.
But my god, what a GPU the A17 Pro seems to have. Hardware-accelerated ray tracing is a huge deal, and a major differentiating factor between Apple’s M-series chips (which don’t have it) and high-end PC GPUs from Nvidia and AMD (which do). Clearly, this new GPU is not just the biggest aspect of the A17 Pro, it’s going to be the biggest aspect of the M3-series chips for Macs and iPads (and, eventually, Vision headsets) too. The A-series chips have always had world-class GPUs for phones, but Apple is attempting to narrow the high-end GPU gap on the PC side as well.
But when? The A17 Pro is the de facto launch of TSMC’s next-generation 3nm fabrication. Informed speculation suggests that Apple has secured 90-95 percent of TSMC’s 3nm output for the next year, and it sounds like TSMC’s production might not be able to keep up with iPhone 15 Pro demand — the 15 Pro models might wind up backordered for months to come. That’s an aspect of Apple’s two-pronged annual iPhone strategy I didn’t mention last week. I don’t think it would have even been possible for the non-pro iPhone 15 models to use the A17 chip because they’re going to have trouble enough producing them for the Pro models alone.
So based solely on TSMC’s 3nm production capability, I don’t expect to see M3 Macs or iPads this year, and perhaps not until midway through next year. Keep in mind too that the 15-inch M2 MacBook Air just launched three months ago. That to me was a sign that the M2 would remain “current” until at least next year. People hoping for new M3 MacBook Airs this year are setting themselves up for disappointment, I think.
It speaks to the iPhone’s preeminence in Apple’s product lineup — a preeminence based, reasonably, on profound popularity and profitability — that it gets the most cutting-edge silicon long before any other product.
The Series 9 watches continue to have their series number etched on the caseback. But the new Ultra doesn’t say “2” on it anywhere. It’s just the new Ultra. I think it’s indistinguishable from last year’s original Apple Watch Ultra on the outside — you’ll need to power the watch on and check in Settings → General → About to tell whether an Ultra is from the first or second generation. Apple almost never labels its products with generation numbers or model years on the outside. But this seems like an inconsistent way to treat the two different lines of Apple Watches. It’s almost enough to make you think that when the Series Apple Watches launched, there was an influential executive who thought numbering them was a good idea, and that executive is no longer at Apple.
The best new feature in Apple Watch this year has to be the new double tap gesture, enabling no-touch manipulation of the watch. We got to try this in the hands-on area, and it Just Worked™. Fast, accurate, and natural. In the keynote and their marketing materials, Apple says you need to tap your thumb and index finger, but I tried with my thumb and middle finger and it worked just fine. No more touching your nose to your watch when your hands are dirty from food preparation or carrying something you can’t set down. And the double tap gesture parallels the main gesture that will be used to navigate VisionOS. (One question that occurs to me now: What happens when you’re using a Vision Pro while wearing an Apple Watch, and you double tap with your watch hand? Does the gesture apply to both devices? Or do they somehow negotiate with each other and determine which one acts on it? Apple devices already negotiate like this when you utter “Hey Siri” within earshot of multiple devices — I suspect that when using a Vision Pro while wearing a new Apple Watch, the headset will get first crack at a double tap gesture.) ★
It’s almost certainly true that 2023 will be remembered as the year that AI broke through, and that ChatGPT in particular is the “tech product” of the year. But ChatGPT is software — a service that wasn’t launched at an event, and never had a singular day of attention. ↩︎︎
On the eve of the iPhone event this week, Tripp Mickle wrote a piece for The New York Times under the headline “As Smartphone Industry Sputters, the iPhone Expands Its Dominance”, which contained this paragraph:
Apple has also been lucky. Two of its biggest challengers, Samsung and Huawei, have stumbled in recent years. Samsung faltered in 2016 when the batteries in its flagship smartphone spontaneously combusted. Huawei, which was popular in China, floundered in 2020 after the Trump administration blocked it from buying U.S. technology.
Huawei’s geopolitical travails are another matter, but it seems downright silly to attribute even an iota of the iPhone’s popularity in 2023 to one disastrous Samsung model seven years ago — especially given that Samsung has never put all its “flagship phone” eggs in one basket. But imagine now if that had been the iPhone 7 with the exploding batteries and that was ultimately recalled from the market. The news media is drawn to “Look how the mighty have fallen” story narratives like moths to an open flame. If it had been the iPhone 7 instead of the Galaxy Note 7 whose batteries combusted, we’d still be hearing about it in every article about today’s iPhones. Nothing like that has happened with an Apple product since the PowerBook 5300 back in 1995, but that doesn’t mean it can’t happen. The pressure to avoid such a debacle with every single battery and power adapter Apple manufactures is intense. No one remarks when iPhone batteries don’t catch fire; no one would forget if a single one does. ↩︎︎
The AirPods Pro make sense for this event not just because the charging case now has a USB-C port to match that of the new iPhones, but because these three products form the core of the “generic Apple customer”. If you only own one Apple product, it’s almost certainly an iPhone. If you’re going to buy a second or third, the most obvious choices are an Apple Watch and pair of AirPods. ↩︎︎
In 2017 the iPhone X marked an obvious inflection point in iPhone history: the switch from the original home-button system interface, with Touch ID, to the “all-screen” interface with Face ID. But it also marked a widely misunderstood/under-appreciated (although, it pains me to point out, not by all) change in Apple’s annual iPhone hardware strategy. Instead of introducing just one new iPhone, in 2017 Apple began introducing two entirely different tiers of new iPhone each year. One “pro”, one “regular”:
|2017||X / A11||8 / A11|
|2018||XS / A12||XR / A12|
|2019||11 Pro / A13||11 / A13|
|2020||12 Pro / A14||12 / A14|
|2021||13 Pro / A15||13 / A15|
|2022||14 Pro / A16||14 / A15|
|2023||15 Pro / A17||15 / A16|
(That last row, for this year’s models, is speculative at this writing, but it seems likely.)
This table doesn’t account for different sizes within the same tier (Mini / Max / Plus), but those have really just been different sizes of the same fundamental iPhones. The real difference has been between the pro and non-pro models. Apple didn’t start naming iPhones “Pro” until the iPhones 11 in 2019, but effectively, they started this “pro” tier with the X in 2017.
What everyone groks about this strategy is that the pro models are more expensive. Of course they are. But there are a few aspects to Apple’s strategy that many people miss. The most important is that the iPhone Pro models are only produced for one year. If the pattern holds, come next week, the iPhone 14 Pro and Pro Max will cease production, and be replaced in the product line by the new 15 Pro models. The non-pro iPhones, however, stay in production for at least two additional years, dropping in price by $100 each year. I find that fascinating, but it’s seldom remarked upon. The iPhones that are the most expensive, most cutting-edge, and I presume the hardest to manufacture are only produced for one single year. That’s an altogether new strategy from the years before the iPhone X, when there was just one new flagship iPhone per year (albeit in two sizes during the iPhone 6-6S-7 years), and most iPhones stayed in the lineup at reduced prices for years to come.
So while there have been reports that last year’s iPhone 14 Plus hasn’t sold particularly well, that doesn’t mean it’s a failure, or even that Apple expected it to sell all that well this past year. To me, the workhorse years for non-pro iPhones are years two and three in the lineup, when they come down in price. People shopping for less expensive iPhones but who want a big-ass screen have never had an option before: the now-year-old iPhone 14 Plus will be that.
One much-noted change last year is that the non-pro iPhone 14 models remained on the A15 chip from 2021. One less-noted change is that internally, the iPhone 14 is very different from the iPhone 13, despite the fact that both use the same A15 chip. iFixit describes the iPhone 14 — the non-pro models — as the most repairable iPhones Apple has ever made. The chip remained the same but the internal design was altogether different, and better. The iPhone 14 is a design that was meant to remain in production for years to come.
We won’t know tomorrow whether this more repairable, more accessible system architecture will repeat with the iPhone 15, but I suspect it will. No matter what, the regular iPhone 15 models will not simply be the iPhones 14 Pro models repackaged in aluminum frames rather than stainless steel. The strategy Apple has achieved, as I see it:
The iPhones Pro are far more exciting, but the non-pro iPhones are essential to the lineup and thus to the entire iPhone ecosystem. In sports terms, the Pro models are the offense, and the non-pro models are the defense. The offense gets the glory, but it’s defense, they say, that wins championships. ★
Yoko Kubota, reporting from Beijing for The Wall Street Journal Wednesday (News+ link):
China ordered officials at central government agencies not to use Apple’s iPhones and other foreign-branded devices for work or bring them into the office, people familiar with the matter said.
In recent weeks, staff were given the instructions by their superiors in workplace chat groups or meetings, the people said. The directive is the latest step in Beijing’s campaign to cut reliance on foreign technology and enhance cybersecurity, and comes as China seeks to limit flows of sensitive information outside of China’s borders. The move by Beijing could have a chilling effect for foreign brands in China, including Apple. Apple dominates the high-end smartphone market in the country and counts China as one of its biggest markets, relying on it for about 19% of its overall revenue.
China plans to expand a ban on the use of iPhones in sensitive departments to government-backed agencies and state companies, a sign of growing challenges for Apple Inc. in its biggest foreign market and global production base.
Several agencies have begun instructing staff not to bring their iPhones to work, people familiar with the matter said, affirming a previous report from the Wall Street Journal. In addition, Beijing intends to extend that restriction far more broadly to a plethora of state-owned enterprises and other government-controlled organizations, said the people, who asked not to be identified discussing a sensitive matter.
[Inside Baseball Interpolation: I have often mentioned here that Bloomberg, as a news organization, is uniquely fanatical about scoops — being the first to break news, and in particular, market-moving news. And they expect credit for their scoops when the news is re-reported elsewhere. So trust me, it pains them to credit the Journal for this scoop. But here’s where the Bloomberg institutional dickheadedness is revealed: check out the link for the word “report” in the blockquote above. Hint: It doesn’t link to, you know, the Wall Street Journal story that broke the news.]
If Beijing goes ahead, the unprecedented blockade will be the culmination of a yearslong effort to root out foreign technology use in sensitive environments, coinciding with Beijing’s effort to reduce its reliance on American software and circuitry.
This gets to the nut of my intense curiosity regarding this edict. How much of it is nationalism — the CCP turning up the dial on the inherently jingoist mindset of a police state — and how much of it, if any, is about the fact that iPhones are secure, and their security is outside the reach of the CCP? The Chinese government surely wants to surveil what government employees do on their phones, and iPhones make that harder.
Lastly, where does Apple’s unique relationship with the Chinese government play into this? Apple remains dependent upon China for manufacturing, the iPhone in particular. They make some iPhones elsewhere, but the overwhelming majority are assembled in China, and there’s no other supply chain on earth that can replace it today. That’s a terrible starting point for any negotiation. But: China gets a lot from Apple. Over the course of my lifetime, China has been fighting to change the perception of what “Made in China” stands for. It’s always meant cheap. It used to also imply shoddy. Apple is the feather in China’s cap. iPhones aren’t just the nicest phones in the world — they’re arguably the nicest and most complex mass-produced consumer products in any category. And they are made almost exclusively in China.
The Chinese government surely bristles at the pariah status of Huawei globally, but there’s no plausible scenario where any Chinese company achieves the sort of prestige Apple has. Huawei phones, at best, are third-rate, and everyone knows it, including everyone in China.2 If China maintains its symbiotic relationship with Apple, China will remain firmly associated with the most prestigious technology brand in the world. If not, and Apple migrates its primary manufacturing elsewhere, China again drops to being associated only with second- and third-rate products. Even worse, the best company — in that scenario — would have chosen to part with China. China gains enormous prestige from Apple; Apple takes a reputational hit from its reliance upon a brutal human-rights-violating communist dictatorship.
Perhaps China feels free to antagonize Apple out of the belief that Apple cannot eliminate its dependence upon Chinese manufacturing. But even if that’s true, the message to other companies (say, carmakers) eyeing a move to Chinese assembly would be this: once you grow dependent upon China we’ll screw you like we screwed Apple. China’s intended message to the world isn’t merely that they’re the most capable nation for manufacturing, it’s that they’re also a trustworthy and dependable partner.
This sandbagging of Apple regarding iPhone usage by government employees says the opposite: that China cannot be trusted as a partner.
So here’s how I tally the detente. If Apple can ease away from its dependence upon China for manufacturing, they might. But the risk is that doing so will upset the Xi Jinping regime and Apple will suffer in consumer product sales within China. (Perhaps that’s what we’re seeing now?)
If Apple does ease away from China, though, who can China replace them with? Who could they tout as a world-class technology company that relies upon China for manufacturing? Second place is so far behind Apple you can’t see it. ★
Bloomberg, of course, is the publication that published “The Big Hack” in October 2018 — a sensational story alleging that data centers of Apple, Amazon, and dozens of other companies were compromised by China’s intelligence services. The story presented no confirmable evidence at all, was vehemently denied by all companies involved, has not been confirmed by a single other publication (despite much effort to do so), and has been largely discredited by one of Bloomberg’s own sources. By all appearances “The Big Hack” was complete bullshit. Yet Bloomberg has issued no correction or retraction, and their only ostensibly substantial follow-up contained not one shred of evidence to back up their allegations. Bloomberg seemingly hopes we’ll all just forget about it. I say we do not just forget about it. Everything they publish should be treated with skepticism until they retract “The Big Hack” or provide evidence that any of it was true. ↩︎
Here’s a fun paragraph from Mark Gurman from another Bloomberg piece on this:
If consumers in China are looking to dump Apple, the new Huawei phone could provide an alternative. It sports a larger display and battery than the upcoming highest-end iPhone 15 Pro. The device also has higher-resolution cameras and a price that undercuts its US-based rival.
No one is complaining that the iPhone Max/Plus displays aren’t big enough. A larger battery does not mean longer battery life. And most ridiculously, “higher-resolution cameras” not only doesn’t mean “better cameras”, there are like zero people on the planet, including Joe Huawei himself, who believes any Huawei phone has cameras that are competitive with those in iPhones. “Resolution” is the last refuge of camera scoundrels. For Chinese consumers Huawei offers two things over an iPhone: it’s a Chinese company, and the phones are cheaper. Apple should worry about the Chinese government. Apple has nothing to worry about from Huawei. ↩︎︎