Incremental Improvements & Missing Products: iPhone Announcements


Incremental Improvements & Missing Products: iPhone Announcements

Sam Costello

Apple’s new iPhone releases have long followed a two-year cycle: a new model, with a new name and major new features is released in the first year, with a minor update with an “S” added to the name in the second. That pattern was disrupted last year when Apple introduced the iPhone X as the foundation for the iPhone’s next decade. But the original cycle is back this year, with Apple’s announcements of a trio of new iPhones, plus a handful of other items—including some that were expected but didn’t materialize.

New iPhones: Two “Ses” and an “R”

Apple announced three new iPhones on Wednesday during an event at its headquarters. The iPhone XS (pronounced “ten-ess”) and XS Max, and a new model, the iPhone XR. The XS models are premium products, while the XR occupies the mid-range.

The XS and XS Max are distinguished by their screens: the XS maintains the same 5.8-inch screen as the iPhone X, while the XS Max measures out to 6.5 inches. Otherwise, both models offer virtually the same features and specs: 12-megapixel cameras, Face ID, the multi-core, multi-GPU A12 Bionic processor, and up to 512GB of storage. Essentially, it’s last year’s iPhone X with a faster processor, more storage, and a bigger screen on the XS Max.

The XR is another matter. It sports most of the same internals as the XS models—processor, Face ID, front camera—with a few key differences. First, the XR includes an LCD screen rather than the higher-quality OLED on the XS, so the picture quality will be a bit lower. Second, the screen doesn’t include the 3D Touch technology that allows the phone to respond differently to different amounts of force used on the screen. Third, the XR has only a single back camera, rather than the dual-camera system used on the XS, so it lacks telephoto features, optical zoom, and some Portrait Lighting effects. Lastly, the XR tops out at 256GB of storage. 

On the plus side, the XR comes in six colors, including blue, yellow, and coral. The XR also starts at a relatively affordable (for an iPhone) US$799, while the XS and XS Max start at $999 and $1,099, respectively. While none of these models break significant new ground, they’re all solid upgrades to what is already the world’s best smartphone.

The SIMs

One interesting new feature of all three iPhones is support for two SIM cards. Each phone has a physical SIM, and augments that with a software-based eSIM. This allows one phone to have two phone numbers, to get local phone service while travelling in another country without swapping out your old SIM, and perhaps to switch between carriers more regularly and easily based on the best pricing available. Dual SIMs figure to be one of those changes that seems small when introduced but will become a standard part of how we use our phones going forward.

The New Apple Watch Knows Your Heart

Apple’s other major introduction was the Apple Watch Series 4, which cements the device’s status as both the most functional wearable on the market and the one with the best health features.

In addition to all the standard Watch features, including the cellular connectivity introduced in the previous generation, these models are around 30% bigger than their predecessors, pack in a new, faster 64-bit processor and GPU, and do it with the same battery life as previous models. They add a new fall-detection feature that can offer to place an emergency call after you’ve fallen. If the Watch detects that you’ve been immobile for 1 minute after a fall, the emergency call is placed automatically. Additionally, new heart sensor features can check for low heart rate, detect heart rhythm irregularities indicating Atrial Fibrillation, and perform an electrocardiogram (ECG). Both models go on sale on Sept. 21, starting at $399.

Three Announcements, MIA

Sure to raise some eyebrows were three items that weren’t discussed during the event.

First was Apple’s wireless charging mat, AirPower. Initially announced at the iPhone X introduction in Fall 2017, the wireless charging base (said to be able to charge an iPhone, Apple Watch, and AirPods at once) was expected late last year. But since then there’s been no substantial news about when AirPower would arrive, or what it would cost. Most were expecting to at least hear something about the device, but it wasn’t mentioned on stage. Could this be the rare Apple product that’s announced but never makes it to market?

There was also much speculation that Apple would replace its proprietary Lightning connector on the iPhone with the industry standard USB-C. It didn’t happen. It wouldn’t be a surprise for Apple to go to USB-C eventually, but since that would render rafts of accessories unusable without an adapter, that transition will be slow (and may start on the iPad, where connecting to accessories like printers and keyboards is more important).

Lastly, some expected that the XS Max would gain support for the Apple Pencil, since its 6.5-inch screen isn’t that much smaller than the screen on the old iPad mini. That didn’t happen, but it’s another feature that’s likely to arrive at some point. 

Minor but helpful improvements to HomePod

The HomePod smart speaker still hasn’t attracted the critical mass of the Amazon Echo or Google Home, but Apple announced a few improvements that will make the device more useful. HomePod will support setting multiple timers (crucial if it’s located in your kitchen, like mine is), placing calls directly from the HomePod instead of needing to hand them off from an iPhone, and helping you find iPhones, iPads, and Apple Watches lost in the house.

New OSes Coming Your Way Soon

Apple always releases new software along with new hardware. September 17 will strain Apple’s download servers as that’s the day iOS 12, watchOS 5, and tvOS 12 will all be released. That will be followed one week later by macOS Mojave (10.14) on Sept. 24.

During the event, Apple announced that they’ve sold over 2 billion iOS devices, ever. Over the next few months, those figures will jump quite a bit. While this year’s new iPhone and Apple Watch hardware may not revolutionize either product line, they’re coming at a time in many users’ upgrade cycles that could lead to huge sales. Expect the iPhone XSes, XRes, and Series 4 Apple Watches to soon be ubiquitous. 

Sam Costello

Sam Costello

VP/Director, Technology

Sam Costello works in the Creative Technology group at Digitas, focusing on native mobile and innovation. 


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