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Are the new iPhones worth the upgrade? (Apple Event Recap Edition)
Last week, Apple announced its latest iPhones, along with new AirPods Pro, and three new Apple Watch models. Well, really only one Apple Watch model is new, the other two are relatively modest updates of the same thing we've seen the past few years.
I've included a link to the event video at the end of this newsletter, along with a few photos from the event.
The question for a lot of people is whether all the fun stuff Apple announced is worth upgrading from whatever they already have. The answer, of course, is complicated, and it depends on a lot of factors. In this edition of the newsletter, I'm going to try to unpack what was announced, but more importantly, who should be thinking about upgrading.
AirPods Pro 2
Most of what is different on the second-generation AirPods Pro is hard to tell from the outside. They look almost exactly the same. The case now has a speaker and a place to attach a lanyard, but the earbuds themselves look the same.
On the inside, however, it's an entirely different story. Apple has packed a bunch of tech meant to improve all of the things that were already great about the AirPods Pro. For example, Apple says that the new version have twice the noise cancellation. Even more impressive, however, is a trick Apple manages to pull off where transparency mode is able to let in your surroundings, while filtering out noisy sounds.
The example Apple used was a construction site. I was able to try it out in the hands-on area, which is definitely not a quiet environment, but also, there's no construction happening, so we'll have to test them to see if it lives up to the hype.
There are two very new features that are both interesting and useful. The first is that you can now swipe up or down on the stem to control the volume. The other is that the speaker on the case is able to chirp using the Find My app. Previously, only the AirPods themselves would make a sound, which is fine if you lost one. It wasn't as helpful if you misplaced the whole case. This solves that very real problem.
Overall, the new AirPods Pro are probably worth the upgrade if you're using a version of the regular AirPods and want to take advantage of the noise cancellation. If you already have a set of the Pros, and they're in good shape, spending another $249 might not be worth it.
Even if yours aren't in good shape, you might want to make an appointment at your local Apple Store Genius Bar first before you upgrade. AirPods Pro have a service program and you might be able to just have them replaced for free (as I did). Free is better than $249, even if it means you miss out on a few new features.
Apple Watch Series 8
To be honest, I don't even think I took a photo of the Series 8, but, I mean, it's an Apple Watch. If you've ever seen an Apple Watch, you know what it looks like. In fact, you'd have a hard time telling the difference between the Series 8 and four versions that came before it.
The Series 8 does have a few interesting improvements, including a new body temperature sensor that Apple says helps women predict ovulation. It also gets crash detection (which also comes to the iPhone). Apple says the Series 8 can now tell when you've been in a car accident, and can detect when an airbag has been deployed.
Even with those improvements, if you're using a Series 7, there's really no reason to upgrade. The same probably goes for the Series 5 and 6, though you'll definitely notice battery improvements, and the larger display is a very nice design touch. If you're on a Series 4 (which was my first Apple Watch), or anything older, it's probably time for an upgrade.
By the way, the Apple Watch SE also got a modest update. There's not much to say about it except that if you don't care about an always-on display, or the extra-fancy sensors (no blood oxygen sensor, ECG, or body temperature), this is my baseline recommendation for almost anyone. My wife and one of our daughters have a first-generation SE and it does everything they need it to.
If you're looking to buy your first Apple Watch, the SE is a great starting point. If you can afford it, however, the Series 8 is about as good as it gets. Well, except for....
Apple Watch Ultra
Obviously, the biggest new Apple Watch story is the Ultra, which is literally the biggest Apple Watch ever, at 49mm. Seeing it in person, it's big, but not so big that someone with average size wrists couldn't pull off wearing one without looking weird. It definitely looks and feels smaller on the wrist than many of the smartwatches it competes with.
It isn't just bigger, though. The Ultra features a crown guard around the Digital Crown and button, which Apple says makes both easier to use with gloves on. On the other side, Apple has added an "Action Button" which can be customized to do things like start a workout or set a GPS waypoint. That actually might be the coolest (and most useful) feature of all.
It's also more water resistant, has a cool new Ultra-only watch face with dark mode, and has the best battery life of any Apple Watch. Apple says it will get up to 36 hours in normal use, and up to 60 in a low-power mode. It also has three new bands designed for adventure-type activities, though Apple says older bands will work.
As for the question of whether you should upgrade your existing Apple Watch to the Ultra, the answer is really pretty easy: almost certainly, you should not. If you're an Apple Watch user, and you're happy with what your watch can do, the Ultra is probably not for you. If you're using an older Apple Watch, and you're ready for the latest and best model, get the Series 8.
If, however, you're using a Garmin epix, or tactix, but would rather have something that better integrates with your iPhone and the larger Apple ecosystem, the Ultra is a great option for you. It'll do the rugged adventure stuff you need while playing nice with the rest of your devices.
I heard someone describe the difference between the Apple Watch Series 8 and the Ultra as the same as the difference between the iPhone 14 and the iPhone 14 Pro Max. At first, that might seem right, but I don't think it's a fair comparison at all. The Ultra isn't just a slightly better Apple Watch, it's designed to serve an entirely different type of user with very different needs.
Price, by the way, isn't really the difference here. In fact, at $799 with only one configuration, the Ultra is a pretty good deal. It's only $50 more than the top of the line Series 8 which, this year is only available in Stainless Steel. Titanium is now reserved for the Ultra only. That price is also a few hundred dollars less than most of the competition.
Okay, let's talk about the new iPhones, and we'll start with the iPhone 14--which, like last year, comes two sizes. Unlike last year, when you could buy an iPhone 13 mini, those two sizes are normal and bigger (though, you can still buy a brand new iPhone 13 mini).
This year might be the first year that we're starting to see where Apple has been heading with its iPhone updates. From here on out, the standard iPhone will get last year's Pro chip. This year, that means the iPhone 14 gets the A15 bionic from the iPhone 13 Pro, which had an additional GPU core enabled compared with the regular iPhone 13.
The main new features of the iPhone 14 are that it gets better battery life, which is always a good thing in a device you carry with you all day, as well as better camera and display. Apple says the camera has better low-light performance, especially on the front-facing camera.
Apple also added the rumored satellite connectivity, which it calls Emergency SOS via Satellite, to all iPhone models this year.
Basically, if you're in an area without cell coverage and you have an emergency, the iPhone will guide you through where to point it to connect with a satellite. Then, it provides a series of prompts to describe your emergency, which is then relayed via satellite to emergency services. In the event you are in an area that doesn't accept text messaging, Apple says it is staffing relay centers that will call on your behalf and communicate your emergency.
Finally, the cameras are improved over last year, though obviously not as nice as this year's Pro models. It's what you expect from a new iPhone.
If you're using an iPhone 12 or 13, you're still using one of the best smartphones in existence. You probably don't need to upgrade. Anything older than that and the camera and battery improvements alone will probably be worth it.
iPhone 14 Pro
Probably the most obvious update to the iPhone 14 Pro is the design. Gone is the "notch" that has been where Apple stashed the front camera, and FaceID sensor on every new iPhone since the iPhone XS. Well, except for the iPhone SE, which is basically an iPhone 8 stuffed with the current generation processor.
Now, in its place is a pill-shaped cutout for those same camera components. Apple calls it the "Dynamic Island," which is weird, but it's actually a very cool feature.
It's cool because Apple decided to lean into the physical cutout and created a fun interface element that changes based on what you're doing. Here's how Apple's head of human interface, Alan Dye, explained it:
Our goal was to design a space that clearly and consistently surfaces alerts and background activity in a rich and delightful way. The result being an entirely new and intuitive way to interact with iPhone--one that truly blurs the line between hardware and software.
I didn't get a lot of chance to test it during the hands on, but it's a smart way to deal with what would otherwise be just a black hole staring at you.
The other big update is to the cameras. Apple upgraded the main camera to a 48MP sensor, which it calls a "quad-pixel" sensor. That's just a fancy of way of saying it combines pixels in way that lets it take advantage of better light gathering and sharpness, while delivering a more manageable 12MP finished image.
The last change Apple made with the iPhone 14 Pro is an always-on display. That means you'll be able to see your lock screen without having to pick up your iPhone or tapping its display.
This goes hand-in-hand with the ability to add widgets to your lock screen that is coming in iOS 16. Unlike a lot of Android devices that have always-on displays, however, Apple doesn't black out your wallpaper. Instead, everything just sort of dims. The iPhone 14 Pro also lowers the refresh rate of the screen to help save even more battery.
I feel pretty comfortable saying the iPhone 14 Pro is the biggest update to the iPhone in a while. Still, it's hard to recommend you upgrade if you have an iPhone 12 or newer. Even if you still have an iPhone 11 or iPhone 11 Pro, those are still really great devices that are probably doing everything you need them to. The 14 Pro is really for people who are ready to upgrade and absolutely want to have the very best iPhone Apple makes.
One last thing--I want to share a few thoughts about the actual event last week. It's notable because it was the first in-person event Apple has held in the Steve Jobs Theater since 2019. Apple did invite developers and press to the keynote for WWDC this June, but that event was held outdoors inside Apple Park.
In opening the keynote, before showing the same video that was streaming to everyone, Tim Cook took the stage and told the audience "the Steve Jobs Theater was built for days like this." You could tell Apple's team was glad to have people back.
I think it was the first glimpse of how Apple intends to roll out its products into the future. Apple shifted its strategy during the pandemic to a pre-produced video format that worked very well for the company. So well, in fact, that despite Wednesday's event being held inside the Steve Jobs Theater, the 800 or so people in attendance were still watching what Tim Cook referred to beforehand as a "film."
I think there's a real tension between Apple's desire to bring people together in-person for these events, and its success in using pre-recorded keynote videos that it can stream to millions of people. There's no question they are incredibly well done, and they do a great job of communicating the story Apple wants to tell. It seems as though the company has figured out a balance that works, and I don't think we'll see a return to the completely live presentation any time soon.
Of course, the real reason to get people together for a product launch is so they can get their hands on the products. That's the piece that was hard to recreate during the pandemic. Apple did fine, sending review units to the press and holding virtual briefings, but Apple has maybe the greatest home-field advantage anywhere, and it's definitely going use it as often as it can.
There's another benefit for Apple, and it's something you shouldn't underestimate. If you pack 800 people into a theater and then let them play with your latest gadgets, they're going to be pretty excited and feel pretty special. It's true, Apple's press events have a very exclusive feel. They feel meticulously put together, and the experience is unlike any other--which is exactly what the company strives for in its products.
My point is that those 800 people (that's just a guess, I have no idea how many people were really there) can't help but be influenced by the experience and the excitement in the room, which absolutely influences the first reviews that make it in to the public.
Other stories you might like:
The iPhone 14 Pro's Biggest Change Is Apple's Best Design Feature Ever | Inc.com — www.inc.com Say goodbye to the notch.
You Can Now Break Your iPhone an Unlimited Number of Times and AppleCare+ Will Cover It | Inc.com — www.inc.com Apple just made what was already the best service program even better.
Tim Cook's Most Important Presentation Rule is Simple: Less Tim Cook | Inc.com — www.inc.com Three lessons you can learn from one of the best.
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