Friday, 15 September 2023
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 as 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 their institutional moral compass, has 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 strips, 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.
The Regular iPhones 15
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 blacks; 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 no 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.
iPhones 15 Pro
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.
R.I.P. iPhones Mini
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.
AirPods Pro ‘2.5’
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.)
Photography and GPUs
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 would 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 video 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.
Apple Watch Series 9 and Ultra 2
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?)