It's time for our yearly dose of hardware upgrades from Apple. Today, the company held its traditional September press event, showing off the latest in iPhones, Apple Watches, and more. The event was titled "Gather Round". We're here, as usual, to tell you exactly what was announced.
For those of you in a hurry, here's the TL;DR.
- The iPhone XS (5.8-inch screen) and XS Max (6.5-inch screen) are upgraded versions of the 2017 iPhone X. They have better cameras, dual sim support, tougher glass, and other spec bumps.
- iPhone XR is an iPhone XS with a 6.1-inch LCD screen. The display doesn't look as good, it has a single-lens camera, no 3D Touch, and other trade-offs, but starts at a much lower price. It also comes in six colors.
- Apple Watch Series 4 is here. It has a bigger screen, smaller bezels, a thinner casing, a faster processor, better microphone placement, an ECG reader, better fitness sensors, and new faces that take advantage of the extra screen space to show more complications. Existing Watch bands will fit it.
The area of primary interest for most of you is probably the iPhone. What's the plan for the home button? Is Face ID coming to more phones? Did the fans of smaller screens get anything? Is it worth upgrading?
iPhone XS and XS Max
Let's start with the most expensive option. Last year, Apple announced iPhone X, its first major re-design of iPhone in quite some time. It had Face ID, a screen that took up the entire front of the phone, no Home Button, a much-improved camera, and other new features that made it stand out. This year, Apple decided it liked this new design, so it kept it, but with improvements.
The successor to iPhone X is, not surprisingly, called iPhone XS (pronounced 10 S). It looks a lot like last year's model, though it does come in a new gold color option. The major physical difference is the screen size; you can choose between 5.8 inches and 6.5 inches, making the bigger option far and away the largest screen Apple has ever put on any of their phones. In a departure from their tradition of slapping "Plus" on the name of the bigger iPhone, Apple has decided to call the 6.5-inch model iPhone XS Max. The smaller one is simply called iPhone XS.
Let's get the rest of the screen details out of the way, as we're already on the topic. Both XS models use OLED, the same technology that helped iPhone X stand out from the line-up last year. OLED is more vivid, uses less power, and is overall better than LCD (which is used by all iPhones up through the 8. This screen is--the claim goes--the best one Apple has ever put on an iPhone, with 458 pixels per inch. It, and the glass on the back, are protected by what Apple says is the most durable glass in any smartphone on the market.
It's not just a bigger screen, though. Powering iPhone XS is Apple's latest processor, the A12 Bionic. This is their first 7 nanometer processor (if you don't know what that means, don't worry, it's just a geeky detail). The A12 is, to no one's surprise, faster while being more power-efficient. Its main improvement isn't its overall speed, or its (up to) 50% increase in graphics performance--the highlight is machine learning. Apple has a whole new machine learning processing system which uses eight cores of its own to analyze, in real time, the artificial intelligence being run on the phone. It pushes this AI processing to whichever set of cores best fits the task, be it the high efficiency ones, the powerful ones, or the graphics-specific ones. This lets machine learning run up to nine times faster, while using as little as a tenth the power, than is possible on the A11 Bionic chip we saw last year.
The camera is better than iPhone X, with an improved flash, better sensors, and all the other upgrades we expect each year. The big announcements around photography were focused (yep, there's my pun for the article) on software. Using the vastly improved machine learning integration possible on the A12 chip, Apple has hooked image signal processing into AI in a huge way. From portrait shots that look a lot better, to automatic red eye removal and better focus, to the camera "understanding" the image and being able to do a better job with focus, balance, and other adjustments, Apple says photos on iPhone XS look stunning. Combined with the improved screen, photographers will want to give this phone serious consideration.
But enough about the things I, and most of you, can't even see. What else does iPhone XS offer? One thing that got my attention was the improved speaker setup. Stereo speakers have been on iPhones for a while, but to me, they've never sounded great. Apple says that iPhone XS sports an improved stereo field, also based partly in AI, with better overall sound. They even pointed out some game developers who say users can use the built-in speakers in place of headphones to get a good gaming experience. I'm dubious about these claims, but it's nice to see Apple placing a focus on audio, not just pictures. Oh, and speaking of audio, this iPhone can now record stereo sound when shooting video. No word was given on whether that feature extends to other apps that use the system microphones, but I hope stereo will be an option everywhere.
One feature that will make some users incredibly happy is dual SIM support. Apple has paired an ESIM (the same built-in SIM technology used in recent cellular-capable iPads and Apple Watches) with a physical SIM. Users can now have two phone numbers at once, with iOS set up to handle this. You'll see which number is being called on an incoming call screen, for instance. China gets an iPhone with two physical SIM cards, since their government doesn't allow ESIMs.
That's about it for features. A faster, better processor that can work wonders with machine learning; dual SIM support; a better camera; the "best screen ever"; and AI helping to power everything from better speakers to faster Face ID authentication. Oh, and they upped the waterproof rating to IP68, good for protection against submersion in water up to two meters deep for up to half an hour; previous iPhones were only rated for IP67. All this in a package the same size as iPhone X or, for the Max, the size of an iPhone 8 Plus. The battery life is also improved, offering thirty minutes (XS) or ninety minutes (XS Max) more than iPhone X. This new phone will start at $999 USD (add $100 for the Max) with 64GB of storage. You can get more space if you want; it comes in 256GB and--for the first time ever on iPhone--512GB. Space gray, silver, and gold are your color options.
The third phone we saw is iPhone XR. This is meant to be the lower-cost option for those who don't want--or need--the full XS experience. It uses aluminum in place of stainless steel, it lacks the dual lens camera, and it sacrifices a few other features to keep the cost lower. Not that this is a bad phone by any stretch. In fact, many of our readers may find it the most appealing of today's options.
iPhone XR uses the same A12 Bionic chip as the Xs does, so you're not giving up speed or those new AI features. It has an edge-to-edge, 6.1-inch screen. It even has Face ID. It comes in 64GB, 128GB, or 256GB storage tiers, and offers six color options: blue, Product (RED), coral, yellow, black, and white. As expected, it incorporates the wireless charging Apple started supporting last year. Its size is somewhere between the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus, but it offers a battery life up to ninety minutes better than an 8 Plus.
Why, then, would anyone buy the XS? What are you losing by going with the XR? Well, the camera is a single lens design, using the 12MP sensor from the XS but not including the telephoto module. The screen is 326 PPI, compared to the 458 PPI on the XS, and is LCD rather than OLED. Apple is happy with this screen, calling it a "Liquid Retina Display", but it's still not as good. That said, it does support the same tap to wake, True Tone, and other goodies that iPhone X added last year. The XR and XS both use 120Hz sampling for touch input, which means, in English, that touches will be smooth and drawing will work well. However, the XR ditches 3D Touch completely, while the XS still has it. Finally, there's a chance the XR lacks the dual SIM and improved speakers of the XS. it wasn't completely clear in the presentation, so please double check that before you buy. We'll update this article if and when we can clarify the situation.
Pricing and Availability
You can pre-order iPhone XS and XS Max starting September 14, with shipments going out September 21. You can pre-order iPhone XR starting October 19, shipments should go out on October 26, with in-store availability starting that day or soon after.
The iPhone lineup will look like this for the next year (prices in U.S. dollars):
- iPhone 7: $449
- iPhone 8: $599
- iPhone XR: $749
- iPhone XS: $999
Of course, you'll add to the price for the Plus or Max variants, and for increased storage.
Finally, iOS 12 got a release date: it will come out on Monday, September 17. As we found out back in June, this will be a free update that is supported all the way back to iPhone 5S.
The next product on our list is Apple Watch. Though it's only three and a half years old, today saw the announcement of Series 4, sporting the first major re-design since the device debuted in 2015.
By shrinking the bezels, Apple has managed to expand the screen size of Apple Watch without needing to change the device's overall size very much. This let the company introduce larger screen options--40mm and 44mm--while maintaining compatibility with all the Apple Watch bands already on the market. The casing did get an overhaul, though; it sports a slimmer profile, plus a completely new back face. No exact measurements were given at the presentation, so I don't yet know just how the Series 4 differs in size or overall layout from the previous generations. All we were told was that the new model has "less total volume" than the old design, not that that helps me visualize anything. It's also worth noting that the speaker is 50% louder than in older generations, while the microphone has moved to the opposite side of the casing. This move provides more voice clarity when you talk to Apple Watch, as it cuts down on echoes. Users of Apple Watch for phone calls or Walkie Talkie will benefit most from this, Apple said, but I imagine dictation and Siri commands could be helped some as well.
The back of Apple Watch is now a ceramic material, with sapphire glass on the heart rate sensor. This was done for a few reasons, among them allowing more of the casing's surface to let radio waves through. Apple says this will increase cellular reception, and I'm wondering if it will help with bluetooth and wifi as well.
The other reason for the re-design is the inclusion of electrodes. There's one on the back, against your wrist, and another in the Digital Crown. Together, they allow Apple Watch to take ECG (electrocardiogram) readings. These measurements provide you with a heart rhythm classification on your screen, and are saved as a PDF in your Health app. You can easily email or show the files to a doctor, but the information has the same protection as the rest of your health data. Taking an ECG reading is simple: open the ECG app, leave your index finger on the Digital Crown for thirty seconds, and that's it.
The other internal changes we know about are better sensors and an improved processor. Apple Watch Series 4 is up to two times faster than Series 3, and its movement sensors can take up to eight times more samples than could those in previous generations. This lets Series 4 do some pretty helpful things.
- Fall detection can figure out when you fall, based on how your arm reacts to the sudden loss of balance. When it thinks you've fallen, it pops up a notification, with the option to call emergency services and send an SOS to your preset contacts. If Apple Watch detects no movement within a minute of the fall, it calls EMS and sends that SOS message on its own.
- It can now detect a heart rate that is too slow, and can analyze heart rhythm as well as heart rate. If a rhythm that could indicate atrial fibrillation is detected, you'll get an alert.
- Thanks to the bettor spacial sensors, workouts should be more accurate. Apple promises better, more precise tracking of movements and GPS data.
Watch faces are the other focus in this generation. With the larger screen, Apple is able to fit up to eight complications on a single face, compared to the maximum of five for Series 3 and older. Each complication can now show more data, too, offering details you used to have to open the relevant app to find. Live sports scores and up-to-date flight details were two examples Apple used to demonstrate what this could mean. You are also able to add people as complications, simply tapping them to initiate contact via text, call, Walkie Talkie, and so on. Why this isn't an option in older Apple Watch models is a mystery to me. Nike got in on the game, with their custom watch face optimized for the larger display. They even came out with a new band variation for this new series, adding reflective yarn to their Sport Loop bands.
There are a few other additions in this space. The other new faces aren't focused on information, but rather looks. There's a face displaying fire, another water, and a third vapor. We didn't get much detail on what these do, but the impression I got was that they look incredible doing whatever it is. The Breathe app also has its own face now, letting you initiate a breathe session without opening the app at all. As with putting contacts on faces, I'm not sure why this feature is exclusive to the Series 4.
With the thinner casing and increased speed of both the SoC and sensors, it might be fair to assume that battery life takes a hit in the Series 4. Apple says it doesn't, though, claiming an 18-hour battery life just like in previous generations.
Apple Watch Series 4 starts at $399 for the smaller variant without cellular support. Add $100 for cellular, and an unknown amount to get the larger screen size. Remember, though, that the screens take up more of the front face, so I'd suggest getting an in-person look at them before you decide which model you want. You may find that the added real estate lets you use the smaller Apple Watch now. Speaking of choices, you have the same color options as Series 3: gold, silver, or space gray for the aluminum sport version, or gold, silver, or space black for the stainless steel model. You can pre-order starting September 14, with items arriving a week later. Note that the Series 3 is still available, with its price now reduced to $279. If you already have an Apple Watch, look for the watchOS 5 upgrade on September 17.
There were a few other announcements made at the end of the presentation.
- macOS Mojave will be released on September 24, a week after iOS 12 and watchOS 5
- tvOS will get an update (demonstrated at WWDC in June), bringing Dolbe Atmos support and other features
- the firmware on HomePod will be updated, enabling multiple timers, the ability to place and receive phone calls, support for Siri Shortcuts, and a few other features
Are You Excited?
I'm impressed with iPhone XS and XR, though I'm not yet sure if I'll be trading in my trusty iPhone 7. If I do, I'll go for the XR, despite its slightly larger footprint. Of much more interest to me is Apple Watch Series 4. I have a Series 2 now, and it works well. However, I got the chance to use a Series 3 a few weeks back, and I was surprised at how much snappier and smoother it felt. At up to twice the speed, Series 4 will be even better! Plus, I swim with my Watch all the time, making that increased motion tracking important to me.
What about you? Has the new iPhone design grown on you since last year, so you're ready to try out an XS or XR? Or will you be upgrading to an 8, so you can hang onto your home Button a little longer? Are you tempted to trade up to the Series 4 Apple Watch, or even try one for the first time now that Series 3 is cheaper? What did we not get that you hoped we would? I was really hoping for news on new Macs, but maybe there will be one more event this year devoted to them. Not that I can afford one after I get done with my Apple Watch upgrade.