Apple’s ‘Far Out’ Event

Sep 10, 2022 • Extra OrdinaryApple Event



I didn’t have the highest of expectations going into this event. I thought we knew everything — and what we knew was a bit boring. But as Jason Snell pointed out, maybe we shouldn’t underestimate the most successful company in the world.

Staging

Early prerecorded keynote videos had a bit more fun with the flexibility allowed by the format. This keynote significantly cut down on the fun and silly transitions. Maybe Apple thinks it’s all been played out by now.

Apple Watch

Tim Cook began the segment by playing a video featuring letters of people whose lives were saved by their Apple Watch. The scenes are reenacted, featuring the actual people in these stories. Apple Watch rescuing people from imminent death is a note they play with alarming frequency (in increasingly morbid ways) but it’s a message worth pushing. This is a great reason to buy an Apple Watch.

Apple Watch Series 8

Tim Cook introduced Jeff Williams who introduced Diedre Caldbeck who introduced Dr. Sumbil Ahmad Desai who introduced the Apple Watch Series 8. The two big only changes include a temperature sensor for cycle tracking and a high g-force accelerometer to detect if you’ve been in a car crash.

I find it interesting how the rumor mill got the temperature sensor wrong. Rumors indicated that the sensor would be used to detect signs of a fever but it wouldn’t give you an exact temperature. Instead, it is used for women’s health, combining heart rate data to give improved period predictions and retrospective estimates. It isn’t confident enough to record this data in the ‘Body Temperature’ section of the Health app; it adds a new section called ‘Wrist Temperature.’

Car crash detection works similar to fall detection: if your Apple Watch thinks you need help, you have a few seconds to respond in case of a false positive,1 after which the Apple Watch will automatically call emergency services.

Low Power Mode sounds like something that should have come to the Apple Watch sooner, but considering it doubles Apple’s battery estimation from 18 hours to 36 hours, it must be pulling a lot of strings behind the scenes beyond turning off the always-on display and automatic workout detection. Better late than never.

No changes to the colors this year.

Apple Watch SE

It is a well-internalized fact that as much as the Apple community discusses the interesting Macs like the Mac Studio and the 14″ MacBook Pro, a vast majority of Mac sales are of the cheapest MacBook Air. Yet somehow, I was completely blindsided when hearing 80% of new Apple Watch users buy the SE. It makes perfect sense that the pattern would continue, but the Apple Watch SE is such a forgettable product that it slipped my mind entirely.

And you know what? Now, 80% of new Apple Watch users will be buying a great product. The new SE model carries over a lot of features from the Series 8 at a lower price than before.

Best of all, the Series 3 may finally die in a hole be put to rest.

Apple Watch Ultra

When these schematics leaked earlier this week, I was totally convinced that the weird shape of the body was only part of the story. I thought there was going to be a rubber case around the metal body to finish the look. Why else would the display and the buttons protrude so far? Surely if this is the Apple Watch that has graduated from the school of hard knocks, you wouldn’t want a big protruding part of the body. Those hard corners will get banged up.

It’s a shame their battery test could only get 36 hours in standard use or 60 hours in what might or might not be Lower Power Mode.2 Apple likes to underestimate battery stamina, but not by much. Yes, just a few paragraphs ago I praised the ordinary Apple Watch Series 8 for achieving 36 hours in Low Power Mode, but the Apple Watch Ultra is their turbo-adventure watch. I think future versions will get these numbers up to a comfortable 48 and 72 hours.

A brief note on color is that they now have yet another name for unadorned bare metal. It used to be Silver. Last year gave us Starlight, which is Silver with a pinch of yellow. The Apple Watch Ultra comes in unadorned bare titanium, which is now deemed Natural.

The new watch bands are really cool.

I continue to agree with John Gruber that the watch band team is probably the most fun team to work on at Apple.

The Apple Watch Ultra has two GPS bands for greater precision. I can’t wait for this to trickle down to other products by the time I need a new phone and/or watch. I’ve noticed on walks along the local bike path that my watch’s estimation on distance traveled can be off by up to about 10%. It’s especially noticeable when my wife and I go together and have very different statistics for the same walk. On a recent road trip that stopped through Philadelphia I was reminded that this phenomenon affected my phone, too, when Apple Maps placed me totally incorrectly along a busy street corner.

A completely new addition to the Apple Watch user interface is an additional button on the left.3 Unlike the crown and side buttons, this button is open for use in apps and configurable by the user. I’m happy for developers but a little scared this will go the way of 3D Touch:

I hope I’m wrong here. I think another button would be a good addition to the Apple Watch paradigm. A litmus test for the success of this feature will be whether the Series 9 model next year has a left button.

One last note is that under the display lip, there’s a small plastic band that bears strong resemblance to the antenna bands on the iPhone. But the band doesn’t go all the way around, so the display lip isn’t actually fully separated from the body of the watch, ergo this is not an antenna band. Is it to absorb shock from corner impacts? A detail that the iFixit teardown may or may not reveal.

All in all, Apple has finally figured out the Apple Watch. The story of the Apple Watch thus far goes like so: the first few models, the original through Series 3, lacked focus or direction — let’s throw everything at it and see what people like. From the Series 4 onwards they knew that sports, exercise tracking and notification management were their strengths, leaning into each. Now that the flagship product has matured, they feel confident enough to go all in. They created a special watch face for orienteering and a special app for scuba diving.

This is far from a fashion object. They aren’t going to send a solid gold Apple Watch Ultra to Beyoncé.

AirPods Pro (2nd generation)

Apple plays their AirPods updates very well. Whether it’s intentional or not, it seems like new AirPods come out right around when the AirPods sold at launch lose their battery capacity. They give you plenty of good reasons to upgrade, too. People would feel jipped if they had to spend $250 every three years for the same product.

The pressure-sensitive stems are now touch-sensitive, so you can adjust the volume on your AirPods themselves. I’m curious to see how this works on such a short linear distance. Surely shifting your finger a half inch won’t take it from 0 to 100.

A more powerful H2 chip has more brains for audio processing in noise-cancelling mode. Combined with tighter-engineered internal components, outside noise is twice as quiet. ‘Twice’ doesn’t come up very often in a single-generation product update. Transparency mode is smarter, too, filtering out annoying sounds like construction. The H2 chip increases battery life by about 30% — this doesn’t just increase the lifetime of a single charge; this reduces the wear on the battery over time.

The case has some tricks up its sleeve, too. A built-in speaker can play a tone to help you locate it when it’s lost. It has a built-in U1 chip, so it’s basically an AirTag. You can charge it with a Qi charger, MagSafe puck and now, an Apple Watch puck.4 The case has a loop in the side where you can attach a lanyard.

This new charging case is very emblematic of the new design philosophy at Apple. The original AirPods case was a near-perfect white object. If they could have figured out how to charge the original AirPods case on the Apple Watch puck of the time, they would have, just to remove the Lightning connector from the bottom. It didn’t even have a charging light on the outside. Now it has a button on the back, a charging light, speakers, a Lightning connector and a lanyard loop. And Apple doesn’t even bother making their own lanyard. They know that if they did, they would only be made fun of for it.

iPhone

iPhone 14 and iPhone 14 Plus

Well, here it is. The story of the mini iPhone comes to a tragic end. I’m happily married, but the mini iPhone feels like the one that got away. I ended up with the iPhone 12 Pro because I couldn’t stomach losing the 2× camera lens. In its place is a phone that is neither easy to use in an average human hand nor takes the best pictures, the iPhone 14 Plus. The ‘Plus’ moniker is fitting, since I had similar disdain for my Plus-sized iPhone.

But it’ll make normal people happy and make Apple a kajillion dollars. Add this to the long list of reasons, but still pretty high up there, of why I am not the CEO of Apple.

Anyways.

Deep Fusion, a process that takes several pictures and combines them for capturing the most detail, is now pushed farther up the image processing pipeline in order to keep images brighter and colors more vibrant.

The front-facing camera has long been a weak part of the camera system for its lack of autofocus, but that ends now. It took twelve years, but hey, better late than never (again).

Action mode is a video mode with powerful stabilization, smoothing out the huge bumps and shakes you can get while running. That this is a special mode and not simply enabled every time you shoot video means there are probably some compromises. I’m curious what those are.

In the United States, the iPhone no longer has a SIM tray. They are switching entirely to eSIM. I switched my phone to eSIM a few months ago — it was as easy as pushing a button and waiting a minute. This will significantly curtail the risk of losing your iPhone since thieves can no longer remove the SIM card of a found phone. Without the SIM tray, more room is left over for bigger cameras or batteries.

But this change only comes to U.S. models. So will there just be an empty part of the phone where the SIM tray would have been? There will still be the tangential benefit of being slightly more waterproof, but until carriers all around the world catch up, we won’t truly reap these benefits.

Emergency SOS via satellite might sound simple. Your phone has radios for talking to cell towers; Apple added one that talks to satellites, right? No. Apple thought everything through here. From compressing text messages to developing a system of pre-filled responses for streamlined communication to setting up relay centers fully staffed with specialists — when they say this was a years-long endeavor, I believe them.

But none of this matters if the feature is hard to find. How will it be activated, from the ‘slide to turn off your iPhone’ screen? Apple is at risk of crowding that screen with options. Maybe it’ll only appear when your phone is out of cell service. Read more in my upcoming story for Cult of Mac where I strand myself in the desert.

iPhone 14 Pro and iPhone 14 Pro Max

The Dynamic Island is a great feature that is hard to put into words. So here goes: The sensor area has been redesigned, placing the proximity sensor underneath the display, so what was a notch jutting out from the top is now a lozenge cutout floating in the middle. Notifications and ongoing background activities playfully interact with this space, which grows and shrinks. Now, even in the passive state, the sensor area doesn’t feel like missing space, it feels like it’s just waiting for something to happen.

Here’s the word ‘twice’ again. The new display on the iPhone 14 Pro models is twice as bright, up to 2,000 nits. That’s far from the biggest story of the display, but an improvement like that deserves time under the sun, so it makes sense why Apple put this ahead of everything else. Time will tell if it’ll actually be able to hold that level of brightness without shooting back down to half power from the heat that is typically associated with bright sunlight.

Everyone knew this was coming, so here it is: the always-on display. The ProMotion variable display controller of the iPhone 13 couldn’t get down to 1 Hz. Apple deems this necessary so that the always-on display doesn’t drain so much battery life. Surprising to most (but not all) people, your Lock Screen background stays on, too, so you can always see your dog or your kid. A detail found on the website that wasn’t in the keynote: the always-on display is always off when it’s in your pocket.

The A16 Bionic chip uses a new 4 nm process. They’ve lapped Qualcomm four times now, who are still trying to catch up to the A13 from 2019. 50% more memory bandwidth in the GPU won’t go unnoticed, either.

The iPhone 14 Pro models get all the camera improvements above, but wait, there’s more!

The main camera now has a 48 MP quad-pixel sensor that lets in four times more light. It’s 65% larger. Does that mean that you can finally take the horrible impressionist painting pictures like the Galaxy S20? No, it puts it to better use, combining nearby pixels to significantly reduce noise and double low-light performance. You can get better, clearer pictures without switching to Night Mode.

Last year, when Apple switched the telephoto lens from 2× to 3×, I wrote that it was “less practical for day-to-day photography.” It’s too much zoom for taking portraits but not enough zoom if there’s something very far away. Well, since the new camera sensor has four times the resolution, you get the best of both worlds. Apple can crop in the sensor to get back the 2× zoom, still at full resolution.

The ultra wide camera has the hardest job for capturing such a wide field of view, so a 3× improvement in low light performance is certainly welcome.

The iPhone 14 Pro brings the first change to the LED camera flash in a long time, switching from four to nine LEDs. Not that you’ll really need it, what with all of the improvements to low light in every camera.

Most impressive of all, the prices are the same as last year. All across the board. In fact, the Apple Watch SE is cheaper than before.

Apple AR/VR Headset

Mission failed, we’ll get ’em next time.

Footnotes

  1. I imagine it will be much harder to get a false positive car crash than a false positive fall.
  2. Apple is weirdly vague on what the name of this feature is for this particular model.
  3. Called by Graham Bower before it was even rumored. In Connected parlance, that’s a correct Risky Pick!
  4. The only technology from AirPower that will ever ship.

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