Brian Hough
Big fan of all that tech nonsense, avid walker. 'Do what you like, like what you do.'

Thoughts on Apple's September 2019 Special Event

New iPhones, Apple Watches, oh my

The iPhone 11’s camera bump is ugly. The iPhone 11 Pro Max name is bad. And what is going on with iOS 13?

There, we got all of the obvious jabs out of the way early. Frankly, I don’t want to harp on them too much, because I think by this point we’ve all spilt a little too much e-ink talking about them already.

Today, Apple held its annual September 2019 Special Media Event, a time honored tradition for over a decade now. In the 2000s, Apple used this prime spot on the calendar to unveil upgrades to its once killer (and now, sadly, largely killed) iPod line-up. These days, we get the modern equivalents: the year’s new iPhone and Apple Watch. And services. And the iPad I guess? Why not.

The Services

Apple Arcade

Apple announced that Apple Arcade, its Xbox Game Pass-style subscription service for games on iOS, tvOS, and macOS, will officially launch on September 19 for just $4.99 a month, with a one month free trial. Apple spent a decent chunk of time showing us game demo after game demo, but here’s the nitty gritty: folks love playing games on their iPhone, and this looks like a great opportunity to pay about $5 a month for a bunch of great looking games.

It’s not that Apple Arcade is boring, persé; I actually find the very concept of Apple of all companies spearheading a game subscription service fascinating, given Apple’s struggles in this market. But frankly, I think I’m just not Apple’s target market here. I much prefer playing portable games on my Nintendo Switch, with its tactile controls and superior third party software support. I’ve been playing Threes for something like six years now. I already bought Threes, so I think I’m ok for now.

Still, I’ll be curious to hear feedback from the general public and more hardcore iOS gamers on Apple Arcade. It seems like a great deal.

Apple TV+

I watch a lot of TV. No, really, I watch way too much TV. The problem is that there’s far too much great television out there these days, between a seemingly fantastic new Netflix series launching practically every time I finish the last one, to Amazon Prime’s great selection, Hulu, and so much more - we are truly living in a golden age of television.

How can Apple TV+, with no known back catalog and only a handful of shows, possibly compete?

Well, as it turns out, the Apple TV+ can compete on price. Apple announced that the Apple TV+ will officially launch on November 1 for just $4.99 a month - or, crazy enough, completely free for a year if you purchase a new Mac, iPhone, iPad, or Apple TV. And to sweeten the deal, they’re not just giving you Apple TV+ - they’re giving it to your whole family, up to five people with one subscription. Apple is under no pretenses of how viewers utilize their subscriptions.

Even so, where Apple TV+ really has to compete is on the quality of their programming. The excellent price gets them halfway there, but who wants to pay $4.99 a month for a bunch of stinkers? Without any advance reviews to refer to quite yet, it’ll be a little while before we can learn the true value of Apple’s vision for the future of premium television content. All we know so far is that it will be very un-sexy. Taste is completely subjective, but I think See looks great, though.

Apple News+

Apple News+ remains a product in Apple’s lineup.

The Hardware

iPad

Here we have something of a surprise - or at least it would have been, if you don’t follow the ever presaging Mark Gurman. Although there had been virtually no rumors suggesting we’d see any new iPad hardware at this event - Apple typically saves those for its October Special Events, a frequent occurrence - Apple announced the new seventh generation iPad. That’s iPad, without a qualifier.

Although the internals of the iPad remain largely unchanged, sporting a surprisingly low end and, well, frankly disappointing A10 Fusion SoC, the iPad now sports a new, larger 10.2 inch display, Smart Keyboard support by means of its Smart Connector, a first for base model iPads, and shipping with iPadOS, today’s new iPad is the definition of iterative. It even keeps the sixth generation iPad’s disappointing screen to body ratio despite the new larger display, firmly planting the iPad as a device that screams “last gen.””

My problem with this device is that, now that it features a 10.2 inch display and smart connector, doesn’t the iPad invalidate the existence of the iPad Air? In my view there’s simply not enough to differentiate the two anymore, besides 0.3 inches of screen size and an A12 Bionic SoC.

If I were the fruit company, I would have taken the iPad Air, dropped the modifier, and called that product the seventh generation iPad, replacing last year’s model. I suppose they can’t yet hit the iPad’s ultra low price point with the A12 Bionic, but the current lineup no longer makes sense to me.

Apple Watch Series 5

The typically reliable rumor mill really let the Apple Watch down this year. Despite numerous reports indicating that the Apple Watch would be skipping a year for the first time since 2015, Apple did indeed announce the Apple Watch Series 5, a fairly significant update to the Apple Watch lineup, at least as substantial as the Series 2 and the Series 3 before it.

The tentpole feature this year is the Apple Watch’s all new Always-On Retina display, made possible by a new LTPO OLED display. From what I understand, this new display is capable of limiting its power draw during “down time” to the point where including an always-on display has a negligible hit on battery life.

The new Apple S5 SoC, which Apple declined to discuss in any great detail, is likely a slightly optimized version of the S4 SoC found on last year’s Series 4 for the sole purpose of enabling the always-on capability. Apple makes no performance claims this year other than stating that its 2x faster than the now two year old S3 SoC. It’s worth pointing out that this is the exact same claim Apple made of the S4 last year.

Beyond the Always-On OLED display and the new SoC, the new Apple Watch also comes in two new finishes - Titanium and Ceramic. Ceramic was actually sold previously in the Series 3, though this marks the first time the Apple Watch comes in a Titanium finish. I don’t think Apple did as great a job explaining the benefits of the new materials as they have in the past. As someone who is far from a watch person, I know little beyond what this new material would offer me over the less expensive Stainless Steel models.

It also includes a built in compass, which would make Dustin Henderson quite happy.

iPhone 11

The iPhone XR was the default iPhone.

That might seem strange, considering the iPhone XR was originally pitched as a low end alternative to the more expensive iPhone XS, but it was a consumer hit and has seemingly outsold its more expensive sister in arms.

Now Apple has readjusted, and the XR’s successor is not the iPhone 11R, but the iPhone 11. Featuring the same aluminum and glass industrial design of the iPhone XR, the iPhone 11 comes in a bunch of fun new colors, including a Mint Green I’m particularly fond of, the new A13 Bionic SoC, and a redesigned camera system featuring the brand new ultrawide angle lens.

You’ve probably seen this in this year’s Samsung Galaxy devices, and people seem to really enjoy these. They’re great when you have a large subject you’re trying to get entirely in the frame, or when photographing vast scenic landscapes, although they all tend to exhibit some pretty heavy barrel distortion.

The iPhone 11 is largely iterative, and that’s okay. We’ve firmly entered an era where Apple delivers major design upgrades on a three year cycle, rather than the old two year one. My only wish is that Apple would re-evaluate their naming strategy in light of this. The iPhone 11 is clearly a third-generation iPhone X, not the first in a next-generation lineup as the name would imply.

iPhone 11 Pro & iPhone 11 Pro Max

I know I said at the outset that I wouldn’t harp on this, but c’mon, Apple, really? iPhone 11 Pro Max? What, did “iPhone 11 Pro Max Xtreme Deluxe” not fit on the box?

If the iPhone 11 is a follow up to the iPhone XR, the iPhone 11 Pro phones are the follow up to the iPhone XS lineup. And like the iPhone 11, it is hugely iterative; in truth, beyond the new camera system, a slightly improved OLED display Apple is calling “Super Retina XDR” (because branding), the new SoC, and two new finishes (a “new” Gold and a beautiful Dark Green), the iPhone 11 Pro is a pretty minor upgrade.

Getting back to cameras, both the iPhone 11 and iPhone 11 Pro do come with a brand new Night Mode, made to compete with the truly excellent Night Sight functionality of Google’s Pixel lineup of phones. Night Mode, like Night Sight, uses machine learning to drastically improve photographs taken in low light situations, removing noise, upping the exposure, and creating more usable photographs. I’m a huge fan of this and wish that this was something that would come to my iPhone XS Max; it might be the single biggest “killer” feature of these new models.

The iPhone 11 lineup will launch alongside the Apple Watch Series 5 next Friday, September 20, 2019. My fellow early adopters take note - Apple has ended the midnight preorder party we’ve all become so accustomed to, opting instead to launch Apple Watch Series 5 preorders immediately, and iPhone 11 and iPhone 11 Pro preorders Friday at 5 AM PST.

Goodbye, midnight iPhone pre-order Twitter. Oh how I’ll miss you.

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