I still love my iPhone 6s. The device, hailed by some as the last great iPhone (and the last one with a headphone jack), has served me well for the last three years. It runs faster on iOS 12 — the beta version, at least — than it did on iOS 11.
But at some point soon, I’m going to have to let this old workhorse go. The main issue is the battery: even with a fresh one installed, today’s energy-hungry apps and services can grind it down. Seems like half the time I carry it around, it’s hooked up to an external battery, like a miniature iron lung. I admit to being jealous of iPhone X owners who can breeze through a whole day on a single charge — and don’t always need to remember to take a battery pack with them when they leave the house.
So I was what you might call “extremely in the market” for a new iPhone during today’s Apple event. I was slap-bang in the middle of the target audience. I understood most of the jargon about updated chips and cameras that Tim Cook and his crew threw at us. I’d even made my peace with the fact that the headphone jack is not coming back. (Yes, fellow Apple fans, I own bluetooth headphones already, I just like to have the option of wired headphones without requiring a dongle, don’t @ me.)
Yet in the aftermath, I find myself surprisingly unenthusiastic about the new lineup — the iPhone XS, XS Max and XR — and more confused than anything about which new iPhone to purchase, if any.
Apple execs, who brought the same tone of polished enthusiasm to everything they said, did a poor job of differentiating products with roughly similar specs and wildly different prices.
The confusion can best be explained by looking at the XR, which you could describe as the “budget” next-generation phone if it weren’t laughable to call a $749 device a budget anything. The XR is $150 cheaper than the XS, yet both are powered by the same superfast chip. (The A12 Bionic with next-generation neural engine, since you asked.)
The screen size on the XR is 6.1 inches, which is actually slightly larger than its more expensive sibling (the XS measures in at 5.8 inches, while the XS Max is 6.5 inches, which seems to be the main difference.)
The XS has a 12-megapixel dual camera, and the XR has a 12-megapixel single camera — but Apple marketing chief Phil Schiller went out of his way to show that pictures taken on the XR look just as cool as pictures taken on the XS, thanks to the image processing capabilities of that chip.
So … why would I buy the pricier version, exactly?
Back in the day, it was pretty clear when a budget iPhone was a budget iPhone. Look at the iPhone 5C: definitively smaller, cheaper and cheerful, decked out in bright colors, it practically screamed “buy me for your teenage kid.”
But who are the XR and XS aimed at? They’re the same size. Both are available in Space Grey and Silver. You can get the XS in Gold, and the XR in yellow, coral and red. You can get a 128GB version of the XR, but not the XS. You can get a 256GB version of the XS, but not the XR.
This is a nontrivial $150-plus decision and my head hurts already.
When you drill down a little further, it seems the differences lie in case material and screen style. The XR is aluminum, while the XS is stainless steel — or “surgical grade stainless steel,” as Schiller kept saying. Which sounds nice, but what was missing is why the average iPhone customer should care. “Surgical grade” just makes it sound like a device for the medical profession. Not many of us are taking our phones into the operating theater.
The screen on the XS is OLED. The screen on the XR is LCD. Remembering the difference between the two technologies is difficult enough without Apple layering on its own marketing terms: “Super Retina HD” and “Liquid Retina HD” respectively. LCD is a (somewhat) inferior display technology with fewer pixels and a lower contrast ratio, whatever that means, but Liquid Retina kind of sounds cooler than Super Retina.
The XR lacks 3D Touch, or Force Touch, which makes it inferior in at least one sense to my current phone, the 6S. Anyone got a Tylenol?
In the crowded and maturing smartphone market, making the differences between devices clear has never been more important. Most upgrades are incremental. Some seem like a step backwards. More consumers are holding on to their old phones; according to one UK survey, the average time taken to replace a smartphone has shot up from 20 months to 29 months in the last year alone.
To understand why we should upgrade, and what to, companies like Apple now need to make a special effort to be clear about whether a new product will suit you. At moments like this, under the world’s spotlight, they need to remove the clutter. It seems odd to tell the house that Steve Jobs built that it needs to become more minimalist, but that’s where we’re at.
No such clarity was forthcoming at this all-important roll-out moment; just armfuls of jargon. I pity the poor Apple Store reps who are going to have to explain these kinds of differences over and over for the entire holiday season.
I’m looking forward to full reviews of the new devices. Meanwhile, I’ll be sitting back and making do with my iPhone 6S, iron lung included.