The most exciting announcement from Apple’s annual iPhone event on Tuesday was not a set of three new smartphones, but a smartwatch. The Apple Watch Series 4 — with its rounded corners, larger display, and built-in EKG scanner — became undoubtedly the most sought-after gadget in the aftermath of Apple’s fall hardware refresh. While many people have bemoaned having to choose between the iPhone XS and XR, or are simply forgoing a mobile upgrade entirely, the Series 4 stood out for how simple of a purchase it is for those who’ve been sitting on the sidelines of the wearable market.
For those like me who’ve had an older Apple Watch Series 0 or 1, it’s a no-brainer, and it was what I was most excited about when I decided to stay up on Thursday night to claim a midnight order. The disparity is best illustrated by the fact that, after less than half a day of orders, every single tier of iPhone XS available right now has a September 28th to October 5th shipping window. Nearly every model of the Apple Watch Series 4, on the other hand, won’t ship until October 12th to October 19th.
There’s a number of reasons why the Apple Watch is outshining the iPhone these days. The first and most obvious is that the iPhone has become boring, trapped by the diminishing returns Apple can wring out of the device year after year. It would seem, 11 years after the introduction of the first iPhone, that Apple’s marquee product has simply lost a majority of its luster. There are only so many upgrades and standout features you can add to a mobile product before its incremental changes are overshadowed by how much it costs.
Simply take a look back at the last four years of iPhones. In 2014, Apple introduced the Plus version of the iPhone when it released the iPhone 6, which helped cement the trend of ever-larger displays that Samsung and other Asian manufacturers had first promoted. In 2015, the phone was paired with the Apple Watch for the first time, giving diehard fans a better reason to incorporate more Apple hardware and software into their lives. The year after, the company removed the headphone jack and released the AirPods, kicking off a debate about how and when to force consumers and the industry toward a wireless vision for the future. Last year, we got the iPhone X. With its signature notch, bezel-less display, and FaceID, it became an industry trendsetter and facilitated a more interesting debate about smartphone design than we’ve enjoyed in years.
This year, which is admittedly an S upgrade year and so understandably less exciting, it doesn’t seem like there’s a lot of room for the iPhone to grow. That leads to the second most obvious reason why it’s become harder to care about the iPhone: price. As the iPhone has stagnated in terms of new features, Apple has increased the average cost of its flagship device by more than $300, from around $775 to $1,100.
The company figured out last year with the iPhone X that customers would be willing to pay not for meaningful new features, but for design and aesthetic improvements. So it began using higher-quality materials, like OLED displays and glass back plates, and increasing the available storage tiers. This year, you can get an iPhone XS Max with 512GB of storage for $1,449, making it the most expensive iPhone ever made, just like the X was before it.
working out supply chain and manufacturing kinks.) There is an argument to make that the XR is the more interesting, mass market-friendly, and potentially successful phone of the three, but we won’t know that until later this year.
As it stands today, Apple’s flagship phone is the least exciting device it’s put out in a long time, and it’s easy to see why it’s being outshined by the Apple Watch. What started as an underdog product arriving late to the wearable scene, the Apple Watch has since become not only the world’s best-selling wearable, but the world’s best-selling watch, period.
Apple has achieved that by consistently improving its hardware and software with each new annual iteration. Just like the early days of the iPhone, each new Apple Watch adds something exciting and legitimately impressive, from the water-resistance of the Series 2 to the cellular connectivity of the Series 3. Now, with the Series 4, Apple has added a built-in EKG scanner and the first hardware design overhaul the watch has had since its inception.
There will be a time when the Apple Watch, like the iPhone, becomes a stagnant product that simply becomes more exorbitant and expensive. Ironically, Apple’s very first Apple Watch contained a line of now-discontinued models as expensive as $17,000. So there’s quite a lot of room for the company to grow its smartwatch brand and expand it back into the luxury market. But until then, we can expect quite a few more years of novel innovations and design overhauls.
Perhaps Apple overcomes engineering and design hurdles to create a round-shaped Apple Watch. Maybe the company figures out how to extend the battery life by more than 24 hours. There’s myriad ways the Apple Watch can improve and reach a more mass-market audience. But one thing is for sure right now: with the Series 4 out in the wild, it’s probably a more invigorating time to be developing the next Apple Watch than the next iPhone, and customers seem to be responding visibly to that shift.
THE NEW PIXEL 3’S CAMERA WILL LET AI PICK OUT THE BEST PHOTOS FOR YOU
Google’s Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL smartphones were just unveiled this morning at an event in New York City. As expected, both phones are coming with a near-identical set of front-facing and rear-facing cameras that are powered by artificial intelligence. That allows them to do all sorts of algorithmic work behind the scenes, all powered by what Google calls its new Pixel Visual Core chip.
Among the new AI features built into the Pixel 3 camera are two new shooting modes called Top Shot and Photobooth. Top Shot uses Google’s work in image and object recognition and computer vision to analyze photos and pick the best shots in a given batch. With Top Shot, you’ll be able to capture a number of photos before and after the moment you press the virtual shutter button, while the software will pick out the best shot.
It’s similar to Google’s Motion Photos feature that creates GIFs from short snippets of video. You can still browse through the alternates to pick out others, Google says. Photobooth, on the other hand, takes a bunch of photos of you or your friends using the front-facing camera, but only when it recognizes that the subjects of the photo are making a funny face or smiling. You don’t need to even press the shutter.
Google also announced a feature called Super Res Zoom, which uses a burst of photos to amp resolution when you zoom into a subject, and Night Sight, which uses machine learning to artificially brighten dark spots in photos. For Pixel 3 XL owners, you’ll be able to access a wide-angle lens for a feature Google is calling Group Selfie Cam.
Some of the AI-powered software here, specifically a feature like Photobooth, was built initially for Google Clips, the company’s square-shaped photo and video capturing device that automatically operates on its own to let parents capture moments of their kids. Now, it appears that Google has taken a lot of the knowledge there and integrated it into its Pixel devices to help ease the pain of picking a photo or tinkering with all the settings to capture the perfect shot.
Since the original Pixel, the defining feature of the device line has not been its design or the relatively spartan stock Android it runs, but the camera. Using its advancements in artificial intelligence, Google was able to achieve a staggeringly capable camera that has only improved with last year’s Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL. So it makes sense that Google has put more resources toward improving the Pixel 3 camera and positioning it as one of, if not the most important, reason why you’d pick its device over an iPhone XS or a Samsung Galaxy S9 / Note 9.
APPLE IS RETHINKING THE HEARING AID — AND NOW ANDROID IS, TOO
Google is making life a bit easier for people affected by hearing loss — with official hearing aid support in Android.
On Thursday, the company announced that it’s working with GN Hearing to bring low-power hearing aid streaming support to future versions of Android. This means people will be able to connect, pair and monitor their hearing aids from their Android device.
This follows Apple’s Made for iPhone hearing aid program, which allows people to connect and control their hearing aids from iOS devices. You can read more in.
Although Apple was first, Google’s move has potentially bigger impact since 85 percent of the world’s smartphones run Android (compared to 14.7 percent for iOS).
A World Health Organization statistic from March says that around 466 million people worldwide have disabling hearing loss, meaning a lot of people could potentially benefit from Android’s support.
Apple and Android aren’t alone in bringing cutting-edge tech to hearing aids. Manufacturers like Bose, Oticon and Harman are alsowith app support, built-in sensors and communication between connected smart devices.
Android’s hearing aid support is designed to have a low impact on battery life while keeping audio quality high. The nitty-gritty details about the hearing aid support can be read on Android’s spec page here.
MICROSOFT’S SURFACE CHIEF HINTS AT A MODULAR SURFACE PC AND USB-C WEBCAM
Microsoft unveiled a bunch of different Surface products this week. There’s a new matte black Surface Pro 6 and Surface Laptop 2, an updated Surface Studio 2, and all new Surface Headphones. While most of the hardware was typical Surface, the Headphones were a surprising shift for Microsoft. In an interview with The Verge, Surface chief Panos Panay reveals that Microsoft moving into headphones is all about a new idea of “completing the Surface experience.”
“Now that the company is designing these products as one company, the tech is evolving where we want it to be… there was an opportunity to complete this thing in a way that I’m passionate about and that the team is passionate about,” explains Panay. That “completion” on the headphones side is designed to meet Surface users that engross themselves in music, as many creators do, or even gamers who use headsets for hours. “Just like a Surface, there are a few little elements that we can bring to the table that are transformative for your experience in getting things done,” explains Panay. Those elements include the clever noise canceling dial, integrated Cortana and Skype functions, and the automatic mute features.
While Microsoft has taken this step into headphones and beyond its regular mouse and keyboard accessories, there are signs Surface will continue to push into new areas. During our interview, Panay hints that we might see a USB-C webcam from Microsoft. “Look at the camera on Surface Hub 2, note it’s a USB-C-based camera, and the idea that we can bring a high fidelity camera to an experience, you can probably guess that’s going to happen,” explains Panay. “Is it completing an experience or bringing the next level of an experience to something that you wanted, even if it’s not Surface? I’ve been looking at all of that. While I won’t announce a new product, I think that’s important. I really think the completing of experience is our design from Microsoft that’s hardware and software.”
Microsoft is increasingly looking at a tighter blend of hardware and software that’s typically the playbook of Apple. While the software giant has tried to mash these together by demonstrating things like OneNote with a Surface Pen, the Surface Hub 2 feels like the first real demonstration of Microsoft’s new approach to hardware and software. It also has a modular design so you can upgrade its components, and that same design feels like it should be on the 28-inch Surface Studio.
I asked Panos if we could see the same modular design of the Surface Hub 2, that lets you replace the processor cartridge, coming to Surface Studio. “Probably, you look at it and you see what’s the evolution and how do we make it better for our customers,” says Panay. “Yeah, there’s still so much more to do, and while I won’t tell you what it is you can put stories together.” It’s easy to connect the Surface dots, especially when Microsoft filed patents for a modular Surface Studio years ago.
Either way, it’s clear the future of Surface will be very similar to the Surface Hub 2 and Surface Headphones. Both these products marry hardware and software together in meaningful ways that are designed to make them truly fit into the unique gap in the market that Microsoft is trying to fill with Surface.