Apple had their “Hi, Speed” event on Tuesday. While this was a shorter even than usual, with only a few products announced, it was nonetheless quite the exciting event.
HomePod Mini: A smaller, more competitive HomePod
Apple led the event with announcing the HomePod Mini. Like its bigger sibling, the Mini comes in either a black or white felt design. Unlike its sibling, it’s more spherical in shape rather than a giant cylinder. It also sports a larger backlit touchscreen surface on top that can be used to start or start Siri, timers, and adjust the volume.
Apple spent a great deal of time talking about the new features and audio quality in the little fellow, highlighting getting the best sound out of such a tiny speaker. It is able to shoot sound in 360 degrees with the various speakers on the sides and base of the HomePod. It can also monitor the layout of the room and the audio being played to adjust its output for the best quality playback, which Apple says is due to its S5 silicon chip inside. This also allows it to play audio throughout the house if you have multiple HomePods in your house, but is also smart enough to start playing stereo audio through 2 Minis if they are close enough together.
The HomePod is also a modest update to the underlying software as well. Besides playing music from your iTunes Library, Apple Music Subscription, or Apple Podcasts, you’ll also be able to play music and radio stations through services like Pandora, Amazon Music, iHeartRadio, and more (interesting Spotify wasn’t mentioned). And of course your Siri Shortcuts will work for playing other services to the HomePod from your other devices.
While more of an iOS announcement, Apple showed off that the Home app will be getting an update called Discover, which will be a tab in the app that will help find devices for different categories, such as lights, blinds, security cameras, etc. that are Homekit capable, hopefully bringing more light to this market.
Speaking of Siri, there are 2 new features coming to Siri that were demoed with the Mini. The first is the “What’s My Update”. Customizable to each member of your household, you can ask this of Siri, and it will answer with the local weather forecast, any upcoming appointments, reminders, and more. It will respond with your name, such as “Good morning Dave”, which does give it a more personal feel. This also shows off how the HomePod can really be a device for everyone in the family, assuming everyone has an Apple account and links up to it.
The other new major Siri feature is the Intercom feature. You can use Siri to send a voice message to every other HomePod in the house as demonstrated by a father telling Siri to tell his family that they were running late, to which presumably his daughter told Siri to tell Dad she was getting her jacket while still playing on the iPad. Likewise this feature could be activated from non-HomePod devices, such as CarPlay, and could send notifications to Apple Watches, iPhones, iPads, and even play in someone’s headphones. We’ve seen similar features like Drop-In on Amazon Echo’s and even the walkie-talkie feature on Apple Watches before, but they haven’t taken off for most people I’m aware of, so we’ll have to wait and see what happens.
Siri also got some improvements so that now if you ask for directions or travel time to your HomePod, the location and directions can automatically appear as suggestion in CarPlay for navigation.
Overall, this could really be a kick in the pants for the HomePod. While I really like mine, and things like Siri shortcuts and the audio sounds great, it’s definitely a distant third to the Google Home and Amazon Echos as far as smart speakers go. That said this one is more more competitively priced to devices like the Echo Dot or the Google Home Mini, and with potentially better sound and better privacy the HomePods might have a better shot for getting traction. The HomePod will be available for preorder on November 6th and available for direct purchasing on the 13th.
iPhone 12: So it has 5G…And some cool cameras
Apple announced 4 new iPhones: The iPhone 12, the iPhone 12 Mini, the iPhone 12 Pro, and the iPhone 12 Pro Max. Between these 4 phones and the previously announced iPhone SE, not to mention the earlier iPhone 11 and XR that are still for sale, Apple truly seems to have an iPhone at every price point. But we’ll get more to that in a moment, because there is a few notes about that.
Let’s start with what Apple really wanted to highlight about all 4 models: 5G comes to the iPhone. They really hammered in talking about how fast it is, bringing Verizon to talk about 5G, showing off stadiums, and even showing off how 5G speed can be used to get medical images to doctors faster. These are all well and good things, the issue being is that 5G technology is not very well distributed at this point, either across the world or even within cities, so getting 5G access may not be common outside of a few metropolitan areas. Now the iPhone 12 line is, according to Apple, the smartphone with the most 5G bands supported, which is necessary as some 5G bands are very fast but have very short ranges, while others have more range but aren’t that different from LTE speeds. For such technology may cost around $100 to include in a phone, which Apple has (mostly) eaten to keep prices the same, more on that later. These 5G bands will also add additional power drain to most devices, which Apple has worked around by allowing the phone to automatically switch between 5G and LTE based on the tasks at hand. When the phone detects 5G in the area, and the tasks you’re doing on your phone benefit from 5G speeds, the phone will turn on the 5G antenna and use that speed. But if your phone wouldn’t benefit from such tasks or your phone needs to save battery, the phone will switch back to LTE. Overall this is probably the best bet; 5G is a good boost in speed, but is still very early in deployment that most people won’t benefit. Apple is somewhat early jumping on this train compared to how long it took them to add LTE support, but they could also see this as a way to help bring the market forward. And the ways they’re trying to balance the benefits with the caveats.
Continuing on with things shared by all the iPhones, let’s talk about the screen. All 4 of the phone announced today will also be using their Super Retina XDR, OLED display with darker darks and lighter lights, in other words better contrast. Apple said these phones now can display at 1200 NITS of brightness, have a 2,000,000 to 1 contrast ratio, and support various HDR formats when viewing video and photos. But the screen is also more durable, with the new “Ceramic Shield” glass. This glass is embedded with ceramic crystals, thus giving the glass more support and resulting in 4 times better protection against drops compared to previous generations. There are some similar technologies out there that do indeed perform better on drops compared to regular gorilla glass. Rather than shatter the glass tends to show more consistent cracks. Assuming Apple’s is at least as good, if not better, then it likely you’ll have fewer screen shatters and fractures on your screen, and if you do mess up the screen then you’ll have fewer lines.
Apple also briefly touched more on their A14 Bionic chip, which they announced and talked more about in their iPad Air announcement earlier this year. It’s a 5 nanometer chip (digging a bit at Intel there) that runs a 6 core CPU for processing, 4-core GPU for graphics, and supposedly allows them to due 11 trillion operations per second. The chip also comes with a dedicated Neural Engine, a machine learning section, and improved memory compression for fast work. The way they showed this off more universally was in their cameras and by inviting Riot Games to talk about bringing League of Legends to the iPhone. While LoL is not the most graphically intensive game, it does have a lot going on at any given time, so it can be a little more resource intensive. And its visual flair is nothing to sneeze at either. While I don’t expect to see anyone using iPhones in League of Legend tournaments in place of their computers, it does show how much power is in the iPhones, both processor wise and graphics wise.
That power is also used for the camera. All of the iPhones are now using 12 MP camera in all their rear facing lenses, thus giving you more graphical bang for your buck (we’ll get into the difference between the Pro and mainline iPhone cameras later). The wide cameras are now capable of 1.6 aperture with the ultrawide capable of a 2.4 aperture. Both are very impressive for a phone camera. Apple’s software is also increasing so their computation photography, meaning what the software does to the pictures the camera takes. It’s now better able to work with overly bright or dark photos, which leads into better night mode photos. In fact, Night Mode will now be available on the front and rear facing cameras on the iPhone, making for Night Mode selfies. You will also be able to take Night Mode time lapse videos. I’m expecting we could start seeing some cool videos coming out of that such as the night sky and traffic, among other things.
The last major new universal feature is the introduction of MagSafe charging. Now long time Mac users will recognize the name MagSafe as the chargers Mac formerly used for their Macs before switching over to USB-C/Thunderbolt 3. It was a magnetic charger that kept the shallower charger connected to your phone but also prevented damage to the Mac if the cable was jerked out unintentionally. The name is getting brought back for the iPhone’s wireless charging capabilities. iPhones have had wireless charging since the iPhone 8, but since the iPhones nor the base stations had consistent ways to keep the phone and pad in the ideal spot for charging, it’s been possible to leave your phone on a wireless charging pad but the phone isn’t actually charging. Now the iPhone will have a special magnet inside that will help it bind to charging pads with magnets, as well as a lines of MagSage branded charging pads. Apple is already announced they’ll be releasing one that doubly supports the iPhone and Apple Watch, while showing off ones from Belkin and Logitech that will support MagSafe and function very similarly with different styles (though admittedly the Apple one folds up, so I’m somewhat partial to it. This Apple branded one is likely what happened to the lost AirPower charger Apple announce many moons ago and never released.
There’s one more universal note we should talk about, though it’s not what’s being added so much as what’s being removed. Apple has been very on top of their environmental impact and wanted to talk about how their phones are becoming better for the environment. For one, Apple announced all the magnets in its cameras and chargers are now made with 100% recycled metal, which is a really good thing. Then Apple announced, as many of were expecting, that they were going to be removing the wired headphones and wall charger (the part that lets you connect the USB cable to an outlet in the wall) from the box you get with your phone. They noted almost everyone already has wired or wireless headphones and wall chargers, and so by removing this they would reduce e-waste. On top of this, they could make the iPhone boxes smaller, pack more onto pallets, and therefore move more iPhones with fewer ships, potentially reducing their contributions to transportation by 2 million tons per year, or about removing 450,000 cars from the road. That said they said you could still purchase some if you so needed. All of this is well and good, and is generally fairly spot on, but there is a catch that has many many people understandably upset. While this is the first iPhone to come without the USB-A (traditional USB port), it’s also the first iPhone to come with a Lightning to USB-C cable. Since all of Apple’s previous included adapters have been type A adapters, it means few people have the wall adapters needed for this.
Many of understandably seen this as a money grab, and I don’t blame them, especially when the argument can be made that they could have then finally moved on to USB-C. On this last point I agree, though I’m not necessarily ready to go the “Apple is money hungry” yet, and rather say Apple might have put themselves in a hard place with earlier Mac decisions as well as their desire to go wireless. For now I’m going to save this for another article, as it would take longer than I’d like to write out my thoughts. Suffice to say, I think Apple put themselves in a hard place where they needed to put out a Lightning to USB-C cable as the default with the changing times and because of their own earlier, arguably poorer device decisions with the Macs in their little world, and in collided with their desires to be more environmentally responsible.
With all that said, let’s talk about the specifics about the new iPhone 12, Mini, Pro, and Pro Max.
iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Mini: Starting with the iPhone 12 this phone will maintain similar physical dimensions as the iPhone 11 but will have a bigger screen due to the reduced bezel size of Apple was able to pull off. The iPhone 12 will now have a 6.1 inch screen. The iPhone 12, according to Apple, is also about 11% thinner, 15% smaller, and 16% lighter than its predecessor. It’ll still be using the dual-camera system of previous iPhones, with a 12 MP ultra-wide camera capable of a 2.4 aperture and 120 degree angle, and another 12 MP wide lens capable of an aperture of 1.6.
Coming out of left field is the newest addition to the iPhone line, iPhone Mini. It has a smaller body than the iPhone 8, but because of the FaceID design and reduced bezels it has a larger screen: 5.4 inches on the iPhone 8 versus 5.7 inches on the mini. It will also use the exact same camera system as the larger sibling. Both phones use a uniform folded aluminum design, which really does make the phones look like a single slab of metal, save for the screen. Both phones will also come in a new array of colors similar to the recently announced Apple Watch 6: You will now be able to get the phone in black, gold, green, red, and blue. I’m not to fond of that shade of green, but I really like that shade of blue.
The price scheme is a bit odd for these, so be prepared. You’ll pay $699 for iPhone 12 Mini, and $799 for iPhone 12, but only if you buy them from Verizon or AT&T in the U.S. Elsewhere in the States, whether it’s through a carrier or unlocked, you’ll pay $729 and $829 respectively. Sounds to me like in order to maintain their margins and get 5G, Apple had to raise the price a bit, but were able to cut deals with Verizon and AT&T to reduce the licensing costs for those particular customers. If you do purchase through Verizon and are willing to trade in your iPhone 8 or newer, you can pay for the iPhone 12 monthly for $15/month or $12/month for the Mini. That said, looking at trading my iPhone in for Verizon’s deal (64 GB, iPhone 8+, good condition), Verizon is willing to give $550 of trade-in value. That’s a pretty good return.
The iPhone 12 is available for preorder now, and will be available widely on the 23rd. The Mini will be available for pre-order on the 6th of November, and available widely on the 13th of November.
iPhone 12 Pro and Pro Max: The iPhone 12 Pros got a lot of attention, particularly focus on the cameras and the accompanying changes. The Pros will sport a stainless steel design, with said metal around the sides of the phone for the antennas and a glass back. Like their less expensive siblings, these phones also got reduced bezels while maintaining similar body designs: the iPhone Pro sports a 6.1 inch screen, and the Pro Max sports a 6.7 inch screen. They will also come in 4 colors. The traditional Black, Silver, and Gold stay, but the “Pacific Blue” Color has introduced itself. And I still really like that color. One other internal change though is the starting storage. iPhone 12 Pro and Pro Max now will start with 128 gigs of storage, and can be upgraded further from there.
But what Apple really wanted to talk about with the Pros were the cameras. First off, all 4 cameras (the 3 on the rear and the front facing) will now support Apple’s Deep Fusion technology for better, more professional looking photos. On the back, all 4 cameras will now be 12 MP cameras, capable with a total 4X optical zoom. The Telephoto lens itself will offer 2.5 zoom using its 65 mm photo length. The Wide lens sensor is now 47% bigger, purportedly making for an 87% improvement in low light. This isn’t the only thing to change in the sensors though. Along with Apple’s software image stabilization, the iPhone 12 Pros will have an image stabilizer in the sensor, claiming it can make 5000 micro adjustment per second, and taking only 2 seconds to focus in low light. So as you move the phone camera around, the sensor itself will be moving physically in the phone to make for more stable shots and stay in focus on the proper subject.
The rear facing cameras will now also have a LiDAR sensor (thing radar, but using light). It will shoot light into a room, measure the time for the light to return to the camera after reflecting off an object, and be able to judge things like size and distance. This can help with things like making augmented reality better, improving photo and video effects, and room scanning for these things. Apple showed it helping with autofocus in low light scenes, making autofocus work 6 times faster (though outside of low light conditions, I can’t say I’ve ever felt it was that slow)
For photographers using the iPhone Pros for video, Apple announced the Pro phones can now shoot in the new “Apple ProRaw” format. The idea is to match the full control and image control of the RAW format for photographers, and the AI and software benefits of Apple’s computation photo. If shot this way, photos taken with the iPhone will still have the computation done on them, but will be treated like layers and settings rather than be applied to the photo itself. Meaning if a photographer doesn’t like the white balance of a photo taken on the iPhone, they can easily adjust it as if the iPhone hadn’t done any white balancing on its own. These things will be available in the Apple Photos app for iOS (and presumably on Big Sur when it comes out), but there are other Pro level apps where these can be edited, and Apple will have an API available for developers to be able to integrate Apple ProRaw into their apps.
Lastly video was not to be outdone either, even if the iPhone is arguably the best video taking smartphone on the market. iPhone Pros will now be able to record in 10-bit HDR video up from the previous 8-bit recording of the earliest generations. Likewise it can record in Dolby Vision HDR in real time in 4k resolution and 60 FPS. This, from a video guy like me, means really great video on the fly. Even more impressive is the fact that the iPhone Pros can Includes filters for video.
The iPhone 12 Pro, like the iPhone 12, is available for preorder now, and will be available widely on the 23rd. The iPhone 12 Max, like the Mini, will be available for pre-order on the 6th of November, and available widely on the 13th of November.
So that’s all for the Apple event. This article took surprisingly longer to write, but let me know what did you think of the Apple announcement and what, if anything, you plan to get.