Apple’s annual events are a time and cause of reflection for Android purists. It’s a single day, once a year—unless you count Apple’s tablet events—which Android has continuously failed to compete against. It’s a day when Apple arguably has the most to lose but also has the most excess to throw around, showing the world what they feel the public will want in the coming year. This has come to large success over the years, with the iPhone not only being the world’s single best-selling phone model but also unarguably building a multi-billion dollar app store ecosystem and helping forge a new era with all-new ways for people to get things done. “The hand that giveth, taketh away” is also an accurate statement, and boy has the iPhone done some taking away. Lost real estate and a sense of full-screen satisfaction, the 3.5mm headphone jack that people who have sworn against Samsung and its perceived terribleness have had to mourn, and a “proprietary solution to everything” model that the rest of the market loves to follow. The iPhone XS, iPhone XS Max, and iPhone XR are the newest in their stable of devices and as always, they’ll greatly influence the trajectory of Android smartphones through 2019 and beyond—whether we like it or not.
If you aren’t caught up yet, here is the skinny. The iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max are practically the same phones as last year’s iPhone X. First things first, they bumped up the processor to yet another Android-terrorizing version, the A12 Bionic with their second-generation neural processing engine. They moved to IP68 certification, borrowed from the Google Pixel camera, and cleaned up a few things along the way. They also kept the pricing of last years iPhone X with the iPhone XS—its direct replacement—starting at $999, with the Max edition going for $1099. The iPhone XR is arguably the most exciting announcement: It starts at $749 and includes most of what the iPhone XS models have, but forgoes OLED for LCD at just over 720p, drops the second camera but retains Bokeh mode (opting for software-based image segmentation), loses 3D Touch but gets a long-press gesture, and abandons the stainless-steel band for a colorful aluminum one. Think of this as an iPhone 5C… that doesn’t totally suck. So those are the basics about these three new phones from Apple, and the implications it has for Android could be both worrying and exciting.
Biometric Authentication: Face ID vs. In-Display Fingerprint Scanners
First, we need to talk about security and authentication. While Android is firmly moving towards the continued use of fingerprint sensors, these iPhones stroll forward without any sort of fingerprint authentication, including the holy grail bloggers have (wrongly) predicted was coming for years—in-display sensors. Personally, I do not foresee Apple going to this solution anytime soon due to FaceID being improved upon and equal among all three models, and instead, it should only be a few short years before all Apple products are using the technology, completely removing other forms of authentication. This is a path I am in agreement with. FaceID does have its failings, but there is no denying its efficiency in process and its accuracy—remember that this was in a “Gen 1” product. Early fingerprint sensors were far worse with awkward swipe readers, slow responses, and still often have a placement that can never satisfy everyone. FaceID had none of those issues on the iPhone X, and through the year I owned the device it was no worse than current fingerprint sensors, which don’t work when your finger is wet or when the phone is lying down. It does have its own problems like with sunglasses and hats, but in many ways, it is superior to Samsung’s Iris scanner—which still makes you hold the phone at a weird angle.
In-display fingerprint sensors are still in their early stages, but what I have seen so far does not look like any great improvement over what we already have, it just doesn’t take up any space. In comparison, FaceID, with its clear flaws, is moving forward where Android feels like it is sitting still and in some respects moving backward. This could all be changed though, as we see Android Pie supporting more forms of biometric authentication at a level to certify payment solutions, and some early rumors point to the Pixel 3 having some sort of FaceID system, although we don’t know if that will end up happening.
A counterpoint to moving forward with authentication technology are the prices, and if you had wished the $1K plateau would be one we would stay at for at least a little while, you are mistaken. Some rumors, even leading up to a week before launch, pointed to Apple dropping the prices on their 2018 iPhones, but it seems that is not the case and in all likelihood, Android OEMs will follow this trend. In the U.S. and some other countries, we have become so accustomed to paying a monthly fee for our phones that these companies are pushing the boundaries for what we as consumers will actively notice in practice. A $100 bump in the base price only accounts for $4.17 a month, or roughly one big cup of flavored coffee, and it moves revenues significantly if the devices sell like Samsung and Apple phones tend to sell. It also goes to further destabilize the market structure, moving the ceiling higher for a roughly comparable device, moves the goal posts down the line and not just at the end. This has led or at least contributed to devices like the OnePlus 6 costing much more than the OnePlus One or the OnePlus 3 and has moved the mid-range tier up without creating an entirely new flagship tier. Sony and LG are following this trend, with the new Xperia XZ3 costing $100 more than the outgoing—and equally overpriced—Xperia XZ2, and the LG V30 still costing $899 even though the LG V40 is coming out next month. Phones like the Pocophone F1 aim to buck this trend, but how much of an impact it will have is yet to be seen. If you were sickened by the upwards trend of phone prices before, it likely is not going to be getting better any time soon and we solely have Apple to blame for this, but there is a silver lining—the iPhone XR.
|Apple||iPhone 7 – Released 2016||$649||Samsung||Galaxy Note 7 – Released 2016||$770|
|Apple||iPhone 8 – Released 2017||$699||Samsung||Galaxy Note 8 – Released 2017||$929|
|Apple||iPhone XR – Released 2018||$749||Samsung||Galaxy Note 9 – Released 2018||$999|
|OnePlus||OnePlus 3 – Released 2016||$399||Pixel XL – Released 2016||$769|
|OnePlus||OnePlus 5 – Released 2017||$479||Pixel 2 XL – Released 2017||$849|
|OnePlus||OnePlus 6 – Released 2018||$529||Pixel 3 XL – Releasing 2018||$???|
iPhone XR: The People’s iPhone… Sort Of
Out of everything announced the past week, I feel the iPhone XR was Apple’s most important, and likely why it was saved till last and not mentioned alongside shared components with its big brothers. The iPhone XR also has large-scale implications for the rest of the industry going forward as well. Before going into why I feel this is such an important device, let us get the elephant out of the room: $749 is not cheap, and you are right about that. While some might claim the iPhone XR is a budget phone, it is not—that crown goes to the recently deceased iPhone SE which was an iPhone 6S crammed into an iPhone 5S body. However, the iPhone XR is the “budget” iPhone, and Android OEMs need to pay attention to this device, what Apple did and most importantly, what Apple didn’t do. Put simply, the iPhone XR could be the most important statement in smartphones in years. Here’s why: Apple gave its consumers exactly what they need, without the excess (yes, I am punny today but I won’t quit my day job). Let’s start with the display.
A display as Capable as Ever
There have been a lot of complaints about this single piece of the iPhone XR and it is not that the display isn’t OLED, but instead that it is “not even 1080p.” I even heard a YouTuber saying you can’t even watch 1080p videos on this phone as if that was some massive downside. Here are some interesting data. The iPhone 6, iPhone 7, and iPhone 8 all had a 750×1334 16:9 4.7-inch display at 326ppi, the iPhone XR has an 828×1792 19:5:9 6.1-inch display at, you guessed it, 326ppi. Some argue that it isn’t the same, because it is 6.1 inches across its diagonal, but the increased resolution exactly matches what the existing iPhone had, meaning you are getting the same experience the outgoing model gave you. In fact, it could be argued that since it is larger, you would hold it slightly further from your face, increasing its realized or perceived ppi, but I digress. It is good to recall that high resolution does not by itself make a display good, and that pentile OLEDs have an effective resolution loss due to their subpixel layout. On paper, a display that barely exceeds 720p implies it is not a good one, however, it is enough for the majority of users and that includes anyone who currently uses the base iPhone, and would not mind having a larger display. It is also important to note that at least in the U.S., where Apple has a large market share, carriers have made it difficult to stream anything over 720p on a cellular connection, further decreasing the loss of ‘not being able to watch 1080p videos.’
The loss of 3D Touch won’t be missed by many either, as it is a feature that is ignored by a lot of iPhone owners, and they added a long press function to address the most common use cases anyway. 3D Touch was a nicety, and it’s certainly interesting that they removed it, but doesn’t fall into that “need-to-have” category, especially when cost savings are a factor. The lack of HDR is disappointing—but again it is merely a nice bonus, yet hardly one that has a huge benefit for consumers. Another benefit of this display is the viewport and scaling Apple decided to go with. Starting with the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6+ Apple switched to having two scales, one was the Plus scale and one was the normal scale. The Plus scale includes things like the horizontal desktop, shortcut keys on the landscape keyboard, dual pane landscape applications and more. When the iPhone X was released last year it lacked the Plus scaling and was instead the normal type. That means the iPhone X had no extra screen content and an issue I have always faced is that it felt like the UI was too large. The iPhone XS Max uses the old Plus scaling and the iPhone XR also uses this Plus scaling. This means that both the iPhone XS Max and the iPhone XR will display the same content, essentially giving you the Plus “feel” at a slightly smaller size and price. The downside is that everything will be at the lower resolution which could cause fine line loss on text for pixel peepers. This is something iPhone users have wanted for some time and is just another added benefit of the iPhone XR.
Cheaper Portraits on iOS
That thread of giving consumers exactly what they need goes further than the display and is really the essence of what the iPhone XR is all about. For instance, take the camera. One of the reasons a lot of people I know own the larger iPhone was for the camera improvements. Initially, it was for optical image stabilization with the iPhone 6 series, then it morphed to the telephoto lens, and most importantly, the mode every InstaStar needs: Portrait mode. Traditionally, losing that second lens meant giving up on Portrait mode, but that is not the case anymore. Much like Google, Apple is doing a lot of computational trickery on its new iPhones and that means the single lens solution can still achieve excellent Portrait mode shots. This loss of the second shooter means you only lose telephoto, something I know my wife and I have rarely used. Apple knew that for the iPhone XR to be successful, they would need to maintain the same excellent camera performance the iPhone XS models were touting and that is exactly what they look to have achieved with the same primary shooter.
The Latest Silicon
The SoC is the area where I feel this is most exemplified. I doubt I am alone here, but I thought Apple would put the perfectly capable A11 Bionic SoC in the cheaper iPhone instead of their latest and greatest. Apple bucked the trend of placing older SoCs in cheaper devices by putting the brand-new A12 SoC in it. On the surface, this might not mean a lot, but when you look at the broader implications of this you see it is actually a huge deal. All 2018 iPhone models have the same SoC, so unlike the iPhone SE or iPhone 5C, or rivals LG G7 One, skimping on price does not mean you lose performance, or more importantly, long-term support. The iPhone XR, despite its $250 price difference, will be supported for the same amount of years as the premium models costing upwards of twice the price. You also benefit, as I mentioned earlier, from all the other SoC enhancements including the photo processing, AR abilities, and a level of raw performance that just stomps the current greatest Android SoCs. It remains to be seen how the upcoming Samsung Exynos 9820 in the Galaxy S10, HiSilicon Kirin 980 on the Mate 20, and Qualcomm Snapdragon 8150 will compare.
Improved Odds & Ends
They also did not skimp entirely on water resistance, maintaining the same level the iPhone 8 and iPhone X achieved: IP67. While the iPhone XS models jump to IP68 which is excellent, IP67 will still protect you against most accidents and even some light dunking, exactly what consumers need. The display still reads inputs at 120Hz (not to be confused with a 120Hz refresh rate) which means input lag is at an absolute minimum. It still features dual speakers, the same upgraded FaceID system and front camera upgrade, Qi wireless charging support, and super-fast 64GB of internal storage—which is also upgradeable to 128GB for $50, the only model allowing this step. I keep mentioning the colors as well, but the design of the iPhone XR gives the phone its own identity. It has small bits of a number of phones from the simple back of the iPhone 8, the front of the iPhone X, and the colors of the iPhone 5C. Apple could have done the bare minimum with this phone but instead, I feel they went out of their way to deliver what they felt the general consumer, who will be the main purchasers of this device, need without a lot of the extra they may not have wanted.
A Paradigm Shift for Apple, Deep Implications for Android
The iPhone XR is not only the most important iPhone released, but it is also the phone that Android OEMs can learn from the most. A more budget-focused version of your flagship does not need to skimp in areas that matter. The camera does not need to be replaced with an inferior model, the SoC can still be top of the line, and the phone can cut off all the excesses without drastically impacting the user experience. Sometimes we as tech-focused consumers look at the specifications too hard, the 1080p display vs. the 720p panel, the single-camera Google Pixel 3 instead of a dual camera setup as if that was some sort of shortcoming. The iPhone XR is also exciting, it doesn’t come in those boring colors with an ultra-premium looking stainless frame that its larger siblings come in. It comes in glossy, flashy, and fun colors that just look great and all are available on day one. I am looking at you, Samsung and OnePlus.
There were also other things that stood out about Apple’s 2018 iPhone event. Google was right about cameras: Computational photography is the way forward and Apple knew it was getting creamed in 2017, seemingly aiming to fix that this year. While I am sure that Apple is doing a few things different compared to Google, the general mindset and functionality between Zero Shutter Lag (ZSL) and the merging of photos to create a composite of exposures are almost identical. Apple led the way in smartphone photography for years and it was not until Google pushed HDR+ that we saw a shift. If Apple combines everything great about their cameras and a technology that achieves 95% of what Google does on the Pixel, we are going to have a new top shooter, at least until October 9th. What Apple didn’t do yet with the camera is put out a manual mode, so I doubt Google will on the Pixel 3 either… come-on Apple, get your stuff together, we really want this in the Google Camera application. Sadly, having Apple add a feature seems the best way to get new functionality (or lose some) on Pixel phones.
The 3.5mm headphone jack also is not coming back on these models, surprising exactly no one, so we should continue to see this trend grow with LG and Samsung being the last two who hold fast to the port now that the OnePlus 6T will not have one. Apple did take things a step forward in anti-consumerism by removing the 3.5mm dongle as well. While you can buy them for $9, it is still a cheap move to pull on a phone that costs $1,100. Also, pushing that further these phones still ship with the same 5W charger they have for years now, with no fast charging in the box despite the ability being there and the iPad charger being a better substitute if they didn’t go full 20W and beyond. Apple simply refuses to bundle them with the phone and again, at $1,100 for the base iPhone XS Max and a hair under $1,500 for the 512GB version, Apple skimping on a few dollars worth of chargers is inexcusable.
The iPhone XR isn’t a cheap phone, it is the cheaper iPhone.
As Apple does every year, they set the tone for what we expect to see in the future. All glass, all display phones are going to continue in popularity and since Apple is pushing headstrong into the notch, I expect others to continue to follow suit. I certainly hope that more effort is placed into alternative Android authentication methods because in-display fingerprint sensors just do not interest me a lot. It is more of a side step instead of a step forward. People also need to pay attention to the iPhone XR intently because it could be a way to stem the tide of rising prices by introducing that new tier of the standard flagship we are lacking and then the uber-flagship like the Galaxy Note9, iPhone XS, and iPhone XS Max, and other ~$1,000 phones. The iPhone XR isn’t a cheap phone, it is the cheaper iPhone. It affords people the opportunity to get most of the latest without having to pay for the greatest, and still have all the main functional improvements of one model over another. This does put Google in a really tricky situation with the Pixel 3 XL, though. Assuming there is no price increase, which I doubt, the Pixel 3 XL and iPhone XR will be competing devices and for $100 less, all you are really sacrificing by getting the iPhone XR over the Pixel 3 XL is the display resolution, which you may or may not notice. In return, you are getting far more after-purchase support, a processor that is far more powerful, access to the entire Apple ecosystem, and some fun colors. October 9th will be a very interesting day for sure.
It is easy to dismiss any Apple positive press after an event as drinking the Kool-Aid or buying into the hype, but it feels that this year Apple is getting a lot of pushback from the media in general from YouTubers to bloggers to clickbait sites and beyond. You might call it apathy, but it could also be Apple making a slight pivot back towards the mainstream consumer instead of trying to compete for the top specifications and technophobes. The sheer amount of articles complaining about the iPhone XR should be proof enough that they are doing something right, instead of delivering exactly what was expected by the people who care about specifications. They delivered—what I feel—is a product that will largely appeal to the mainstream users and I’d wager the iPhone XR itself will outsell every Android phone on the market this year by a significant margin. Being on the Android side of things might cause us to push back against Apple and their path of anti-consumerism, but looking at it objectively and trying to see where Android can improve and where Android excels can help us have a healthy approach to the entire industry going forward.