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Bill Bennett

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Apple returned from near obscurity to dominate consumer electronics after reinventing the smartphone. The iPod MP3 player was an important step on the way to the iPhone. Follow-up acts don’t come much better than the iPad, which changed the face of personal computing although the Mac and the MacBook ranges are still important.

Apple iPhone SE 2020: Best value mid-price option

Looking for mid-range phone? You’d need to be deep into Android or have an irrational Apple aversion to walk past the 2020 iPhone SE.

For a start it is a bargain at NZ$800. In effect, you get the brain of a 2020 iPhone 11 in the body of a 2017 iPhone 8.

That makes it competitive with a slew of mid-priced Android phones.

Android competitors

The same money would buy the somewhat ordinary Oppo Reno2. Spend another $50 and you could get a Samsung Galaxy S10e. Pay $100 less and you could have a Huawei Nova 5T.

That $800 buys all the power of a top level iPhone costing three times as much.

If you’ve put up with Android because the iPhone was out of your price range, the SE is a get out of gaol card.

It will also appeal to iPhone upgraders who have squeezed years out of earlier models.

High performance

Inside the case you get the same Apple A13 Bionic processor that is used in the iPhone 11. It’s not crippled in any way. You get all that power. It means apps perform much faster than on any other phone in this price range.

There is a small downside. The A13 Bionic processor chews through battery life. You’ll still get 24 hours between charges. The phone comfortably makes it through a working day with plenty left over for leisure. But it doesn’t have the iPhone 11’s ability to go two days without a charge.

Apple only includes a 5W charger in the box with the iPhone SE. That means it takes longer to charge than you might expect. If you have a compatible USB-C charger with a higher rating, it will charge the phone faster.

The iPhone SE does have Qi wireless charging. It’s a little slower than the 5W charger, but not noticeably so.

Apple iPhone SE 2020 colours

iPhone 8 body

Compared with the iPhone 11, the iPhone SE feels small and light. It weighs 148g compared with 194g for the iPhone 11. In practice that’s a bigger difference than you might imagine.

Physically it is much smaller than the iPhone 11. It fits comfortably in my hand and it is just about possible to operate one-handed. That probably means women and people with small hands will struggle.

The iPhone 8 body means you get the familiar home button. And there is Touch ID. It feels solid enough. That light weight, thinness and small size does not mean flimsiness.

Like the iPhone 8, the SE screen doesn’t extend to the top and bottom of the phone front. So there is no need for a notch.

Screen small by 2020 standards

By 2020 standards the amount of screen real estate left over is small. Most modern phones have a screen that extends across the entire front face.

The iPhone SE has a 4.7 inch display which is fine for everyday use. You could watch movies or streaming video, but this is not the best phone and certainly not the best iPhone for that application. Yet it is more than enough for FaceTime or other video calls.

If it’s more than three years since you upgraded you’ll find the design comforting, even familiar.

Usually reviews of mid-range phones talk in terms of compromise. The focus is on what you don’t get when you spend less. It might help to flip this logic on its head and think instead in terms of the extras, say, iPhone 11 buyers get that SE buyers down.

iPhone 8 camera

Apple has used what amounts to the same camera system found in the iPhone 8 in the SE. It is a single lens with a 12-megapixel sensor.

While the camera hardware hasn’t changed from the iPhone 8, the processor and software driving it has. You get all the processing power and intelligence of the iPhone 11.

There are times when it is hard to tell the difference between ordinary day time shots made on the two phones. The detail is good, colours are nicely reproduced.

Things start to diverge in low light conditions. Yet there is clearly more noise than you would find taking the same shot on an iPhone 11. The contrast is less striking and you may need to tinker a little to brighten up images.

The SE does well. You’ll be hard pressed to find a better phone camera at this price. It does especially well with video. You’ll notice the quality difference between this and an iPhone 11, but if you’re coming from any phone that is more than two years old you’ll take much better pictures.

All 2020 iPhones come with the same version of iOS. In this case iOS 13.4 was installed but upgraded to 13.4.1 during setup.

The main difference between using iOS 13.4 on the 11 and the iPhone SE boils down to using the home button instead of the flip up from the bottom gesture on iPhones without a home button. I found this hard going as I had become so used to the new user interface.

A couple of points not covered above. Like all modern iPhones, there is no headphone jack. Apple includes a pair of earbuds with a lightening connector in the box. You can, of course, use Bluetooth headphones with the SE.

iPhone SE 2020 verdict

Apple says the iPhone SE is winning customers from Android. I’ve also seen a lot of talk among New Zealanders who own older iPhone models but don’t want to spend $3000 on a flagship phone, upgrading to the SE.

Both stories make sense. This may not be the most exciting iPhone from a technology point of view, but it is the iPhone a lot of people have been waiting for. Not everyone wants a fancy top-of-the-line engineering marvel. Some people just want a good phone.

For now, it is the best mid-price phone deal on the market. You can’t buy more phone at this price. As it says at the top of this post, if you have $800 to spend on a phone, you’d need to have a good reason to dismiss the iPhone SE.

2020 iPad Pro 12.9-inch review part two: Camera, lidar

For the last four or five years camera upgrades have dominated new phone launches. Now Apple is doing the same with the 2020 12.9-inch iPad Pro which comes with added lidar.

The processor upgrade in the 2020 12.9-inch iPad Pro is incremental. Apple has done much more with the rear camera. Or, to be more accurate, cameras. The cluster includes two cameras and a lidar sensor.

For the last five years, phone upgrades have centred on beefed up cameras. This follows that path.

The iPad’s main wide angle camera is like the 28mm equivalent camera on the earlier 2018 12.9-inch iPad Pro. It has 12 megapixels. If there’s a performance difference, I can’t see it.

By tablet standards it’s still a great camera although it’s not as good as the camera on the iPhone 11. You wouldn’t expect that.

Apple 2020 12.9-inch iPad Pro ultra wide camera

 

 

Second rear camera

There’s also a 10 megapixel ultra-wide angle camera. It’s the first time the iPad has had a second camera. For the most part it helps the iPad Pro take better pictures in poor light conditions.

In practice the two cameras work together much of the time.

Taking pictures with a 12.9-inch iPad Pro is unwieldy compared with the iPhone. Using on screen controls also gets in the way. And it feels a bit odd standing there with a magazine-size device shooting images.

Wide-angle lens

The wide angle lens makes this even harder when focusing on near objects. That’s because a lever effect comes into play, so a small movement moves the camera target a fair distance.

No doubt there are enthusiasts who swear by the iPad Pro camera and do amazing things with it. For me, it is for opportunistic snapshots. I also use the iPad camera as a replacement for a scanner. It does a great job of capturing images sitting on my desk.

On the front of the 12.9-inch iPad Pro is a seven megapixel camera for selfies and video conferencing. It’s limited when compared to the rear cameras, but is great for FaceTime or Skype calls.

Video conference camera better than laptops

I’ve been using it while working from home. The picture quality is way better than you get on a MacBook or, for that matter, most Windows laptops.1

The only issue with the front camera is that sits at the top of the display when you hold the iPad in portrait mode. This is the same as the camera on an iPhone.

It makes sense when you are using the tablet as a tablet. Yet when it is sitting on your desk, perhaps with an attached keyboard, the camera is off the left hand side.

The software is clever enough to adjust the image so that when you look face on at the iPad in landscape mode, it centres your image. If you want to look people in the eye, you need to remember to stare at the lefthand edge of the display.

Measuring with lidar on a 2020 12.9-inch iPad Pro

Lidar

When Apple told me there was a lidar sensor, my first thought that it would gauge depth. This would help with photography. Although that’s possible and, in theory, could be a future software update, it’s not why Apple included the sensor.

For Apple, lidar is all about improving the augmented reality experience. You can use it to accurately measure the space around you.

The iPad has a new iPadOS measuring app that uses this. More often lidar is used in conjunction with augmented realty apps and games. You might, for example, have AR games characters running around your living room.

Lidar technology is used by autonomous and semi-autonomous cars to map the immediate world around them. The iPad version works up to 5 metres which is more than enough inside most homes, but is less useful out of doors.

There’s no question this technology is clever, but I consider it a nice-to-have feature. It is far from essential as things stand right now. That could all change with the arrival of new applications that make use of it. Nothing springs to mind, but if it did I’d be a wealthy software entrepreneur not a journalist.


  1. The iPad Pro video calling experience is vastly better than calling on any laptop. This alone could justify the expense of buying a 2020 iPad Pro. ↩︎

iPhone SE 2020: A phone that’s right for lockdown times

Apple took the wraps of the 2020 iPhone SE this week.

It’s the second iPhone to carry the SE label. The new iPhone SE feels more up to the minute today than if Apple had launched it a couple of months earlier.

That’s because it is a lower cost iPhone. New Zealand prices start at $800 for a 64GB version.

Money is going to be tight for many people in the coming months. Phones are a necessity. There will presumably be less appetite for advanced features.1

The best stuff is under the bonnet

The price is lower. It is the cheapest new iPhone model now on sale. The outside resembles an iPhone 8. Yet the inside includes much of the technology found in premium models.

It’s not so much there are compromises. It’s more than the iPhone SE does not include the fancy high end features that bump up the price of a phone.

Apple could sell these by the container load. It looks like being the right product at the right time.

Bionic

In Apple’s words, the iPhone SE is ‘built on the chassis of the iPhone 8’. The processor is the A13 Bionic chip that powers the high-end iPhone 11 Pro. When that model was release only six months ago it was the most powerful phone processor on the market.

Going with the A13 Bionic chip in an $800 phone makes the iPhone SE excellent value. The chip handles many high end tasks. It works wonders with photography. Among other things, it means the phone can handle AI and augmented reality.

The rest of the specification is higher than you might expect. There is Wi-Fi 6 and support for gigabit LTE data traffic, although not 5G. That’s not the problem you might think it could be.

While 5G is being rolled out everywhere, there’s not much a phone user can do with 5G that they can’t do with 4G. Only hard core geeks would notice any difference.

The iPhone SE comes with dual sim and eSim support. There is wireless charging and fast charging. The base model has 64GB of storage.

This all adds up to a significant upgrade to anyone coming from a two year old iPhone.

Apple iPhone SE white

Smaller, hand-sized

One important aspect of the iPhone SE is its size. Most of the world is moving towards huge displays. Apple has stuck with a 4.7-inch screen. This means there is less viewing room, but it also means most people can use the phone one handed.

There has been talk about large phones being sexist as woman’s hands are smaller than men’s. Maybe. The reality is that most men also have to use two hands to drive a modern flagship handset. Heaven knows we even call them handsets under those conditions.

Some people will see the smaller screen size as a reason to avoid the SE. Many more will delight in having a more pocketable phone.

There are a couple of echos of older iPhone designs in the SE. It has a Touch ID button. This means there are large bezels above and below the display. High-end iPhones have not had these for a couple of years now. It’s unlikely anyone will view having Touch ID instead of Face ID as a compromise.

If there is a compromise, it lies in the camera technology. The iPhone SE has a single 12 megapixel camera. Android phones in the same price range tend to have two or three cameras.

Yet even here, things are not straight forward. Apple’s A13 Bionic chip is so capable and the software driving Apple cameras is now so advanced that, in practice, users won’t be at a disadvantage. For almost everyone in the SE target market, the new camera will be a significant upgrade.

Where the iPhone SE fits

The biggest danger for Apple is the iPhone SE will cannibalise sales of other models. There are Apple customers who bit the bullet and paid a king’s ransom for recent iPhone models because they needed the iOS integration more than the premium features they were also paying for.

Some iPhone buyers who were considering buying second hand may now reconsider. Apple dominates the second hand phone sector. The arrival of the SE may have a knock on effect that goes well beyond the iPhone world.

For all the reasons noted above, Apple has delivered the right phone at the right time. There will be other iPhone models later this year. Although that’s uncertain given events elsewhere. Yet the shine went off the premium phone market well before lockdown and economic uncertainty appeared.

It’s hard to judge how the market will turn out. Apple has enjoyed mixed success with lower priced iPhones in the past. Yet given the need to trim budgets while staying productive, the iPhone SE has turned up when it is most needed.


  1. Yes, you can pay less elsewhere and still get a good phone. There are huge productivity gains for people already invested in Apple to stick with iOS. ↩︎

2020 iPad Pro 12.9-inch review part one: More processor power

Apple’s 2020 iPad Pro 12.9-inch brings a useful speed bump, overhauls the main camera, adds full mouse and trackpad support.

This is part one of a series of posts looking at the new iPad Pro. Part two looks at the camera and lidar. 

The 2018 iPad Pro reboot was a huge leap forward for tabletkind.

Apple created a laptop replacement that keeps the advantages of a tablet. The result was to deliver a productive computing experience. It has little in common with the Windows alternatives, yet is still capable of serious work1.

This year’s update builds on that. Most, but not all, of the hardware changes are incremental. We will look at the big changes in future posts. What has changed since 2018 is that iPadOS has come of age. The software is now far better suited to mobile computing.

All the best things about the 2018 iPad Pro remain. The design remains stunning.

The screen is still beautiful. In use it is nicer than any other tablet display I’ve seen. There is next to nothing in the way of bezel, that’s the thin strip surrounding the display. Apple’s designers squared off the edges and went for rounded corners. It feels so right that it’s hard to envisage what a better design could look like.

Apple 2020 iPad Pro

Bionic

While the A12Z Bionic system on a chip is faster than its ancestor, few will notice much improvement. The 2018 model used the A12X. Like its predecessor there are eight cores divided into two groups. It uses four cores for high performance, four for efficiency.

The A12Z is not a Great Leap Forward, more a pigeon step in the right direction. No-one is going to upgrade their iPad Pro for a better raw computing performance.

I noticed a little more power with graphics-oriented tasks like photo-editing. There was extra speed when working with audio applications. Other high performance tasks were also a tad faster than before. While the responsiveness was noticeable, it wasn’t enough to measure. It felt better, but I can’t put numbers on it.

When it comes to everyday tasks like browsing or writing on an iPad; I couldn’t see a difference.

That’s not to say the 2020 iPad Pro 12.9-inch isn’t fast by today’s computing standards.

The 2020 iPad Pro not as grunty as the new MacBook Pro. But that’s a high octane laptop for power users. It performs very well compared with the 2019 MacBook Air which uses the Intel Core i3 processor.

2020 iPad Pro 12.9-inch battery life

I’ve used the 2018 iPad Pro as my main portable device for over a year. When I’m not pushing it hard, the battery can last for as long as 12 hours continual use.

iPad battery life is dependent on the task in hand. Run high end software and you might only get six hours of intense computing.

With basic tablet tasks, the 2018 iPad Pro is good for a full day and then some. I could get 10 hours. When taking meal breaks into account there’s enough to get me from Auckland to Singapore2.

There is a fraction less battery life in the 2020 iPad Pro 12.9-inch. It can still cope with a full day’s everyday work with a little left over. I managed a little over nine hours. Thanks to the Covid–19 lockdown, I didn’t get to test this on the road.

You might get the impression from above that the performance is good, but not outstanding. After all, we’re talking about an incremental speed bump when compared to a two year old iPad.

This fails to take into account how far the 2018 iPad Pro was ahead of its time. When Apple launched the 2018 iPad Pro, it was, according to some benchmarks, the fastest portable computing in the market. The 2020 is still blistering fast by everyday laptop standards.


  1. It’s remarkable how unlike the two are considering most of the time they are used for similar tasks. ↩︎
  2. I doubt I’ll be doing that again any time soon. ↩︎

Webcams: Laptop models are bad

In our coronavirus-tainted world, we’re realising that we depend a lot on our laptop webcams… and they’re not good. WSJ’s Joanna Stern compared the new MacBook

At the Wall Street Journal Joanna Stern takes a critical look at laptop webcams: Laptop Webcam Showdown: MacBook Air? Dell XPS? They’re Pretty Bad

Part of the problem comes down to laptops having thin lids, too thin to include great webcams. Mind you, thin hasn’t stopped phone makers from putting a lot of time and energy into making better cameras.

To a degree none of this would have been much of an issue before half the world started working from home on their laptops. For most people video conferencing was something of a nice-to-have after thought until now.

Suddenly we all notice the poor picture quality. What makes this worse is we now have much more bandwidth, so the internet connection is no longer the limiting factor. We also tend to have much higher resolution screens, so camera flaws are more noticeable.

Opportunity for better webcams

There is a huge opportunity for the first laptop maker to get this right. Apple is the most likely candidate here. It’s noticeable how much better the front facing camera is on a iPad Pro when compared with, say, the MacBook Air.

The 2020 12.9 inch iPad Pro has a seven megapixel front facing camera with all the trimmings. It handles 1080p video at up to 60 frames per second.  In contrast, the 2020 MacBook Air camera is only 720p.

No doubt there is room for improvement now the laptop camera specification matters in ways it didn’t.

The most curious thing about Stern’s video story is that Apple put a better camera on MacBooks ten years ago. Of course they weren’t as thin then.

Of course there is a trade off between thin and camera performance. Laptop lids are thinner than phones or iPads. Apple’s obsession with thin meant laptop keyboard problems until recently. Now it has to rethink where cameras fit in this.