New phone models arrive monthly. Most phone product lines get an annual refresh.
Apple usually does its annual iPhone upgrades all at once.
Top Android phone makers like Samsung, Huawei and Nokia have a few product lines. Each line gets its own annual update. The phone makers tend to stagger their launches.
Add in the smaller brands and yes, we see a dozen launches of note each year.
Goodbye two year refresh cycle
Phone makers expect you to hang on to a device for at least two years even if they refresh their model lines every year.
Carriers agree. Their phone plans are usually two-year contracts. Remember carriers make money when you to buy new phones and roll over two-year contracts.
While two-year contracts remain popular, they’re less common today than five years ago.
New Zealand’s Inland Revenue Department depreciates phones at 67 percent a year. That implies a life expectancy of under two years.
We’re holding on for longer
Most of us now hold onto phones for longer than two years. No-one forces us to operate on a fixed timetable.
There’s still a difference between Apple and Android phones. Android phone users tend to keep their phones for less time than iPhone users. Apple’s sales figures reflect this. iPhone revenues peaked two years ago. Apple is now focusing on selling services to its customers to make up the shortfall.
One reason people hold on to phones for longer is that upgrades are more incremental than in the past. A few years ago there would be dramatic changes from one year to the next. Now the emphasis is on cameras and cosmetics.
Phone hardware can live for years
Phones can take a beating. Owners handle them many times each day. They get dropped, knocked, scratched and soaked.
Yet, in most cases, there are no moving parts to seize up.
If you look after your phone and it doesn’t pick up too much moisture, the battery is the first part to wear out. Constant use and charging cycles mean they degrade over time. After about three to four years use they hold as little as half the charge they managed when they were new.
You can replace most phone batteries, even those in sealed phones. It can be difficult, there are official repairers and a cottage industry exists.
Although it may seem expensive to pay someone NZ$100 to replace a battery, it’s cheaper than buying a new phone.
Screens last three to ten years depending on the technology, build quality and your use. Often the screen backlighting goes first. Again, repairers can fix these problems.
There are times when a new phone model is compelling.
Sometimes move from one year’s model to the next brings a must-have feature. Even so, you can expect to get at least two years from a device. They should last for three or more. Five years is no longer exceptional.
Of course, some users give their phones a pounding. If that’s you, or a family member, you have two choices. You could buy a more robust phone model. Or you could opt for a a cheaper model that won’t break the bank when replacement time rolls around.
Longer battery life, new charging case, hands-free Siri. AirPods 2 are a refreshed version of Apple’s popular wireless earphones.
From the outside, you’d be hard pressed to tell Apple’s updated AirPods from the model they replace. The two look identical.
Identical looks mean they also have an identical fit. If AirPods didn’t sit comfortably in your ears last time around, the new model changes nothing. Likewise if you had a problem with them falling out your ears, that’s still going to plague you1.
There’s also no discernible difference between the sound on the new and old models when it comes to playing music. You still get a full, clear sound.
AirPods 2: Good sounds
The bass is not too heavy and the treble stays under control. You don’t get mentally exhausted by jangling highs. All the music I tried sounded crisp. The AirPods pick up a surprising amount of detail. They cope well with a range of musical genres.
There’s no active or passive noise cancellation and the AirPod design does little to block out excessive background noise. I haven’t had an opportunity to test them on a flight yet, but they work well on public transport.
When AirPods first appeared, I passed because recently purchased fancy noise cancelling over-the-head headphones. While the headphones are still more comfortable for long listening sessions, upwards of, say a couple of hours, the pods are so light and unobtrusive that, at first, it’s almost like you’re not wearing anything at all.
Apple says the newer AirPods 2 have an upgraded chip which improves performance in some areas: Longer battery life for voice phone calls, faster switching between devices and lower latency.
Because I’m new to AirPods I can’t tell you if the experience is better. What I can tell you is the experience is easily as good as I’ve had from other bluetooth speakers, earbuds and headphones.
With the earlier AirPods you had to double tap to launch Apple’s Siri voice interface. Now you can start the app by saying “Hey Siri”. This is how it works with the iPhone, iPad and Mac. While I’m too embarrassed to do this in public, it works well. Telling Siri to play your music choices is a useful feature when your hands are busy.
Like the earlier AirPods, your music will automatically pause if you remove one from an ear.
The wireless charging case work with Qi. This is a standard, you’ll find it on some iPhones and Androids. It means you can use the charging pads you already have to give your AirPods more juice. In practice it works well, although it isn’t fast.
It takes between three and four hours to fully charge the AirPod case using wireless and around two hours if you stick with the lightning connector.
AirPods show the best of Apple’s approach to technology. In use they are radically simple, so simple and easy to use they merge almost seamlessly into the background of daily life. After a few days you almost forget what life was life before you had them.
AirPods 2 verdict
There are few reasons to upgrade from first generation AirPods and even fewer if you’re not going to use wireless charging. That said, there are stories that ageing AirPods suffer from worn-out batteries, so there will be upgraders.
If you’re the kind of person who aims to impress by owning the latest fashionable kit you’ll be disappointed. While AirPods are something of a fashion accessory, there’s no extra kudos showing off the latest version.
One weakness; AirPods don’t fit everyone and they can fall out of your ears if you are active.
They’re not cheap at NZ$350 for a pair of AirPods 2 with a wireless charging case or NZ$280 for the non-wireless case. Yet, you’ll struggle to find better wireless earphones. They have plenty of battery life and the sound is as good as you’ll find anywhere else.
If you are new to AirPods and wonder if they will fit, there’s an easy way to find out. The earpieces are more or less than same size and shape and those on the wired earbuds that come with iPhones. So long as they fit your ears, AirPods will be fine. ↩︎
Apple’s iPhone XS Max represents the state of the phone-maker’s art. It is big, beautiful and screams luxury from the moment you open the box.
The screen is large by phone standards. Any larger and you’d be looking at a small tablet. It is stunning. You get vibrant colours, dark blacks and strong contrast. I’ve never known any phone to be as readable outdoors on a sunny day.
If you want to watch movies, look at photos or read documents this is the best phone for the job. Nothing else comes close.
There is a review model iPhone XS Max in my pocket with 512 GB of storage. It costs the thick end of three grand: NZ$2800.
That’s more storage than most people need. My current phone has 256 GB. In two years I’ve never come close to filling it and see no prospect of doing so.
You can save money by buying less storage.
Apple has a 256 GB version for NZ$2400 and a 64 GB version for NZ$2100. The last of these could be less storage then you’ll need. Although that depends on how you use a phone and how much you send off to the cloud.
Can you justify spending that much money on a phone? That’s something only you can answer. I’ll save my thoughts on this for another post.
If, and it’s a huge if, Oppo’s Lamborghini phone is worth $2400, then the 256 GB Apple iPhone XS Max at the same price is a snip.
iPhone XS Max is all about the big screen
Apple wants to let you know all about the camera in the phone. It’s good and we’ll get to that in a moment. But before we move on, let’s make one thing clear: the iPhone XS Max is all about that big screen.
The iPhone XS Max screen covers the same area as the display on the Samsung Galaxy Note 9, another leviathan phone. The difference is in the height-to-width ratio.
Both phones have the same screen-to-body ratio at around 85 percent. You can’t sensibly do less than this without resorting to a gimmick like a pop-up camera. The Apple phone is smaller than the Note 9. It’s a millimetre thinner and 4.5 mm shorter.
I no longer have a Note 9 for direct comparison. Yet I’d say that would be the only other phone screen that comes close to the XS Max in terms of overall display quality.
Reviewers and users elsewhere have criticised the iPhone XS Max for being too big to handle. Of course this depends on the size of your hands. It’s a perfect fit for me. I’d recommend getting your own mitts on one before buying.
In fact I’d go further. Don’t choose an 2018 iPhone model on the basis of reviews like this or advertising. Go into a shop and put one in your hands. If the XS Max is too big, there’s always the smaller size iPhone XS. And while you’re at it, check out the less expensive XR. That could be the best model for you but you won’t know which fits until you handle all three.
Apple’s latest processor, the six-core A12 Bionic powers the iPhone XS Max. According to the company it is 15 percent faster than last years A11 Bionic chip and 50 more efficient. There’s also an AI chip that is nine times faster than the one in the iPhone X.
Most of the time you don’t notice this power. The phone doesn’t seem faster than the last two or three iPhones in day-to-day use. Everything already happened in an instant. I don’t recall that waiting around from processing has been an iPhone drawback in recent years.
To complicate matters, Apple’s newest phone operating system, iOS 12, is also snappier and more responsive than iOS 11. Either way, this is one fast phone.
For the most part the applications that use this extra grunt are yet to appear. I’ve seen augmented reality apps that may need all the processing power you can throw at them. There is, however, one area where the processing capability is already put to good use: photography.
Every phone maker will tell you their cameras are the best in the business. Apple is the same, but in this case it is more than mere marketing bravado.
Apple upgraded the rear dual camera on the iPhone XS Max. It, or they, have the same basic specification as on last year’s iPhone X. That is: two 12-megapixel cameras. One has a wide-angle lens, the other had what amounts to 2x optical zoom. In both cases Apple upgraded the the image sensors and the hard-wired algorithms.
The effect is that you now get better low light pictures. Samsung and Huawei both have a slight edge in this department. But Apple seems to now do a better job of handling detail.
HDR mode is now the default. It has also been improved to the point where high contrast images look far better. In my experience iPhone XS Max pictures taken in bright outdoors beat those on rival phones.
If you like the bokeh effect, you can now add it after taking the shot. It’s a nice option.
Just as important, the image stabilisation works better than before. You can take hand-held video tracking shots which look like they are made with a dolly.
Portraits are now noticeably better too, particularly the shallow depth of field effect around hair and other extremities. The bokeh is also now adjustable after the fact, which is fun.
Much of the improvement in photographs is down to the extra processing power. In effect a supercomputer starts tweaking images the moment you press to click.
Phone photography is partly a matter of taste. There may be equals, but nothing offers a better camera experience than the iPhone XS Max.
That processing power gets a workout elsewhere. Apple uses Face ID as its security system. It works well and it works fast. Since setting it up, Face ID hasn’t failed to recognise me even when wearing glasses or sunglasses.
Battery life is good, but not outstanding. There’s more than enough juice for me to leave home at 5 AM, fly out-of-town, work all day and get the last flight home. I don’t feel the need to curtail my use, but then nor do I spend all day watching or making videos.
In normal life I can almost, but not quite, two days from a single charge. The red warning icon kicks in after around 36 hours. That’s eight hours more than I get from the Samsung Galaxy Note 9 .
iPhone XS Max: Verdict
Few people buy a new phone every year. Even fewer are going to do that when the asking price is in the two to three grand range. It’s questionable whether those moving from an iPhone X to the XS Max would get much from an upgrade other than the bigger screen.
It makes more sense to compare the XS Max with the iPhone 7 Plus, which has been my main phone for the last two years. While I don’t feel a pressing need for an upgrade, there’s a lot more phone in the XS Max.
The extra screen size, nicer screen and Face ID are all noticeable. On paper the better camera doesn’t sound much, in practice it is a huge leap. Faster processing doesn’t make much day-to-day difference. The extra battery life does. But then much of the difference between the two phones’ performance here could down to two years of wear.
If you get value from iOS then the iPhone XS Max could well be the way to go. You’d get the most advanced phone on the market and an object of beauty. You might get more value from buying the straight XS model or an XS Max with less storage. With prices starting at NZ$1400, half the price of the fully packed XS Max, the iPhone XR seems like a bargain.
Bixby is Samsung’s voice-controlled virtual assistant. If it works it will rival Apple’s Siri, Google’s Assistant and Amazon’s Alexa.
Samsung says Bixby is different because it strings tasks together. It then manages complex tasks the others can’t. Among other things, Bixby can wrap-up and send your most recently taken photo to, say, your partner. It promises to hunt down, then stream a specific video to a Samsung TV set.
Unfinished software is not on a par with unfinished and unsafe battery designs. Yet it seems Samsung hasn’t learned all the important lessons from the Note 7.
If the signature feature of a new phone isn’t ready by launch, you might wonder if Samsung still cuts corners. Will anything else emerge, Note 7-like, after the launch?
3. The case of the disappearing bezel
Bezel is the name given to the rim around a phone’s screen. All phone makers have reduced the size of their bezels in recent models. Huawei and Oppo’s 2017 phones have tiny bezels.
Samsung has taken this almost to the logical extreme. There is almost no bezel on the Galaxy S8. The front is almost all glass.
In practice this means two things. First, you get more screen in a smaller package. The display on the Galaxy S8 is larger than the display on the Apple iPhone 7 Plus. Yet the S8 is roughly the same size as the non-Plus iPhone 7.
4. Much ado about fingerprint scanner placement
Put Note 7 fires and Bixby to one side for a moment. What is the main aspect of the Galaxy S8 that every phone reviewer wants to discuss? Is it the camera technology, the processor speed or large 5.8-inch screen?
It’s none of these. Almost every review mention Samsung’s decision to move the fingerprint scanner. A smaller bezel on the phone’s front means there’s no room for a fingerprint scanner. Samsung moved it to the rear of the phone.
Using the S8 fingerprint scanner is now a little more uncomfortable and a touch more awkward.
Both points are true. It says a lot about phone innovation that reviewers focus on fingerprint scanner placement.
5. Cameras, cameras, cameras
Every phone maker at every launch says their latest model has the best camera on the market. I’ve been to five launches in the six months or so and have heard five different phone makers make that claim. They can’t all be right.
For what it’s worth, all premium phones have great cameras. They can all take excellent pictures in the right circumstances. Exactly what makes up the right circumstances varies a little from brand to brand.
To a degree the camera innovation battle has moved on from hardware to software. At least four of the five big phone brands now offer some form of software-generated bokeh effect. 1
6. Enough with the fashion parades
So far this year Samsung, Huawei and Oppo have all had big splashy phone launches with a fashion theme. Each launch included beautiful people from the fashion world.
Oppo took this furthest with a Sydney Harbour boat cruise. It featured lurid coloured cocktails, a DJ and fashion models cat posing with phones.
A fashion-industry big wig made a speech. She told boat passengers to throw their iPhones overboard and replace it with an Oppo.
It’s worth pointing out that fashion-themed phone launches are not new. LG held a similar event in Auckland 10 years ago.
The message, in case you didn’t get it, is that premium smart phones are fashion items.
7. Hardware innovation slows in 2017 phones
Related to the fashion metaphor is the fetish with phone colours. There are different shades of black, metallic blues, greens and reds and so on. Again, we’ve been here before with premium phones.
In a sense modern phones have reached the point American cars got to in the 1960s. Then Detroit covered cars in chrome and added tail fins. They did this to create the impression of innovation where, in fact, there was little new.
Innovation isn’t quite dead in the phone business, but it has slowed to a crawl. The fact that people fuss over the fingerprint scanner tells you that.
Almost every hardware improvement in the last year has been incremental, cosmetic or unimportant. Screen resolution passed the point where the human eye could notice a different a few years ago. It’s been even longer since a phone processor wasn’t fast enough for all everyday tasks.
8. The price isn’t right
Premium phone price have climbed faster than inflation. This isn’t because of currency effects, phone prices are going up everywhere.
In part this is because phone makers did not make much profit in the past. Although Apple has always enjoyed a good margin. Even Samsung struggled at times to earn a decent amount from selling hardware.
In 2013 the Samsung Galaxy S4 cost NZ$1150 and the 16GB iPhone 5S was $1050. Today the cheapest iPhone 7 is $1430 and the bottom of the range Galaxy S8 is $1300. You can go all the way to $1830 with Apple or $1500 with Samsung.
You can argue that you get more phone, or at least more memory and more screen. But that’s not the point, it now costs Apple fans over 30 percent more to buy the least expensive iPhone. Samsung customers pay around 20 percent more.
Huawei has pushed its prices up even faster. Four years ago it made bargain basement phones, today the P10 is NZ$1000 and the Mate 9 is $1100.
Almost every person in the rich world who wants a modern mobile phone now has one. This means phone sales have slowed to a crawl compared with the past decade.
It also means phone makers rely on shortening the upgrade cycle to turn over more product. That keeps the money rolling in. There is one big problem with that…
10. There are few compelling reasons to upgrade
Today’s premium phones are good. When it comes to practical functionality they are not much better than the handsets on offer two years ago. Most of the changes in that time have made little difference to an owner’s everyday life.
There are always going to be performance obsessed geeks who argue for some esoteric reason they need an even faster processor. But in reality, it’s been a long time since phones were slow in everyday use. Likewise, any new hardware feature, is often only of interest to a minority.
Few people will hold onto phones for, say, 10 years, as they do with PCs. Apart from anything else, they take a physical beating day-in, day-out and get dropped or otherwise worn out after a few years. Most users who are not on plans have already moved away from annual or bi-annual phone upgrades. In the future more of us are likely to hang-on to devices for even longer.
I can’t remember if Sony or Oppo mentioned anything about blurred image backgrounds. Apple, Samsung and Huawei all did. ↩︎
Forget all the nonsense you’ve read about the missing headphone jack. It isn’t important. The key to the iPhone 7 Plus is that it carries a second camera with a telephoto lens.
Every new iPhone comes with a camera that is better than the last iPhone. Apple has been relentless when it comes to increasing camera speed, pixel numbers and camera performance.
This time both the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus have a 12-megapixel camera with the means to collect a wider range of colours. It also has optical image stabilisation.
Apple upgraded everything in the camera. There’s a new lens system, updated sensors.
The flash is brighter and delivers a wider range of colours. All this adds up to better pictures than you can get from earlier iPhones. The camera performs better in daylight and in poor light conditions. You’ll get better skin tones and more realistic colours all round.
While these tweaks are a step forward, they are only incremental changes from last year.
The big difference is on the iPhone 7 Plus. Here Apple added a second camera with a zoom lens and half the field of view of the first camera. In effect, you get two different looks at the same image.
This gives you 2X optical zoom. That’s a useful hardware addition. It brings the camera experience closer to what you might find on mid-price standalone digital cameras. Being able to zoom like this means the iPhone can do something other phone cameras are unable to do. At least for now.
Digital zoom is often disappointing. On the iPhone 7 Plus images from the two lenses combine so that you can get up to 10X digital zoom. The processing all happens in software. The effect is closer to what you might expect from optical zoom.
The iPhone 7 Plus 2X optical zoom appears as a button at the bottom of the screen when taking photos. If you press and hold this button you can crank up the digital zoom.
Two lenses mean you get better quality portraits and close-ups. That’s something other phone cameras struggle with.
Software updates are in the pipeline that will extend the dual lens camera. Apple says an iOS update later this year will do this. Example photos taken with the camera and the new software show a bokeh effect. The subject in the foreground is in sharp focus while the background is a blur.
Apple isn’t the only phone maker to add a second lens. The Huawei P9 features a dual camera that is co-engineered with Leica. Unlike Apple, Huawei uses one lens for colour and the other for monochrome. This works to improve shots in low-light conditions.
Until now you needed to buy a mid-range or better digital camera to get this kind of photographic effect. A bigger physical camera with a larger lens and more depth between lens and the sensors can still take better photos. Yet, having a good camera in your pocket all the time trumps having a great camera in a cupboard. There’s something else too.
With the iPhone 7 Plus we are at a turning point. Earlier waves of camera phones wiped out the digital point and click camera market.
Since then some consumers have bought digital SLRs because they can get better pictures than phones. Despite the sophistication of dSLRs, most people never get much beyond the automatic settings. They want to take better pictures. That’s all.
There will always be demand for digital SLR cameras from professionals and enthusiasts. Yet most everyday photographers now have all they want from a camera in the iPhone 7 Plus. Expect more devastation in the camera market.
To use a camera well, you need a good quality display. It’s subtle, but the iPhone 7 Plus has a better screen than earlier iPhones. You have to see two iPhones side by side to notice how much better the display is on the 7 Plus.
The difference is most noticeable indoors. It’s brighter. Colours look more saturated. The effect isn’t as eye-catching as on a phone with an OLED display. In particular, blacks don’t look quite as black.
While the headline says the iPhone 7 Plus is all about the camera, there are other important changes.
Some folk are going to miss the headphone jack. In the long-term we’ll all get over this. It’ll be like getting rid of floppy discs or optical disc drives on Macs.
For now there will be holdouts who will either hang onto old iPhones longer or buy another brand of phone.
Apple demonstrated AirPods to journalists at a product briefing. They are far more impressive than you might assume and have a whiff of magic about them. Bluetooth pairing is better than normal. Apple has tweaked standard Bluetooth to make it work better at this task.
Their small case is about the size of a TicTac packet. It carries about 20 hours of charge. The AirPods themselves have about five hours charge. So on, say, a long flight, you can recharge them enough to listen all the way to Europe.
When you take an AirPod out of your ear, perhaps because someone wants to talk, the audio track pauses. This, again, feels a little like magic. Built-in microphones at the bottom of the AirPods mean you can make phone calls.
A lot of people are critical of AirPods and the way they look. There is something nerdy about them. Yet this is Apple, they are not going to become unacceptable like, say, Google Glass. This time next year people will be wearing them on buses and trains like it is no big deal.
Apple hasn’t made a lot of noise about the iPhone 7 Plus processor. It’s not something that will make or break the buying decision for most users. Yet, the processing power inside the phone is off the scale. Throw what you like at it and it will cope. More than cope.
Elsewhere the new home button design with haptic touch is big step forward in phone usability. While the button doesn’t move, it feels like it does. When you put pressure on the button, there’s a kick as the phone vibrates. You get these haptic feedback kicks all over the place. At first it feels odd, within an hour or so phones without haptic feedback feel odder.
Should you buy the iPhone 7 Plus?
If you’re an iPhone fan looking to upgrade, you’ll get a lot moving straight to the iPhone 7 or 7 Plus. If you like smaller phones, then the iPhone SE will be a better choice.
Most Android fans won’t like the iPhone 7, but you wouldn’t expect them to. Someone switching to an iPhone 7 from Android might find not being able to tinker with every aspect of the phone frustrating. Android users who prefer not to fiddle will find a slick alternative. Once they’ve adjusted, is easier to master and be productive on.
The question of iPhone 7 or 7 Plus is down to the screen size and the importance of having the far better camera. Both are big phones, but the Plus model is giant-sized.
Some Apple critics have described the iPhone 7 Plus as boring or lacking creativity. If that’s the case, you could say the same about every new phone in 2016. Putting the camera aside, it’s a steady-as-she-goes upgrade. You should get at least two years of value from the iPhone 7 Plus. It won’t look tired or jaded in 2018.