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Apple’s iPhone 11 is all about the camera. This isn’t the first time I’ve written about a phone and said much the same thing. So let’s put it another way: Apple’s iPhone 11 is even more about the camera.

You can’t miss the cameras on Apple’s iPhone 11. Two lenses and a camera bump dominate the phone’s rear.

Not so long ago camera bumps were controversial. People fretted they spoiled the clean lines of otherwise near pure metal-glass slabs.

Bump baby bump

Apple’s earlier camera bumps were small. On the iPhone 7 Plus, the entire bump, including the non-bump flash, measures around 30 by 10mm. On the iPhone XS Plus the bump is more like a 25 by 10mm strip. The iPhone 11 bump is 30 by 30 mm and squarish.

iphones 7 Plus XS Max 11
iPhone bump evolution: 7 Plus, XS Max, 11

This physical dominance reflects the camera system’s importance. Yes, that’s what Apple calls the collective photography components in the iPhone 11. Camera system may be marketing, but it makes sense.

Speaking of marketing, Apple’s iPhone 11 message is all about the photography.

That should not surprise anyone. Two years ago I wrote that modern phones were all about the camera. It was true then. It is more true today.

It’s a camera

Strip away the marketing and Apple’s iPhone 11 is a camera packed in a phone’s body. It is an excellent camera that happens to sit alongside a terrific phone and pocket computer.

Great though it may be, all that non-camera stuff is almost a footnote.

By camera standards it is tiny. 1

While the hardware is clever, it’s clear from the size and depth there is more to picture quality than optics. A lot of smart software does the heavy lifting.

iPhone 11 photography in practice

What does this mean in practice? To understand take a look at this example shot I took one night in December from a Coromandel Beach.

Mercury Bay Moonlight December 2019
A casual iPhone 11 shot. Click on this to see a larger version.

It’s stunning, but it shouldn’t be. I’m no photographer. Before we go on, let’s make one thing clear, I wasn’t making an effort to take a great picture to show off the iPhone 11. This was a casual shot taken on the spur of the moment.

While walking home from dinner, I noticed the moon coming out from behind the clouds. I took the camera out, stood on the beach and that was it.

The iPhone did all the hard work. My role was choosing the scene, holding the camera and timing my click to take the shot between the flashes of the lamps on the harbour buoys. It was that easy.

Sure, it wasn’t pitch black at the time, but it was dark. The naked eye couldn’t pick out the plants in the foreground, let along the individual blades of grass.

It looked more impressive when I got back to my room and looked again at the shot. It seemed like a professional picture. Sure, experts can nitpick this statement. Over the years I’ve edited newspaper sections and magazine. I’ve hired professional photographers. From my editor’s point of view it looks like a professional photo.

Night mode

What I didn’t know at the time, I only had the phone a few days, is Apple’s camera system includes a night mode. It is automatic and kicks in when needed.

Night mode simulates long exposure: one, two or three seconds depending on conditions. In the case of my picture, that’s important because the navigation buoys in the harbour flick light on every second or so. The window between them is shorter than the camera needs for a long exposure shot.

Night mode isn’t to everyone’s taste. There may be times you don’t want or need it. That’s cool. It’s possible to turn it off. This works in much the same way as the automatic flash, which can kick in as needed. Again, you can use a manual setting to turn it off.

When I take night time pictures with my digital SLR, I need a tripod to keep the camera still. My hands shake too much for a traditional long exposure shot. That’s not necessary with the iPhone 11. Look again at the example, it’s crisp and clear.

iPhone 11 makes bad shots harder

As my trip went on, it became clear. The iPhone camera system makes it hard to take bad shots. Of course, you can still take terrible shots if you work at it. My point here is that casual, off the cuff snaps often come out looking great.

For a second example take a look at the shot of three chilli bottles. I made no effort to compose something artistic. All I did was line up the bottles so I could remember what sauces to buy later.

Three Chilli Bottles
Another casual iPhone 11 shot that you wouldn’t expect to look good.

It’s not art, it’s an aide-mémoire. And yet somehow it’s also a bit, well, artistic.

Keen price

The iPhone 11 has been my day-to-day phone now for about four weeks. Before that I was using the iPhone XS Max. The 11 is a little smaller, but otherwise on a par with the XS Max. It costs about $1000 less. With iPhone 11 prices starting at $1350, it compares well with Android flagship phones.

The two other big brands in New Zealand: Samsung and Huawei, also have great cameras on their top phones.

Each brand has its own set of camera strengths and weaknesses. They are all good.

That said, for my needs, Apple’s iPhone 11 (and 11 Plus) have the best all-round mix of features, function and usability.

Soon, I’ll write a more comprehensive overview of my iPhone 11 experience. There are other surprises worth sharing.

Like most, but not all, product reviews on this site, I didn’t buy the iPhone 11. Apple gave me a loan unit. It’s a bright red model and will go back to the company. For the record I own an iPhone 7 Plus.


  1. It may not do everything my digital SLR can do, distant wildlife close ups remain tricky, but it can handle most of my work photography needs and then some. ↩︎

Nokia 7.1 phone

New phone models arrive monthly. Most phone product lines get an annual refresh.

Apple usually does its annual iPhone launches all at once. In most years this happens in the run up to Christmas. 

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 notable phone launches each year.

Goodbye two year phone 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. Depreciation rates are similar in other countries. 

We’re holding on to phones 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 revenue shortfall.

Five years ago Benedict Evans reported Android users keep phones for under two years. Back then, Apple iPhones stayed in use for more than two years. There are interesting theories about this in the comments on Evans’ post. This also explains why second-hand iPhones hold their value better than Android phones.

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.

It’s no accident that phone makers hold launch events that look like fashion shows. They want to create the impression that you need this year’s design. You almost never do. 

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.

Screen life

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 moving 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.

So how long should you hold on to a phone?

There’s no simple answer to ‘how long should you hang on to a phone’. What works for one person doesn’t work for another. You should definitely hold on for two years. That’s the minimum. But it is only the starting point.

For some the best time to replace is when the battery life is not enough to get you through the working day. For others it’s when the operating system is no longer supported and there is a security risk. That’s roughly six years for Apple iPhone users.

Apple released iOS 13 in September 2019. It will still support the iPhone SE but not the iPhone 5s, 6 or 6 Plus. The iPhone 5s was released in 2013, so it is now technically out of support. If you think that is bad, spare a thought for Android users. Six years is more than double the official supported life of most versions of Android.

Update: If you love Android and are concerned about phone longevity, chose a Nokia phone. The company has a policy of keeping phone software up to date. It may only guarantee two years of updates, but that’s better than most rival Android brands.

Apple AirPods

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.

A single AirPod

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.

Upgraded chip

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.

Qi charging

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.


  1. 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.

Mind you, nothing else comes close on price either, except the loopy NZ$2400 Oppo Lamborghini-branded Android.

Apple iPhone XS Max

Expensive

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.

Apple iPhone XS Screen

Too big?

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.

Bionic

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.

Apple iPhone XS camera

Camera

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.

Stablisation

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.


Huawei p10Phone designers are running out of options. This year’s phones show less innovation than in years past.  

Samsung’s Galaxy S8 goes on sale this week. The early 2017 phone picture is now complete. We now know what the mainstream phone market will look like until Apple reveals its iPhone plans.

Here are ten things we’ve learnt about the state of the phone market:

1. Samsung fans are forgiving, maybe too forgiving

You couldn’t step on a plane at the end of last year with cabin crew reminding you of problems with the Samsung Note 7. Every safety announcement told passengers it was dangerous.

The Note 7’s exploding battery was news for weeks. The tech business has rarely seen such damaging publicity. It seems Samsung raced the product out before completing testing.

According to Ben Bajarin at techpinions that bad publicity is not enough to stop today’s Samsung owners from considering the Galaxy S8.

2. S8 ain’t done until Bixby runs

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.

Soon after announcing the S8 Samsung said Bixby features will not all be available on day one.

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.

Bucking the trend Oppo’s $700 R9s has most of the features found in a Samsung phone for almost half the price. There’s a huge opportunity for a brand selling good phone hardware at that price.

9. Everyone has a phone

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.


  1. I can’t remember if Sony or Oppo mentioned anything about blurred image backgrounds. Apple, Samsung and Huawei all did. ↩︎