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iPhone XS Max review: Big is beautiful

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.

 

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.

 

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.

 

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.

Dragon Anywhere review: Superb iPhone dictation

Dragon Anywhere is a powerful dictation app for iOS that can transform how you work. It’s a version of Nuance’s Dragon speech recognition software.

At a glance

For:Impressive performance, accurate speech recognition, improves with use, fast.
Against:Needs a live internet connection, expensive subscription model.
Maybe:Struggles with New Zealand place names, but that’s understandable..
Verdict:Works well. Whether it is worth the subscription price depends on how much use you get from it.
Rating:4.5 out 5
Price:NZ$240 a year.
Web:Dragon Anywhere

It needs to deliver: an annual subscription costs a NZ$240.

At that price Dragon Anywhere is not a buy, try, forget app store experiment. It’s a significant investment. It needs to earn its keep.

Worth the money?

For some people Dragon Anywhere will be worth every penny. Accurate speech to text software can unpack a new level of productivity for some people. Not everyone will see a return on the investment.

If you already use desktop dictation software, you’ll have an idea of what Dragon Anywhere can do for you.

Being able to dictate text to an iPhone is a bigger deal than it might sound at first hearing.

The designers made the iPhone for dictation. Let’s face it, writing on a tiny glass keyboard is a challenge if you want to do anything more than send a text or a tweet.

I’ve written 1000 word stories on the iPhone. It’s not fun, nor is it productive. The alternative to dictation is carrying a Bluetooth keyboard. That can be a pain in the backside.

It also means you can replace desktop dictation with your iPhone. Given that your phone goes everywhere you do, it means you can produce text almost anywhere. This explains the product name.

You could, for example, write while in the back of a car or lounging in bed. In practice I found using the iPhone for dictation is more natural than using a desktop or laptop Mac.

 

Anywhere

Mobility is important, because ideas do not work nine-to-five in an office. Your writing muse can turn up unannounced at any time. With Dragon Anywhere you can jot down your ideas as they appear. There’s no need to hunt around for a computer or a pen and paper.

Your phone is already your most important computer. Dragon Anywhere takes that further. Depending on how you work, you may be able to ditch the desktop altogether. Although if you don’t want to, Anywhere integrates with Nuance’s desktop dictation applications.

If Dragon Anywhere save you buying a new computer, the subscription starts to look like a bargain. Even if you don’t go that far, your typewriter keyboard may gather dust.

Dragon Anywhere works where there’s a connection

The software doesn’t quite work anywhere. You need a live internet connection. Dragon Anywhere calls on Nuance’s cloud resourced to work its magic. That means you can only use it when you have a live internet connection.

The good news is that it sips data. You might run through a megabyte or so dictating thousands of words. I found after an hour’s use, my data consumption was still measured in hundreds of kilobytes.

Another piece of good news is the cloud round trip is fast. Speak a sentence or two, pause and the text is there on screen. It takes seconds. I found I couldn’t dictate fast enough to get ahead of the cloud connection.

In other words, you can use Dragon Anywhere while you’re on the move. If you have anything but a minimal data plan you can use it without counting the bytes or hunting for Wi-Fi.

Nuance says it encryopts connections, so criminals can’t listen in on your dictations.

How well does Dragon Anywhere perform?

The performance is impressive. I used it to write a first draft of this review. From the first words I uttered it was catching almost everything without error.

The software stumbled over the word iOS in the first sentence. To be fair, it’s a specialist word. If you think of how you say the name: eye-oh-ess, not picking it up it understandable.

User error

It wasn’t the software that stumbled in the second paragraph. I can take the blame for not figuring out how to say NZ$240 in a way that made my meaning clear. Put this down to user error.

The third sentence was perfect.

Out of the first hundred words, Dragon Anywhere got everything except iOS right. That’s impressive. Remember this was my first try of the software. The software had not encountered my voice or accent before.

In practice it learns a little as it goes along. To see how this worked I read the words again and this time Dragon Anywhere scored a perfect 100 percent. It understood iOS. The software understood my speech far better than Apple’s own Siri software.

If you make an error, fixing your text is easy. The only barrier is that you have to memorise instructions. In most cases the words are obvious, you don’t need to guess them. Some take a little practice.

I ran into a problem with some New Zealand place names. That’s understandable. Dragon Anywhere allows you to add custom words to the system which gets around the problem.

The productivity question

If you notice, I hedged my words when I said the software could be worth the money. Likewise when I said it may transform how you work or make you more productive.

That’s because, good as it is, speech recognition is not for everyone. In my experience it takes longer to dictate stories than to type them. I also find I struggle to compose while speaking. This could be down to 40 years of touch typing. With practice my dictation speed might improve.

There are also times where I need to write and dictation isn’t the best tool. Writing on a train, an airplane or somewhere public would be too much for everyone else.

If you find typing is difficult or run into overuse problems, then its a godsend. If you think by speaking, you’ll love it.

Oppo R15 Pro review: Android chasing iPhone

Android phone makers often borrow ideas from Apple. The Oppo R15 Pro takes this further than its rivals. Oppo’s need to emulate Apple runs through Its phones like Blackpool through a stick of English seaside rock.

Oppo’s newest iPhone lookalike is the NZ$800 R15 Pro. It doesn’t look much like an Apple on the outside, but fire it up and the resemblance is uncanny. Oppo even copies the notch that features at the top of the iPhone X screen.

The Oppo R15 Pro is not the first Android phone to do this. See my Huawei P20 Pro review. Yet the R15 Pro pays a more comprehensive homage to Apple than any other Android.

 

Oppo‘s Apple-following strategy seems to work. In the first quarter of 2018 Oppo sold more phones in China than anyone else. At the NZ launch Oppo said it is now the number four phone brand here behind Apple, Samsung and Huawei.

Being number four in New Zealand is not a big deal. Oppo says its market share is around two or three percent. While the R15 Pro is solid enough, it doesn’t look like the breakthrough phone Oppo needs. The company releases a new model roughly every six months, so it could soon have a hit on its hands.

Oppo R15 Pro

At NZ$800, the Oppo R15 Pro is less than half the price of an iPhone X. Despite similar software, that’s not the best phone to compare it with. The R15 Pro is around half the price of the Samsung Galaxy S9 which is a closer match. For 50 percent of the cost you get 95 percent of the functionality.

The R15 Pro has more rough edges that the Galaxy S9. That’s metaphorical. With earlier Oppo phones it was literal too. Older Oppo phones were quite rough in the hands. The R15 Pro is less so.

I tested a model with a polished dark purple aluminium case. There’s a bright red version as well. It’s attractive looking, but there are few 2018 handsets at this price or higher that don’t look good.

Although it doesn’t look much like an iPhone on the outside, it does when you switch the screen on. You’ll see rows of iOS style app icons.

The effect doesn’t last long because Oppo’s ColorOS operating system doesn’t always act like iOS. It has some Apple-like characteristics, but sooner or later you are back to Android.

In use the R15 Pro doesn’t work any better than any other phone running Google’s Android 8.1 Oreo software. In places it is worse.

All Android software overlays are disappointing, Oppo’s is more disappointing than most. In part that’s because there are places where it attempts to force Apple-like behaviour. In part that’s because the software is buggy compared to Samsung or Huawei Android phones.

Most of the top 2018 phones have a longer, thinner body with a 19:9 screen ratio. They also have tiny bezels, which mean the screen covers almost the entire front of the phone. The Oppo R15 Pro is no different.

It also has a Amoled screen, which is popular with 2018 phones. The display is big at 6.3 inches. It doesn’t quite hit 1080p resolution. In practice it can be a good phone for viewing videos, the speakers are louder and clearer than you might expect.

Not so powerful

The processor and graphics chip are not as powerful as those you find on more expensive phones. This is, for me, the main price compromise. If you want to play the latest games or get high video performance, go and spend more on a Huawei or Samsung. Almost every iPhone from the last three years would be more powerful.

Every phone maker emphasises camera features. At the New Zealand launch, the presenter made more of the phone’s beauty mode than the sensors and lenses. They’re not bad, but again, being half the price of a premium phone means compromise.

You get 16 and 20 megapixel lenses on the back. Oppo talks about a Sony sensor which uses a larger pixel size to do a better job in low light conditions.

There is a 20 megapixel front camera for selfies. Oppo’s beauty mode software tidies up skin blemishes. It then adds a little colour to make you look prettier. It also, this is a worry, makes people look whiter. Presumably the politics of this are different in China.

Like every other modern phone, the Oppo R15 Pro comes with software to automate picture-taking. The company says it uses AI. I doubt anything here uses machine learning or other AI techniques.

According to Oppo, the software identifies different scenes. It can detect a shot of the outdoors, a plate of food or a family pet. It only works up to a point. When it does, the camera automates settings. If it gets things wrong, the settings can be way out of whack.

Easy to use

The good news is all this makes the phone and its camera easy to use. Oppo’s photo app interface is a near carbon copy of the iOS app. The bad news is the photo filtering goes too far at times.

For some unexplained reason Oppo uses a microUSB 2.0 connector for its power supply. It’s old-school. Almost every other Android phone has moved on to the USB Type-C connector. The great thing about that now being standard is you can use someone else’s charger if you don’t have your own.

Also old-school, not in a bad way, is the 3.5mm earphone jack. Some people regard it as a must have even if many earphones now use Bluetooth. Moving to Bluetooth is something Oppo has not copied from Apple.

Not tested for this review is the NFC feature for making contactless payments. Earlier Oppo phones did not include NFC. There is a fingerprint reader on the back and the phone uses facial recognition.

Oppo R15 Pro verdict, comparison

At NZ$800 the Oppo R15 Pro is at the top end of the middle price band for 2018 phones. It is the same price as the Oppo R11s which appeared at the start of this year. For $100 less you can buy the Nokia 7 Plus. It has a better operating system and longer battery life.

There’s little remarkable. Nothing stands out here, but then nothing stood out with the last, more expensive, flagship Android phones from Samsung and Huawei. Nokia’s 7 Plus has the advantage of a better Android and holds the promise of better software support.

The R15 Pro gets the job done without breaking the bank. If you want more phone and a fancier camera expect to pay more. If NZ$800 is your budget limit, this is a good choice, but take a closer look at the NZ$700 Nokia 7 Plus first. That would be my choice.

Android: A practical guide for iPhone switchers

Phone buyers tend to stick with their choices for the long-haul.

More than nine-out-of-ten iPhone owners pick another Apple phone. Android owners move between brands. Even so, they are more likely to buy another Android than switch to Apple.

Staying with one phone operating system makes sense. We invest money, time and energy in our apps, music, other media and services.

Moving from one phone operating system to another can be a wrench.

It can also mean more expense than the simple cost of buying new phone hardware.

Apple users tend to spend more on everything phone-related than Android owners. They buy more apps, services and music. That is a form of lock-in.

Learning

Even if you didn’t spend much money on extras, you spent time learning to use your phone.

Switch brands and the learning starts all over again. Some people enjoy that. Many do not. Yet this learning amounts to another investment. It is also a different kind of lock-in.

Don’t discount lock-in. It can be significant. Lock-in is a form of inertia which adds friction to moving between phones.

It means you need to be unhappy or desperate to consider a switch. Moving phones is not something you should do lightly.

Money

One reason Apple owners move to Android is money. On the surface it looks like you can save money by switching.

Take care with that line of thinking. The money you save buying a cheaper Android phone may be less than your investment in everything iOS. Don’t discount the time cost it takes to adjust to a new phone, or the cost of lower productivity.

In the real world, we should talk about perceived savings when switching phones.

Let’s assume you’ve decided you can’t live with Apple any longer. You’ve thought through the financial and productivity implications.

You’ve decided to move to Android. What should you look for? Which brands will give you the best Android experience and what traps can you avoid?

Bewildering Android choice

The first big difference between Apple and Android is choice. Most Android phone models come in a bewildering array of variations. Phones often have cheaper lite version. Some are small versions of large screen premium models. Others have less processing power or built-in storage.

Another difference is that the main Android phone brands have more than one range.

At the time of writing Vodafone New Zealand lists 10 distinct Samsung phone models from the Galaxy S8 to the Galaxy J1. 2degrees has 12 Samsung choices. There are five Huawei models and three Sony phones at Vodafone. 2degrees has five Huawei and one Sony phone.

In New Zealand, iPhone 7 prices run from NZ$1200 to $1829 for the 7 Plus. The top iPhone costs 20 percent more than the most expensive Android phone on sale here at the moment. If you are interested that would be Samsung’s $1500 Galaxy S8 Plus.

Samsung Galaxy S8 Midnight Black

As a rule iPhone users will be more interested in the premium Android phones. Prices are not that far behind Apple. If you need to save money, head further downmarket.

That doesn’t mean rock bottom. You can save a lot more than 20 percent on the price and still get a decent Android phone. At $700 the Oppo R9s is less than 40 percent of the price of an iPhone 7 Plus.

Direct comparisons with Apple’s phone are not fair. They don’t compared on features or functionality. Yet, if you choose an R9s you’ll get a lot of change from the price of a basic iPhone 7. That’s a lot of money to spend on apps, music or elsewhere.

Oppo is an Android phone brand where Apple users will feel more at home than, say, Samsung.

While the R9s is not an iPhone knock-off, its design borrows much from Apple. In low light you might mistake it for an iPhone.

Skin deep

Many Android phone brands load a software skin on top of the Android operating system. Oppo’s software skin has a distinct iOS look. It seems familiar. That’s about where the comparisons end. You won’t mistake the R9s for an iPhone in use.

There are compromises moving to a low-cost Android. Cheaper phones don’t do as much. For many people the most noticeable difference is in the camera. Although the Oppo R9s has a great camera for a $700 phone, it doesn’t hold a candle to iPhone. Nor is Oppo’s camera software as easy to use as Apple’s.

If you don’t care for photography, this won’t matter. If you do, then you could save a decent amount of money towards paying for your next digital SLR.

You will find the R9s doesn’t feel as nice in the hand and it takes longer to perform some tasks than the iPhone. The screen isn’t as good either. While this is often harder to notice on a conscious level, it will register with your brain at some level.

If you use phones for social media more than anything else, these deficiencies may not matter. If your phone is where you get most of your work done, you may want to invest in a more powerful alternative to Apple.

Samsung, the obvious Android choice

For years pundits have written about Samsung’s iPhone killers. That’s a ridiculous cliche. And a crass, clickbait-driven line of thinking. Samsung is the one Android phone maker you could describe as Apple’s rival1.

Like Apple, Samsung makes beautiful hardware. Like Apple, the company innovates. While Samsung fans argue the brand innovates more than Apple, comparisons are meaningless. The two brands exist in parallel universes.

Still, the Galaxy S8 has to be at the top of any iPhone alternative list.

Huawei, Sony

Huawei is number three in market share. The company plays leap-frog with Samsung when it comes to who has the best premium Android phone. For a while earlier this year, the Huawei Mate 9 Pro was top dog.

Sony also makes great Android phones. The company doesn’t have the market share or the presence it deserves in New Zealand. That makes it a less obvious choice.

Departing from iPhone expectations

Once a year Apple announces new iPhone models and updates the iOS operating system. As a rule of thumb you can upgrade every Apple phone from the last couple of years to the new software without a hitch. It gets trickier with older iPhones. One more than four years old might not make the transition.

In practice, almost every iPhone owner will make the update soon the software release. The only exceptions are where key apps don’t work with the new iOS. Users may decide they’d rather have that app than new operating system features.

Google updates Android software on a similar schedule. Android phone users often don’t get to upgrade their software. Some phone makers are slack about Android updates. Huawei is notorious for this, but others can be as guilty. Even the ones who make update can be slow and they may not update all models at the same time.

The upshot is that many Android phone owners are on older versions of the phone operating system. This can be confusing.

Distribution of Android operating systems used by Android phone owners in May 2017, by platform version
Distribution of Android operating systems used by Android phone owners in May 2017, by platform version

Take a look at this graph from Statista. It shows the distribution of operating system versions in use in May 2017. Only seven percent are on the latest, Nougat, version of Android.

Around a third are on the previous version. About a third are on the last-but-one version. That’s a more than two-year old operating system. The remaining users are on even earlier versions.

Fragmented Android

Apart from anything else, this fragmentation spills over in to the app world. It can be a source of friction with long-time Android users although some swear it doesn’t bother them. It’s something that will confuse many people moving from Apple.

If this bothers you, but you’re committed to Android, consider buying a Google Pixel phone. Google manages the Pixel brand itself. It means you’re guaranteed to get the purest Android experience. You’ll also get timely software updates soon after Google releases the new code.

Pixel phones can be hard to find in New Zealand, although some stores stock them. They’re not cheap, expect to pay around NZ$1300.

Like it says at the top of this post, you need a good reason to move from one phone operating system to another. The transition can be painless, it may even be trouble free. Only you can decide if the cost and effort makes the move worthwhile.

Similar issues confront an Android user switching to Apple. Some people make the move without a single glance back. Others pine for a feature that Apple doesn’t offer or doesn’t do as well as on the Android phone. It’s something of a lottery.


  1. Samsung may sell more phones that Apple. But Apple makes the real money. This is not a volume game. ↩︎

iPhone 7 Plus review — it’s all about the camera

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.

New everything

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.

Second camera

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.

Portraits, close-ups

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.

Turning point

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.

Other changes

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.

Magic

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.

An Apple iPhone SE review written using the phone

You know how, as an adult, you visit the place you grew up and everything seems smaller than it did at the time? That’s what the iPhone SE feels like after 18 months with bigger iPhones.

There is no better way of getting to grips with a device than using it to write about the product.

In the interest of science I’m typing this iPhone SE review on the phone. I’m using Byword, a great iOS Markdown writing app.

Writing a review on the device in question may be ironic, postmodern and meta, but it’s also practical and powerful. By the time I finish this post, I’ll understand the iPhone SE’s practical advantages and flaws.

A classic iPhone design

Apple’s iPhone SE gives small phone seeking consumers most of the power of the latest iPhone 6S in an updated iPhone 5S case.

The 12th iPhone to hit the streets uses a classic design that stretches back to the iPhone 4. If you used iPhones before they grew big with iPhone 6, you’ll know what to expect.

New Zealand prices start at NZ$750 for The 16GB model. A 64GB model is NZ$950. The prices are NZ$250 less than iPhone 6 models with the same amount of storage.

The iPhone SE weighs around 115 g. It measures 124 by 57 mm and is about 7.5 mm deep.

At first sight it seems tiny next to the iPhone 6S Plus, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. By the way, that’s a 13-inch iPad Pro next to the iPhone SE in the picture at the top of the page.

Holding it one-handed doesn’t stress my little finger, something I dislike about the heavier, bigger iPhone 6S Plus.

If you come to the iPhone SE from a 5 or 5S you’ll feel at home from day one. You will revel in the extra power and take delight in the new capabilities. The screen will feel normal.

Going back home

If, like me, you find yourself back with a four-inch iPhone after time with a five or 5.7-inch display it’s like visiting the home you grew up in.

It’s familiar and cosy, but you’ve moved on. While you can live there again, you quickly remember why you don’t live there any more. Then after a while, you’ll wonder if moving out was such a smart step.

When it comes to reading, bigger iPhone screens are better. That’s obvious and, for the most part, doesn’t need explaining. But that better screen comes at a financial and practical cost.

Small screen

Where screen size matters is in the context of tasks like writing this blog post. I notice I’m squinting more than normal. It’s hard to navigate the page on a small display. I can see less, so I’ve less feel for the flow of my words and for the entire text. I can’t easily tell if my narrative jumps about.

Writing on a small screen is difficult, proof reading is harder again. Proofing your own writing is always difficult. It’s tougher on the small screen because the brain is using up so much of its processing power just reading the words and navigating the text.

Even getting the cursor to the right spot in the text to make an edit is a challenge with the small screen.

On a positive note. iOS auto-correct does a sterling job fixing up the mistyped words and other minor errors. I don’t normally depend on this tool, with the iPhone SE it takes on a new importance.

Typing

Typing on the iPhone SE’s tiny on-screen keyboard is challenging. I’m used to typing on the 6S Plus screen. While not the best tool for feature writing, it can cope at a pinch.

The iPhone SE belongs to a higher difficulty level. It took five tries to type the first capital S in that last sentence. My pudgy fingers kept hitting the A key. Writing speed is glacial.

Finding the shift key is not easy, switching to the number keyboard is tricky. Even typing a full stop requires more effort than on bigger phones.

All this is a wake up call to revisit voice recognition. My 35 years as a journalist mean I think with my fingertips when writing, that may need re-examining. I’ll look at voice recognition on the iPhone SE, if I find anything interesting I’ll report back.

Less productivity than a big iPhone

If I was writing this review on the iPhone 6S Plus, a laptop or a tablet, I would have finished a long ago. When it comes to serious productivity, the small iPhone SE lags behind the 6S or the 6S Plus.

It’s not the right tool for the job. At least not for me.

And yet, there’s something delightful about the iPhone SE that transcends things like productivity: This phone feels right.

My hand is comfortable holding the iPhone SE in a way that it is not with bigger phones.

Many readers will see this as a subjective view. Perhaps it is. But that’s the main thrust of this review: The iPhone SE excels as a small, pocketable iPhone, but unlike the bigger iPhones it doesn’t rate as a practical PC replacement.

The sound of one hand typing

Despite the productivity gap, I typed this and the last three or four paragraphs one-handed using my left hand. My thumb reaches all the way across the keyboard. I don’t need to do the iPhone 6 trick of double hitting the Touch ID button to move the top of the screen down.

Writing long-form posts one-handed on the iPhone SE is not comfortable. Nor is it fast. But it works. If I had to, I could compose stories while standing on a commuter bus or train. Typing on a bigger iPhone needs both hands and more elbow room.

Because the iPhone SE is a touch thicker it is more comfortable to hold. It feels easier to grip. Less likely to fall from my hands.

Flat

I like the flat sides — you can stand the phone on a table if necessary. I also like the small volume control buttons.

Apple has put the power button back at the top like on earlier phones. It’s a better, more logical position.

One of the nicest physical aspects of the iPhone SE is that the thicker body means there’s no need for the ugly camera bump now turning up in iPhones and iPads. The back of the phone is flat and elegant.

Another benefit of a smaller screen is longer battery life. I set up the review phone 24 hours ago straight from the box. It hasn’t seen a charger since I got it from Apple and yet there is still 27 percent in the tank. I got to the end of this post with charging.

Given the phone didn’t arrive with 100 percent charge, this hints at two days use. That’s a big plus. Either way it looks to have better battery life than the iPhone 6S, about the same as the 6S Plus.

Storage

iPhone SE storage tops out at 64GB with the $950 model. When I first transferred my data from the iPhone 6S Plus last night I found there was 22Gb that didn’t make the trip. Almost all of that was music files.

That is a likely deal-breaker for some potential buyers.

If you choose the 16GB iPhone SE you’ll need discipline managing the storage. Even 64GB is a challenge when you have a large collection of digital music. I recommend you choose 64GB unless you are certain you’ll not be shooting video, carrying photo collections and listening to stored audio.

Not just storage

There are other possible shortcoming to watch out for. None of them are deal-breakers, but collectively they may add up to a reason not to buy the iPhone SE.

The iPhone SE uses an older version of Apple’s Touch ID sensor. In practice this doesn’t amount to much of a compromise. It just works a fraction slower. Some may find this a blessing, at times the newer Touch ID sensor is a little too quick for comfort.

If you’ve used an iPhone 6S or 6S Plus you may miss the 3D Touch feature where you can press harder on the screen to fire up secondary commands. I found myself trying to use it on the SE even though I knew it wasn’t there.

This is not likely to worry anyone who is coming to the SE from an older iPhone, but if you use 3D Touch a lot, you may be frustrated by its absence.

Apple has used an older front facing camera on the SE. If you make lots of FaceTime calls or use similar video conferencing, this may bother you, but, on its own, this is not a reason to dig deeper and spend on a more expensive iPhone.

Likewise the display doesn’t have as much contrast as the 6S and 6S Plus. I did a side-by-side comparison and its clear that photos have better contrast on the bigger iPhones, but again, this is not a deal-breaker.

Is it worth buying?

There are two questions to consider before choosing the iPhone SE.

First, can you get away with 64GB of local storage? Given that many buy iPhone 6S and 6S Plus models with 64GB, that’s down to how you use your phone and what you want from it.

While most of us can live with this, especially if we store audio, photo and video files in the cloud, some users will find this limit too restricting.

Which brings us to the most obvious question: is the smaller display going to work for you? The larger screen shows much more text or graphics at the same time. Or, you can use the extra screen size to zoom out making text easier to read and picture detail easier to view.

As I found when writing this review on the iPhone SE this aspect of the larger iPhones is a big deal in terms of productivity.

If you don’t use your phone for heavy-duty apps, writing or to read large amounts of material, you’ll probably be happy with the iPhone SE’s trade-off between screen size, pocketability and being able to control it one-handed.

The eyes have it…

In my case the killer deciding factor is eyesight. Until recently I had good eyes and found a four-inch screen more than adequate. That changed when I found I had macular degeneration. This is kept under control with drugs, but for a while I struggled to see a small screen. Many, many people also have eye problems and need a bigger display.

The flip side is that I only need a big screen iPhone some of the time. There are Macs, tablets and PCs at home with all the screen real estate I need.

Some of the time the convience of a small, one-hand device trumps the productivity benefit of a bigger iPhone. And it is much more portable. It fits into short trousers and shirt pockets — bigger iPhones have trouble with both.

Well, that’s the theory. You’ll need to decide on these matters for yourself, as far as I’m concerned, I’ll stick with the larger screen iPhone 6S Plus because on the occasions when I need iPhone productivity, I can’t compromise. And on the days my eyes are bad I’d struggle to read the small display.

… And yet that little iPhone SE feels so right in my hand.

Why is there an iPhone SE?

Apple says it made the iPhone SE because of customer demand for a smaller iPhone.

This isn’t a marketing hunch. It is a hard-nosed decision backed by powerful evidence. Last year 30 million people bought the iPhone 5S.

Which is a good place to start. The iPhone SE has the same four-inch screen as the 5S. The case is the same size and physically similar.

Looks are deceptive

While the outside looks like the iPhone 5S, under the skin it is an iPhone 6S.

This is a marketing challenge for Apple.

Conspicuous consumers — let’s not pretend they don’t exist — want to be seen and noticed with the latest glamorous hardware. The iPhone SE looks like an old iPhone. Few casual observers would see it as anything else.

In the case of the review model in my hands, the only clue that it isn’t an iPhone 5S is that it has a Rose Gold finish. You’d have to be intimate with Apple’s product range to know that colour wasn’t available on the 5 series phones.


Footnote: Writing the iPhone SE review on the phone

I composed, wrote, fact-checked and otherwise researched almost all the text in this post on the iPhone SE. The post took about half as long again to write as it would have taken on a Mac or iPad Pro. That’s maybe 25 percent slower than writing the same story on a large screen iPhone.

In the end I couldn’t do everything from the phone. I had to open the document on my Mac to give it a last proof-read and polish.

If I was writing a story to send to another editor to proof-read, I would have gone straight from the phone, but found my eyes were starting to feel the strain of dealing with over 2000 words on a tiny screen.