Even with the deluge of leaks that defines modern Apple reporting, Apple usually shows things at their event that I don’t anticipate or expect. This time, that didn’t really happen. Apple’s 2016 September event was straightforward because Apple’s announcements were straightforward and almost obvious.
The new iPhone 7 and Apple Watch 2 are good updates, adding features people wanted and improving things that already exist, don’t get me wrong. They are iterative, though. It is disappointing that both of Apple’s flagship hardware announcements look almost identical to their predecessors.
The updates Apple gave us this year are solid but nothing extraordinary. Nothing that compels me to preorder. I normally leave an Apple event unsatisfied with what I have, wanting the new thing and I really don’t feel that this time..
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The endless rumor mill had set me up for what the iPhone 7 was going to be: a refinement of the iPhone 6s series with component upgrades. There was a mystery surrounding the dual camera though; what was it going to do and how much better can iPhone photography be when there are two sensors side-by-side?
It turns out the answer to this question is lacklustre as the iPhone 7 Plus has just two advantages over the camera in the iPhone 7. It offers 2x optical zoom and software-synthesised bokeh using depth perception. The latter of these features won’t even ship at launch. I was expecting a bigger leap and was left underwhelmed for now.
For me, 2x optical zoom does not really justify having 2 ugly holes in the back of the device. I was expecting more stuff like bokeh where Apple leveraged the two cameras together to make better photos. Optical zoom is just switching between both, one at a time. I don’t feel compelled at all by the 5.5-inch Plus versus the 4.7-inch phone.
The iPhone 7 is a great phone, no doubt, but I wasn’t surprised or amazed by anything. This doesn’t mean Apple is doomed or anything like that; it just meant I left the event feeling less excited or hyped than normal. The iPhone 6s was an iterative update last year but the 3D Touch stuff felt exciting, it felt like the future. In contrast, the iPhone 7 is an ‘obvious’ update to an already-great phone. I love the new colors, I have yearned for a black iPhone forever, but I can’t justify buying a new phone solely for a new color.
The Apple Watch 2 had been shrouded in more mystery ahead of the event. I had hoped that after two years since the first Watch was introduced, Apple was readying a big hardware upgrade for the second generation units. This doesn’t necessarily mean a chassis change, although I was hoping for it to become slightly thinner, but features like sleep tracking or new health sensors felt appropriate.
This didn’t really happen. Apple added GPS, a new processor, more waterproofness, and a brighter display. These are perfectly good improvements but I was expecting more. I was surprised sleep analysis wasn’t an option when iOS 10 prominently features Sleep data in the Health app.
The reality is, the updates Apple did give the watch do not enhance my life that much. My activity regime does not include hikes or long bike rides, so GPS is not a revolutionary change for me. I fill my Activity rings predominantly by walking. This means I am always carrying my phone in my pocket, which nullifies the addition of the GPS as I’ve already got one (effectively).
Similarly, the original Apple Watch has already shown itself to be pretty good at water resistance. It can sustain rain and splashes — Tim Cook even showers with it. It’s great that these use cases are now backed by Apple officially: a waterproof rating up to 50 metres submersion is fantastic. That being said, it doesn’t really impact my life unless I decide to take up regular swimming. There are plenty of anecdotes of people swimming with Watch 1 and it being perfectly fine anyway.
The Apple Watch has grown a lot through software. Looking back to the original software that shipped in March 2015, it’s crazy how much Apple has reinvented watchOS in that time. watchOS 3 is fantastic and a huge leap over watchOS 1. Almost all of these benefits I get already, without needing to upgrade. I’ll have to wait and see how much of a difference the new dual-core Apple Watch chip makes.
I was expecting hardware advancements along the same lines of how much the software improved in the same period. That hasn’t happened … so I am personally disappointed. I think Apple Watch Series 2 will still sell well in the market but it didn’t meet the fantasy I had conjured in my head. In fact, Series 2 is actually thicker than my Watch (0.9mm, or 8%, difference) so one of my primary complaints with the hardware has actually regressed.
I do think Apple is experiencing physical and cost margin issues with Watch. They had to make it physically bigger to fit everything in and charge $20 more at the base to sell it. This has culminated in another straightforward set of improvements to the product line.
The AirPods are the most interesting announcement: they are more what I get excited about at Apple events … things that feel truly futuristic. Earbuds that pause music when you take them out of your ear are pretty magical. These are iconic Apple headphones with automatic pairing and device switching between Apple Watch and iPhone. They aren’t the first to release truly-wireless buds, but you look at the press shots, the impracticalities wash away, and you think ‘damn this is futuristic’. They are very cool.
It ties in with Apple’s vision for everything to be wireless. I think Apple’s messaging is compromised a bit with the current devices. It only ships Lightning EarPods with iPhones. This means most people are not going to participate in the wireless glory that Apple is promoting as most people use the buds that are bundled in the box.
The AirPods cost $159. Not expensive by wireless earbud standards, but priced prohibitively enough that it isn’t an impulsive purchase. They also don’t ship until October which is another limiting factor. It’s hard to get excited about something that doesn’t launch for another month. What would make the AirPods a real revolution? They need to ship in the box with every iPhone in the same way Apple ships wireless keyboards and mice with the iMac. Margins mean that won’t be feasible for a while, sadly.
Overall, Apple made good announcements but nothing hit me out of left field as a groundbreaking change. This doesn’t mean the products are going to be flops, of course. Apple will sell millions of phones and millions of watches.
I also don’t believe Apple is purposefully holding stuff back or ran out of ideas. It’s just that the state of technology today only allows for iterative improvements at price points that are acceptable. I have to wait longer for the R&D to culminate in something that can ‘wow’ again.