Square Reader SDK

My thanks to Square for sponsoring this week at DF. You might know Square from their little white card readers, but for developers they have a suite of APIs and SDKs to help you take payments — both in-person and online. Square Reader SDK allows you to use Square hardware to take payments directly in your app. Check out their website to see their cookie-selling demo app, with complete source code to simulate everything a Girl Scout would need to sell cookies.

 ★ 

★ Third-Party USB-C to Lightning Cables Might Come in Mid-2019 (Which Is Good, Because I Still Don’t Think iPhone Is Ever Going to Switch to USB-C)

Regarding my question a few days ago about why there still aren’t any third-party MFI-certified USB-C to Lighting cables, here’s a report from Japanese site Macotakara, back in September (scroll down for their English translation):

Apple informed developers who participate in the MFi licensing program that they are planning to approve third-party products of “Apple USB-C to Lightning Cable”.

Apple plans to move C48 Lightning connector to C89 Lightning connector, C68 Lightning connector to C78 Lightning connector, ​​C12 Lightning connector to C79 Lightning connector, the price will also be about $0.50 higher.

In order to manufacture the USB-C to Lightning cable, a new “C94 Lightning connector” is necessary, it explains that it becomes a maximum 15W power supply specification in the case of non-USB-PD and 18W charging is supported in the case of USB-PD compatible. […]

As it is in the stage of USB-C to Lightning Developer Preview, third party USB-C to Lightning cable is expected to be released in mid-2019.

A few things to unpack here. “PD” stands for Power Delivery, a protocol for providing power up to 100W by switching to higher voltage. This is an alternative to Qualcomm’s Quick Charge standard in use on some Android phones. Standard USB is fixed at 5V and max current of 2.1A. 5V × 2.1A = ~10W max. Apple’s fastest non-PD USB charger is the 12W charger that came with older iPad Pros. That one does 5.2V × 2.4A = 12.48W. (You can see the output volts and amps in the small print on all chargers.)

With a PD power supply, chargers support multiple output configurations, and the devices negotiate which to use via a handshake. Apple’s old 29W charger supported two output configurations (photo):

Apple’s new 30W charger supports four output configurations (photo):

The next thing to understand is that MFI certification requires vendors to source their Lightning connectors from Apple.1 The old connectors don’t support PD, and the new connectors that do aren’t yet available to third parties. Basically, this is why the only option for officially certified USB-C to Lightning cables remains Apple’s own 1m and 2m cables.

Yes, there are some no-name brand USB-C to Lightning cables available on Amazon right now. Amazon even labels one of them “Amazon’s Choice”. But they aren’t MFI-certified and I don’t think any of them support more than 10W. Personally, I would never trust these uncertified cables. The reviews on Amazon are full of complaints that they fail after a few weeks, and honestly I wouldn’t trust them in terms of safety. I get wanting to charge Lightning devices from USB-C chargers and MacBooks, but if you don’t want to buy Apple’s own cables (which admittedly are expensive) you might as well just use an old USB-A to Lightning cable and a USB-C to USB-A adapter, because you’re still limited to the non-PD charging limits. The no-name brand USB-C to Lightning cables available today do not support PD, are not certified, and are limited to 12 watts. There’s a reason they only come from no-name brands.

It’s small consolation to those of us looking for high-quality third-party USB-C to Lightning cables and adapters today, but it does sound like they’ll start appearing in the second quarter of 2019.

The iPhone and USB-C

This brings me to a second point, which feels at least tangentially related to this whole USB-C to Lightning situation. Now that the iPad Pros have switched to USB-C, there are a lot of people — possibly most of you reading this — who think/hope Apple is going to switch the iPhone from Lightning to USB-C next year.

I don’t think that’s going to happen, ever. I could be wrong — there are definitely some compelling reasons why they might. But I don’t think they will for a few reasons.

First, Apple likes having complete control over the iPhone peripheral market. Consider iPhone cases that include a built-in battery pack. There aren’t many of them. Apple only recently approved Mophie’s battery pack for the year-old iPhone X. Battery packs are difficult — they block inductive charging and they can interfere with the phone’s antennas. That’s why Apple’s own battery case for the iPhone 7 had such a seemingly weird hump-on-the-back design: that design kept the battery from interfering with the antennas. It’s in Apple’s interest to certify that third-battery cases don’t interfere with antenna reception, because if they did interfere, people would naturally blame the iPhone for the poor reception, not the case.

But Apple wields its MFI control in other ways too. In a Twitter thread Wednesday, Nilay Patel pointed out there has never been an MFI-certified battery case with a headphone jack. This almost certainly is not because no one thought to make one, but rather that Apple will not approve them. Apple clearly thinks external battery packs (connected to iPhones via a cable) are a better solution than cases with integrated batteries. With Lightning, they can effectively control this. If the iPhone were to switch to USB-C, I don’t think they could stop anyone from making USB-C battery cases. I do not think Apple will cede this control.

Second, the nerd world may clamor for one universal connector that charges everything from iPhones to iPads to MacBooks, but the normal world just wants their existing cables to keep working when they buy a new iPhone. Lightning is obviously better than the old 30-pin adapter — the old 30-pin connectors look ridiculous in hindsight. But people upgrading from older iPhones were outraged when Apple introduced Lightning with the iPhone 5 in 2012. They saw it as a money grab — a new port introduced so everyone would have to buy new cables. The fact that you wouldn’t have to buy USB-C cables from Apple wouldn’t change that perception if future iPhones switch to USB-C — nerds might rejoice but regular folks will object.

For however many iPhone users there are who are upset that iPhones continue to use the proprietary Lightning port when they could, technically, use USB-C instead, I would bet big money there are way more who just want Apple to keep using Lightning because they already have Lightning cables everywhere they need them. It’s also almost certainly true that there are way more iPhone owners who do not own either an iPad or MacBook than there are iPhone users who also own an iPad or MacBook. These iPhone owners don’t care that the new iPad Pro and recent MacBooks have switched to USB-C. And even those iPhone owners who do own an iPad or MacBook are very unlikely to own the brand-new $800-and-up iPad Pro, and their MacBooks are most likely models with MagSafe.

Third (and admittedly a distant third at that), Lightning connectors and ports are smaller. Sure, at 5.9mm thick, the new iPad Pros are the thinnest iOS devices ever,2 and they use USB-C. But still, it’s easier to make a thinner device with a smaller connector. I also think Lightning connectors are more pleasant to use. They’re easier to plug in and easier to pull out. Lightning is a simple, elegant male/female design. USB-C, like all previous USB versions, is a weird male connector with female slot / female port with a tiny little male connector inside. USB-C certainly has some technical advantages over Lightning, but iPhones don’t need those features. The elegance (and I suspect durability) of Lightning probably matters more to Apple.

So:

  1. Apple would prefer to maintain MFI control over all iPhone peripherals.
  2. Most iPhone users would be displeased, at least in the short-term, by a switch to USB-C.
  3. Lightning is smaller and more elegant than USB-C and Apple prefers smaller and more elegant.

I think iPhones will stick with Lightning until wireless charging is fast enough that Apple can remove all ports, Apple Watch-style.

In fact, I don’t think regular (non-Pro) iPads will switch to USB-C either. Apple is pitching the iPad Pros’ switch to USB-C based on actual professional features — driving external 5K displays, using PC-class peripherals, and support for very high-power charging. The only one of those that might apply to regular iPads is faster charging, which is always nice to have, but even that wouldn’t matter much to most iPad users, who (a) stick with whatever charger Apple supplies in the box, and (b) choose extra chargers based on price, not output wattage. (Spec-knowledgeable nerds have trouble believing this, but many iPhone users love the wimpy 5W charger Apple includes with iPhones because it’s so small.)

Lightning Gadgets

When I think of Lightning-powered devices I tend to think of iPhones and iPads. But over the last few years, Apple has put Lightning ports into a bunch of battery-powered gadgets:

Most of those aren’t related to iPhones at all — the iPhone could switch to USB-C and it wouldn’t really matter if these gadgets stayed on Lightning. Except for one: the AirPods charging case. That’s the one that is intimately tied to iPhone use in daily life. You really want to be able to charge your AirPods case with the connector you’re most likely to have handy, and that’s your phone charger.

There were rumors that Apple might ship next-generation AirPods this year. (There still are rumors they might ship this year, in fact, even though at this date that doesn’t seem very likely.) That would have been an interesting hint regarding the future of the iPhone’s charging port. I really don’t think Apple would launch a second generation of AirPods now, and sell them all through next year, only to change the iPhone’s charging port to USB-C in September.

One supply chain leaker with a supposedly good track record published a photo purportedly showing new AirPods cases, and, for what that’s worth (not much, in my opinion), the cases shown still have Lightning ports.

If Apple had announced second-generation AirPods this year, and the new cases still had Lightning ports, I’d take that as a strong sign that next year’s iPhones will too. And if they had shipped without Lightning ports (using inductive charging instead, perhaps, like Apple Pencil 2), I’d be a little less willing to bet that next year’s new iPhones will stick with Lightning. But Apple has not announced new AirPods (or even just new AirPod cases), nor recent updates to any of its Lightning-powered gadgets other than Pencil, so we don’t have any clues to glean on this front.


  1. MFI licensees sign non-disclosure agreements with Apple with exorbitant financial penalties. So, they tend not to talk. But one little birdie I spoke with recently said that last year, for months, there simply were no Lightning connectors available to third parties, because Apple was consuming the entire supply because they were including three with each iPhone 8 and iPhone X — one for the cable, one for the headphones, and one for the headphone adapter. These supply constraints make me wonder if that’s why this year’s new iPhones still ship only with USB-A Lightning cables and chargers — Apple may not have felt confident in the supply of the new Lightning connectors that work with USB-C PD charging speeds. If they had included a USB-C to Lighting cable with every iPhone XS and XR, they’d have needed at least 50 million new Lightning connectors this quarter, and they apparently don’t even have enough to sell them to MFI licensees until some time next year. ↩︎

  2. Remember the iPod Touch? Apple still sells them, but they’re so long in the tooth they still use iPhone 6-class A8 chips. I think the plethora of old hand-me-down iPhones has really put a crimp the market for iPod Touches. I can’t even remember the last time I heard someone say “iTouch”. ↩︎︎


Rumors Float Claiming AirPods 2 Are Still Coming This Year

Chris Smith, BGR:

A few weeks ago, Apple insider Ming-Chi Kuo said that the AirPods 2 would launch either in late 2018 or early next year. Now we have a Samsung insider making a similar claim. “Ice Universe”, who’s a constant source of rumors, mostly related to Samsung mobile devices, said on Twitter that “Apple will definitely launch AirPods 2 this year”.

Anything is possible, but I’d find it a bit strange if Apple released new AirPods this year. If they were going to be ready for the holidays, why wouldn’t they have announced them at the event in Brooklyn two weeks ago? Why would they release a holiday gift guide listing the current AirPods as the second item on the list?

People are already buying holiday gifts, and gift-buying reaches its manic peak next week with Black Friday. People who are buying $160 AirPods now — on Apple’s own recommendation — would be justifiably angry if AirPods 2 come out before the holidays.

And what about inductive charging? Last year Apple promised a new charging case for AirPods that would work with the still-missing-don’t-talk-about-it AirPower charging mat. I don’t think they were going to use the Qi standard for that, but instead something proprietary like Apple Watch uses. If they still plan on supporting this, would they launch new AirPods now even while AirPower is totally missing? How do you launch AirPods with inductive charging without a way to inductively charge them? And if they still plan on shipping AirPower in the even vaguely near future, would they ship new AirPods without support for it?

 ★ 

Idea: Deleting Apps From the App Store Updates Tab

600+ likes and counting on this tweet that popped into my head this morning:

I wish you could delete apps right from the App Store Updates tab. When I see an update is pending for an app I never use, I just want to delete it right there.

Also, it would be great to be able to delete apps from Spotlight search results (or even just reveal them).

 ★ 

How to See the Magnets in the New iPad Pro

It’s one thing to hear that there are a lot of magnets in the new iPad Pros. It’s another to see them.

 ★ 

Why Aren’t There Third-Party USB-C to Lightning Cables?

Here’s a thread on Reddit asking why there aren’t any USB-C to Lightning cables from reliable, certified companies like Anker, Monoprice, and Amazon. It’s a year-old thread and the situation is unchanged. This stinks now that all MacBooks and the new iPad Pros have gone to USB-C, along with chargers that output by USB-C.

I have this Anker 30-watt charger, for example. It’s a terrific product — nice size, great build quality, and just $26. (Apple’s 30-watt charger is $50.) Another great charger is Apple’s new 18-watt charger that’s included with the new iPad Pros (but which, oddly, is not yet available for purchase separately). These chargers all use USB-C for output. So if you want to use them to charge a Lightning device — like, say, your iPhone — you need a USB-C to Lightning cable, and your only certified options are Apple’s 1-meter and 2-meter cables. Apple’s cables aren’t bad, but (a) they cost $19 and $35, respectively; and (b) the 1-meter cable is awfully long to be the shortest cable for this. I like having 6-inch cables for traveling, for plugging my phone into my MacBook to charge overnight.

Here’s a 9to5Mac story from 2015 where Anker was already showing off USB-C to Lightning cables for use with the then-new 12-inch MacBook. They still haven’t shipped.

What’s the deal here? Is there a technical issue? Or is Apple just spitefully keeping this market to itself? It really seems like a raw deal when you consider that Apple still doesn’t include a USB-C to Lightning cable with new iPhones.

 ★ 

Stan Lee: ‘America Is a Dream’

Great little graphic essay Stan Lee wrote for The Atlantic in 2007.

 ★ 

‘An Unshakable Humanism’ — Michael Chabon on Stan Lee

Michael Chabon, on Instagram:

Some people are influences. Others — a rare few — rearrange the very structure of your neurons. Stan Lee’s creative and artistic contribution to the Marvel pantheon has been debated endlessly, but one has only to look at Jack Kirby’s solo work to see what Stan brought to the partnership: an unshakable humanism, a faith in our human capacity for altruism and self-sacrifice and in the eventual triumph of the rational over the irrational, of love over hate, that was a perfect counterbalance to Kirby’s dark, hard-earned quasi-nihilism. In the heyday of their partnership, it was Stan’s vision that predominated and that continues to shape my way of seeing the world, and of telling stories about that world, to this day.

There’s something apt about Chabon using a primarily visual medium like Instagram as an outlet for the perfect words to remember a man whose life’s work was writing for comic books.

 ★ 

Stan Lee Dies at 95

Alexander F. Remington and Michael Cavna, writing for The Washington Post:

Traditionally, comics were drawn from a screenplay-like script provided by the writer. Instead, Mr. Lee said, he would offer his artists plot ideas and brainstorm with them. The artists would then draw the story, and he would later fill in dialogue and text.

Artists in his “bullpen,” where the artists worked in proximity to each other and to him, were much more involved in the creative process. This became known as the Marvel Method.

What remarkable staying power his universe has had. And the man was a master of the cameo.

 ★ 

Jack Dorsey Says Twitter Is ‘Considering’ an Edit Button to Fix Typos in Tweets

It’s perfectly reasonable for something as advanced as an “Edit” button to take a multi-billion dollar company years to consider.

 ★ 

[Sponsor] Square Reader SDK

You might know us for our little white reader, but did you know that Square Developer has a suite of APIs and SDKs to help you take payments in-person and online? Square Reader SDK allows you to use Square hardware to take payments directly in your app. Learn how we built an iOS cookie demo app, perfect for the Girl Scout in your life.

 ★ 

Universe

My thanks to Universe for sponsoring Daring Fireball this week. Universe is the first website builder designed from the ground up for iOS. Building a website should be fun and creative, so Universe doesn’t have templates. Themes, yes. Templates, no. Instead, Universe uses an open-ended grid and a constantly expanding array of “blocks” for content types, which makes building a site as fun as playing with Legos. Design a store (they’ve partnered with Shopify), create a portfolio, or start a magazine right from your iPhone.

Just this week, they released a major 2.0 update, including full support for iPads — just in time for the new iPad Pros. (Universe already supports the new iPad Pro screen sizes and round corners perfectly.)

I really just love the idea of owning and creating your own website. Universe offers a really original take on how to actually do this, and the fact that it started as an iPhone app means the iPhone is a first-class device for using it. I really think it’s one of the most interesting creative apps for iPhone and iPad that I’ve seen. Trust me, download Universe and just poke around for a while — it’s deeper than you think. Try it out free of charge on the App Store.

 ★ 

The Talk Show: ‘Welcome to Dongletropolis’

Special guest Merlin Mann returns to the show. Topics include the new iPad Pro and the state of iOS as a work platform, the mid-term election results, and holiday parties of yore.

Brought to you by these fine sponsors:

 ★ 

The Baseball Ponzi Scheme

Month-old news at this point, but I only just now got around to reading Grant Brisbee’s spot-on summary of game 4 of the ALDS, the best single game, by far, of the entire postseason:

But this is it. This is the baseball experience. You build up the energy over 162 games, and you store it and hope for the best, and the radiation becomes too much, and now the parakeet is dead. Great. Except that’s exactly what you want. You want the release after 162 games, the progressive jackpot paying off.

Baseball is a ponzi scheme, except it really does pay off occasionally, and when it does, you get everything that you promised.

 ★ 

★ Apple’s Q4 2018 Results

Amidst last week’s event and diving into testing the new iPad Pros and MacBook Air, I didn’t find time to comment on Apple’s quarterly results. Let’s catch up. Here’s Apple’s press release, which includes links to their data summary. Long story short, compared to the same quarter last year:

Jason Snell, as usual, has over two dozen excellent charts visualizing Apple’s results at Six Colors. I’ll reproduce just one, the first:

Pie chart showing Apple quarterly revenue by category.

I look at this and I think one thing: Fuck yeah, Macintosh.

For all the fretting for the future of the Mac — the widely held notion that Apple wants everyone to move from the Mac to iPad, that these totally shitty Marzipan apps in Mojave are the future, that the Mac is “legacy” — here is some cold, hard, financial proof that the Mac is doing as well as ever. Not only was the Mac far ahead of the iPad in terms of revenue, it’s downright amazing that it amounted to one-fifth the revenue from the iPhone.

No More Unit Sale Numbers for iPhone, Mac, and iPad

The biggest surprise was CFO Luca Maestri’s announcement during his prepared remarks on the conference call that Apple would no longer be announcing unit sales for iPhone, Mac, and iPad:

Third, starting with the December quarter we will no longer be providing unit sales data for iPhone, iPad, and Mac. As we have stated many times, our objective is to make great products and services that enrich people’s lives, and to provide an unparalleled customer experience so that our users are highly satisfied, loyal, and engaged. As we accomplish these objectives, strong financial results follow. As demonstrated by our financial performance in recent years, the number of units sold in any 90-day period is not necessarily representative of the underlying strength of our business. Furthermore, a unit of sale is less relevant for us today than it was in the past, given the breadth of our portfolio, and the wider sales price dispersion within any given product line.

This stinks as an observer of the company, but I don’t find it at all surprising. None of Apple’s competitors release unit sale numbers for phones, tablets, or PCs. I think it’s more surprising that it took Apple so long to make this change. Secretive company decides to be more secretive — news at 11.

After Tim Cook announced at the outset that they were never going to reveal Apple Watch unit sale numbers, and it played out just fine, I began wondering if Apple would switch to that policy for all of their products. There’s nothing special about Apple Watch in that regard.

I wish it weren’t so, but I don’t blame Apple for making this change. I also don’t think it has anything to do with Apple expecting bad unit sale numbers in the near future. Apple doesn’t make policy changes like this with the near term in mind. This change will affect what they announce in all quarters, for years to come, whether unit sales are good, bad, or middling. Apple is a long-term company, not a short-term one.

Tim Culpan at Bloomberg had this take:

HomePod was an abject failure, and the AirPower wireless charging pad is missing in action. But Apple Watch Series 4 is getting rave reviews, and the sleeper hit, the AirPods, will likely do well when that product gets updated. A refresh of its Mac lineup is nice, but it’s destined to remain a niche product in a market where people are less interested in buying computers.

HomePod may well be a disappointment, but “abject failure” seems a bit harsh. A few weeks ago Strategy Analytics pegged HomePod’s share of the U.S. “smart speaker” market at just 4 percent. That sounds terrible. But they also pegged HomePod’s share of the $200-plus smart speaker market at 70 percent. At $350, HomePod is nearly double $200. Maybe Apple ought to make a $100 HomePod Mini or something, but given what HomePod is and what it costs, it seems like a typical Apple product: dominating the high end of the market, overall market share be damned.

And to revisit a sentiment from above, I don’t get Culpan’s argument that the Mac constitutes a “niche”. $7.4 billion in revenue — in a quarter during which the most popular Macs were all overdue for updates — is one hell of a niche.

Also, not to keep picking nits with one paragraph, but AirPods are “doing well” right now, without an update. Given that Apple had nothing to say about AirPods last week, it seems pretty clear that AirPods aren’t getting an update this year. I still expect them to sell in record numbers as holiday gifts.


Steve Jobs Announcing the Switch from PowerPC to Intel Chips at WWDC 2005

The bit about performance-per-watt (around the 2:50 mark) seems like an argument Apple will be making again, this year or next, when they announce Macs running with Apple’s in-house ARM chips. Really, the argument is going to be exactly the same: Apple has ideas for future Macs that they can’t build using Intel chips. (Via Peter Zopf.)

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What We Can All Do at This Moment Is Vote

Inspiring piece by 98-year-old Roger Angell in The New Yorker:

What we can all do at this moment is vote — get up, brush our teeth, go to the polling place, and get in line. I was never in combat as a soldier, but now I am. Those of you who haven’t quite been getting to your polling place lately, who want better candidates or a clearer system of making yourself heard, or who just aren’t in the habit, need to get it done this time around. If you stay home, count yourself among the hundreds of thousands now being disenfranchised by the relentless parade of restrictions that Republicans everywhere are imposing and enforcing. If you don’t vote, they have won, and you are a captive, one of their prizes.

Via Kottke, who aptly describes Angell as a national treasure.

 ★ 

[Sponsor] Universe

Universe is the first website builder designed from the ground up for iOS. Building a website should be fun and creative — so Universe doesn’t have templates. We have an open-ended grid and a constantly expanding array of blocks, which makes building a site as fun as playing with Legos. Design a store, create a portfolio, or start a magazine right from your iPhone.

With our 2.0 release today, Universe is coming to iPad, just in time for the new iPad Pros.

Ditch the cookie-cutter sites and make something completely your own. Get started for free on the App Store.

 ★ 

★ The 2018 Retina MacBook Air

The elephant in the room at last week’s Apple event was Intel.

Apple introduced two products based on Intel chips — the new MacBook Air and new Mac Mini — but barely mentioned the company’s name. The word “Intel” appeared on a single slide during VP of hardware engineering Laura Legros’s presentation of the new MacBook Air. She also spoke the word once, saying the new Airs have “the latest Intel integrated graphics”. In the presentation of the new Mac Mini, “Intel” never appeared in a slide and wasn’t mentioned. The CPUs in the new Mini were simply described as 4-core and 6-core “8th generation” processors.

One slide, one mention.

Apple is not going to throw Intel under the bus — they’re taking an “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all” approach, as they should. Macs are Apple’s products, not Intel’s, and it’s ultimately Apple’s responsibility that both of these products went so long between updates. But Apple’s frustration with Intel as a partner is palpable at this point. Look no further than the other product introduced at the same event, the new iPad Pro. Apple spent an entire segment talking about the A12X chip in the iPad Pro and the performance it delivers. They spent almost no time talking about the performance of the CPU or GPU in the new MacBook Air. Performance is actually pretty good for the price and for the intended audience of the MacBook Air — but only when compared against other Intel-based notebooks. When compared against the iPad Pro, it doesn’t look good at all.

Single-Core Multi-Core Compute
2018 MacBook Air With Retina 4,316 7,847 22,048
$999 Old MacBook Air 3,335 6,118 14,570
2018 iPad Pro 5,007 18,051 42,574
iPhone XS 4,851 10,534 21,869
15" MacBook Pro w/ 2.9 GHz Core i9 5,653 21,737 59,010

What we’re seeing here is a double whammy. On the one side, Apple’s custom silicon team is firing on all cylinders, delivering new A-series chips year after year with ever-more-incredible performance and efficiency. On the other side, Intel has missed deadlines, and what they have shipped often isn’t impressive. In fact, when Apple did spend time bragging about the performance of the new MacBook Air’s chips, they were talking about the T2, the Apple-designed “security chip” that does a hell of a lot more than just manage security features. Even before they’ve moved away from Intel chips, Apple is boasting about the performance of their own custom silicon, not Intel’s.

Behind the scenes last week in New York, I asked a few folks from Apple for any sort of hint why these two Macs — the MacBook Air and Mac Mini — went so long between updates. One thing I was told is that Apple wants to focus on “meaningful updates”. The days of “speed bump” updates are largely over. The value just isn’t there.

The new MacBook Air is a meaningful update. It is faster, smaller, thinner, and lighter, with a terrific retina display (finally), vastly improved speakers, Apple’s terrific Force Touch trackpad, and more. If there’s a blessing in the long wait for this new MacBook Air to appear, it’s that it debuts with the third-generation of Apple’s butterfly keyboard. The Air skipped the bad keyboards.

The iPad lineup has seen meaningful updates on a regular basis not because Apple cares more about iPads than MacBooks, but because Apple controls the system architecture of iPads and they don’t control it on MacBooks — Intel does. Apple sells more iPad units than Macs, but the Mac accounts for significantly more revenue. Apple should love the Mac because it’s a fantastic platform — but they should also love it because it makes the company a lot of money.

Look at the iPad’s A12X compared to the iPhone’s A12 and you can see how much attention Apple is paying to the iPad’s system architecture. There’s no reason they won’t pay as much or more attention to the Mac’s custom silicon when they switch from Intel to their own chip designs. It should be downright glorious.

But that’s the future. In the present, we’ve got this new MacBook Air, and it’s pretty damn sweet.

Overview

There’s only one CPU option for the new MacBook Air: “1.6GHz dual‑core 8th‑generation Intel Core i5 processor, Turbo Boost up to 3.6GHz”. There are no build-to-order CPU options. I could be wrong, but off the top of my head, I think this is a first for a Mac notebook in the Intel era. MacBook Pros have a slew of different CPU options. The 12-inch MacBook, surprisingly, has three CPU options. Even the base model non-retina MacBook Air has two CPU options.

Why? I hate picking a CPU. Putting cost aside, I never know what the right balance is between performance and battery life. These are the sort of decisions I want Apple to make. That’s what they do with iPhones and iPads.

When you order a new MacBook Air, the only choices you make (other than color) are how much storage you want and how much RAM (8 or 16 GB). That’s it, and that’s how it should be.

I’ve been using a space gray model with 8 GB of RAM and 256 GB of SSD storage since late last week. I’m glad to be testing a model with the base 8 GB of RAM — this is the configuration that most people will actually buy and use. I use a lot of RAM because I tend to keep a lot of apps open and a lot of tabs — too many tabs — in Safari. My personal MacBook is a 13-inch MacBook Pro from 2014 with 16 GB of RAM. I’ve been thinking about buying a new 13-inch MacBook Pro with 32 GB of RAM. (I really need to clean up my Safari tabs more often.) Update: The problem, of course, is that currently only 15-inch MacBook Pros support more than 16 GB of RAM. My desired 13-inch MacBook Pro with 32 GB of RAM doesn’t (yet) exist.

I’ve been using this device heavily over the last few days — as heavily as I could while simultaneously testing the new iPad Pro, at least — and performance has been great. The system is swapping, but I honestly don’t notice. SSD performance is that good.

If you don’t know whether you need the upgrade to 16 GB of RAM, you don’t need it. I would recommend the base 8 GB configuration to just about any typical user.

The display is excellent even if it’s not Apple’s best. MacBook Pro displays offer 500 nits of maximum brightness; the new MacBook Air offers only 300 nits, according to Apple. MacBook Pros also offer wide color gamut (P3), and the models with the Touch Bar also offer True Tone. They also start at $1,800. Everyone who’s been waiting for a retina MacBook Air should be pleased by this display — it’s sharp, accurate, well-balanced, and more than bright enough.

The form factor is just about perfect. It’s noticeably thinner and lighter than a 13-inch MacBook Pro and noticeably more modern-looking than the old Air. One thing that Apple doesn’t get enough credit for in their latest notebooks is the quality of the display hinge. Metal now, not plastic, these hinges have just the right amount of resistance — they’re easy to open, easy to close, and easy to adjust to the perfect viewing angle. It’s obvious when you look at the industry and see what size notebooks are the most popular, but a 13-inch display really is perfect as the default size for most people.

These butterfly keyboards are polarizing. Some love them, some hate them. I’m in the middle. I like a laptop keyboard with a clickier feel and more travel than these keyboards, but with this third generation, the keys do snap back a bit more than they did in the first two generations. I’ve lost count of the number of people I’ve seen asking for Apple to make a MacBook keyboard with Touch ID but without the Touch Bar. Well, here it is. The only problem I’ve run into with Touch ID is that I just spent the last week with a new iPad Pro with Face ID, which is even better.

The Esc key works perfectly.

Battery life has been outstanding. Apple’s tech specs suggest this new MacBook Air should get better battery life than any other MacBook, Pro or not. I believe it.

Here’s a nice little touch: the Apple logo stickers included with the Getting Started packet are color-matched to the device. Space gray stickers for a space gray MacBook Air. Maybe this isn’t new, but I hadn’t noticed it before.

The Modern MacBook and the End of an Era

With this update the MacBook Air falls in line with Apple’s modern MacBook design language:

There are some cool things about the old designs that I miss:

Making Sense of Where This New Air Fits in the MacBook Lineup

Back in August I wrote:

But the more I think about it, the more I think that something along the lines of the “just put a retina display in the MacBook Air” scenario seems the most likely. Nomenclaturally it makes no sense. The computer named just-plain “MacBook” should logically be the one that is the baseline best-selling model for the masses. The one named “Air” should be the one that is as thin and lightweight as is feasible. But today we’re three years into the era when the just-plain MacBook is the radically thin and light model, and the Air is the best-selling baseline model that isn’t really any thinner or lighter than the Pro models. Well, so what? We drive on parkways and park on driveways and no one is confused.

And so here we are, with a new MacBook Air that really is the MacBook for almost everyone, and a just-plain MacBook that is the MacBook for those willing to pay a premium — both in dollars and performance — for an ultra thin and light form factor.

These new MacBook Airs are terrific computers at fair prices. But the overall state of Apple’s notebook lineup is a bit of a mess at the moment. Here are your options if you’re looking to spend about $1,000-1,500 on a Mac notebook:

The $200 difference between the $1,000 non-retina Air and new $1,200 retina Air is quite possibly the best $200 value you can spend in the Apple Store. The $1,000 MacBook Air is a machine I wouldn’t recommend to anyone; the $1,200 MacBook Air is a machine I’d recommend to anyone who doesn’t need more than 128 GB of storage.

The non-retina MacBook Air has a CPU upgrade for $150, but even with that upgrade it’s still slower than the new MacBook Air. I understand why the $999 Air is still in the lineup — so that Apple can say they have a notebook at $999. I have no idea why the $1,150 configuration of the old Air is still there. It seems like a rotten deal next to the new MacBook Air.

The entry model of the 12-inch MacBook comes with 256 GB of storage. The other entry models — including the MacBook Pro without Touch Bar — come with 128 GB of storage. Upgrading from 128 to 256 GB of storage costs $200 for all of these devices. These prices start to make more sense when you consider that. For 256 GB of storage and 8 GB of RAM:

The 12-inch MacBook is for people who want the very thinnest and lightest MacBook they can get. It weighs 3/4 of a pound less than the new MacBook Air, which is significant.

It’s not clear at all who the MacBook Pro without Touch Bar is for today, though. In principle, it’s for people who want higher performance than the MacBook Air provides. In practice, it’s not much faster — about the same in single-core, and about 15 percent faster in multi-core. It weighs more, costs more, and yet doesn’t have Touch ID.

Both the 12-inch MacBook and the MacBook Pro without Touch Bar are overdue for updates. (Have I mentioned that Intel has been dropping the ball lately?) Presumably, updates are coming, and when they arrive, these prices should all make more sense value-wise. But right now, the new MacBook Air is the only consumer MacBook that looks like a good deal.

A lot of people are looking at the lineup as it stands today thinking they must be missing something, because it seems obvious that most people looking for a MacBook in this price range should buy the new MacBook Air. They’re not missing anything. The new Air is exactly that: the MacBook most people should buy, and exactly the MacBook everyone has been asking Apple to make.


★ The 2018 iPad Pros

The iPad Pro is like a computer from an alternate universe. In the normal universe, Moore’s Law has stopped delivering significant year-over-year returns, and high-performance portables need fans to cool them. In the iPad universe, Moore’s Law still delivers year after year, and a super-fast, genuinely “pro” portable needs no fan.

When I reviewed the previous generation of iPad Pros in June 2017, I wrote:

Apple’s in-house chip team continues to amaze. No one buys an iPad because of CPU benchmarks, but the new iPad Pro’s CPU performance is mind-boggling. Forget about comparisons to the one-port MacBook — the iPad Pro blows that machine out of the water performance-wise. The astounding thing is that the new iPad Pro holds its own against the MacBook Pro in single-core performance.

The new iPad Pros, equipped with Apple’s A12X system-on-a-chip, are now competitive in both single- and multi-core performance with the very fastest MacBook Pro you can buy. Some results from GeekBench 4:

Single-core Multi-core Compute
2018 iPad Pro 5,007 18,051 42,574
2017 iPad Pro 3,894 9,242 27,349
iPhone XS 4,851 10,534 21,869
15″ MacBook Pro w/ 2.9 GHz Core i9 5,653 21,737 59,010

That 15-inch MacBook Pro costs $3,100 with the base amount of RAM and storage. The new iPad Pro starts at $800. That’s not an entirely fair comparison — for one thing, the base storage for that MacBook Pro is 512 GB and for the iPad it’s 64 GB. But even with 512 GB of storage, the new iPad Pro is just $1,150 for the 11-inch model and $1,350 for the 12.9-inch. And that’s the current top-of-the-line MacBook Pro. The new iPads are faster than most recent MacBook Pro models.

“No one buys an iPad because of CPU benchmarks”, I wrote last year. I don’t think that’s true any more. I think there are people who will and should buy the new iPad Pro because of its performance. At the hands-on area after last week’s event, Apple was showing Adobe Lightroom editing 50 megapixel RAW images from a Hasselblad camera. The photos were by Austin Mann, who was there, and helpfully demoed the software, showing what a real pro photographer would do in real life with real images. The experience was completely fluid and instantaneous.

The main appeal of an iPad has always been about the experience of using one. It still is. But put that aside for a moment and consider the new iPad Pro only as a portable computing device. Its performance, both from the CPU and GPU, is simply bananas. It’s nuts. Astounding performance per dollar, astounding performance per watt.

Apple bragged during the iPad Pro introduction that they are faster than 92 percent of notebook PCs sold in the last year. That’s not so funny when you consider that “PCs”, in this formulation, includes MacBooks. iPads were popular and useful when they were much slower than typical notebooks. Now they’re faster than all but the highest-end notebook PCs. They’re just staggeringly impressive, well-balanced computers.

Apple Pencil 2.0

The new Apple Pencil is one of the best “2.0” products I’ve ever seen. The original Apple Pencil is a terrific product, but the new one nears perfection for the concept. New and improved:

The new Apple Pencil is so good I have no complaints and can only think of one suggestion for the future: it’d be nice if there were haptic feedback when you double-tap.

Size and Form Factor

Apple doesn’t always explain their thinking, but when they do, it usually makes perfect sense. Their explanation for the physical sizes of the two iPad Pros is a good example. They kept the physical size of the 11-inch device the same as that of the 10.5-inch iPad, and increased the display size. They did this so that a keyboard cover would still offer a full-sized keyboard. With the 12.9-inch model, they kept the display size the same and shrunk the physical device, making it noticeably smaller and lighter.

I’ve been using the 12.9-inch model for testing over the last five days. It’s a lot easier and more comfortable to hold. There have been times when I forgot I was using the “big” iPad. When my wife — an avid iPad user currently using a 10.5-inch iPad Pro — first saw it, she couldn’t believe it was the bigger one. She never really considered getting the previous 12.9-inch iPad, but after some time using this review unit, she’s convinced she wants this size. I think everyone should go try them in a store before ordering, but I suspect most people who use an iPad as their primary “bigger than a phone” portable computer will prefer the 12.9-inch model, the same way most people prefer 13-inch MacBooks over smaller ones like the 12-inch MacBook or late, great 11-inch MacBook Air.

Personally, I still prefer the smaller size. But I don’t use an iPad as my primary portable for work, and these new iPad Pros aren’t going to change that.

With split view, iPad supports running two apps side-by-side. When both apps are 50-50, there remains a difference between the 12.9-inch and 11-inch iPads. On the 12.9-inch iPad, two apps sharing the screen 50-50 are both shown as the “full-screen” version of the app. It’s like each of the two halves of the screen are treated as an iPad Mini display. On the 11-inch iPad, however, two apps sharing the screen 50-50 use a compact size class horizontally. Apple illustrates the difference here. It’s not something most people care about, but it’s another reason why iPad power users are likely to prefer the 12.9-inch model.

The flat sides of the iPad look cool and feel good. I think this is not just the best-looking iPad ever, but the best looking iOS device ever. Round corners and flat everywhere else. No notch. The sides are even nicer than those of the iPhone 5/SE — more pleasing to the touch. I’d like to see iPhones adopt this look.1

The display is terrific, and just like with iPhones, the edge-to-edge round-cornered look makes older models look dated. Tap-to-wake feels so natural on the iPad. I’m used to it from over a year with the iPhone X/XS, but I think it’s even more important on iPad. With iPhones, portrait has always been the natural orientation, so the home button was almost always at the bottom. iPads don’t have a true orientation — they can be used in landscape just as often as portrait. Having the home button on the side while in landscape was always a bit inelegant.

I didn’t need any adjustment period for the lack of a home button. I think part of that is a year spent using iPhone X and XS, and the other part is that iPads have used swipe-from-the-bottom gestures for switching apps and getting to the home screen ever since iOS 11 last year. iPad was prepared to lose its home button a year before it lost its home button.

Cameras and Face ID

In years past, new iPads often used the cameras from iPhones — usually a generation or two behind. The new iPad Pros have their own all-new rear-facing camera. It’s not exactly like any previous iOS device’s camera. I haven’t had time to test it thoroughly, so I’m not sure where it stands compared to recent iPhone cameras, but it seems like a step up from the previous iPad Pro camera.

The front-facing camera is based on the one from iPhone XS and XR. This allows for Portrait Mode (you cannot use Portrait Mode with the rear-facing camera).

Face ID works great. You must train it in portrait orientation, but once trained (and training is quick, just like with iPhone X-class phones) it just works in any orientation. The only hitch I’ve noticed is that it’s common to use iPads while laying down. Face ID can struggle then.

iPad is not really a multi-user device, because unlike MacOS, iOS still doesn’t have any concept of user accounts. But I know that many people use iPads as shared family devices. iOS 12 limits you to two faces with Face ID — your default face and an “alternate appearance”. This has worked just fine with me and my wife sharing this iPad. But if you’ve got more than two people who’d like to share one iPad, you can’t use Face ID with more than two of them. You can enter a passcode, of course, but I think Face ID on iPads needs to support more than two faces.

Miscellaneous

The Bottom Line

These iPad Pros aren’t cheap. Throw in a $179 Smart Keyboard Folio and $129 Apple Pencil and even the $799 base model will run you over $1,100 all told. (The 12.9-inch Smart Keyboard Folio is $199.) But these aren’t “just tablets”. They’re tablets, yes, but there’s no just to them. Dollar for dollar, they’re a better value than any MacBook Apple has ever made. They match — and in some areas exceed — the CPU and GPU performance of MacBook Pros that cost $3000 or more. These are serious iPads for serious iPad users.


  1. There was some speculation (or maybe just wishful thinking) that this year’s new iPhones might support Apple Pencil. That made sense with the Lightning Pencil, but not so much with this new magnetic one. The iPhone would need one of these magnetic chargers. Rather than attach to the side of the iPhone, I think it would have to go on the back. But would you want a strong magnet on a phone? And how would it work through a case? The old Apple Pencil seemed like something that could work on iPhone. The new one not so much. ↩︎


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 ★ 

Tens of Thousands of Google Employees and Contractors Participate in ‘Global Walkout for Real Change’

Google Walkout:

More than 20,000 Google employees and contractors in Google offices located in 50 cities worldwide walked out for real change at 11:10am local time protesting sexual harassment, misconduct, lack of transparency, and a workplace culture that doesn’t work for everyone. Nine offices have yet to report numbers, and additional offices in Europe have planned walkouts in the coming days. […]

Protest organizers say they were disgusted by the details of the recent article from The New York Times which provided the latest example of a culture of complicity, dismissiveness, and support for perpetrators in the face of sexual harassment, misconduct, and abuse of power. They framed the problem as part of a longstanding pattern in a toxic work culture further amplified by systemic racism.

Awful lot of “Don’t Be Evil” signs in the crowd shots.

 ★ 

Apple’s Welcoming, Inclusive Brand of Luxury

Zachary Karabell, in an article for Wired under the headline “Apple Abandons the Mass Market, as the iPhone Turns Luxury”:

As its market cap hovers near $1 trillion, Apple has gradually been shifting its strategy away from grabbing ever-more market share and focusing instead on dominating the higher end of its markets. If there were even a small doubt about that, the recent results made it screamingly clear.

When has Apple ever had a different strategy than focusing on dominating the higher end of its markets and ignoring sheer market share? The iPod — maybe — was a market share leader, depending on how you defined its category. But even with iPods Apple clearly was determined to dominate the higher end of the market.

It’s also worth noting that Apple stores are chock full of people from all walks of life. As I noted 7 years ago, Apple’s brand of luxury is mass-market luxury:

I think it’s impossible to overstate the importance of Apple’s retail business. The growth in stores — both in the number of outlets and the size and architectural prominence of the flagship locations — is a physical manifestation of Apple’s market share growth in device sales. Luxury retailers have long done this. Think about brands like Tiffany, Gucci, Hermès, Louis Vuitton. Their retail stores are physical manifestations of the brands. But Apple’s brand of luxury is mass market luxury. Apple’s stores are crowded. They’re bustling. They’re loud. And they’re inclusive, not exclusive.

It’s been a long 7 years since I wrote that, but every word remains just as true today.

 ★ 

Apple’s New Map

Justin O’Beirne has a detailed look at what’s new in Apple’s limited rollout (big parts of California, a few counties in western Nevada) of all-new maps in iOS 12:

Unless they’re already listed on Yelp, none of the shapes Apple has added appear in its search results or are labeled on its map. And this is a problem for Apple because AR is all about labels — but Apple’s new map is all about shapes.

So is Apple making the right map?

O’Beirne’s keen observation is this: even in the areas where Apple’s new maps have rolled out, Google is still far ahead in correctly identifying places and specific destinations. And that might be the most important thing for maps to get right going forward. As usual, his piece is exquisitely well-written, designed, and illustrated.

 ★ 

Dan Frakes Goes to Apple as Mac App Store Editor

Dan Frakes:

Some job news (thread): After 4(!) amazing years at @wirecutter, I’m leaving for a new editorial position at Apple (Mac App Store Editor!) focused on helping Mac users discover and get more out of great Mac apps. (It’s like Mac Gems redux :) )

Apple is a great place to work, and the App Store teams are producing (and commissioning) excellent work. This is good for Apple, good for App Store users, good for developers whose quality apps are getting editorial attention, and good for these talented writers and editors, job-wise.

But.

A ton of the top talent in the Apple media world now works at Apple, un-bylined and without credit. Many of them came from Macworld. In addition to the folks who’ve gone to work at Apple full-time, there are others who are writing as freelancers for App Store features. I don’t blame Apple for hiring great talent and I don’t blame anyone for taking a well-paying, secure job at Apple (or accepting well-paying freelance work).

But I don’t think this is a good thing for the Apple media world. The talent pool writing about Apple products and platforms from outside the company’s walls is getting noticeably shallower. And on a personal level, this trend is not good for me, because I can’t link to App Store articles, because they’re not on the web. They only exist within the App Store apps. I can’t link to some of the best pieces being written these days about indie iOS and Macs apps — and that’s a little weird. And none of these pieces are archived publicly.

 ★ 

Tom Boger on Rene Ritchie’s Vector Podcast

Boger is senior director of Mac product marketing at Apple, and was on stage this week to introduce the new Mac Mini. Terrific interview.

 ★ 

Recode Folded Into Vox, Sort Of

Kara Swisher:

Let me be clear, for those who enjoy heedless media speculation: The Recode brand remains the same; the Code conferences remain the same; the podcasts remain the same; the television specials we do with MSNBC remain the same. And I am not going anywhere either, because Recode has allowed me — whatever the medium — the great gift of being able to do what journalists are supposed to do. Which is to say, to use an old journalism bromide: Afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.

More here from The Wall Street Journal. In staffing news, my friend Dan Frommer is leaving after three years as Recode’s editor-in-chief.

Bonus: A get-the-popcorn back-and-forth between Swisher and The Information founder Jessica Lessin on Twitter.

 ★ 

The Talk Show: ‘North Korean USB Fan’

You wanted more Moltz, you get more Moltz. Our thoughts and observations on Apple’s “There’s More in the Making” event at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and the products they announced: new MacBook Airs, Mac Minis, iPad Pros, and Apple Pencil.

Brought to you by:

 ★ 

Blind Taste Test Between iPhone XR and Xiaomi Pocophone F1 Displays

Jonathan Morrison set up a blind display comparison between the iPhone XR and Xiaomi Pocophone. Both displays are 6.1 inches, both are LCDs, but the Pocophone is 1080p (1080 × 2246 pixels, 403 PPI) and the XR is not (1792 × 828, 326 PPI).

 ★ 

Rene Ritchie on iPhone XR vs. XS Displays

Good explanation from Rene Ritchie on the many nuances involved comparing the iPhone XS and XR displays. It’s a lot more complicated than “OLED is better”, and it’s just plain nonsense that the 326 pixels per inch is not enough to make for a great display.

 ★ 

New Tech Talk Has Developer Info on New iPad Pros

Apple Developer

Take advantage of the all-screen design of the new iPad Pro by building your app with the iOS 12.1 SDK and making sure it appears correctly with the display’s rounded corners and home indicator. Learn about the new common inset compatibility mode and what it means for apps running in multitasking mode. Find out how to provide support for Face ID and for the second generation Apple Pencil with its double-tap feature.

One change is that these new iPads don’t have a 4:3 (1.33:1) aspect ratio. The aspect ratio is 199:139, which works out to about 1.43:1 — a little wider in landscape than 1.33:1.

The video also has a great overview of the ways third-party apps can use the double-tap gesture on the new Apple Pencil.

Update: Another good video: “Designing for iPad Pro and Apple Pencil”.

 ★ 

Undocumented API in Google Home Devices Is Easily Exploitable

Jerry Gamblin:

I am genuinely shocked by how poor the overall security of these devices are, even more so when you see that these endpoints have been known for years and relatively well documented.

I usually would have worked directly with Google to reboot these issues if they had not previously disclosed, but due to the sheer amount of prior work online and committed code in their own codebase, it is obvious they know.

Very strange — you can cause any of these devices to reboot or forget their wireless network with a simple curl one-liner. You have to be on the same local network, but still.

 ★ 

Buy USB-C to 3.5 MM Headphone Jack Adapter

$9, same price as the Lightning version. (The new headphone-jack-less iPad Pros don’t come with one.)

 ★ 

Fifty Years of BASIC, the Language That Made Computers Personal

Harry McCracken, in a nice feature for Time:

It was huge news among the small number of people who could be called computer nerds at the time — people like Paul Allen, who was working as a programmer for Honeywell in Boston.

When he bought a copy of the January 1975 issue of Popular Electronics at the Out of Town newsstand in Harvard Square, with the Altair on the cover, he and an old friend — a Harvard sophomore named Bill Gates — got excited. Immediately, they knew they wanted to try to make the Altair run BASIC, a language they’d both learned in its original timeshared-via-Teletype form at the Lakeside School in Seattle.

Actually, Allen had been ruminating about the possibility of building his own BASIC even before he knew about the Altair. “There hadn’t been attempts to write a full-blown programming language for a microprocessor,” he explains. “But when the chips leading up to the 8080 processor became available, I realized we could write a program for it that would be powerful enough to run BASIC.”

For those of us of a certain age, a BASIC prompt was what you’d expect to see when you turned any computer on.

 ★ 

Halide and Focal Depth on iPhone XR

Ben Sandofsky:

Now we get to do that again: Halide 1.11 will let you take Portrait mode photos of just about anything, not just people.

We do this by grabbing the focus pixel disparity map and running the image through our custom blur. When you open Halide on iPhone XR, simply tap ‘Depth’ to enable depth capture. Any photo you take will have a depth map, and if there’s sufficient data to determine a foreground and background, the image will get beautifully rendered bokeh, just like iPhone XS shots.

You’ll notice that enabling the Depth Capture mode does not allow you to preview Portrait blur effect or even automatically detect people. Unfortunately, the iPhone XR does not stream depth data in realtime, so we can’t do a portrait preview. You’ll have to review your portrait effects after having taken the photo, much like the Google Pixel.

I’m so glad Halide offers this, but I can see why Apple hasn’t enabled it for non-human subjects in the built-in Camera app. It’s hit or miss. But when it hits it can look great. What you want to do is let Halide handle the focus blurring; if you don’t like the result, disable “Depth” for that shot in Halide.

With frequent updates and support for the latest iPhone hardware, Halide has established itself as an essential app for serious iPhone photography. Doesn’t hurt that it’s a beautiful app, either.

 ★ 

BMW Executive Says Electric Cars Will Always Cost More Than Conventional Cars

Filed away for future claim chowder:

Electric vehicles will always be more costly than fuel-burners, according to a senior BMW executive. “No, no, no,” is Klaus Fröhlich’s reply when asked if EVs will ever equal the prices of equivalent conventional cars. “Never.”

 ★ 

Audio Memos Pro

My thanks to Audio Memos Pro for sponsoring Daring Fireball last week. Audio Memos Pro is the pro voice recorder for iPhone and iPad (and Apple Watch can be used as a remote control). Interviews, lectures, business meetings, even music sessions — Audio Memos is great for recording anything. And it’s not just about recording — Audio Memos Pro lets you keep a library of recordings organized with tags. You can attach photos to recordings, make annotations at time stamps, and more.

Audio Memos just celebrated its 10th anniversary on the App Store. Join the million of users who have recorded with it. Get it before Monday evening and save 10 percent off the regular price.

 ★ 

The Talk Show: ‘I’ll Eat My Hat’

Special guest John Moltz returns to the show (finally). Topics include the iPhone XR, next week’s Apple event at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and more.

Brought to you by these fine sponsors:

 ★ 

★ iPhone XR Review Roundup

The bottom-line conclusion in my iPhone XR review:

It sounds too good to be true, but the XR is almost as good as the XS models at a far lower price. Dollar for dollar, the XR is almost certainly the best iPhone Apple has ever made.

I’ve read over a dozen other reviews of the XR this week, and that’s been the bottom line of every single one of them. It’s a remarkable consensus. There are some interesting differences though.

Matthew Panzarino thinks the biggest compromise is the lack of a telephoto second camera:

However, I found myself missing the zoom lens a lot. This is absolutely a your mileage may vary scenario, but I take the vast majority of my pictures with the telephoto lens. Looking back at my year with the iPhone X I’d say north of 80% of my pictures were shot with the telephoto, even if they were close ups. I simply prefer the “52mm” equivalent with its nice compression and tight crop. It’s just a better way to shoot than a wide angle — as any photographer or camera company will tell you because that’s the standard (equivalent) lens that all cameras have shipped with for decades.

Wide angle lenses were always a kludge in smartphones and it’s only in recent years that we’ve started getting decent telephotos. If I had my choice, I’d default to the tele and have a button to zoom out to the wide angle, that would be much nicer.

But with the iPhone XR you’re stuck with the wide — and it’s a single lens at that, without the two different perspectives Apple normally uses to gather its depth data to apply the portrait effect.

Nilay Patel, on the other hand, doesn’t miss the telephoto second camera much but instead thinks the LCD display is the biggest compromise compared to the XS iPhones:

Those differences are interesting and worth pulling apart, but really, the simplest way to think about the iPhone XR is that it offers virtually the same experience as the iPhone XS for $250 less, but you’ll be looking at a slightly worse display.

So, how much do you care about the display on your phone?

Look. The display on the iPhone XR is… fine. It’s fine! It has a lower-resolution and pixel density than the OLEDs in new flagship phones like the iPhone XS, Galaxy S9, and Pixel 3, but it’s the same 326 pixels per inch as Apple’s previous non-Plus LCD iPhones. Anyone coming to this phone from any iPhone, save the iPhone X, will not notice a huge discrepancy in resolution. I suspect most people will find it totally acceptable.

That’s not to say it matches the quality of previous iPhone LCDs. The iPhone XR LCD definitely shifts a little pink and drops brightness quickly when you look at it off-axis, which often leads to a bit of a shimmery effect when you move the phone around. I noticed that shimmer right away, but I had to point it out to other people for them to see it. (It’s one of those things you might not notice at first, but you can’t un-see it.) Apple told me the XR display should match previous iPhone LCDs in terms of performance, but side by side with an iPhone 8 Plus, the off-axis shifts are definitely more pronounced.

Neither Panzarino nor Patel are wrong. It’s obvious that the display and lack of a second camera are the two biggest compromises on the XR that allow it to be priced so much lower than the XS models. Which one matters more to you is purely subjective. Panzarino says “If I had my choice, I’d default to the tele and have a button to zoom out to the wide angle”; Patel says “I rarely take zoom photos, so I didn’t miss the telephoto lens from the iPhone XS at all”.

Count me on Panzarino’s side, though. If I could have a next-gen iPhone XR that either (a) keeps the same LCD display but adds the XS’s second camera, or (b) switches to the XS’s OLED display (including smaller bezel) but still lacks the second camera, I would choose (a) in a heartbeat. After a day with the iPhone XR I stopped seeing anything wrong with the display or wider bezel. I miss the telephoto camera every day.

Another tidbit from Patel, regarding the amazing work Apple put into making the XR display as nice as they could:

Apple’s also done some extremely detailed work to make the rounded corners of the LCD perfectly match the corners of the phone itself, which is work I desperately wish other companies would do. (Most other phones with rounded corners have mismatched radii, and the Pixel 3 XL has different corner radii at the top and bottom, which, to me, looks far worse than any chunky bezel.)

It’s somewhat easier to round the corners of an OLED panel: each pixel is its own light source, so you can turn them off individually around the curve to smooth it out. You can’t do that with an LCD panel because there’s just one single backlight for the entire display, which will shine through the black pixels along the edge. So Apple built little apertures for the pixels around the corners of the XR display to mask some of the light coming through, on top of antialiasing the curve in software. It’s a neat example of Apple’s attention to detail.

The sub-head from Panzarino’s review made me laugh:

The iPhone XR is Apple’s best knockoff yet of its groundbreaking iPhone X.

I think it could have worked to write an entire iPhone XR review using the conceit that it’s an amazing knockoff of the iPhone X.

Speaking of design details, Rene Ritchie, in an otherwise glowing review, points out some small industrial design niggles:

Less fine is the sudden loss of Z-axis asymmetry thanks to the shoved down Lightning port on iPhone XR. Again, yes, this is only something I.D. nerds like myself care about, but after iPhone XS broke X-axis symmetry to fit a 4 × 4 MiMo antenna on the bottom, iPhone XR has gone and broken the Z by top aligning instead of middle aligning Lightning to the screws and grills, probably to make room for the not-as-thin-as-self-illuminating-OLED edge-to-edge LCD.

I still haven’t gotten used to the steel screws and ports not always being vapor coated to match the aluminum anodization, now this?

I know it bugs the designers and engineers even more than it does me. And while it’s still not as rando as some other companies seem to be by tossing elements into the casing like drunken darts at a board, and as nit-picky (and I’m sure eye-rolling) as I’m sure it is for some of you, I’ve given Samsung shit about it for years, so I’m not going to stop just because, this time, my eyes are bleeding courtesy of Apple.

I hate to admit it, but I didn’t mention the Lightning port not being centered with the screws or speaker grills because I didn’t notice it until I read Rene’s review. (Nilay Patel mentions it too.) But now I can’t unsee it:

Bottom view of the iPhone XR, showing how the Lightning port is not center-aligned with the screws or speaker grills.

It’s not perfectly aligned but it is perfectly excusable. It’s simply really, really hard to make an LCD phone with no chin or forehead to mask the display controller. It’s hard to make an OLED phone with no chin or forehead — just ask Google. But LCD is a different ballgame. To my knowledge, iPhone XR is the only LCD phone ever made, by anyone, with no chin or forehead. With the display controller underneath the display, the Lightning port had to be pushed down. It is absolutely a compromise, but well worth it for the overall look of the device. Everyone would notice if the XR had a chin; almost no one is going to notice the Lightning port is top-aligned rather than centered with the screws and speakers.

Joanna Stern, as usual, has the best video. She got the Product Red variant, and her video really shows how great it looks. She also illustrates well the sort of scenarios where you’ll miss having a telephoto lens.

Lastly, a point on pricing and the notion that today’s phones are “just” phones. Here’s Lauren Goode at Wired:

Apple wants to make it clear that it’s not trying to gouge you. Sure, when the iPhone X launched last year, Apple priced it at nearly $1,000. And yes, this year’s iPhone XS sells for the same amount. And of course, Apple killed off its smallest and most affordable handset, the iPhone SE, right as it was introducing the most expensive iPhone yet.

But Apple wants you to know you have a choice. You get to pick from a very small pool of potential devices, but hey, at least you have options! Never mind that certain choices, like color, were predetermined for you by a room full of powerful tastemakers who decided to make coral or cerulean happen. Never mind that whatever you pay, it’s still a crazy amount of money for a phone. You are making the call. You, sir or madam, have your choice of new iPhones.

I think the rest of Goode’s review contradicts the notion that $750 (or better, $800 for the 128 GB version) is a “crazy amount of money for a phone”.

Phones are the most important computer in most people’s lives. They’re the only computer in many people’s lives. Nobody says it’s crazy to spend up to $1,500 on a laptop — but most people use and care about their phone more than they do their laptop. That’s why phone displays are getting bigger. We’ve been corrupted by thinking of them as “phones” in the pre-2007 sense of the word.

A cell phone used to be just a wireless telephone. No longer. They are our ever-present personal computers. They are also our most important cameras (and often our only cameras). A decade ago, point-and-shoot cameras ran $200-400, easily. It’s your watch, it’s your alarm clock, it’s your Walkman, it’s your map and GPS. It’s your wallet full of photos of your family and friends. It’s also, increasingly, your actual wallet.

If you took an iPhone XR back to 2006 people would be amazed. If you told them they could buy one for $750 they’d think you were lying.

On a related note, I would argue that iPhone prices aren’t really going up. Last year’s X and this year’s XS models are a new premium tier. The iPhone XR is the phone at the previous “regular” top-of-the-line tier. New top-tier iPhones used to cost $600-650, yes, and the iPhone XR starts at $750. But when you account for inflation that starting price is about the same. The iPhone 4 was introduced in June 2010 starting at $600. $600 in June 2010 dollars is about $700 today. That $600 got you a 16 GB iPhone in 2010. The 32 GB model cost $700. That’s about $810 in today’s dollars — $10 more than the price of a 128 GB iPhone XR, which I think is the sweet spot in the lineup for most people. Inflation adjusted, the iPhone XR is right in line with the iPhone 4 prices from 2010.

Considering how much more capable an iPhone XR is compared to an iPhone 4, I’d say $750 is an amazing bargain.


Andy Rubin Responds to New York Times Story

Andy Rubin on Twitter:

The New York Times story contains numerous inaccuracies about my employment at Google and wild exaggerations about my compensation. Specifically, I never coerced a woman to have sex in a hotel room. These false allegations are part of a smear campaign to disparage me during a divorce and custody battle. Also, I am deeply troubled that anonymous Google executives are commenting about my personnel file and misrepresenting the facts.

 ★ 

Donate to The Great Slate

The Great Slate:

Tech Solidarity is endorsing thirteen candidates for Congress. Each of them is a first-time progressive candidate with no ties to the political establishment, an excellent campaign team, and a clear path to victory in a poor, rural district that is being ignored by the national Democratic Party. None of the candidates takes money from corporations.

In the third quarter of 2018, the Great Slate raised $1.18M for our candidates. Let’s keep the momentum going into the election!

These are great candidates for Congress. No corporate money. Progressive agendas. Ignored (mostly) by the national Democratic Party. And fighting for seats in districts that in years past sometimes didn’t even field a Democratic candidate. Republicans simply ran unopposed.

I’m particularly impressed by Jess King, who is running in district PA-11 in nearby Lancaster, PA. I have close family who live in that district. I don’t just like her as a candidate — I really do think she can win. If you listen to her talk or read what she writes, she sounds like a real human being, not a full of shit politician. Jess King is smart, informed, and empathetic, and she’s out there every day talking to the citizens in her district. She’s held 52 town halls and counting during this election. Her opponent, Rep. Lloyd Smucker (that’s his name, I swear) has not held a single town hall in over 600 days. He is taking his reelection for granted as a supposedly “safe” Republican seat. I say to hell with that, no seat is safe.

Lancaster Online:

King, a former economic development nonprofit director, has raised nearly 100 percent of her funds from individuals while refusing to accept money from corporations’ political action committees.

The majority of Smucker’s funds, meanwhile, have come from PACs representing corporations such as General Electric, Exelon, Koch Industries and Williams, the company that recently built the Atlantic Sunrise pipeline going through Lancaster County.

I’ve donated to The Great Slate before, and today my wife and I donated another $1,000. It’s easy — they even support Apple Pay. By default your contribution is distributed between all 13 candidates, but you can distribute it however you choose if there’s a particular candidate you want to get behind. They’ve set a goal to raise $1,000,000, and they’re currently sitting at $952,154.

I would love to see this link from Daring Fireball help them blow past that goal. If you can give a lot, do it. If you can only give $10, do it! Every single dollar helps — I mean this so sincerely I just used an exclamation point. If you’re feeling like me — anxious about this upcoming election, deeply concerned because the stakes are so high — donating to The Great Slate is one of the most effective ways you can make a difference today.

 ★ 

Google’s Night Sight Feature for Pixel Cameras Looks Astounding

Vlad Savov:

Night Sight is the next evolution of Google’s computational photography, combining machine learning, clever algorithms, and up to four seconds of exposure to generate shockingly good low-light images. I’ve tried it ahead of its upcoming release, courtesy of a camera app tweak released by XDA Developers user cstark27, and the results are nothing short of amazing. Even in its pre-official state before Google is officially happy enough to ship it, this new night mode makes any Pixel phone that uses it the best low-light camera.

Some of these results seem impossible. Handheld long exposures are a huge breakthrough.

 ★ 

In a Huff, Google Style

Andrew Marantz, writing for The New Yorker two years ago about HBO’s Silicon Valley:

During one visit to Google’s headquarters, in Mountain View, about six writers sat in a conference room with Astro Teller, the head of GoogleX, who wore a midi ring and kept his long hair in a ponytail. “Most of our research meetings are fun, but this one was uncomfortable,” Kemper told me. GoogleX is the company’s “moonshot factory,” devoted to projects, such as self-driving cars, that are difficult to build but might have monumental impact. Hooli, a multibillion-dollar company on “Silicon Valley,” bears a singular resemblance to Google. (The Google founder Larry Page, in Fortune: “We’d like to have a bigger impact on the world by doing more things.” Hooli’s C.E.O., in season two: “I don’t want to live in a world where someone makes the world a better place better than we do.”) The previous season, Hooli had launched HooliXYZ, its own “moonshot factory,” whose experiments were slapstick absurdities: monkeys who use bionic arms to masturbate; powerful cannons for launching potatoes across a room. “He claimed he hadn’t seen the show, and then he referred many times to specific things that had happened on the show,” Kemper said. “His message was, ‘We don’t do stupid things here. We do things that actually are going to change the world, whether you choose to make fun of that or not.’ ” (Teller could not be reached for comment.)

Teller ended the meeting by standing up in a huff, but his attempt at a dramatic exit was marred by the fact that he was wearing Rollerblades. He wobbled to the door in silence. “Then there was this awkward moment of him fumbling with his I.D. badge, trying to get the door to open,” Kemper said. “It felt like it lasted an hour. We were all trying not to laugh. Even while it was happening, I knew we were all thinking the same thing: Can we use this?” In the end, the joke was deemed “too hacky to use on the show.”

Via Tom Gara, who quipped, “Whenever there’s a big Google story in the news, I always think of this, the funniest thing ever written about Google.”

 ★ 

Andy Rubin: ‘Being Owned Is Kinda Like You Are My Property, and I Can Loan You to Other People’

Daisuke Wakabayashi and Katie Benner have published a scathing exposé in The New York Times on Google’s massive payouts and protection to senior executives credibly accused of sexual misconduct. Like many long reports in The Times, some of the most intriguing details are buried deep in the report. Almost 1,900 words in, is this regarding Andy Rubin:

Mr. Rubin, 55, who met his wife at Google, also dated other women at the company while married, said four people who worked with him. In 2011, he had a consensual relationship with a woman on the Android team who did not report to him, they said. They said Google’s human resources department was not informed, despite rules requiring disclosure when managers date someone who directly or indirectly reports to them.

In a civil suit filed this month by Mr. Rubin’s ex-wife, Rie Rubin, she claimed he had multiple “ownership relationships” with other women during their marriage, paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to them. The couple were divorced in August.

The suit included a screenshot of an August 2015 email Mr. Rubin sent to one woman. “You will be happy being taken care of,” he wrote. “Being owned is kinda like you are my property, and I can loan you to other people.”

How is this buried so deep in the story and not the lede?

Also this:

Mr. Rubin often berated subordinates as stupid or incompetent, they said. Google did little to curb that behavior. It took action only when security staff found bondage sex videos on Mr. Rubin’s work computer, said three former and current Google executives briefed on the incident. That year, the company docked his bonus, they said.

Here’s another story, also buried over 1,100 words deep:

In 2013, Richard DeVaul, a director at Google X, the company’s research and development arm, interviewed Star Simpson, a hardware engineer. During the job interview, she said he told her that he and his wife were “polyamorous,” a word often used to describe an open marriage. She said he invited her to Burning Man, an annual festival in the Nevada desert, the following week.

Ms. Simpson went with her mother and said she thought it was an opportunity to talk to Mr. DeVaul about the job. She said she brought conservative clothes suitable for a professional meeting.

At Mr. DeVaul’s encampment, Ms. Simpson said, he asked her to remove her shirt and offered a back rub. She said she refused. When he insisted, she said she relented to a neck rub.

“I didn’t have enough spine or backbone to shut that down as a 24-year-old,” said Ms. Simpson, now 30.

A few weeks later, Google told her she did not get the job, without explaining why.

This guy still works at Google as a director of Google X.

 ★ 

★ The iPhone XR

There’s got to be a catch.

That’s what everyone has been thinking ever since Apple announced the iPhone XR alongside the XS and XS Max on September 12. Right? The iPhone XR seemingly offers too much of what the XS provides at a significantly lower price.

Well, there is no catch.

The iPhone XR is everything Apple says it is, and it’s the new iPhone most people should buy. I’ve been using one as my primary phone for the last week, and it’s a lovely, exciting device. Even some of the things I thought were compromises don’t feel like compromises at all in practice. Overall, yes, the XS and XS Max are better devices, but in a few regards the XR is actually better.

Let’s start with the price. For the equivalent amount of storage, the iPhone XR costs $250 less than an iPhone XS, and $350 less than an XS Max.

64 GB 128 GB 256 GB 512 GB
iPhone XS Max $1,100 $1,250 $1,450
iPhone XS 1,000 1,150 1,350
iPhone XR 750 800 900
Δ from 64 GB $50 $150 $350

But in practical terms, the difference is even more striking than that. 64 GB of storage is a credible baseline — a far cry from just a few years ago when storage started at a criminally meager 16 GB for the iPhones 6S in 2015, and 32 GB for the iPhones 7 in 2016. But the sweet spot for most people in 2018, in my opinion, is one tier above 64 GB.

I think my wife is a fairly typical iPhone user. Music, photos, podcasts, games. I just checked and her iPhone is using right around 64 GB of storage. She could actually save about 12 GB if she enabled the Offload Unused Apps feature in iOS. So she could get by with 64 GB, but she’d need at least 128 GB to be comfortable. I think a lot of iPhone users have similar storage needs.

But only the iPhone XR offers a 128 GB storage tier, and it’s just $50 more. If you want more than 64 GB with an iPhone XS, you’ve got to pay $150 more than the base price and jump all the way to 256 GB. So in terms of what I would actually recommend for most people — getting the storage tier one level above entry level — the 128 GB iPhone XR costs $350 less than the 256 GB XS and $450 less than the XS Max.

People who are looking for some way that iPhone XR purchasers are getting screwed have it backwards. If anyone is getting screwed on pricing, it’s XS and XS Max purchasers, who don’t have the option of buying a 128 GB device for just $50 more than the baseline 64 GB models. You can buy a 256 GB iPhone XR for $100 less than the price of a 64 GB iPhone XS — 4x the storage for $100 less.

In terms of what most people actually need and will use, storage-wise, the iPhone XR is $350-450 less than an iPhone XS or XS Max. That pricing difference is far more remarkable than any of the technical differences between the XR and XS iPhones.

So what actually is different? There’s the lack of a second rear-facing camera, the different display technology (LCD instead of OLED, without 3D Touch), the different materials (aluminum instead of stainless steel) and sizes, and a few other relatively minor trade-offs.

Camera

The entire front-facing camera array on the XR is the same as on the XS models. Same camera, same depth sensor, same improved Face ID performance.1 The iPhone XR’s lone rear-facing camera is exactly the same as the wide-angle camera on the XS — same lens, same sensor, and in my side-by-side testing, the exact same image and video quality.

For regular stills and video, the effect of not having a telephoto second camera is obvious: if you want to zoom in, image quality is noticeably worse on a zoomed image taken with the iPhone XR than with the XS, because the XR can only zoom digitally, not optically.

The difference is more complicated with Portrait Mode. The iPhone XS and XS Max shoot portraits using the f/2.4 telephoto lens. (They use the wide-angle lens in Portrait Mode, but only for computational help, not for primary image capture.) The iPhone XR does Portrait Mode using the f/1.8 wide-angle lens. An f/1.8 lens is about one full stop faster than f/2.4. And, as I covered in detail in my iPhone XS review, the wide-angle camera shared by the XR and XS also has a significantly larger sensor, which can gather up to 50 percent more light. By using the camera with the faster lens and bigger sensor, Portrait Mode on the iPhone XR works significantly better than on the XS in very low light scenarios.

Here are two shots of my son in a dark room at night, lit only by a nearby TV.

iPhone XS (original image file):

Low-light Portrait Mode on iPhone XS.

iPhone XR (original image file):

Low-light Portrait Mode on iPhone XR.

I have done no post-processing on these images other than to scale them to a smaller size, and I shot both with the iOS 12 Camera app. The original images, untouched other than converting from HEIF to JPEG when exporting from Photos, are about 2.2 MB in size.

Here are the same two images with a bit of editing in the iOS Photos app. For the XS shot, I turned up the “Light” significantly and applied the “Dramatic” filter. For the XR shot, all I did was apply the “Dramatic” filter. (I find “Dramatic” — along with its “Dramatic Warm” and “Dramatic Cool” variants — a good way to very quickly improve noisy low-light images.)

iPhone XS (full-size image file):

Low-light Portrait Mode on iPhone XS, after a bit of editing in the Photos app.

iPhone XR (full-size image file):

Low-light Portrait mode on iPhone XR, after a bit of editing in the Photos app.

In short, Portrait Mode is usable on the XR in some low light situations where it’s unusable on the XS.

With plenty of light, Portrait Mode is much better on the XS than the XR, simply because the XS telephoto lens is a much more appropriate focal length for portraits. And most of the time, Portrait Mode is useful when there’s plenty of light. I don’t want to make too much hay over the XR’s ability to shoot portraits in low light, because the XS models can just shoot regular still photos in low light and in a lot of cases that’s probably the way to go.

Portrait Mode on the XR has a few other limitations. For one, it only works with human faces. The subject’s face does not have to be directly facing the camera — the subject can even be in profile — but there must be a human face for the camera to recognize. It won’t work with dogs, and it won’t work with faceless mannequins. Portrait Mode on the iPhone XS, on the other hand, although optimized for human faces, will work with inanimate subjects, whether human-like or not.

Lastly, Portrait Mode on the iPhone XR does not offer the Stage Lighting or Stage Lighting Mono lighting effects. No big loss, in my opinion — I’ve never once shot a Portrait Mode photo that looked good with either of these effects. To be honest, I’ve shot over 300 Portrait Mode keepers in the last year, using the iPhone X and now XS, and I almost never use any of the lighting effects. I see the potential with them, but for now they all still look more gimmicky than good, especially the Stage ones.

Now what’s interesting about the differences in Portrait Mode between the XR and XS is that while the XR simply cannot do what the XS does (because it doesn’t have the telephoto second lens), the iPhone XS could, in theory, offer the XR’s Portrait Mode using the wide-angle lens. I believe Apple doesn’t allow this in the interest of simplifying the user experience. It’s easy to explain that Portrait Mode only works with human subjects with the iPhone XR. It would be confusing for most people to explain why Portrait Mode sometimes only works with human subjects but sometimes works with any subject, depending upon focal distance, if Apple were to enable wide-angle Portrait Mode on the XS — using the XR algorithm — today. Apple made the decision to keep XS’s Portrait Mode less fiddly — by always using the telephoto lens for image capture, at a fixed focal length — even though that means it doesn’t work as well as the XR in low light.

The most important bottom line comparing the iPhone XR to the XS is this: if you want to use the telephoto lens, the iPhone XS may well be worth a few hundred extra dollars for that reason alone. If you don’t care about the telephoto lens, on the other hand, you should almost certainly consider buying an iPhone XR instead of a XS.

Display and Battery Life

After the camera, the second biggest difference between the XR and the XS models is the display. The XS models use OLED; the XR display is LCD. OLED is generally “better” than LCD — much higher contrast ratio with deeper blacks, and for technical reasons OLED displays can get closer to the edges of the device, reducing bezels. But LCD has advantages — most noticeably energy consumption. Apple goes out of its way to disguise this in its iPhone tech spec comparisons, but the iPhone XR has the longest battery life of any iPhone ever made. The primary reason is that the XS and XS Max’s OLED displays use more power. All three new iPhones get good battery life, but it’s really interesting that the lower-priced XR gets the best.

Another difference is that the XR display is 2x retina and the XS displays are 3x retina. That’s 326 pixels per inch for the XR and 458 pixels per inch for the XS displays. More pixels per inch is better — but again, in general. The higher resolution of the XS displays contributes to their consuming more energy.

Yes, 326 pixels per inch is the same pixel density as the first retina iPhone, the iPhone 4 all the way back in 2010. But pixel density is not the only measure of display quality. The XR display is the brightest iPhone LCD display Apple has ever made. It looks terrific. To my eyes, the biggest difference between the XR and XS displays is the slightly larger bezel around the XR display — not the displays themselves. People who use an iPhone case — which is to say the vast majority of iPhone owners — may not even notice the larger bezel. And even without a case it’s not a problem, per se, and is really only evident when compared side-by-side.

I’m not aware of any other phone in the world with an LCD display with no chin or forehead. Getting an LCD display to extend from corner to corner is a legitimate technical breakthrough on Apple’s part. Also getting tap-to-wake working with an LCD — once you get used to tap-to-wake you simply cannot go back. The XR display is certainly a less expensive component than the XS’s, but in no way does it look like Apple has cheaped out. It’s an excellent, beautiful display.

The other notable display difference between XR and XS has nothing to do with what they look like, but what they feel like. The XR does not offer 3D Touch. This situation is a mess, in my opinion. Some iPhones have 3D Touch, some don’t, and no iPad (to date at least) has it. This means no iOS software can depend upon 3D Touch.

In its place, the iPhone XR offers “haptic touch”, but only in a few places where 3D Touch is used. For example, the Flashlight and Camera shortcuts on the lock screen. As far as I can tell, the heuristic for triggering haptic touch is just a long press. I don’t think it’s doing anything fancy like checking the surface area of the skin touching the screen to sort of fake the detection of a harder press. Whereas on the iPhone X and XS you press harder on the Flashlight or Camera lock screen shortcuts to trigger them, on the XR, you just press and hold for a short moment. I notice the delay, but it’s not bothersome.

But anywhere where a long press already has meaning, haptic touch can’t work. Most obviously, the home screen shortcut menus for apps. A long press on a home screen app icon already has meaning — it puts you in the jiggly-icon mode where you can rearrange and delete apps. iOS can’t use a long press on an icon both to enter jiggly mode and to open the 3D Touch shortcut menu, so the iPhone XR doesn’t offer these menus.

Where I miss 3D Touch the most is while editing text. A little-known but powerful feature in iOS is that while editing text you can 3D Touch on the keyboard to turn it into a trackpad for moving the insertion point around. iOS 12 introduced a feature where you can get into this mode without 3D Touch by tapping and holding on the space bar. That’s almost as good, but I’ve developed a strong muscle memory that I can get into this mode by pressing anywhere on the keyboard. With 3D Touch you can also force press again once you’re in trackpad mode to select text. There’s no way to do this on the iPhone XR. Update: Actually, you can select text — once in trackpad mode, tap on the keyboard with a second finger to enter text selection mode. Good to know, but more cumbersome than 3D Touch.

I don’t think the absence of 3D Touch is a dealbreaker for anyone, but it’s just weird that the iPhone XR is the first new iPhone since 3D Touch was introduced not to have it. (The iPhone SE doesn’t have 3D Touch either, but the SE was sort of only half new.)

Physical Attributes

Size-wise, the iPhone XR falls between the iPhone XS and XS Max. But because the XR has a somewhat thicker bezel surrounding the display, its relative proportions are a bit different. As a physical object, it’s a bit closer in size to the XS Max than it is to the XS. But its display is closer in size to that of the XS.2

What’s interesting, though, is how this size difference manifests in software. The XS and XS Max displays have way more pixels than the XR, but from a developer standpoint, the XR is not a new size. Developers (mostly) deal in points, not pixels. In the old pre-retina days, points and pixels were interchangeable — there was one on-screen pixel for each virtual point in the user interface. With a 2x retina display, like the iPhone XR, there are 2 display pixels in each dimension for every point, so a point, on screen, is represented by a 2 × 2 matrix of 4 pixels. On a 3x retina display, like the XS and XS Max, each point is a 3 × 3 matrix of 9 pixels. But the points are what correspond to the physical real-world size of on-screen buttons and text. In terms of points, the iPhone XR offers two display modes: standard and zoomed. You choose between these modes during initial setup, and you can subsequently switch between them in the Settings app. Standard mode is 896 × 414 points; zoomed is 812 × 375 points. These are the exact same as the standard and zoomed display modes on the XS Max. The iPhone XS only has one display mode: 812 × 375 points.

Effectively, this means that the iPhone XR is more like a smaller XS Max than it is a larger iPhone XS. And the difference between standard and zoomed modes on the iPhone XR is far more subtle than it is on the XS Max, because in both cases, zoomed is using the virtual screen of the iPhone XS (812 × 375 points). On the XR’s 6.06-inch display, that’s only a little bit scaled up from the iPhone XS’s 5.85-inch display. On the XS Max’s 6.46-inch display, that’s scaled up quite a bit.

The XR is also less dense — about 9 percent less dense than the XS and 7.5 percent less dense than the XS Max. There could be internal components that contribute to this, but the obvious explanation is that aluminum weighs less than stainless steel. I think this lower density works in the XR’s favor — it feels better, weight-wise.

The most visually striking difference, of course, is that the XR is available in a variety of cheerful colors. The black XR (which admittedly isn’t cheerful) looks a lot like the black XS and XS Max — it’s hard to tell them apart at a glance. The white XR (which is the color I’ve been using for the past week) is a much brighter white than the XS. The aluminum XR can’t compete with the premium look of the XS’s polished steel frame, but I think the white glass back of the XR looks better than that of the white XS models. It’s really nice — and a bit Stormtrooper-y. The coral, yellow, blue, and Product Red models all look great. I got another look at all of them last week when I picked up my review unit in New York, and to me, the Product Red phone in particular is striking.

Given that most people keep their phones in cases, do these colors matter? I don’t know. Maybe these colors will lead to a lot of people buying clear cases. Speaking of which, it’s a bit strange that Apple isn’t offering any first-party cases for the XR — at least not yet. To my recollection, the iPhone XR is the first iPhone since the 3GS to debut without first-party cases or bumpers from Apple.

Misc

The Bottom Line

I’ve focused mostly on the differences between the XR and XS models because, well, I covered everything else in my XS/XS Max review. But really, what matters most is everything they share — the same great A12 chip, the same great rear-facing wide-angle camera and front-facing camera system, vastly improved stereo speakers, and more.

The difference here isn’t about the XS models being A-team phones and the XR being a B-team phone. It’s more like the XS models are a bit luxurious — an extra camera, stainless steel frames instead of aluminum, OLED instead of LCD — and the XR is a bit more practical. But they’re all on the A-team in terms of quality and performance. The XR is actually better in some ways, notably battery life and low-light Portrait Mode photography.

Last year’s iPhone 8 and 8 Plus were great new phones, but the differences between them and the all-new iPhone X were vast. They simply looked hundreds of dollars different. Not so with the differences between the XR and XS models this year.

It sounds too good to be true, but the XR is almost as good as the XS models at a far lower price. Dollar for dollar, the XR is almost certainly the best iPhone Apple has ever made.


  1. One small thing that’s nice about Face ID versus Touch ID is how much faster it is to set up with a new iPhone — especially if you set up more than one finger with Touch ID. Most people only go through this process once, when their phones are brand-new, but after testing three new iPhone review units and setting up my personal iPhone XS all during the last 6 weeks, it’s something I really noticed. I know there are people out there hoping that Apple will bring back Touch ID with an under-the-glass fingerprint sensor in the future, but I just don’t see that happening. ↩︎

  2. Apple advertises the XS, XR, and XS Max display sizes as 5.8, 6.1, and 6.5 inches respectively. But look at the exact numbers in footnote 1 on their tech spec page: “The display has rounded corners that follow a beautiful curved design, and these corners are within a standard rectangle. When measured as a standard rectangular shape, the screen is 5.85 inches (iPhone XS), 6.46 inches (iPhone XS Max), 6.06 inches (iPhone XR), or 5.85 inches (iPhone X) diagonally.” Apple has rounded 5.85 down to “5.8 inches” rather than up to “5.9 inches”, I presume to make it look like the XS and XR displays are more evenly spread apart. (By the Pythagorean Theorem, I think the iPhone XS display is actually closer to 5.86 inches.) And the iPhone XR display, at 6.06 inches, is only just big enough to justify rounding up to “6.1 inches”.

    Diagonal Delta
    iPhone XS Max 6.46″
    0.40″ (10.16mm)
    iPhone XR 6.06″
    0.21″ (5.33mm)
    iPhone XS 5.85″

    Apple’s marketing numbers — 5.8, 6.1, and 6.5 inches — make it sound like the XR display is 0.3 inches bigger than the XS when in fact it is only 0.2 inches bigger. The XS Max display is a full 0.4 inches larger diagonally than that of the XR — twice the difference between the XS and XR. ↩︎︎