Apple has created a smartphone that delivers in every way where it matters.
It is difficult to measure real innovation in the smartphone market, except of course for the developments we have seen in the foldable market. When does Apple do "enough" between generations? When is there "enough" new tech under the hood to justify an upgrade? What does it take to switch between platforms? These are pretty open questions to say the least, and it seems on the surface that the answers are so subjective that it can be difficult to navigate.
So rather than dwell on potentially universal truths, it might be more apt to chart whether the iPhone 14 does "enough" for me, me as a consumer who has both used OnePlus, Samsung, Sony and Google Pixel phones. Has Apple done enough? Is this generation one of the better ones? Let's take a look.
I find the whole specification "game" a bit tiresome by now. Sure, sometimes it makes sense, like with a new Sony Xperia that stands or falls by its spec sheet, but more often than not this monotonous list doesn't really give any insight into what a smartphone can do for you as a consumer. As MrMobile says (you should follow him); "smartphones are more than their silicon".
From the outside, the iPhone 14 Pro Max is familiar, in the sense that you have to look quite closely to find the minimally smaller screen edge, or the granularly larger lenses around the back of the "camera island". It's a recognisable size, a recognisable weight, and a shape that I still think fits the iPhone as a concept brilliantly. Combine that with Ceramic Shield, a fingerprint-resistant back, IP68 certification, and sizes up to 1TB, and there's no immediate finger-pointing at the design. We'll even continue to get a physical SIM port here for another year.
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The display is the first stop, no doubt about it. Whereas Samsung previously shone with sumptuous colour saturation, and a slightly higher brightness measured in NITS on a sunny summer's day, I can now say without blinking that Apple's displays on the two Pro models are the best on the market today. There are technical reasons for that, of course. 2796x1290 at 460ppi, OLED Super Retina XDR technology, 2,000,000:1 contrast, up to 2000 NITS brightness, silky smooth 120Hz refresh rate and new LTPO technology too that can push the aforementioned refresh rate down to 1Hz.
Colours are sharp, detail is crisp, it's all in play this year and Apple can finally boast of being at the very, very forefront of the display game. The LTPO technology also finally allows iPhone Pro models to have an always-on mode. This means that as you lock your phone, a slightly darker version of your iOS 16 wallpaper and lock screen widgets are still tracking, and you can also see your notifications at the bottom. Unlike many Android manufacturers, it's all in full colour, and is actually quite clear. It takes some getting used to not reaching for it because you automatically think it's not locked, but after a few days it's really not a problem. On the contrary, you can easily praise Apple for giving you an always-on that shows the background you hopefully spent some time designing, as well as useful colour-saturated notifications.
While others such as The Verge and Marques Brownlee have found this to drain the battery, the iPhone 14 Pro Max has lasted two days between charges for me, and that's with pretty massive use, so it's really hard to complain when Androids with the same feature set last something like half that, if nothing else for me.
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Okay, are we going to talk Dynamic Island now? Yes, Apple feels the need to name everything, and of course that's silly. But then, this little activity node isn't at all. On the contrary, it's a pretty pivotal change to Apple's user interface paradigm, tying together some previously separate functions and animations, and changing one's expectations of where to look on the screen. The little "pill" up top still houses the selfie camera and FaceID sensor, but it can now expand and morph to make you wiser to the things going on in the background. It expands as FaceID looks for a recognisable face, it shows a timer if you have one active, and gives you an overview of the music playing. What used to be in different places in the iOS interface is now in one place. More apps will be able to take advantage of Dynamic Island this fall, but already it was surprising to me to see favourites like Spotify, Audible, and Skype now working.
It's worth stating that this is no landslide of a feature. It's an Apple solution to an Apple problem, but pretty quickly I got excited about the extra coherence, the extra cohesiveness that it added to the overall impression of iOS. It just makes the phone more enjoyable to use.
Inside we find an A16 Bionic and 6GB of RAM, it's produced with Apple's brand new 4nm process, which again is a notch too technical for how it feels to use. But perhaps it's still worth mentioning that in GeekBench, our 14 Pro Max got a score of 5491 against the Snapdragon 8+ Gen 1 in the OnePlus 10T at 4022. That said, so much has just happened with iOS over the last few years, from the introduction of Widgets to a customisable Lock Screen and now always-on. It's such a fluid experience, so cohesive, that it alone makes it hard to switch over again.
Of course, that's what Apple wants too, but I increasingly feel that Apple's so-called "walled garden" is more about cohesive software, rather than brutal manipulation. Seamless payments with Apple Pay, solid driving through Apple Car Play, excellent cohesion with AppleTV, AirPods and AirPods Max (all things I use every day), the ecosystem is just... well, so good now that there's no need for the same padlock on the door.
That leads me somewhere to the same conclusion as last year. Apple offers a solidly built smartphone, with solid features, rock solid software and a great ecosystem all around. It's just an excellent companion. However, I would say that Apple's Smart Home effort is a bit conspicuous by its absence.
Finally, there's the camera. The key innovation here that Apple is finally leaving behind the 12 megapixel camera on the main lens, and we now have a 48 megapixel camera instead. That's an increase of 65% over last year, and even though Apple uses a pixel binning technique that groups pixels together so the image is still 12 megapixels, there's so much more data, detail, in each image. In addition, we get a new Focus Shift OIS stabilizer, and the lens is now f/1.7.
The result doesn't seem to be quite 1/1, but in my case, the upgrade was pretty obvious, whether I was shooting in ProRAW, where you get the whole 48 megapixel camera without binning, or completely standard. The larger camera could clearly pick up more light, especially in situations with naturally poorer lighting conditions, and more specifically it also gave a more natural bokeh, i.e. background blur, which is not achieved through software via the telephoto lens, but quite naturally by having a lower depth of field.
There's also a new 2X setting that doesn't zoom digitally, but gives you an optical setting that can make use of the larger camera. Plus, you can also shoot in 4K/30fps in Cinematic Mode, which can shift focus through automatic face recognition. It all certainly makes this feature more useful than last year. Combine that with a better macro setting at ultra-wide, and you've got a camera system that may not say "100X SPACE ZOOM" on the back, but still delivers the crispest, most cohesive images and video sequences on the market. Fun fact; I shoot our EV Hour videos with an iPhone 14 Pro Max because the quality is just so crisp.
The iPhone 14 Pro and Pro Max are not masterpieces. They're released too frequently to present such lavish advantages over last year's model, but it shows even more clearer that Apple, over the past few years, has been shaping the ultimate smartphone. And for me, who's swung between Android and iOS for years, this 14 Pro Max is something very, very special.