technology

Move over notch, the hole-punch smartphone camera is coming

Posted by | Apple, Asia, Canada, China, electronics, Europe, Gadgets, huawei, Mobile, paris, Samsung, Samsung Electronics, samsung galaxy, selfie, Sina, smartphones, TC, technology, United States, Xiaomi | No Comments

First it was the notch, now the hole-punch has emerged as the latest tech for concealing selfie cameras whilst keeping our smartphones as free of bezel as possible to maximize the screen space.

This week, Samsung and Huawei both unveiled new phones that dispense with the iconic “notch” — pioneered by Apple but popularized by everyone — in favor of positioning the front-facing camera in a small “Infinity-O” hole located on the top-left side of the screen.

Dubbed hole-punch, the approach is part of Samsung’s new Galaxy A8s and Huawei’s View 20, which were unveiled hours apart on Tuesday. Huawei was first by just hours, although Samsung has been pretty public with its intention to explore a number notch alternatives, including the hole-punch, which makes sense given that it has persistently mocked Apple for the feature.

The Samsung Galaxy S8a will debut in China with a hole-punch spot for the camera [Image via Samsung]

Don’t expect to see any hole-punches just yet though.

The Samsung A8s is just for China right now, while the View 20 isn’t being fully unveiled until December 26 in China and, for global audiences, January 22 in Paris. We also don’t have a price for either, but they do represent a new trend that could become widely adopted across phones from other OEMs in 2019.

That’s certainly Samsung’s plan. The Korea firm is rolling out the hole-punch on the A8s, but it has plans to expand its adoption into other devices and series. The A8s itself is pretty mid-range, but that makes it an ideal candidate to test the potential appeal of a more subtle selfie camera since Samsung’s market share has fallen in China where local rivals have pushed it hard. It starts there, but it could yet be adopted in higher-end devices with global availability.

As for the View 20, Huawei has also been pretty global with its ambitions, except in the U.S., where it hasn’t managed to strike a carrier deal despite reports that it has been close before. The current crisis with its CFO — the daughter of the company’s founder who was arrested during a trip to Canada — is another stark reminder that Huawei’s business is unlikely to ever get a break in the U.S. market: so expect the View 20 to be a model for Europe and Asia.

Huawei previewed its View 20 with a punch-hole selfie camera lens this week [Image via Huawei]

Samsung hasn’t said a tonne about the hole-punch design, but our sister publication Engadget — which attended the View 20’s early launch event in Hong Kong — said it was mounted below the display “like a diamond” to maintain the structure.

“This hole is not a traditional hole,” Huawei told Engadget.

Huawei will no doubt also talk up the fact that its hole is 4.5mm versus an apparent 6mm from Samsung.

Small details aside, one important upcoming trend from these new devices is the birth of the “mega” megapixel smartphone camera.

The View 20 packs a whopping 48-megapixel lens for a rear camera, which is something that we’re going to see a lot more of in 2019. Xiaomi, for one, is preparing a January launch for a device that’ll have the 48-megapixel camera, according to a message on Sina Weibo from company co-founder Bin Lin. There’s no word on which camera enclosure that device will have, though.

Xiaomi teased an upcoming smartphone that’ll sport a 48-megapixel camera [Image via Bin Lin/Weibo]

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Google is killing off Allo, its latest messaging app flop

Posted by | Android, Apps, Assistant, computing, Google, Google Hangouts, imessage, machine learning, messaging apps, slack, SMS, Software, technology, Verizon, WhatsApp | No Comments

It’s official: Google is killing off Allo.

The messaging app was only launched in September 2016, but it was pretty much flawed from the word go, with limited usage. Google was, once again, painfully late to the messaging game.

The company said it had ceased work on the service earlier this year, and now it has announced that it’ll close down in March of next year.

“Allo will continue to work through March 2019 and until then, you’ll be able to export all of your existing conversation history from the app,” Google said in a blog post. “We’ve learned a lot from Allo, particularly what’s possible when you incorporate machine learning features, like the Google Assistant, into messaging.”

Google said it wants “every single Android device to have a great default messaging experience,” but the fact remains that the experience on Android massively lags iOS, where Apple’s iMessage service offers a slick experience with free messages, calling and video between iPhone and iPad users.

Instead of Allo, Google is pushing ahead with RCS (Rich Communication Services), an enhanced SMS standard that could allow iMessage-like communication between Android devices.

But “could” is the operative word. The main caveat with RCS is that carriers must develop their own messaging apps that work with the protocol and connect to other apps, while the many Android OEMs also need to hop on board with support.

As I wrote earlier this year, with RCS, Google is giving carriers a chance to take part in the messaging boom, rather than be cut out as WhatsApp, Messenger, iMessage and others take over. But the decision is tricky for carriers, who have traditionally tightly held any form of income until the death. That’s because they won’t directly make money from consumers via RCS, though it allows them to keep their brand and figure out other ways to generate income, such as business-related services.

Verizon has already signed up, for one, but tracking the other supporters worldwide is tricky. Another problem: RCS is not encrypted, which flies in the face of most messaging apps on the market today.

Elsewhere, Google is keeping Duo — the video chat service that launched alongside Allo — while it continues to develop Hangouts into an enterprise-focused service, much like Slack .

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Samsung fakes test photo by using a stock DSLR image

Posted by | a8, Computer Hardware, computing, EyeEm, Gadgets, Getty-Images, huawei, malaysia, mobile software, photo sharing, photographer, Samsung, Samsung Electronics, TC, technology | No Comments

Samsung’s Malaysian arm has some explaining to do. The company, in an effort to show off the Galaxy A8 Star’s amazing photo retouching abilities, used a cleverly shot portrait, modified it and then ostensibly passed it off as one taken by the A8.

The trouble began when Serbian photographer Dunja Djudjic noticed someone had bought one of her photos from a service called EyeEm that supplies pictures to Getty Images, a renowned photo reseller. Djudjic, curious as to the buyer, did a quick reverse search and found her image — adulterated to within an inch of its life — on Samsung’s Malaysian product page.

Djudjic, for her part, was a good sport.

My first reaction was to burst out into laughter. Just look at the Photoshop job they did on my face and hair! I’ve always liked my natural hair color (even though it’s turning gray black and white), but I guess the creator of this franken-image prefers reddish tones. Except in the eyes though, where they removed all of the blood vessels.

Whoever created this image, they also cut me out of the original background and pasted me onto a random photo of a park. I mean, the original photo was taken at f/2.0 if I remember well, and they needed the “before” and “after” – a photo with a sharp background, and another one where the almighty “portrait mode” blurred it out. So Samsung’s Photoshop master resolved it by using a different background.

This move follows a decision by Huawei to pull the same stunt with a demo photo in August.

To be fair, Samsung warned us this would happen. “The contents within the screen are simulated images and are for demonstration purposes only,” they write in the fine print, way at the bottom of the page. Luckily for Djudjic, Samsung paid her for her photo.

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The Coinmine One is a box that mines crypto at home

Posted by | amd, blockchain, celeron, computing, cryptocurrencies, decentralization, economy, Gadgets, Intel, mining, Monero, TC, technology | No Comments

For $799 you can start mining cryptocurrencies in your home, a feat that previously either required a massive box costing thousands of dollars or, if you didn’t actually want to make any money, a Raspberry Pi. The Coinmine One, created by Farbood Nivi, soundly hits the sweet spot between actual mining and experimentation.

The box is about as big as a gaming console and runs a custom OS called MineOS. The system lets you pick a cryptocurrency to mine — Monero, for example, as the system isn’t very good with mature, ASIC-dependent currencies like BTC — and then runs it on the built-in CPU and GPU. The machine contains an Intel Celeron Processor J Series processor and an AMD Radeon RX570 graphics card for mining. It also has a 1 TB drive to hold the massive blockchains required to manage these currencies.

The box mines Ethereum at 29 Mh/s and Monero at 800 h/s — acceptable numbers for an entry-level miner like this one. You can upgrade it to support new coins, allowing you to get in on the ground floor of whatever weird thing crypto folks create tomorrow.

I saw the Coinmine in Brooklyn and it looks nice. It’s a cleverly made piece of consumer tech that brings the mystery of crypto mining to the average user. Nivi doesn’t see this as a profit-making machine. Instead, it is a tool to help crypto experimenters try to mine new currencies and run a full node on the network. That doesn’t mean you can’t get a Lambo with this thing, but expect a Lambo to take a long, long time.

The device ships next month to hungry miners worldwide. It’s a fascinating move for the average user to experience the thrills and spills of the recent crypto bust.

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Sonos delays Google Assistant integration until 2019, private beta to launch in 2018

Posted by | Amazon, amazon alexa, artificial intelligence, computing, Gadgets, Google, smart speakers, software platform, Sonos, sonos one, Speaker, technology | No Comments

Sonos today announced that Google Assistant will not be available on its products until at least 2019. The service was supposed to launch in 2018 but the company said in a blog posting it needs a bit more time. Additional information about timing will be released in early 2019, Sonos says.

Eager customers can sign up for a private beta as long as they agree to use the service extensively and respond to surveys within a few days.

Sonos products already have access to Amazon Alexa. Given Sonos’s longstanding notion of supporting all platforms, it makes sense that the company would want customers to have access to both Alexa and Google Assistant. That’s what makes Sonos compelling: They provide the hardware, and owners use whichever software platform they want.

This is clearly critical for Sonos. For a long time, Sonos provided the best-sounding smart speaker system on the market, but Amazon, Google and traditional speaker brands are quickly introducing speakers that provide similar sound quality. To keep up and justify the higher price of its hardware, Sonos needs to offer owners the best sound and the best software, and offering Google Assistant on its products is a key part of that goal.

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How the Apple Watch changed the world

Posted by | Android, Apple, apple inc, apple store, Apple Watch, ceo, fda, fitbit, Gadgets, Garmin, Jony, jony ive, lvmh, medical technology, montblanc, mp3, Nixon, Pinterest, steel, swatch group, switzerland, TC, technology, United States, vp, Wearables | No Comments

In 2015 Switzerland was fucked. This blunt belief, grunted out by Apple’s Jony Ive and repeated by the media as a death knell for the watch industry, seemed to define a sad truth: that the Swiss watch was dead and Apple pulled the trigger.

Now, three years and four Apple Watches later, was Ive right? Did Apple change the world? And, most importantly, did Switzerland survive?

Yes, but…

As you might have noticed, the Swiss watch industry is still standing. The major Swiss houses — LVMH, Richemont and Swatch Group — are seeing a major uptick in sales, especially in the U.S. According to the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry, sales are up 5.5 percent year-over-year, a bit of news that was, amusingly, almost buried by the onslaught of Apple Watch Series 4 reviews.

This increase of U.S. sales bucked a major trend this year, and one market insider, who preferred to remained anonymous, noted that all of his sales contacts are seeing increased sales in the $3,000 and above watch category. While the low-cost fashion watches were, as he said, “decimated,” the luxury market is growing. But why?

According to Swatch Group, Swiss watch exports rose 4.8 percent compared with last year and, according to a Reuters report, “first-quarter watch exports rose 10.1 percent, the highest quarterly growth rate since mid-2012, according to figures from the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry.”

“You know we saw an end of the year that was very strong — double-digit growth — and now it continues, so every month is a record month for us,” Swatch Group CEO Nick Hayek told CNBC. In short, the industry is back from an all-time low after the recession.

Watch analysts believe that Apple created a halo effect. Of the millions of people who bought and wore an Apple Watch, a majority had never worn or thought about wearing a watch. Once they tried the Apple Watch, however, and outfitted it with leather bands, fancy Milanese loops and outfit-matching colors, the attitude changed. If wearing watches is so fun and expressive, why not try other, more storied pieces? The numbers are hard to find (watchmakers are notoriously secretive), but I’ve found that my own watch-obsessives site, WristWatchReview, saw a solid uptick in traffic in 2015, one that continued, for the most part, into 2018. One year, 2017, was considerably lower because my server was failing almost constantly.

What does this mean for the watch? First, it means that, like vinyl, a new group of obsessives are taking up the collector’s mantle after discovering the implicit value of more modern forms of the same thing. An Apple Watch is a gateway drug to a Tissot which is a gateway drug to a classic tropical Rolex Submariner on a signed band, just as your first Radiohead MP3 leads to buying a turntable, an amp, a Grado cartridge and a pressing of Moon Shaped Pool.

“In high school I wore a pebble for a while,” said Brady, a 20-year-old college sophomore I spoke to. “As an easily distracted high school student, even though this wearable was very primitive tech, it consumed a lot of my attention when it wasn’t appropriate to be on my phone — which meant also not appropriate to be on my watch. I then shifted to Nixon quartz ‘fashion watches’ and I was happy knowing they kept good reliable time. Then I got a Seiko SNK805 automatic. I don’t have a single non-mechanical watch due to my respect for the craftsmanship!”

Wearables are changing, as well, pushing regular watches back into the spotlight. As Jon Speer, VP at Greenlight.Guru, said, most wearables won’t look like watches in the next few years.

“I predict the next generation of wearables to blur the lines between tech accessory and medical device. These ‘devices’ will include capabilities such as measuring blood pressure, blood sugar, body temperature and more,” he said. “The FDA is working closely with industry partners to identify common roadblocks to innovation. The De Novo Program, the classification Apple pursued for the Apple Watch, is the category for medical devices that don’t fall within an existing classification. As we blend medical technology with consumer technology, I foresee the De Novo program being utilized by companies such as Fitbit and Garmin. As a consumer, I’m very excited for the potential and advancements.”

Thus the habit of wearing a watch might stick even as the originators of that habit — a little square of steel and glass strapped to your wrist — disappears.

Could it all be a mirage?

The new Apple Watch is very positively reviewed and Android Wear — as evidenced by companies like Montblanc selling very capable and fashion-forward smartwatches — is still a force to be reckoned with. Further, not everyone falls back into watch wearing after trying out the thing Jony Ive said would fuck Switzerland.

Watches are an acquired taste like craft beers, artisanal teas and other Pinterest -ready pursuits. Sometimes simply strapping one to your wrist isn’t enough.

“I got the first-gen Apple Watch,” said entrepreneur David Berkowitz. “I loved it, and then I stopped wearing it a bit. As I did, I lost the charger and never bothered replacing it. I haven’t worn it since and haven’t seriously considered getting a new one.”

“I’m just not that customer,” he said.

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Nomad releases a stunning wireless charging pad with Apple Watch dock

Posted by | AirPower, Apple, apple inc, Apple Watch, base station, computing, Gadgets, inductive charging, mobile devices, qi, technology | No Comments

With Apple’s AirPower still missing in action, the Apple accessory ecosystem has been attempting to fill the need with similar products. Some of these third party products are better than others, and the new Base Station from Nomad looks to be the best of them all.

The Base Station does two things. One, it wireless charges up to three mobile devices. Two, it charges an Apple Watch through an integrated Apple MFi-certified Magnetic Apple Watch charger. More so, it looks great.

A padded leather surface covers three charging coils allowing the unit to recharge up to three devices — or one device laying horizontally across the pad. Each of the coils are Qi-certified and output at 7.5W. As for the Apple Watch, it can only be recharged using the included magnetic charger unless Apple activates Qi-compatibility through a software update.

The Nomad Base Station is available now for $120. Don’t have an Apple Watch? The same charging base is available for $20 less and still supports up to three devices.

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Apple ditches the headphone jack on latest iPad Pro models

Posted by | AirPods, Apple, Apple earbuds, Apple Fall Event 2018, apple inc, computing, Gadgets, Google, iOS, iPad, iPhone, lightning, mobile device, tablet computers, technology | No Comments

The headphone jack is missing from the latest versions of the iPad Pro. It’s gone. Dead. Worse yet, the headphones that come with the iPhone will not work either. Apple ditched Lightning for USB-C. Instead, Apple is selling a USB-C to 3.5mm dongle for $9.

The latest iPad Pro models follows the trend lines set by the iPhone. Just like on the iPhone, the Home Button is missing, and the headphone jack is gone. It’s a concession some users might find surprising. On the iPhone, there’s obviously less real estate to integrate a large port but that’s, in theory, less of an issue in a large device like a tablet. But it makes sense. Apple tends to maximize margins by ensuring different products use a similar set of hardware. And since the iPhone hasn’t had a headphone port since 2016, it’s about time the trend hits Apple’s other mobile device.

Headphone users are not the only users left in the dark. The iPad has long been a great device for a stationary audio controller. Now, instead of simply connecting the tablet to a stereo with a 3.5mm cable, a $9 dongle is required. Want to use headphones? Apple would obviously prefer if owners use $159 AirPods though there are a handful of USB-C headphones including these from Google.

Apple Fall Event 2018

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Xiaomi opts for sliding camera and no notch for new bezel-less Mi Mix phone

Posted by | artificial intelligence, Asia, Beijing, China, computing, Europe, Mobile, RAM, smartphones, technology, Xiaomi | No Comments

Xiaomi has announced the newest version of its bezel-less Mi Mix family, and it doesn’t sport a notch like its Mi 8 flagship. Indeed, unlike the Mi 8 — which I called one of Xiaomi’s most brazen Apple clones — there’s a lot more to get excited about.

The Mi Mix 3 was unveiled at an event in Beijing and, like its predecessor, Xiaomi boasts that it offers a full front screen. Rather than opting for the near-industry standard notch, Xiaomi has developed a slider that houses its front-facing camera. Vivo and Oppo have done similar using a motorized approach, but Xiaomi’s is magnetic while it can also be programmed for functions such as answering calls.

That array gives it a claimed 93.4 percent screen-to-body ratio and a full 6.4-inch 1080p AMOLED display. The slider, by the way, is good for 300,000 cycles, according to Xiaomi’s lab testing.

The device itself follows the much-lauded Mi Mix aesthetic with a Snapdragon 845 processor and up to 10GB in RAM (!) in the highest-end model. Xiaomi puts plenty of emphasis on cameras. The Mi Mix 3 includes four of them: a 24-megapixel front camera paired with a two-megapixel sensor and on the back, like the Mi 8, a dual camera array with two 12-megapixel cameras.

Xiaomi has also snuck an ‘AI button’ on the left side of the phone, a first for the company. That awakens its Xiao Ai voice assistant, but since it only supports Chinese don’t expect to see that on worldwide models.

The 10GB version — made in partnership with Palace Museum, located at the Forbidden City where the device was launched — also packs 256GB of onboard storage and is priced at RMB 4,999, or $720. That’s in addition to a ceramic design that Xiaomi says is inspired by the museum… better that than a fruity-sounding U.S. company.

That’s the special model, and the more affordable options include 6GB + 128GB for RMB 3,299 ($475), 8GB +128G for RMB 3,599 ($520) and 8GB + 256GB for RMB 3,999 ($575). The company also plans to introduce a 5G version in Europe sometime early next year.

Xiaomi said the phones will go on sale in China from 1 November, there’s no word on international availability or pricing right now.

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Review: Apple’s iPhone XR is a fine young cannibal

Posted by | Android, Apple, apple inc, Google, iOS, iPad, iPhone, iphone 5c, iPhone Xr, iPhone XS, smartphone, smartphones, TC, technology | No Comments

This iPhone is great. It is most like the last iPhone — but not the last “best” iPhone — more like the last not as good iPhone. It’s better than that one though, just not as good as the newest best iPhone or the older best iPhone.

If you’re upgrading from an iPhone 7 or iPhone 8, you’re gonna love it and likely won’t miss any current features while also getting a nice update to a gesture-driven phone with Face ID. But don’t buy it if you’re coming from an iPhone X, you’ll be disappointed as there are some compromises from the incredibly high level of performance and quality in Apple’s last flagship, which really was pushing the envelope at the time.

From a consumer perspective, this is offering a bit of choice that targets the same kind of customer who bought the iPhone 8 instead of the iPhone X last year. They want a great phone with a solid feature set and good performance but are not obsessed with ‘the best’ and likely won’t notice any of the things that would bug an iPhone X user about the iPhone XR.

On the business side, Apple is offering the iPhone XR to make sure there is no pricing umbrella underneath the iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max, and to make sure that the pricing curve is smooth across the iPhone line. It’s not so much a bulwark against low-end Android, that’s why the iPhone 8 and iPhone 7 are sticking around at those low prices.

Instead it’s offering an ‘affordable’ option that’s similar in philosophy to the iPhone 8’s role last year but with some additional benefits in terms of uniformity. Apple gets to move more of its user base to a fully gesture-oriented interface, as well as giving them Face ID. It benefits from more of its pipeline being dedicated to devices that share a lot of components like the A12 and True Depth camera system. It’s also recognizing the overall move towards larger screens in the market.

If Apple was trying to cannibalize sales of the iPhone XS, it couldn’t have created a better roasting spit than the iPhone XR.

Screen

Apple says that the iPhone XR has ‘the most advanced LCD ever in a smartphone’ — their words.

The iPhone XR’s screen is an LCD, not an OLED. This is one of the biggest differences between the iPhone XR and the iPhone XS models, and while the screen is one of the best LCDs I’ve ever seen, it’s not as good as the other models. Specifically, I believe that the OLED’s ability to display true black and display deeper color (especially in images that are taken on the new XR cameras in HDR) set it apart easily.

That said, I have a massive advantage in that I am able to hold the screens side by side to compare images. Simply put, if you don’t run them next to one another, this is a great screen. Given that the iPhone XS models have perhaps the best displays ever made for a smartphone, coming in a very close second isn’t a bad place to be.

A lot of nice advancements have been made here over earlier iPhone LCDs. You get True Tone, faster 120hz touch response and wide color support. All on a 326 psi stage that’s larger than the iPhone 8 Plus in a smaller body. You also now get tap-to-wake, another way Apple is working hard to unify the design and interaction language of its phones across the lineup.

All of these advancements don’t come for free to an LCD. There was a lot of time, energy and money spent getting the older technology to work as absolutely closely as possible to the flagship models. It’s rare to the point of non-existence that companies care at all to put in the work to make the lower end devices feel as well worked as the higher end ones. For as much crap as Apple gets about withholding features to get people to upsell, there is very little of that happening with the iPhone XR, quite the opposite really.

There are a few caveats here. First, 3D touch is gone, replaced by ‘Haptic Touch’ which Apple says works similarly to the MacBook’s track pad. It provides feedback from the iPhone’s Taptic vibration engine to simulate a ‘button press’ or trigger. In practice, the reality of the situation is that it is a very prosaic ‘long press to activate’ more than anything else. It’s used to trigger the camera on the home screen and the flashlight, and Apple says it’s coming to other places throughout the system as it sees it appropriate and figures out how to make it feel right.

I’m not a fan. I know 3D touch has its detractors, even among the people I’ve talked to who helped build it, I think it’s a clever utility that has a nice snap to it when activating quick actions like the camera. In contrast, on the iPhone XR you must tap and hold the camera button for about a second and a half — no pressure sensitivity here obviously — as the system figures out that this is an intentional press by determining duration, touch shape and spread etc and then triggers the action. You get the feedback still, which is nice, but it feels disconnected and slow. It’s the best case scenario without the additional 3D touch layer, but it’s not ideal.

I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention that the edges of the iPhone XR screen have a slight dimming effect that is best described as a ‘drop shadow’. It’s wildly hard to photograph but imagine a very thin line of shadow around the edge of the phone that gets more pronounced as you tilt it and look at the edges. It’s likely an effect of the way Apple was able to get a nice sharp black drop-off at the edges that gets that to-the-edges look of the iPhone XR’s screen.

Apple is already doing a ton of work rounding the corners of the LCD screen to make them look smoothly curved (this works great and is nearly seamless unless you bust out the magnifying loupe) and it’s doing some additional stuff around the edge to keep it looking tidy. They’ve doubled the amount of LEDs in the screen to make that dithering and the edging possible.

Frankly, I don’t think most people will ever notice this slight shading of dark around the edge — it is very slight — but when the screen is displaying mostly white and it’s next to the iPhone XS it’s visible.

Oh, the bezels are bigger. It makes the front look slightly less elegant and screenful than the iPhone XS, but it’s not a big deal.

Camera

Yes, the portrait mode works. No, it’s not as good as the iPhone XS. Yes, I miss having a zoom lens.

All of those things are true and easily the biggest reason I won’t be buying an iPhone XR. However, in the theme of Apple working its hardest to make even its ‘lower end’ devices work and feel as much like its best, it’s really impressive what has been done here.

The iPhone XR’s front-facing camera array is identical to what you’ll find in the iPhone XS. Which is to say it’s very good.

The rear facing camera is where it gets interesting, and different.

The rear camera is a single lens and sensor that is both functionally and actually identical to the wide angle lens in the iPhone XS. It’s the same sensor, the same optics, the same 27mm wide-angle frame. You’re going to get great ‘standard’ pictures out of this. No compromises.

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.

So they got clever. iPhone XR portrait images still contain a depth map that determines foreground, subject and background, as well as the new segmentation map that handles fine detail like hair. While the segmentation maps are roughly identical, the depth maps from the iPhone XR are nowhere as detailed or information rich as the ones that are generated by the iPhone XS.

See the two maps compared here, the iPhone XR’s depth map is far less aware of the scene depth and separation between the ‘slices’ of distance. It means that the overall portrait effect, while effective, is not as nuanced or aggressive.

In addition, the iPhone XR’s portrait mode only works on people.You’re also limited to just a couple of the portrait lighting modes: studio and contour.

In order to accomplish portrait mode without the twin lens perspective, Apple is doing facial landmark mapping and image recognition work to determine that the subject you’re shooting is a person. It’s doing depth acquisition by acquiring the map using a continuous real-time buffer of information coming from the focus pixels embedded in the iPhone XR’s sensor that it is passing to the A12 Bionic’s Neural Engine. Multiple neural nets analyze the data and reproduce the depth effect right in the viewfinder.

When you snap the shutter it combines the depth data, the segmentation map and the image data into a portrait shot instantaneously. You’re able to see the effect immediately. It’s wild to see this happen in real time and it boggles thinking about the horsepower needed to do this. By comparison, the Pixel 3 does not do real time preview and takes a couple of seconds to even show you the completed portrait shot once it’s snapped.

It’s a bravura performance in terms of silicon. But how do the pictures look?

I have to say, I really like the portraits that come out of the iPhone XR. I was ready to hate on the software-driven solution they’d come up with for the single lens portrait but it’s pretty damn good. The depth map is not as ‘deep’ and the transitions between out of focus and in focus areas are not as wide or smooth as they are on iPhone XS, but it’s passable. You’re going to get more funny blurring of the hair, more obvious hard transitions between foreground and background and that sort of thing.

And the wide angle portraits are completely incorrect from an optical compression perspective (nose too large, ears too small). Still, they are kind of fun in an exaggerated way. Think the way your face looks when you get to close to your front camera.

If you take a ton of portraits with your iPhone, the iPhone XS is going to give you a better chance of getting a great shot with a ton of depth that you can play with to get the exact look that you want. But as a solution that leans hard on the software and the Neural Engine, the iPhone XR’s portrait mode isn’t bad.

Performance

Unsurprisingly, given that it has the same exact A12 Bionic processor, but the iPhone XR performs almost identically to the iPhone XS in tests. Even though it features 3GB of RAM to the iPhone XS’ 4GB, the overall situation here is that you’re getting a phone that is damn near identical as far as speed and capability. If you care most about core features and not the camera or screen quirks, the iPhone XR does not offer many, if any, compromises here.

Size

The iPhone XR is the perfect size. If Apple were to make only one phone next year, they could just make it XR-sized and call it good. Though I am now used to the size of the iPhone X, a bit of extra screen real-estate is much appreciated when you do a lot of reading and email. Unfortunately, the iPhone XS Max is a two-handed phone, period. The increase in vertical size is lovely for reading and viewing movies, but it’s hell on reachability. Stretching to the corners with your thumb is darn near impossible and to complete even simple actions like closing a modal view inside an app it’s often easiest (and most habitual) to just default to two hands to perform those actions.

For those users that are ‘Plus’ addicts, the XS Max is an exercise in excess. It’s great as a command center for someone who does most of their work on their iPhones or in scenarios where it’s their only computer. My wife, for instance, has never owned her own computer and hasn’t really needed a permanent one in 15 years. For the last 10 years, she’s been all iPhone, with a bit of iPad thrown in. I myself am now on a XS Max because I also do a huge amount of my work on my iPhone and the extra screen size is great for big email threads and more general context.

But I don’t think Apple has done enough to capitalize on the larger screen iPhones in terms of software — certainly not enough to justify two-handed operation. It’s about time iOS was customized thoroughly for larger phones beyond a couple of concessions to split-view apps like Mail.

That’s why the iPhone XR’s size comes across as such a nice compromise. It’s absolutely a one-handed phone, but you still get some extra real-estate over the iPhone XS and the exact same amount of information appears on the iPhone XR’s screen as on the iPhone XS Max in a phone that is shorter enough to be thumb friendly.

Color

Apple’s industrial design chops continue to shine with the iPhone XR’s color finishes. My tester iPhone was the new Coral color and it is absolutely gorgeous.

The way Apple is doing colors is like nobody else. There’s no comparison to holding a Pixel 3, for instance. The Pixel 3 is fun and photographs well, but super “cheap and cheerful” in its look and feel. Even though the XR is Apple’s mid-range iPhone, the feel is very much that of a piece of nicely crafted jewelry. It’s weighty, with a gorgeous 7-layer color process laminating the back of the rear glass, giving it a depth and sparkle that’s just unmatched in consumer electronics.

The various textures of the blasted aluminum and glass are complimentary and it’s a nice melding of the iPhone 8 and iPhone X design ethos. It’s massively unfortunate that most people will be covering the color with cases, and I expect clear cases to explode in popularity when these phones start getting delivered.

It remains very curious that Apple is not shipping any first-party cases for the iPhone XR — not even the rumored clear case. I’m guessing that they just weren’t ready or that Apple was having issues with some odd quirk of clear cases like yellowing or cracking or something. But whatever it is, they’re leaving a bunch of cash on the table.

Apple’s ID does a lot of heavy lifting here, as usual. It often goes un-analyzed just how well the construction of the device works in conjunction with marketing and market placement to help customers both justify and enjoy their purchase. It transmits to the buyer that this is a piece of quality kit that has had a lot of thought put into it and makes them feel good about paying a hefty price for a chunk of silicon and glass. No one takes materials science anywhere as seriously at Apple and it continues to be on display here.

Should you buy it?

As I said above, it’s not that complicated of a question. I honestly wouldn’t overthink this one too much. The iPhone XR is made to serve a certain segment of customers that want the new iPhone but don’t necessarily need every new feature. It works great, has a few small compromises that probably won’t faze the kind of folks that would consider not buying the best and is really well built and executed.

“Apple’s pricing lineup is easily its strongest yet competitively,” creative Strategies’ Ben Bajarin puts it here in a subscriber piece. “The [iPhone] XR in particular is well lined up against the competition. I spoke to a few of my carrier contacts after Apple’s iPhone launch event and they seemed to believe the XR was going to stack up well against the competition and when you look at it priced against the Google Pixel ($799) and Samsung Galaxy 9 ($719). Some of my contacts even going so far to suggest the XR could end up being more disruptive to competitions portfolios than any iPhone since the 6/6 Plus launch.”

Apple wants to fill the umbrella, leaving less room than ever for competitors. Launching a phone that’s competitive in price and features an enormous amount of research and execution that attempt to make it as close a competitor as possible to its own flagship line, Apple has set itself up for a really diverse and interesting fiscal Q4.

Whether you help Apple boost its average selling price by buying one of the maxed out XS models or you help it block another Android purchase with an iPhone XR, I think it will probably be happy having you, raw or cooked.

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