Apple Inc. held one of its most important product launch events in recent memory yesterday, introducing two new iPhones, a secure mobile payment system (available only within the United States for the foreseeable future) and perhaps most importantly, their much anticipated wearable device, the Apple Watch. While in Cupertino yesterday, I had the opportunity to spend a little bit of time with all of Apple's new hardware. Sadly, from what we saw, only celebrities walked away from that event with a bag full of Apple goodies. Until we're able to provide you with a detailed review of Apple's new technology, here's a few of our first impressions of what we were able to briefly get our hands on.
iPhone 6 & iPhone 6+
Let’s get this out of the way: With their 4.7-inch and 5.5-inch displays, the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6+ are larger than any handset that Apple has ever released. But despite their size, they’re lighter and easier for folks to use with one hand than you’d willingly believe before holding one.
I have small hands. For me, a handset the size of the HTC’s One M8 or the Xperia Z2, while desirable, is simply too large to use without having to constantly shift the device’s position in my hand. A two-handed requirement for phone use is not exactly what I’d call ideal. In order to take the pain out of using larger phones like the iPhone 6 and 6+, Apple’s taken a number of steps to optimize the hardware for one-handed use. For starters, the power button on both versions of the handset has been moved to the side, opposite the iPhone’s volume buttons. This worked well for Sony’s Xperia handsets, and it feels just as right on an iPhone. Even my stumpy digits can manipulate the physical buttons on both sizes of iPhones, which means device size isn’t a factor in how easy it is to use.
The user experience on these larger devices can also be whittled down to size through the use of downloadable customizable keyboards and clever software tricks like double tapping the screen to temporarily shift on-screen interface features to the bottom of the phone’s display for easy input.
I was able to spend some time viewing video, still photos and noodling around in apps on both new iPhones. The quality of the display was beautiful. Over the past year, I’ve spent a lot of time with a whole lot of smartphone handsets and tablets and in that time, I’ve seen some truly impressive display technology baked into mobile devices. I was absolutely blown away by the colour and clarity of Sony’s Xperia Z1 and LG’s G3. Both offered up more vibrant video and still images than my LED TV could muster, and made my the image quality of the Retina display on my aging personal iPhone 5 seem dated. Thanks to Apple’s new Retina HD display technology, the playing field is once again level. Watching movies on a long haul flight on one of these things is going to be great.
And Apple seems to have made good use of the iPhone 6+’s extra screen real estate. Aside from the handset’s ability to utilize a horizontally orientated home screen, like the one we’ve enjoyed on the iPad since its release back in 2010, the iPhone 6+ also offers up a number of small interface tweaks not seen on the iPhone 6. For example, photos of the people you’re chatting with in Messages on the iPhone 6+ appear next to your conversations with them. The smaller iPhone 6 doesn’t have that. Some apps will allow for dual pane interfaces: A huge plus for mobile productivity. The iPhone 6? Not so much. You could conceivably jam these features on to the smaller handset, but you wouldn’t want to: it’d make for a more cramped interface and a miserable user experience.
I also found that the physical shape of the new iPhones, made the handsets considerably more comfortable to hold than the iPhone 4, 4s, 5 or 5s, even though the latest iteration of Apple’s handsets are larger than what’s passed before. Much of this has to do with the hardware’s rounded edges, which help make the device reminiscent of the original iPhone – an iconic design that still feels great seven years after its introduction.
Larger phones means larger batteries, and Apple touted newly extended battery life. But while we’ve got the numbers for how well each handset’s battery will perform while conducting hour upon hour of individual tasks, we don’t know how will it stand up to the way people actually use their handsets – switching from app to app, watching movies, taking a photo and then making a phone call – by comparison.
So, there’s still a lot of questions to be answered with the new iPhones. As we’ve not had a chance to take a look at either handset under real world conditions, it’s difficult to speak to the resilience of the new design, call quality, whether or not the hardware heats up after significant processor heavy use or it’s prone to crashes or restarts. That sort of knowledge can only come with time, testing, and the willingness of a reviewer to make a device jump through a few hoops.
Up close, the Apple Watch is a thing of beauty. Like the offerings from Sony, Samsung and Pebble, the Apple Watch is rectangular in design, with no sharp edges. The sides, face and backplate of the device are all rounded off, and evoke the design of the original iPhone released back in 2007. There’s a gentle curve to the Apple Watch’s display as well. It’s attractive without being ornate and stylish without being necessarily masculine of feminine. Looking beyond its functionality, it seems like a device that has the potential to be at home on anyone’s wrist.
The Apple Watch will be available in two different sizes. The full-sized device is approximately the same dimensions as a number of the other smart watches currently available, and compared to the Garmin Tactix I wore to the event, it looks positively genteel. Apple is also releasing a slightly more diminutive iteration of the hardware boasting the same technology in a more compact package.
Both come with a tough sapphire glass display capable of registering touch as well as touch pressure. But touch input isn’t the star of the show: Apple’s made a big deal out of the Apple Watch’s “Digital Crown” – a hardware stem that will allow users to scroll through and interact with content by turning the crown or, to return to the Phone’s home screen, pushing it. As some folks have mentioned, its a little like the scroll wheel that some early BlackBerry devices, such as the 950, had built-in more than a decade ago.
The total package is thicker and a little chunkier than I would have expected, but, with a physical hardware button at the centre of the device’s user interface strategy, that’s not such a bad thing.
Acting with their usual caution, Apple’s taken their time in bringing a wearable device to market, allowing the likes of Sony, Pebble, Samsung, LG and Motorola to unleash their own takes smart watches first. It’s a tactic we’ve seen before, from the iPod to the iPad Apple seems to prefer to get things right instead of getting there first. Based on what I saw yesterday they, it’s a strategy that still works for them.
But there’s a lot of questions about the things we can’t see or feel by picking it up. On stage, Apple’s executive team spoke at length about the fact that the Apple Watch will be capable of a wide number of feats, including tracking our health, providing silent haptic notifications, controlling media content in an iPhone, Mac computer or Apple TV library, giving Navigational cues and even social media and calendar event updates. Much of this, however, is dependant on the Apple Watch being in constant communication with an iPhone handset. But Apple neglected to speak to what kind of impact this constant Bluetooth, NFC and GPS slaving of a smartphone handset to the watch would have on that handset’s battery life, or indeed what the run-time of the Apple Watch might be between charges. will the smaller iteration of the watch offer less battery capacity? Will those who choose to use the Apple Watch with older iPhone handsets notice any drop in performance?
A number of people think this omission points to battery life issues – something every other smartwatch on the market suffers from as well. I think that Apple’s being mum on battery life has more to do with the fact that the Apple Watch is still a product under development and is months away from release. Changes made its software code can still have a significant impact on energy use (although, no sleep tracking capability was listed as a feature, which points to overnight charging).
There are other questions we won’t be able to answer until we can review this unit fully. For example: What about waterproofing?Can you safely wash your hands or do the dishes while wearing the device? And perhaps most importantly, how visible is the Apple Watch’s display in direct sunlight? We weren’t allowed to take any of the demo units outside the big tent, and what good is a watch if you can’t see it to use it?
Rest assured, our answers to all of these questions, and more, will be along soon.