It looks the same, it feels largely the same, but it really is different. Apple’s iPhone 14 Pro is without a doubt an evolutionary update on its predecessor, but it’s the start of something new, something that could change how alerts work on smartphones.
Practically, there’s only a few things different in this year’s device — it has the much vaunted Dynamic Island — a display that never turns off, Apple’s first foray with 48MP camera sensors, and a nifty new crash detection system that the company hopes you never have to use.
The other two are updates worth noting, but really, the Pro series iPhones this time are about the new Dynamic Island and what it could mean for smartphones. So, that’s where we shall focus for the most part.
Widgets but different
At its very root, the Dynamic Island is indeed just a system alert indicator. It tells you what’s running in the background and allows you to perform quick interactions without having to actually jump into that app.
For instance, when music is playing on Apple Music or Spotify, the album art will appear to the left of the FaceID sensor as you leave the music app, while another indicator to the right of the front camera will show you that the music is indeed playing. If you get a phone call, it will override the music indicator and instead show similar alerts for the call, while you swipe away on another app. You can long press these indicators for quick actions, or tap to open the respective app.
Sounds simple, right? It really is, and it shouldn’t make a phone feel different or new. The Dynamic Island is the opposite of the notch, which was designed to escape notice. This one seeks the user’s attention. It reminds me of Harry Houdini’s famous quote, “What the eyes see and the ears hear, the mind believes.”
At the end of the day, the Dynamic Island is just another cut-out on a smartphone’s display, which Android phones have had for a couple of years now. But while the cut-out is just this stationary thing on the display, Apple’s software makes it feel alive. It’s always moving, and hence reminding you that it exists.
On the iPhone 14 Pro, Apple’s operating system basically uses software tricks to make it feel like it’s the cut-out that’s moving all the time. It’s not, the software is actually designed to use a technique called anti-aliasing, which helps create smooth lines, to make the picture move along that cut-out. The iPhone’s dark mode and darker wallpapers make it near impossible to discern the difference, unless you really look for it. However, you can see the cut-out separately under bright lights, or bright sunlight.
But Apple’s only past the first hurdle yet, in the sense that the Dynamic Island is easy to get used to. Widgets have existed on smartphones for over a decade now, but I can honestly say that this is the first time I’ve truly made use of them.
The catch, however, is that the Dynamic Island’s true usefulness is not in Apple’s hands. It’s in the hands of the developers who will build apps to make use of what’s essentially an additional display near the top of the iPhone’s display.
Later this year, Apple will offer developers something called the Live Activities API, which will allow them to design apps that use the Dynamic Island in different ways. It’s those use-cases that could make this the best UX change on iPhones ever or just another 3D Touch (remember that?).
At the moment, the Dynamic Island is a first attempt. It’s got some bugs too. For example, the Uber app overrode a call when the driver was heading to my location. Similarly, tapping on the island while a Microsoft Teams call is going on opens the regular call screen instead of the Teams app.
Apple’s software has a built-in priority system, which decides which app gets to use the Island at a given time. It’ll be interesting to see how the company stops developers from misusing this system. Apple has admittedly proven that it’s great at policing the iOS ecosystem, to the extent that it’s battling anti-trust cases all over the world, to break some of that control, but the last thing I want is to see a tiny advertisement on the Dynamic Island in the middle of my work day.
Application programming interfaces (APIs) are key ingredients of some of the best tech we have today, but they are also what has allowed companies to harness our data without proper explanation or permission, play ads when we don’t want them, and more.
The Always-On display
Like the cut-out, you can trace back always-on displays on Android phones to the Moto X, which was launched in 2013. Apple’s joining the party late with this one, and whereas Android smartphone makers have perfected their systems, the company’s first attempt has missed the mark in my book.
The Always-On display on the iPhone 14 Pro feels a lot like a regular display with the brightness turned down to very low brightness.
Optical light emitting diode (OLED) displays have a property that allows smartphone makers to play around with individual pixels on the screen. The Always-On display feature takes advantage of that to show you information, like notifications or the time, even when the rest of the display remains black.
That purpose is defeated here, because the Always-On display on Apple’s phone keeps a large part of the display turned on at low brightness. It shows the entire wallpaper, and though there’s a nifty trick, where the clock can suddenly appear over a subject in your wallpaper, it’s really not a feature I want to use.
The Dynamic Island is Apple taking something Android phones have had for years, and making it better. This is not.
The new camera
The new camera, too, is something Android phones found before Apple. The company, in fact, has been famous for avoiding high megapixel counts on its iPhones. Apple’s iPhones beat Android devices with their 8MP cameras, even when Samsung and others were turning up to 12MP and more. So the move to a 48MP primary camera is a big deal for the company, even as Samsung, Xiaomi etc. move to 108MP sensors.
Apple uses the commonly used pixel binning technology to create a 12MP photo by combining four pixels into one. Which in turn allows the camera to collect more light, and hence produce better photos.
Pixel binning really isn’t new to smartphones anymore, and Apple’s camera doesn’t do anything with this feature that others don’t. The iPhone 14 Pro’s camera takes slightly cooler photos, but for the most part, you’ll be hard pressed to tell the difference from an iPhone 13 Pro, both in photos and videos.
On paper, the camera is better than the iPhone 13 Pro, which still is one of the best smartphone cameras you can find on the market. The iPhone 14 Pro shows just a little more detail if you zoom into photos, but it’s not the kind of detail that matters to the social media poster. Come to think of it, that actually justifies the ‘Pro’ moniker, because such changes matter only to professionals.
However, I would argue that the real big change here is the new ‘Photonic Engine’ software. It’s basically Apple’s old Deep Fusion algorithms that ran on the iPhone 13 Pro and earlier, but this time it runs earlier in the shooting cycle. Photonic Engine is basically Deep Fusion running after a camera focuses on a subject, thereby allowing the system to crunch raw data, instead of processing images that used to come to it after you pressed the shutter button.
The results, admittedly aren’t different, but it sounds a lot like yet another step towards gigapixel cameras on smartphones, which have been rumoured for years now. Features like Photonic Engine are part of a subset of photography called ‘computational photography’ and technologists and engineers have argued that it will lead to ‘lenseless sensors’, which do exactly what they sound like.
Smartphone photos do not hold a candle to DSLRs, and they won’t any time soon. But lenseless sensors will allow smartphone firms to fit more megapixels, getting closer and closer to DSLRs, on the thin and flat surfaces of smartphones.
Should you buy it?
Which brings us back to square one. The iPhone 14 Pro isn’t particularly new. It’s a step in a new direction. The Dynamic Island feels like something that will fit right into a tiny display outside of a foldable smartphone (like on the Samsung Galaxy Flip 4), while the Photonic Engine is a step towards better smartphone cameras. The crash alert feature is unfortunately hard to test unless you’re actually in a crash, but let’s hope it works.
Coming to the pricing, The iPhone 14 Pro with a 15.4 cm (6.1 inch) display costs ₹ 1,29,900, while the iPhone 14 Pro Max with a 17 cm (6.7 inch) display costs ₹ 1,39,900. No one said iPhones are cheap!
It’s not an ‘upgrade’ to an iPhone 12 Pro or 13 Pro, but for those who value these older devices, there’s a lot to like here.