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Apple iPhone 14 review: Does it warrant an upgrade?

The iPhone 14 marks the entry point to Apple’s flagship smartphone this year, with no ‘Mini’ variant at hand. But, this also makes it a very incremental refresh

On the face of it, the iPhone 14 is as incremental an upgrade as it could have been
On the face of it, the iPhone 14 is as incremental an upgrade as it could have been

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Standardization is a peculiar aspect of industrializing product design. On one hand, it seeks to assure you of a benchmark that you can expect from a product. On the other, standardizing a product can also make it seem tepid in terms of its level of innovation. Testament to this is India’s increasing smartphone upgrade cycle — while the average usage span of a smartphone was estimated to be around six months in 2015, at present, the same span stands at around 30 months.

Among other factors stands the fact that users nowadays do not see features that would compel them to upgrade to a new phone, thereby turning new phone purchases into a purely discretionary expense — something that users would choose to incur from a lifestyle standpoint. The new Apple iPhone 14 is the personification of this.

Also read: Apple iPhone 14 Pro review: Is the new display a ‘dynamic’ new step?

On the face of it, the iPhone 14 is as incremental an upgrade as it could have been. It uses the same processor as before, the A15 Bionic — a sign that Apple itself doesn’t particularly regard it as a true ‘upgrade’ of sorts. It uses the same display — still without a fast refresh rate that you’d find in even the least expensive Android smartphones today. The cameras retain the same sensor as before, and the battery is 1.2% larger than the iPhone 13.

Simply based on this, users who upgraded to the iPhone 13 last year would do well to avoid upgrading again — at least not to the iPhone 14.

But, given that the iPhone still retains an aspirational tag unlike the way most other (even premium) smartphones do, it still gets users who are at least curious about the new generation of the lineup.

First up, then, come looks. The iPhone 14 is identical to the iPhone 13 from the exterior, unless you keep a very close track of iPhone colors. Just by virtue of this, if social cred is something that appeals to your gadget-purchasing decision, you wouldn’t really attract envious stares from your neighbours with the iPhone 14.

Apple has swapped the green and pink options for a purple this year, while the dark shade of blue has been substituted by a light and rather pleasant shade of blue that I quite like. Apart from that, the diagonal camera layout looks the same, and the new notch design has only come to the ‘Pro’ model this year. The thickness differs by a tenth of a millimeter — and you’ll frankly be kidding yourself if you say that you can notice the difference.

The iPhone 14’s display does feel smoother, since the new phone has gotten more memory to process heavier apps and games. The difference isn’t really a big one, and is something that you’ll only feel if you compare it alongside an iPhone 12. For all practical purposes, the iPhone 13 feels just as smooth. It does feel faster to game on, and even without a new processor, Apple seems to have eked out marginally better performance thanks to more memory at hand.

This, in terms of performance for most mainstream games and photo/video editing apps, makes the iPhone 14 feel as smooth as the iPhone 13 Pro. This is perhaps the biggest victory for the iPhone 14, but the lack of a ‘ProMotion’ fast refresh rate panel on this one means that once the iPhone 14 is at least over a year old, the small flickers and stutters will start showing.

But, this also means that if you’re upgrading from an iPhone 11 or iPhone 12, the iPhone 14 could well be a prudent purchase. Developers are yet to pick up on building use cases for the Dynamic Island notch on the iPhone 14 Pro, and for most, the main camera’s quality should suffice creators and hobbyists alike.

This brings us to the camera, where you’ll likely feel some difference from before. Apple’s use of a revised machine learning technique, which it calls ‘Photonic Engine’, will clearly give you brighter and sharper photographs at night. But, the expense of these brighter images fall on image noise — big and prominent grains that totally eat up darker shadows in a low-lit photograph.

The main camera’s lens is a tad faster, using f/1.5 aperture this year. In simple terms, this means that your new iPhone will be able to shoot steadier photos at the same level of dimness than older ‘vanilla’ iPhones. You’ll notice this difference most evidently if you frequent grungy bars every weekend and want to really show how the new iPhone is better. It is clearly better, but could do well with improving its noise reduction algorithms.

What is also better is the front camera, which now has a noticeably faster lens that can take in more light in dark conditions, and has autofocus too. As a result, self portraits are generally sharper and retain better details when you’re out partying.

The new ‘Action Mode’ on the video pane attempts to take on action camera territory, and companies that have attempted to miniaturize pro-level video stabilization have typically either had to make a device very expensive, use a miniaturized gyroscope motor that bulks up a phone, or compromised on video quality.

While expense is not really a factor here, Apple hasn't bulked up its phone. Instead, it uses an age-old trick of cropping into a sensor, while using software to adjust the video to a horizontal plane. The results, however, are not truly impressive in terms of video fidelity, for objects in a stabilized video look rather softened.

The ‘Action Mode’ also continuously prompts you to find a brighter environment — ironically even inside very brightly lit office interiors. This essentially proves that Action Mode, just like Cinematic Mode, remains a work-in-progress venture. They do have massive potential, and a future software update will hopefully improve the mode as well. But, they are not yet ready to be the compelling buying factors for the mighty iPhone.

So, how is the iPhone 14, and who is it really for? First up, if a bit of social glamor and pizzazz is what you’re after, nothing below Apple’s three-camera ‘Pro’ models would work — which makes the iPhone 14 a moot point anyway.

But if you’re reading this, you’re likely considering the iPhone 14 anyway. If you’re upgrading from the iPhone 11 or iPhone 12, the new iPhone 14 will feel clearly smoother and one with a better camera. iPhone 13 users will do well to skip this one (or the iPhone 14 Pro as well), and for first-time iPhone buyers, the price point of 79,900 makes it a new-enough, good-enough and reliable-enough phone to buy.

To be sure, it is the iPhone that offers all of its improvements in the fine print. But, for what it's worth, its incremental improvements make it feel like a new phone — as long as you've at least spent two or more years with your older iPhone.

Also read: The Apple MacBook Air conundrum: M1 or M2?

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