Week 38.22: iPhone 14 Pro, Apple Watch Series 8, etc.

My new iPhone 14 Pro arrived. This year’s Space Black is definitely the darkest shade of gray they’ve done in years. Fitting, because while Apple’s been calling their camera systems “pro” quality since the iPhone 11 Pro, it’s only with the ability to capture 48mp RAW files now that the label may finally be justified, and everyone knows a “pro” camera should be black and draw little attention to itself. Just look at Leica’s stealthy “-P” models without their red logo. So the 14 Pro looks the part, at least it did until I slapped a bright Succulent green case on it.

I took it out to a concert the same day it arrived — after a few snafus during set up and migration; probably related to the bugs already addressed in iOS 16.01. Low light performance seems improved as promised, and if it’s dark enough to call for Night Mode, those shots are taken more quickly than they were before. However, I’ve noticed some gritty artifacts when using the 3x lens in low light, possibly due to moving objects across several frames being merged. Ideally these would look like motion blur, but they have gross sharp outlines and very digital-looking noise. This is new, and I hope it’s an issue that will be fixed in software.

48mp ProRAW files are not snappy to edit, and VSCO doesn’t seem to like them at all. Load any RAW file in the app and all the filters come out looking wrong. I’ve been bouncing between RAW Power, Darkroom, and Pixelmator Photo, unable to decide which makes processing files least painful. But should one shoot in 48mp at all? The post-shot cropping latitude you get is fantastic, but at up to 90MB a file, I’ll probably use it sparingly, on occasions where it’s better to just grab a quick shot and make decisions later. But for everyday use, I’ve set mine up to save 12mp ProRAW files, and will simply try to get the composition right from the start with the new 2x “zoom” mode if needed (essentially an in-camera 12mp crop into the 48mp image).

Tyler Stalman and SuperSaf have good reviews of the cameras’ performance on their YouTube channels. I’m slightly annoyed by Stalman’s discovery that RAW files have a much more natural look than Apple’s default processing for JPEG/HEIF files. The amount of sharpening and clarity and HDR effect has been turned up with each passing year, and where iPhones were once known for taking true to life photos, they’re more social media-ready and Samsung-y today. And consequently these photos are not the neutral starting points for post-processing that they once were. On hindsight, it was inevitable. A lot of casual editing today is hitting an Auto-Enhance button or loading up an AI filter in Prequel, Meitu, or some app I haven’t heard of yet. Sitting down to process photos is now a “pro” thing, and pros presumably want to shoot and edit in RAW while they’re at it. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

All in all, a nice upgrade to still photos this year. You get more separation and background blur in regular shots on the main camera because of the larger sensor. The new image processing engine also takes advantage of said larger sensor and gives impressive sharpness and detail when shooting in some specific instances. And the return of a 48mm 2x mode is very welcome, but then you don’t get the benefits of pixel binning in that mode so it’s a little worse for low light environments.

A final word on cameras: the bump must not be allowed to grow any larger. As customers, we need to hold this line. It’s simply too much.

Really nice fur detail on this closeup (full size, sorry)

The Dynamic Island is very cool, but not something you really need to think about too often. Buyers expecting a fun new toy they can tap and fidget with a hundred times a day will be disappointed. For me, the notch was a non-issue; it just faded from notice in normal use. The Island is similarly invisible to me until it springs into use for some multitasking. At present, it’s only shown up when I was listening to music or doing some navigation in Apple Maps. The latter is especially nice (as a passenger), I can be texting with someone but still keep an eye on the next instruction, e.g. it shows an arrow saying to turn right in 2km. It’s an improvement that you get used to very quickly, and the animations are nowhere as distracting as critics wanted to believe. After a couple of days, it reveals itself to be the best kind of improvement: one you can simply take for granted while it quietly improves your life in the background.

The third and final major feature in this year’s iPhone is its always-on display. No, the new A16 chip doesn’t make the Top 3 for me. The A15 in last year’s iPhone 13 Pro was still zippy as hell, and the improvements here are somewhat minor. It’s testament to the A15’s power that Apple can reuse it for this year’s basic iPhone 14 and most people are just like ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

The always-on display gave me battery anxiety. I’d turned on the new/old battery percentage indicator in iOS 16’s Settings and was convinced that my available power was dropping faster than usual for a new phone. But hiding the percentage was probably one of the best unpopular things that Apple did with the introduction of the iPhone X. Nobody needs to see that number drop. I turned it off and stopped worrying for the time being. If you want to give it a break, just turn your phone face down on your desk (this doesn’t work on glass tables, FYI).

It’s certainly nice, but nowhere as necessary as an always-on display on a watch, because seeing the time and other info without overtly turning your wrist towards you is a real use case. Being able to glance over and see a weather update or the price of bitcoin without tapping my phone’s screen is alright. But maybe not 10% less battery life alright? I need my phone’s battery for playing games and calling cabs and other things my watch doesn’t have to worry about. Time will tell if it’s a keeper or a feature we all turn off and forget about.

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I also replaced my Series 4 watch with a new Series 8, but apart from the always-on display and non-degraded battery life, there’s not a lot here to write home about for someone who isn’t into the athletic life. It’s just the most refined and capable version of a four-year-old design, and I expect it to last me for quite awhile. The Apple Watch Ultra is simply not for me, and it would take a radical redesign of the regular watch line to make the Series 8 feel obsolete (note: foreshadowing).

My last one was an Hermés model, and I’m really missing their classic analog watchface with the Cape Cod typeface (see below). There is simply nothing in the standard Apple Watch catalog of watchfaces that compares. If you want an elegant, full-screen analog face with attractive Arabic numerals and maybe just a date display, you’re shit out of luck.

My old Hermés Series 4, grabbed from a video I made in 2018
Series 8 with the California watchface, close but no cigar

One interesting thing that’s new this year, but is actually available to all Apple Watches from Series 4 and up, is advanced sleep stage tracking in watchOS 9. I’ve been using the Autosleep app to do the same thing for the last couple of years, but it’s always been a bit of a faith/novelty thing: there was just no way of knowing how accurate it really was.

Well, it seems Apple invested proper resources into their machine learning approach, which uses your motion and heart rate to probabilistically determine what state of sleep you’re in at any point in the night, and it comes very close to what high-end, specialized equipment with lots of sensors on your body can do. So Autosleep has been Sherlocked and deleted from my phone, and you don’t need any other apps to analyze your sleep quality; just look in Health.app.

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One “local” artist I came away from Friday night’s showcase concert quite impressed with was Dru Chen, who played a couple of songs featuring some funky guitar work and a lovely musicality reminiscent of His Purpleness. I have nothing against people inspired by Prince. Everyone should be. Dru’s debut album is on Apple Music, so I’ll be listening to it some over the next week.

But for live music, it probably doesn’t get any better than this newly remastered 1985 show by Prince and The Revolution playing in Syracuse, now available in goddamn Dolby Atmos spatial audio. What an absolute treat to be transported right into the audience for this. I’ve only heard a few moments so far. It really calls for a fully charged pair of AirPods Max and a clear afternoon.


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