It’s interesting that Apple, which in recent years has deflected attention from hardware specifications, is making such a big deal about what’s inside the new iPhone. Just as interesting is that the company’s discussion of processors and sensors is ultimately about experience, not the hardware itself.
During a media event in Cupertino, Calif., this week, Apple revealed two new iPhone models. The iPhone 5c sports an “unapologetically plastic” case and an improved front-facing camera, but is otherwise functionally the same as last year’s iPhone 5 (which has been discontinued). It costs $99 for 16 GB of storage, or $199 for 32 GB — those are the carrier-subsidized prices with a two-year service contract.
The iPhone 5s is the new flagship model, priced at $199, $299 and $399 for 16 GB, 32 GB and 64 GB capacities. The iPhone 5s shares the aluminum-case design of the iPhone 5 (with slightly different color options: silver, “space gray” and gold), but the changes to its internal workings are dramatic.
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(I didn’t attend the Apple event this week, so I can’t claim any hands-on time with the new devices.)
Deux process: If I were talking about desktop or laptop computers, I’d focus on the Apple-designed A7 processor in the iPhone 5s, which improves performance for graphics-intensive apps like games. But the iPhone also includes a new M7 coprocessor dedicated to measuring motion data from the gyroscope, accelerometer and compass sensors.
Current models of the iPhone (and iPad and iPod touch) measure the same data, but do so using the device’s main processor, which affects battery life. Mobile devices live and die by battery life — if a smartphone does amazing things but needs to be recharged once or twice a day, it’s a failure. The M7 sips very little energy, but keeps measuring even when the iPhone isn’t being used.
Now, that sounds like an engineering solution divorced from everyday use — better battery life is good, but why mention it here? The M7 opens the door to a lot of other features. The most obvious is fitness tracking. Instead of spending extra money on a tracking device like the Nike Plus or Fitbit, the iPhone can record how many steps you take when exercising (since you’ll probably have the phone with you).
But it’s smarter than that. As Apple notes on its website, the data from the M7 can indicate whether you’re walking, running or driving. If the Maps app requires that you drive and then walk some distance to reach a destination, the directions will switch from driving to walking instructions after you’ve parked. Or, when the iPhone is idle (like on a bedside table), it will reduce the frequency of its attempts to connect to local networks.
Picturesque: Another example of Apple putting experience first is the camera in the iPhone 5s. Apple Vice President of Marketing Phil Schiller spent a lot of time on the phone’s new photo capabilities, which surprisingly boil down to: just snap a photo and trust the result will be good.
For example, the image sensor uses larger pixels to record more information, and the lens is capable of an aperture of f/2.2 to let in more light. But it’s the A7 processor and updated software under iOS 7 that make the biggest difference.
Holding the shutter button results in a burst mode of 10 shots per second, which is impressive by itself. But even when you’re taking a single shot, the iPhone 5s is an overachiever: The image-stabilization feature captures four shots in quick succession and blends them to remove motion blur.
Perhaps most innovative is what Apple calls True Tone flash. I automatically turn off the flash in the iPhone’s Camera app because the results are almost always disappointing. The iPhone 5s features two separate LEDs — one warm, one cold — that work together to illuminate dark situations with natural-looking light.
As ever, the iPhone’s camera capabilities won’t replace a decent camera, but “decent camera” is starting to have new meaning. People who only want to take good snapshots will get great results from the iPhone, and it probably will hasten the extinction of dedicated point-and-shoot cameras.
Tomorrowland: The internal changes to the iPhone 5s also demonstrate that Apple isn’t just building a device to satisfy a couple of financial quarters, or even a year. Some phone manufacturers ship brand-new phones that are underpowered or run obsolete operating systems from the get-go. But Apple is building hardware that you can actually use for the duration of your two-year contract.
For example, one of the other signature features of the phone is Touch ID, a sensor under the home button that can identify your fingerprint instead of making you enter a security code when you wake up the phone. (And you should set up your iPhone with a code for security’s sake.)
A fingerprint scanner isn’t necessary, but it makes using the iPhone much more convenient. A radio frequency (RF) signal identifies the fingerprint pattern just below the outer layer of skin for of up to five fingers.
Pressing the home button for a second is all that’s required to unlock the phone; Apple also set it up so you can complete iTunes and App Store purchases using Touch ID instead of your Apple ID.
The print is converted to a secure code that’s stored only in an area of the A7 processor called Secure Enclave; it’s not available to any third-party app nor transmitted from the phone to any servers.
Apple also made a big deal out of the A7 processor being 64-bit, which sounded more like declaring technical bragging rights. iOS 7 and Apple’s built-in apps are all optimized for 64-bit processing, which is likely to help with high-end graphics and other complex calculations, but not most apps or functions in a way that average users will notice. The real benefit is Apple being able to establish a technical baseline for future devices.
Preorders for the iPhone 5c began Sept. 13, with delivery and in-store pickup scheduled for Sept. 20. There’s no pre-order for the iPhone 5s, which will be available on Sept. 20.
Apple is also offering the iPhone 4s as its “free” (with two-year contract) option.
All iPhone models will run the redesigned iOS 7, which will become available as a free update for current owners of iPhone 4 models and later on Sept. 18.
Jeff Carlson writes the Practical Mac column for Personal Technology and about technology in general for The Seattle Times and other publications. Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. More Practical Mac columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists.