Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Initial Thoughts on the iPhone XS, iPhone XR, and Apple Watch Series 4 Event

If you were paying attention to rumour blogs prior to today’s event, you knew the names of the products announced today as well as what the iPhone XS and new Watch looked like. Those were not surprises; yet, even so, today’s event managed to pack in a lot of big news.

First up, the Apple Watch Series 4, with a bigger display, richer faces, and — amazingly — an FDA-certified electrocardiogram on the sapphire and ceramic back, which now appears on all models.

There are also a bunch of new faces that they say “react uniquely with the curved edges of the case”. This is curious to me because the Apple Watch HIG and the overall design of WatchOS has generally created the impression that there is no boundary around the display. For instance, the “honeycomb” home screen treats app icons almost like bubbles that float against a black backdrop and aren’t cut off. Or, recall the way Jony Ive described, in its introductory video, that “you can’t determine a boundary between the physical object and the software”. Much like the notch on the iPhone, it appears that they’re embracing the limitations of the hardware, which feels more honest to me.

I remember having an initially negative reaction to the Apple Watch when it was introduced. Now that I have owned the product for a few years and Apple has made radical improvements to the software, though, it’s one of my favourite personal technology things that I own, but neither the Series 2 nor the Series 3 compelled me to upgrade. Based on what I’ve seen so far, I’m sold on this new one. It is to the Apple Watch what the iPhone 4 is to the history of that product: a culmination of several years of learning, and leaving everything else in the dust.

My only concern is with the electrocardiogram feature. It’s only going to be available in the United States — presumably for certification and regulation reasons — and Apple says that it won’t be enabled until later this year.

Then there’s the iPhone XS and XS Max. Both are a substantial upgrade from the iPhone X, but — more importantly, as most people probably don’t upgrade every year — a huge leap from the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus: a faster processor, better Face ID, better displays, dual SIM capabilities, better battery life, and better camera processing. The Max model should satisfy those who are aching for an even bigger variant with features specific to it, like split views in some apps.

Finally, they launched the iPhone XR, which is a fascinating product once you get past Apple’s naming foibles. Apart from Apple employees, nobody is actually going to pronounce it “ten-arr”; likewise, most people are probably going to say “excess” rather than “ten-ess”. Also, it turns out that the “R” — and “S”, for that matter, in “iPhone XS” — is neither uppercase nor lowercase but, rather, small caps, because Apple’s marketing team apparently hates everyone who writes about their products. They will be “XS” and “XR” here.

The XR sits at the bottom end of Apple’s pricing range; but, at 6.1 inches diagonally, it’s in the middle of the 5.8-inch iPhone XS and 6.5-inch iPhone XS Max. Its display is an LCD at 326 pixels per inch — exactly the same pixel density as the iPhone 8, and with very similar technical specifications.1 However, its introduction means that Apple’s new iPhone lineup entirely follows the modern gesture-driven design language started by the iPhone X. Unlike the iPhone X and XS, it has some of the same software capabilities as iPhones with Plus- or, now, Max-sized displays, such as split screen in supported apps.

The iPhone XR also marks the first iPhone launched since the SE without 3D Touch. Instead, it has something they’re calling “Haptic Touch”, which appears to simply be haptic feedback triggered by long presses in certain 3D Touch-like contexts.2

I have complaints about that.

For a start, it’s confusing: there are maybe eight people on Earth who can adequately articulate the differences between Haptic Touch, 3D Touch, and Force Touch, which is still what Apple calls the display on the Apple Watch. In the keynote presentation, Phil Schiller compared it to the trackpad in the MacBook Pro, but that’s marketed as a Force Touch thing. I might be an idiot, but this is unfathomable.3

Second, it’s conceptually muddy. There seemed to be specific rules Apple was adhering to with their use of 3D Touch on past iPhones — it opens app menus on the home screen, for instance, or allows you to preview something in a list before opening it. But this indicates that there’s either no difference between a long press and a Force/3D/Haptic Touch press, or there’s no consistency in Apple’s application of it. If Apple doesn’t know what the standards should be, users can’t even begin to understand what they should be doing. I like 3D Touch a lot, but if Apple continues to be confused by their own technology after it has been on the market for three years, I don’t think they should keep it around.

Inside, it features the same A12 SoC as the iPhone XS and XS Max and has a similar wide angle camera, but it does not have a telephoto camera. Even so, it can apparently do the same Portrait Mode and three of the five Portrait Lighting effects.

Its body is made of aluminum, and it’s offered in six gorgeous colours. I’m looking forward to seeing these in person — the vibrant peach-like “Coral” colour, in particular, looks beautiful. I bet these will be hot sellers: they’re colourful, they have the gesture-driven design, and they start at $250 less than the XS. They don’t go on sale until next month, however.

There’s always a catch — in this case, there are three. This iPhone lineup no longer includes the headphone jack adaptor; all iPhones still come with a five-watt charger; and all iPhones still ship with only a USB-A cable instead of a USB-C cable. I don’t get it.

Apple also announced today that they will be updating the HomePod on Monday with multi-timer support, the ability to make phone calls, and the ability to use Siri Shortcuts.

While many of the announcements today were revealed early, one surprise is that there was absolutely no mention of the AirPower. There’s nothing about it on the new iPhone marketing pages, and John Gruber tweeted that nobody at Apple is talking about it. Something clearly went deeply wrong in its development and Apple seems to have no idea when — or if — it will be launched.


  1. Apple bills this display as a “Liquid Retina” display but, even after watching the keynote and reading all about it, I still have no idea what this means or what sets it apart. The only reason to give it a cool marketing name, that I can think of, is if it’s going to be used repeatedly. So, I expect to see references to a “Liquid Retina” display in upcoming iPad marketing materials as well. ↩︎

  2. I also think we’ll see this “Haptic Touch” language used in new iPad marketing materials. ↩︎

  3. Also, they call it “Haptic Touch” but it’s powered by the “Taptic Engine”. Gah↩︎