According to Apple’s webpage for their new iPhone 12 Pro, “NASA is developing LiDAR technology for Mars missions”.
I think we’re supposed to be impressed.
LiDAR is one of the headline features for the latest iteration of the world’s most recognisable smartphone. And no one cares about it. In fact, I suspect few who own the phone even know it exists.
I’m not dismissing what Apple has done with this tech, or the important role LiDAR may fulfil in the future, but right now, it has zero impact on any of our lives.
Water resistance, long battery life and integration with Apple’s growing list of services do benefit our lives. Some of them are immediately impactful and genuinely make a difference which can be felt every day.
But, LiDAR? The fact tech reviewers still have to explain what it is and what it may be doing in the iPhone says all you need to know.
I’ve spent a couple of weeks with the iPhone 12 Pro and it’s a relatively underwhelming experience. Although, that isn’t a disappointment; I expected it to be that way, to be honest. This is a smartphone which is the result of decades of innovation, and it feels like it.
It also demonstrates that we’ve reached, in my opinion, ‘peak smartphone’.
No one cares about 5G
If there’s one area where Apple displays government-level ignorance of us normal folk, it’s 5G.
Their launch event was dominated by the term. This was not least because of what is clearly a huge boardroom shindig with Verizon, but also because, I suspect, they know that the rest of the details within their new devices aren’t that exciting.
Over here in the UK, 5G literally means nothing. It’s even been blamed (ridiculously) for causing the coronavirus. And, regardless, we can barely get a decent 4G signal in many places (I get two bars in my house if I’m lucky).
I can’t speak for other countries, but I get the impression it’s the same deal elsewhere. 5G is about as nascent as it gets and will not make a meaningful impact on anyone’s life for many years.
So, that’s now two headline features which can be immediately disregarded.
It doesn’t flip, extend or bend – and that’s fine
I love what other manufacturers are doing with their smartphones. I’m also a huge fan of the budget devices which are currently hitting the market, like the Pixel 4a, which I spent some time with recently.
The way in which biometric security and front-facing cameras are being integrated into (and beneath) screens is genuinely inspiring. We’ve even seen the return of flip phones.
By comparison, the iPhone is boring. Old-fashioned, even. The bezels still exist (they don’t on many other phones), and that notch remains huge, by modern standards.
However, that doesn’t seem to put people off. It certainly hasn’t put me off, and I hated the notch to begin with.
I think we’ve simply reached a point where the differences between smartphones are incredibly minor; they’ve been reduced to gimmicks, experiments and design preferences. Beneath all of that surface layer stuff lies the brand you prefer, the services they offer and a device which is powerful enough for anyone.
The camera is great. But that’s no longer a differentiator
Smartphones have genuinely reached the point where they can completely replace standalone cameras for most people. That includes hobbyist photographers who no longer want to lug around big DSLRs and lens collections.
Computational photography enables tiny sensors and lenses to produce stunning results. Fake ‘bokeh’ (the blur seen in front of and behind subjects on images shot with wide apertures on ‘proper’ cameras) and processors which can make billions of calculations as soon as you press the shutter button have transformed smartphone cameras.
Present the iPhone 12 with pretty much any scene, press a button and it’ll produce a perfectly exposed and white balanced photo. That isn’t possible with even top-end DSLRs or mirrorless cameras; you’ll still need to do a bit of post-processing to achieve the same dynamic range and colour reproduction.
The new iPhones get bigger sensors (depending on the model you choose), slightly bigger apertures and… that’s it. But it’s enough.
Any phone you buy today will have a great camera, though – it’s simply no longer a differentiator.
It’s an iPhone; it’s fast
The iPhone 12 line is powered by a chip called the ‘A14 Bionic’. It sounds unnervingly Terminator-like, but, from my limited understanding, it can be roughly translated as “a stupidly fast computer chip which powers everything in the phone, from its graphics, to photos and artificial reality”.
According to Apple, it’s also “the first 5-nanometer chip in the industry, with advanced components literally atoms wide”. I don’t know what that means, but I know how it translate to real world usage.
It makes no difference in any situation.
No, really; compared to my two-year old iPhone XS Max, the 12 Pro feels identical. They’re both just as zippy as each other and feel perfectly married to iOS. Which is kinda to be expected, when you bear in mind that Apple has the benefit of making everything within the iPhone.
This is an iPhone; it’s fast. That’s it. These phones are now faster and have more headroom than any of us need. If anything, Apple can slow down.
It’s tough and waterproof – and that’ll do
The new iPhone range also include toughened glass (although, that’s a ‘feature’ every year, by my reckoning), and reviewer tests appear to confirm that this makes a significant difference to shatter resistance.
The iPhone 12 Pro is also IP68 water resistant, which, we’re told, is industry-leading.
These two features alone are enough to provide plenty of peace of mind for users. Smartphones of this quality are expensive, therefore knowing you can get them wet and retain your screen if dropped is great.
They’re certainly far more important than 5G or LiDAR, although they’ve both been around for quite a while.
So, what’s next?
You may think I’m a little down on the iPhone 12 Pro if you’ve read this far, but that’s not the case. It’s easily the most beautiful phone I’ve owned and iOS remains the most stable, user-friendly operating system, in my opinion.
However, as the years have passed, I’ve come to expect less from the iPhone, because I simply don’t know what more Apple can do to impress its audience.
This does beg the question: where do Apple and its competitors go next?
I’m not sure. They can’t impress me any more with camera upgrades or fancy AR sensors. Although, there’s a glimmer of hope with the emergence of devices like the iPhone 12 mini, which is a compelling step backward for Apple. When you strip everything back, the choice between the latest iPhones depends largely on the screen size you want and how much you want to spend.
I bet, if you’re in the market for a new iPhone, none of the headline features will swing it. You’ll buy one because you want an iPhone, or because you’re due an upgrade. That’s fine, and it neatly illustrates why this device no longer excites me.
However, the services that surrounds it, and the hardware with which it communicates (such as the HomePod mini – more on that soon) do make me excited, because that’s where the future lies for these phones.