Apple held its big annual iPhone event this week, and although they’ve cleaned up last year’s hot mess of iPhone positioning, questions remain about which phone is best for different needs.
ASIDE: If you’re looking for detailed specs on each model, there are plenty of resources on the web providing them. I prefer to keep my product reviews and previews consumer-focused, so instead of boring you with a bunch of megahertz and transistor counts, I focus on what I think really matters to you, the user.
Before we get to the new smartphones, the company also announced details and pricing for its two new subscription services, Apple Arcade and Apple TV+. Arcade will launch with 100 games — all exclusive to Apple — on September 19, with more to come. All games are playable across all Apple platforms: You can start a game on your phone, play the next level on your Mac, and finish up on your iPad. If the demos were anything to go by, there should be something for most anyone. The family plan with unlimited play for up to six members of your household is $4.99 a month, which makes it kind of a no-brainer for gamers or parents of children in the Apple ecosystem. Apple TV+ costs the same $4.99 for up to six family members, but the limited selection of shows makes this one harder to recommend. Then again, buyers of new iPhones/iPads/Apple TVs get a year of Apple TV+ for free, so they’ll figure, “Why not check out a show or two?” TV+ launches in November.
Apple also released the seventh generation of the venerable 9.7″ iPad, only now it has a 10.2″ screen with improved color rendering and viewing angles, a better camera, and a faster CPU, for the same $329 as last year. It’s a steal, if you’re looking for a tablet that’s more than a media consumption device, but less than a laptop replacement like the Microsoft Surface. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this iPad to new buyers, but don’t be in a rush to upgrade if you’re happy with what you have.
Every September, what Apple watchers are really looking for is the company’s new iPhones, which continue to hoover up nearly all the profits in the entire industry. So, a quick rundown of what phones the company is selling, both new and old.
The iPhone 8 and 8 Plus from 2017 are still around to fill in the low end of Apple’s price tiers. $449 will get you the one with the 4.7″ display and 64GB of storage, going up in $50 stages to $599 for the larger 5.5″ model with 128GB. They were great phones in 2017, and they’re still good performers. My hesitation in recommending either one is that they’re the last iPhone models still using TouchID rather than FaceID, so they lack the speed, convenience, and increased security of the more advanced phones. They also lack the higher 256GB/512GB storage tiers, for users with big storage needs.
Also still around is last year’s iPhone XR, now $150 less than it sold for two days ago. It has the same A12-based CPU as the current iPad Pro, which means it has more processing power than most users will ever need for games or such. While the camera is a single-lens model, the CPU power helps it take great pictures in most lighting conditions. It comes in a variety of colors, at $599 for 64GB or $649 for double the storage. Apple says it was their bestselling model even before yesterday’s price cuts, and I believe them.
This year’s new models have one great new feature: A naming convention that finally makes some sense and provides clarity to potential buyers.
The new iPhone is simply called iPhone 11, and starts at $699 for 64GB. It has a very nice duel-lens camera setup, impressive AI features to make your photos better, the fastest CPU available in any phone, and a roomy 6.1″ LCD display. It’s just a really good high-end phone, at a price starting $50 less than last year’s “budget” model.
If your smartphone needs are really crazy, Apple has re-branded their top-tier phones as iPhone 11 Pro. They start at a whopping $999 for a 64GB 5.8″ OLED display featuring a triple-lens camera with AI features the non-pro 11 lacks. The Pro line tops out at $1,349 (wow!) for the big-screen, 6.5″ model with half a terabyte of storage. This is the same pricing scheme Apple introduced two years ago with the iPhone X, but with serious improvements in battery life, picture quality, and processing power.
Who should buy the iPhone 11 Pro? Not me, and probably not you. Here’s the rundown of actual Pro buyers:
• Mobile shooters who need one of the two finest smartphone cameras sold by anyone (the other is Google’s Pixel 3 with incredible low-light performance)
• Professionals with massive performance and/or storage needs
• Well-to-do gadget freaks who just have to have the latest-and-greatest at any price
And that’s it, really. There are very few people, none whom I know personally, that I’d advise buy the 11 Pro.
The plain-old iPhone 11 is also more phone than most people need, although the $699 starting price makes it quite competitive with similar-specced phones from Android OEMs. Apple also offers fairly generous trade-in discounts. A four-year-old iPhone 6S in good condition will get you a $100 discount. For newer models like the X or XR, Apple will give you between $400 and $600 off on your trade-in.
Honestly though, for most people in the market for a new or upgraded iPhone, last year’s XR would be my first recommendation. It’s still powerful enough that Apple will continue to support it with operating system and security upgrades for at least four years, but maybe five or six. The camera is good enough to produce fine results in anything other than the worst light, and storage is generous enough for most needs. And if you’ve never tried one out, it has what might be the best LCD screen in the business, and all-day-and-then-some battery life.
If you have an older iPhone and are looking to upgrade to something with FaceID, the XR’s reduced price makes it awfully tempting. If you already have a FaceID model like my 2017 iPhone X, I’d skip upgrading for at least another year.
The short version: Owners of the iPhone X or XS should hang on to what they have. If you own an 8-series or older, this might be a good time to upgrade. Buy an iPhone 11 if you need the adaptability of a two-lens camera, or simply must have 256GB or more of storage. But the XR would be my first recommendation for new buyers or for upgraders, since it is considerably cheaper and nearly as future-proof.