Forgive me friends for what I’m about to say: You should just buy this year’s $999-and-up iPhone Pros.
I hear you. “Wait, wait, wait. In a year when everything costs more, including actually apples, you want me to give $2.5 trillion Apple AAPL 1.64%
Blame the “dynamic island,” a screen compromise Apple has turned into a smart multitasking trick on the iPhone 14 Pro and Pro Max. Also blame their always-on display and big cameras.
After spending nearly a week testing the new phones, I can say the more “affordable” models are good choices, too. But this year—more than in the past—Apple’s top-of-the-line phones do more to justify their $200 price bump.
Plus, a pricier phone may actually be within reach now that cellular carriers have gone totally bananas with deals that can knock off hundreds. (Yes, I’m aware banana prices are up, too.)
Before I explain my reasoning, you have to understand the two main iPhone 14 groups:
• iPhone 14 ($799 and up) and iPhone 14 Plus ($899 and up): In known as the “regulars,” these have two cameras and colorful designs. (Gone is the smaller, cheaper Mini option.) The 14 has a 6.1-inch screen and the Plus has a 6.7-inch screen—otherwise, they’re identical in design.
I plan to review the iPhone 14 Plus, due out Oct. 7, at a later date. The other phones are available on Sept 16.
• iPhone 14 Pro ($999 and up) and iPhone 14 Pro Max ($1,099 and up): These two also have 6.1- and 6.7-inch screens, respectively, but have a more premium design and a trio of cameras, including a new 48-megapixel main camera. They also have an always-on screen and the dynamic island multitasking bar.
Despite Apple and the cellular carriers’ dream that you buy a phone more often than you wash your jeans, chances are you’d be upgrading from a phone that’s already two or three years old. That’s why I put the latest up against the iPhone 13 lineup but also iPhone 12 and iPhone 11 models. While the camera improvements will be far more satisfying if you have one of those older phones, that dynamic island will make any other phone seem…static.
The regular iPhone 14’s screen looks exactly the same as the 13. It even looks to me the same as the iPhone 12, though Apple says it’s brighter. The screen on the 14 Plus will be bigger—and likely the perfect solution for those who have been yearning for an iPhone the size of a superyacht without the price tag of one.
I usually have to pull out my glasses to spot Apple’s display “improvements.” But this year the changes on the Pro models hit me as soon as I opened the box.
The always-on display is, well, always on. When you’re not actively using the phone, most of the colors on your lock screen’s background are dimmed, but all the other stuff—time, date, widgets and notifications—are clearly visible. (See my review of iOS 16 for more on the new lock screen.)
For those of us who use our phones as a watch, I predict thousands of phone taps a year saved. Plus, it didn’t impact battery life in a noticeable way. After a long, harsh day shooting my review video on an actual island—nonstop camera and video use—the Pro conked out around 7:30 pm The Pro Max was still kicking when I went to bed. You can turn off the always-on display to eke out even more battery.
On the iPhone 14 you’ll find that familiar “notch,” the little black area housing the selfie camera and the Face ID sensors. On the new Pro models, Apple shrunk it down to a pill shape and called it…the dynamic island.
The name alone made me assume this was going to be Apple’s greatest gimmick since 3-D Touch on the iPhone 6S, yet it’s the iPhone’s best multitasking addition in recent memory.
Think of it like an interactive dock. The space retracts and expands—hence “dynamic”—to display certain app information, allowing you to do something else on the rest of the screen. Here are a few ways it’s been really useful:
• On demand controls: Start listening to a podcast or song then swipe up. Your content will minimize to an icon on the island. Press and hold on the tiny album art to get to the player controls. It means being able to respond to an email and not have to leave the app to change or pause the track.
You can do the same when taking phone calls. The call duration and a cool waveform animation will appear on the island. You can press and hold to access controls to hang up and switch to AirPods or speakerphone, etc.
• Quick app access: Swipe up when recording an interview in Voice Memos and the icon flies up on the island. You can then start taking notes in a different app. To get back to the recorder, just tap on the island icon.
• Glanceable info: Apps can also show live information. When you set a timer and minimize the app, it shows the countdown on the island. Third-party apps will soon be dropping by the island, too. Imagine you’re able to glance at your Lyft’s ETA while texting your friend.
When your phone is on the lock screen, the island is largely inactive, though the Face ID unlock appears there.
The iPhone 14 models have two cameras—a main and an ultrawide. At this point, any phone is great at taking photos in good lighting, which is why Apple is focusing on low light, boasting that the 14’s main camera can capture 49% (not 50%!?) more light than the iPhone 13.
Yet, in my low-light testing, I didn’t see a 49% improvement. In fact, when I shared a group of photos with colleagues without telling them which phone took which, some ranked shots with the 13 above the 14. They ranked all those shots above any taken with the 11 and 12.
In those same low-light tests, the iPhone 14 Pro and Pro Max ranked at the top—though so did the 13 Pro models. The new Pro phones have cameras that are nearly the circumference of a 1/4 teaspoon (really) and the height of the Empire State Building (not really). Each phone has an ultrawide, telephoto and a 48-megapixel main camera—a huge leap from the 12 megapixels that’s been standard on iPhones since 2015.
There are two places where you see the benefit of the 48 megapixels. It allows for a new 2X zoom option, which is really a crop in on the 48-megapixel wide shot. Then there’s the 3X option, which is the true telephoto camera. The added flexibility is nice, especially for us parents who can never get close enough to the soccer game or graduation.
The other benefit is when shooting in Apple’s more advanced ProRaw format: You can take full 48-megapixel images, which have noticeably more detail.
Battery and More
As far as battery life goes, none of the iPhone 14 or 14 Pro models I tried lasted significantly longer than their predecessors. The story might be different with the step-up model, the iPhone 14 Plus. Apple says it has “our longest battery life ever”—I’ll test that claim when it arrives.
Given that the $799 iPhone 14 isn’t substantially better than the now-$699 iPhone 13, I can see why some may want to just save the $100.
But can you put a price on life? as in your life. The whole iPhone 14 line gets new emergency features. If you’re without cellular service, you can message for help using Emergency SOS via satellite. I got a short demo of it at Apple’s Cupertino campus but it didn’t launch until November, so I didn’t test it.
There’s also car-crash detection—the phone’s new sensors can detect if you were in an accident and alert emergency services. I haven’t locked in a test plan for that yet—a plan that wouldn’t void my lease, that is.
The Pro upgrade used to be about the third camera with the telephoto lens. That still matters, but now so does the new multitasking capabilities and a screen you don’t have to keep tapping.
So, is it worth spending $200 extra to go Pro? You know where I stand—on the dynamic island.
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