There’s always a sense that something is off when people give elaborate, extravagant presentations for stuff that isn’t nearly as exciting or special — and that was the sense many people got during Apple’s streaming event for its new products. By the time it wrapped up it was painfully obvious that everything shown could have been communicated by four or five press releases just as effectively. But… no. We — Apple, the media, consumers, practically everyone involved in these shows nowadays — have to go through the motions, pretending that the new/”new” products and features shown onscreen are as important as the production is flashy (even if they clearly aren’t). Because new iPhones deserve big-budget shows by default. For some reason.
In any case, the new iPhone 13: same models as last year (Mini/Vanilla/Pro/Pro Max). Same design as last year (minus a slightly smaller notch), same buttons, same port. Same screen sizes as last year with the same pixel resolutions, same wired and wireless charging, same water and dust protection, same biometrics. If it seems like too much sameness, that’s because, well, it is.
Thankfully there are some changes and additions, it’s just that they are not as many as most people would deem enough to warrant a new iPhone version. The camera systems on all models got better, just not by much. Batteries have gotten a little bigger (so did the devices’ weight), amounting to anything between 1.5 to 2.5 more hours of operation. Screens got a bit brighter. Access to 5G networks got a bit broader and less energy-hungry. The A15 main processor and graphics co-processor are faster than the A14 equivalents, but not by much (hence the comparison with other companies’ processors during the presentation). So, same pattern here: “a bit”, “a little”, “not much” are expressions used to describe iterative products only — and that is exactly what the iPhone 13 is compared to iPhone 12.
To be fair, Apple deserves credit for a number of things. First of all: it managed to keep the cost of every iPhone 13 model the same as every iPhone 12’s equivalent despite the global microchip shortage problem (the company’s influence in tech supply chains does benefit consumers sometimes). It did more or less the same with the new iPad Mini and base iPad models while generously upgrading them in the process. Second: it finally brought high and variable refresh rates to the iPhone Pro models’ screens. It’s not a game-changer by any means, but it was a desirable feature that top Android phones offered for years and the iPhone hadn’t until now. Third: it brought the minimum amount of storage offered by new models to 128 GB, a move that may have been overdue but is welcome all the same. Finally: it keeps pushing the boundaries of computational photography and videography with some interesting (if not necessarily useful in day-to-day use) ideas.
These are all well and good, but they can hardly redeem Apple for another lazy iPhone showing. There have already been quite a few of those over the years — in fact, one can now more or less expect the company to do a jump every three steps: we get the same design, the same hardware architecture overall and the same iterative improvements for three years in a row before a substantially refreshed iPhone arrives. Maybe the company’s numbers indicate that most consumers do not mind. Maybe Apple’s roadmap is indeed based on market feedback. But any Android manufacturer going down that road would have been heavily criticized — just ask Samsung who only did it once — while Apple seems to get away with it. Every time.
What Apple’s live-streamed event proved yesterday above all else, though, is that the company intends to milk this cow dry: this cow being Apple’s devoted crowd, yours truly included. It simply won’t do all it can for the iPhone — or any of its other devices for that matter — if it feels that it can squeeze more upgrade cycles out of every model individually. This year we got A15 and the 120 Hz screen refresh rate. Next year we’ll get A16 and a punch-hole camera instead of a notch — maybe even a redesign, of sorts, if Apple’s feeling generous. The year after that we’ll get A17 and cameras with more Megapixels than 12. The year after that we’ll get A18 and maybe an under-display camera. And so on and so forth. But almost never three important upgrades at any one time. Just two.
If that’s the case — and it certainly seems so, based on the last five or six years of new iPhones — then maybe consumers should start making choices in the same context. Maybe they should not upgrade their current iPhone if it’s less than three years old. Never do it even if they can easily afford a new iPhone every year. Just pick a point in that three-year upgrade cycle and not allow themselves to be tempted into buying a new iPhone until that point in the next three-year cycle arrives. Yours truly is guilty as charged for getting a new iPhone every other year but that too seems pointless in light of the iPhone 13. Nope. Every three years from now on. Will Apple mind? For this one person? No, not at all. But if everyone followed a three-year upgrade cycle? That would be a different discussion altogether.