Hiawatha Bray | Tech Lab

A big screen and other impressive tweaks to iPhone

Apple CEO Tim Cook discussed the new iPhone models at during an event Wednesday in Cupertino, Calif.
Apple CEO Tim Cook discussed the new iPhone models at during an event Wednesday in Cupertino, Calif.(Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press)

There were no big reveals at Apple Inc.’s annual gadget-fest this year, but plenty of little ones—impressive upgrades to the company’s flagship iPhone and Apple Watch lines. Taken together, they help explain why Apple has little to fear from cut-rate Chinese smartphones or from the newly upgraded smart watches from Samsung.

The product tweaks fall roughly into three categories: screen size, processors, and sensors.

While the big reveal was Apple’s largest phone yet, the 6.5 inch iPhone Xs Max, I was more impressed by the silicon that drives it. The processor in the new iPhones is more advanced than any rival product, capable of the kind of heavy lifting once consigned exclusively to supercomputers. And the upgrades to Apple’s already impressive lineup of sensors should enable sharper photos and more immersive videos; the improved Apple Watch now has FDA-approved sensors that could prove to be lifesavers.

Screen size. Like the iPhone X before it, the Xs Max uses an organic liquid crystal display, which are renowned for richer colors, while putting less stress on the battery. Except for that little notch at the top for the facial recognition camera, the Max screen runs to the top and bottom edges of the phone. That gives the phone more visual real estate than similar-sized models. In short, Apple has enlarged the screen, not the phone, so our back pockets are safe. Max has a starting price of $1,099.


Meanwhile, the iPhone Xs, at $999, has the same screen size of its predecessor, but with the internal upgrades found in the Max. There’s also a $749 Xr model, with an LED screen and a single-lens rear camera, instead of the dual lenses of the more costly models.

Processor. The A12 Bionic chip found in all the new models skates out to the jagged edge of silicon chip design. The results look a lot like magic, to judge by the demo at Apple’s Show and Tell event Wednesday.


The demo was of a training app for basketball players called HomeCourt. The app uses the phone’s video camera to track each shot and record “makes” and “misses.” In real time, the processor in the iPhone instantly detects and displays performance metrics—the speed of the ball as it leaves the player’s hand, the release angle of each shot, even the position of the player’s legs.

For those of us not planning on an NBA career, it might seem a mere parlor trick. But that kind of real-time processing requires massive computing power, which the rest of us will find pretty useful when playing a favorite online game, or editing vacation videos.

Sensors. The coolest reveals of the day featured, for me, Apple’s least interesting product. I just can’t get excited about smart watches, and so expected to yawn though the rollout of a new Apple Watch— with a $399 starting price. Yes, it’s wider and thinner and has a rotating crown with haptic feedback, so it seems to “click” as you turn it. Fine. But I still don’t need a smart watch.

But, if I had an ongoing condition, I might be having second thoughts. The motion detection sensors and software can detect when a Watch wearer has fallen down — the fall generates a distinctive data pattern — and issues a, “you okay?” alert. If there is no response within 60 seconds, the watch can automatically call for help. It’s Life Alert without the panic button.


Other health features are less dramatic but could be just as valuable. The Apple Watch heart monitor will now do long-term cardiac monitoring, warning when your heart beats irregularly. It also has the first wrist-mounted electrocardiogram device to win approval from the Food and Drug Administration. Someone with a heart condition will be able to take an ECG at any time and relay the results to his or her doctor.

Neither the new iPhones nor the Apple Watches are gotta-have-it upgrades, but for Apple that doesn’t matter. The company makes elite products — and charges elite prices — and squeezes in just enough innovation to keep them elite. Mission accomplished.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.