When was the last time that an iPhone announcement rocked your world? Probably not last year, when the iPhone 6 became the 6s, slightly faster versions of the previous year's models, which themselves were largely just a mild upgrade. And probably not today, either, when Apple CEO Tim Cook took the stage to unveil the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus. “It makes all the things you do every day so much better,” Cook gushed, before stepping aside for a 10-point presentation of the phones' new features and upgrades. There are definite improvements in these phones, but also an array of hedges, missed opportunities, and instances of only barely catching up to competitors' models.
Of course, it's unfair to expect a seismic, industry-rattling event every September. It's not as though Samsung or Google regularly drop bigger bombshells at their equivalent presentations. But then, the entire world isn't enticed to watch those events. On a day that might otherwise be dominated by news from Mexico — where police are blaming the downing of one of their helicopters on criminals, and a cabinet member has been canned because of Donald Trump's recent visit — the main story on CNN.com reads “So long, jack,” referring to Apple ditching the headphone port in its new phones. Apple invites this attention, with an unparalleled (for consumer electronics) amount of stagecraft at its events, including an odd tradition of capping things off with a live music performance. This time it was Sia, singing not one but two songs. Apple is begging us to watch. So it's not unfair to expect a reason to watch.
Unless you're a die-hard iPhone enthusiast, there was no reason to carve hours out of your day to tune in. As with every year since the first iPhone was unveiled, the updates can be distilled into a brief list. But if Apple wanted to justify what's become a desperate plea for attention, and keep us watching for years to come, this is what it should have unveiled today.
A Real Solution to Memory Shortage
The iPhone 7 and 7 Plus come with a choice of 32, 128, or 256 GB of storage. That's double the capacity of last year's models, and a welcome upgrade, as people store more photos and videos, and apps continue to balloon in size. But two times the storage doesn't solve the larger problem of where to reliably and easily store your data. Backing up images and footage to iCloud is relatively expensive, and can be problematic (at least two of us at Men's Journal have chronic difficulties getting iCloud to sync). Similar services, like Google Photos, are awkward to navigate, and don't support effortless backing up of huge amounts of data. Apple could have announced a genuine solution, such as an overhaul of iCloud, or a Time Capsule–like device, such as a dedicated wireless hard drive or solid state drive that automatically copies large files from your iPhone whenever you're in WiFi range, and gives you the option to dump the local versions. If Apple is going to encourage people to take higher-resolution photos and videos, why isn't it offering a place to keep that data safe, and prevent it from clogging up the phone?
A Dual Camera on Both iPhones
You can't completely fault Apple for limiting the new dual-camera — one standard, and one telephoto — to the iPhone 7 Plus, while the iPhone 7 gets a single cam. The company wants the Plus to be the premium choice, and premium means exclusive benefits. But on the other hand, no, this is aggravating. Dual cameras are a new feature that legitimately sets the iPhone apart from the competition, and keeping it out of the less-expensive iPhone feels punitive. It punishes those who don't want to pay more, and those who don't want a giant phone. It's more than likely that the bigger Plus can better accommodate the second lens, but one of Apple's great talents is the ability to cram components into ever smaller spaces.
A Dual Camera That Does More Than Zoom and Bokeh
Then again, maybe it's fine to skip that dual camera for this generation. When reports of the feature first leaked, we imagined it unlocking tons of new capabilities. Back in 2014, Dell put multiple cameras on its Venue tablets, allowing them to quickly gauge the dimensions of a room, or to change the focal point in an image after the fact. What if the new iPhone could take that tech further, letting you capture precise tailoring measurements with a sweep of the camera, or pushing the state-of-the-art in image editing and retouching. Instead, Apple announced that the second camera allows for a 2x optical zoom, and a bokeh effect, meaning you can blur the background behind a subject. To say these are underwhelming is an understatement. Zooming with a small camera — and phone cameras being the smallest — is almost never a good idea, since it captures less light, increasing the chance of blur. Unless you're shooting distant wildlife, which should be done with a standalone camera, you should zoom with your feet, or after the fact, by enlarging and cropping the image. As for the bokeh, it's a beautiful effect when done with large optics, but less dramatic when handled with digital wizardry. Apple is taking the digital route. Impressive as it is that you can view the defocusing in real-time, it's still being done at the image processor level, and the results are almost identical to after-the-fact editing tricks.
Ignoring Water, Instead of Resisting It
The new iPhones are water- and dust-resistant phones, with a rating of IP67. That means they can survive submersion in roughly a yard of water for 30 minutes. A drop in the toilet is no longer fatal. But this is old news for premium-priced smartphones, with Samsung already reaching an IP68 rating (or submersion to nearly 10 feet), and some rugged cameras dropping as low as 100 feet. At its current rating, the iPhone 7 might not withstand the pressure of a dive in the pool, and a long stretch of swimming could definitely penetrate its enclosure. Apple could have pushed past the competition — including phones with more ports — but instead decided to tread water.
Design Wireless Earbuds That Don't Look Ridiculous
And then there are those AirPods, Apple's first attempt at wireless earphones. They look fine, in their case, until the buds come out, and the long stalks keep sliding into view. The batteries and connection hardware obviously couldn't fit into the buds, so you're left with a wand drooping out of each ear. They're better-looking than the standard Bluetooth headset, except that you're wearing two of these headsets… and who still wears Bluetooth headsets? Lastly, they're good for five hours of playback per charge. That's nothing short of terrible battery life. That you can recharge them by sliding them back into their case is fine, but that means always carrying that case, and remembering to charge the case. And, at the end of the day, these are goofy little devices, and bound to go down in history as one of Apple's few design misfires.