A Clean iPhone

A Clean iPhone

The 4th developer beta (3rd public beta) has been rough on my iPhone the past week. I’ve had many crashing issues, really poor performance, instances of the whole UI freezing up for 10 seconds at a time randomly, and unexplainable heat when the phone was sitting idle. I was going to wait for the next beta in hopes these problems would go away, but yesterday my camera started to not work at all (rebooting numerous times did nothing) so I had to do a full wipe of the phone.

I took the opportunity to install as little on the phone as possible, in hopes that it would turn the phone into a more intentional device than an all-purpose one. As you can see from the image above, my home screen is pretty damn empty now, and there isn’t much past that first page. Right now, my phone is good at communicating, getting the news,reading my email, playing music/podcasts, and playing a game.

The biggest change for me is that I removed all work-related apps, including Slack. Now I will likely have to go back on this, as it is sometimes convenient to have those on my phone, but as of right now it’s nice not to have any way to have work impede on my personal life. Once I close my work laptop at the end of the work day, I’m completely cut off: no emails, no Slacks, no calendars, nothing.

If anyone wants to take bets on how long this will last, I’d say the over/under is 3 days 😋

The iPhone SE Still Can’t be Beat

The Pixel 4a is coming out soon and it looks like a great phone. Much like last year's 3a, this is a lower powered phone, but with Google's clean version of Android and a killer camera. If you want a sub-$500 Android phone, I find it hard to think you should be looking at anything else. And at $349, this thing comes in way under that budget.

But I think the iPhone SE is still a better deal, especially for people who want to buy a cheapphone and have it last for years. Let me explain.

At its core, my position comes down to one thing: the A13 Bionic. Yes, the iPhone SE runs the same SoC as the flagship iPhone 11 Pro, and while it may a sliver slower than the Pro phone, it's basically within the margin of error. Per synthetic benchmarks, the A13 is much faster than the Snapdragon 865+,the fastest processor on Android devices in 2020. It's also projected to be faster than the 875 coming out in early 2021.

Broken down, the $399 iPhone SE is going to be faster (or at least as fast) than every Android phone released in 2020 and 2021. Depending on how generous you are with predicting the Snapdragon roadmap, we're basiclaly saying the iPhone SE is going to be faster than every Android phone until the Galaxy S40 hits in March 2022.

I'm not saying synthetic benchmarks are perfect, and I'm not saying that performance is all that matters in a phone, but if we're talking about value, then how fast your phone is has a big impact on how long it can stay useful.

On a very related note, software updates are a big deal, and users want to get them for as long as possible. Google promises 3 years of updates from the time the device ships. That's pretty good for the Android world, so it will ship with Android 10 and get upgraded to 11 this fall, 12 next year, 13 the following year, and then hopefully Android 14 in 2023 (that will technically be slightly over 3 years, so it's not technically promised). Considering how slow you phone is likely to feel by then, that's probably the time you're really going to want a new phone.

Apple doesn't make promises around updates, in part because at this point they're just expected. My iPhone SE from 2016 is currently running the iOS 14 beta, and will get all software updates Apple pushes out until this time next year. If this holds true for the new SE, then we can expect the $399 phone you buy today to get updates through iOS 18.x in 2024.

There are of course some things the Pixel 4a does better. The screen is higher resolution, the cameras are a little better, and the bezels are much smaller, but I'd argue that the bezels and more-retina screen aren't huge value points, they're status points. The camera is a real win, although the iPhone SE takes very good photos as well, and far better video, so depending on your use, that could be a wash. The Pixel 4a also comes in one storage size: 128GB. That's awesome, and the iPhone SE's 64GB is a little tight, but an upgrade to match the Pixel is $50 more, bumping it to $449, or $100 more than the Pixel 4a.

My ultimate point here is that even if you match the storage and pay $100 more for the iPhone SE, I think it's still a better deal than the Pixel 4a in the long run.

BUT…

I'm also splitting hairs here, because what else is a tech blog for but to split hairs? While I think the performance edge the iPhone has make it a better deal long into the future (aka that price savings doesn't mean much if you need to buy another phone in 2-3 years vs 4-5 years), the Pixel 4a looks like it's no slouch and $349 is an incredibly agressive price. I don't think anyone is going to be upset whether they get the iPhone SE or the Pixel 4a.

The iPhone SE Continues to be a Quiet Success Story

iPhone SE attracting Android switchers, unlikely to cannibalize iPhone 12 sales - 9to5Mac

Over 30% of iPhone SE buyers came from using an iPhone 6S or older handset—handsets four years old or older. Over 26% of iPhone SE users moved over from an Android device, which is higher than normal Android to iOS switching.

A work friend’s wife was recently looking for a new phone, and she just wanted something good that wasn’t a $1,000 flagship. He was looking at the Pixel 3a or OnePlus 7, and was considering waiting for the 4a whenever that actually comes out.

I suggested they look at the iPhone SE and they were genuinely shocked how good it was and that it was only $399. “This is too good to be true, what’s the catch?” was uttered during our conversation, and I said it was basically just the smaller screen and chunky bezels. For her, the smaller screen was a feature, and the bezels were no big deal. When I said the phone had the same A13 chip that the $1,500 iPhone 11 Pro Max had, they were sold. Not only was this going to be a faster phone than Android device that comes out in the next 1-2 years, it was also going to get software updates for at least 5 years based on Apple’s track record.

I think people in our community have a tendency to exaggerate how much things like bezel-less phones are to people. People want something:

  • Fast
  • Reliable
  • Will last for years

Oh, and they frankly just want an iPhone. The iPhone SE makes compromises to hit its price point, but by making it less appealing to people like us, they’ve made something incredibly appealing to the mass market.

What Matters in a Phone?

The new iPhone SE officially comes out today, and I have had strange feelings about this phone since it was announced last week. That strange feeling? “Why the hell isn’t this my phone?”

See, I’m currently using an iPhone 11 Pro, and have been spending $700-1,200 on a new phone every year for the past half decade. I know this is wasteful, but it’s my financial vice, and I’m otherwise quite frugal, so I can justify it without breaking the bank each year. I know this is silly for most people, but I enjoy it.

But I look at my brand spanking new iPhone (which I of course will likely replace in 5 short months) and while I love how it looks, how fast it runs, Face ID, and how good the cameras are, I keep wandering over to the iPhone SE page on Apple’s site and keep looking for the “gotcha” moment. What is the Achille’s heel that makes this actually a bad phone for someone like me who likes the best in phones?

So far, I can’t really find one.

Yes, the bezels are chonky, Touch ID is a regression from Face ID (for me), and there are no telephoto or ultrawide lenses, but that’s really it. And when I ask myself if those three features are worth the $800 premium I paid for those, the answer is simply…no, not really.

Now buying isn’t an emotionless game, so the fact that I can’t objectively justify it doesn’t mean I’m going to never buy an expensive phone again, but it’s made me see in clearer light than ever how silly some of this smartphone rat race is.

I need a phone to do work. I need a phone to communicate with friends, family, and work colleagues. I need a phone for entertainment. I need a phone that’s easy to use. By those measures, the iPhone SE checks all the boxes.

Tech reviewers, myself included, have had an obsession with thinner bezels and bigger screens forever. I’ve seen a few YouTubers talk about mid-range Android phones you can get instead of the iPhone SE and they show how those phones have smaller bezels and bigger screens. They don’t mention as much how those phones are slower out of the gate, how they won’t get software updates for more than 1-2 years, or how you simply can’t even buy them in the US without jumping through hoops.

So when I see the $399 iPhone SE with 5 years of likely updates, with a really good single lens camera, and with it’s processor that’s faster than all 2020 $1,000+ Android phones, and will likely still be faster than all 2021 Android phones…well, it just looks like a damn good phone, and it makes it look like we’ve been frolicking around in excess for years now.

I will continue to get the expensive iPhones because I will pay much more for the best cameras possible, but yeah, it took a global pandemic for me to get a little perspective on what this smartphone market looks like and what’s really important in a phone.

The Pixel 4 Still Beats the iPhone 11 Pro for Zoom Photography

Sometimes people suggest you can just pinch-to-zoom and get basically the same result with smartphone cameras. I very much disagree, and used this shot to see the difference.

I'm standing a ways away from the mailbox and tapped to focus on it in all of these shots. Here's the iPhone's difference between 1x and 2x zoom when you look at the details:

It's not even close! It may still not be that big of a deal for you, but it is for me, and the difference is massive.

But how well does this stack up to the Pixel 4, which also has a zoom lens? Well first, let's compare the details at 1x.

In terms of detail, I think these are identical. I prefer the colors a little on the iPhone one, but that's another conversation. In terms of capturing details, there's no real difference.

Now let's look at 2x zoom:

These are also pretty similar, and while the Pixel shot looks a little better, it's because the image processing is doing some more agressive noise reduction, not that it's actually capturing more data. One could certainly argue that for most people this is preferred though, and I tend to agree.

Which brings us to the 8x SUPER ZOOM SHOWDOWN…ahem, the 8x zoom test:

Amazingly, even though it's entirely digital, the Pixel takes a massive lead here, which an image that is cleaner, yes, but also has more detail. This is a pretty remarkable difference, and it shows Google's big talk around enhanced digital zoom is no joke.

And in case you're thinking "it's just the same as the 2x shot, here's those two side-by-side.

The image quality is genuinely better, and while it's a little soft, it's still very, very good for a phone.

Google gets top marks from me in their ability to do zoom better than the iPhone, especially at anything past 2x.

HDR Testing Halide, Lightroom, and Stock Camera App on the iPhone 11 Pro

HDR Testing Halide, Lightroom, and Stock Camera App on the iPhone 11 Pro

As I’m one to do, I saw a cool lighting situation this morning and decided it was a great chance to do a photo comparison. I only had my iPhone with me, so I decided to test how well the three apps I use the most for photography handle HDR situations. First, a quick recap of each app.

Halide

An amazing app for RAW image capture. As far as I know, this app does nothing special for HDR situations, but delivers a high quality RAW (DNG) image file that you can use to edit later.

Lightroom

Mostly used for editing, the camera component of Adobe Lightroom does not get the love it deserves. You can toggle the app into an HDR mode, which will capture several images, patch them together, and do some automatic edits to save your highs and lows.

Stock Camera

This is what most people use, and as of the last year or two, it’s my go-to for most mobile photography as well. It takes upwards of a dozen photos and combines them into one shot that is just a JPEG, but should have the highs and lows fixed so I can see them clearly.

Shadows

Let’s look at the dark part of the image first:

Halide

Lightroom

Stock Camera

I think Halide is the worst of the bunch here, both in terms of retaining details, as well as in image clarity. Of the two remaining, I think I have to go with the stock camera app due to its excellent clarity, lack of noise, and generally good data retention. Lightroom captures more information in the tree, but there are enough artifacts from the multi-image capture (see the top of the tree) to make it not worth the extra detail.

Highlights

Next, up let’s look at the highlights.

Halide

Lightroom

Stock Camera

Again, Halide doesn’t seem to be built to handle this as well (I can get a little more detail by cranking down the exposure of the image, but then everything else looks like trash), so this is a two horse race again. This is pretty close, because the stock camera app gets more separation between the sun and clouds, but Lightroom has much better looking clouds and lacks the overly orange color around the sun. I’m going to consider this one a personal taste issue, so whichever you prefer is the winner.

Conclusion

In this specific shot, I think the iPhone’s stock camera app does the best job of producing the best image with the most acceptable downsides. Yes, the sun has some coloring issues, but I fixed those in (ironically) Lightroom in 5 seconds. Yes, the clouds are overly “painterly” as the machine learning didn’t love the wispiness of the clouds, but I can live with that since you only really notice it when zooming in.

Overall, the stock app continues to impress me with its ability to get great photos in many situations all without making me think about much other than composition, which is excellent. Oh, and while Lightroom, which I love as well, takes about 1 second to capture it’s multiple images in its HDR mode, the stock app does it effectively instantly.

Portrait Mode Confusion

Portrait Mode Confusion

This photo comparison was really interesting to me. I shared a portrait taken from the iPhone 11 Pro and Pixel 4 and asked people which they preferred. Opinions were split, to say the least. Here are the photos for your viewing pleasure:

Pixel 4 Portrait Mode
iPhone 11 Pro Portrait Mode

I personally think the iPhone shot is way better than the Pixel one. The colors are far more accurate to reality, and also looks better in my opinion. When I zoom in on the images, the statue itself is sharp on the iPhone photo, but looks way over-sharpened on the Pixel one. The fake bokeh is similar on each photo, but I think the iPhone's is a little more pleasant and has a better roll-off on the statue.

But these feelings are not universal!

Devon thinks the PIxel one looks way better.

I prefer the look and feel of the second photo, for sure. Quality is all together higher, but could be lighting factors.

Kareem agrees.

  1. Not too bright. Not too dark, perfectly balanced.

Fouzan triples down.

IMO 1 is too vibrant for the overcast day it was shot in.

You could increase contrast with 2 and fix it. The DOF effect is very unrealistic with 1, and really bothers me. It wouldn’t be easy to fix.

What I find most interesting about these is that numerous people who thought the Pixel was better cited the "accuracy" as a reason for this. The reason this is interesting is that, as the person there, I can tell you the Pixel shot looks much different from the reality of the scene. For example, the fox statue is straight up not the color shown in the Pixel photo, while the iPhone one is pretty spot on.

Dynamic Range, Telephoto, and the iPhone 11 Pro & Pixel 4

Dynamic Range, Telephoto, and the iPhone 11 Pro & Pixel 4

One thing I've noticed in the last few months using the Pixel 4 and iPhone 11 Pro day-to-day is that photos off the iPhone's telephoto lens tend to be better quality. The Pixel 4 is no slouch, but side by side, the iPhone tends to do better for me.

As an example, below is a shot I took this morning directly into the sun. The sun is obviously super bright, but the ground is all backlit and darker. The photos have very similar colors, which is not always the case between these cameras, but you can see there is much less clipping on the highlights in the iPhone shot (look at the cloud above the sun), it avoids the lens flare that the Pixel has front and center, and the little details like the tree branches are more sharp.

iPhone 11 Pro
Pixel 4

Deep Fusion and Indoor Dog Photos

Deep Fusion and Indoor Dog Photos

Psst, the above photo has nothing to do with the comparison, but I had to share a picture of Sherman shortly before the comparison photos were taken.

My dog Sherman was chilling on the couch last night and I wanted to take a picture of him just lying there, loving life. The type of shot made the telephoto lens make more sense, which is all well and good, but results in worse shots in low light.

But that presented an opportunity for me: a test! Let’s see how much of a difference Deep Fusion makes when using the telephoto lens. Here’s the iPhone 11 Pro:

And here is the Pixel 4:

Pardon the yawn, but for the sake of this test it’s worth noting that he was paused in that pose for about a second, so it’s not the action shot it may look like. You can probably already tell which one looks better, but here’s a crop in on each one:

It’s really night and day, with the iPhone producing a much cleaner image. Both cameras still have that watercolor-esque look on the body fur, but the iPhone has crisper lines on his longer ear hairs and the green blanket has more texture.

I previously did a similar comparison using the main wide lens, but the difference using the telelphoto lenses is even more pronounced.

Night Modes Are Great, but Have a Long Way to Go

Night Modes Are Great, but Have a Long Way to Go

I posted a photo comparison this morning to see what people preferred. Usually, this is an iPhone vs Pixel comparison, but this time it was the same iPhone photo (a) as it came out of the camera app and (b) after a few edits in Lightroom.

  • 4 people preferred the unedited photo
  • 11 people preferred the edited photo

It's slightly imperfect since I got a little too aggressive with the saturation on the edited image, but even still, the numbers still went that direction (i fixed the edit to be a little more subtle at the top of this post).

I did this test because I think that night modes on all cameras I've used so far are good at getting lots of image data, but are not to the point where they produce a pleasing image right off the bat. In most cases, the night mode photos I am happy with are the ones that I edit to look better.

And for all the hype that Apple got for making their night photos "not look like day" I still think they look too much like daytime before edits are made. This isn't a slight on what Apple's doing, or what Google or anyone else are going with night modes, just that we've got a long road ahead of these getting better over time, and that's pretty exciting because even in this early stage they feel like magic.