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.

The Solution Can Not be “Just Follow Fewer People”

The Solution Can Not be “Just Follow Fewer People”

I posted a picture like the one above earlier today and commented on the anxiety it caused me. The responses pretty much across the board were that I should follow fewer people. Some people suggested I just give up and skip to the end.

Now some of these were shared in jest, and I mean nothing bad at those who suggested that was the solution, but it strikes me because this is a common response whenever I mention that I have too much of anything on iOS, and these folks are not wrong, this is the only solution to this problem.

Another issue that brings this up for me is when I express my love for how Android handles notifications. I feel like I can always keep up on what is happening in my life in seconds, while iOS’s notification system is more of a “miss it and you’ll never see it again” thing for me.

Again, the response is stop getting so many notifications.

The final example for now is email. I like an email app with a “priority” inbox, one that tries tp put my most important emails front and center. Some people don’t like this because it betrays the almighty chronological feed of emails. The solution: unsubscribe from some emails.

I get people have different preferences, but this “follow fewer people” or the fascinating “get fewer emails” suggestions just don’t square with me. Yes, I follow a few hundred people on Twitter, and yes I get a lot of emails at work, and yes I get more notifications than most on my phone, but that doesn’t mean that my needs as a user don’t matter. That’s doubly true when there are alternatives out there that do not have these same problems for an “outlier” like me, and I think I finally know how to sum it up briefly.

The difference between Tweetbot, iOS notifications, & classic email inboxes and Twitter, Android notifications, & Outlook all comes down to organization. The systems that work for me take preemptive steps to present information in a logical way. The systems that don’t work for me are the ones that just look at 100 messages and spit them out with no sense of order.

Maybe I could follow fewer people on Twitter, but I genuinely like basically everyone I follow and like to see things from all of them. I don’t see every single tweet from everyone I follow right now, but Twitter has some pretty great logic that shows me the most interesting things from those people when I open the app. For example, someone I follow got hired at Apple a few weeks ago. Twitter made sure I saw the tweet the moment I opened the app because it got tons of interactions and was probably worth seeing. If I used Tweetbot I would have needed to make sure I read all 1,000+ tweets in my timeline so I wouldn’t miss it.

The same goes for my phone notifications. I use Signal for messaging some of my friends with Android phones and it’s on the second page of my iPhone. I can’t tell you how many times I completely miss messages for hours because I missed the notification and never saw it again. This never happened on Android because these messages were displayed in a more intelligent way.

And for work, well, it’s not really up to me how many emails I get per day.

Ultimately what I’m saying is that suggesting someone follow fewer people, get fewer notifications, or just unsubscribe from some emails is not particularly compelling: it’s more an admission that a piece of software doesn’t scale.

The Damn iPhone 11 Camera

The Damn iPhone 11 Camera

Look at the photo above. Really look at it.

That’s a picture of my dog, Sherman, shaking himself off this morning. He’s moving incredibly fast here and is just a blur to the naked eye, but the camera on the latest iPhone is able to get a remarkable amount of detail. The lighting was good, but even so, this picture is more sharp than I’d expect from any consumer-grade camera.

How about a few more?

Seriously, pinch to zoom in on these and see the level of detail in each shot. You can make out individual snowflakes in the two Sherman shots.

I of course have more, but those are just a few from the past week that really struck me in terms of how unbelievably crisp things can be.

Not every picture is as remarkable as these, which just means there is room to improve, but 4 months after getting the iPhone 11 Pro, I’ve had plenty of situations like where where I’m just flabbergasted by what I’m seeing in my camera roll.

Low Light Christmas Trees on 2019’s Best Phones (and an iPhone SE)

We have a little tree my wife and I put up every year and it’s a thing that is kinda hard to take good pictures of. There is quite a bit of dynamic range which typically means photos look overly darkened to compensate for the bright lights.

2019 has been a very good year for smartphone cameras, so I gave a few of them a shot last night to see how they’d do.

Samsung Galaxy S10e

Pixel 4

iPhone 11 Pro

And for fun context, the 2016 iPhone SE (with the 2015 iPhone camera)


Overall, I’m pretty impressed! Especially when you look at what we were using just 3-4 years ago, the differences in color and clarity are striking. Outside of the SE clearly being worse than the newer phones, the Pixel 4 is the outlier here in terms of color; it’s much cooler than the other images and is not an accurate representation of what the tree actually looked like. I think this has to do with Google’s new smart white balancing feature, which usually makes great choices, but sometimes results in crazy decisions1.


  1. Supposedly this was fixed in a previous update, so maybe this is a choice and not a bug, but either way I’d say this is not right.