As Apple events go, yesterday’s Gather Round event was extremely focused: featuring only two key product lines, iPhone and Apple Watch, with a sprinkling of other announcements. There shouldn’t have been much to miss — but as always, there was.
Here are 10 important details Apple either skipped or glossed over during its presentation.
1. iPhone Xs battery life isn’t wholly better than on the iPhone X
Last year, Apple switched to a deliberately fuzzy way of marketing battery life for new iPhones, spotlighting how each new model compared to an old model. It played the same game this year, briefly noting that the iPhone Xs would get 30 minutes more battery life than the X, versus a 90 minute gain for the Xs Max over the X.
Digging on Apple’s web page reveals that the numbers aren’t so simple or positive for the iPhone Xs. While iPhone X claims “up to 21 hours” of talk time, 12 hours of internet use, and 13 hours of wireless video playback time, the Xs promises “up to 20 hours” of talk time, 12 hours of internet use, and 14 hours of video playback time. Better for video, worse for talk time — that’s more of a wash than an improvement.
The Xs Max promises 25 hours of talk time, 13 hours of internet use, and 15 hours of video playback time, all clear but not profound gains over the smaller model. Probably some formula for that works out to 90 minutes of better run time, but as a measure of performance, “better than some old model” isn’t really helpful.
2. iPhone Xs and XR apparently have different cellular chips (and still multiple U.S. models)
Apple made a fairly big deal on stage about the iPhone Xs having “Gigabit LTE,” which is to say support for a maximum of 1Gbps speeds when connected to the right LTE towers. As we approach the rollout of 5G, that’s a great feature to have. But it didn’t explain that the iPhone XR lacks Gigabit LTE — fine print on Apple’s website describes XR as having only LTE Advanced support. Right now, that won’t matter much in the U.S., but as carriers light up their 5G and “road to 5G” towers, it might.
On a related note, both the Xs and XR models add support for obscure radio bands that promise to wring better cellular coverage out of existing radio frequencies. Both models are confirmed to support T-Mobile’s 600MHz band 71, which promises to distribute LTE across wider distances in 1,254 locations in the U.S. and Puerto Rico. The Xs models — and possibly the XR — also support Sprint’s HPUE (High-Powered User Equipment) band 41, a solution to improve indoor signal penetration, capacity, and speeds using the company’s existing 2.5GHz towers.
But even though Apple reportedly shifted this year from a mix of Qualcomm and Intel modems to purely Intel parts, there are still separate GSM and CDMA versions of each of the phones. It’s unclear whether one version (historically, the CDMA model) will be a smarter purchase. (And there are even more international models than before, now compounded by separate eSIM and physical SIM models, but that was underscored during the event.)
3. Apple Watch Series 4 battery life
Everyone’s been waiting for an Apple Watch that lasts for more than a day, for sleep tracking if nothing else. Samsung just debuted the Galaxy Watch with multi-day battery life, and Qualcomm has announced a new Snapdragon 3100 chip to give Google Wear OS watches plenty of runtime. For the Apple Watch Series 4, the company announced the S4 chip — and once again promised 18-hour battery life, highlighting only one improvement: an hour more workout tracking.
Rather than appearing on the marketing pages for the Watch, the battery specs for this year’s model are buried here. Apple probably tucked them away because the Watch’s talk time for phone calls (over Bluetooth) has taken a nosedive from 3 hours in last year’s model down to 2 hours, while LTE calling time is stuck at a meager 1 hour.
The full Series 4 battery specs are:
- Talk up to 2 hours connected to iPhone (down 1 hour)
- Talk over 1 hour connected to LTE (same)
- Audio up to 10 hours playback from Apple Watch storage (same)
- Audio up to 7 hours streaming playlist with LTE (same)
- Audio up to 5 hours streaming live radio with LTE (same)
- Audio up to 10 hours indoor workout (same)
- Workout up to 6 hours outdoors with GPS (up 1 hour)
- Workout up to 5 hours outdoors with GPS and LTE (up 1 hour)
- Workout up to 4 hours outdoors with streaming audio, GPS, and LTE (up 1 hour)
- Charge about 1.5 hours to 80%, about 2 hours to 100%
Apple notably doesn’t split the specs between 40mm and 44mm models, which have different batteries and screens. But the larger model tends to outperform the smaller one.
4. Older Apple Watches are getting new watch faces, too, and new Nike+ arrives in October
Apple spent a fair bit of time showing off some super cool new watch faces for the Series 4 Apple Watch — but didn’t mention that many of those faces are also coming to older models. Analog watch video faces Breathe, Fire and Water, Liquid Metal, and Vapor are all available for Series 1 through Series 3 Watches running watchOS 5, and each is customizable, with a few complications.
Breathe uses the animation from the Apple Watch’s standalone Breathe feature as a watch face. It has “classic,” “calm,” and “focus” versions, (the latter two are brand new) so you can pick between an expanding flower, floating flower petals, or concentric circles.
Fire and Water fills an analog watch dial with animated “fire,” “water,” or “fire and water” choices. The badass fire version was used early in the Series 4 demo video and regrettably looks sort of small on older Apple Watches.
Liquid Metal fills a circle with swirling metal in your choice of “silver,” “gold,” “black,” or “all” options. It’s perhaps the least impressive of the bunch but reflects the color of the Apple Watch body.
Vapor recalls the powder explosion effects used in iPhone, iPad, and Mac wallpapers some time ago, but with clouds rather than powder. You choose between “all,” “pink/orange,” “black/white,” or “blue/green” vapors.
Apple is continuing to keep at least two (analog/digital) Nike+ faces exclusive to the Nike+ version of the Apple Watch Series 4, which will notably arrive later than the mid-September launch dates of the other Apple Watches, hitting shelves in the first week of October.
5. HomePod will finally be able to make telephone calls and speak Spanish
Remember Apple’s HomePod smart speaker? No? Well, it’s coming to Mexico and Spain on October 26 and will be gaining the ability to make and receive telephone calls from a connected iPhone, lyric-search Apple Music, and answer nutrition questions. There’s a full breakdown of all the new HomePod details here.
6. Apple Watch’s ECG/EKG feature is legitimately amazing
Heart rate monitoring is a bigger deal than most people realize. If you haven’t seen a video or heard a story about someone suddenly collapsing and dying with no apparent warning — including otherwise seemingly healthy kids and adults — you might not appreciate this. But many people have no idea they’re walking around with a latent heart condition that could kill them without notice. Prior Apple Watches have become capable of hinting at a couple of early warning signs, but they lacked the electrocardiogram (ECG/EKG) hardware needed to do more.
The ECG feature places one electrode on your wrist and the other in the Digital Crown — just touch your finger to the crown for 30 seconds to take a reading. This is a brilliantly simple way to keep a medical-grade heart monitor with you at all times, the impact of which you may only realize after you try it.
Until now, if you wanted to add true ECG functionality to an iPhone, the price was $99 for a perfectly functional but awkward little accessory from Kardia/AliveCor. An Apple Watch band called KardiaBand with similar functionality sold for $199. Apple’s new implementation puts an ECG within anyone’s reach and is unquestionably going to save lives.
7. iPhone’s $200 price jump for 512GB
Apple used to have a pretty simple structure for its iPhone storage tiers: Each new tier doubled or quadrupled storage for the same $50 or $100 premium. Not so with the iPhone Xs — now it’s $150 to jump from 64GB to 256GB, and $200 from 256GB to 512GB. Apart from filming long 4K movies, it’s hard to imagine why it would be worth having 512GB on an iPhone at this time, but who knows.
8. Apple Watch’s $70 to $100 price jumps, and crazy expensive steel model
If you want a new Apple Watch, you’re going to pay more for it. Apple executives massaged some stealthy price increases into their presentation, but the upshot is that you’ll now pay $70 to $100 more for a new Series 4 than people did for new Series 3 models last year. Full details are here.
The most interesting development is that Apple is seemingly consolidating its higher-end models this year. Apple Watch Edition is gone, and there’s once again only a single way to get a stainless steel device: buy it with cellular support. That means coughing up $699 for the entry-level steel Watch, up from $549 for the most affordable steel version in 2015.
On the other hand, the new gold-colored steel watch looks substantially like the $10,000-$17,000 gold Editions Apple released years ago. So maybe you’re kinda-sorta saving some money.
9. Bluetooth 5.0 has come to everything
Bluetooth 5.0 showed up in last year’s iPhones, but this year Apple is including Bluetooth 5.0 support in basically everything — notably including the latest Apple Watches. Technically, Bluetooth 5 is supposed to improve battery life when streaming audio, enable multi-streaming to two Bluetooth receiving devices at once, and radically boost performance. The specification promises 2 times the speed, 4 times the range, and 8 times the messaging bandwidth of Bluetooth 4.2 — that means up to 2Mbps with a peak distance of 800 feet, though performance falls off as distance increases.
Ideally, this will mean much faster Apple Watch software updates, more reliable wireless headphone and speaker streaming, and better overall performance when sending data between devices. We’ll have to see how Apple actually implements it in new accessories like AirPods 2.
10. AirPods 2 and AirPower
After opening the Gather Round event with a video of a person saying “Hey Siri” to her AirPods — a feature that doesn’t work on current AirPods but has been rumored to arrive in their sequel — Apple proceeded to say nothing about next-generation AirPods at the event. Then its web pages were refreshed, completely removing references to the AirPower wireless charging pad that was promised last year for release this year.
We covered this topic in a full article, but here are a few extra thoughts on what’s probably happening:
- Given how iPhone- and Apple Watch-focused AirPower is, Apple wouldn’t have skipped making an AirPower announcement yesterday if it was planning to launch it this year — in other words, it would be highly unusual to see it show up at a later iPad and Mac event.
- Apple wouldn’t have eliminated all AirPower references yesterday if it planned to launch the accessory, so it’s fair to assume that AirPower is dead.
- Either AirPower didn’t work as well as expected once development “finished,” or it had long-term reliability issues due to Qi charging coils.
- Since Apple promised a new wireless recharging case for AirPods this year, announcing AirPods 2 without referencing the AirPower wireless charging pad in some way would be a non-starter. Expect a quiet “it’s gone” confirmation soon, followed by an announcement of AirPods 2 — most likely including “Hey Siri” and Bluetooth 2 support.
Apple almost certainly has another event coming up to focus on new iPad Pro and Mac models. Keep your eyes and ears open for more news over the next month as we cover the new iPhone and Apple Watch launches, then await the rest of Apple’s big product news for 2018.