It’s new iPhone day. And as with any new smartphone announcement these days, we have a fairly decent idea of what to expect. Leaks and rumors are more accurate than ever, and though there’s always the potential of a big surprise, the most likely scenario is the iPhone 13 will be what we think it will be.
Just because the rumors are clear doesn’t mean they’re not exciting, though. This year, the iPhone 13 (we assume that’s the name) will have some new technology in the same design. New designs tend to drive big upgrade cycles, but it’s the second year of the design that usually has the most interesting refinements.
We can list them out fairly quickly. There should be four iterations again: a Mini, a regular, a Pro, and a Pro Max. The higher-end iPhones should have an LTPO (low-temperature polycrystalline oxide) display, a low-power kind of OLED screen that makes it easier to have a variable refresh rate. The processors will be faster. The MagSafe charging system will be tweaked. There may be new storage options. The camera will be better, with improvements specifically in HDR and Portrait Mode video — plus astrophotography.
All those specs will translate into some newer, nicer experiences. There’s one in particular I want to focus on: the screen.
The LTPO display should mean that the iPhone can finally have an always-on lock screen. It should also finally enable smoother transitions as the screen ratchets from some tiny number of Hz to some large number like 120Hz instead of being locked at 60Hz.
Notice the “finallys” in that last paragraph. They’re there because variable refresh rates and always-on screens have been available on Android phones since... forever. In fact, if you run down the rumored features of the new iPhones, many of them appeared first on Android. In addition to high refresh rate screens, there’s better quality wide-angle cameras, huge storage, portrait mode video, and astrophotography.
Though the specs may be copied, the question comes back to the “experience.” The cliche with Apple is that it rarely does something first, but instead comes in later with refinements and does it best. That cliche exists because it’s often right. You may have been able to turn on portrait mode for video on a Samsung phone since 2019, but believe me, you wouldn’t want to use it for anything important, because it’s bad. Apple’s, hopefully, will be better.
That narrative isn’t always correct, though. In some cases, it just papers over Apple just being straight up late to including a piece of technology. I am open to being wrong, but I hesitate to believe that it’s possible to make an always-on lock screen experience so insanely great that that every one before feels broken. It’s a lock screen you can glance at! There’s only so much to do.
An always-on lock screen is also super useful! Being able to quickly see the time, date, and some notification icons is the sort of low-pressure ambient information a phone should be able to provide.
Variable refresh rates are a little less useful, but so much nicer. They can preserve battery life by slowing down refresh rates. They can match the screen’s refresh rate to the content (eg. in a movie or a game). And they can make animations and scrolling look so much smoother. And yet, the only notable Apple devices to feature a high refresh rate are its high-end iPads. Meanwhile, every high-end Android phone and many midrangers have it.
I’m honestly a little baffled as to why it’s taken Apple this long to make such obviously nice features. One possible explanation — and maybe the most likely — is simply that Apple has felt no competitive pressure to do so.
On Android, there are so many phones to choose from that the need to differentiate is urgently and keenly felt by every manufacturer. So a feature as minor as an always-on display could make the difference in somebody’s purchasing decision. But I struggle to imagine the person that would choose an Android phone over an iPhone simply because they like glancing down at the time on their phone.
So: why launch a variable refresh rate screen now? It’s gotten to the point where it’s a little embarrassing — many reviews of the iPhone 12 models pointed out this missing spec. And though iOS does still look smooth and feel fast at 60Hz, going to 120Hz has been Android’s brute force way of catching up in those departments. Switching iOS up to 120Hz could push Apple ahead again. So there is some competitive pressure, it just takes a bit longer to show up.
I also suspect that Apple was simply waiting for component prices to come down and manufacturing yields to go up. The scale at which Apple needs to make phones makes both a requirement. But I feel like if Apple felt a little more competitive pressure, it could have pushed more aggressively to solve those problems sooner.
The point here is that there are lots of little features that iPhone users are missing out on simply because they’re not compelling enough on their own to convince people to switch. Under-screen fingerprint sensors on Android phones have gone from mediocre to great in just a few short years. Telephoto lenses are folded into periscopes that run along the lengths of the phone for even longer zooms. Screens are interrupted by only tiny little punch holes for selfie cameras (or, in some cases, not interrupted at all).
These are all niceties that aren’t a huge loss if you’re an iPhone user — well worth the tradeoff for the ecosystem, hardware quality, and performance you get with the average iPhone. They come first to Android because the pressure to compete against other Android phones is so intense that any little advantage matters. If there are two new phones on the store shelf that are very nearly the same but one has an always-on screen, well, that’s the one you get.
iOS and Android are not at all the same, though. So when it comes to bringing these smaller hardware features to the iPhone, I can’t help but think that the competitive pressure Apple feels most urgently isn’t the smartphones you see on the store shelf. It’s the iPhone you’ve got in your pocket.