Last year’s iPhone was an outlier for me. Although I reviewed the then-new iPhone XS line, the model I ultimately chose for myself was the “lesser” iPhone XR. I chose it mostly for aesthetic reasons. As much as I appreciated its well-rounded technical merits, I was downright giddy at the notion I could have an iPhone in my favorite color: blue. I’ve not once regretted my choice nearly a year later. Color aside, the XR was—and remains—a terrific device.
At a fundamental level, choosing the iPhone XR was more significant than a favorite color or a willingness to accept some technical differences. As a visually impaired person, foregoing the XS meant I was purposely giving up a pivotal accessibility feature—the OLED screen—that would have made my experience with the device more accessible. In hindsight, the fact I decided on the objectively worse phone in the XR speaks volumes about how great it was as a product, and how color can spark such raw, immense delight.
This year, there is no blue iPhone. Without the emotional appeal of color in the equation, I’m reminded once again why the best iPhone money can buy—the iPhone 11 Pro Max—is the best, most accessible iPhone for me.
The Awesomeness of OLED
Apple provided me with two review units: one white iPhone 11 and one midnight green iPhone 11 Pro Max. As of this writing, I’ve had both phones for close to two weeks and I’ve spent roughly a week with each phone. I also have my year-old XR handy as a reference tool.
While I have spent lengthy time with OLED displays before—my iPhone X had one and, on a much smaller scale, every Apple Watch has had one—coming back after a year with my XR’s Liquid Retina LCD screen was quite literally eye-opening. Even with my poor eyesight, I immediately could notice a substantial difference in quality after putting my XR (and iPhone 11) side by side with the 11 Pro Max. For two years now, Apple has rightfully boasted about the XR’s (now 11) LCD screen being the best in the industry. It is ridiculously good, but the Pro’s OLED display is itself so good that I’ve wondered during testing how I was able to live happily with my XR last year.
In practice, the Super Retina XDR display on the 11 Pro Max is appreciably better in all phases. In addition to being physically larger (albeit not by much), the 11 Pro Max display’s brightness and sharpness make everything I see on my device much easier. It reduces eye strain and fatigue, which are constant battles for me. iOS 13’s new dark mode looks fantastic on OLED screens; I have it set to automatically switch from light to dark at sundown, and use apps like Twitter and Things in their pitch black modes at nighttime. Although there are dark mode skeptics, I personally find it to be a welcome reprieve during evening hours, and the credit is due to the Pro’s OLED display.
I started my testing with the iPhone 11 Pro Max for a few days, then switched to the regular 11 for another few days. After using both, knowing their respective screen technologies, I instantly knew which model I preferred. I could use the iPhone 11 with no problem, but having access to both phones reaffirmed to me just how superior OLED is for my vision. For my needs, it’s OLED or bust.
Three years with Face ID
I’ve written about my trials with Face ID before. As we collectively enter our third year with Apple’s facial recognition system, I think it’s worth briefly examining where it stands in context of the new iPhones and accessibility.
Apple says Face ID in the new iPhones is “up to 30 percent faster” while working from further away and at more angles than before. I cannot tell how much better it is in these regards; it’s Face ID and it seems to work just as well as it ever has. My strabismus still seems to wreak havoc on the phones’ TrueDepth camera system.
I set up Face ID on my 11 Pro Max and turned off Require Attention so that I needn’t look directly at the camera to unlock my phone. (When you do this, Apple blasts a modal alert on screen saying Face ID won’t be as secure as it could be. Fair enough, but it’s a trade-off I have to make in order to use it.) It’s worked like a charm, as usual.
What’s interesting, though, is what happened when I switched to the regular iPhone 11. I set up Face ID, but forgot to go into Settings and disable Require Attention. I suddenly realized this the other day, as I had clearly forgotten Face ID settings don’t sync from device to device. In hindsight it’s impressive how much Face ID has seemingly improved at recognizing my gaze. Whether it’s purposeful on Apple’s part, I don’t know, but I think it’s telling that I was unlocking my phone and paying for Lyft rides pretty much hassle-free for days with Require Attention on by default.
My strabismus still makes me an edge case, so I prefer Require Attention be disabled, as it’s the path of least resistance. Yet the happy accident I had regarding Require Attention led to a pleasant surprise. I can’t say it’s directly attributable to this generation of Face ID, but it’s an improvement regardless.
Adieu, 3D Touch
Like the much-maligned Touch Bar on the MacBook Pro, I have long been an ardent supporter of 3D Touch. I wrote about how it could positively impact accessibility when in debuted with the iPhone 6s four years ago, and missed it with my XR.
Apple’s removal of 3D Touch lends credence to the cons I outlined in my 2015 piece—namely, that it was too complex (for users and Apple) and it was too undiscoverable. The Apple community at large has felt this way about the feature since the beginning, especially bemoaning how it never percolated across iOS devices, most notably the iPad.
iOS 13 has brought Haptic Touch, first introduced with the iPhone XR last year, as a replacement for 3D Touch. It’s more or less equivalent; iOS 13 has expanded Haptic Touch’s scope so as to pick up many of 3D Touch’s tricks. These include Quick Actions on home screen icons and message previews in Mail and Messages. And importantly of course, these features work on iPads running iPadOS.
From an accessibility perspective, I have enjoyed having access to these shortcuts again on my iPhone 11 review units. I missed them during my time with the XR until now; the contextual menus throughout the OS really do cut down on excessive swiping and tapping. I like how Apple has grown Haptic Touch for the most part. I cannot tell an appreciable functional difference between it and 3D Touch in terms, say, starting a new email or text message from the home screen.
Where I believe Haptic Touch is a regression from 3D Touch is in performance. Accessing Quick Actions or link previews, for instance, feels like it takes forever relative to before. It isn’t so bad to the point that it’s unusable, but it’s definitely noticeable. More importantly, it causes Haptic Touch to lose a bit of the luster that makes haptic feedback such a promising assistive technology. Where 3D Touch always felt instantaneous, Haptic Touch, capable as it is, feels slower, thus ruining the fun a little. I assume this latency can and will improve over time, but count me as one who misses 3D Touch in the new iPhones.
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A few cursory notes on the new iPhones worth mentioning.
SIM card swapping. This is an extremely first-world problem, because I am privileged in the sense I get to review new iPhones every year. But this is an accessibility matter! Every year I get a new iPhone (or multiple iPhones) for testing, I’m reminded just how inaccessible the act of swapping my SIM card can be. It is a test of my visual acuity and fine-motor skills, both of which are not strong suits of mine. Especially on the midnight green, where the finish is so dark on the sides I can hardly see where the SIM tray is, moving between three iPhones can be quite adventurous. (I remember the jet black iPhone 7 having the same issue in terms of finding the SIM tray.) I like that Apple provides users with the SIM tool; the SIM card dance isn’t their fault. Still, as a visually impaired reviewer, I felt compelled to share this bit of accessibility minutia.
Color. Speaking of color, I do like the new midnight green finish a lot. The CW’s Arrow is my favorite television show, and the shade of green strikes me as the iPhone Oliver Queen would choose.
Battery life. One of the iPhone 11’s biggest selling points is the dramatically increased battery life. I’ve long compromised my battery—on an iPhone, iPad, or Apple Watch—because I need to run my devices with maximum screen brightness in order to see. That I can do so on iPhone 11 and still mostly benefit from the battery gains speaks volumes about Apple’s battery work. I can go a whole day, using my phone normally at max brightness, and not stress about conserving my battery or finding an outlet somewhere.
Portrait (pig?) Mode. Seriously, Portrait Mode on the new iPhones was made for pigs.
or years now, Apple’s been judicious with its MacOS updates. Understandably so. Given the massive online outcry every time Facebook changes the placement of a button, it’s in UX designers’ best interest to keep changes gradual and subtle. These days, the overarching philosophy of operating system design seems to be more about guiding the user’s hand and making pronounced changes over time.
By the standard of annual consumer electronic upgrades that Apple has played a key role in perpetuating, updates to MacOS have, perhaps, been too subtle to foster the same sort of excitement. And honestly, that’s perfectly fine. If a laptop is a flashy new car, the operating system is the great steering wheel that doesn’t whiff out the window while you’re driving.
Catalina bucks the trend of recent MacOS updates a bit, in that the updates feel more pronounced. While it’s true that the underlying principles are the same, there are some fundamental changes to day-to-day applications that both impact current use and lay the groundwork for future evolutions of the desktop operating system.
The most pronounced change is the much ballyhooed death of iTunes. The name will continue to exist in some residual instances, but for most intents and purposes, iTunes is being laid to rest with Catalina. Eighteen years was a pretty good run, of course, and signs of the once mighty music application will very much live on in Apple Music. But the new operating system finds the company very much planting its flag with premium content plays, the undisputed future of Apple’s massive revenue generating machine.
That extends, of course, to the arrival of an upgraded TV app, which sets the stage for TV+ and Arcade, which also gets a handful of new arrivals to celebrate today’s public release of Catalina. Podcasts also gets its own desktop app, but for now, at least, that’s not a direct revenue source for the company. It is, however, important for the company to lay claim to the rapidly mainstreaming medium to which it indirectly gave name.
The arrival of Catalyst, meanwhile, lays the seeds for the future of Mac apps. Following the arrival of Apple’s own News, Stocks, Voice Memos and Home, the company has opened the program up to all iPad developers to easily port their apps to the desktop. In a broader sense, the move continues to blur the lines between the two operating systems, for better and worse. For Apple, however, the decision is much more pragmatic: Mac software development has stalled as iOS has boomed. This is a simple solution to help keep thing this in check.
Accessibility gets some much welcome updates, too, including much improved Voice Control, while Apple continues to add updates on the security side.
For the sake of this writeup, however, I’m going to start with the bit that gets me the most excited: Sidecar. From my own perspective, Apple tends to bury the lede in its own feature set. Though I completely understand that it’s simply not as universal an application as, say, Music, TV or (likely) Arcade. Maybe it’s because I’m just getting back from yet another work trip (we held a little event in San Francisco), but Sidecar is a legit productivity game changer for me.
Against all recommendations, I opted to run a beta of Catalina on my primary work machine. I know, I know, but when a beta drops while you’re on the road, there’s really no other option. I had some issues with the software I won’t go into here, because betas gonna beta. I surprisingly had some issues getting the feature to work again with the latest version of iPadOs and the GM of Catalina, but everything should be smooth sailing by the final release.
There’s no doubt, of course, that this is the latest bit of Sherlocking — Apple integrating its own version of a popular third-party app into the operating system. But with something like this, there’s really no competing with native support for most users. For those who need fair more nuanced use of things like Apple Pencil for, say, art making, Duet and Luna may still be worth checking out. If, like me, you just want to use the iPad as a second screen for some added real estate on the road, Sidecar’s the thing.
Enabling the feature is as simple as signing into all of your accounts: Make sure all of the relevant wireless protocols are turned on and then select the associated device from the drop-down. Your primary desktop can either be mirrored or used as an extension like a standard external monitor. The primary benefit of mirroring seems to be the ability to essentially use the screen as a touchscreen and iPad input. This should prove appealing for artists and a potential alternative to a pro tablet like the kind Wacom makes.
For me, the second display is the thing. Hooking up the extending real estate is a big sigh of relief, making it far easier to keep multiple windows open at the same time. Having Slack open on the iPad while I use Pages and Chrome on the main desktop is a pretty significant time saver.
A small quibble: Keeping the Sidecar and display settings separate is a bit of an annoyance. The side I ultimately use for the iPad usually comes down to where I’m sitting. It would be great to be able to swap on the fly. The addition of a virtual sidebar, meanwhile, is an interesting one, but pretty redundant in mirrored mode.
All told, however, Sidecar is far and away the best addition to MacOS in recent memory.
I’m less in love with the loss of iTunes. I totally understand why Apple made the switch, and honestly, I’m a bit surprised it took them this long. I’m a long-time Spotify user with no interest in making the jump to Apple Music. I prefer the device flexibility Spotify affords. Among other things, the move to Music feels like an opportunity to constantly push users to “Try it Free.”
Music can still be used to play a locally stored song, but the move to streaming service has weaned me off of the notion of digital music ownership. Somewhere in my apartment, there’s a dusty old hard drive with hundreds of gigs of music, including weird old stuff that no one bothered to obscure the distribution rights for. Perhaps one day I’ll dive back in, but honestly it’s feeling increasingly less likely.
The principles of Podcast should be familiar to anyone who’s ever used the mobile app. It’s all pretty simple and, like Music, focused on discovery. Separating it from Apple Music seems to imply that the company doesn’t have much interest in making huge Spotify-esque investments in the category. And for now, at least, why bother? Apple has a pretty massive head start in the space.
Apple TV gets a nice refresh, as well. It, too, is focused on discovery. Even more importantly for Apple’s long game, however, it lays the groundwork from TV+, which is set to arrive next month. Premium channels like HBO, Showtime and Starz have been integrated here, in a bid to become a more robust cable replacement for cord cutters. Also nice is the arrival of a dedicated Kids section with curated all ages content.
Arcade certainly isn’t what people are referring to when discussing the Mac’s long journey to becoming a more serious gaming system. And while the titles are largely designed to be played on mobile devices, those subscribing at $5 a month will no doubt welcome the ability to play on the desktop. There’s a lot to be said for the ability to take a quick work break with a round of the excellent Zelda knockoff/homage, Oceanhorn 2.
Photos adopts some key features from its mobile counterpart. AI/ML will determine and highlight your best shots, while images are categorized by days/months/years. Photo previews are large and now include live photo and video playback.
On the more pragmatic side of things, syncing and backup get some nice upgrades, now available outside of iTunes. That’s a change that certainly makes sense, with those features now accessible through the Finder. Honestly, that’s where they belong. Accessing them through iTunes always felt like a relic of the early iTunes/iPod days. This information is available directly in the main Finder sidebar.
As ever, there’s no hesitation in recommending Mac users update to the latest version of the operating system. Of course, that’s helped along by the fact that it’s a free upgrade. This is one of the more transformative MacOS updates in recent memory, and most of the new features are welcome — as I said, I’m not in love with Music for personal workflow reasons, but Sidecar is a biggie.
MacOS Catalina is now available for all users.