Every September, Apple unveils its latest iPhone along with an updated Apple Watch and whatever else might need updating. This year, the company unveiled the iPhone 14 lineup, the Apple Watch Series 8 Ultra (representing a new tier of the wearable) and, after three years of no updates, improvements across the board for the AirPods Pro. However, the iPhone is Apple’s core product, and this year’s iteration of the iPhone was, of course, the big story. Of the many rumors circulating beforehand about the new iPhone, we did receive confirmation during the hour-and-a-half-long presentation that Apple is killing off the ‘mini’ iPhone—if you want a smaller iPhone option, you’ll now have to buy an iPhone 13 or older. For those who want the latest and greatest, though, I don’t think this will change the calculus much. Let’s take a closer look at the new iPhone 14 lineup and its upgraded specs.
Two display sizes are available for the new lineup—6.1” for the iPhone 14 and 14 Pro, and 6.7” for the 14+ and 14 Pro Max. The iPhone 14 and 14+ still rock the notch of the previous generation, but the iPhone 14 Pro and Pro Max showcase the “Dynamic Island”—Apple’s new pill-shaped display punchout. Dynamic Island keeps the notch’s true-depth and front facing cameras, while relocating the proximity sensor underneath the display. Overall, I think ‘Dynamic Island’ is a magnificent piece of marketing. It takes the notch, long considered an iPhone weakness and eyesore, and turns it into a strength by building an entire user interface around it, assuming developers care enough to. That said, the Dynamic Island’s smaller size and location at the top of the display may prove uncomfortable for single-handed use.
The 14 Pro and 14 Pro Max feature an impressive peak brightness of 2000 nits and a peak HDR brightness of 1600, making them excellent for outdoor use. The Pro display has a high 460 PPI pixel density, which maintains the high image quality Apple users are familiar with. The 14 Pro and 14 Pro Max also feature an always-on display, meaning that Apple finally cracked the nut of low-power display technology via a new display controller inside the A16. This is excellent news, though it must be said that Android beat Apple to the punch with low-power displays many generations ago.
A16 Bionic performance
Apple has bifurcated its processors this go-around, giving the iPhone 14 and 14+ last year’s A15 and the iPhone 14 Pro and 14 Pro Max the new A16. This is one way for Apple to save costs and maintain the $799 entry price ($30 subsidy for carrier-locked versions) for the iPhone 14, while still offering an OLED display on all models. Though the 4nm A16 Bionic has 16 billion transistors, Apple did not talk much about its performance improvements. In fact, Apple went as far to say that it focused specifically on improving the A16’s power efficiency, display and camera.
According to Apple, the A16 Bionic is the fastest chip ever in a smartphone. The company also boasted, albeit spuriously, that its competitors lag even the A13 Bionic in terms of CPU performance. Apple’s evidence to the latter included a rather elementary bar graph that did not specify what kind of CPU performance it was referring to. In my testing, the Snapdragon 8+ Gen 1 was on-par with Apple’s A13 in single core performance in GeekBench and 30% faster in multicore performance. Even an average of those numbers would not make it slower than an A13. Yes, the A15 will beat the Snapdragon 8+ Gen 1 in GeekBench on both single and multicore, but that’s also 33% on single core and less than 10% on multicore. The claim was disingenuous at best, and I believe that when we do look at the A16’s actual performance, the gains will likely be relatively unimpressive (hence Apple’s emphasis on the iPhone 14’s efficiency, camera and display). Apple did say during the presentation that the A16 was 40% faster than the competition but once again did not validate how it arrived at such claims. However, this would likely mean that it isn’t much faster than an A15.
The A16 is a 6-core design with two high-performance and four efficiency cores. Interestingly, Apple only claimed 20% lower power on the high-performance cores, which is welcome for thermal and battery life reasons but not necessarily congruous with having the highest-performance cores. Apple made no claims around power or performance with the four high-efficiency cores, which indicates they are likely also only marginally better than the A15. Overall, I would expect that the A16 Bionic’s CPU die shrink from 5nm to 4nm would yield some minor power and performance improvements, but it seems that Apple targeted power rather than performance in this generation. The new neural engine is similarly incremental, delivering 17 TOPS of performance with 16 cores. This is just a slight improvement over the 15.8 TOPS the A15 achieved last year using the same 16-core configuration. According to Apple, the A16’s 5-core GPU features 50% more memory bandwidth.
Apple also talked about the new display engine, which provides the 1 Hz refresh rate necessary for the always-on display capability. The A16’s cores are reportedly capable of executing four trillion operations per photo, which is Apple’s way of talking about SoC camera performance. Computational photography and many other AI workloads depend heavily on sending workloads to multiple cores simultaneously to ensure maximum efficiency. Working together can make things happen more quickly at lower power. By comparison, the iPhone XS camera could do 1 trillion operations per photo—a rough indicator of the iPhone’s camera improvement over the last four years. Apple also introduced a new ISP on the A16, which Apple credits for making it the most powerful Pro camera ever.
Throughout all of this, I was honestly surprised to see Apple telling such a passive performance story. Again, this leads me to believe that the benchmark scores won’t be much higher than what we saw with the A15. That’s what independent benchmarking is for, and I can’t wait to get my iPhone 14 Pro Max in hand later this week to test it out myself.
iPhone 14 cameras focus on low light
All the iPhone 14 models have new cameras, but the iPhone 14 and 14+ still only have two sensors and lenses and lack the lidar sensor. I think this would’ve been a great opportunity for Apple to broaden the appeal of some of its AR apps beyond Pro models and increase the potential user base of apps like Scaniverse, IKEA Place, Polycam and numerous AR games or even Snapchat. I know that Apple would have taken a BOM (bill of materials) hit on the iPhone 14 and 14+ by including this sensor, but I also think it would be a big deal to developers if they knew ALL iPhone 14s will support their apps. It would also help to broaden the appeal of AR apps for consumers to have better AR accuracy.
Apple claims that the iPhone 14 and 14+ low-light performance has improved by by at least 2X on every camera sensor, purportedly making the night capture feature on the iPhone ‘twice as fast’ as the iPhone 13. Apple also says that it has made improvements to DeepFusion, its old image pipeline, so that it can start processing images earlier and faster. Apple says this new process, dubbed Photonic Engine, further improves low-light performance to help attain the claimed 2x improvement.
Apple kept the three sensor approach for the iPhone 14 Pro and Pro Max, upgrading all three and bumping the main camera up to a Quad-pixel 48MP sensor (similar to the sensor Samsung has used in its 108MP main camera for generations). What makes these quad-pixel sensors compelling is that when they are binned downward to ¼ the pixel density (12MP in Apple’s case), their low-light performance increases.
The new 48MP main camera sports a 24mm focal length, f/1.78 aperture and 2ndgeneration sensor-shift OIS. Apple also added a fourth virtual 2x telephoto sensor with a 12MP resolution, f/1.78 aperture and 48mm focal length. This fourth virtual sensor features a digital ‘crop’ mode that acts like an optical 2x lens. The upgraded ultrawide camera has a 12MP sensor and 13mm focal length and is further tuned for macro photography. These features allow Apple to claim up to 3x improvement in low-light performance for the ultrawide sensor.
Apple didn’t talk about it at all, but the telephoto on the new pro camera remains the same—a 12MP sensor with f/2.8 aperture capable of 3x (or 77mm) zoom. I would really love to see Apple squeeze a true telephoto, either a 5x or 10x optical, into the iPhone, to give Samsung some competition in the space (which it currently owns). This would have been a much more impressive accomplishment than a virtual 2x lens.
The entire iPhone 14 line up features a front-facing TrueDepth camera with a 12MP sensor and f/1.9 aperture lens, which Apple claims delivers a 38% improvement in low-light performance. Thanks to the depth camera, the front-facing camera can also autofocus for the first time in iPhone history.
Overall, Apple claims anywhere from 2-3x better low-light photography performance on the new Pro camera, which seems to be the theme of the new iPhone 14. These claims will have to be compared qualitatively in camera tests, which I intend to do, but I am more interested in how it stacks up to the best of the best in low-light photography. The iPhone 13 was already quite good, but I would like to see Apple improve some of its white balance in low light and how it handles highlights on bright days. Hopefully, those are fixed with the iPhone 14 line of cameras.
Death of SIM and connectivity
One of the biggest rumors around the iPhone 14, other than the satellite connectivity, was the SIM card’s death. This came partially true, with US models only. I believe this is a very mixed bag for many reasons. Apple likely did this because it has a 48% market share in the US and can push the operators to do whatever it wants. Furthermore, the US is the market least concerned by needing a physical SIM. There are plenty of use cases where a physical SIM would be beneficial, especially when traveling abroad. I believe that Apple wants to push the operators towards eSIM because it will strengthen its customer relationship and make it harder to switch from an iPhone to another device (since it will no longer be as simple as swapping SIM cards). That said, eSIM does make it easier to switch between operators—a development some operators may get excited about while others may dread. In the end, I think Apple is testing this out in the US market because it can. While killing off the eSIM slot may save some space and BOM, I don’t think it will be a net positive for consumers, especially when you consider many phones already ship with both physical and eSIM together—the right approach, in my opinion. I do believe that Apple’s heavy-handed approach may push some operators in the world to take eSIM more seriously and do a better job of supporting it, but I think broader eSIM adoption could happen without forcing users to go without a physical SIM. I have also noticed that most operators in the US now have iOS apps for eSIM while Android support is still pending.
In addition to killing off the SIM slot in favor of eSIM, Apple also talked up the phone’s connectivity capabilities, including, for the first time really praising 5G. Something to consider is that the new iPhone brings multiple 5G bands into the fold, including Dish’s Band 70 and Band 26 and AT&T’s new 3.45 GHz midband spectrum currently in roll-out. The new iPhone 14 also supports Band 53 which satellite operator Global Star uses for its comminications. This band will enable the iPhone 14 to communicate with satellites for its new ‘Emergency SOS’ feature, which hails emergency services and helps them find your location. This new feature has been rumored for years, driving the entire industry to discuss satellite services like T-Mobile and SpaceX’s partnership coming next year. While I believe that Apple may have pioneered satellite connectivity on the iPhone, Huawei did claim the same capability the day before in China. I expect we will see much better services down the road from Apple’s competitors, and Apple might also evolve its services in that time to add iMessage. With chips capable of NTN (non-terrestrial networks) coming down the pipe with the 3GPP’s Rel. 17 update to the 5G standard, I think we will see much more enhanced satellite connectivity for 5G, beyond just emergency SOS.
The new iPhone 14 series is very clearly an iterative improvement over the iPhone 13 in many ways, but its also hard to ignore all the connectivity improvements it makes. Low-light performance improvements will have to be tested in real life; ultimately, low-light performance is meaningless without good-quality images. I will be testing this firsthand when I get my new iPhone 14 Pro Max on Sept 16th when general availability begins. I ordered the unlocked 14 Pro Max, but Apple now charges you $30 extra if you don’t choose a carrier-locked model of the standard 14 and 14+. This means that Apple’s stated street price of $799 isn’t accurate if you want an unlocked device. In the absence of tangible performance claims by Apple, I will also test the A16 with the new SoC to see how the latest processors from Qualcomm and MediaTek might stack up. I still can’t wait to get my hands on the new iPhone 14, put it through its paces, and see if its worth making the iPhone my daily driver again.
Note: Moor Insights & Strategy writers and editors may have contributed to this article.