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More Revenue Than Adobe, Nvidia, or AMD — and as Much as Spotify, Twitter, Snap, and Shopify Combined

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Kevin Rooke:

Imagine a startup with $12 billion of revenue, 125%+ YoY revenue growth (two years in a row), and Apple-esque gross margins (30-50%). Without knowing anything else about the business, what would you value it at? $50 billion? $100 billion? More?

That’s Apple’s AirPods business, the fastest-growing segment of the world’s most valuable company.

Keep in mind, though, that Apple hasn’t had a new hit product since the iPad in 2010.

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1425 days ago
Hits? What hits?
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★ Going Pro

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Back on August 17, I tweeted this prediction on the naming scheme for this year’s lineup of new iPhones:

I’ve been pushing for iPhones “Pro” at least since the iPhone X. Makes sense to me:

  • iPhone XR → iPhone 11
  • iPhone XS → iPhone 11 Pro
  • iPhone XS Max → iPhone 11 Pro Max

My record in this particular regard is abysmally bad. I’ve been calling for Apple to go “Pro” with its high-end iPhones at least since the iPhone X was just a rumor. And even when the string “iPhone X” was revealed in a last-minute software leak the weekend before it was actually revealed, I confidently predicted that it would be pronounced iPhone Ex, not iPhone Ten. Anyone who’s been betting based on my iPhone naming predictions is deep in the hole at this point.

But — lo! — like a stopped clock being right twice a day, I might actually have called it this time. Mark Gurman — who correctly predicted the “iPhone X as ten” name last year — described this year’s lineup on August 22 thus:

Apple is planning to launch three new iPhones, as it has done each year since 2017: “Pro” iPhone models to succeed the iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max as well as a successor to the iPhone XR.

Here’s why I think an “11 / 11 Pro / 11 Pro Max” naming scheme makes perfect sense. First, I hate Roman numerals with an irrational passion, so I’m not even going to get into the idea that Apple might have even considered “iPhone XI”. Just no.

Second, the most common suggestion in response to my “iPhone 11 / 11 Pro / 11 Pro Max” tweet was that Apple should just drop the numbers completely, and go with:

  • iPhone (new XR)
  • iPhone Pro (new XS)
  • iPhone Pro Max (new XS Max)

In the abstract, such a naming strategy would be better. It would match Apple’s other product lineups — MacBooks and iPads — where higher priced models are Pro and lower priced ones are not. MacBook Pros and iPad Pros don’t get numbered sequentially by product generation. When new ones come out, they’re just called “MacBook Pro” and “iPad Pro” and Apple uses model years (e.g. “late 2019”) to specify exact models in support documentation — but never in advertising or product packaging.

Nice and clean. And it would do away with the ungainliness of ever-incrementing integers in product names. Are we really going to have an “iPhone 19” at some point? I get that.

But we don’t live in the abstract. In the real world, there is a huge difference between how Apple maintains the iPhone lineup compared to MacBooks and iPads. When new MacBooks and iPads debut, they really do replace the preceding models. When you go into a store to buy an iPad Pro, the only models available are the latest and greatest — or older models like the non-retina MacBook Air that are clearly cheaper because they’re older, just by looking at them.

The iPhone lineup works very differently. Older models hang around — in production — for years. Apple just slots them into lower price points as they get older. And one thing many people don’t know is that the lineup of iPhones Apple itself sells online and in its own retail stores is not the full lineup of iPhones they continue to manufacture and sell through other channel partners. The lineup Apple promotes makes it look, for example, like the iPhone X went out of production a year ago after the iPhone XS was introduced. But carriers around the world still sell it, as do big box retailers (dying breed that they are) like Best Buy. You can still buy brand-new iPhone 6S models in some countries.

I didn’t really know the extent of this myself until recently. Two years ago I was behind the idea that the phone we now know as the “iPhone X” should have been the first “iPhone Pro”. Then last year’s XS models would have been the new “iPhones Pro”, and this year’s models the new “iPhones Pro” again. But given that Apple wants to keep making and selling the older models, this non-numbered naming scheme would be confusing. It wouldn’t work unless Apple were to drop its decade-long strategy of keeping years-old iPhones in production at lower price points, and I don’t see any reason why Apple would drop that strategy.

Apple Watch is similar to the iPhone in this way. They’re using the “Series #” naming scheme so that they can keep older models in the lineup at lower prices. I’m not saying Apple has to keep using numbers for new iPhones, but I do think their fundamental strategy of using years-old models to fill lower price points in the lineup necessitates unique names for each model year. Especially so given how the fundamental industrial design doesn’t change for years at a time. The iPhone XS didn’t look any different from the iPhone X externally.

One thing I like about an “11 / 11 Pro / 11 Pro Max naming scheme is that by calling the new XR the just plain “iPhone 11”, it would implicitly establish the new XR model as the default iPhone, the iPhone most people should buy. It should be branded as the default new iPhone because it should be considered the default new iPhone. Most people don’t notice or care about the difference between the XR’s @2x LCD display and the XS’s @3x OLED display. They don’t care about the slightly bigger bezels surrounding the XR display (if only because they immediately put their new iPhone in a protective case). They don’t care about the fact that the higher-end iPhones have more cameras on the back, because they take all of their photos using the default 1x camera lens.1

And the fact that the iPhone XR gets the longest battery life of any iPhone — something I would expect the XR’s successor to maintain, because it’s mainly attributable to its use of an LCD rather than OLED display — is a factor that typical iPhone owner do appreciate. I declared last year’s iPhone XR the best iPhone for most people, and I expect this year’s XR successor to be the same. Fun colors, lower price, longer battery life — that’s all you need to say. Thus, calling it the just plain “iPhone 11” would be spot-on branding-wise.

Some object to the notion that any iPhone can be “Pro” in the sense of “professional”. That’s nonsense. For one thing, plenty of people buy MacBook Pros and iPad Pros for non-professional use. They just want them because they’re better and/or bigger. If you want a 15-inch MacBook or 13-inch iPad, you’re getting a Pro model because it’s your only choice. “Pro”, in Apple product marketing parlance, does mean professional sometimes (e.g. Mac Pro and iMac Pro). But sometimes it just means premium. Second, iPhones are absolutely used professionally, and the better camera systems alone can justify the nomenclature. For many people, their phone is their most-used and most-important device in their workdays.

A better argument is that there’s no reason to call the bigger model “Max”. Just call them both “iPhone 11 Pro” — like Apple does with MacBook and iPad Pros — and people will buy the size they prefer without confusion. “Pro Max” sounds a bit like a vitamin supplement for weightlifters, frankly.

I will note, though, that in advertising, Apple advertised both sizes of iPhone XS under the “iPhone XS” brand umbrella last year. This print campaign, for example, never mentioned the word “Max”. This TV spot did, but only for a split second, after the slogan “It’s not just one amazing new iPhone. It’s two.”

If they really do go with “iPhone 11 Pro Max” for the 6.5-inch model this year, I would expect them to do the same, and mostly advertise both 11 Pro models under the name “iPhone 11 Pro”, and showing that it comes in two sizes.

Postscript: Why I Think Last Year’s iPhone XR Will Fill the Mid-Range Price Slot

So assuming the rumors are correct and we get “iPhone 11 / 11 Pro / 11 Pro Max” new models next week, which of last year’s models will Apple keep around in its own product lineup?

I think it’s pretty simple. The XS and XS Max go away (or, as explained above, remain available only from non-Apple retailers, like carriers and Best Buy) and the iPhone XR stays in the official lineup at a lower price point. Aluminum, not stainless steel. LCD display, not OLED. Just one camera on the back. All of those factors make it obvious just by looking at it that the iPhone XR would and should be a lower-priced phone than all of the new phones for 2019.

  1. I use the 2x “telephoto” lens on my XS, and perhaps you do too. I particularly enjoy the superior Portrait Mode experience it affords. And I look forward to using the much-rumored wider-angled third lens on the new Pro iPhones. But I’m a photography enthusiast, and the vast majority of iPhone owners are not. Every iPhone owner actually benefits from better optics when they do “zoom in” for a photo using an iPhone with a 2x lens, but I don’t think an extra camera lens feels worth a $250 premium to most of them. ↩︎

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1550 days ago
iPhone 11 Pro Max Apple Tax, Fcuk! This is ridiculous.
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Introducing Guardian Firewall for iOS

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Guardian Firewall, from Will Strafach, who’s long been at the forefront of investigating iOS security and privacy issues:

Starting over 2 years ago, we embarked on an ambitious mission: Build a tool that allows any electronic device owner in the world to take back control of their digital privacy. This tool needed to be incredibly easy to use, straightforward, and must allow a user to “set it and forget it” if they did not want to apply any customizations.

We could have cut plenty of corners and shipped an acceptable tool. Instead we took our time and did things right, putting together the most powerful tool and dataset we were capable of building. Why? Because we are working towards a broader set of goals: Make surveillance capitalism an untenable business model. Degrade the quality of shadow profiles maintained on every user of an internet connected device. Methodically expose every bad actor we can find. The electronic devices you bought and own should not be snitching on you at regular intervals. Something has gone very wrong, and the course must be corrected to prevent pervasive data collection from becoming an acceptable norm. It’s time for war. No stone will be left unturned.

They have a very clear privacy policy, and a business model to match:

For the lifetime of our company, Guardian Firewall will utilize a simple tried-and-true business model: Accepting currency for a product that people find valuable. Full stop. We will never track our users. We will never collect personal information about our users. We consider user data to be a liability. Each and every technical design decision is built around that concept.

I’ve been running the current version since I met with one of Guardian’s engineers at WWDC. “Set it and forget it” is exactly the experience.

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1629 days ago
Without integrated ad-blocker $99 a year is too expensive. They'll fold within year or two.
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MacBook Keyboard Fiasco Dark Matter: People Just Living With Broken Keyboards


David Heinemeier Hansson, writing at Signal vs. Noise:

So here’s some anecdata for Apple. I sampled the people at Basecamp. Out of the 47 people using MacBooks at the company, a staggering 30% are dealing with keyboard issues right now! And that’s just the people dealing with current keyboard issues. If you include all the people who used to have issues, but went through a repair or replacement process, the number would be even higher. […]

But as always, in a time of crisis, the event itself is less indicative of the health of a company than the response. Is Apple going to accept that they’re currently alienating and undermining decades of goodwill by shipping broken computers in mass quantities?

Hansson used the headline “The MacBook Keyboard Fiasco Is Way Worse Than Apple Thinks”, but I suspect it’d be more accurate to say that it’s way worse than Apple admits. They don’t need to look at the number of support incidents from customers. Almost everyone at Apple uses MacBooks of some sort. They know from their own use of the product how problematic reliability is.

And how much worse the new arrow key layout is compared to the old inverted-T layout, how much developers miss a hardware Esc key, and the general sentiment regarding the Touch Bar. And while I know some people prefer these new low-travel keys, I feel confident that most people do not.

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1705 days ago
I like the new keyboard feel, but reliability is crap.

What is also horrendous on new Macs is the touch pad. Thing is too large and palm rejection is horrendous.
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2 public comments
1705 days ago
Living with a broken shift key here. Also, I dislike the arrow keys and miss the hard esc key too.
San Antonio, TX
1705 days ago
I prefer the low travel keys.
Princeton, NJ

★ The iPhones XS


Three years ago, Phil Schiller was my guest on stage at The Talk Show Live From WWDC 2015. Nearing the end (skip ahead to just before the 48:00 mark in the video), and wanting to talk about the iPhone and photography, I said, “I think it’s so clear — and the ‘Shot with iPhone’ marketing campaign shows that you guys clearly believe it too — that Apple has become one of, if not the, leading camera companies in the world.”

Before I could get to a question, Schiller jumped in.

The”, he said emphatically.

That moment, more than any other in that interview, really stuck with me. Go to Apple.com and look at the products atop the page: Mac, iPad, iPhone, Watch, TV, Music. Of course Phil Schiller thinks Apple is the world’s leading company in all those categories. I’d venture to say almost everyone in the audience for that show would have agreed with that. But to say Apple is the leading camera company in the world, full stop, wasn’t just about comparing Apple to other phone makers. It was about comparing Apple to companies like Canon, Nikon, Sony, Fujifilm, and Leica. And trust me, Schiller — an avid hobbyist photographer — understands exactly what those companies’ cameras are capable of. His emphatic, instant confidence in that statement — that in June 2015 Apple was already the leading camera company in the world — made me think one thing:

I wish I knew what he knows about the iPhone camera pipeline for the next few years.

Let’s Get the Size Thing Out of the Way First

The last four years, I’ve coyly titled my iPhone reviews “The iPhones 6”, “The iPhones 6S”, “The iPhones 7”, and “The iPhones 8”. That’s not how most people would pluralize these iPhone pairs (but some would — there’s some legitimate precedent with pluralizations like “mothers-in-law” and “attorneys general” where the adjective comes after the noun).

My thinking with the first of these — the iPhone 6 generation — was that I didn’t want to use the title “The iPhone 6 and 6 Plus”, because the year prior I’d used the title “The iPhone 5S and 5C”. That title fit, because the 5S and 5C were definitely different phones — the 5S had a new A7 chip (the first to go 64-bit), Touch ID, and a new camera. The 5C was basically the year-old iPhone 5 in new colorful plastic bodies. The iPhone 6 and 6 Plus were different, but clearly of the same generation. I thought the “The iPhones 6” formulation helped emphasize that. Secondarily, I didn’t want to use the headline “The iPhone 6s” (as a plural) because there seemed to me a very good chance Apple would use the name iPhone 6S (singular) the next year — and I was right. And I didn’t want to use “The iPhone 6’s” (as a plural) because even though it’s acceptable to use an apostrophe followed by an S to pluralize letters and numbers,1 it doesn’t look good.

I’ve been testing an iPhone XS and XS Max — both in gold — since Wednesday evening last week. I spent the first few days mainly with the XS Max, and the remainder mainly with the XS. This year, I strongly considered titling this review “The iPhone XS”. Not to ignore the XS Max, but because I honestly think it’s best to think of them as two sizes of the same iPhone, not two separate iPhones — in the same way we treat color options. Pick your size, pick your color. It makes no more sense to review the iPhone XS and XS Max as different devices than it would to write separate reviews of medium and large cups of the same coffee. (There is no small coffee.)

Exact same A12 system-on-a-chip. Exact same cameras. In my own testing I have seen no discernable difference in performance, display quality, or the cameras’ photo or video quality. Maybe the XS Max is a little louder when you play audio through its speakers? If so, it’s not by much.

The only practical differences in the hardware are that the XS Max has — duh — a larger display (same exact quality as the XS, but more pixels, and thus displays more information on screen) and larger battery. And in software, only the XS Max gets iPad-style two-column layouts in landscape orientation in apps like Messages and Mail.2 Those are meaningful differences, so “The iPhones XS” it is.

Coming from any previous iPhone from the Plus era, if you preferred the Plus size, I can’t see why you wouldn’t prefer the XS Max now. It’s almost exactly the same height and width as the 6-8 Plus devices, but about a millimeter smaller in both dimensions. That shouldn’t make much of a difference, but I swear, in my hand, it actually somehow feels more comfortable than an iPhone Plus. I don’t know if that’s a steel vs. aluminum thing or just the reviewer’s placebo effect.

Personally, I prefer the XS. But it was a closer call for me than in previous years.

For the remainder of this review, I’m mostly going to talk about the “iPhone XS”, but everything I say pertains to both sizes.


Take a look at Apple’s nifty three-column iPhone Comparison web page. It defaults to comparing the XS, XS Max, and XR.3 Change that third column to last year’s iPhone X, and the differences from top to bottom mostly look rather mild. Part of that is that most of the year-over-year improvements are rather mild. Water resistance, for example, went from IP67 to IP68 — from 1 meter for up to 30 minutes to 2 meters for up to 30 seconds. Nice, but not wow.

But there is one wow factor comparing the iPhone XS to last year’s iPhone X: photography. But the reasons why don’t show up in Apple’s comparison spec list (even though some of them could). I’ve focused nearly the entirety of my testing on taking photos and videos side-by-side against my 10-month old iPhone X. Overall, I’m simply blown away by the iPhone XS’s results. Sometimes the difference is subtle but noticeable; sometimes the difference is between unusable and pretty good. The iPhone XS can capture still images and video that the iPhone X cannot.

It’s worth emphasizing — as I do every year — that normal people do not upgrade their phones after a single year. Most don’t upgrade after two years. They upgrade when their old phone breaks or gets too slow. Anyone upgrading to the iPhone XS from an iPhone 7 or older is getting a great upgrade in dozens of ways, and the camera system is just one of them. I’ve concentrated on comparing the iPhone XS’s camera to the iPhone X’s for two reasons. First, even though most people don’t buy iPhones annually, Apple releases a new generation of iPhones annually, so that year-over-year comparison feels like the natural way to measure their progress. Second, a fair number of people do upgrade annually, or at least consider it (enough people that Apple deemed it worthwhile to create an annual upgrade program), and for the people who own an iPhone X who are considering an upgrade to the XS, to my mind, the camera system is the one and only reason to do it. There are always edge cases. Someone who is a frequent international traveler might consider it worth upgrading just to get the dual SIM support. I’m sure some number of iPhone X owners will upgrade just to get the gold model. But for most people, I’m convinced the camera system is the one and only reason to think about it.

A cynic might argue that the reason Apple spent so much time talking about photography and the camera system (which includes the Apple Neural Engine) is that it’s all they had to talk about this year. I would argue they spent a lot of time talking about photography because there’s a lot to talk about. In fact, I think Apple left out some remarkable aspects of the iPhone XS camera system from the keynote and their website.

Computational Photography and the Neural Engine

Apple didn’t leave this part out. Computational photography and the A12’s vastly improved Neural Engine are central to Apple’s pitch for the iPhone XS camera system. Based on the photos and videos I’ve shot, I believe them.

At a low level the Apple Neural Engine is way beyond my ken. I understand fundamentally how a CPU works. I sort of understand how modern GPUs are much faster than CPUs at certain computations which don’t necessarily pertain to rendering “graphics”. I have no idea how a neural engine works. All I know is it can be seemingly impossibly faster than a CPU or GPU at executing a machine learning model.

The iPhone XS has a seriously improved wide-angle camera. Just in terms of pure old-fashioned optics — light passing through a lens onto a sensor. More — perhaps too much more — on that later. But the iPhone XS has captured images for me that I’m certain can’t be explained by optics alone.

HDR has been around for a long time, and for years on the iPhone. It’s basically pretty simple: in difficult lighting conditions (harsh backlighting for example) HDR combines multiple exposures into a single image. In years past I generally turned HDR off on the iPhone. It was too hit and miss. That’s why up until last year, iPhones defaulted to keeping a normally exposed image alongside HDR images. But that was a pain in the ass, too — you’d wind up with two images in your photo roll for every picture you took. Even when the HDR image was better, you’d still have the non-HDR version to throw away.

On the iPhone XS Apple is touting a new feature they call Smart HDR:

Smart HDR. Leveraging multiple technologies — like faster sensors, an enhanced ISP, and advanced algorithms — Smart HDR brings more highlight and shadow detail to your photos.

Here’s my single favorite XS-vs.-X comparison shot. I took it last Friday after Cheaper Than Therapy, a terrific stand-up comedy show in San Francisco co-produced by my friend and sometimes podcast guest Scott Simpson.4

iPhone X (original image file):

Scott Simpson, Ben Jennings, and Jon Allen standing inside a bizarre clown in a dimly lit theater lobby.

iPhone XS (original image file):

Scott Simpson, Ben Jennings, and Jon Allen standing inside a bizarre clown in a dimly lit theater lobby.

I have done no post-processing on these images other than to scale them to a smaller size, and I shot both with the iOS 12 Camera app by just pointing, framing, and shooting. The original images, untouched other than converting from HEIF to JPEG when exporting from Photos are about 2.2 MB in size.

The difference speaks for itself.

It’s a small theater in a basement. The lighting is just right for the lobby bar of a standup theater, but terrible for photography — ambient light is dim, but the clown has a bright spotlight right on its face. The iPhone X image is blown out; the iPhone XS image looks pretty good. That’s entirely attributable to Smart HDR.

Cheaper Than Therapy does shows four nights a week and people take photos inside that clown every show. Simpson told me the clown’s face always gets blown out. He was genuinely impressed and he’s just a dumb comedian.

I should be showing you pictures, a lot more pictures, not telling you about them. And video clips. They speak for themselves. Alas, Daring Fireball isn’t rigged up for presenting a lot of photos. (Regular readers: “Really? I never noticed that, Grubes.”) I plan to publish a variety of comparison shots in a more appropriate venue after this review.

The way I understand it, Smart HDR is basically applied to all images from the iPhone XS. Sometimes more, sometimes less. If an image needs a little highlight recovery, a little Smart HDR is applied. If it needs a lot, it does more. But Photos only applies the “HDR” badge when it’s really extreme. It didn’t even apply the “HDR” badge for the shot with the clown above.

Here’s another example. This time, Portrait Mode shots of yours truly, taken by my wife at brunch Sunday afternoon. There was bright sunlight streaming through a window over my shoulder.

iPhone X (original image file):

John Gruber, horribly blown out portrait.

iPhone XS (original image file):

John Gruber, pretty well exposed portrait.

I did not cherry-pick these two images. My wife took a bunch with each camera from the same position (her seat at the table), and the above images are representative of what all the photos from each respective iPhone looked like. Again, unusable vs. pretty good.

Here’s one more image from that bunch, which I didn’t use in the A/B comparison above because the framing and angle are slightly different.

iPhone XS (original image file):

John Gruber, pretty well exposed portrait with surprisingly accurate hair detection.

Here’s a crop of that image at 100 percent:

Surprisingly accurate hair detection.

I’ve never seen Portrait Mode on the iPhone X isolate individual strands of hair like that. That’s the exception not the norm on the XS, but still.

My takeaway is that the Neural Engine really is a big fucking deal for photography and video. Supposedly, it’s just as big a deal for AR, but the camera has been my obsessive focus this past week. For users, it’s a big fucking deal because it has a dramatic, practical, real-time effect on the quality of the photos and videos they can shoot. None of this happens in post; all of it is visible live, as you shoot. And for Apple, it’s a big fucking deal because I don’t think any of their competitors have something like this. Support for the Neural Engine permeates iOS and the entire A12 I/O system. Android handset makers can’t just buy a “neural engine” chip and stick it in a phone. Google does advanced machine learning — including for photos — but they do it in the cloud. You shoot a photo, upload it to Google’s servers, and they analyze the dumb photo to make it better. Their input is a JPEG file.

With the iPhone XS and Apple Neural Engine, the input isn’t an image, it’s the data right off the sensors. It’s really kind of nuts how fast the iPhone XS camera is doing things in the midst of capturing a single image or frame of video. One method is create an image and then apply machine learning to it. The other is to apply machine learning to create the image. One way Apple is doing this with video is by capturing additional frames between frames while shooting 30 FPS video, even shooting 4K. The whole I/O path between the sensor and the Neural Engine is so fast the iPhone XS camera system can manipulate 4K video frames like Neo batting away bullets in The Matrix.

The New Wide-Angle Lens and Sensor

Apple describes the XS as sporting “dual 12MP wide-angle and telephoto cameras”. This will be obvious to most of you, but in case it’s not, they’re not just dual rear-facing lenses, they’re dual rear-facing cameras. The wide-angle and telephoto lenses each have their own sensor. As a user you don’t have to know this, and should never notice it. The iPhone XS telephoto camera is the same as in the iPhone X — same lens, same sensor.

But the iPhone XS wide-angle camera has a new lens, which I believe to be superior to last year’s, and an amazing new sensor which is remarkably better than last year’s. And last year’s was very good.

I don’t want to wander too far into the weeds here, but bear with me. Focal length is how wide a lens is. A wide-angle lens has a lower focal length; a telephoto lens has a higher one. The camera industry advertises focal lengths in terms of their equivalence to a 35 mm film camera system. So on an actual 35 mm film camera or a full-frame DSLR (so called because the sensor is the same size as a frame of 35 mm film), a “28 mm lens” has an actual focal length of 28 mm.

Phone camera sensors are way smaller than 35 mm. They’re tiny in comparison. The lenses are tiny in comparison too. The actual focal length of a phone camera lens is much smaller than the focal length in 35 mm equivalent terms. So for example, the telephoto lens on both the iPhone X and XS has an equivalent focal length of 52 mm. That means if you took photos from the same spot with the iPhone XS telephoto lens and a full-frame DSLR with a 52 mm lens, you’d capture the same field of view in the resulting images from both cameras. They would appear to be equally wide. But the actual optical focal length of the iPhone XS telephoto lens is 6 mm. You can see the actual focal length of the lens used to capture any image in your library by opening the Info palette in the MacOS Photos app — the focal length is right next to the ISO value. It’s stored in the image as part of the EXIF data.

Here’s where it gets interesting. (I swear.) The iPhone X’s wide-angle lens had an equivalent focal length of 28 mm. Its actual focal length was 4.0 mm.

When I first started comparing side-by-side shots from the iPhone XS and iPhone X using the wide-angle lens, I noticed that the shots from the iPhone XS had a slightly larger field of view. They were a little bit wider. Look at the photos of the clown photo booth above and you can see it clearly. I didn’t move at all between those shots — both phones were roughly the same distance from the subjects, but the iPhone XS captured more of the scene. Apple confirmed to me that this is true — the iPhone XS wide-angle lens has an equivalent focal length of 26 mm. Not a lot wider, but enough to be noticeable. But when you look at the actual focal length of the lens in Photos (or any other app that can display the EXIF data of the image files), it is 4.25 mm.

0.25 mm may sound tiny but consider that the “telephoto” lens is only 6 mm. The equivalent focal length is wider, but the actual focal length is longer. This made no sense to me at first. Then I realized it would make sense if the camera sensor were a lot larger. And lo, here’s what Apple’s iPhone XS camera page says:

More low‑light detail. The camera sensor features deeper, larger pixels. Deeper to improve image fidelity. And larger to allow more light to hit the sensor. The result? Even better low‑light photos.

“Larger” is all they say. Not how much larger. That left me with the assumption that it was only a little bit larger, because if it were a lot larger, they’d be touting it, right? There are “field of view” calculators you can use to compute the sensor size given the other variables, so I used one, and by my calculations, the sensor would be over 30 percent larger.

I repeat: over 30 percent larger.

That seemed too good to be true. But I checked, and Apple confirmed that the iPhone XS wide-angle sensor is in fact 32 percent larger. That the pixels on the sensor are deeper, too, is what allows this sensor to gather 50 percent more light. This exemplifies why more “megapixels” are not necessarily better. One way to make a sensor bigger is to add more pixels. But what Apple’s done here is use the same number — 12 megapixels — and make the pixels themselves bigger. 12 megapixels are plenty — what phone cameras need are bigger pixels.

I think what makes this 32 percent increase in sensor size hard to believe, especially combined with a slightly longer lens, is that by necessity, this combination means the sensor must be further way from the lens. The basic necessity of moving the lens further from the sensor (or film) is why DSLRs are so big compared to a phone. But the iPhone XS is exactly the same thickness as the iPhone X, including the camera bump. (Apple doesn’t publish the bump thickness but I measured with precision calipers.) So somehow Apple managed not only to put a 32 percent larger sensor in the iPhone XS wide-angle camera, but also moved the sensor deeper into the body of the phone, further from the lens.

And to geek out even more, even though the XS has a wider field of view, because the actual lens element on the XS is longer than the X, it gets this wider field of view without introducing additional wide-angle lens barrel distortion — in fact, because the actual lens is longer, I suspect there’s less barrel distortion. Slightly less of that generally undesirable fisheye effect, even though the field of view is slightly wider.

Why isn’t Apple touting this larger sensor? Well, look at how long it took me to get to the end of this section. It’s a rabbit hole. They got out of this whole digression by just saying the sensor gathers 50 percent more light. On the one hand, that’s really all that matters. But on the other hand, to my ears at least, “50 percent more light” seems a bit hand-wavy.

“32 percent larger sensor”, however, means something very specific, and it should perk up the ears of any photographer — even one who’s skeptical of Apple’s “computational photography” claims. You could sell an upgrade to the XR to iPhone X-owning photo enthusiasts just by telling them the sensor is so much larger.

The other explanation I can think of is that this almost certainly isn’t Apple’s own sensor. Camera sensors aren’t something Apple designs on its own (yet?). So maybe they don’t want to call extra attention to something that is bound to appear in other high-end phones soon.

Apple isn’t celebrating this new sensor, but photographers will be.

The Great Thickening

I knew that last year’s iPhone X was thicker than the previous few years of iPhones, which was interesting in and of itself. But I didn’t think about it as part of a years-long trend. The iPhone 5 series phones (including the SE) were all 7.6 mm thick, with no camera bump. The iPhone 6 dropped to 6.9 mm, and this crept up to 7.1 mm with the iPhone 6S and 7, and then up to 7.3 with the iPhone 8. (The Plus model counterparts of each generation were all 0.2 mm thicker.) One common refrain during the iPhone 6 era was Apple had taken its obsession with thinness too far. No one thought the iPhone 5 wasn’t thin enough, but lots of people had problems getting all-day battery life. Why didn’t Apple maintain the same overall thickness of the thin-enough iPhone 5 and use the extra volume for a slightly bigger battery?

Well, the iPhone X, XS, and XS Max are all 7.7 mm thick — just a hair thicker than the iPhone 5. And those iPhones all share the biggest ever camera bump — at the bump, they’re all 9.05 mm thick. And the iPhone XR is even thicker: 8.3 mm. Apple does tend to make its products ever thinner and lighter, but they’ve reversed course with the entire iPhone X series. I think this is the right trade-off, both for battery life to allow for a bigger camera.


  • Apple is calling the iPhone XS Face ID “Advanced Face ID”. I asked why they weren’t calling it “second generation”, like they did with Touch ID, and was told it’s because Face ID is more of a system. Second-generation Touch ID was a single new component. A complicated component, but a component. The improvements to Face ID aren’t just a component in the sensor array — they’re tied to things like the Neural Engine in the A12. Is it actually an improved experience? I think so, but it’s hard for me to say because Face ID works so well for me with my iPhone X.

  • Apple describes the glass (front and back) on the iPhone XS as “the most durable glass ever in a smartphone”. I asked, and according to Apple, this means both crack and scratch resistance.

  • One imperfection: the antenna lines on the iPhone X were symmetric; on iPhone XS they are not. And a side effect of the new antenna line on the bottom left is that the speaker grille holes are no longer symmetric — there are 3 on the left and 6 on the right on the XS, and 4 on the left and 7 on the right for the XS Max. The iPhone X had 6 symmetric holes on each side. I guessed this new antenna layout was for dual SIM support, but I was wrong. It’s for 4 × 4 MIMO license-assisted access technology, which is how the iPhone XS supports gigabit LTE where available. I would trade symmetry for gigabit LTE — my only question is how many people can actually take advantage of it?

  • One thing that’s weird about Portrait Mode is that you can’t edit it on other devices. If you use an iPhone X to edit a Portrait Mode photo shot on an iPhone XS, you can modify the lighting effects, because the iPhone X supports lighting effects. But to play with the bokeh depth of field f-stops, you have to use an iPhone XS because it depends on the A12’s Neural Engine. An iMac Pro has a more powerful CPU than an iPhone XS, but it doesn’t have a Neural Engine, and the bokeh effect depends upon it.

  • The default wallpapers for iPhone XS (they’re actually soap bubbles, not planets, as I original thought) hide the sensor array notch with a black background. Purely a coincidence, I’m sure. The notch was a worthwhile tradeoff. But the device looks better when it’s hidden by a black background, and that’s how the iPhone XS looks in the initial ad campaign.

  • There’s a cool XS-exclusive feature in Settings → Camera → Record Video. If you’re shooting at 30 FPS — whether in 720p, 1080p, or 4K — you can enable “Auto Low Light FPS”, which will drop the framerate to 24 FPS on the fly whenever it deems necessary to get better low light exposures. This can happen in the middle of recording. Start recording in a bright room and move to a dark one or turn down the lights, and the framerate with change within the clip.


For anyone upgrading from an older iPhone, the iPhone XS and XS Max should seem amazing in every regard. Compared to last year’s iPhone X, the XS and XS Max are solid refinements across the board, but deliver a dramatic year-over-year step forward in photo and video quality. If you care about the image quality of the photos and videos you shoot with your phone, it’s hard to resist.

What I find most interesting is that the two things responsible for that step forward — the A12 system (including the same Apple Neural Engine) and the much larger new wide-angle camera sensor — are included in the upcoming iPhone XR, which, for the same amount of storage, costs $250 less than than the XS and $350 less than the XS Max. I suspect there are a lot of people out there who don’t care about the telephoto lens on the XS and who don’t see much if any difference between the XR’s LCD display and the XS’s OLED one who are looking at these prices thinking they must be missing something. They’re not.

iPhones can’t compete with big dedicated cameras in lens or sensor quality. It’s not even close. The laws of physics prevent it. But those traditional camera companies can’t compete with Apple in custom silicon or software, and their cameras can’t compete with iPhones in terms of always-in-your-pocket convenience and always-on internet connectivity for sharing. In the long run, the smart money is to bet on silicon and software.

  1. Mind your p’s and q’s; don’t forget to dot your i’s and cross your t’s. ↩︎

  2. Personally, I never use my iPhone in landscape orientation except when using the camera, watching video, or playing a game. So that feature is meaningless to me — neither a plus nor minus. ↩︎︎

  3. I don’t have an XR in hand, and haven’t seen one since Apple’s event last week. If history is any guide, they won’t seed review units until mid-October, a few days before they start taking pre-orders on the 19th and 10-11 days before they start shipping and arrive in stores on the 26th. ↩︎︎

  4. If you live in San Francisco or are ever in town and you enjoy standup, I highly recommend you go. It’s just great. Get tickets in advance, though — they’re sold out in advance most nights. ↩︎︎

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1902 days ago
I don't know really. iPhone is stale. Software is stale. Lot of times it don't work well or intuitively. Its relatively smooth and I find these days the only reason to own an iPhone is iMessage and tomorrow perhaps because of new iWatch. Photography Pixel is better.

While Pixel 2 XL is less smooth in software I find that I reach for it more often than not and prefer it over iPhone X. I don't see iPhone Xmas changing that.
1901 days ago
The sane holds for the pixel phones too though, same boring small hardware bumps and software features. This is why nobody gets excited about a new iMac or a new Hewlett-Packard or whatever, technology can only improve so fast. The lead time on a CPU design is usually two years or more, so predictability is inevitable. Apple, much like Intel or AMD, are working on the CPUs of 2020 and beyond today, much like Sony/Canon etc are designing the camera sensors of 2020 and beyond. Saying a new smartphone is boring is literally the most boring thing you can say.
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Computer History Museum Releases Eudora’s Source Code


Len Shustek, writing for The Computer History Museum:

Eventually many email clients were written for personal computers, but few became as successful as Eudora. Available both for the IBM PC and the Apple Macintosh, in its heyday Eudora had tens of millions of happy users. Eudora was elegant, fast, feature-rich, and could cope with mail repositories containing hundreds of thousands of messages. In my opinion it was the finest email client ever written, and it has yet to be surpassed.

I still use it today, but, alas, the last version of Eudora was released in 2006. It may not be long for this world. With thanks to Qualcomm, we are pleased to release the Eudora source code for its historical interest, and with the faint hope that it might be resuscitated. I will muse more about that later.

I still miss classic Eudora in a lot of ways.

Here are some telling statistics:

The Windows version of Eudora is written in C++. The source tree consists of 8,651 files in 565 folders, taking up 458 MB. There are both production (“Eudora71”) and test (“Sandbox”) versions of the code.

The Macintosh version of Eudora is an entirely different code base and is written in C. The source tree consists of 1,433 files in 47 folders, taking up 69.9 MB.

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2020 days ago
I do remember Eudora sucked. I remember trying it couple of times and giving up.
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