Goldstuck on Gadgets

Apple goes back to its old future

March 29th, 2016
Last week Apple went back to its old future, with a 4” iPhone that looks like a 5s but with 6s insides. Confused? So is Apple, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.
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When marketing hype for a new product emphasises adjectives over facts and benefits, it’s usually a sign that its creators may be running out of ideas.

Last week’s unveiling of the new iPhone SE with 4-inch screen coincided with World Poetry Day, which seemed to be the cue to wax lyrical. The official announcement made less of the phone’s features than of the “beloved compact aluminium design that has been updated with matte-chamfered edges, a colour-matched stainless steel Apple logo, and four gorgeous metallic finishes, including rose gold”.

The facts are that the phone looks similar to the iPhone 5c released in 2013 with a 4” screen, but with iPhone 6s insides. From a 12MP camera (compared to 8MP on the 5s) and 2GB RAM (vs 1GB) to Apple A9 processor (vs A7) and 14 hours talk-time (vs 10 hours), it is clearly a far more powerful device. But then, it should be, given a 30-month period since the 5c release, in which time smartphone performance has been dramatically ramped up by most manufacturers.

Philip Schiller, Apple’s senior vice president of Worldwide Marketing, called the iPhone SE “an exciting new idea”, justifying this puzzling statement by saying Apple “started with a beloved, iconic design and reinvented it from the inside out”.

“The result,” he said, “is the most beautiful and powerful phone with a four-inch display in the world.” By now, the official Apple line trotted out with each new iPhone release – “the most powerful iPhone ever”, “the best iPhone ever” – is wearing thin. If each new release were NOT the best or fastest yet, THAT would be news.

There is one claim made by Schiller that we can swallow more easily: “Everyone who wants a smaller phone is going to love iPhone SE.”

But therein lies the real problem for Apple. It held off global demand for bigger screens for several years after Samsung began leading the market into larger displays with the Galaxy S3 in 2012. It only gave in with the iPhone 6 in late 2014, by which time it had lost massive market share to the South Korean manufacturer.

It also produced a large-format version, the 5.5” iPhone 6 Plus, which was positioned precisely to compete with Samsung’s 5.7” Note “phablet” format. There it jostles for attention with numerous players in the phablet space, from the LG G4 to the Huawei Ascend Mate S to the Sony Xperia Z5 Premium. Low-cost players like Xiaomi, Alcatel also compete vigorously in this format, and we even have a homegrown manufacturer, Mint, that is beginning to pick up significant market share with larger displays.

It is ironic, then, that Apple is not trying to differentiate itself by going in the opossite direction, producing a phone that is smaller than almost anything in the mid-market. For some time, Samsung and Sony have appeared to be giving users an equivalent to the 4” iPhone, with their Mini and Compact ranges, but with slightly bigger screens at 4.5” and 4.6”.

Even more ironic,  the entry-level smartphone market is beginning a transition from 3.5” to 4.5” phones. There are three reasons for this: as volume of production rises, the cost of the larger display is coming down in price rapidly, to the extent that it will soon be more conomical to produce larger screens; an increasing use of video and images on phones and in apps makes larger screens more comofrtable and appropriate; and larger phones ha e higher perceived value.

The most unlikely reason for the new device is the argument by some that, because a large proportion of iPhone users still have 4” devices and have not yet upgraded, they are clearly waiting for new, more powerful 4” model. That is no doubt Apple’s fondest hope, but it appears unlikely. Again, given the rise of video as a primary content platform on phones, users are not only upgrading for the sake of hardware, but also for a better software and content experience.
That said, the new device has given fans of the 4” format a significant boost in power and quality. It shoots HD video with support for 4K, with a resolution of 3840 x 2160. Video capture goes up to 60fps for 1080p video and 240fps for slo-mo, and includes time-lapse with video stabilisation.

A Retina Flash is claimed to make the display three times brighter with True Tone lighting technology, and the phone includes the iPhone 6s camera features, like panorama photos up to 63MP in size.

All of which supports the argument that this is the most powerful 4” phone in the world. The competition is hardly formidable, though: low-end devices from Sony, Samsung, LG, Huawei, Lenovo and ZTE, and entry-level phones from numerous no-name brands.

However, in its price range – it retails at $399 in the USA, meaning It will cost somewhere between R7 000 and R10 000 in South Africa – it may well be the only 4” premium phone in the world.

* Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram on @art2gee

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