Apple Unveils the iPhone 5

Apple unveiled its highly-anticipated next-generation iPhone, the iPhone 5, today. Here are some of the most notable changes that the iPhone 5 brings:

  • Larger display:  The 3.5″ 960×640 4:3 display (dubbed a “retina display” based on pixel density by Apple) found on previous iPhone models was increased to a 4″ 1136×640 16:9 widescreen display.  The increased size is due to the display being elongated vertically; in other words, it remains the same width, but adds an additional 176 rows of pixels to the length of the display.  While on a homescreen, this change adds another row of icons.  Developers will be able to modify their apps to make use of the additional space, or current apps will be centered on the display with black bars on the top and bottom, akin to how widescreen movies looked on older4:3 television sets.  The display also has 44% better color saturation than previous models.
  • LTE capability:  The iPhone 5 can now connect to faster 4G LTE networks.  There will be GSM and CDMA versions, unlike the iPhone 4S which ran on both CDMA and GSM networks.
  • Lighting connector:  Apple has done away with the 30-pin connector that it introduced with the iPod and replaced it with a smaller connector that works whichever way one plugs it in.  Apple said this was necessary to make the iPhone 5 thinner.  It appears the Lightning connector will become the standard across all portable Apple devices, and Apple said audio manufacturers are already implementing the new connector in their clock radios, docks, etc.  Apple will also sell converters for older devices.
  • Improved camera:  In what has become a standard Apple improvement, Apple has made the iPhone cameras better.  The rear “iSight” camera remains 8 megapixels but adds faster photo capture, better low light performance, and panorama mode.  The rear-facing camera will still record video at 1080p, but adds face detection and the ability to take photos while recording.  Of note is that the iSight camera is protected by sapphire crystal, which is very scratch resistant and is the material used on luxury watches.  The front-facing FaceTime camera has been upgraded from VGA (0.3 megapixels) to 1.2 megapixels, and it records 720p video.
  • A6 Chip:  Apple claims that the A6 chip used in the iPhone 5 will give it 8 hours of browsing time using LTE.
  • iOS 6 and Apple Maps:  The iPhone 5 will come with iOS 6, which has switched from Google Maps to an Apple mapping software which adds turn-by-turn navigation and flyover mode.
  • Thinner and lighter:  In what has become another Apple standard improvement, the iPhone 5 is 18% thinner (at 7.6 mm) and 20% lighter (at 112 grams).
  • EarPod headphones:  Apple redesigned the headphones that will come with the iPhone – they said it took 3 years! – and claim that they fit and sound better.
  • A third mic:  Apple added a third microphone to the iPhone – now there is one on the front, one on the back, and one on the bottom – that are supposed to work to cancel out background noise while on the phone.

All in all, I would say the iPhone 5 is a good, solid phone, but it is more of a catch-up with other smartphones than it is a standard-setting, industry-leading device.  It does look beautiful, and the increased screen size and LTE capability were both necessary improvements at this stage.  However, so many of the features can already be found on other devices: LTE has been on smartphones for a year and a half, 4.5″ and larger displays are really the standard, the pixel density found in the “retina display” is no longer that remarkable, there are already phones that are thinner and lighter, an 8 MP rear- and 1.2 MP front-facing camera is pretty commonplace, panorama mode was included in Android Ice Cream Sandwich almost a year ago, the ability to use FaceTime over a cellular network only catches it up to other video-conferencing programs, and I would say the booming headphone business makes the EarPods less of a draw.

And of course, the change in mapping software is also a catch-up in a way.  iOS devices have traditionally had a stripped-down Google Maps that doesn’t include turn-by-turn navigation and has more limited search results (for example, if I search “restaurant” on my iPad Maps it will return only the ten nearest results, and if I want to see restaurants in a new area I have to re-center the map and search again, while on my Galaxy Nexus Google Maps will return all restaurants, and keep showing more results as I scroll to other areas.)  I am not sure who is to blame for the stripped-down Google Maps, but better mapping software with navigation was much-needed, so in a way the new Apple Maps is an improvement.  That being said, I think Google Maps is the best and most widely-used mapping software out there, and I think the iPhone 5 would have been better off with an improved Google Maps app.

Another area where the iPhone 5 really disappointed me is the lack of NFC (Near Field Communication).  NFC allows for a variety of applications, most notably using a phone to pay for items at checkout by tapping the phone on the credit card reader in a store.  Google Wallet is a popular platform for this, but NFC allows for a variety of software.  While NFC hasn’t quite hit the mainstream yet and stores that make use of the technology are in the minority, it is a technology that is being implemented more and more and has the potential to be revolutionary.  I think Apple really dropped the ball by not including it.  Maybe most customers won’t miss it, but for a company that prides itself on innovation, Apple should have included it.

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I understand that Apple can’t release a product that changes the industry with each new iteration of the iPhone, and perhaps the lukewarm reception the iPhone 4S and the iPhone 5 has seen is a result of Apple setting the bar very high for itself.  But the bottom line is that the mobile industry is moving at a lightning-fast pace and releasing a thinner and lighter phone with beefed up specs each year won’t cut it in the long-run, and where a few years ago competitors would be racing to put out products that can compete with the iPhone after an iPhone announcement, now I can’t really see anything that Google or Android device manufacturers need to implement in order to compete with the iPhone 5.  And from what I hear Windows Phone 8 is going to be very impressive when it is released in a few months.

The iPhone 5 will no doubt be a commercial success, and there is a huge market of people who are invested in the Apple/iTunes ecosystem and/or who think the iPhone is the simplest solution for them and/or are scared of change, but just like how RIM had so many invested users who fled when a better product came out, a f light from which RIM still has not recovered, the same could happen to Apple.  I can see it now: people looking back at the iPhone the way I look back at my tiny BlackBerry Pearl, and laughing about how small the screen is and how dull the static grid of icons looks.  Now, I’m being a little facetious, and Apple, unlike RIM, does have sort of an all-encompassing ecosystem that includes music, movies, TV, computers, and printers, and that ecosystem encourages people to stay with Apple, but I think my point is still valid.  I would like to see Apple come out with something that sets a new standard in the tech world in this post-Steve Jobs era, because any company releasing better technology benefits the entire industry.

For more on the iPhone 5, check out Apple, CNETThe VergeEngadget, Gizmodo, BGR, and The New York Times.

Worth noting is that Apple also unveiled a new iPod Touch, iPod Nano, and iTunes software today.

More Android-powered Smart Cameras Are On Their Way

Polaroid unveiled a smart camera powered by Android at CES last winter. I thought it was a great idea at the time and I hoped that the concept would become more mainstream. For this reason, I was glad to see two big players – Samsung with the Galaxy Camera and Nikon with the Coolpix S800c – follow suit in announcing Android-powered cameras recently.

I think making cameras with Android (or any “smart” OS) is a really good idea. Smartphones like the iPhone, Samsung Galaxy S III, and HTC One X have 8 megapixel cameras, and the Sony Xperia S upped the ante with a 13 megapixel camera, and they all come with really cool capture, editing, and sharing features. With such sophisticated cameras already in our pockets, many consumers no longer feel it is necessary to buy and carry around a digital point-and-shoot camera. So adding some of the features that we know and love about our smartphone cameras to our digital cameras is a smart response by the manufacturers.

I still much prefer the picture quality produced by my four year-old Canon PowerShot SD 1100is point-and-shoot camera to that of my Galaxy Nexus smartphone, especially in low light settings. That being said, there are some aspects of my Galaxy Nexus camera that make the decision of which camera to use closer than it should be given the difference in image quality. For example, I really like the zero shutter lag and the single-motion panoramic mode. I also like that I can post photos to Facebook or share them directly with friends almost instantly, and that my photos and videos are automatically backed-up and synced to my computers using Dropbox. In light of these features, it seems archaic to have to connect my Canon camera to my computer via USB and then save, organize, and edit my photos on my computer when there is a much simpler and quicker method. So a device that combines the image quality of my Canon camera with the features of my Galaxy Nexus camera is really intriguing.

I’m not sure what my next camera will be – I’m thinking DSLR, actually – but I would see Android as a big selling point in selecting a camera, whether it is point-and-shoot or someday a DSLR.

CES Day 2 wrap-up: gadget waterproofing, smart camera, big TVs, and word from Motorola and Google CEOs

Day 2 of CES is in the books, and I’m still waiting for my invite. Here’re some of the stories from today that I found interesting:

Gadget Waterproofing.
9to5Mac has a nice article about how waterproofing gadgets is the “craze” at this year’s CES, and describes two different technologies being used to waterproof electronics.

The first technology is by Liquipel and uses is a really thin coating that goes around the phone to keep water out but is not detectable by the human eye. It costs $59 and you have to send your phone to the company to have it waterproofed. Here are two videos – an explanation of how it works, and a video demonstration – from Liquipel’s website:

The second technology is called HzO WaterBlock. HzO is somehow associated with Zagg of invisibleSHIELD fame, but I’m not quite sure how. WaterBlock works by coating the actual internal electronics as opposed to the outside. The company is looking to license this technology to phone manufacturers, and it is not for sale on the consumer level. Here’s a video explanation followed by a demonstration:

These technologies are both really cool, but I don’t know how they handle a removable battery door, external speaker grill, or headphone jack. I’m also not sure whether I have the intestinal fortitude to send one of my beautiful new gadgets out to get a Liquipel coating or to test to see whether either coating works by dunking my phone. I’ve never had a water-related accident with a phone so I wouldn’t go out of my way to waterproof a phone, but having a waterproof phone out of the box would be a nice feature.

Android-powered smart camera.
Not to pat myself on the back here, but this is something I’ve been talking about for a while now. We’ve come so far with camera technology as far as size of the camera and LCD screen, megapixels, zoom, and storage space go, and also with how easy and prevalent it is to share photos on the internet once they’re on a computer. But the one area that has been the same since I got my first digital camera nearly ten years ago – the 3.2 MP Canon PowerShot A70 – is how I get pictures from my camera to my computer by using a USB cable and uploading them to a folder on my computer. Today Polaroid announced the SC1630 Smart Camera, that is powered by Android and makes getting pictures from the camera to the computer and internet simple and wireless. And it can also run other apps. Looks good to me.

Large TVs.
The New York Times describes a setting where TV manufacturers are trying to outdo one another on size at this year’s CES. Examples include a Sharp 80″, and LG 84″, a Mitsubishi 92″, and Panasonic with a 65″ consumer TV (and 103″ and 152″ models for really rich people). Any of those sound good to me, though I must admit breaking the 80″ barrier would be awesome.

Motorola is cutting back on smartphones this year.
Motorola CEO Sanjay Jha announced that Motorola will release fewer phones and explore fewer new ideas this year, instead putting more efforts into advertising and making the phones and features it does release stick. Good decision.

Motorola announces the DROID RAZR Maxx.
As sort of a non sequitor, Motorola announced a new version of the DROID RAZR with a beefed up 3,300 mAh battery (as compared to 1,780 mAh battery on the original). The device inevitably adds 1.8 mm thickness to the body, and I’m sure some weight too, but it’s a good option for those who need to use 4G LTE speeds without having to charge before the evening commute.

Google CEO Eric Schmidt says Android is not fragmented.
I’ve written a few times, including yesterday, about how different manufacturers apply their own user interface, or “skin,” on top of Google’s Android operating system, and that the variety allows manufacturers to better compete with one another, but it also makes choosing an Android phone really confusing for the average customer. Today, Eric Schmidt addressed this issue, and said that there is “differentiation” but not “fragmentation” among Android devices:

Differentiation is positive, fragmentation is negative. Differentiation means that you have a choice and the people who are making the phones, they’re going to compete on their view of innovation, and they’re going to try and convince you that theirs is better than somebody else.

We absolutely allow [manufacturers] to add or change the user interface as long as they don’t break the apps. We see this as a plus; [it] gives you far more choices.

I agree. I like having the choice between different manufacturers’ user interfaces, or just going with the stock Android on the Nexus. As with anytime there are choices, however, those who aren’t well-informed can find the task of making the choice daunting – and in this case this plays into Apple’s strength of being so simple and consistent – but I think it is good for Android to have so much variety even at the risk of confusing some people.

That’s it for Day 2. Check out my Day 1 wrap-up if you missed it, and I look forward to seeing what CES brings us tomorrow.

*As a side note, this is my 100th post!*