Phones

Apple overhauls its privacy pages, and now lets U.S. customers download their own data

Apple has refreshed and expanded its privacy website, a month after its most recent iPhone and Mac launches. You’re not going to see much change from previous years — the privacy pages still state the same commitments that Apple’s long held, like that privacy is a “fundamental human right” and that your information is largely on your iPhones, iPads and Macs. And, now with a bevy of new security and privacy features in iOS 12 and macOS Mojave, the pages are updated to include new information about end-to-end encrypted group FaceTime video calls and improvements to intelligence tracking protections — and, how it uses differential privacy to understand which are the most popular features so it can improve, without being able to identify individual users. One key addition this time around: Apple is expanding its data portal to allow U.S. customers to get a copy of the data that the company stores on them. It’s the same portal that EU customers have been able to use since May, when the new EU-wide data protection rules — known as General Data Protection Regulation, or GDPR — went into effect. That mandated companies operating in Europe to allow customers to obtain a copy of their own data. Apple’s making good on its promise earlier this year that it would expand the feature to U.S. customers. But because the company doesn’t store that much data on you in the first place — don’t expect too much back. When I asked Apple for my own data, the company turned over only a few megabytes of spreadsheets, including my order and purchase histories, and marketing information. Any other data that Apple stores is either encrypted — so it can’t turn over — or was only held for a short amount of time and was deleted. That’s a drop in the ocean compared to data hungry services like Facebook and Google, which compiled an archive of my data ranging from a few hundred megabytes to over a couple of gigabytes of data. Apple refreshes its privacy pages once a year, usually a month or so after its product launches. It first launched its dedicated privacy pages in 2014, but aggressively began pushing back against claims revealed after the NSA surveillance scandal. A year later, the company blew up the traditional privacy policy in 2015 by going more full-disclosure than any other tech giant at the time. Since then, its pages have expanded and continued to transparently lay out how the company encrypts user data on its devices, so not even the company can read it — and, when data is uploaded, how it’s securely processed and stored.

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Apple rebukes Australia’s “dangerously ambiguous” anti-encryption bill

Apple has strongly criticized Australia’s anti-encryption bill, calling it “dangerously ambiguous” and “alarming to every Australian.” The Australian government’s draft law — known as the Access and Assistance Bill — would compel tech companies operating in the country, like Apple, to provide “assistance” to law enforcement and intelligence agencies in accessing electronic data. The government claims that encrypted communications are “increasingly being used by terrorist groups and organized criminals to avoid detection and disruption,” without citing evidence. But critics say that the bill’s “broad authorities that would undermine cybersecurity and human rights, including the right to privacy” by forcing companies to build backdoors and hand over user data — even when it’s encrypted. Now, Apple is the latest company after Google and Facebook joined civil and digital rights groups — including Amnesty International — to oppose the bill, amid fears that the government will rush through the bill before the end of the year. In a seven-page letter to the Australian parliament, Apple said that it “would be wrong to weaken security for millions of law-abiding customers in order to investigate the very few who pose a threat.” “We appreciate the government’s outreach to Apple and other companies during the drafting of this bill,” the letter read. “While we are pleased that some of the suggestions incorporated improve the legislation, the unfortunate fact is that the draft legislation remains dangerously ambiguous with respect to encryption and security.” “This is no time to weaken encryption,” it read. “Rather than serving the interests of Australian law enforcement, it will just weaken the security and privacy of regular customers while pushing criminals further off the grid.” Apple laid out six focus points — which you can read in full here — each arguing that the bill would violate international agreements, weaken cybersecurity and harm user trust by compelling tech companies to build weaknesses or backdoors in its products. Security experts have for years said that there’s no way to build a “secure backdoor” that gives law enforcement authorities access to data but can’t be exploited by hackers. Although Australian lawmakers have claimed that the bill’s intentions are not to weaken encryption or compel backdoors, Apple’s letter said the “the breadth and vagueness of the bill’s authorities, coupled with ill-defined restrictions” leaves the bill’s meaning open to interpretation. “For instance, the bill could allow the government to order the makers of smart home speakers to install persistent eavesdropping capabilities into a person’s home, require a provider to monitor the health data of its customers for indications of drug use, or require the development of a tool that can unlock a particular user’s device regardless of whether such tool could be used to unlock every other user’s device as well,” the letter said. Apple’s comments are some of the strongest pro-encryption statements it’s given to date. Two years ago, the FBI sued Apple to force the technology giant to build a tool to bypass the encryption in an iPhone used by one fo the the San Bernardino shooters, who killed 14 people in a terrorist attack in December 2015. Apple challenged the FBI’s demand — and chief executive Tim Cook penned an open letter called the move a “dangerous precedent.” The FBI later dropped its case after it paid hackers to access the device’s contents. Australia’s anti-encryption bill is the latest in a string of legislative efforts by governments to seek greater surveillance powers. The U.K. passed its Investigatory Powers Act in 2016, and earlier this year the U.S. reauthorized its foreign surveillance laws with few changes, despite efforts to close warrantless domestic spying loopholes discovered in the wake of the Edward Snowden disclosures. The Five Eyes group of governments — made up of the U.K., U.S., Canada, Australia and New Zealand — further doubled down on its anti-encryption aggression in recent remarks, demanding that tech companies provide access or face legislation that would compel their assistance. ‘Five Eyes’ governments call on tech giants to build encryption backdoors — or else

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Apple rebukes Australia’s “dangerously ambiguous” anti-encryption bill

Apple has strongly criticized Australia’s anti-encryption bill, calling it “dangerously ambiguous” and “alarming to every Australian.” The Australian government’s draft law — known as the Access and Assistance Bill — would compel tech companies operating in the country, like Apple, to provide “assistance” to law enforcement and intelligence agencies in accessing electronic data. The government claims that encrypted communications are “increasingly being used by terrorist groups and organized criminals to avoid detection and disruption,” without citing evidence. But critics say that the bill’s “broad authorities that would undermine cybersecurity and human rights, including the right to privacy” by forcing companies to build backdoors and hand over user data — even when it’s encrypted. Now, Apple is the latest company after Google and Facebook joined civil and digital rights groups — including Amnesty International — to oppose the bill, amid fears that the government will rush through the bill before the end of the year. In a seven-page letter to the Australian parliament, Apple said that it “would be wrong to weaken security for millions of law-abiding customers in order to investigate the very few who pose a threat.” “We appreciate the government’s outreach to Apple and other companies during the drafting of this bill,” the letter read. “While we are pleased that some of the suggestions incorporated improve the legislation, the unfortunate fact is that the draft legislation remains dangerously ambiguous with respect to encryption and security.” “This is no time to weaken encryption,” it read. “Rather than serving the interests of Australian law enforcement, it will just weaken the security and privacy of regular customers while pushing criminals further off the grid.” Apple laid out six focus points — which you can read in full here — each arguing that the bill would violate international agreements, weaken cybersecurity and harm user trust by compelling tech companies to build weaknesses or backdoors in its products. Security experts have for years said that there’s no way to build a “secure backdoor” that gives law enforcement authorities access to data but can’t be exploited by hackers. Although Australian lawmakers have claimed that the bill’s intentions are not to weaken encryption or compel backdoors, Apple’s letter said the “the breadth and vagueness of the bill’s authorities, coupled with ill-defined restrictions” leaves the bill’s meaning open to interpretation. “For instance, the bill could allow the government to order the makers of smart home speakers to install persistent eavesdropping capabilities into a person’s home, require a provider to monitor the health data of its customers for indications of drug use, or require the development of a tool that can unlock a particular user’s device regardless of whether such tool could be used to unlock every other user’s device as well,” the letter said. Apple’s comments are some of the strongest pro-encryption statements it’s given to date. Two years ago, the FBI sued Apple to force the technology giant to build a tool to bypass the encryption in an iPhone used by one fo the the San Bernardino shooters, who killed 14 people in a terrorist attack in December 2015. Apple challenged the FBI’s demand — and chief executive Tim Cook penned an open letter called the move a “dangerous precedent.” The FBI later dropped its case after it paid hackers to access the device’s contents. Australia’s anti-encryption bill is the latest in a string of legislative efforts by governments to seek greater surveillance powers. The U.K. passed its Investigatory Powers Act in 2016, and earlier this year the U.S. reauthorized its foreign surveillance laws with few changes, despite efforts to close warrantless domestic spying loopholes discovered in the wake of the Edward Snowden disclosures. The Five Eyes group of governments — made up of the U.K., U.S., Canada, Australia and New Zealand — further doubled down on its anti-encryption aggression in recent remarks, demanding that tech companies provide access or face legislation that would compel their assistance. ‘Five Eyes’ governments call on tech giants to build encryption backdoors — or else

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Vital Labs’ app can measure changes in your blood pressure using an iPhone camera

If a twinkle in the eye of a venture capitalist could predict the longevity of a startup, Vital Labs is going all the way. During a quick demo of the Burlingame, Calif.-based startup’s app, called Vitality, True Ventures partner Adam D’Augelli’s enthusiasm was potent. The company, which emerges from stealth today, is pioneering a new era of personalized cardiovascular healthcare, he said. Vitality can read changes in a person’s blood pressure using an iPhone’s camera and graphics processing power. The goal is to replace blood pressure cuffs to become the most accurate method of measuring changes in blood pressure and eventually other changes in the cardiovascular system. The app is still in beta testing and is expected to complete an official commercial rollout in 2019. The technology relies on a technique called photoplethysmography. By turning on the light from a phone’s flash and placing a person’s index finger over the camera on the back of the phone, the light illuminates the blood vessels in the fingertip and the camera captures changes in intensity as blood flows through the vessels with each heartbeat. This technique results in a time-varying signal called the blood-pulse waveform (BPW). The app captures a 1080p video at 120 frames per second and processes that data in real time using the iPhone’s graphics processing unit to provide a high-resolution version of a person’s BPW. The startup was founded by Tuhin Sinha, Ph.D., the former technical director for UCSF’s Health eHeart Study. He’s been working on the app for several years. “Part of the reason this project strikes a chord with me is because if I look at the stats of my own family, I probably only have 20 years left,” Sinha told TechCrunch. “Most people on my dad’s side of the family have passed away before 60 from cardiovascular disease.” Prior to joining UCSF, Sinha was an instructor at Vanderbilt University and the director of the Center for Image Analysis, where he directed and developed medical image analysis algorithms. He linked up with True Ventures in June 2015, raising a total of $1 million from the early-stage venture capital firm. “[Sinha] saw an opportunity to improve a stagnant practice and invented a new approach that takes full advantage of today’s technologies,” True’s D’Augelli said in a statement. Three years after that initial funding, Sinha says Vital Labs is looking to raise another round of capital with plans to create additional digital tools to advance cardiovascular health.

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Vital Labs’ app can measure changes in your blood pressure using an iPhone camera

If a twinkle in the eye of a venture capitalist could predict the longevity of a startup, Vital Labs is going all the way. During a quick demo of the Burlingame, Calif.-based startup’s app, called Vitality, True Ventures partner Adam D’Augelli’s enthusiasm was potent. The company, which emerges from stealth today, is pioneering a new era of personalized cardiovascular healthcare, he said. Vitality can read changes in a person’s blood pressure using an iPhone’s camera and graphics processing power. The goal is to replace blood pressure cuffs to become the most accurate method of measuring changes in blood pressure and eventually other changes in the cardiovascular system. The app is still in beta testing and is expected to complete an official commercial rollout in 2019. The technology relies on a technique called photoplethysmography. By turning on the light from a phone’s flash and placing a person’s index finger over the camera on the back of the phone, the light illuminates the blood vessels in the fingertip and the camera captures changes in intensity as blood flows through the vessels with each heartbeat. This technique results in a time-varying signal called the blood-pulse waveform (BPW). The app captures a 1080p video at 120 frames per second and processes that data in real time using the iPhone’s graphics processing unit to provide a high-resolution version of a person’s BPW. The startup was founded by Tuhin Sinha, Ph.D., the former technical director for UCSF’s Health eHeart Study. He’s been working on the app for several years. “Part of the reason this project strikes a chord with me is because if I look at the stats of my own family, I probably only have 20 years left,” Sinha told TechCrunch. “Most people on my dad’s side of the family have passed away before 60 from cardiovascular disease.” Prior to joining UCSF, Sinha was an instructor at Vanderbilt University and the director of the Center for Image Analysis, where he directed and developed medical image analysis algorithms. He linked up with True Ventures in June 2015, raising a total of $1 million from the early-stage venture capital firm. “[Sinha] saw an opportunity to improve a stagnant practice and invented a new approach that takes full advantage of today’s technologies,” True’s D’Augelli said in a statement. Three years after that initial funding, Sinha says Vital Labs is looking to raise another round of capital with plans to create additional digital tools to advance cardiovascular health.

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Most iOS devices now run iOS 12 according to Mixpanel’s data

Analytics company Mixpanel is currently tracking the install base of iOS 12. And the latest version of iOS is quite popular, as it’s already installed on roughly 47.6 percent of all iOS devices; 45.6 percent of devices still run iOS 11, and 6.9 percent of iOS users run an older version. Adoption rate is an important metric for app developers. With major iOS releases, Apple also releases new frameworks. But developers still need to support old versions of iOS for a little bit before moving entirely to newer frameworks and dropping support for old iOS versions. But it’s interesting to see that you can already drop support for iOS 10 without losing too many customers. Chances are that users who don’t update their version of iOS don’t really care about having the latest version of your app anyway. With iOS 11, it took much longer to reach that level. Last year, Apple announced on November 6th that iOS 11 was more popular than iOS 10. Sure, Mixpanel and Apple don’t have the exact same numbers, but you can already see that the trend is different this year. iOS 12 focuses on performance. Apple has optimized this major release for older devices, such as the iPhone 6. All devices that run iOS 11 can update to iOS 12 as well. Basically, if you want a faster phone, you should update to iOS 12. This is a bit counterintuitive, as previous iOS releases had rendered older devices much slower. But based on the adoption rate, it sounds like iOS users got the message. iOS 12 makes your phone faster than ever

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Most iOS devices now run iOS 12 according to Mixpanel’s data

Analytics company Mixpanel is currently tracking the install base of iOS 12. And the latest version of iOS is quite popular, as it’s already installed on roughly 47.6 percent of all iOS devices; 45.6 percent of devices still run iOS 11, and 6.9 percent of iOS users run an older version. Adoption rate is an important metric for app developers. With major iOS releases, Apple also releases new frameworks. But developers still need to support old versions of iOS for a little bit before moving entirely to newer frameworks and dropping support for old iOS versions. But it’s interesting to see that you can already drop support for iOS 10 without losing too many customers. Chances are that users who don’t update their version of iOS don’t really care about having the latest version of your app anyway. With iOS 11, it took much longer to reach that level. Last year, Apple announced on November 6th that iOS 11 was more popular than iOS 10. Sure, Mixpanel and Apple don’t have the exact same numbers, but you can already see that the trend is different this year. iOS 12 focuses on performance. Apple has optimized this major release for older devices, such as the iPhone 6. All devices that run iOS 11 can update to iOS 12 as well. Basically, if you want a faster phone, you should update to iOS 12. This is a bit counterintuitive, as previous iOS releases had rendered older devices much slower. But based on the adoption rate, it sounds like iOS users got the message. iOS 12 makes your phone faster than ever

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See the new iPhone’s ‘focus pixels’ up close

The new iPhones have excellent cameras, to be sure. But it’s always good to verify Apple’s breathless onstage claims with first-hand reports. We have our own review of the phones and their photography systems, but teardowns provide the invaluable service of letting you see the biggest changes with your own eyes — augmented, of course, by a high-powered microscope. We’ve already seen iFixit’s solid-as-always disassembly of the phone, but TechInsights gets a lot closer to the device’s components — including the improved camera of the iPhone XS and XS Max. Although the optics of the new camera are as far as we can tell unchanged since the X, the sensor is a new one and is worth looking closely at. Microphotography of the sensor die show that Apple’s claims are borne out and then some. The sensor size has increased from 32.8mm2 to 40.6mm2 — a huge difference despite the small units. Every tiny bit counts at this scale. (For comparison, the Galaxy S9 is 45mm2, and the soon-to-be-replaced Pixel 2 is 25mm2.) The pixels themselves also, as advertised, grew from 1.22 microns (micrometers) across to 1.4 microns — which should help with image quality across the board. But there’s an interesting, subtler development that has continually but quietly changed ever since its introduction: the “focus pixels.” That’s Apple’s brand name for phase detection autofocus (PDAF) points, found in plenty of other devices. The basic idea is that you mask off half a sub-pixel every once in a while (which I guess makes it a sub-sub-pixel), and by observing how light enters these half-covered detectors you can tell whether something is in focus or not. Of course, you need a bunch of them to sense the image patterns with high fidelity, but you have to strike a balance: losing half a pixel may not sound like much, but if you do it a million times, that’s half a megapixel effectively down the drain. Wondering why all the PDAF points are green? Many camera sensors use an “RGBG” sub-pixel pattern, meaning there are two green sub-pixels for each red and blue one — it’s complicated why. But there are twice as many green sub-pixels and therefore the green channel is more robust to losing a bit of information.Apple introduced PDAF in the iPhone 6, but as you can see in TechInsights’ great diagram, the points are pretty scarce. There’s one for maybe every 64 sub-pixels, and not only that, they’re all masked off in the same orientation: either the left or right half gone. The 6S and 7 Pluses saw the number double to one PDAF point per 32 sub-pixels. And in the 8 Plus, the number is improved to one per 20 — but there’s another addition: now the phase detection masks are on the tops and bottoms of the sub-pixels as well. As you can imagine, doing phase detection in multiple directions is a more sophisticated proposal, but it could also significantly improve the accuracy of the process. Autofocus systems all have their weaknesses, and this may have addressed one Apple regretted in earlier iterations. Which brings us to the XS (and Max, of course), in which the PDAF points are now one per 16 sub-pixels, having increased the frequency of the vertical phase detection points so that they’re equal in number to the horizontal one. Clearly the experiment paid off and any consequent light loss has been mitigated or accounted for. I’m curious how the sub-pixel patterns of Samsung, Huawei and Google phones compare, and I’m looking into it. But I wanted to highlight this interesting little evolution. It’s an interesting example of the kind of changes that are hard to understand when explained in simple number form — we’ve doubled this, or there are a million more of that — but which make sense when you see them in physical form.

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iPhone XS Max is reportedly dramatically outselling the XS

According to some early numbers from Apple analyst extraordinaire, Ming-Chi Kuo, the iPhone Max XS is currently running laps around its smaller counterpart. In a note posted by MacRumors, Kuo suggested that the 6.5-inch handset sold three to four time as well as the XS during its inaugural weekend. “We have determined that the demand for XS Max is better than expected (3–4 times that of XS),” says Kuo. “The gold and space-grey colors are significantly more popular than the silver. 256GB is the most popular, and 512GB is subject to a serious shortage because only Samsung can currently ship NAND Flash well. We are positive that XS Max shipments will grow steadily in 4Q18 thanks to demand from Asia market and the gift season.” The higher demand shouldn’t be altogether surprising. After all, the XS doesn’t mark an earth shattering upgrade over its predecessor. The Max, on the other hand, is a pretty sizable jump in display size for the company that was once suggested that consumers simple don’t want a larger phone. And while the two models are quite similar from the standpoint of specs, the bigger display will only run an extra $100. If you’re already in for $1,000, what’s another $100 between friends, right? The note also states that Apple Watch Series 4 demand is better than anticipated, while the iPhone XR is expected to be a good seller for the company. No surprise on that last one, really. The XR represents an attainable upgrade for those users unwilling or unable to pull the trigger for a $1,000 phone with last year’s handset.

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Review: iPhone XS, XS Max and the power of long-term thinking

The iPhone XS proves one thing definitively: that the iPhone X was probably one of the most ambitious product bets of all time. When Apple told me in 2017 that they put aside plans for the iterative upgrade that they were going to ship and went all in on the iPhone X because they thought they could jump ahead a year, they were not blustering. That the iPhone XS feels, at least on the surface, like one of Apple’s most “S” models ever is a testament to how aggressive the iPhone X timeline was. I think there will be plenty of people who will see this as a weakness of the iPhone XS, and I can understand their point of view. There are about a half-dozen definitive improvements in the XS over the iPhone X, but none of them has quite the buzzword-worthy effectiveness of a marquee upgrade like 64-bit, 3D Touch or wireless charging — all benefits delivered in previous “S” years. That weakness, however, is only really present if you view it through the eyes of the year-over-year upgrader. As an upgrade over an iPhone X, I’d say you’re going to have to love what they’ve done with the camera to want to make the jump. As a move from any other device, it’s a huge win and you’re going head-first into sculpted OLED screens, face recognition and super durable gesture-first interfaces and a bunch of other genre-defining moves that Apple made in 2017, thinking about 2030, while you were sitting back there in 2016. Since I do not have an iPhone XR, I can’t really make a call for you on that comparison, but from what I saw at the event and from what I know about the tech in the iPhone XS and XS Max from using them over the past week, I have some basic theories about how it will stack up. For those with interest in the edge of the envelope, however, there is a lot to absorb in these two new phones, separated only by size. Once you begin to unpack the technological advancements behind each of the upgrades in the XS, you begin to understand the real competitive edge and competence of Apple’s silicon team, and how well they listen to what the software side needs now and in the future. Whether that makes any difference for you day to day is another question, one that, as I mentioned above, really lands on how much you like the camera. But first, let’s walk through some other interesting new stuff. Notes on durability As is always true with my testing methodology, I treat this as anyone would who got a new iPhone and loaded an iCloud backup onto it. Plenty of other sites will do clean room testing if you like comparison porn, but I really don’t think that does most folks much good. By and large most people aren’t making choices between ecosystems based on one spec or another. Instead, I try to take them along on prototypical daily carries, whether to work for TechCrunch, on vacation or doing family stuff. A foot injury precluded any theme parks this year (plus, I don’t like to be predictable) so I did some office work, road travel in the center of California and some family outings to the park and zoo. A mix of uses cases that involves CarPlay, navigation, photos and general use in a suburban environment. In terms of testing locale, Fresno may not be the most metropolitan city, but it’s got some interesting conditions that set it apart from the cities where most of the iPhones are going to end up being tested. Network conditions are pretty adverse in a lot of places, for one. There’s a lot of farmland and undeveloped acreage and not all of it is covered well by wireless carriers. Then there’s the heat. Most of the year it’s above 90 degrees Fahrenheit and a good chunk of that is spent above 100. That means that batteries take an absolute beating here and often perform worse than other, more temperate, places like San Francisco. I think that’s true of a lot of places where iPhones get used, but not so much the places where they get reviewed. That said, battery life has been hard to judge. In my rundown tests, the iPhone XS Max clearly went beast mode, outlasting my iPhone X and iPhone XS. Between those two, though, it was tougher to tell. I try to wait until the end of the period I have to test the phones to do battery stuff so that background indexing doesn’t affect the numbers. In my ‘real world’ testing in the 90+ degree heat around here, iPhone XS did best my iPhone X by a few percentage points, which is what Apple does claim, but my X is also a year old. I didn’t fail to get through a pretty intense day of testing with the XS once though. In terms of storage I’m tapping at the door of 256GB, so the addition of 512GB option is really nice. As always, the easiest way to determine what size you should buy is to check your existing free space. If you’re using around 50% of what your phone currently has, buy the same size. If you’re using more, consider upgrading because these phones are only getting faster at taking better pictures and video and that will eat up more space. The review units I was given both had the new gold finish. As I mentioned on the day, this is a much deeper, brassier gold than the Apple Watch Edition. It’s less ‘pawn shop gold’ and more ‘this is very expensive’ gold. I like it a lot, though it is hard to photograph accurately — if you’re skeptical, try to see it in person. It has a touch of pink added in, especially as you look at the back glass along with the metal bands around the edges. The back glass has a pearlescent look now as well, and we were told that this is a new formulation that Apple created specifically with Corning. Apple says that this is the most durable glass ever in a smartphone. My current iPhone has held up to multiple falls over 3 feet over the past year, one of which resulted in a broken screen and replacement under warranty. Doubtless multiple YouTubers will be hitting this thing with hammers and dropping it from buildings in beautiful Phantom Flex slo-mo soon enough. I didn’t test it. One thing I am interested in seeing develop, however, is how the glass holds up to fine abrasions and scratches over time. My iPhone X is riddled with scratches both front and back, something having to do with the glass formulation being harder, but more brittle. Less likely to break on impact but more prone to abrasion. I’m a dedicated no-caser, which is why my phone looks like it does, but there’s no way for me to tell how the iPhone XS and XS Max will hold up without giving them more time on the clock. So I’ll return to this in a few weeks. Both the gold and space grey iPhones XS have been subjected to a coating process called physical vapor deposition or PVD. Basically metal particles get vaporized and bonded to the surface to coat and color the band. PVD is a process, not a material, so I’m not sure what they’re actually coating these with, but one suggestion has been Titanium Nitride. I don’t mind the weathering that has happened on my iPhone X band, but I think it would look a lot worse on the gold, so I’m hoping that this process (which is known to be incredibly durable and used in machine tooling) will improve the durability of the band. That said, I know most people are not no-casers like me so it’s likely a moot point. Now let’s get to the nut of it: the camera. Bokeh let’s do it I’m (still) not going to be comparing the iPhone XS to an interchangeable lens camera because portrait mode is not a replacement for those, it’s about pulling them out less. That said, this is closest its ever been. One of the major hurdles that smartphone cameras have had to overcome in their comparisons to cameras with beautiful glass attached is their inherent depth of focus. Without getting too into the weeds (feel free to read this for more), because they’re so small, smartphone cameras produce an incredibly compressed image that makes everything sharp. This doesn’t feel like a portrait or well composed shot from a larger camera because it doesn’t produce background blur. That blur was added a couple of years ago with Apple’s portrait mode and has been duplicated since by every manufacturer that matters — to varying levels of success or failure. By and large, most manufacturers do it in software. They figure out what the subject probably is, use image recognition to see the eyes/nose/mouth triangle is, build a quick matte and blur everything else. Apple does more by adding the parallax of two lenses OR the IR projector of the TrueDepth array that enables Face ID to gather a 9-layer depth map. As a note, the iPhone XR works differently, and with less tools, to enable portrait mode. Because it only has one lens it uses focus pixels and segmentation masking to ‘fake’ the parallax of two lenses. With the iPhone XS, Apple is continuing to push ahead with the complexity of its modeling for the portrait mode. The relatively straightforward disc blur of the past is being replaced by a true bokeh effect. Background blur in an image is related directly to lens compression, subject-to-camera distance and aperture. Bokeh is the character of that blur. It’s more than just ‘how blurry’, it’s the shapes produced from light sources, the way they change throughout the frame from center to edges, how they diffuse color and how they interact with the sharp portions of the image. Bokeh is to blur what seasoning is to a good meal. Unless you’re the chef, you probably don’t care what they did you just care that it tastes great. Well, Apple chef-ed it the hell up with this. Unwilling to settle for a templatized bokeh that felt good and leave it that, the camera team went the extra mile and created an algorithmic model that contains virtual ‘characteristics’ of the iPhone XS’s lens. Just as a photographer might pick one lens or another for a particular effect, the camera team built out the bokeh model after testing a multitude of lenses from all of the classic camera systems. I keep saying model because it’s important to emphasize that this is a living construct. The blur you get will look different from image to image, at different distances and in different lighting conditions, but it will stay true to the nature of the virtual lens. Apple’s bokeh has a medium-sized penumbra, spreading out light sources but not blowing them out. It maintains color nicely, making sure that the quality of light isn’t obscured like it is with so many other portrait applications in other phones that just pick a spot and create a circle of standard gaussian or disc blur. Check out these two images, for instance. Note that when the light is circular, it retains its shape, as does the rectangular light. It is softened and blurred, as it would when diffusing through the widened aperture of a regular lens. The same goes with other shapes in reflected light scenarios. Now here’s the same shot from an iPhone X, note the indiscriminate blur of the light. This modeling effort is why I’m glad that the adjustment slider proudly carries f-stop or aperture measurements. This is what this image would look like at a given aperture, rather than a 0-100 scale. It’s very well done and, because it’s modeled, it can be improved over time. My hope is that eventually, developers will be able to plug in their own numbers to “add lenses” to a user’s kit. And an adjustable depth of focus isn’t just good for blurring, it’s also good for un-blurring. This portrait mode selfie placed my son in the blurry zone because it focused on my face. Sure, I could turn the portrait mode off on an iPhone X and get everything sharp, but now I can choose to “add” him to the in-focus area while still leaving the background blurry. Super cool feature I think is going to get a lot of use. It’s also great for removing unwanted people or things from the background by cranking up the blur. And yes, it works on non humans. If you end up with an iPhone XS, I’d play with the feature a bunch to get used to what a super wide aperture lens feels like. When its open all the way to f1.4 (not the actual widest aperture of the lens btw, this is the virtual model we’re controlling) pretty much only the eyes should be in focus. Ears, shoulders, maybe even nose could be out of the focus area. It takes some getting used to but can produce dramatic results. Developers do have access to one new feature though, the segmentation mask. This is a more precise mask that aids in edge detailing, improving hair and fine line detail around the edges of a portrait subject. In my testing it has led to better handling of these transition areas and less clumsiness. It’s still not perfect, but it’s better. And third-party apps like Halide are already utilizing it. Halide’s co-creator, Sebastiaan de With, says they’re already seeing improvements in Halide with the segmentation map. “Segmentation is the ability to classify sets of pixels into different categories,” says de With. “This is different than a “Hot dog, not a hot dog” problem, which just tells you whether a hot dog exists anywhere in the image. With segmentation, the goal is drawing an outline over just the hot dog. It’s an important topic with self driving cars, because it isn’t enough to tell you there’s a person somewhere in the image. It needs to know that person is directly in front of you. On devices that support it, we use PEM as the authority for what should stay in focus. We still use the classic method on old devices (anything earlier than iPhone 8), but the quality difference is huge. The above is an example shot in Halide that shows the image, the depth map and the segmentation map. In the example below, the middle black-and-white image is what was possible before iOS 12. Using a handful of rules like, “Where did the user tap in the image?” We constructed this matte to apply our blur effect. It’s no bad by any means, but compare it to the image on the right. For starters, it’s much higher resolution, which means the edges look natural. My testing of portrait mode on the iPhone XS says that it is massively improved, but that there are still some very evident quirks that will lead to weirdness in some shots like wrong things made blurry and halos of light appearing around subjects. It’s also not quite aggressive enough on foreground objects — those should blur too but only sometimes do. But the quirks are overshadowed by the super cool addition of the adjustable background blur. Live preview of the depth control is not in iOS 12 at the launch of the iPhone XS, but it will be coming in a future version of iOS 12 this fall. I also shoot a huge amount of photos with the telephoto lens. It’s closer to what you’d consider to be a standard lens on a camera. The normal lens is really wide and once you acclimate to the telephoto you’re left wondering why you have a bunch of pictures of people in the middle of a ton of foreground and sky. If you haven’t already, I’d say try defaulting to 2x for a couple of weeks and see how you like your photos. For those tight conditions or really broad landscapes you can always drop it back to the wide. Because of this, any iPhone that doesn’t have a telephoto is a basic non-starter for me, which is going to be one of the limiters on people moving to iPhone XR from iPhone X, I believe. Even iPhone 8 Plus users who rely on the telephoto I believe will miss it if they don’t go to the XS. But, man, Smart HDR is where it’s at I’m going to say something now that is surely going to cause some Apple followers to snort, but it’s true. Here it is: For a company as prone to hyperbole and Maximum Force Enthusiasm about its products, I think that they have dramatically undersold how much improved photos are from the iPhone X to the iPhone XS. It’s extreme, and it has to do with a technique Apple calls Smart HDR. Smart HDR on the iPhone XR encompasses a bundle of techniques and technology including highlight recovery, rapid-firing the sensor, an OLED screen with much improved dynamic range and the Neural Engine/image signal processor combo. It’s now running faster sensors and offloading some of the work to the CPU, which enables firing off nearly two images for every one it used to in order to make sure that motion does not create ghosting in HDR images, it’s picking the sharpest image and merging the other frames into it in a smarter way and applying tone mapping that produces more even exposure and color in the roughest of lighting conditions. iPhone XS shot, better range of tones, skintone and black point iPhone X Shot, not a bad image at all, but blocking up of shadow detail, flatter skin tone and blue shift Nearly every image you shoot on an iPhone XS or iPhone XS Max will have HDR applied to it. It does it so much that Apple has stopped labeling most images with HDR at all. There’s still a toggle to turn Smart HDR off if you wish, but by default it will trigger any time it feels it’s needed. And that includes more types of shots that could not benefit from HDR before. Panoramic shots, for instance, as well as burst shots, low light photos and every frame of Live Photos is now processed. The results for me have been massively improved quick snaps with no thought given to exposure or adjustments due to poor lighting. Your camera roll as a whole will just suddenly start looking like you’re a better picture taker, with no intervention from you. All of this is capped off by the fact that the OLED screens in the iPhone XS and XS Max have a significantly improved ability to display a range of color and brightness. So images will just plain look better on the wider gamut screen, which can display more of the P3 color space. Under the hood As far as Face ID goes, there has been no perceivable difference for me in speed or number of positives, but my facial model has been training on my iPhone X for a year. It’s starting fresh on iPhone XS. And I’ve always been lucky that Face ID has just worked for me most of the time. The gist of the improvements here are jumps in acquisition times and confirmation of the map to pattern match. There is also supposed to be improvements in off-angle recognition of your face, say when lying down or when your phone is flat on a desk. I tried a lot of different positions here and could never really definitively say that iPhone XS was better in this regard, though as I said above, it very likely takes training time to get it near the confidence levels that my iPhone X has stored away. In terms of CPU performance the world’s first 7nm architecture has paid dividends. You can see from the iPhone XS benchmarks that it compares favorably to fast laptops and easily exceeds iPhone X performance. The Neural Engine and better A12 chip has meant for better frame rates in intense games and AR, image searches, some small improvement in app launches. One easy way to demonstrate this is the video from the iScape app, captured on an iPhone X and an iPhone XS. You can see how jerky and FPS challenged the iPhone X is in a similar AR scenario. There is so much more overhead for AR experiences I know developers are going to be salivating for what they can do here. The stereo sound is impressive, surpassingly decent separation for a phone and definitely louder. The tradeoff is that you get asymmetrical speaker grills so if that kind of thing annoys you you’re welcome. Upgrade or no Every other year for the iPhone I see and hear the same things — that the middle years are unimpressive and not worthy of upgrading. And I get it, money matters, phones are our primary computer and we want the best bang for our buck. This year, as I mentioned at the outset, the iPhone X has created its own little pocket of uncertainty by still feeling a bit ahead of its time. I don’t kid myself into thinking that we’re going to have an honest discussion about whether you want to upgrade from the iPhone X to iPhone XS or not. You’re either going to do it because you want to or you’re not going to do it because you don’t feel it’s a big enough improvement. And I think Apple is completely fine with that because iPhone XS really isn’t targeted at iPhone X users at all, it’s targeted at the millions of people who are not on a gesture-first device that has Face ID. I’ve never been one to recommend someone upgrade every year anyway. Every two years is more than fine for most folks — unless you want the best camera, then do it. And, given that Apple’s fairly bold talk about making sure that iPhones last as long as they can, I think that it is well into the era where it is planning on having a massive installed user base that rents iPhones from it on a monthly or yearly or biennial period. Because that user base will need for-pay services that Apple can provide. And it seems to be moving in that direction already, with phones as old as the five-year-old iPhone 5s still getting iOS updates. With the iPhone XS, we might just be seeing the true beginning of the iPhone-as-a-service era.

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