If something isn’t broken, don’t fix it. The saying is true enough but leads to a different issue: if nothing is new, why upgrade?
The iPhone 14 Pro is barely different than the 13 Pro. And that’s both great and sad. But if you love Apple, you’ll love the 14 Pro.
It really is hard to tell what’s changed with the latest iPhone. Put the iPhone 14 Pro next to the iPhone 13 Pro, squint, and you’ll finally see that the newer cameras stick out a bit more. But beyond that, they look physically identical.
But Apple isn’t alone in “iterative updates.” The Fold 4 proved to be a “spot the difference” game compared to its predecessor. There’s a good reason for that—whether Fold or iPhone, these phones have reached a good form factor, and with change comes risk.
But Apple did make a few changes here and there. While forgoing the one change we all want. Was it enough to set the iPhone 14 Pro apart? Maybe not yet.
Design: Almost Unchanged
I’ve already said it, but it’s worth repeating. Apple went with a “we have a good design, don’t change it” formula here. Lay the iPhone 14 Pro next to the iPhone 13 Pro, and only the front and back cameras give away which is which. You’ll have to stare really close and then assume bigger is newer (not always a given!).
That’s honestly not a complaint. For years we’ve been trained “get the newest, latest, and greatest for these amazing design changes!” And frankly, most people don’t need the newest, latest, and greatest. And those who stay on the bleeding edge usually have to endure growing pains induced by new designs. It can be a pain. I do wish, however, that Apple would get with the picture and adopt USB-C already. Some things shouldn’t stay the same.
The iPhone 13 Pro is, in my opinion, one of the best iPhone designs Apple has ever released. It feels great in the hand and is one of the few devices that don’t feel like they’ll fly out of my hand as fast as a wet bar of soap. It’s utterly recognizable, and most of the choices are designed with the user in mind. All of that goes for the iPhone 14 Pro; just about everything great about the 13 Pro is here.
Except for a few things. If you’re in the U.S., that means you won’t have a SIM card tray. Instead, you have to use an eSIM, and hopefully, your carrier supports it. The good news is the major carriers already supported eSIM, and it was just MVNOs holding out. The better news is the sheer fear of not supporting the latest iPhone was enough to give the MVNOs a swift kick in the butt, and support is quickly on the rise.
The bad news is eSIM may not be as convenient as a traditional SIM, despite promises otherwise. For most people, this won’t matter, but as a phone reviewer and if you like to switch phones while traveling for safety, it probably does.
But still, it shows the sheer muscle power of Apple, once again forcing other companies and people into the future. Without this change, there’s no telling if or when MVNOs would have started supporting eSIM. Probably closer to never. With one small announcement, Apple changed the world of smartphones again. And if we get to the point where transferring an eSIM is as easy as transferring a physical SIM, it’ll be a bright world. Or at least one friendlier to paperclips.
The other drastic change is one limited to just iPhone 14 Pro—the Dynamic Island.
The rumors are almost… sort of. Over a year before the announcement, certain leakers claimed the iPhone 14 series would see the introduction of a hole punch front-facing camera. That would have been a dramatic change from the large notch seen since the iPhone X. But we didn’t exactly get a hole punch. Apple reduced the size of the notch to something you might call an extra wide oval.
That does mean you get a bit of screen above the front-facing camera stack, as seen in the traditional hole punch layout. But it’s small enough to not be useful. Instead, Apple went in a different and unique direction. The company made the front-facing camera useful for additional functions in a feature it dubbed Dynamic Island.
And yes, it’s silly to name this feature, but that’s the Apple way. Also, the Apple Way? A gorgeous amount of polish and a beautiful design. The Dynamic Island turns the front-facing camera into an interactive action center. Play some music, and the camera becomes a sort of music player with album art and a waveform. You can touch it to open the music app or press and hold to expand quick music controls. Frankly, that’s backward. I touched all the time hoping to expand music controls only to have it open the app.
It’s not just music apps, though. Your phone calls show up in the Dynamic Island, as does Face ID, your AirPod connection, timers, and more. But that “more” isn’t as long a list as I would like. More often than not, the Dynamic Island isn’t all that dynamic.
There’s plenty of potential here, but for now, it’s going to come down to whether app developers adapt to using it and if Apple continues to support it. That’s a big question that looms, especially after the fabled promises of 3D Touch. I have more hopes here, though, since 3D Touch was largely invisible and easy to forget about, while Dynamic Island begs for attention. And in the meantime, there is a pretty good Pong-style game that makes use of the Dynamic Island already.
Cameras: Apple Proves Its Greatness Again
Here’s a dirty little tech reviewer secret. When I have plenty of time, I always prefer to take photos with my DSLR. That gives me the best base material to work with when it comes time to cleanup in photoshop and make sure everything looks right.
But when I’m pressed for time? When I know I need a “good enough, great enough” shot now with very little work after? I grab a smartphone and take the picture. And nine times out of ten, I grab an iPhone 13 Pro. But going forward, that’s going to change. Now my backup camera will be the iPhone 14 Pro.
New to the iPhone 14 Pro is an updated main camera that finally bumps things up from 12 megapixels to 48 megapixels. You get a few benefits out of that, and the most noteworthy is pixel binning, or as Apple calls it, “quad pixels.” In this case, Apple takes four pixels and combines them into one larger pixel. You end up with a 12-megapixel photo but’s far improved over what the previous 12-megapixel lens can manage.
That’s nothing new, Samsung, OnePlus, and Google already introduced pixel binning on previous phones. But it’s still a welcome improvement. And as far as innovation, Apple didn’t miss out on a bit of new. With smartphone cameras, most “zoom” photos are just digital crops that give you a blurry mess of a photo. A telephoto lens can help, but then you have to be careful to choose the right zoom to get a true “optical” zoom.
Apple found a nice medium ground, though. You still have the 3X from the telephoto lens, and it takes decent pictures. But now you’ll also find a 2x option as well. In that scenario, Apple is cropping out the middle 12 megapixels from the 48-megapixel lens. It’s a perfect version of digital crop—you won’t get a blurry mess. And I often found that 2x is exactly where I’d want to zoom.
Every sensor got an upgrade with 14 Pro, and it shows. When it comes to phones technically speaking, the phone that takes the very best photos sometimes is still the Pixel 6 Pro. But it also sometimes takes the worst photos. Samsung consistently provides “B+” results, and you get a few whizbang telephoto features. And Apple will consistently provide “A-” photos. The iPhone 14 Pro is the phone to reach for if you always want a pretty good photo with little effort.
It’s not perfect, though. Under default camera settings, Apple has a tendency to blow out blue sky and hide clouds. You can change exposure to correct that, but most people want to point and shoot. Hopefully, Apple improves on that in the future.
Should You Buy the iPhone 14 Pro
Recommending the iPhone 14 Pro is a bit harder than I would have expected before Apple announced the lineup. In a vacuum, the iPhone 14 Pro is, simply put, an amazing smartphone. It does have the “it just works” vibe that Apple is known for, and the cameras are spectacular.
But we don’t live in a vacuum. The iPhone 13 Pro exists, and the iPhone 14 standard is an option too. If you’re already on the iPhone 13 Pro, I can’t see a single compelling reason to upgrade. The cameras aren’t that much better, and the Dynamic Island needs work.
If you’re on a much older iPhone, like the iPhone 8, then yes, you should upgrade to something new. But you might want to consider the standard iPhone 14, which is pretty great, too, and less expensive. If, however, you say to yourself, “I need the most consistently great camera smartphone money can buy,” then you want the iPhone 14 Pro.
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