iPhone 14 Pro innovation scorecard: The homeruns and the strikeouts

Apple’s flagship product launch of 2022 is in the books and our hands have now clasped the iPhone 14 Pro. How does it measure up this year? Let’s talk about the best — and the most important — innovations in the new iPhones. Let’s also talk about what we didn’t get, and what we’re still waiting for.

We should remind ourselves that despite the name of the product, this is actually the 16th generation iPhone. And over the past decade and a half, no product has had a bigger impact on the world than this one. So every time there’s a new version, it means something. The innovations in the iPhone will impact millions of lives and will also have an impact on lots of other products — and not just phones.

all-iphone-models-graphic

Beth Mauder/ZDNET

So what are the top innovations this year, and what were the missed opportunities? Let’s break them down.

The hits

1. Emergency safety features

Apple introduced both Car Crash Detection and Emergency SOS via Satellite. The Crash Detection feature uses a mix of sensors to detect when you’ve had a collision and pops up a message to see if you need help. If you don’t respond then it automatically calls emergency services on your behalf. 

Emergency SOS is for when you’re out of range of cell towers in a remote area and it guides you to point your phone at a satellite and select a pre-written emergency prompt to send for help. Hopefully, you would never need to use either of these features, but if you did, they could certainly make a huge impact on your life and the people who care about you. It’s another indication of how much these devices are becoming an even more critical part of our lives.

2. A new interface for notifications

In the Pro models, Apple has replaced the much-maligned — although distinctive — notch with a pill-shaped black oval. The company also named it Dynamic Island. While both of those choices drew some initial laughs, it turns out Apple has actually done something pretty interesting with this. It’s turned a previously useless area of the screen into a new user interface element to handle notifications, multitasking and live updates. For example, when you’re listening to a song or a podcast and you switch to another application, the cover art turns into a small circle anchored on this black oval. If you then start a timer, it pops into a separate circle on the other side.  

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Up to two quick-access bubbes can live within Dynamic Island. 

June Wan/ZDNET

There are also a whole host of new animations that give you immediate confirmation indicators for FaceID, connecting AirPods, turning on the silent switch, engaging wireless charging and a lot more. And the live activities functionality is expected to get a lot more useful as third-party apps start using it to show live sports scores, the status of your ride-sharing ride, delivery updates, workout timers and other uses no one has even imagined yet.

3. Pro-level camera upgrades

It’s clear that Apple is putting a lot of energy and some of its best minds to work in making these cameras better every year, and this year we got some very promising upgrades. First, the main sensor jumps from 12 megapixels to 48 megapixels. Now, most of the time, the software will do what’s called pixel-binning and squeeze those 48 megapixels down to 12 to create a richer, sharper and more detailed photo. But, pros can also shoot in RAW to get all 48 megapixels and then use software like Adobe Lightroom to dig into the details. 

Also: New iPhone 14 models compared: Which one should you buy?

The front camera also gets a nice upgrade with stronger low light capabilities and now autofocus, which should be especially helpful for group selfies. The ultrawide camera gets an upgrade that promises to make its low-light capability better, which had been a key weakness. And then there’s the video camera. Last year’s killer feature, Cinematic Mode, gets an upgrade to 4K and lets you shoot in 24 frames per second, the gold standard for movie making. And new this year, the video camera also gets Action Mode, which is essentially next-level stabilization that’s aimed at creating movements so smooth that you don’t need a gimbal. We’ll be testing that for sure.

4. A powerful new display

The excellent display on last year’s iPhone got a big upgrade in the iPhone 14 Pro. It pushes peak brightness up to 1,600 nits, which matches the capability of the $5,000 Pro Display XDR for Mac. It can even burst up to 2,000 nits outdoors so that you can still view the phone screen in full sunlight. At the same time, it adds a second ambient light sensor to the back of the phone to improve efficiency and accuracy when automatically adjusting the brightness level. Meanwhile, the display’s ProMotion feature automatically adjusts the refresh rate between 10Hz and 120Hz to conserve battery life.

That combination of power and efficiency is what enabled Apple to finally bring an always-on display to the iPhone this year. And with the new custom Lock Screen and widgets in iOS 16, the always-on display is implemented very effectively. It just needs more developers to take advantage of it so that there are more lock-screen widgets to choose from.

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The new always-on display uses the ambient sensor to dim itself in darker environments.

June Wan/ZDNET

The misses

1. No 10x optical zoom

As a camera, the iPhone keeps getting better and better – and this year saw more leaps ahead. But it’s still missing something big. I’ve talked about the fact that since 2010, I’ve carried an iPhone as my personal phone and an Android as my work phone. And in the last several years, there’s one type of shot where I don’t pull out the iPhone but always pull out the Android. (In 2022, that’s specifically the Samsung S22 Ultra). And that shot is anything that’s more than 10 or 20 feet away, which is all the iPhone can handle with its 3x optical zoom. 

The S22’s 10x optical zoom can capture impressively sharp images on subjects that are up to 50-60 feet away. If these were lenses on a DSLR or mirrorless camera, the iPhone 14’s 3x zoom would be about a 77mm lens while the S22’s 10x zoom would be about a 230mm lens. Samsung will release its 4th generation 10x optical zoom in the next six months. Meanwhile, we’ll have to wait at least another year before we’ll see the equivalent on an iPhone.

2. The physical SIM card is gone

If you buy an iPhone in the US, it will no longer include a SIM tray or a physical SIM card. All US iPhone 14 models are now eSIM-only. And while this has some benefits for ease of activation, ease of switching carriers and ease of adding secondary numbers, it also has some big drawbacks. First and foremost is privacy. With a physical SIM, there are still cases where you can be anonymous and difficult to track. With an eSIM, that’s much harder. 

This eSIM limitation can also make it more difficult to travel internationally to countries like China that don’t support eSIM. And, it can limit your access to low-cost wireless carriers like Ting, which doesn’t yet support eSIM. That’s why Apple will still have physical SIM cards in the international versions of the iPhone 14. While expanding support for eSIM makes a lot of sense — perhaps even moving toward making it the default option — it is not a very consumer-friendly choice to remove the physical SIM altogether.

More: The worst thing about the eSIM-only iPhone 14

3. It still needs a case

The use of stainless steel in the iPhone 14 Pro and 14 Pro Max continue to make it one of the heaviest phones on the market. If Apple used a similar titanium to what’s in the Apple Watch Ultra – which is much lighter than I expected – then the iPhone 14 Pro models would be much easier to handle. But the current heaviness combined with the slipperiness of the steel bands around the edges makes it very easy to slide out of your hand. Most people will still need to put a case on this phone. And it will still be true that many of the ugliest cases in the world will end up on some of the most beautifully designed devices in the world. 

iphone-14-pro-camera-shot

Jason Hiner/ZDNET

4. We keep waiting for USB-C

The iPhone 14 continues to dutifully use Apple’s proprietary Lightning connector for charging and data transfers — even though it’s technologically inferior to USB-C. Even Apple’s own iPad Pro tablets have been using USB-C since 2018. The reasons are clear: faster charging and data transfers and the ability to connect to more accessories including cameras, power banks, monitors and more. Plus, with so many other devices from laptops to headphones to the Nintendo Switch now using USB-C, it makes it very consumer friendly to be able to charge them all using the same connector.

The iPhone 14 Pro itself adds another reason why USB-C would have been a very welcome feature this year. With the ability to shoot photos in 48MP ProRAW and video in ProRes, the new iPhone can capture professional-level photos and video, which then need to be transferred to a computer to edit. But the file sizes can be huge. The data transfer rate of Lightning cables max out at 480Mbps, while USB-C can do 4x that at 2Gbps and beyond. Apple may eventually be forced to switch to USB-C by European regulators, but for now the wait continues.

More to come

ZDNET will continue putting all the new iPhone 14 models through lots of different real world scenarios in the weeks and months ahead. We’ll have reviews, howtos, comparisons and deep dives on specific features. So stay tuned. Here are a few links to get you started:


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