Five years after Apple introduced the notch that generated initial mockery and then quickly imitators, the American tech giant is once again meandering as others hang on to the screen’s design: a pill-shaped clip called “Dynamic Island.”
The pill-shaped separation, in and of itself, isn’t new to smartphones – Huawei and Vivo phones have used it in the past. It’s there because smartphones need to fit the front camera components while keeping a thin border around the screen.
But Apple is the first company to design a software interface around the class to give the illusion that the separator can grow in size. This basically goes against what Android brands have been trying to do for years – keep the screen as small as possible. Instead, Apple embraces the separation and wants to draw the user’s attention to it.
It’s a bold move, and Dynamic Island is also generating a lot of criticism from the regular Android audience. But I like it, and find it a huge improvement over the notch design.
How does dynamic island work
Depending on what the iPhone is doing, black pixels will fill around the hole, making it look as if the size is changing. It can stretch longer, turn into a square box, or a larger bubble that covers roughly the top quarter of the screen. Apple uses these shapes to house user interface information. Play music from Spotify, for example, and you’ll see the album cover art displayed on the island. Initiate an audio recording note, and the tape of the audio wave flows along the island, moving along each syllable to indicate the recording. Navigate with Apple Maps, and you’ll see a solid arrow pointing in the direction you want to go. With Apple opening up access to Dynamic Island to third-party developers, the possibilities are endless. You’ll likely get airport gate information and even live sports scores in space in the near future – if you so choose. You can always turn this off if you find the information too distracting.
Personally, I find Al Jazeera a fun and clever way to give us the information we need to see. Instead of having to scroll a panel to see the information, Apple places it in a fixed view next to an area that already has a cutout in the screen. Seeing the shape shift in size, or wiggle when clicked, gives the user interface personality, and makes the iPhone feel alive.
Not everyone likes this, as mentioned. Many Android fans or display fans think it absurd to voluntarily design software to interrupt the screen more than it should. It’s all opinions finally for now, as Dynamic Island is still in its very early days, and doesn’t do enough to fundamentally change the way we use the phone just yet. I think Apple will get there.
If you can’t be neglectful about whether the screen cutout takes up 2% or 5% of the screen, and if you find Dynamic Island’s heated debate in tech circles right now absurd — don’t worry, there are other improvements to the iPhone that still make it a noteworthy device.
Bigger sensor, more pixels
The iPhone 14 Pro Max (and its younger brother the Pro) also got a new 48-megapixel main camera. This is the first time Apple has skipped the standard 12MP cameras in nearly a decade. It’s a much-needed step, as the best Android smartphones have taken the higher megapixel path for a few years already.
Of course, more pixels don’t always mean a better camera, but more pixels raise the bar for what software algorithms can do, and we’re at a point in smartphone photography where software algorithms are getting very good. Like Android phones, the new iPhone doesn’t use the 48MP camera to take 48MP photos, but rather uses a process called pixel-binning (which combines four pixels into one) to produce a 12MP super image.
The improvements are minor, but the iPhone 14 Pro Max’s main camera shots carry more dynamic range in better detail than the last generation iPhones. Apple also designed a new “Photonic Engine” image processing pipeline to hold more image information at the RAW level (before software cheats strip data), resulting in photos that not only look better on the phone, but can be edited a bit more easily in software. .
Photos taken with the iPhone 14 Pro Max look great most of the time, although I still find Apple’s color science too warm for my taste. I can adjust this later, but overall I prefer the way Google Pixel produces colors better. Also, if we get the tech, something like the Xiaomi 12s Ultra with a 1-inch image sensor can still catch more light and retain more image detail without having to digitally sharpen the shot. Long story short – I think the iPhone 14 Pro Max is a great fixed camera, but I still wouldn’t say it’s the best.
But where the iPhone 14 Pro Max really shines is in the video performance. Apple has always led the group here, likely because the process of capturing and rendering video takes a lot more processing power than producing a still image, so this is where Apple’s superior synergy with silicon and hardware software comes into play. But whatever the case, the iPhone has always had superior video stabilization and better real-time adaptation to changing light sources than the best Android phones.
That’s still the case this year, except for videos that have a better ISO range to excel in low light, and Apple has also introduced a new electronic image stabilization mode called Motion Mode that offers jaw-dropping stabilization. Essentially, Action Mode sees the iPhone cropped into the original image and uses machine learning to analyze and stabilize the shots, and the results are unfamiliar. Even if I’m sprinting at full speed (which you can see in the video below), the video stays mostly flat, and looks like it’s floating on a axis.
As someone who shoots a lot of videos, the new Action 14 Pro Max mode in the iPhone 14 Pro Max is a game changer, and the biggest camera upgrade to the iPhone this year in my opinion.
New chip, same story
Another area where Apple has led the industry for years is mobile silicon. Apple’s A-chips are more powerful than top Android counterparts (usually a Qualcomm Snapdragon chip) every year, and the new A16 Bionic chip powering the iPhone 14 Pro Max once again outperforms the Qualcomm Snapdragon 8 Plus Gen 1 that powers the latest Android devices right now.
Although, to be fair, smartphone chips have become so powerful that the difference in strength is starting to become less significant in real life. Qualcomm’s best chips are still more powerful enough for 99% of smartphone consumers, even if they fall short of the A16 Bionic in every benchmark test.
Where the iPhone chip’s advantage is notable is if you need to perform more intensive tasks that include video. Putting the above action into place is probably very good given the ability of Apple silicon to process all that data in real time. Similarly, when I export 360 videos (which are usually larger file sizes) captured by Insta360 cameras, the process is at least three times faster on the iPhone 14 Pro Max than on the best Android phone. But again, we’re talking about an eight-second difference versus 25-30 seconds. It is not quite enough for me to give up using Android phones entirely and go with the iPhone full time.
Legendary battery life
Where the chip brings real-world benefits is that it gives the iPhone 14 Pro Max tremendous battery life, despite the fact that the phone has a very bright large screen (2000 nits) and a screen refresh rate of 120Hz. Throughout my testing, the battery never ran out before the day was up. Even on Sundays, when I’m usually out from morning until 10-11pm for a total of 13-14 hours outside, the iPhone 14 Pro Max still comfortably runs out (more than 20%) of battery. This is definitely because the A16 Bionic is very energy efficient, and plays well with Apple devices, as we know that the actual battery size inside the phone is no bigger than that of the Android competitors.
iPhone 14 Pro Max runs on Apple’s iOS 16 and all the usual Apple features are here. The software is fast and responsive, and has the best application ecosystem on the planet. It plays nicely with other Apple products like Mac, Apple Watch, or AirPods. There is more overall cohesion and synergy between Apple products than Samsung or Xiaomi products.
On the first day of testing this iPhone, for example, I was surprised when it automatically connected to the WiFi of a coffee shop I used to frequent, but hadn’t visited in two years. But since I delivered one of my Apple products years ago, the iPhone knew it.
With the iPhone 14 series, Apple is introducing Crash Detection, which will apparently detect when you’ve had a car accident and alert emergency services and your assigned close contact within a minute of the accident. Apple says the feature uses a combination of iPhone sensors along with Apple software that has been trained through car crash studies over the past several years. We have to take Apple’s word on it for now, as I don’t plan to test this feature on purpose.
Best iPhone in a while
Those who are familiar with my work may know that I’m not very Apple-friendly and am fully immersed in the Apple ecosystem, and I can also test almost every top Android phone released, so I’d like to think my iPhone reviews carry a bit more context.
With that in mind, I think the iPhone 14 Pro series is one of the biggest upgrades in recent memory. It’s definitely a bigger improvement over the 13 Pro series, or the 13 Pros were more than the 12 Pros for that matter.
Dynamic Island will, in my opinion, be a game-changer in the smartphone user interface; The A16 Bionic is so powerful and efficient that it’s close to being overused, and the move to a more pixel-dense and larger sensor finally gives Apple more of a hardware cut-out for image processing, which previous iPhones were lagging behind Android competitors.
While I still don’t think the iPhone 14 Pro Max has the best camera for taking still photos, the best phone from Samsung can zoom even further; Xiaomi’s best phone still has a significantly larger image sensor – and it’s now competitive enough to have a solid body as the second or third best still camera. And when we consider the bulky iPhone behemoths found in video and portrait photography, I think the iPhone 14 Pro Max’s camera system is the most polished overall.
Factor in the best-in-class ecosystem and this is the biggest iPhone upgrade since the 7 to the X. If you’re an iPhone user, the iPhone 14 Pro Max is worth an upgrade as long as the $1,099 starting price doesn’t hurt your money.
If you’re excited about Android, I’m not sure the new iPhone does enough to get your attention just yet, but it’s closer than ever.