Apple iPhone 14 Review: Iterative Upgrades

A new TrueDepth front camera means that you have autofocus for the first time, which is great and seems to function fine, but leaves me wondering why it wasn’t there before. It also has a faster f/1.9 aperture for better low-light selfies (up to 2x, Apple says, “thanks to Photonic Engine”).

Ah yes, Photonic Engine. Not as good a name as Dynamic Island, but still catchy. Remember “Deep Fusion” where an iPhone automatically took multiple images and cherry-picked the best bits? Photonic Engine is basically a pimped version of this as it applies Deep Fusion to uncompressed images earlier in the pipeline, supposedly enabling the use of more data for more detail. Apple says Photonic Engine dramatically improves photos taken in mid- to low-light scenes. I can’t agree with the word “dramatically” here. 

iPhone 14Photograph: Jeremy White

iPhone 14Photograph: Jeremy White

Basically, all of this new image processing is supposed to represent a huge improvement for the iPhone camera. But, unfortunately, I have to agree with my colleague Julian’s view of the Pros on this one (he is a real photographer, rather than a point-and-click phone camera jockey like me): It’s hard to notice any significant upgrade from last year, particularly for casual users like me. 

Video is where the iPhone shines, and even more so with the new iPhone 14. I once showed a professional car videographer the stabilization built into the iPhone when we were shooting a video of the electric Mini. He couldn’t believe how good it was, and we immediately ditched his camera/gimbal setup and shot with the iPhone handheld. 

If that wasn’t enough, now the iPhone 14 has “Action mode,” which you can toggle on while shooting video for extra stabilization. It works up to 2.8 K resolution and 60 fps and effectively takes an already superb iPhone feature and raises it to another level. It’s worth noting that it requires a lot of light to work well, but there is a toggle in the camera settings menu to enable Action mode in low light (the sacrifice being decreased stabilization). As a final flourish, Apple has also bumped up Cinematic mode from 1080p to support 4K resolution up to 30 fps.

The Best Yet?

We all know Apple likes saying its products are “the best yet.” Yes, it’s accurate, but it’s also deceptive. Any company can add an insignificant feature or reduce the weight of a product by 0.07 ounces and legitimately claim it is “the best yet.” The real measure of an upgrade is whether customers notice it even if they aren’t told about it. Does the iPhone 14 clear this bar? No.

I have spent more than a week playing with mine, streaming video, taking pictures, making calls, browsing sites, playing games (please do try the superb Grand Mountain Adventure), and listening to music, but if you took the iPhone 14 away and replaced it with not just the 13 but my old iPhone 12, I don’t think I’d notice much of a difference at all. This is the best vanilla iPhone yet, but the upgrades are so iterative that the vast majority of people, provided they have the latest version of iOS, simply won’t need to upgrade. 

All Apple had to do to make this iPhone 14 a bigger hit with potential upgraders was to give it the Dynamic Island, rather than saving that for one of next year’s trickledown improvements. Who cares if it’s not game-changing? It’s a clever trick that makes smart use of some dead space hiding the Face ID sensors. It makes it look new!

Ultimately, Apple itself underlines what’s wrong with the iPhone 14 upgrades. Take a look at the revamped AirPods Pro. We love them. Just like the iPhone 14, these wireless earbuds look the same, but such is the uplift in noise canceling, sound quality, and battery life, plus a charging case complete with its own speaker, that almost anyone would be hard-pressed to ignore the improvements. As for the iPhone 14, the best iPhone yet, how would I, and my hairdresser, sum it up? Underwhelming.

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