Back when most people were on plans that saw them offered a new phone every two years, upgrading wasn’t really a decision. Paying typically $0-200, depending on your plan, saw you get the latest iPhone every other year. It would have been silly to turn it down because you’d pay the same monthly amount either way.
So the only decision most people made was whether to be on the main ‘tick’ cycle, with the new designs, or the ‘tock’ cycle that gave you the S model with the same design but new features.
But now that carriers split out phone costs from usage plans, upgrading phone becomes a much more conscious decision. You could do it every year, paying more but always having the latest model. You could continue on a two-year cycle. Or you could save a decent chunk of money by sitting out a year.
That latter option might once have seemed unlikely for 9to5Mac readers, who typically like to stay up to date, but this year could potentially be very different …
The more rumors we hear about the iPhone 7, the more it sounds like this year’s iPhone is going to be a second ‘tock’ model. Instead of the significant redesign we’re used to seeing on alternate years, all the mockups suggest that Apple plans only a minor design refresh.
Assuming the rumor mill is correct, the overall look of the iPhone 7 is going to be extremely similar to the 6/6S. The main visual differences will be tidier antenna lines, and potentially a new color – with Space Black looking the most likely contender.
Other visually identifiable differences look set to be the removal of the 3.5mm headphone jack, and the new cameras: a larger lens on the smaller model, dual cameras on the larger one.
Feature-wise, we’re expecting an upgrade to the camera capabilities of both models. We’ve heard little as yet about what the differences may be, but a larger lens on the standard model is likely to mean a wider aperture, with improved low-light performance. It may also signal a bigger sensor, which could mean a higher pixel count without degrading image quality (usually high MP counts on a small sensor introduce noise). One rumor also suggested it may get the optical image stabilization currently limited to the Plus model.
We’ve also heard little about what Apple has in mind for the twin camera setup of the iPhone 7 Plus. It could be nothing more than improved zoom capabilities, or Apple could have far more exciting possibilities in mind – like the ability to automatically blend still and video, as well as slo-mo and standard speed video, with picture-in-picture features available in-camera. We could even see the ability to change the focus point after a shot has been taken.
Other possible feature enhancements are a Force Touch Home button – which would be one less mechanical part to fail, and potentially improves the water-resistance of the phone – and 32/64/256GB storage tiers.
All-in-all, it’s not a bad package of improvements – for an S year. But this isn’t an S year, and none of the rumored enhancements in the smaller model sound compelling enough to make up for the lack of a new design. Let’s face it: non-tech buyers in particular tend to be heavily influenced by design, and even techies get bored with the same look after a while.
So KGI’s Ming-Chi Kuo, who was the first to suggest that this year’s iPhone might be underwhelming, could well be right – that it isn’t a sufficiently appealing upgrade to see significant sales.
I do need to insert a big rider here, of course. It’s still possible at this stage that Apple has some tricks up its sleeve. There may be a killer feature that it has so far managed to keep secret. Indeed, if the dual-camera patent features really do make it into the iPhone 7 Plus, that could be the killer feature right there – at least for the larger model.
But let’s assume for now that there is no big reveal, and that what we’ve heard so far is what we’re going to see unveiled in September. That would already, I think, lead many to ponder whether upgrading was worth the cost.
If that were the only concern, one might shrug and say, ok, some will hold off this year, but people love a new iPhone, so the hit isn’t going to be that bad.
But there is a second factor at play this time around: the rumored 10th anniversary iPhone. It has been suggested that Apple wants to do something truly special in 2017, the 10th anniversary of the first iPhone in 2007. That, goes the thinking, is the reason the iPhone 7 so far sounds a bit meh: Apple is holding back improvements so that next year’s iPhone will be a really big deal.
When Steve Jobs unveiled the first ever iPhone, he described it as a ‘revolutionary device.’ Perhaps Tim Cook would like to echo those words when introducing the iPhone 8 next year. Indeed, it has been suggested that it may not be called the iPhone 8, a new naming convention being introduced to reflect a really special upgrade.
We’ve heard a number of rumors about what those revolutionary features might be. These include a near-bezel-free display, achieved in part by embedding the Home button into the screen to lose the lower portion of the bezel. That would certainly make for a dramatically more stylish appearance. We could also see an always-on display on the back of the iPhone, and perhaps iris scanning so that we can unlock our phone without even needing to touch a fingerprint sensor.
One change that seems all but certain is a switch from IPS LCD displays to AMOLED ones – as used in the Apple Watch. These offer two key advantages. First, the quality of the display itself: AMOLED offers brighter colors and deeper blacks. Second, because OLED displays only power the pixels that are switched on, they are also more power-efficient. That would allow Apple to either reduce the battery thickness, for a slimmer device, or boost battery-life.
More trivially, Apple is said to be planning a switch back to a glass design, which would allow it to remove the antenna lines altogether.
Alongside the above, if Apple is indeed planning to position next year’s iPhone as a revolutionary upgrade, it’s a near-certainty that it will include some exciting new tech we don’t yet know about. As a purely illustrative example, this might be something like truly wireless charging – where the device is charged merely by placing it into close proximity to a charging device, rather than directly on top of a charging pad. We might even imagine Apple building charging tech into Macs and displays, so that placing an iPhone close to an iMac or 5K display could do the trick.
As if all this weren’t enough, there’s a third factor: the iPhone SE. While Apple hasn’t released any sales figures, the consensus view – backed by very limited availability soon after launch – is that the popularity of the 4-inch phone took Apple by surprise. I still absolutely love mine, for both size and design, and wouldn’t want to go back to a larger phone. So many of us, myself included, expect to sit out the iPhone 7 because we’re waiting for the next generation of the SE.
It’s possible, then, that the iPhone 7 launch could turn into the perfect storm. Non-tech users might be disappointed that it doesn’t look significantly different to the iPhone 6, and decide to hold off for a brand new design. Tech users may decide to hold off for the exciting new tech rumored to be on the way. And fans of 4-inch phones will hold off for the next-generation SE.
Our own writers provide backing for this idea. I’ve already stated my position. Zac, too, is tempted to skip the iPhone 7, and Greg has outlined what it would take to persuade him to upgrade. When three Apple fans are all thinking they might sit this one out, that ought to be giving Apple pause for thought.
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Concept images: top ConceptsiPhone; embedded Home button Martin Hajek