Apple iPhone 14 Pro review: early adopter island

Apple pulled off some unexpected surprises with the iPhone 14 Pro: there had been lots of solid rumors about the company switching from putting the front-facing camera and Face ID system in a pill-shaped cutout instead of the familiar notch, but the new “Dynamic Island” alert system came out of nowhere. And while it was getting clearer that Apple would have to follow the industry in using bigger camera sensors eventually, Apple went even further and rebooted its entire computational photography system as the Photonic Engine.

There’s a lot of that sort of thing in the iPhone 14 Pro, whose prices in the United States still start at $999 and go up. Apple’s late to having an always-on display, but it’s much more vibrant than other always-on displays. In the United States, Apple’s going all in on eSIM, which no one else is really doing. There’s a basic satellite connectivity system that isn’t quite like anything else we’ve heard about, but Apple is going to ship millions of these phones with the service coming online later this year. All in all, there are more beginnings of big ideas in the new iPhone 14 Pro than we’ve seen in an iPhone for a long time.

That’s the easiest way to think about the iPhone 14 Pro — it feels like the first step toward a lot of new things for Apple and the iPhone and maybe the first glimpse of an entirely new kind of iPhone. But that doesn’t mean all these things are perfect yet.

I will admit to having come around to the name “Dynamic Island” — after all, it’s made everyone talk about it, which isn’t normal for a smartphone status indicator system. If Apple wants to make everyone deeply consider ancillary smartphone interface ideas, I am here for it.

The island replaces Apple’s familiar and oft-reviled notch; it’s where the front camera and the Face ID system live since they’ve got to take up some space on the front of the display. Here’s the thing about the notch, though: after a few minutes of using it, it all but disappears.

The island is different: you are supposed to notice it. It’s located lower on the screen than the notch, and it’s a high-contrast interface element if you run your phone in light mode: a black pill shape in the middle of a white screen. You’re going to see it, especially since it’s animating and moving all the time. It blends in better in dark mode — in fact, I would go so far as to say this is the first iPhone that feels like it’s better in dark mode because of it.

So why did Apple turn the discreet notch into a somewhat more obvious island? Over the years, there have been several different status indicator systems added on to iOS. Plugging in a charger or flipping the mute switch brings up an overlay. Having a call in the background puts a green pill in the corner; an app that’s using location is a blue pill. Screen recording and personal hotspot have pill indicators on the other side. Connecting AirPods is another overlay. And some things, like timers and music playing in the background, haven’t really had useful status indicators at all.

The island is Apple’s way of replacing and unifying all those older status systems with a new home for system alerts and making it work for things like music and the new live activities API that’s coming to iOS 16 later this year, which will allow apps to share even more background info for things like your flight status or a sports score. It is not a replacement for notifications — all of those still appear in the notification center and look pretty much the same.

The simplest way of understanding the island is that it’s basically a new widget system built on that live activities API, and the widgets can have three views: the main view in the island, an expanded view, and an ultra-minimal icon when you’ve got two things going at once. If you have more than two things going, Apple has an internal priority list to put the two most important things in the island.

It’s a neat concept, but like all first versions of anything, Apple’s made some choices that really work and some others that… well, it’s the first version.

A big choice that works is Apple overdoing things in classic Apple fashion: the island is meant to feel more like hardware than software — almost like a secondary display that can get bigger or smaller. To get this to feel right, Apple’s built a new dynamic subpixel antialiasing system that makes the edges of the island up to three times crisper than all the other animations in iOS, which antialias at the pixel level. In normal room lighting, this really works: it feels like the cutout on the display is getting bigger and smaller, and the animations are really fun. (In sunlight or brighter light, you can see the camera sensors, and the illusion goes away, but it’s still cool.)

The other big thing that works is that moving all those disparate status indicators to the island and making them worth paying attention to is actually pretty great. It’s nice having call info right on the screen. It’s genuinely useful having your timers right there. Making things like AirDrop and Face ID all show up in consistent ways in the same place makes those things easier to understand, which is a win.

Here’s where I think Apple missed the mark a little: in the keynote and all the ads, the island is shown as a thing that’s worth interacting with — it’s always moving around and going back and forth between the main view and the expanded view. In reality, well, it’s not like that at all.

The island isn’t a primary interface element; it sits over whatever app you’re actually using, and apps are still the main point of the iPhone. In fact, tapping on the island doesn’t open that expanded widget view; it just switches you back to whatever app that controls the widget. To get the expanded widget that’s shown in all the ads, you have to tap and hold. This feels exactly backwards to me. I think a tap should pop open the widget, and I also think you should at least be able to choose between the two behaviors.

This is the central tension of the island: it’s much more noticeable and useful than the notch, but you’re not really supposed to interact with this thing — it’s background information. Your music is playing, your personal hotspot is active, you plugged in a charger — all stuff you don’t really need to mess with. I got a lot of questions about whether fingerprints will interfere with the selfie camera, and while it doesn’t seem to be a problem, it’s even less of a problem because, as it stands, you don’t touch this thing very much at all.

But because the island is so much more prominently highlighted by the animations, you’re still looking at it all the time. In apps that haven’t been updated, it can cover up some content because it sits lower on the display. So right at this second, the tradeoff between how noticeable the island is and how useful it is is a little imbalanced — it doesn’t quite do enough to always be in the way.

All that said, that tradeoff might totally change when the live activities API rolls out later this year. That’s the other big thing Apple did right: it built the hooks to make this whole thing available to third-party developers, and some of the concepts we’ve seen from Lyft and Flighty and others are really exciting. But right now, the Dynamic Island feels like one of those things that need a year of refinement and developer attention before we really know how important it is.

The big feature of the iPhone 14 Pro camera system is the new 48-megapixel main camera sensor. Apple’s a few years late to this trend; Samsung has used 108-megapixel sensors since 2020’s S20 Ultra, and Google added a 50-megapixel sensor to the Pixel 6 Pro last year. Apple’s also updated the ultrawide and 3x telephoto cameras, but they remain the standard 12 megapixels, and the star of the show is certainly the new main sensor.

The basic idea is the same all around: to take better photos, you need to collect as much light as possible, and to do that, you need bigger pixels. But at some point, making the pixels physically bigger is challenging, so instead, you add a lot more physical pixels on a huge sensor and use software to group them into giant virtual pixels. The concept is called pixel binning, and the math on Apple’s binning is straightforward: it uses four pixels to create a single virtual pixel, which means the 14 Pro’s 48-megapixel sensor generally shoots 12-megapixel photos.

The other big change to the camera system is that Apple’s running its Deep Fusion processing for mid- and low-light photos earlier in the process on uncompressed image data, which is supposed to improve low-light performance by two to three times depending on the camera you’re shooting with. That’s the change that led to the entire image processing pipeline being rebranded to the “Photonic Engine”; Apple is still doing Smart HDR and all of its other familiar processing, but now there’s a fancy name.

We’ve always called Deep Fusion “sweater mode” because Apple loves to show it off with moody photos of people wearing sweaters in dim lighting, but the effects have always been extremely subtle. And, well, the same is true on the iPhone 14 Pro. Sweater mode on uncompressed data is still sweater mode it seems.

In general, the 14 Pro and 13 Pro take really similar photos. The 14 Pro is a little cooler and captures a tiny bit more detail at 100 percent in dim lighting, but you really have to go looking for it. That’s true of the main camera as well as the ultrawide, which has a bigger sensor this year and also benefits from Photonic Engine. In very dim light at 100 percent, details from the ultrawide look a bit better compared to the 13 Pro, but you have to look very closely.

It’s the same in bright light: these photos of Verge senior video producer Mariya Abdulkaf outside look pretty much the same, but if you zoom in to 100 percent, you can see the iPhone 14 Pro is getting a bit more detail and has a nicer background blur because of the substantially larger sensor. It’s really nice — but at Instagram sizes, it’s not particularly noticeable. The Pixel 6 Pro captures even more detail with its pixel-binned 50-megapixel sensor, along with a wider range of colors.

This is about as different as the Pixel and the iPhone have been in a few years. Both phones grab a lot of detail and have great low-light performance, but the Pixel 6 Pro makes very different choices about highlights and shadows while the iPhone 14 Pro is way more willing to let highlights blow out and even more willing to let some vignetting creep in. I really can’t tell you which is “better.” Both of these night mode photos are terrific, and which one you prefer is entirely down to subjective preference.

Where the iPhone 14 Pro falls down in these comparisons is really in the details of the processing: Apple’s been ramping up the amount of noise reduction and sharpening it does over the years, and the 14 Pro has the most aggressive sharpening and noise reduction yet. Sometimes it just looks bad: this night skyline shot is an overprocessed mess compared to the Pixel.

Compared to the Samsung S22 Ultra, the iPhone is less predictable. The S22 Ultra consistently holds on to more color detail in low light, and it’s not as heavy-handed with noise reduction and sharpening. In bright light, the differences between the 14 Pro and the S22 Ultra are more subtle, but Samsung still does a better job with detail. In true Samsung fashion, you get much punchier and warmer colors compared to the more natural look of the iPhone; Samsung’s color ideas are sometimes from a different planet entirely. But photo for photo, the S22 Ultra is more consistent with better fine detail.

Having a big sensor with a lot of pixels opens up other possibilities: in addition to pixel binning, Apple’s also cropping it to generate what it claims is an “optical quality” 2x zoom. Basically, it’s just taking the middle 12 megapixels from that 48-megapixel sensor; if you shoot in ProRAW mode at the full 48 megapixels and just cut out the center of the image, you’ll get the same photo. Hardware-wise, this is still a leap over the 2x telephoto lens of the iPhone 12 Pro from two years ago, but since you don’t get the benefit of pixel binning, it gets into a little trouble in lower-light situations. But it’s nice to have and a nice middle ground between the standard wide and 3x telephoto.

That 2x crop is also the default for portrait mode, which doesn’t seem to have improved all that much. Both the S22 Ultra and even the regular S22 take better portrait photos.

Samsung’s nailed cutting the subject out of the background down to individual strands of hair, and the 14 Pro isn’t quite there yet. It went ahead and just chopped off part of Mariya’s head in perfectly bright light.

I did take a few photos in ProRAW at 48 megapixels, and there’s a lot of detail in there and a lot of room to edit. If you’re the sort of person who is excited about ProRAW on an iPhone, the iPhone 14 Pro will be endless fun to play with. But I don’t think normal people should take 48-megapixel photos on their phones.

Apple has added autofocus to the selfie camera, which is probably useful in some situations, but compared to the 13 Pro for some regular selfies, the overall differences were so mild that they were barely discernible.

I asked Verge senior video producer Becca Farsace to play with the video features on the iPhone 14 Pro, and she found that things are looking as good as ever, but there’s not a huge leap over the already excellent iPhone 13 Pro. You can see more in our video above, but here are the highlights:

Cinematic Mode on the 13 Pro was more than a little messy last year, but Apple’s continuing to put more work into it, and on the 14 Pro, it does a better job separating faces from the background so it can apply blur. And it can now be used with 4K video resolution. Becca did quite a bit of testing of it and said it works best with faces but struggles with any other kind of subject.

Action mode, which is a stabilization system designed to let you leave things like a gimbal at home and still get smooth and steady footage, is the other big new video feature this year. But it comes with some significant compromises: you need a ton of light for it to work, and there’s a massive crop to the footage that’s captured — it maxes out at 2.8K, not 4K. It’s fun to play with, but it’s another feature that feels like it’s a year away from being useful.

As for the basic image quality question, Becca says that, in good light, it’s very hard to tell the difference between the 14 Pro’s footage and the 13 Pro’s, but in low light, the telephoto on the 14 Pro produces a noticeably crisper image with less noise.

Overall, the iPhone has been the top contender for smartphone video for years, and the 14 Pro maintains that lead. Really, check out the video for more; writing about the video features is like dancing about architecture, you know?

At long last, Apple added an always-on display mode to the iPhone 14 Pro, which, well, Android phones have had always-on displays for a long time now. It’s fine! The display refresh rate drops to just one hertz, and the brightness goes extremely low to save battery life. Apple’s done some nice work to keep wallpaper colors accurate in the low-power always-on mode, but honestly, I would prefer a Pixel-style black and white clock to something that sort of looks like my phone is awake all the time. I hope we see some customization options here in the future.

Allison Johnson has the iPhone 14 Pro, while Becca and I tested the iPhone 14 Pro Max. And while battery life certainly ran all day, all three of us felt as though the battery ran down a little bit faster than before. To be fair, all three of us were running around taking lots of photos and videos and generally testing these phones like mad for the past week, but, well, we test a lot of phones like that. Apple claims the 14 Pro and Pro Max will get slightly better battery life than the 13 Pros, and we all still got through a full day with the 14 Pro Max, so maybe that always-on display was just taking its toll. In any event, it’s something we’ll be keeping an eye on over time.

Other than that, the display is slightly brighter than before — it can hit a peak brightness of 1,600 nits when displaying HDR content, up from 1,200 nits, and in bright sunlight, it can go to 2,000 nits. It also retains the 120Hz ProMotion feature from the 13 Pro for smooth scrolling and interactions. I’ve long thought Apple’s mobile displays are consistently the best in the industry, and it’s no different here.

In another unexpected move, Apple made a big move to drop SIM trays from iPhones in the US, which means it’s time everyone got used to eSIM, which lets you access mobile networks without needing a physical SIM card. The 14 Pro can store at least eight different eSIMs, which is pretty intense, with two of them being active at the same time. It worked well in my testing: my AT&T account transferred over from the physical SIM in my iPhone 13 Pro right over Bluetooth, and I added my Google Fi account from the web with a handful of taps.