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Apple iPhone 14 review: meet the iPhone 13S

The iPhone 14 is good. You probably shouldn’t buy an iPhone 14.

If those two phrases sound at odds with each other, then let me explain. The iPhone 14 is highly capable. Its chipset can handle everything from day-to-day tasks to graphics-intensive gaming. Its cameras are capable of very good photos, and it records the best video clips you’ll see from any phone in its class. This is all true of the 14, but it’s also true of the iPhone 13.

The iPhone 14 is a very good phone, with a handful of useful upgrades over the 13. But it’s a small handful, and that leaves the 14 in a tight spot. The iPhone 13, which came out a year ago and Apple is still selling, is nearly identical to the 14 and $100 cheaper, while the iPhone 14 Pro introduces a lot of interesting new features. And the upcoming iPhone 14 Plus has the same hardware as the 14 but a massive 6.7-inch screen. If the Great iPhone Mini Experiment taught us anything, it’s that people love big screens.

The iPhone 14 does have some genuinely cool new features: an upgraded sensor on the main camera and a slightly wider aperture and autofocus on the selfie cam; car crash detection; and satellite SOS, but aside from those, it really is almost identical to the iPhone 13. It looks the same, with the same flat aluminum rails and roughly the same dimensions. There are still just two rear cameras — a standard wide and ultrawide — but the camera bump is a bit chunkier to accommodate the bigger main sensor, enough so that an iPhone 13 case won’t fit.

The similarities between the iPhone 14 and 13 go deeper than the surface. While the 14 Pro and Pro Max get the new A16 Bionic chipset, the 14 uses an A15 Bionic, which is the same generation used by the iPhone 13 series, albeit with one more GPU core than the 13 has. That’s an unusual move for Apple, which typically puts its newest chip in all of its new iPhones.

The iPhone 14’s screen is everything that the 13’s is — because for all intents and purposes, it’s the same display. It’s still a 6.1-inch OLED with a little better than 1080p resolution (Super Retina XDR if you’re fluent in Apple) with a standard 60Hz refresh rate. It’s a good screen, but the competition is running laps around Apple here. Android phones from the flagship class all the way to the $350 Samsung A53 5G offer screens with 120Hz refresh rates. It’s not a deal-breaker, but it’s an area where it feels like the standard iPhone is overdue for an update. For the super-smooth 120Hz ProMotion display, you still need to pony up for the Pro model.

Battery life is another place I’d expect to see year-over-year improvement in a new flagship model, and in this department, Apple does quote a small increase in performance. The 14 will get up to 20 hours of video playback versus 19 on the iPhone 13, according to the official specs. In the real world, after three to four hours of screen-on time, I had between 40 and 50 percent charge at the end of the day. Whether that’s substantially better than the already quite excellent iPhone 13 is hard to say, but it’s good enough to get most people through a full day, and that’s what counts.

So far, I’ve mostly talked about what hasn’t changed, so here’s what’s new.

With a couple of new hardware features, Apple is touting the iPhone 14 as a literal lifesaver. The first is Crash Detection, and it looks very similar to Google’s car crash detection. The 14 has a new “high dynamic range” gyroscopic sensor and a high-g accelerometer. If data collected by the phone’s sensors indicate that you’ve been in a crash, it will ask you if you’re okay and will call emergency services if you don’t respond in a certain amount of time. The iPhone 13 doesn’t have those new sensors, so it’s unlikely that older phones would be able to support Crash Detection, even if Apple was feeling generous enough to bring it to older iPhones.

I haven’t been in a car crash in the week I’ve been testing the phone, so I can’t say for sure that it works. I’ll leave that one to gutsier testers than me, but in any case, it’s something that just happens on the phone and doesn’t require anything of the user to enable. It’s the definition of a nice-to-have feature.

The 14 also has Emergency SOS, a separate service that’s coming this November. In areas without cell coverage, the phone is able to get a message out to emergency responders by communicating via satellite. This is thanks to some custom components and software unique to the iPhone 14 series, according to Apple’s launch presentation, so don’t expect to see it ported to older models either. You’ll answer a few questions to help emergency services better understand your situation, and the UI directs you to point your phone at the nearest satellite.

I got a demo of the feature in a field on Apple’s Cupertino campus — not exactly a wilderness area, so take this with a gigantic grain of salt — but it looked fairly intuitive. You can even see the satellite’s position changing on your phone screen as it crosses the sky. According to Apple’s documentation, sending a message can take anywhere from 15 seconds to “over a minute” depending on how much your view of the satellite is obstructed. In a spot with some light foliage, messages in my demo went through in less than 30 seconds.

If you regularly spend time outside of cell coverage, then satellite SOS could give you some real peace of mind. I do some hiking around the greater Seattle area, and you don’t have to get too far outside of the city to find yourself in a wireless dead zone. That’s where getting turned around or twisting an ankle on a less busy trail can put you in real trouble. I’m not a serious enough hiker to invest in a separate GPS unit and its subscription service, but something like this built right into my phone is very appealing. The big question on my mind is the cost — it will come with two years of free service on the iPhone 14, but outside of that, you’ll need to pay up, and Apple’s not saying yet how much it will cost.

Crash Detection and satellite SOS conjure up some pretty grim scenarios, so let’s look on the light side: the iPhone 14’s cameras. This is where you will see an improvement from the 13 to the 14 — it’s not dramatic, but it’s there. For starters, there’s some upgraded hardware. The 14 essentially inherits the 13 Pro and Pro Max’s main camera, with a bigger sensor, larger pixels, and a faster f/1.5 aperture compared to f/1.6. The selfie camera gets a wider aperture, too — no change to the ultrawide hardware, though.

On the software side, Apple has made some changes to how it processes images with a technology it calls “Photonic Engine.” It’s applying Deep Fusion earlier in the image processing pipeline on uncompressed data, which Apple says improves low-light performance compared to the Photonic-Engine-less iPhone 13. After shooting side-by-side samples in all kinds of conditions, I can report that the iPhone 14’s low-light images are a little more detailed than the 13’s, but I’m not convinced that Photonic Engine has a lot to do with it. In a lot of instances, the 14 is just able to use a lower ISO than the 13 thanks to that larger sensor. With less noise to deal with, there’s more detail, and colors in low-light photos are more accurate. Maybe it’s Photonic Engine; maybe it’s just good old-fashioned physics.

The difference is more obvious when I look at selfie and ultrawide shots side by side on the 13 and 14. In low light, the 14’s ultrawide shots look less watercolor-y, and selfie photos have much more detail and better skin tone rendering. Using the front-facing cameras on both while standing at the front of a moving ferry boat, I got a sharp shot out of the iPhone 14 while the iPhone 13 struggled mightily.

The main camera’s portrait mode looks a little improved, too. Nothing can cope with the segmentation torture test that is my child’s hair, but the way the 14 handles cat fur looks a little more refined. Still, it’s not going to dethrone the current portrait mode champ: the Samsung Galaxy S22. Its ability to identify a subject down to the finest details is unmatched right now.

There’s also a new stabilization mode for video shooting called Action mode that’s designed to correct for more extreme movement. And, as I have learned through trial and error, it’s very much designed to be used in bright outdoor light. With anything less, the camera complains and footage looks horribly blotchy. It’s not the best option when you’re chasing your toddler across the house.

Outdoors, it does produce very smooth footage, but so does the iPhone 13, actually. Action mode may cope a little better with very intense motion, but for most use cases, the iPhone’s standard stabilization system was already good enough.

The iPhone 14 does have one bold new feature, or maybe a bold new omission: the physical SIM tray. On US models, Apple went all in on eSIM, which is just a digital version of the tiny SIM card that identifies you to your carrier’s wireless network. The iPhone 14 can store up to eight eSIMs, with two active at once. iPhones have had dual-SIM support for years, but last year’s iPhone 13 was the first that could have two eSIMs active at the same time. Earlier iPhones only supported dual-SIM with one physical and one eSIM. Outside the US, where eSIM adoption isn’t as far along, the iPhone 14 will still have a physical SIM tray, and it’ll still support dual SIMs — either with two eSIMs or one eSIM and one physical.

Dropping the physical SIM card is a hotly contested topic — roughly half of my Twitter feed thinks it’s a good thing, and half hates eSIM with the fire of a thousand suns. On one hand, eSIMs make it easier to start service with a new carrier since you don’t need to go to a store or wait for a physical SIM to arrive in the mail. And because the iPhone can store multiple eSIMs, swapping phone lines is a lot easier — no more popping out a tiny tray and fiddling with physical SIM cards.

If you buy an iPhone 14 through a carrier or buy a carrier version from Apple, it comes preloaded with your number. And if you buy an unlocked version, transferring your number from an old iPhone shouldbe easy. On major US carriers, you can transfer your number from a phone with a physical SIM directly to an eSIM on the iPhone 14. Or (depending on your carrier), you might be able to convert your physical SIM to an eSIM and then transfer that. Once you switch to eSIM, your physical SIM card is deactivated. It was a little nerve-racking to commit to moving my Verizon number from a physical SIM on my iPhone 11 to an eSIM on my review iPhone 14 in the back of an Uber in the middle of a busy travel day, but hey, it worked.

If you’re coming from an Android with a physical SIM or your carrier is one of the many smaller carriers that support eSIM but don’t have Quick Transfer or carrier activation, getting your number onto the iPhone 14 may not be as easy. Your carrier will have to issue an eSIM — which you may be able to do on the website or through an app — which you can then add with a QR code or the carrier’s app.

Depending on your current phone and carrier — or how often you go to parts of the world without eSIM — it could be a pain to switch to eSIM, or it could be easy enough to do in the back of a moving car. Either way, with Apple going eSIM-only, all signs point to a future without physical SIMs as other phone makers get on board. You’ll probably have to make the jump to eSIM sometime in the future. That’s not really an argument for or against the iPhone 14, though there’s something to be said for giving the carriers another year or two to iron out the kinks.

At the time of this writing, Apple is selling the iPhone 13 for $699. The cameras aren’t quite as good as the 14’s, particularly in low light, but they’re still highly capable. Last year’s iPhone still has some of the best video image quality of any phone released this year. There’s also the 14 Plus on the way for $899, and while we haven’t been able to test it yet, it offers a bigger screen and promises better battery life — two things that a lot of people really want out of a new phone.

And don’t forget about the Galaxy S22. For the same price as the 14, it includes a 3x telephoto camera, a display with a fast 120Hz refresh rate plus an always-on display, and is promised three more years of OS upgrades beyond the Android 13 update that’s coming soon. That’s not quite as good as the four or five iOS upgrades the iPhone 14 will likely receive, but it’s close.

The 14 Pro and Pro Max represent the start of some new ideas from Apple, including an always-on display, a shape-shifting screen notch — ahoy there, “Dynamic Island” — that shows system information at a glance, and a high-resolution main camera. Apple hasn’t exactly nailed them on the first try, but they’ll get a little more useful as third-party app makers adopt them and as Apple refines them with future iOS updates. The 14 Pro feels like the first iteration of a new iPhone, while the 14 feels like the final version of the old iPhone.

Most people should consider other options, but there is an argument for the iPhone 14 if you meet a narrow set of criteria: you’re on an iPhone 12 or older, you really want the satellite SOS feature, you prefer a 6.1-inch screen size (it is, after all, the right one), you want the best camera quality at this price point, you just need a new phone right now, and your carrier is offering a sweet trade-in deal. For this particular set of circumstances, the iPhone 14 will suit you just fine. Otherwise, it’s well worth taking a look at your other options.

When you shift to new technologies in a product line, you have to put a stake in the ground somewhere: one product will be The New Thing, and another will be old. The 14 is on the “old” side of that dividing line. The “old” was good, and so is the iPhone 14. But in the broader landscape of good phones you can buy right now — iOS or otherwise — it’s hard to see an argument for the 14.

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