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Dynamic Island is fresh and more practical than the notch
New 48-megapixel camera is a Pro-level upgrade
A16 Bionic chip continues to impress
iPhone price remains unfazed by inflation
Forcing eSIM adoption is an anti-consumer move
Subpar battery life on the smaller Pro
Always-on display can be bright and distracting
3X optical zoom lags behind the competition
With the 2022 lineup of new iPhones, Apple poured almost all of its best innovations and upgrades into the Pro models. The fact that Apple kept the same base prices for the entire iPhone 14 lineup is a win for consumers in today's high-inflation environment where everything feels like it costs more.
If you're buying the 6.1-inch iPhone 14 Pro or the 6.7-inch iPhone Pro Max, you're going to get a lot more for the same price this year. You get the Car Crash Detection and Emergency SOS via Satellite that come in the standard iPhone 14 models. But you also get a whole new set of camera features, a powerful new screen that can be viewed in full sunlight and dim down to almost nothing as part of the new always-on display, and a new notification and multitasking feature called Dynamic Island that is much cooler than its name.
For this year's flagship iPhone review, we teamed up to give you a ZDNET review with two perspectives. June has been testing an iPhone 14 Pro loaned from AT&T and I (Jason) have been testing an iPhone 14 Pro and iPhone 14 Pro Max loaned from Apple. Two heads are always better than one, as the saying goes, and we're confident this approach will give you even better buying advice for one of the most important products of the year.
Jason: The notch never really bothered me. I quickly got used to it as it became part of the distinctive profile of Apple devices -- especially after it got added to the MacBook Pro line in 2021. When Apple announced that it was replacing it with a pill-shaped black oval and calling it the "Dynamic Island," my first thought was "Why waste energy and resources on something so inconsequential?" I was definitely wrong about that.
Despite its silly name, Dynamic Island is both functional and elegantly designed. Even though only a handful of apps and features are taking advantage of it at this point, it's clear that this is on its way to becoming one of the next signature features of an iPhone.
When you're playing a podcast, a song, or a YouTube video and you swipe up to go to another app, the player automatically docks on the island with a small audio visualization showing that it's still active. When you're ready to go back to it, just tap and you're back in. And there are now subtle and useful new animations for a whole host of activities, from FaceID unlock to AirPods pairing to phone calls and so many more. I keep discovering new ones and getting a little delighted at the playful animations. This feature won me over quickly. And, June's excellent Dynamic Island photos like the one above are a pretty clear indication of how he feels, too.
June: I think it's safe to say that "Dynamic Island" is the worst name for what might be the best iPhone feature in a long time. Also, a pill-shaped notch leading the way for iPhone multitasking was not on my 2022 bingo card. But here we are, an inch of pixels that actually makes me feel like I'm taking full advantage of the iPhone's glorious OLED display. You know the rest; live activity toggles are refreshing to use, it's much easier now to skip to the "Na, na, na, nananana" part of Hey Jude, and the overall animations are fun, mesmerizing, and pixel-perfect.
That said, it is my moral obligation as a Gen Z to confirm that after a week of tapping and swiping on the Dynamic Island, smudges are minor and selfies are still king.
Jason: The arrival of home screen widgets in iOS 16 made an always-on display feel inevitable and the implementation in the iPhone 14 Pro mostly gets it right. The iPhone partially has the Apple Watch to thank for this. I didn't love the initial always-on implementation on the Apple Watch and quickly turned it off. However, it's evolved to become much more useful and battery-friendly in the latest Apple Watch Series 8 hardware and WatchOS 9 software. The iPhone 14 Pro takes a similar approach to always-on. In this case, it simply dims the lock screen down to about 10-20% brightness.
While it looks great, it's a little concerning from a battery perspective because it makes me think the iPhone 14 Pro's always-on display is using a lot more power than a competitor like the Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra. I'm also hoping a lot more developers buy into this and produce more useful home screen widgets. That will be the key to this becoming a big win for users.
June: Dear Apple, here's the fix: allow us to manually set the dimness level of the always-on display or simply transition the home screen into a blacked-out screensaver (with the date and time, of course).
Unless you have a darker, less noisy background, to begin with, the ambient mode can be distracting. For the past decade, iPhones have conditioned me to peek at the display every time a notification wakes it up. And now, Apple wants all of my undivided attention by giving me a display that stays on forever.
It seems like every new feature on the iPhone is just a polished version of something Android devices have had for years. Case in point, the iPhone 14's always-on display is spectacular and just as practical.
Jason: Make no mistake, if all goes smoothly then the eSIM process on the iPhone 14 makes it far smoother and faster to transfer your phone number from your old iPhone to your new one. Mine took less than 30 seconds in testing it with Verizon. And for the majority of users, I think they'll be okay with this and will see it as an improvement in most cases -- when it works.
The problem is the edge cases and my objection is Apple removing the physical SIM tray and forcing an eSIM-only version on US customers to start. This is an anti-consumer move because there are a variety of good reasons why some people will still need or prefer a phone with a physical SIM card. The top reason is privacy. This is especially true for some journalists and populations at risk of persecution around the world. For a company that calls privacy a human right, Apple removing the physical SIM card option reduces privacy for millions of people, especially some of the most vulnerable.
June: Like Jason, my eSIM experience was smooth. I'm one of the more fortunate users who only needed a carrier-provided (AT&T) QR code to register my iPhone 14 Pro tester. I've also heard enough accounts from fellow iPhone 14 users to know that success is not guaranteed when switching over to eSIM domestically, let alone during international travel. Once it is set up though, you'll be surprised how quickly you forget that eSIM is even a thing -- just like how quickly we've all forgotten about 5G.
Jason: For years, iPhones have had more processing power than most people will ever need in daily use. This year's A16 Bionic is the same. If you're stuck waiting, it's usually because of Wi-Fi, 5G, or a slow-loading app or website.
However, there's one area where I found the A16 Bionic to be noticeably faster than last year's model and that's FaceID unlock. In general, FaceID works much better and quicker on the iPhone 14 Pro. Part of that may be due to the new front-facing camera, but I chalk up a lot of its speed to the A16 Bionic. Whatever the case, I'm grateful for it, because I'm one of those who has generally found a good fingerprint reader on devices like the Galaxy S22 to be faster and more reliable than FaceID on the iPhone. That gap has closed this year.
June: Besides the improvements to FaceID, I haven't noticed any major step-ups between this year's A16 Bionic and last year's A15. That's another way of me saying that the iPhone 14 Pro is still powerful, still efficient, and will still be reliable for years down the line.
The new engine really comes to play when I'm snapping those 48MP ProRAW photos and want to make edits straight from the iPhone. The A16 Bionic handles image and computational processing gracefully, with the shutter speed taking seconds faster than the 13 Pro to capture high-res and low-light photos.
Jason: I love taking photos with smartphones and the iPhone has been my primary camera since 2009 when the iPhone 3GS got good enough to replace my tiny Canon ELPH that I always carried in my pocket. Today, I also shoot on Sony mirrorless cameras and the Samsung S22 Ultra (my current work phone). But, every year I still take more photos on the iPhone than any other camera. I've won awards for the video of my best camera phone tips and in 2017 I shared my 25 all-time favorite iPhone photos (up to that point). That's a long way of saying I pay very close attention to the camera upgrades every year.
Every new iPhone is technologically the best iPhone camera ever. And each year, Apple gives us additional capabilities for taking more kinds of photos and videos with the iPhone and fewer with big, fancy camera rigs -- for those of us still into those things. This year, the Pro models got a powerful new set of upgrades. The most noticeable one for most users will be the upgraded front-facing camera, which is finally living up to the quality of its siblings on the back.
June: While the iPhone 14 Pro's new front-facing camera is better than ever for "slofies," the rear 48MP shooter is what sells the camera experience for me. Thanks to the larger pixels via pixel-binning, there's an extraordinary level of detail in photos and videos that I've never seen before on an iPhone.
ProRAW Resolution, which leverages the full 48 megapixels, is turned off by default, so you'll have to dig into your camera settings to hit the switch. Once it's on, though, you'll be surprised by how far you can pinch into photos without losing clarity.
Jason: For photography and video enthusiasts, the Action mode (to replace some gimbal shots), the 48MP ProRAW option (for getting detail and editing control like a DSLR or mirrorless camera), and the new 4K 24fps option for Cinematic Mode videos are going to be a lot of fun to start creating with. I'm planning more testing to cover those in greater depth, but definitely take a look at June's gimbal-busting test.
June: I devoted most of my time testing Action mode, pitting the iPhone 13 Pro's standard video recording with the iPhone 14 Pro's enhanced video feature. The improvement between the added hyperstabilization and last year's tech was noticeable by a wide margin.
In my process of becoming the weird neighbor who runs around with two phones, here are my three Action mode takeaways that you should know about: 1). It can only record up to 2.3K resolution at 30 fps, 2). the framing will be noticeably cropped in for the most optimal stabilization, and 3). the iPhone will nudge you for more lighting even if you're in a sun-filled living room.
Lastly, allow me to give a nod to the unsung hero of the iPhone 14 Pro camera experience: the improved, 1,600 nits of peak HDR brightness. Compared to last year's 1,200 nits (with HDR), taking photos and videos outdoors has been much more pleasurable with the newer iPhone. (The enhanced brightness also made it clearer to tell whether Action mode was toggled on before I went on my death sprint down the hill.)
Jason: As mentioned above, the always-on display on the iPhone 14 Pro keeps a lot more pixels active than most of its competitors, and that concerned me with battery life. When I learned that the iPhone 14 Pro Max – the model I've spent most of my time testing -- has a battery 1% smaller than my iPhone 13 Pro Max from last year (4,323mAh vs. 4,352mAh), I was even more worried.
However, in practice, the iPhone 14 Pro Max's battery life is roughly equivalent to the iPhone 13 Pro Max in daily use. With both, I typically end a full day with 25-30% battery life still remaining. The fact that the 14 Pro Max has a slightly smaller battery and the always-on display is a good sign that it's simply more optimized and efficient. However, June had a different experience with the 6.1-inch Pro.
June: Coming from the iPhone 13 Pro, I had high expectations for the iPhone 14's battery life. With a more power-efficient A16 Bionic chip, an LTPO OLED display that can dial down to a hertz, and an hour longer of video playback, according to Apple, what could go wrong?
From my week of use, I ended most of my days with around 18-25% battery, which is not as impressive as my iPhone 13 Pro's 30-35% endurance. Perhaps it was the 5G modem struggling to pull mobile data between subway station to subway station or the new 48MP sensor that's racking in all that detail at the expense of power. I'm left wanting more from my Pro device and very much envy Jason's experience with the Max model.
There's a lot to like about the iPhone 14 Pro, including all the aspects that make it similar to previous generations. But it's the forward-looking features, like Dynamic Island, Action mode, the new camera sensors, and the rapid eSIM number transfers that will excite tech enthusiasts and professionals the most.
For the first time in a while, the decision to upgrade to the newest iPhone is more about functionality and less about aesthetics. Apple isn't trying to entice you with flashy new colors, though we wouldn't hold it against you if you're a fan of "Deep Purple". Instead, the 14 Pro and Pro Max usher in new ways -- good and bad -- to experience the iPhone, making this upgrade cycle all the more meaningful.
There are many "firsts" with the iPhone 14 Pro, and we fully expect features like eSIM rapid portability, always-on display, and Dynamic Island to carry over to the rest of the Apple ecosystem -- and competing products, too. If you're ready to embark on that next wave, then the iPhone 14 Pro is the best place to start.