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Apple’s iPhone Upgrades Aren’t Meant to Be Noticed

The new models will be better, faster, stronger, and—of course—more expensive, but the tech giant’s annual event was largely defined by what executives didn’t touch on

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Apple held its annual iPhone event Wednesday, and, true to form, there were new iPhones to present. A handful of execs took the stage to introduce three models: the iPhone XR, the XS, and the XS Max. But what Apple execs didn’t talk about was almost as notable as what they did. There was no mention of AirPods or Beats. And while this wasn’t the tech giant’s Worldwide Developers Conference, where Apple reveals its iOS upgrades, its iPhone event often at least mentions Siri.

Instead, the event went all in on iPhones (with a side of Apple Watch). The XS and XS Max, upgrades over the current iPhone X, feature displays that are 5.8 and 6.5 inches, respectively. Both models also pack reasonable if boring upgrades: The innards are better, faster, and stronger. The camera got a little better. The display a bit crisper. The battery life slightly longer. A new camera feature will allow users to adjust the depth of field after taking a shot. The iPhones remain expensive: The XS starts at $999, and the XS Max at $1,099.

The XR is Apple’s new discount iPhone, a 6.1-inch device that, like the now-discontinued SE, comes in a variety of bright colors and is essentially a slightly less capable version of its peers. It starts at $749 and has an LCD screen instead of the superior OLED and features only one rear-mounted camera instead of two, though the XR is still capable of shooting in portrait mode and features the same depth-of-field effect as the other new releases.

In addition to the phones (the XS and XS Max are available for preorder September 14; the XR preorders begin October 19), Apple introduced its new watch, the Watch Series 4. The Series 4 has a larger, edge-to-edge display with curved corners, while also being thinner. Apple integrated haptic feedback into the dial for a nice “ticking” feeling. And just like the new iPhones, the Watch Series 4 has upgraded interior hardware, so it’s faster and has improved cellular reception.

The interior upgrades this year are many, and they come without any new bold design choices or controversial features. The things that prompted small hype, in fact, reveal a lot about how the consumer-device relationship is changing. Early in the keynote, Apple introduced two new tools for the Watch Series 4: The new device can take an electrocardiogram, which tests heart function, and has a fall-detection system that will call emergency services if necessary. The watch has also received FDA clearance. And all three new iPhones have dual SIM card capabilities, so users can use two phone numbers or phone plans with one device. There’s also Apple’s new A12 Bionic 7nm chip, an industry first that signals a major leap forward for iPhone power; it was announced during one of the keynote’s various spec-bloated segments.

Compared with releases like the white iPhone, Siri, portrait mode, and the eliminations of the headphone jack and home button, this year’s announcements feel rather … boring. Not boring, exactly, but practical. Every year, it becomes a little clearer that smart devices aren’t palm-sized miracles—they’re utilities.

In many ways, this was a typical S release cycle (meaning the device release that comes in between full upgrades, which are notated with a full number jump, i.e., iPhone 7 to 8). The improvements are there, but most of them aren’t meant to be noticed; the phones’ performances are enhanced and the overall user experience should be faster and smoother. It’s not as exciting a year.

The S upgrade is never a flashy one, but this event went beyond eschewing flashiness. It seemed more like an acknowledgement that Apple products aren’t magic anymore; they’re sensible. And now, your watch will call someone if you’ve fallen and you can’t get up.