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Apple’s next play: Going smaller with “mini” phones and speakers, and fewer accessories in the box

SAN FRANCISCO — Apple is thinking small again. The company is making a new “mini” iPhone and HomePod smart speaker, and shrinking its iPhone packaging by taking out the power adapter and headphones.

The one thing the company hopes to keep growing is sales, as it enters a most unusual holiday season. It’s an open question how the covid-19 pandemic, which has devastated the finances of many families, might affect customers’ upgrade decisions.

In a prerecorded video streamed Tuesday morning, Apple unveiled its new iPhone 12 lineup that includes four different models. Filled with elaborate drone shots of Apple’s mostly empty Cupertino, Calif., headquarters, the announcement focused on camera features, durability and the promise of fast wireless connections. Literally from the rooftop (which is covered in solar panels), Apple proclaimed it was shrinking its environmental footprint by not automatically including the power adapter and headphones.

The star attraction was a new iPhone 12 line that supports new 5G cellular networks. That technology theoretically enables much faster mobile downloads than the 4G networks the iPhone has supported ever since 2012’s iPhone. But consumers won’t experience that until carriers build out their 5G networks.

Hello again, old iPhone designs

Flat edges are back. After years of smooth, slippery rounded edges, Apple is bringing flat sides back to its iPhone designs. It one of a handful of changes that are a throwback to older phones.

The iPhone 12 mini is 5.18-inches high, and could appease fans of the older iPhone SE, which fits better into some hands and pockets. It’s $ 100 less and has a shorter battery life, but there are few other differences between the 12 mini and the regular iPhone 12.

Apple is also bringing back “MagSafe,” its name for putting magnets around a charging area. MagSafe used to help keep MacBook cords from popping out, and now a circle of magnets on the back of new iPhones will help it stay in place on a wireless charger, or hold new accessories like a wallet.

In another nod to older, heavier devices, Apple says it is making its new phones sturdier. It touted the new glass on the iPhone 12, which is made by Corning, calling it “tougher” than previous models because of its new “ceramic shield.”

“Tough” in the glass industry means the glass is less breakable. That’s a good thing, because broken glass is one of the main reasons people end up repairing their iPhones. But in glass, toughness is at usually odds with hardness, which makes glass scratch resistant. However, Apple says this is a new kind of technology that won’t make the tougher screen easier to scratch.

Of all the tweaks and upgrades on this year’s iPhone 12, there was one older feature that really would have made a difference in people’s lives: A fingerprint scanner.

Apple switched to Face ID on new iPhones in 2017, ditching the Touch ID sensors that unlocked phones quickly and easily. Apple had a good reason for getting rid of fingerprint sensors. It wanted to make bigger screens, and the home button with the sensors took up valuable real estate.

But Face ID isn’t cutting it anymore, now that the pandemic has us all masked up in public. It’s no fun repeatedly typing in six-digit passwords at the supermarket just to check your shopping list. It has some people disabling passwords, creating a big security risk, or just not using Face ID.

Apple has a solution to the problem: Fingerprint sensors on the side of the device, instead of the screen. But those sensors are only available on iPads, not iPhones. That’s a curious decision, considering the Face ID problem is less of an issue for iPads, which people tend to use more at home, when they’re not wearing masks.

Goodbye, chargers and headphones

They’ve been in iPhone boxes since the beginning, but starting with the iPhone 12, there will be no more power adapter or corded headphones included with new phones. The change was expected, especially after it dropped the adapter from the new Apple Watch Series 6 box last month.

Apple reasons that anyone upgrading from an older iPhone model probably has one or more of the adapters and a tangle of EarBuds already. But if anyone needs to restock, Apple will sell them — for $ 19 each.

Apple vice president Lisa Jackson, a former administrator of the EPA, said the move was part of Apple’s commitment to the environment. There will still be a power cable, which plugs into a standard smaller, USB-C style port.

Standing on solar panels on top of Apple’s headquarters, Jackson said there are already over 700 million corded headphones in the world, and 2 billion Apple power adapters. Cutting the accessories, Jackson said, means Apple can make smaller boxes, which cuts 2 million metric tons of carbon emission annually — like removing 450,000 cars from the road per year.

But Apple didn’t cut the price of its phones to compensate us for the cutbacks. The iPhone 12 mini starts at $ 700, the same as last year’s iPhone 11. And while Apple generally has a better environmental reputation than other tech companies, it isn’t perfect. A recent lawsuit in Canada revealed that more than 100,000 devices Apple had sent for shredding were still able to be used.

Date available
What you should know
iPhone 12 Mini
Starts at $ 699
Available November 13
The smallest new iPhone has all the same features as the 12, but a shorter battery life
Starts at $ 799
Available November 13
Like all the new iPhone 12 options, this includes Night Mode on every camera, flat edges and tougher glass
iPhone 12 Pro
Starts at $ 999
Available November 13
Pricier but packed with photographer-pleasing extras and a LiDAR sensor
iPhone 12 Pro Max
Starts at $ 1099
Available November 13
The iPhone with all the fixings and the largest screen short of an iPad
HomePod Mini
Available November 16
A smart speaker the size of a votive candle holder that claims to have great sound quality (but still no Spotify).

Welcome home, little smart speaker

Apple has struggled to make its mark in the smart speaker market. While it was the first of the big tech companies to have a voice assistant, Siri, it is still far behind Amazon and Google when it comes to voice controlled smart speakers.

Now, three years after releasing the HomePod, Apple has announced a new version that is smaller and cheaper. Small and plump with a glowing circle on top, the new HomePod mini looks like a votive candle holder.

At $ 99, compared with $ 299 for its original HomePod, the Mini is more in the price range of competing products from Google and Amazon. Apple has added some new features, many of which already exist on competing speakers, like the ability to recognize different voices and an intercom feature to yell at family members over different speakers in a house.

However, it appears to still have limited integrations with third-party services. Apple says it will work with Apple Music, its own Podcasts app, iHeart Radio, Radio.com and TuneIn radio, with Pandora and Amazon Music coming later. Still conspicuously missing is Apple Music competitor, and smart speaker favorite, Spotify.

Apple is focusing on one advantage it thinks it has in the smart speaker market: audio quality. It says the device uses “computational audio” for 360-degree sound, but without a side-by-side demonstration, it’s impossible to know how it will stack up to the range of Google and Amazon offerings.

“I don’t think anyone is going to run out and buy this speaker and then get rid of their existing Google or Amazon model,” said Victoria Petrock, an analyst at eMarketer who follows the smart speaker market. “Over time, however, Apple may be eyeing a bigger play for subscription services in entertainment, fitness and/or health care — and having this speaker as part of an entrenched, more complete system of Apple products within people’s homes could tilt the balance toward Apple products and services.”

We’ve been expecting you, 5G

Apple says its entire new lineup of iPhones will support 5G networks, the next generation in wireless tech. A 5G iPhone 12 might sound like a useful upgrade, but the cellular networks that would support it are still being built in the United States and many other countries.

To help sell the new technology, Apple included Verizon’s CEO Hans Vestberg in its video. But both companies chose their words carefully about a tech that’s still a work in progress in markets such as the United States.

What the companies skipped over: how few places you can use Verizon’s ultrafast network. As of this summer, it was less than 1 percent of the United States, and mostly in places we spend little time during a pandemic — in stadiums and busy downtown corridors. New iPhone owners in the U.S. might have to wait a year or more to notice dramatic download speed improvements on a wide scale.

At the Apple event, Verizon said it would double its ultra wideband 5G presence in some cities, and roll out to 60 markets by the end of the year. But it didn’t say how much of the United States that would cover.

Verizon’s Vestberg also said the company would roll out its “nationwide” 5G service that would cover over 200 million Americans. But Vestberg has previously been blunt about the incremental improvements nationwide 5G will offer over 4G. “In the beginning, it’s going to be small,” Vestberg told a JPMorgan conference in May.

See you tonight, new camera features

For many iPhone customers, the camera is the most important feature when considering an upgrade. After essentially killing the point-and-shoot camera market, smartphones have become the only camera many people use to record their lives.

Apple is well aware, and it tries to regularly improve its camera offerings, including marketing its highest-end phone to professionals and people who pretend they are pro photographers. The iPhone 12 is no different, with improvements across the line and especially in the iPhone 12 Pro.

Night Mode is a setting that automatically turns on when you’re shooting someplace that would typically be too dark for a photo. With the iPhone 12 line, Apple is adding its night mode feature to all the device’s cameras, including the front-facing option used for selfies and the ultrawide back camera. The new devices will also add the ability to shoot night-mode time lapse videos.

In addition to adding new wide-angle lenses to the iPhone 12, Apple is trying to woo professional photographers with upgrades to the iPhone 12 Pro and larger iPhone 12 Pro Max. They will have larger sensors, increased optical zoom, and improved computational photography features.

The iPhone 12 Pro also adds a fourth sensor on the back that measures distance, similar to the LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) scanner Apple built into its latest iPad Pro. The sensors are used by many autonomous vehicles to sense the environment in much greater detail than traditional radar would allow. However Apple is using them to improve augmented reality offerings and improve photography in low light, by finding the right spot to focus on when traditional light sensors might fail when it’s dark.

See real-time updates from Tuesday’s Apple Event below.

October 13, 2020 at 2:48 PM EDT
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Apple listens to the people, brings back flat edges and a smaller phone

By Heather Kelly

Flat is back. After years of smooth, slippery rounded edges, Apple is bringing flat sides back to its iPhones. The last phones to have this design had a bit of a cult following, especially the original pocket-sized iPhone SE, which was the last to come with flat edges in 2016. Fans of the older models claimed they made the device feel sturdier and easier to hold.

They have other practical benefits as well. You can stand a phone on its side to watch a movie instead of propping it up on the nearest book and waiting for it to slowly slide down. (Yes, iPhone stands do exist.) And some iPhone SE owners have said that device’s edge could be used to open a beer.

Apple is also making a smaller version of the iPhone again. It still won’t be as petite as the old sizes, but it’s getting closer. The iPhone 12 mini is .31 inches taller and .22 inches wider than an iPhone SE.

October 13, 2020 at 2:32 PM EDT
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You still can’t unlock most new iPhones while wearing a mask

By Reed Albergotti

Of all the tweaks and upgrades on this year’s iPhone 12, there was one thing that really would have made a difference in people’s lives: a fingerprint scanner.

Apple switched to Face ID on new iPhones in 2017, ditching the Touch ID sensors that unlocked phones quickly and easily. Apple had a good reason for getting rid of fingerprint sensors. It wanted to make bigger screens, and the home button with the sensors took up valuable real estate.

But Face ID isn’t cutting it anymore, now that the pandemic has us all masked up in public. It’s no fun repeatedly typing in six-digit passwords at the supermarket just to check your shopping list. It has some people disabling passwords, creating a big security risk, or just not using Face ID.

Apple has a solution to the problem: Fingerprint sensors on the side of the device, instead of the screen. But those sensors are only available on iPads, not iPhones. That’s a curious decision, considering the Face ID problem is less of an issue for iPads, which people tend to use more at home, when they’re not wearing masks.

Customers committed to the Apple ecosystem could switch to the iPhone SE, a cheaper and perfectly functioning phone, which has a fingerprint reader in its home button. The downside: That model’s camera isn’t as good as more expensive phone models.

For those willing try other handset makers, there are more options. Many companies, from Samsung to OnePlus to Motorola, include a fingerprint sensor underneath the screen itself.

October 13, 2020 at 2:29 PM EDT
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All of Apple’s big iPhone camera updates

By Heather Kelly

For many iPhone customers, the camera is the most important feature when they’re considering an upgrade. After essentially killing the point-and-shoot camera market, smartphones have become the only camera many people use to record their lives.

Apple is well aware, and it tries to regularly improve its camera offerings, including marketing its highest-end phone to professionals and people who pretend they are pro photographers. The iPhone 12 is no different, with improvements across the line and especially in the iPhone 12 Pro. Here are the camera highlights.

Night Mode everywhere: Night Mode is a setting that automatically turns on when you’re shooting someplace that would typically be too dark for a photo. With the iPhone 12 line, Apple is adding its night mode feature to all the device’s cameras, including the front-facing option used for selfies and the ultra-wide back camera. The new devices will also add the ability to shoot night-mode time-lapse videos.

New camera lenses: The iPhone 12, iPhone 12 Mini and iPhone 12 Pro all have a new wide camera with an ƒ/1.6 aperture.

LiDAR sensor for better photos: The iPhone 12 Pro is adding a LiDAR scanner next to the three back-facing cameras. The feature is used for augmented reality features, but Apple says it will also help the cameras focus faster in low-light situations.

Dolby video: The iPhone 12 Pro will shoot 10-bit footage with Dolby Vision, a type of high dynamic range or HDR footage.

New RAW format, coming soon: The iPhone 12 Pro will get a new photo file format later this year. Apple ProRAW is its own spin on the RAW file format, but adds more data from the iPhone’s own computational photography settings. Computational photography refers to all the ways Apple is improving images using processing and other software-based techniques, like what is used for Night Mode. This file format would let any photographer who wants a RAW file keep and control those improvements instead of losing them.

October 13, 2020 at 2:12 PM EDT
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Why is Apple putting a self-driving car sensor on its phone?

By Reed Albergotti

Apple made an announcement at its online event Tuesday that might have sounded oddly familiar, if you’ve been following the development of self-driving cars. Apple is now including a LiDAR sensor on its iPhone 12 Pro.

Those sensors, short for light detection and ranging, are used by many autonomous vehicles to sense the environment in much greater detail than traditional radar would allow.

It wasn’t long ago that LiDAR sensors were hard to come by. In fact, some theorized that the cost of LiDAR sensors might be the bottleneck that would slow the development of self-driving cars.

The fact that Apple is including the things on millions of iPhones is a testament to how quickly global manufacturers are able to keep up with demand and improve the margins on tech hardware.

Apple doesn’t want LiDAR on phones for autonomous vehicles. Instead, Apple is using it for augmented reality and photography.

Augmented reality, which superimposes virtual objects onto the real world, can benefit from LiDAR because it will be able to map the contours of a real-life environment in greater detail, allowing the virtual objects to appear more realistic.

Apple said the LiDAR sensor would also help improve photography in low light, by finding the right spot to focus on, as traditional light sensors might fail when it’s dark.

October 13, 2020 at 2:02 PM EDT
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Apple drops in-box headphones and power brick, citing environmental benefits

By Geoffrey Fowler

There will be no corded headphones or charging brick in the box with the iPhone 12.

Let the controversy begin.

Apple Vice President Lisa Jackson, a former administrator of the EPA, said the move was part of Apple’s commitment to the environment. There will still be a power cable, which plugs into a standard, smaller USB-C-style port.

Jackson said there are already more than 700 million corded headphones in the world and 2 billion Apple power adapters. It’s true: Many of us have a big pile of these in a drawer somewhere.

Cutting the accessories, Jackson said, means Apple can make smaller boxes, which cuts 2 million metric tons of carbon emissions annually — like removing 450,000 cars from the road per year.

But Apple didn’t cut the price of its phones to compensate us for the cutbacks. The iPhone 12 starts at $ 700, just like last year’s iPhone 11.

While Apple generally has a better environmental reputation than other tech companies, it isn’t perfect. A recent lawsuit in Canada revealed that more than 100,000 devices Apple had sent for shredding were still able to be used.

October 13, 2020 at 1:46 PM EDT
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Apple’s ‘ceramic shield’ glass is tough. But you’ll want a screen protector.

By Reed Albergotti

Apple touted the new glass on the iPhone 12, which is made by Corning, calling it “tougher” than previous models because of its new “ceramic shield.”

“Tough” in the glass industry means the glass is less breakable. That’s a good thing, because broken glass is one of the main reasons people end up bringing their iPhones in for repair.

But in glass, toughness is at odds with hardness, which makes glass scratch resistant. That means there’s a good chance a tougher screen will be easier to scratch.

If you’re the kind of person who often puts their iPhone in their pocket, where it might come into contact with things like keys, you should put a screen protector on your new iPhone. Otherwise, you might notice some unwanted gashes. But at least it shouldn’t crack as easily.

October 13, 2020 at 1:45 PM EDT
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“League of Legends: Wild Rift,” the mobile version of Riot Games’s hit title on the new iPhone 12

By Mikhail Klimentov

During the event, Apple showcased “League of Legends: Wild Rift,” the mobile version of Riot Games’s hit title, on the new iPhone 12. “League of Legends” is one of the most popular and widely-played PC games out now.

The game is also coming to Android devices. Apple has made news recently in the context of gaming. It is currently embroiled in a legal battle with Epic Games, the developer of “Fortnite,” over whether Apple has an unlawful monopoly over the app distribution and in-app payment market through its App Store. One of Epic’s chief arguments on display during a recent hearing, was that Apple can impose whatever costs it wants on the App Store because developers can’t turn down the company’s massive mobile userbase.

October 13, 2020 at 1:33 PM EDT
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Verizon and Apple say ‘5G just got real’

By Geoffrey Fowler

Apple says its entire new lineup of iPhones will support 5G networks, the next generation in wireless tech. And it brought Verizon’s CEO Hans Vestberg onstage to help sell it.

“5G just got real,” Vestberg said. But both companies chose their words carefully about a wireless technology that’s still a work in progress in markets such as the United States.

Apple CEO Tim Cook said a 5G iPhone meant it would be “super fast.” And Vestberg touted that Verizon’s so-called ultra wideband 5G tech is the fastest in the world.

What the companies skipped over: how few places you can use this ultrafast network. As of this summer, it was less than 1 percent of the United States, and mostly in places we spend little time during a pandemic — in stadiums and busy downtown corridors.

At the Apple event, Verizon said it would double its ultra wideband 5G presence in some cities, and roll out to 60 markets by the end of the year. But it didn’t say how much of the United States that would cover.

Verizon’s Vestberg also said the company would roll out its “nationwide” 5G service that would cover over 200 million Americans. But Vestberg has previously been blunt about the incremental improvements nationwide 5G will offer over 4G. “In the beginning, it’s going to be small,” Vestberg told a JPMorgan conference in May.

October 13, 2020 at 1:28 PM EDT
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The HomePod Mini is small, $ 99, and looks like a candle holder

By Heather Kelly

Three years after releasing its first smart speaker, Apple has announced a new version that is smaller and cheaper. At $ 99, compared with $ 299 for its original HomePod, the HomePod Mini is more in the price range of competing products from Google and Amazon. Apple has added some new features, many of which already exist on competing products, like the ability to recognize different voices and an intercom feature to yell at family members over different speakers in a house.

Apple focused on one advantage it thinks it has in the smart speaker market: audio quality. It says the device uses “computational audio” for 360-degree sound, but without a side-by-side demonstration, it’s impossible to know how it will stack up to the range of Google and Amazon offerings.

The HomePod Mini looks like a votive candle holder, squat and round with a glowing circle on top. It appears to still have limited integrations with third-party services. Apple says it will work with Apple Music, its own Podcasts app, iHeart Radio, Radio.com and TuneIn radio. Interestingly, it says a couple more music options are coming later, Pandora and Amazon Music. Still conspicuously missing is Apple Music competitor Spotify.

It will be available Nov. 16.

October 13, 2020 at 1:12 PM EDT
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Tim Cook says Apple will bring the HomePod to more people, with a mini version

By Reed Albergotti

At an online event broadcast from Apple’s headquarters in Cupertino, CEO Tim Cook reminded viewers that this is the second Apple product event in recent weeks. Then he launched into announcing Apple’s new HomePod speaker, called the HomePod Mini.

“This year our homes have become even more important in our daily lives,” Cook said. He touted the virtues of the HomePod speaker, which resembles the Amazon Echo and trails far behind competing products in the market.

“Now, we want to bring this experience to even more people,” Cook said, an apparent nod to an expected lower price.

October 13, 2020 at 12:59 PM EDT
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Tech’s pre-recorded video ‘events’ are just long ads now, but they probably always were

By Heather Kelly

The pandemic has put an end — at least temporarily — to the in-person news events that have become a signature of Silicon Valley tech announcements. Instead, tech companies, including Google and Apple, have opted for slickly edited videos that they stream online at a set time.

Not having to do things live, constrained to a single stage, gives the companies more room to have guest stars and special effects (Apple loves a good drone shot). It also takes away one of the few unpredictable elements of the events, as they can edit presentations down to the perfect length and chop out any telling technical issues or interesting flubs.

What’s left are essentially infomercials for new products. Of course, that isn’t so different from what the events have always been.

Popularized by Steve Jobs’s dramatic, genuinely surprise-filled announcements, the onstage announcements have all looked and sounded the same for years. Even the dress codes are the same (muted business casual). Reporters and special guests file into conference centers or event spaces, nibble on complimentary breakfast snacks and chug lattes, then furiously tweet as executives announce new products that were mostly guessed ahead of time.

Now there are also no in-person briefings or interviews for reporters, and most importantly, no opportunity to touch and test new products.

There’s still a huge appetite to know what Apple is making and selling. It is one of the largest companies in the world, and new Apple products can tell us a lot about where the market is going next. So reporters will continue to tweet and post furiously about prerecorded Tim Cook, but from our sofas, and with nothing but our own terrible coffee to drink.

October 13, 2020 at 12:39 PM EDT
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A 5G iPhone won’t be any faster — at first

By Geoffrey Fowler

A 5G iPhone 12 might sound like a useful upgrade, but the cellular networks that would support it are still being built in the United States and many other countries.

New iPhone owners in the U.S. might have to wait a year or more to notice dramatic download speed improvements on a wide scale.

Network analysis firm Opensignal says the overall download speed experience of Americans with 5G phones is just 33 Mbps, the second-slowest in the world. Average 5G speeds in Saudi Arabia, which topped the list, are 145 Mbps.

Verizon does actually offer ultrafast 5G service in the United States, but this has been limited to very small areas — less than 1 percent of the country. The nation’s largest carrier has promised wider 5G coverage this year, but also forewarned that its nationwide offering won’t be much faster than 4G at first.

Apple’s iPhone marketing will need to thread a very careful needle: Play up the potential future benefits of 5G without creating expectations that the realities of 5G in 2020 can’t meet.

October 13, 2020 at 12:22 PM EDT
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Apple expected to drop power adapter, headphones from new iPhone boxes

By Heather Kelly

Getting fresh accessories is part of the unboxing experience, right up there with peeling the plastic wrapping and taking in that new iPhone smell. But for the first time, new iPhones might not ship with a power adapter or corded headphones in the box.

Apple on Tuesday is expected to announce its iPhone 12 lineup with 5G connectivity. Rumors have swirled that a power cord will still be in the box, but not the power adapter — the white square that plugs into the wall — or EarPods.

Anyone upgrading from an older iPhone model probably has one or more of the adapters already. When Apple announced it would no longer include an adapter with the Apple Watch Series 6 last month, the company said it was for environmental reasons. It claimed it was eliminating the carbon equivalent of removing more than 50,000 cars from the roads a year.

The accessories probably don’t cost Apple that much to make, but selling them separately at classic Apple prices is lucrative. If the change pushes people to spend more on wireless AirPods or wireless charging docks, that’s better for the company’s bottom line. If you are getting an iPhone 12 and don’t already have drawers filled with old cords and EarPods — or yours have started to fray and break — here’s what it will cost you to buy them from Apple:

Total: $ 58, plus tax.

Of course, you can buy a range of third-party versions of these accessories for less. Apple has said to buy only certified third-party accessories (marked with an “MFi,” or “Made for iPhone,” label) or risk damaging your device in ways not covered by its warranty.

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