It’s appropriate to crib the lede from John Gruber’s iPhone 14 review here and say the iPhone 14 Pro is substantially more interesting than its brother, the regular 14. That isn’t to say the 14 is a bad device—on the contrary, the 14 is a stellar smartphone in its own right—it’s just the 14 Pro has, what I believe, to be the best software feature to come to iPhone possibly ever. It singularly makes the Pro the iPhone to buy this year. That is, if you care about whimsy and accessibility.
A bold proclamation, to be sure, but excitement begets an emotional response.
Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been testing the new iPhone 14 Pro using review units provided to me by Apple. The company gave me three models: one regular 14 (in purple), one 14 Pro (in space black), and one 14 Pro Max (in deep purple). The 14 Plus is unavailable until the early part of next month, so Apple didn’t provide reviewers with one for testing. As my size of choice is the Plus/Max variant, the bulk of my testing has been done with the 14 Pro Max as my everyday device.
The Dynamic Island
Let’s cut right to the chase: The new Dynamic Island is amazing.
It’s not perfect—more on that below—but Apple has hit the bullseye on building the foundational aspects of this first pass. In a broad scope, the Dynamic Island is a clever way to use the technological black hole colloquially known as “the notch.” Instead of merely sitting there absorbing energy, as it does on the standard 14, the Dynamic Island on the 14 Pro exudes energy like a five-year-old child on Christmas morning. It moves, it morphs, it smiles—it has a vitality and a liveliness to it that is utterly delightful. So delightful, in fact, that it’s fun to flick the ring/silent switch back and forth a few times just to watch the animation change.
The Dynamic Island feels as accessible as it is practical. The usability win here, accessibility-wise, is simple: the Island confines many types of system feedback (e.g., the aforementioned ring/silent alert) into one area. An incoming phone call, a timer, or multitudes thereof, all live in that inanimate blob such that it’s a concrete place to look for those things. For many people with visual and/or cognitive delays, this is a huge development; an iOS veteran might well know where and how certain interface elements surface, but they can still be discombobulating. An incoming phone call may swoop in from the top of the screen, but timers and the Face ID prompt are someplace else. Thus, the advent of the Dynamic Island strips away that complexity by contorting itself to house these different UIs in a small space. The gymnastics are much more meaningful than adding fun and whimsy; they have practical. sensible application in real use.
Where the Dynamic Island falls down is twofold, both of which ripe for refinement. Firstly, the way a user directly manipulates it is backwards. Apple says you’re supposed to long-press to, for example, show the Now Playing widget. A single tap will open the Music app or Apple Podcasts or Overcast or whatnot. The widget should take priority; it’s the whole point of the Dynamic Island. You should be able to quickly access playback controls with a tap, whereas a long-press should take you into the app. A nuanced change, but one befitting of the Dynamic Island’s spirit. The aspiration should be to make it easier to stay engaged with the Island as long as possible rather than vote you off as if it were an episode of Survivor.
The other issue with the Dynamic Island is text feels small. It can be hard at times to, say, see how much time remains on a timer. To my knowledge, there are no accessibility features to accommodate for the Dynamic Island save for VoiceOver. However maligned it was, the MacBook Pro’s Touch Bar had some great accessibility features. In particular, Touch Bar Zoom is one of the finest pieces of software Apple has ever shipped, on any platform. It would’ve been nice to see the company somehow adapt that concept—making controls larger as you glide over them—and apply it to the Dynamic Island. Perhaps brush your finger left to right on the Island and have an overlay underneath showing the contents, also akin to Hover Text on the Mac. In addition to text, artwork for music and podcasts and the audio waveform feel low contrast in the Dynamic Island. It’d be nice if they were brightened up to have more prominence, thereby having easier readability.
The Always-On Display
The 14 Pro gets the always-on display technology three years after Apple made the always-on display a headliner feature of Apple Watch Series 5. It’s a welcome addition, but the reception to it thus far has been amusing to watch unfold online.
Several other reviewers have complained the always-on display on the new iPhone is too bright—or “too on,” as it were. As someone with incredibly low vision, I find that sentiment hilarious. In my testing, I find myself having to squint mightily to even read the clock, let alone notifications or widgets. Suffice it to say, brightness lies in the eye of the beholder. The feature works well, exactly as Apple intended, but it’s one really not conducive to someone with less-than-typical eyesight. As it stands, the always-on display is far too dim to reap true utility besides maybe telling time. Does this realization make iOS 16’s much-ballyhooed Lock Screen functionality less appealing? To some degree, yes. Is it bad enough to disable the always-on display (in Settings) entirely? No, if only for battery’s sake.
The lesson here is differing perspectives matter. Without accessibility coverage’s growing importance in tech newsrooms, most readers would take mainstream reviewers at face value and conclude Apple made the 14 Pro’s always-on display much too bright. And it may well be if, again, you have good vision—but the point is a lot of people don’t. If you’re one with good vision reading this, great; cherish it! It’s important for disabled reviewers like myself to point out the flip side of the coin and say the always-on display isn’t, in fact, unilaterally too bright. The popular narrative, hilarious though it is, certainly is a privileged one to most.
A Brief Interregnum on a USB-C iPhone
All during rumor season, Apple watchers hoped and prayed this would be the year Apple would (finally) transition the iPhone from Lightning to USB-C. Alas, it never came to pass—instead, next year’s high-end iPhone will purportedly ditch Lightning for USB-C. The reason is obvious: a USB-C iPhone would be convenient. With MacBooks and iPads sporting USB-C ports—curiously, the new AirPods Pro do not—most people want to live in a Lord of the Rings world where one cable could charge them all. That’s perfectly logical, but isn’t the whole story.
Convenience ain’t everything.
It is extremely likely a similar, if not an exact replica, of this statement will appear in this column a year or so from now. To wit, moving the iPhone from USB-C to Lightning isn’t as straightforward as swapping connectors and calling it a day. That’s not innovative. True innovation on Apple’s part would be to find a way to fuse USB-C with MagSafe, thereby bringing a MacBook-style MagSafe port to the iPhone. Otherwise, people with less-than-optimal hand-eye coordination (due to visual and fine-motor delays) will endure the same problems Lightning—and before that, the 30-pin iPod connector—has presented for a decade. It’s simply not easy for many people, myself very much included, to plug in (or unplug) their iPhone from power. Qi charging is a solution, but only sidesteps the real problem. If people are clamoring for USB-C for more flexibility, then it stands to reason it also needs to be more flexible and accommodating for disabled people. Right now, USB-C rates poorly in the accessibility department. There’s a big difference between merely tolerating Lightning or USB-C and being able to use it easily. Apple should always strive for the latter in the name of diversity and inclusivity.
The Excitement of eSIM
I’ve had the privilege of reviewing every new iPhone since the 6 and 6 Plus debuted 8 years ago. That context is important, as it correlates to this next, albeit esoteric, observation about the 14 Pro’s overall accessibility story.
Despite being the epitome of a first-world problem, the fact of the matter is traditional SIM trays have been the bane of my reviewer existence.
The issue is not dissimilar to the complaints lodged against Lightning/USB-C in the previous section. Historically, it has been extremely, shall we say, adventurous to test my hand-eye coordination in swapping SIM cards in and out between personal and review devices every September. A SIM ejector tool (or paper clip) is great, but only if you can reliably maneuver the tiny piece of metal. That the 14 Pro has gone to eSIM, it and all models henceforth will be much easier in terms of swapping cellular service. In my testing, it took only a minute or so to transfer my phone number and AT&T service from my outgoing 12 Pro Max to the 14 Pro Max.
The Bottom Line
Is the iPhone 14 Pro recommendable? Is it worth $200 more over the standard 14?
Judging by Apple’s marketing machine, the company sure thinks it is. To reiterate what was stated at the outset, the Dynamic Island absolutely is worth the price of admission. Time will tell, but right now it feels like the Island will have considerably longer legs than 3D Touch or the Touch Bar in terms of holding Apple’s attention and committing to iterating on it in the years to come.
Dynamic Island and eSIM aside, the 14 Pro’s safety features, seriously upgraded camera capabilities, and A16 system-on-a-chip give Apple’s highest-end smartphone one of its most compelling updates of the last several years.