Six months later, the iPhone 14 Pro is everything I love and hate about phones
Listening to a baseball game on the radio while following the score on your phone can make you feel a little bit like a psychic. I watch the score tick to 10-8 on the iPhone 14 Pro’s display several pitches before Dave Sims goes wild on the broadcast calling Cal Raleigh’s home run. This is a lot less fun when you see the score go the other direction, but that wasn’t the case on Sunday when the Mariners eventually beat the Blue Jays in extra innings. It was a classic — a grand slam, a tablet smashed in a fit of rage, all the stuff you love to see. I kept the final scorecard on my lock screen even after the game was over, just to keep soaking in the victory.
I’m coming back to the 14 Pro after testing a string of high-powered Android phones. I used the iPhone quite a bit last fall, but some things have changed since then for the phone’s marquee features. The Dynamic Island — that’s the free-floating notch at the top of the screen that hosts at-a-glance info — and the always-on display can do a little more these days since Apple opened up Live Activities to third-party developers. Oh, and baseball season started up again, which is an important use case for me.
Live Activities is an iOS 16 feature; it’s not exclusive to the 14 Pro. It’s a way for apps to provide live updates for time-sensitive events. They show up on the lock screen for most iPhones, but on the 14 Pro and Pro Max, some of that information will also appear in the Dynamic Island so it’s visible while you do other things on your phone. On the 14 Pro models, it also remains visible on the always-on display, which, unlike a traditional AOD, is just a dim version of your lock screen. You can set your phone down and still check the game score or the whereabouts of your Uber ride without lifting a finger.
This neat little trifecta — more apps supporting Live Activities, the Dynamic Island, and the always-on display — brings the 14 Pro’s whole vibe into better focus now than six months ago. And I like it. I like being able to keep tabs on a Mariners game without opting in to notifications or having to pick up my phone and open an app. I like knowing whether my Uber ride is five minutes away or right around the corner without having to obsessively check the app.
Ultimately, these features help address what I want less of from my phone. I want to spend less time fumbling around in apps — that “What was I doing here?” scrolling when all I wanted to do was check the weather. I want a little less friction as I go about my daily phone chores.
I know I’m not alone. In fact, there seems to be a sort of consensus lately that phones as they exist now are categorically bad, and they need to be replaced with something less disruptive and terrible for our mental health. That’s the thinking behind something like the gadget that Humane, uh, “demoed” at a recent TED Talk. Based on leaked videos, it appears to be some sort of replacement technology for your phone that includes a tiny projector you put in your shirt pocket so you can use your hand as a kind of quick info display. The premise is shaky, and the company is being secretive about what it’s actually making, but it’s hardly the first ill-advised attempt to put something in front of our faces that isn’t a phone.
The thing that the “phones are bad” crowd forgets is that phones are still utterly essential to modern life. How exactly am I going to sign my kid out of daycare using a little projector I clip to my pocket? There are a lot of things we generally like about our phones, too, that aren’t destructive to our mental health. I like that my phone allows me to confidently navigate public transit systems I have no familiarity with. I like that I have a device in my pocket that I can use to video call my parents at a moment’s notice so they can see their grandchild who lives across the country. I like that I can finish a book in the Libby app, browse what’s available from the library, and check out another book all while sitting on the bus.
I have a feeling that apps — not phones — are to blame here. App developers have lots of incentive to keep us scrolling and buying things and very little incentive to help us maintain healthy relationships with our phones. This is how we ended up in our current notification hell, with phone makers throwing us a couple of life preservers in the form of focus modes, weekly screen time totals, and scheduled notification summaries. Thanks guys.
Apple is providing another little life raft with the 14 Pro’s new hardware features, too, but the lasting impression I have after taking a trip back to Dynamic Island is that they could do a lot more. There are obvious things that just aren’t supported right now but seem well within the current capabilities. While the Uber app supports Live Activities, Uber Eats doesn’t (yet?) support real-time updates on your dinner’s whereabouts. There’s also no way to just opt in to all real-time updates for every game your team plays — instead, you get a notification that the game’s about to start, and tapping it will take you to the Apple TV app to enable live updates.
Live Activities are designed for events with defined start and end times. (Don’t at me about baseball games going on forever. We have the pitch clock now. Are you happy, you monsters?) They’re events that you have an obvious interest in following in real time, be it a game or a timer or a rideshare ride, and once they’re done, the information goes away. What I’d actually like more of are features that surface info related to my habits and daily activities, which is a little trickier.
Surely there are other useful things my phone could be doing for me that don’t involve selling me something
Why can’t I have bus arrival times appear in a lock screen widget whenever I’m hustling to the transit stop by my house? What if my phone automatically opened up the app our daycare uses when I approach the building, like I do without fail five goddamn times a week? Again, don’t at me. I can’t set up an automation for this. I checked. And anyway, have you tried setting up an iOS shortcut more complex than “open X app”? You need an advanced engineering degree to understand it. I’ll wager that most iOS users have no idea what an automation is, let alone any interest in setting one up.
The apps on my phone can tell who I’ve been hanging out with lately and what brand of artisanal candles they just bought so they can serve me the right ad. Surely there are other useful things my phone could be doing for me that don’t involve selling me something.
That’s what makes the 14 Pro’s new features feel sort of refreshing. They put useful information where I need it when I need it — mostly without additional input from me. To live up to their full potential, more third-party app makers will need to get on board, but that seems likely to happen given that Dynamic Island looks like it’ll be on all iPhone 15 models. If that’s the case, it’ll be just in time to help me keep an eye on the Mariners’ postseason games.