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Brier Dudley's blog

Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.

September 9, 2014 at 7:12 AM

Apple’s big unveiling: bigger iPhones, the Apple Watch and more

CUPERTINO, Calif. — Will Apple upend the tech world again and prove it can invent wonderful, new and different things without Steve Jobs?

It’s trying with larger screen iPhones and a new digital payment system coming out this month, followed by a line of watches coming out in early 2015.

None of the products unveiled Tuesday is radically new  — Apple is playing catchup to rivals with larger phones and earlier smartwatch efforts — and the company didn’t say anything about the rumored large iPad or the supposedly tranformative TV products that have been expected for years.

But pent-up demand for new Apple gear, the appealing new phones and the cachet and hype surrounding the Apple Watch are still likely to extend the company’s perch atop the consumer technology industry for a while longer.

A bigger variety of screen sizes — from the 4-inch diagonal iPhone 5 models that will continue to be sold, up through the 5.5-inch model shown today — should also help Apple compete against the array of devices available on Google’s Android platform, which lately has outsold the iPhone.

Apple showed off the new gadgets Tuesday at The Flint Center for the Performing Arts, not far from its campus.

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‘We’ve had some amazing history here,” Chief Executive Tim Cook said in his opening speech, noting that on this stage 30 years ago Jobs introduced the Macintosh.

The new phones Apple introduced, called the iPhone 6, are indeed larger. The standard iPhone 6, as expected, has a 4.7-inch diagonal display and the even larger iPhone 6 Plus has a 5.5-inch, 1080p display, yet each is thinner than previous iPhones.

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Both have new “Retina HD” displays and more curved edges than the current iPhone 5 line, which has a 4-inch diagonal display and was getting left behind by the rise of larger phones on the Android and Windows platforms.

The phones are large enough that their software can display two columns of information at once when held horizontally, such as email showing a list of messages and a reading pane.

Current apps scale up automatically to the larger screens. Developers can also use the new real estate to add features, such as an image pane that CNN added to an app that Apple showed.

“Developers — all their apps work and they can do some exciting new things,” said Apple marketing boss Phil Schiller.

A new A8 chip makes the phones 50 percent faster, with up to 84 percent more graphics oomph, he said.

Larger phones have room for bigger batteries. Apple claimed that the iPhone 6 has up to 14 hours of talk time and the 6 Plus has 24 hours of talk time, compared to 10 hours on the iPhone 5S. Audio playback can last up to 80 hours on the Plus, double that of the 5S.

Apple also gave the phones the latest phone features such as voice over LTE, “AC” wireless and Wi-Fi calling, the latter starting with T-Mobile.

The camera is a bit disappointing, if you’re chasing megapixels. It has an 8 megapixel rating, but it also sports an advanced sensor and tricky software, such as “phased detection” autofocus, which make focusing twice as fast, Schiller said. It also takes 1080p videos at 30 or 60 frames per second and slow-motion videos at up to 240 frames per second.

Most popular, though, may be a burst mode that can be used for “burst selfies,” Schiller said.

Other upgrades include a new version of the iOS messaging app that includes audio and video capabilities controllable with one hand.

With a two-year contract, the iPhone 6 ranges from $199 to $399 with 16 to 128 gigabytes of storage. The Plus is $299 to $499, with contract. They ship Sept. 19. Current iPhone 5C models are now free with a contract and the 5S drops to $99.

Cook came back on stage to announce Apple Pay, a system that loads credit cards onto iPhone 6 and 6 Plus models so they can be used with NFC radio payment systems. Apple lined up support from major credit card companies and retailers ranging from Starbucks and Target to Disney and McDonald’s.

Especially slick is the set-up. Using your phone, you take a picture of your credit card, then go to a bank to verify it’s yours. Then the card becomes part of your phone’s “passbook” wallet and is synchronized with Apple Pay.

Security for the system comes from a fingerprint sensor on the phone and a new security module in the iPhone 6 processor, which stores and encrypts payment information.

Finally, Cook announced “one more thing” — the Apple Watch, a customizable, wearable computing device that works with iPhones and by itself as a “comprehensive health and fitness device.”

“We set out to make the best watch in the world,” Cook said.

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To differentiate the watch from the array of other wearable devices already on sale, Apple emphasized its work developing its interface. The key control is the “digital crown” — the small dial on the side of the watch that used to be for winding springs and setting time. Apple uses it as a dial control for scrolling and zooming; it’s also a home button controlled by pressing.

Other features include a magnetic charger, Siri, Apple Pay and synchronization with files stored elsewhere, such as photos.

“It’s almost like having a little locket of photos with you,” said Kevin Lynch, the Apple vice president who led the watch software development.

Current iPhone apps will show up partly on the watch. Apple also is inviting developers to build watch-specific apps with a new toolkit that Lynch presented. Companies are already building such apps; Starwood is working on one, for instance, that enables watch wearers to open their hotel room doors by waving their wrist.

Cook returned to discuss health apps on the watch, including one that tracks activity and another for setting and managing activity goals. It can deliver reminders to keep users on their exercise program, and it can connect with non-Apple services (perhaps mandated wellness programs?).

The watch can track heart rate and motion and, when connected to an iPhone, provide directions and location. Apparently it does not connect directly to cell networks, as some of the new smartwatches do

“The Apple Watch requires the iPhone because it’s been designed to seamlessly work together,” Cook said, adding that it works with iPhone 5 and 6 models.

The watches will start at $349 and go on sale in early 2015.

Cook called it “the most personal device” that Apple has ever created.

“It will redefine what people expect from a watch,” he said.

He didn’t say anything about the rumored larger screen iPad, new iPods or new Mac PCs using the new processors that Intel announced this morning in nearby San Francisco.

Instead, the event ended with a live performance by U2. The band played a song from its new album “Songs of Innocence,” which Apple is giving away free to every iTunes customer through mid-October. With 500 million customers, it’s the largest album release of all time, Cook said.

“We’re the blood in your machines,” Bono said to Cook, whom he called the “Zen master.”

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