Is the iPhone 14 worth it?

CUPERTINO, Calif. — Apple has invented a new reason to upgrade your iPhone: fear.

There was an awful lot of discussion at the iPhone 14 launch event on Wednesday about ways you could die. In dramatizations ripped straight from disaster films, Apple touted its newest technology including satellite SOS connections and automatic crash detection that might lend a lifeline if you’re lost on a cliff or get in a car accident with nobody around. “iPhone is there when you need it most,” said Kaiann Drance, an Apple vice president.

To be safe, all you need to do is upgrade your iPhone?

After Apple’s announcement, I got the opportunity to spend a little time with the iPhone 14. My takeaway: There are a few real tech upgrades here, but I wouldn’t make an upgrade decision based on the hope an iPhone might save your life in one of these situations. (Reality check: The National Park Service conducted 3,371 search and rescue missions in 2021, according to the nonprofit Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.) To me, the biggest news about the iPhone 14 is that Apple didn’t raise its price, despite rocketing inflation.

What do you want to know about the iPhone 14? Help us review it by sharing your questions here.

That we’re even talking about Apple’s scariest upgrade ever is a sign that smartphones are a very mature market. Fifteen years after the first iPhone, Apple keeps rolling out a new model each year — and keeps inventing new bells and whistles to lure us. Meanwhile, people are waiting longer and longer to upgrade, because the phones we own already do most of what we need.

In my hand, this year’s iPhone 14 looked almost identical to last year’s iPhone 13, and even the iPhone 12 from two years ago. So Apple appears to be tapping into our pandemic-survival vibe to sell safety — the pitch it gave for upgrading to a phone with a satellite connection with rather limited uses. (More on that in a moment.) And it has a few nifty but less dramatic upgrades to its Pro line that will make die-hard iPhone fans feel like they’ve got the latest and greatest, at least until next year.

If you’re thinking about buying an iPhone 14, the first question I recommend asking is: Do I even need a new phone? Fortunately, we’ve got a quiz you can take to help you get the answer. If you hold on to your current phone a little longer, perhaps by replacing the battery, you’ll not only save money but also do the right thing for the environment.

If you’ve decided it’s time to upgrade, your 2022 options come in a new assortment of sizes and flavors, so here’s a cheat sheet:

  • iPhone 14 ($799) is the update to the iPhone standard of the last few years. It’s got a 6.1-inch screen and two cameras on the back.
  • It killed the iPhone mini, previously the least expensive flagship model — and the most likely to fit in small hands and skinnier jeans — to replace it instead with …
  • iPhone 14 Plus ($899) is a giant 6.7-inch model of the iPhone 14, offering you the chance to get a larger screen and better battery life without splurging on a Pro model
  • iPhone 14 Pro ($999) is the fancy 6.1-inch model with a funny new front-camera cutout and camera capabilities.
  • iPhone 14 Pro Max ($1,099) is the giant 6.7-inch fancy model with the funny cutout and camera capabilities.

Any of these phones will probably feel like a major upgrade to someone currently using an iPhone 8 or earlier, and should last for another four or more years because it can access the latest 5G cellular networks. You can also get a cheaper upgrade by buying last year’s iPhone 13 for $700, or the no-frills $429 iPhone SE, which resembles an old iPhone 8 but is faster.

While Apple could (and did!) fill 45 minutes with all the little improvements on the iPhone 14 and 14 Pro, there are three new technologies that I found most tempting — and in need of some caveats.

The emergency satellite connection

Why it’s good: You don’t have to travel too far out in many parts of the United States to be outside of cell coverage. In those situations, all of the new iPhone 14 models have the ability to connect to satellites to send SOS messages.

You can also use this tech to send occasional updates on your location to friends or family following you with the iPhone’s Find My app. Apple is including the satellite service for two years, after which you’ll have to pay.

But keep in mind: You can’t use this technology to text or message friends while you’re in the middle of nowhere, because the bandwidth is so limited. We still have no idea how well this will work in the real world — rock faces and even trees could interfere — and it isn’t scheduled to launch until November. Apple warned that in some conditions, it could take several minutes just to send a canned SOS message.

Actual adventure travelers remind me that if you’re the kind of person who frequents dangerous off-the-grid places, you can also buy a dedicated device and service with a larger antenna, such as the Spot X or the Garmin inReach Mini. I also hope simply having this feature on the iPhone doesn’t encourage people to take risks that will raise the need for search and rescue services from the already overstretched Park Service.

Goodbye ‘notch,’ hello ‘Dynamic Island’

Why it’s good: Some Apple fans have been grousing for years about the “notch” on the top of the iPhone screen that holds the camera and Face ID sensor. So just for the iPhone 14 Pro models, Apple replaced it with a “pill” shape that’s cut right into the screen.

Wait, why is a new hole helpful? Apple invention a use for some of the space around the cameras, which it calls the Dynamic Island. It’s like an ever-changing blob that grows or shrinks as it fills with notifications and other information like your currently playing song.

But keep in mind: This is still a black hole in your screen. And the Dynamic Island, while cute, might make sure you never forget that there’s a hole there.

Also, just know: In the alternative universe of Android phones, they’re putting cameras and fingerprint sensors behind the screens entirely so there’s less to block the view of your beautiful screen.

Why it’s good: We’ve come to expect every new iPhone to have better cameras, and the iPhone 14 is no exception. One particularly useful improvement this year is to the front-facing selfie camera, which gains autofocus.

And once again, Apple saved the biggest improvement for the Pro line. Its back camera can now take photos with a 48-megapixel sensor, up from the 12-megapixel sensor it has used for years. That means in a special camera mode, you could take many higher-resolution photos, with more detail or the ability to crop in after the fact. By default, though, the phone will just use those extra pixels to try to deliver better-quality photos in lowlight conditions at the standard 12-megapixel resolution — which is also welcome.

But keep in mind: Photos taken at 48 megapixels could generate very large files, so you’re probably not going to want to use that special mode very often. And even 48 megapixels can’t compete with the 108 megapixels and telescopic zooming lenses that photo bugs can get on Samsung and other rival Android phones.

If camera quality is a big factor in your upgrade decision, I recommend waiting for pro reviewers and photographers to give the iPhone 14 Pro’s new camera a full test. There’s a lot we still don’t know about the quality of the images it will deliver from what’s still a relatively petite camera sensor.

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