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Why Apple has stopped making small phones—and why it should start again

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The new iPhone SE is here, and it’s an attractive product: it combines a tried-and-true design, arguably the fastest mobile chip in the industry, and a $400 starting price point. It might be the most appealing phone in Apple’s lineup for a wide range of users.

That said, it’s quite a bit bigger than its predecessor. Consumers who were hoping for the return of the 4-inch display, or maybe even a slightly larger display but in the same grip size as the original SE, were likely disappointed by this week’s announcement. Apple is not alone in skipping smaller handset offerings; there aren’t many small Android phones left, either.

There are reasons for this trend that make sense both for the tech company and the consumer, but there are also reasons Apple shouldn’t turn its back on a minority of consumers who still want—or even need—smaller phones.

Why there aren’t many small phones anymore

There are numerous reasons not a lot of very small smartphones get made at this point. And there is some overlap between why Apple has emphasized larger phones and why Android OEMs have. But in any case, we’ll focus on Apple here since we’re discussing the iPhone SE.

Bigger phones mean bigger revenue

You’ve probably noticed smartphone prices going up; part of that reflects the fact that some consumers are willing to pay more than they were previously because of how central smartphones have become in so many aspects of our lives. But part of it is because companies like Apple need to please investors, and if they can’t do that by selling more phones, they can do it by selling a smaller number of phones at a higher price per unit.

As the market has become saturated, Apple and Android OEMs are seeing slower smartphone sales growth—and people are upgrading less frequently for various reasons, too. This makes the economics of selling low-cost smartphones more unfavorable than they have been in the past. To make up for selling fewer units overall, Apple and its competitors need to sell more expensive phones than before.

It makes sense for smaller phones to sell for cheaper because they contain fewer expensive materials and components. And a company couldn’t just sell the small phones with a huge margin; a competitor would be able to undercut that price with a comparable phone.

Apple’s emphasis on content and services calls for bigger screens

Investor pressure mounted on Apple in recent years to make up for the slowing growth of smartphone sales, and more expensive phones hasn’t been the company’s only apparent strategy. Another has been to pivot to sell additional products and services to existing customers, ranging from AirPods to the Apple Watch to subscription services like Apple TV+, Apple Arcade, and Apple Music.

Generally, that strategy requires smartphones to be treated as primary media consumption devices—not just for short TikTok videos, but for long binge sessions of Arcade games or TV+ shows. (Also, Apple receives a cut from subscriptions to other video services started through its payment system.) That means it makes sense to emphasize more powerful devices with larger, more immersive screens.

It’s not much fun to watch For All Mankind or play Sayonara Wild Hearts on a 4-inch screen. With 6.5 inches, though? That might be a different story for some, especially if that phone also sports an OLED display with HDR support like the iPhone 11 Pro Max.

Enlarge / The iPhone 11 Pro Max (right) measures a whopping 6.22 inches tall. The iPhone 11 Pro (left) is no slouch at 5.67 inches, but that extra half-inch(ish) makes it look tiny in comparison.

Samuel Axon

Modern features don’t fit in small packages

Those business-related reasons are part of the picture, but neither is the most significant reason. There are technical and design reasons, too.

Over time, Apple and its competitors have added more features and components to smartphones, requiring more space inside the phones to put those things in. And it just so happens that most of the top priorities of smartphone buyers run counter to the ideal of a small phone: battery life and cameras.

In February of 2019, market research company SurveyMonkey asked smartphone buyers what their top priorities were. The leading concern was battery life, cited by 76 percent of iPhone users and 77 percent of Android users. Also near the top: better cameras, at 57 percent and 52 percent, respectively.

A similar survey of 575,000 US consumers by Global Web Index also put battery life as a concern for 77 percent of smartphone users. Camera picture quality landed at 62 percent, and screen resolution was also high at 52 percent.

Below: Photos of the iPhone SE from our review back in 2016.

Listing image by Andrew Cunningham

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Apple Watch Ultra becomes a diving computer with launch of Oceanic+

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In September, Apple announced a new wearable called the Apple Watch Ultra, and one of the company’s key pitches for the device was its use as a diving computer. Now Oceanic+, the app that makes that feature possible, launched exclusively for the Ultra, Apple announced today.

The Watch Ultra has depth gauge and water temperature sensors that drive some of the features in the app. To access a few of those features—such as decompression tracking—you’ll have to subscribe to the app’s premium version for $4.99 per day, $9.99 per month, or $79.99 per year. There’s also a family plan at $129.99 annually. If you don’t subscribe, you can still use some key features like dive logs, depth tracking, and so on.

The app—which was developed in partnership with Apple by a company called Huish Outdoors, lets you track dive conditions like tides, water temperature, and more. Here’s a quick summary from Apple’s blog post announcement:

In the dive planner, users can set their surface time, their depth, and their gas, and Oceanic+ will calculate their No Deco (no-decompression) time—a metric used to determine a time limit for a diver at a certain depth. The planner also integrates dive conditions, including tides, water temperature, and even up-to-date information from the community, such as visibility and currents. Post-dive, users will see data—including GPS entry and exit locations—automatically pop up on Apple Watch Ultra, along with a summary of their dive profile. The summary on the Oceanic+ iPhone app provides additional information, including a map of entry and exit locations, as well as graphs of depth, temperature ascent rate, and no-decompression limit.

A lot of the features focus on either planning dives in advance or viewing dive reports after you’re done, but for those that you use underwater, the app utilizes haptics to send you alerts. The Watch Ultra’s very bright screen can help with legibility underwater, too.

The app doesn’t work with other Apple Watch models. To use it, you’ll need an Apple Watch running watchOS 9.1, and that Watch must be paired with an iPhone 8 or later running iOS 16.1.

Listing image by Samuel Axon

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Regulatory filings suggest Nvidia’s scrapped RTX 4080 will return as the “4070 Ti”

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Nvidia

Last month, Nvidia took the unusual step of “unlaunching” a previously announced product. The 12GB version of the GeForce RTX 4080 graphics card was, by the company’s admission, “not named right” and was delayed and rebranded to avoid confusion with the 16GB version of the RTX 4080 that launched. Besides having less RAM, the 12GB version of the RTX 4080 also offered less memory bandwidth and fewer GPU cores than the 16GB version.

Nvidia didn’t announce exactly what branding it would use for the revived RTX 4080, but regulatory filings submitted by Gigabyte (as reported by VideoCardz) suggest that the company has settled on calling it the “4070 Ti.”

This isn’t guaranteed to be the actual name—regulatory filings like this can be placeholders rather than actual products—but this branding would be more consistent with how Nvidia has named past GPU generations. The xx80 cards usually use the same physical GPU die as the flagship xx90 cards but run at lower clock speeds and with parts of the die switched off; this allows Nvidia to use GPU dies with defects rather than tossing them out. The xx70 cards generally use a smaller, less-performant GPU die based on the same architecture.

Nvidia made the rebranding decision late enough in the process that it reportedly caused Nvidia and its partners to throw out finished packaging and other elements with “4080” branding. Redesigning and then re-manufacturing those things takes time, as does re-flashing the BIOSes on already-manufactured graphics cards so that they identify themselves as 4070 Tis rather than 4080s.

Nvidia still hasn’t said whether the price of the cards would also come down along with the model number; the 12GB version of the RTX 4080 was originally slated to launch for $899, while the RTX 3070 Ti was originally launched at $599. But existing RTX 4090 and 4080 cards are already difficult to get anywhere near their already-high $1,600 and $1,200 starting prices. It may be that an RTX 4070 Ti with decent 4K gaming performance, DLSS 3 support, and the other RTX 4000-series architectural bells and whistles would still sell out even with a big generation-over-generation price hike.

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Google says Google should do a better job of patching Android phones

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Google’s “Project Zero” team of security analysts wants to rid the world of zero-day security vulnerabilities, and that means it spends time calling out slacking companies on its blog. The group’s latest post is a bit of friendly fire aimed at the Android and Pixel teams, which Project Zero says aren’t dealing with bugs in the ARM GPU driver quickly enough.

In June, Project Zero researcher Maddie Stone detailed an in-the-wild exploit for the Pixel 6, where bugs in the ARM GPU driver could let a non-privileged user get write access to read-only memory. Another Project Zero researcher, Jann Horn, spent the next three weeks finding related vulnerabilities in the driver. The post says these bugs could allow “an attacker with native code execution in an app context [to] gain full access to the system, bypassing Android’s permissions model and allowing broad access to user data.”

Project Zero says it reported these issues to ARM “between June and July 2022” and that ARM fixed the issues “promptly” in July and August, issuing a security bulletin (CVE-2022-36449) and publishing fixed source code. But these actively exploited vulnerabilities haven’t been patched for users. The groups dropping the ball are apparently Google and various Android OEMs, as Project Zero says that months after ARM fixed the vulnerabilities, “all of our test devices which used Mali are still vulnerable to these issues. CVE-2022-36449 is not mentioned in any downstream security bulletins.”

The affected ARM GPUs include a long list of the past three generations of ARM GPU architectures (Midgard, Bifrost, and Valhall), ranging from currently shipping devices to phones from 2016. ARM’s GPUs aren’t used by Qualcomm chips, but Google’s Tensor SoC uses ARM GPUs in the Pixel 6, 6a, and 7, and Samsung’s Exynos SoC uses ARM GPUs for its midrange phones and older international flagships like the Galaxy S21 (just not the Galaxy S22). Mediatek’s SoCs are all ARM GPU users, too, so we’re talking about millions of vulnerable Android phones from just about every Android OEM.

In response to the Project Zero blog post, Google told Engadget, “The fix provided by Arm is currently undergoing testing for Android and Pixel devices and will be delivered in the coming weeks. Android OEM partners will be required to take the patch to comply with future SPL requirements.”

The Project Zero analysts end their blog post with some advice for their colleagues, saying, “Just as users are recommended to patch as quickly as they can once a release containing security updates is available, so the same applies to vendors and companies. Minimizing the ‘patch gap’ as a vendor in these scenarios is arguably more important, as end users (or other vendors downstream) are blocking on this action before they can receive the security benefits of the patch. Companies need to remain vigilant, follow upstream sources closely, and do their best to provide complete patches to users as soon as possible.”

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