Apple’s big reveal: 11 things you should know about

Apple delivered three big, expected pieces of news but here are some of the more intriguing and even surprising details unveiled at the tech giant's two-hour event.

Apple’s new phones come in gold, silver and space grey, like the iPhone 5S: Source: Wilson Rothman/The Wall Street Journal

Apple delivered three big, expected pieces of news during its two-hour event: larger-screen iPhones, a watch and a mobile-payments system. But there were intriguing and even surprising details. Here are some key takeaways beyond the big headlines:

1) A 64 GB iPhone is $100 Cheaper, and other price points

The 32-gigabyte iPhone is gone. In its $299 price range now is a 64 GB size — we’re talking now about the new, 4.7-inch “regular” phone — while at the uppermost end a new 128 GB size is being sold for $399. That’s a lot of storage in your pocket, and a more tolerable step-up in pricing. (Charging $100 for an extra 16 GB of storage was always stingy.) The iPhone 5C — no guarantee to stick around — becomes a free 8 GB phone with a two-year phone contract. At the top-end, the 128 GB 5.5” phablet phone reaches even higher to $499. The phones will ship Sept. 19, and pre-orders begin this Friday.

2) The new iPhones don’t have sapphire screens

Apple is dumping a lot of resources into manufacturing synthetic sapphire for its products, and it was thought that the new phones would use this harder, scratch-resistant display. But they don’t. The camera-lens cover, though, is covered with sapphire. (As are two of the three versions of the new Apple Watch.) Apple may cover its super-sized iPhone screens with sapphire down the road, but not yet.

3) Amid all of the nerdy spec chest-pounding, two camera upgrades stand out

Apple’s product shows are exercises in nudging around specs and touting cryptic features like “phase detection focus.” Amid all of that noise, which people do care about, are two features worth noting: The iPhone 6 has true optical-image stabilization that mechanically moves the lens up, down and side to side, to automatically adjust images when you are moving the phone. The phones also will shoot 1080p video — that’s true high-definition quality — at 30 frames-per-second or 60 frames-per-second. Those are hefty specs for capturing video. And a third notable feature: the phones use the latest, more robust wireless standard called 801.11 ac. Here are all the phone specs.

4) The Apple Watch will work with the iPhone 5 line of phones

A small but significant point: Apple Watch needs to pair with an iPhone (CEO Tim Cook tried to make it sound like a feature, not a frustration), but you might not need to buy a new phone with your new watch. Say what you will, but these products are all expensive. If you want a watch and have an iPhone 5, 5S or 5C, they will pair. For you iPhone 4S owners, you can always get the watch and then a colorfully discounted 5C.

5) The Watch can do a lot … but about that battery life?

For a new product, the watch has a lot of functionality out the door. We’re not talking about being “the most accurate” watch, as Apple boasts. Telling accurate time is a basic requirement. In addition, the watch is a fitness tracker, a mobile-payments wallet, a communicator, a device for engaging with familiar apps (Facebook, Twitter, Apple Remote) and — well — a watch. Here are all the apps. All this before Apple has shown how deeply it is diving into the home-automation space.

So, what about battery life? No mention during the showcase. The Moto 360 smartwatch got dinged in Joanna Stern’s review for needing a midday charge. An Apple spokesperson said afterward that the company will recommend a charge at night. (And guess what? It needs yet another kind of charging cable!) It better be quick to power up: Some people like to use fitness devices while they sleep, and no one wants to juggle a charge into their daily schedules. That’s not the only thing left unknown. Apple’s website, like its event, is chock full of design features, but shy on some common specs. Those details will come out fast enough, though. (Some right after the event.)

6) The Watch doesn’t work quite how you thought it would

It was too easy to figure the Apple Watch would be a shrunken-down phone. It’s not. But it was a good bet to assume the controls would largely be the same multi-touch functionality as the phones. Well, it’s not. The watch has a touch screen but also uses a small dial on the side — a digital crown — to zoom and pan, for example. Basically, Apple’s designers thought pinching and expanding two fingers would be a chore. That said, it’s a gamble. People are mentally used to just tapping on glass to get things done. Phones and tablets have home and volume buttons, yes, but they aren’t usually a part of the in-app intuitive experience. Will left-handed people have a steeper learning curve? This one is too early to call. Here’s a first look video.

7) You can wear an Apple Watch and be unique. But not this year.

In the lead up to the watch announcements from Apple and companies using Android, no small amount of hand-wringing was reserved for the requirement that watches be unique. People choose a watch to be fashionable and distinct. Everyone walking around with the same three slabs of metal and band isn’t. Apple is releasing three flavors of the watch, two different sizes, and multiple bands. There are many watch faces to choose from.

You’ll just have to wait since the watch isn’t available until next year.

8) You can get iOS 8 on Sept. 17; no word on OSX ‘Yosemite’

Pencil next Wednesday to grab the download for the next version of Apple’s mobile operating system for iPhones and iPads. (Be warned: if you have a 16 GB iPhone, you will probably need to clear the decks of some apps to make room for the hefty download. At least that was the case last year.) No word on the timing of OSX “Yosemite” for Macbooks and iMac. That’s a necessary part of the “continuity” puzzle of starting an activity on a Watch or iPhone and then finishing on a Mac. It will likely come in October along with a “continuity” release.

9) Apple is entering the bloody red ocean of mobile payments

Apple has triumphed for the last decade by entering a market not with the first product or service, necessarily, but arguably the best. That started with the iPhone, then the iPad and — time will tell — with the watch. But there is another space it is diving into, and it is a space littered with would-be innovations that failed to catch on: mobile payments. Apple is making a big deal about it and lined up some significant names to mention during the launch: Disney, American Express, MasterCard, McDonald’s, Whole Foods.

Apple isn’t innovating in mobile payments yet as much as putting its arms around the market and trying to drag it forward. Others have tried, like Google. The timing of the hacks at Target and Home Depot don’t hurt the cause of doing away with antiquated payments systems. The ubiquity of iPhones and the promise of the smartwatch could be the juice that needed to make Apple Pay work. Apple’s laser focus on it will help, but not every piece of software or service Apple introduces is a success. (Looking at you, Ping.)

10) Tim Cook threw shade on credit-card security

He’s totally right. The widely accepted but antiquated system of cards and terminals used today are what make hacks like the one at Target possible. We can do better. In fact, Europe does. Cook’s darts were deserved. The Apple celebrity photos-in-the-cloud hackis so fresh, though, it made for rich timing.

11) The mysterious white building held no mysteries

Speaking of home-automation, the big mysterious white building behind the Flint Center was just a display store. Wamp, wamp, waaam.

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