Apple iPhone X

The $1,000 Smartphone Debacle: Has Apple Dropped the Ball for Travelers?

In Opinion by Patricia Rey Mallén2 Comments


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I’ll come out and say it right away: what’s going on with Apple?

For the last couple of years it seems like Apple keeps building hopes up, only to crush them when the announcements come. In that time, we’ve been getting excited about new MacBooks, updated iPhones, and groundbreaking wearables — and then realize that the much-hyped improvements (or brand new devices) didn’t provide all that much of interest to the general public, and especially to travelers.

For the record, I’m a die-hard Apple fan. After having my first bite of Apple products when I purchased my beloved iPod Classic a decade ago, I converted almost immediately. I barely remember how to use a PC, have never learned the ropes of Android, and literally cried when my first MacBook left me. Apple products have my heart. But, as Lauren did before me, I can’t turn a blind eye to the reality: Apple has been letting us down. It needs to be an Apple fan saying it.

Take the last announcement, for instance. Early last month, Apple was expected to unveil its iPhone 8, and promised a few surprises. Well, it did uncover the iPhone 8, and went the extra step with the iPhone X. The smartphones included some interesting features — but that fancier model also came with an “interesting” price tag to go with it: $1,000.

iPhone 8

You read that right: $1,000 USD – or more exactly, $999 for the model with 64GB storage, $1,145 for the 256GB version.

That price puts the iPhone X out of reach for most of us mere mortals, and makes it a serious investment for any traveler looking to take moderately-better smartphone photos. Is the iPhone X a good phone? Probably. Does it justify its four-figure pricetag? That looks less certain — especially when you consider other options in the smartphone market that offer a whole lot more bang for your hard-earned buck.

And, unfortunately, this wasn’t an isolated event. The last MacBook refresh didn’t offer much to travelers (or anybody, really), the Apple Watch still misses useful travel features, and the iPad hasn’t seen a significant update in at least a couple of years. Think I’m being too harsh? Let’s take a trip down memory lane, device by device.

MacBooks

Where We Were

Apple, forever the tease, took two years to bring any significant changes to its MacBook line. When it finally did, eleven months ago now, it was quite the letdown.

The new MacBook inherited the all-aluminum look of its predecessors, in both the 13” and 15” versions, but was a good half-pound lighter. That, at least, was good news for travelers who’d had to choose between the lighter MacBook Air, and the more powerful MacBook Pro.

Other than that, there was little to talk about. The main upgrade was the TouchBar, a touch-sensitive keyboard strip that adapts to what the user is doing, like showing tiny versions of open browser tabs. Besides introducing Touch ID, which brings more security for laptops and works with Apple Pay, the TouchBar looks cool, but is hardly a “can’t live without” feature.

Apple MacBook Laptop Update

Where We Are Today

We’re in exactly the same spot we were before, since the last announcement didn’t include anything regarding laptops. Here’s hoping we don’t have to wait another two years for an update.

Any Better Options?

Microsoft took its time to get into the laptop game, but once it did, it nailed it: the Surface Pro and Surface Book are impressive, to say the least.

If you’re after something lightweight without compromising on speed, the Surface Pro is a great choice. It weighs just 1.7lbs as a tablet (2.3lbs with the keyboard/case accessory), with a high-resolution 12.3″ touchscreen, great battery life, and a range of configurations to meet different needs (and budgets).

For even more power and flexibility, check out the Surface Book 2, which received an update just last week. It looks much like a normal laptop — until you detach the screen and turn it into a tablet. The 13.5″ touchscreen model makes the most sense for travelers, and you can configure it with up to 1TB of storage and 16GB of RAM. There’s also a dedicated graphics card, and up to 17 hours (!) of battery life. The downside? It’s heavy for travel, at nearly 3.4lbs.

Neither option is particularly cheap, but neither is a Macbook Pro — and you get noticeably more for your money.

The Acer Switch 7 Black Edition, due out in December, looks like might give the Surface a run for its money. A 2-in-1 with a 13.5” display, 2256 x 1504 resolution, and impressive graphics card, it’ll last up to eight hours on battery and, due to its lack of fan, be totally silent. Weighing 2.5lbs and starting at $1,699, we’ll be keeping an eye on this when it hits the shelves.

iPhone

Where We Were

When the September 2016 Apple launch rolled around, nobody really knew if the much-rumored iPhone 7 would be even mentioned. Indeed it was, and with it came some cool upgrades.

The smartphone, which like its predecessor came in two different sizes, introduced a first in the family: it went waterproof. Among its other noteworthy features were an improved camera (two for the Plus version, one telephoto and one wide-angle), with a four-LED-toned flash, better more battery life, a revamped set of headphones, and faster LTE download speeds.

iPhone X

Where We Are Now

The iPhone (or indeed, iPhones) was the main story of the latest Apple event.

The expected iPhone 8, available in regular and Plus sizes, brings some upgrades to the previous model but no groundbreaking new features. It thankfully remains water- and dust-resistant (though is still unlikely to handle a swim in the toilet), and it is meant to be better at surviving drops. As with every new model, Apple again promised better battery life.

The company also finally introduced wireless charging. This feature allows iPhone 8 to be charged on any of the Qi wireless chargers you’re starting to see in cafés, hotels, airports, and cars. Depending on where your travels take you, that can come in handy.

The camera is also better, particularly in the Plus version. Upping the color sensitivity on its 12MP camera (for both versions) will make for more impressive photos, while the double camera on the Plus improves upon the wide-angle and telephoto lenses we got to know on the iPhone 7.

It wasn’t the only new arrival, though. As mentioned, the iPhone X has also joined Apple’s smartphone ranks. The X, which comes in one size (slightly longer than the 8, but with similar width and weight), mirrors the 8 Plus with its dual camera and 2x optical zoom. It also adds some brand new features, like Face ID (which replaces Touch ID, as there is no start button), as well as expanding battery life by two hours.

The iPhone 8 will retail for $699 (64GB) and $849 (256GB); the iPhone 8 Plus will go for $799 and $949, respectively. As for the X… well, there’s no need to say it again.

Any Better Options?

After the Galaxy Note 7 fiasco of last year, Samsung has stepped up its game on its Galaxy S8. Just like the iPhone, it comes in two sizes: the 8 (with a 5.8” screen) and 8+ (6.2”). The camera didn’t get much of an upgrade from the previous model — but given how good it was, it didn’t need one. The camera is still a single 12MP sensor, with a wide f/1.7 dual pixel lens.

The one upgrade is the multi-shot processor, which takes three images at a time to eliminate blur and give much sharper photos. Add this to a super-fast shutter and auto-HDR mode that works with any lighting conditions, and you have a winner in your hands. It’s currently priced around $649, sometimes a little cheaper on Amazon.

We’re also getting pretty excited about Google’s new Pixel 2, which started shipping last week. Available in two sizes (5″ and 6″), priced from $649, it’s already getting rave reviews from the tech press. Dave’s eagerly waiting for his order to arrive! It’s definitely not the sexiest phone on the market, but the camera, speed, and software could make it a strong contender for phone of the year regardless. We’ll have our own review up next month.

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Tablets & Wearables

Where We Were

We didn’t love the Apple Watch when it came out in 2015, but started warming up to it last year — or at least seeing some promise. The Apple Watch 2 was submersible up to 50 meters, and had built-in GPS (though it still had to be connected to an iPhone for it to work).

As for the iPad, three new models came out last year. The most recent was the 9.7” iPad Pro, unveiled just in time for Christmas 2016. It came with a slightly improved camera compared to its bigger brother, the barely two-month-old 12.9” version.

The other iPad models were the iPad Air 2 and iPad Mini 4, both of which came out in October 2016.

iPad

Where We Are Now

The Apple Watch 3 was the other focus of last month’s announcements, and one that actually caught our attention. For the first time, the Apple Watch will be completely independent — the introduction of a cellular LTE network means it will, for the first time, be useful when not connected to an iPhone. The watch will use an eSIM card, which is already available from some US carriers, and will adopt the same phone number as the owner’s iPhone. Prices start at $329.

However, as good as the news is, it’s nowhere near as exciting for travelers. Why? Because the cellular connection in the Apple Watch 3 doesn’t support roaming, or being used outside the country of purchase. The wide range of LTE bands around the world undoubtedly plays some part in this, but regardless, the best feature of the new model won’t work when you’re on the road. There are also several quirks with things like text messages and app notifications, if your phone isn’t connected to the Internet somewhere.

iPads weren’t part of the latest set of announcements, so no changes there.

Any Better Options?

It’s still too soon to look for alternatives to the Apple Watch 3, but the previous version had some worthy competitors, like the Samsung Gear S3. This smartwatch is compatible with both iOS and Android, has 4GB of storage, IP68 protection (can be submerged in five feet of water for half an hour) and three-day battery life. It’s a little cheaper than the Apple version, too, at around $300 on Amazon.

In terms of tablets, the Asus ZenPad 3S 10 is a good equivalent to the 9.7” iPad Pro, at half its price. The ZenPad has the same screen size and resolution as the iPad, as well as 4GB RAM, and a great processor and graphics card. Another plus? It comes with 64GB of storage as default (double that of the iPad), which you can then expand with a microSD card.

Apple Watch 3

Should Travelers Keep Investing in Apple Products, Then?

The short answer? Honestly, no.

While the iPhone 8 is undoubtedly a good phone, it doesn’t offer much in the way of an upgrade from the previous model, and the design is getting dated. The iPhone X is more exciting in terms of technology, looks and features, but it’s very hard to justify paying $1000 or more to have it.

Similarly, the latest MacBook barely brings any real-world improvements from the previous models, and as we mentioned, there isn’t much happening with the iPad lately either. The Apple Watch 3 is becoming increasingly more interesting for the general customer, but remains of little use for travelers.

Given all that, combined with the competition bringing more to the table across all segments, Apple gear is no longer the obvious recommendation for travelers it was three or four years ago.

Now, if you’re a diehard fan who has completely forgotten (or maybe never learned) how to use a PC or Android phone, then sure, Apple’s new products will probably keep you happy. The iPhone 8 and X are still good phones, and the MacBook Pro is likely to work just as well as its predecessors.

However, if even I, a diehard Apple fan, couldn’t justify buying any of the latest devices myself, can I really persuade travelers to drop $1,000+ on a phone that’s no more useful than one costing much less, or point them towards an unexciting MacBook Pro or iPad when there are better alternatives?

Sadly, the answer is no.

Images via Apple.

About the Author

Patricia Rey Mallén

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A roaming writer and tech enthusiast, Patricia has been wandering the globe for 10-odd years. A passionate Apple lover, she is familiar with Genius bars from Sydney to Reykjavík to Mexico City. She only vaguely remembers life before the Internet, but will forever long for the days in which mobile phone batteries lasted for over a week.

Comments

  1. Hi all. I’m now in KL roaming the malls, debating whether I should go all in, on the Apple ecosystem. 10.5 pro with everything, Watch 3, and a phone-$2500 for seamlessness. Do I NEED this? No. My mishmash of Zenpad, MicroMax $80 phone works fine. The Zenpad currently has a Digi sim. I use it for Grab, Agoda, flight booking, Youtube, whatever. This is a pretty great all in one device with surprisingly no issues in year and a half ($240). I’ve been looking at Xiaomi MiMax 2: 6.4″, huge battery, 4 gig ram, 64 gig storage, about $300. Xiaomi Note 4 just came out with same specs but 5.5 screen $177. I’m thinking if I keep on about Apple, I’ll buy that to shut myself up (my MicroMax truly sucks)

    Samsung: I hate the new screens. The’re TOO GOOD. Too much contrast, too digital, harsh to look at. At the price point I think Apple works way better in every regard.

    Watch wise, I think Apple Watch 3 is the best toy out there. I just like it for no reason. But iphone is necessary bringing me back to the start $2500 for Apple “experience”.

    One question: id one were to buy watch with cellular in Asia would that solve the USA only dilemma?

    If I inhale sanity, I’ll probably just snatch that Xiaomi and shut up my OCD for $177.

    A side note: I just picked up an Osprey Escapist 18L for $40 which is one Awesome daypack-the weight disappears.

    Cheers,
    Laurence

    1. Hi Laurence,

      To answer your question — as best I can tell, the Watch 3 cellular roaming thing isn’t a “USA only” problem. In other words, it’ll work fine in the country you buy it from, wherever that is, but won’t work outside it. Buying it in Asia wouldn’t help you use its cell data elsewhere, sadly.

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