See the new iPhone’s ‘focus pixels’ up close

The new iPhones have excellent cameras, to be sure. But it’s always good to verify Apple’s breathless on-stage claims with first-hand reports. We have our own review of the phones and their photography systems, but teardowns provide the invaluable service of letting you see the biggest changes with your own eyes — augmented, of course, by a high-powered microscope.

We’ve already seen iFixit’s solid-as-always disassembly of the phone, but TechInsights gets a lot closer to the device’s components — including the improved camera of the iPhone XS and XS Max.

Although the optics of the new camera are as far as we can tell unchanged since the X, the sensor is a new one and is worth looking closely at.

Microphotography of the sensor die show that Apple’s claims are borne out and then some. The sensor size has increased from 32.8mm2 to 40.6mm2 — a huge difference despite the small units. Every tiny bit counts at this scale. (For comparison, the Galaxy S9 is 45mm2, and the soon-to-be-replaced Pixel 2 is 25mm2.)

The pixels themselves also, as advertised, grew from 1.22 microns (micrometers) across to 1.4 microns — which should help with image quality across the board. But there’s an interesting, subtler development that has continually but quietly changed ever since its introduction: the “focus pixels.”

That’s Apple’s brand name for phase detection autofocus (PDAF) points, found in plenty of other devices. The basic idea is that you mask off half a sub-pixel every once in a while (which I guess makes it a sub-sub-pixel), and by observing how light enters these half-covered detectors you can tell whether something is in focus or not.

Of course, you need a bunch of them to sense the image patterns with high fidelity, but you have to strike a balance: losing half a pixel may not sound like much, but if you do it a million times, that’s half a megapixel effectively down the drain. Wondering why that all the PDAF points are green? Many camera sensors use an “RGBG” sub-pixel pattern, meaning there are two green sub-pixels for each red and blue one — it’s complicated why. But there are twice as many green sub-pixels and therefore the green channel is more robust to losing a bit of information.

 

Apple introduced PDAF in the iPhone 6, but as you can see in TechInsights’ great diagram, the points are pretty scarce. There’s one for maybe every 64 sub-pixels, and not only that, they’re all masked off in the same orientation: either the left or right half gone.

The 6S and 7 Pluses saw the number double to one PDAF point per 32 sub-pixels. And in the 8 Plus, the number is improved to one per 20 — but there’s another addition: now the phase detection masks are on the tops and bottoms of the sub-pixels as well. As you can imagine, doing phase detection in multiple directions is a more sophisticated proposal, but it could also significantly improve the accuracy of the process. Autofocus systems all have their weaknesses, and this may have addressed one Apple regretted in earlier iterations.

Which brings us to the XS (and Max, of course), in which the PDAF points are now one per 16 sub-pixels, having increased the frequency of the vertical phase detection points so that they’re equal in number to the horizontal one. Clearly the experiment paid off and any consequent light loss has been mitigated or accounted for.

I’m curious how the sub-pixel patterns of Samsung, Huawei, and Google phones compare, and I’m looking into it. But I wanted to highlight this interesting little evolution. It’s an interesting example of the kind of changes that are hard to understand when explained in simple number form — we’ve doubled this, or there are a million more of that — but which make sense when you see them in physical form.

Big cameras and big rivalries take center stage at Photokina

Photokina is underway in London and the theme of the show is “large.” Unusually for an industry that is trending towards the compact, the cameras on stage at this show sport big sensors, big lenses, and big price tags. But though they may not be for the average shooter, these cameras are impressive pieces of hardware that hint at things to come for the industry as a whole.

The most exciting announcement is perhaps that from Panasonic, which surprised everyone with the S1 and S1R, a pair of not-quite-final full frame cameras that aim to steal a bit of the thunder from Canon and Nikon’s entries into the mirrorless full frame world.

Panasonic’s cameras have generally had impressive video performance, and these are no exception. They’ll shoot 4K at 60 FPS, which in a compact body like that shown is going to be extremely valuable to videographers. Meanwhile the S1R, with 47 megapixels to the S1’s 24, will be optimized for stills. Both will have dual card slots (which Canon and Nikon declined to add to their newest gear), weather sealing, and in-body image stabilization.

The timing and inclusion of so many desired features indicates either that Panasonic was clued in to what photographers wanted all along, or they waited for the other guys to move and then promised the things their competitors wouldn’t or couldn’t. Whatever the case, the S1 and S1R are sure to make a splash, whatever their prices.

Panasonic was also part of an announcement that may have larger long-term implications: a lens mount collaboration with Leica and Sigma aimed at maximum flexibility for the emerging mirrorless full-frame and medium format market. L-mount lenses will work on any of the group’s devices (including the S1 and S1R) and should help promote usage across the board.

Leica, for its part, announced the S3, a new version of its medium format S series that switches over to the L-mount system as well as bumping a few specs. No price yet but if you have to ask, you probably can’t afford it.

Sigma had no camera to show, but announced it would be taking its Foveon sensor tech to full frame and that upcoming bodies would be using the L mount as well.

This Fuji looks small here, but it’s no lightweight. It’s only small in comparison to previous medium format cameras.

Fujifilm made its own push on the medium format front with the new GFX 50R, which sticks a larger than full frame (but smaller than “traditional” medium format) sensor inside an impressively small body. That’s not to say it’s insubstantial: Fuji’s cameras are generally quite hefty, and the 50R is no exception, but it’s much smaller and lighter than its predecessor and, surprisingly, costs $2,000 less at $4,499 for the body.

The theme, as you can see, is big and expensive. But the subtext is that these cameras are not only capable of extraordinary imagery, but they don’t have to be enormous to do it. This combination of versatility with portability is one of the strengths of the latest generation of cameras, and clearly Fuji, Panasonic and Leica are eager to show that it extends to the pro-level, multi-thousand dollar bodies as well as the consumer and enthusiast lineup.

New tech uses Wi-Fi to count people through walls

Whether you’re trying to figure out how many students are attending your lectures or how many evil aliens have taken your Space Force brethren hostage, Wi-Fi can now be used to count them all.

The system, created by researchers at UC Santa Barbara, uses a single Wi-Fi router outside of the room to measure attenuation and signal drops. From the release:

The transmitter sends a wireless signal whose received signal strength (RSSI) is measured by the receiver. Using only such received signal power measurements, the receiver estimates how many people are inside the room — an estimate that closely matches the actual number. It is noteworthy that the researchers do not do any prior measurements or calibration in the area of interest; their approach has only a very short calibration phase that need not be done in the same area.

This means that you could simply walk up to a wall and press a button to count, with a high degree of accuracy, how many people are walking around. The system can measure up to 20 people in its current form.

The system uses a mathematical model to “see” people in the room based on signal strength and attenuation. The system uses off-the-shelf components and they’ve tested it in multiple locations and found that their total accuracy is two people or less with only one Wi-Fi device nearby.

Bodies and objects essentially absorb Wi-Fi as they move around in rooms, allowing the system to find discrete things in the space. Sadly it can’t yet map their position in the room, a feature that could be even more helpful in the future.

Happy 10th anniversary, Android

It’s been 10 years since Google took the wraps off the G1, the first Android phone. Since that time the OS has grown from buggy, nerdy iPhone alternative to arguably the most popular (or at least populous) computing platform in the world. But it sure as heck didn’t get there without hitting a few bumps along the road.

Join us for a brief retrospective on the last decade of Android devices: the good, the bad, and the Nexus Q.

HTC G1 (2008)

This is the one that started it all, and I have a soft spot in my heart for the old thing. Also known as the HTC Dream — this was back when we had an HTC, you see — the G1 was about as inauspicious a debut as you can imagine. Its full keyboard, trackball, slightly janky slide-up screen (crooked even in official photos), and considerable girth marked it from the outset as a phone only a real geek could love. Compared to the iPhone, it was like a poorly dressed whale.

But in time its half-baked software matured and its idiosyncrasies became apparent for the smart touches they were. To this day I occasionally long for a trackball or full keyboard, and while the G1 wasn’t pretty, it was tough as hell.

Moto Droid (2009)

Of course, most people didn’t give Android a second look until Moto came out with the Droid, a slicker, thinner device from the maker of the famed RAZR. In retrospect, the Droid wasn’t that much better or different than the G1, but it was thinner, had a better screen, and had the benefit of an enormous marketing push from Motorola and Verizon. (Disclosure: Verizon owns Oath, which owns TechCrunch, but this doesn’t affect our coverage in any way.)

For many, the Droid and its immediate descendants were the first Android phones they had — something new and interesting that blew the likes of Palm out of the water, but also happened to be a lot cheaper than an iPhone.

HTC/Google Nexus One (2010)

This was the fruit of the continued collaboration between Google and HTC, and the first phone Google branded and sold itself. The Nexus One was meant to be the slick, high-quality device that would finally compete toe-to-toe with the iPhone. It ditched the keyboard, got a cool new OLED screen, and had a lovely smooth design. Unfortunately it ran into two problems.

First, the Android ecosystem was beginning to get crowded. People had lots of choices and could pick up phones for cheap that would do the basics. Why lay the cash out for a fancy new one? And second, Apple would shortly release the iPhone 4, which — and I was an Android fanboy at the time — objectively blew the Nexus One and everything else out of the water. Apple had brought a gun to a knife fight.

HTC Evo 4G (2010)

Another HTC? Well, this was prime time for the now-defunct company. They were taking risks no one else would, and the Evo 4G was no exception. It was, for the time, huge: the iPhone had a 3.5-inch screen, and most Android devices weren’t much bigger, if they weren’t smaller.

The Evo 4G somehow survived our criticism (our alarm now seems extremely quaint, given the size of the average phone now) and was a reasonably popular phone, but ultimately is notable not for breaking sales records but breaking the seal on the idea that a phone could be big and still make sense. (Honorable mention goes to the Droid X.)

Samsung Galaxy S (2010)

Samsung’s big debut made a hell of a splash, with custom versions of the phone appearing in the stores of practically every carrier, each with their own name and design: the AT&T Captivate, T-Mobile Vibrant, Verizon Fascinate, and Sprint Epic 4G. As if the Android lineup wasn’t confusing enough already at the time!

Though the S was a solid phone, it wasn’t without its flaws, and the iPhone 4 made for very tough competition. But strong sales reinforced Samsung’s commitment to the platform, and the Galaxy series is still going strong today.

Motorola Xoom (2011)

This was an era in which Android devices were responding to Apple, and not vice versa as we find today. So it’s no surprise that hot on the heels of the original iPad we found Google pushing a tablet-focused version of Android with its partner Motorola, which volunteered to be the guinea pig with its short-lived Xoom tablet.

Although there are still Android tablets on sale today, the Xoom represented a dead end in development — an attempt to carve a piece out of a market Apple had essentially invented and soon dominated. Android tablets from Motorola, HTC, Samsung and others were rarely anything more than adequate, though they sold well enough for a while. This illustrated the impossibility of “leading from behind” and prompted device makers to specialize rather than participate in a commodity hardware melee.

Amazon Kindle Fire (2011)

And who better to illustrate than Amazon? Its contribution to the Android world was the Fire series of tablets, which differentiated themselves from the rest by being extremely cheap and directly focused on consuming digital media. Just $200 at launch and far less later, the Fire devices catered to the regular Amazon customer whose kids were pestering them about getting a tablet on which to play Fruit Ninja or Angry Birds, but who didn’t want to shell out for an iPad.

Turns out this was a wise strategy, and of course one Amazon was uniquely positioned to do with its huge presence in online retail and the ability to subsidize the price out of the reach of competition. Fire tablets were never particularly good, but they were good enough, and for the price you paid, that was kind of a miracle.

Xperia Play (2011)

Sony has always had a hard time with Android. Its Xperia line of phones for years were considered competent — I owned a few myself — and arguably industry-leading in the camera department. But no one bought them. And the one they bought the least of, or at least proportional to the hype it got, has to be the Xperia Play. This thing was supposed to be a mobile gaming platform, and the idea of a slide-out keyboard is great — but the whole thing basically cratered.

What Sony had illustrated was that you couldn’t just piggyback on the popularity and diversity of Android and launch whatever the hell you wanted. Phones didn’t sell themselves, and although the idea of playing Playstation games on your phone might have sounded cool to a few nerds, it was never going to be enough to make it a million-seller. And increasingly that’s what phones needed to be.

Samsung Galaxy Note (2012)

As a sort of natural climax to the swelling phone trend, Samsung went all out with the first true “phablet,” and despite groans of protest the phone not only sold well but became a staple of the Galaxy series. In fact, it wouldn’t be long before Apple would follow on and produce a Plus-sized phone of its own.

The Note also represented a step towards using a phone for serious productivity, not just everyday smartphone stuff. It wasn’t entirely successful — Android just wasn’t ready to be highly productive — but in retrospect it was forward thinking of Samsung to make a go at it and begin to establish productivity as a core competence of the Galaxy series.

Google Nexus Q (2012)

This abortive effort by Google to spread Android out into a platform was part of a number of ill-considered choices at the time. No one really knew, apparently at Google or anywhere elsewhere in the world, what this thing was supposed to do. I still don’t. As we wrote at the time:

Here’s the problem with the Nexus Q:  it’s a stunningly beautiful piece of hardware that’s being let down by the software that’s supposed to control it.

It was made, or rather nearly made in the USA, though, so it had that going for it.

HTC First — “The Facebook Phone” (2013)

The First got dealt a bad hand. The phone itself was a lovely piece of hardware with an understated design and bold colors that stuck out. But its default launcher, the doomed Facebook Home, was hopelessly bad.

How bad? Announced in April, discontinued in May. I remember visiting an AT&T store during that brief period and even then the staff had been instructed in how to disable Facebook’s launcher and reveal the perfectly good phone beneath. The good news was that there were so few of these phones sold new that the entire stock started selling for peanuts on Ebay and the like. I bought two and used them for my early experiments in ROMs. No regrets.

HTC One/M8 (2014)

This was the beginning of the end for HTC, but their last few years saw them update their design language to something that actually rivaled Apple. The One and its successors were good phones, though HTC oversold the “Ultrapixel” camera, which turned out to not be that good, let alone iPhone-beating.

As Samsung increasingly dominated, Sony plugged away, and LG and Chinese companies increasingly entered the fray, HTC was under assault and even a solid phone series like the One couldn’t compete. 2014 was a transition period with old manufacturers dying out and the dominant ones taking over, eventually leading to the market we have today.

Google/LG Nexus 5X and Huawei 6P (2015)

This was the line that brought Google into the hardware race in earnest. After the bungled Nexus Q launch, Google needed to come out swinging, and they did that by marrying their more pedestrian hardware with some software that truly zinged. Android 5 was a dream to use, Marshmallow had features that we loved … and the phones became objects that we adored.

We called the 6P “the crown jewel of Android devices”. This was when Google took its phones to the next level and never looked back.

Google Pixel (2016)

If the Nexus was, in earnest, the starting gun for Google’s entry into the hardware race, the Pixel line could be its victory lap. It’s an honest-to-god competitor to the Apple phone.

Gone are the days when Google is playing catch-up on features to Apple, instead, Google’s a contender in its own right. The phone’s camera is amazing. The software works relatively seamlessly (bring back guest mode!), and phone’s size and power are everything anyone could ask for. The sticker price, like Apple’s newest iPhones, is still a bit of a shock, but this phone is the teleological endpoint in the Android quest to rival its famous, fruitful, contender.

Let’s see what the next ten years bring.

Apple Watch fire face was made with actual fire

With the Apple Watch Series 4, Apple introduced a new, larger display. It now has rounded edges and thinner bezels. And the company took advantage of that display to introduce new fire, water, liquid metal and vapor faces. Apple didn’t use CGI to create those faces — they shot those faces in a studio.

Many companies would have rendered those effects on a computer given the size of the display. But those are actual videos shot with a camera.

Cool Hunting shared a video of the actual process, and it’s insane:

As you can see, Apple used a flamethrower against a transparent surface, exploded a balloon at the top of a basin of water, made a color powder explosion in a cylinder and rotated a small puddle of metallic liquid.

It says a lot about Apple’s design culture — they don’t take shortcuts and they have a lot of money.

Here’s the introduction video for the new Apple Watch:

Password bypass flaw in Western Digital My Cloud drives puts data at risk

A security researcher has published details of a vulnerability in a popular cloud storage drive after the company failed to issue security patches for over a year.

Remco Vermeulen found a privilege escalation bug in Western Digital’s My Cloud devices, which he said allows an attacker to bypass the admin password on the drive, gaining “complete control” over the user’s data.

The exploit works because drive’s web-based dashboard doesn’t properly check a user’s credentials before giving a possible attacker access to tools that should require higher levels of access.

The bug was “easy” to exploit, Vermeulen told TechCrunch in an email, and that it was remotely exploitable if a My Cloud device allows remote access over the internet — which thousands of devices are. He posted a proof-of-concept video on Twitter.

Details of the bug were also independently found by another security team, which released its own exploit code.

Vermeulen reported the bug over a year ago in April 2017, but said the company stopped responding. Normally, security researchers give 90 days for a company to respond, in line with industry-accepted responsible disclosure guidelines.

After he found that WD updated the My Cloud firmware in the meanwhile without fixing the vulnerability he found, he decided to post his findings.

A year later, WD still hasn’t release a patch.

The company confirmed that it knows of the vulnerability but did not say why it took more than a year to issue a fix. “We are in the process of finalizing a scheduled firmware update that will resolve the reported issue,” a spokesperson said, which will arrive “within a few weeks.”

WD said that several of its My Cloud products are vulnerable — including the EX2, EX4, and Mirror, but not My Cloud Home.

In the meantime, Vermeulen said that there’s no fix and that users have to “just disconnect” the drive altogether if they want to keep their data safe.

Five security settings in iOS 12 you should change right now

iOS 12, Apple’s latest mobile software for iPhone and iPad, is finally out. The new software packs in a bunch of new security and privacy features you’ve probably already heard about.

Here’s what you need to do to take advantage of the new settings and lock down your device.

1. Turn on USB Restricted Mode to make hacking more difficult

This difficult-to-find new feature prevents any accessories from connecting to your device — like USB cables and headphones — when your iPhone or iPad has been locked for more than an hour. That prevents police and hackers alike from using tools to bypass your lock screen passcode and get your data.

Go to Settings > Touch ID & Passcode and type in your passcode. Then, scroll down and ensure that USB Accessories are not permitted on the lock screen, so make sure the setting is Off.

2. Make sure automatic iOS updates are turned on

Every time your iPhone or iPad updates, it comes with a slew of security patches to prevent crashes or data theft. Yet, how often do you update your phone? Most don’t bother unless it’s a major update. Now, iOS 12 will update your device behind the scenes, saving you downtime. Just make sure you switch it on.

Go to Settings > General > Software Update and turn on automatic updates.

3. Set a stronger device passcode

iOS has gotten better in recent years with passcodes. For years, it was a four-digit code by default, and now it’s six-digits. That makes it far more difficult to run through every combination — known as brute-forcing.

But did you know that you can set a number-only code of any length? Eight-digits, twelve — even more — and it keeps the number keypad on the lock screen so you don’t have to fiddle around with the keyboard.

Go to Settings > Touch ID & Passcode and enter your passcode. Then, go to Change password and, from the options, set a Custom Numeric Code.

4. Now, switch on two-factor authentication

Two-factor is one of the best ways to keep your account safe. If someone steals your password, they still need your phone to break into your account. For years, two-factor has been cumbersome and annoying. Now, iOS 12 has a new feature that auto-fills the code, so it takes the frustration step out of the equation — so you have no excuse.

You may be asked to switch on two-factor when you set up your phone. You can also go to Settings and tap your name, then go to Password & Security. Just tap Turn on Two-Factor Authentication and follow the prompts.

5. While you’re here… change your reused passwords

iOS 12’s password manager has a new feature: password auditing. If it finds you’ve used the same password on multiple sites, it will warn you and advise you to change those passwords. It prevents password reuse attacks (known as “credential stuffing“) that hackers use to break into multiple sites and services using the same username and password.

Go to Settings > Passwords & Accounts > Website & App Passwords and enter your passcode. You’ll see a small warning symbol next to each account that recognizes a reused password. One tap of the Change Password on Website button and you’re done.

Everyday home gear made smart

Editor’s note: This post was done in partnership with Wirecutter. When readers choose to buy Wirecutter’s independently chosen editorial picks, Wirecutter and TechCrunch may earn affiliate commissions.

If you only have one smart home device, it’s likely something simple and fun like a voice-controlled speaker or color-changing LED light bulb. As you expand your smart home setup, you can begin to swap out gear that isn’t as flashy but you still use everyday.

Switching to connected locks, power outlets and smoke alarms are all simple installs that can improve your safety and comfort in your own home. We’ve pulled together some of our favorite essentials made smart for anyone looking to upgrade.

Smart lock: Kwikset Kevo Smart Lock 2nd Gen

The Kwikset Kevo Smart Lock 2nd Gen is the most versatile smart lock that we’ve tested. Whether you prefer to use a wireless fob, smartphone app or key, you’ll be able to control the lock with all of them. When we compared it to similar models, the Kevo’s Bluetooth-activated tap-to-unlock mechanism was the easiest to use.

The second generation of the Kevo improved on security and has all-metal internal components for better protection against forced break-in attempts. With the optional Kevo Plus upgrade, you’ll add the ability to control the lock remotely and receive status-monitoring updates.

Photo: Liam McCabe

Robot Vacuum: iRobot Roomba 960

If cleaning is neither your forte or preferred pastime, a robot vacuum will come in handy. Our upgrade pick, the iRobot Roomba 960, is one of the most powerful models that we tested. It can be controlled through the iRobot Home app and uses a bump-and-track navigation system that helps vacuum an entire floor without missing spots.

If its battery is running low during a session, it’ll return to its dock to power up before finishing the job. It’s easy to disassemble for maintenance and is equipped with repairable parts that make it worth its price over some of our less serviceable picks.

Photo: Rachel Cericola

Plug-in Smart Outlet: Belkin Wemo Mini

We tested 26 smart outlet models over more than 45 hours and chose the Belkin Wemo Mini Wi-Fi plug as our top pick. If you’ve ever thought it’d be nice to remotely turn on or off home essentials such as lamps, air conditioners and fans from your smartphone, plugging them into a smart outlet makes it possible.

The Wemo Mini has proven to be reliable throughout long-term testing, it doesn’t block other outlets on the same wall plate and it’s compatible with iOS and Android devices and assistants, including HomeKit/Siri, Alexa and Google Assistant. The interface of the Wemo app is intuitive and easy to use. You can view all of your connected devices on one screen, set powering timers and from anywhere power on or off a device plugged into the Wemo outlet.

Photo: Jennifer Pattison Tuohy

Smart Thermostat: Nest Thermostat E

For a smart thermostat that’s affordable and doesn’t require extensive programming, we recommend the Nest Thermostat E. After about a week, it creates a schedule after learning cooling and heating preferences that you’ve set. It isn’t compatible with as many HVAC systems as similar Nest models, but it’s easy to install and doesn’t lack any features we expect.

It does come with Eco Mode — an energy-saving geofencing feature that detects when your home is empty (or when your smartphone is nowhere near your house). The Nest app uses the same technology to set the thermostat to a preferred temperature when it senses you’re on your way home. If you don’t have your smartphone on hand, you can still operate the Thermostat E by turning its outer ring and pressing selections on its touchscreen.

Photo: Michael Hession

Smart Smoke Alarm: Nest Protect

A smoke alarm is one of the most relied-upon safety devices in every home. Nonetheless, it’s easy to forget to do routine checks to ensure it’s in tip-top shape and functioning properly. With a smart smoke alarm like the Nest Protect, we found that its simple app, self-tests, monthly sound checks and consistent alerts are enough to keep fire safety worries at bay.

It isn’t difficult to install, has a sleek design and integrates with other smart home devices like the Nest Cam (which can record video of a fire) and the Nest Learning Thermostat (which shuts down HVAC systems that may be the cause of a fire). It’s sensitive to fast- and slow-burning fires, plus it monitors homes for both smoke and carbon monoxide.

These picks may have been updated by Wirecutter. When readers choose to buy Wirecutter’s independently chosen editorial picks, Wirecutter and TechCrunch may earn affiliate commissions.

The iPhone SE was the best phone Apple ever made, and now it’s dead

I only wanted one thing out of 2018’s iPhone event: a new iPhone SE. In failing to provide it Apple seems to have quietly put the model out to pasture — and for this I curse them eternally. Because it was the best phone the company ever made.

If you were one of the many who passed over the SE back in 2015, when it made its debut, that’s understandable. The iPhone 6S was the latest and greatest, and of course fixed a few of the problems Apple had kindly introduced with the entirely new design of the 6. But for me the SE was a perfect match.

See, I’ve always loved the iPhone design that began with the 4. That storied phone is perhaps best remembered for being left in a bar ahead of release and leaked by Gizmodo — which is too bad, because for once the product was worthy of the lavish unveiling Apple now bestows on every device it puts out.

The 4 established an entirely new industrial design aesthetic that was at once instantly recognizable and highly practical. Gone were the smooth, rounded edges and back of the stainless original iPhone (probably the second-best phone Apple made) and the jellybean-esque 3G and 3GS.

In the place of those soft curves were hard lines and uncompromising geometry: a belt of metal running around the edge, set off from the glass sides by the slightest of steps. It highlighted and set off the black glass of the screen and bezel, producing a specular outline from any angle.

The camera was flush and the home button (RIP) sub-flush, entirely contained within the body, making the device perfectly flat both front and back. Meanwhile the side buttons boldly stood out. Volume in bold, etched circles; the mute switch easy to find but impossible to accidentally activate; the power button perfectly placed for a reaching index finger. Note that all these features are directly pointed at usability: making things easier, better and more accessible while also being attractive and cohesive as parts of a single object.

Compared to the iPhone 4, every single other phone, including Samsung’s new “iPhone killer” Galaxy S, was a cheap-looking mess of plastic, incoherently designed or at best workmanlike. And don’t think I’m speaking as an Apple fanboy; I was not an iPhone user at the time. In fact, I was probably still using my beloved G1 — talk about beauty and the beast!

The design was strong enough that it survived the initially awkward transition to a longer screen in the 5, and with that generation it also gained the improved rear side that alleviated the phone’s unfortunate tendency towards… well, shattering.

The two-tone grey iPhone 5S, however, essentially left no room for improvement. And after 4 years, it was admittedly perhaps time to freshen things up a bit. Unfortunately, what Apple ended up doing was subtracting all personality from the device while adding nothing but screen space.

The 6 was, to me, simply ugly. It was reminiscent of the plethora of boring Android phones at the time — merely higher quality than them, not different. The 6S was similarly ugly, and the 7 through 8 somehow further banished any design that set themselves apart, while reversing course on some practical measures in allowing an increasingly large camera bump and losing the headphone jack. The X, at least, looked a bit different.

But to return to the topic at hand, it was after the 6S that Apple had introduced the SE. Although it nominally stood for “Special Edition,” the name was also a nod to the Macintosh SE. Ironically given the original meaning of “System Expansion,” the new SE was the opposite: essentially an iPhone 6S in the body of a 5S, complete with improved camera, Touch ID sensor, and processor. The move was likely intended as a sort of lifeboat for users who still couldn’t bring themselves to switch to the drastically redesigned, and considerably larger, new model.

It would take time, Apple seems to have reasoned, to convert these people, the types who rarely buy first generation Apple products and cherish usability over novelty. So why not coddle them a bit through this difficult transition?

The SE appealed not just to the nostalgic and neophobic, but simply people who prefer a smaller phone. I don’t have particularly large or small hands, but I preferred this highly pocketable, proven design to the new one for a number of reasons.

Flush camera so it doesn’t get scratched up? Check. Normal, pressable home button? Check. Flat, symmetrical design? Check. Actual edges to hold onto? Check. Thousands of cases already available? Check — although I didn’t use one for a long time. The SE is best without one.

At the time, the iPhone SE was more compact and better looking than anything Apple offered, while making almost no compromises at all in terms of functionality. The only possible objection was its size, and that was (and is) a matter of taste.

It was the best object Apple ever designed, filled with the best tech it had ever developed. It was the best phone it ever made.

And the best phone it’s made since then, too, if you ask me. Ever since the 6, it seems to me that Apple has only drifted, casting about for something to captivate its users the way the iPhone 4’s design and new graphical capabilities did, all the way back in 2010. It honed that design to a cutting edge and then, when everyone expected the company to leap forward, it tiptoed instead, perhaps afraid to spook the golden goose.

To me the SE was Apple allowing itself one last victory lap on the back of a design it would never surpass. It’s understandable that it would not want to admit, this many years on, that anyone could possibly prefer something it created nearly a decade ago to its thousand-dollar flagship — a device, I feel I must add, that not only compromises visibly in its design (I’ll never own a notched phone if I can help it) but backpedals on practical features used by millions, like Touch ID and a 3.5mm headphone jack. This is in keeping with similarly user-unfriendly choices made elsewhere in its lineup.

So while I am disappointed in Apple, I’m not surprised. After all, it’s disappointed me for years. But I still have my SE, and I intend to keep it for as long as possible. Because it’s the best thing the company ever made, and it’s still a hell of a phone.

Kegel trainer startup Elvie is launching a smaller, smarter, hands-free breast pump

Elvie, a Berlin-based startup known best for its connected Kegel trainer is jumping into the breast pump business with a new $480 hands-free system you can slip into your bra.

Even with all the innovation in baby gear, breast pumps have mostly sucked (pun intended) for new moms for the past half a century. My first experience with a pump required me to stay near a wall socket and hunch over for a good twenty to thirty minutes for fear the milk collected might spill all over the place (which it did anyway, frequently). It was awful!

Next I tried the Willow Pump, an egg-shaped, connected pump meant to liberate women everywhere with its small and mobile design. It received glowing reviews, though my experience with it was less than stellar.

The proprietary bags were hard to fit in the device, filled up with air, cost 50 cents each (on top of the $500 pump that insurance did not cover), wasted many a golden drop of precious milk in the transfer and I had to reconfigure placement several times before it would start working. So I’ve been tentatively excited about the announcement of Elvie’s new cordless (and silent??) double breast pump.

Displayed: a single Elive pump with accompanying app.

Elvie tells TechCrunch its aim all along has been to make health tech for women and that it has been working on this pump for the past three years.

The Elvie Pump is a cordless, hands-free, closed system, rechargeable electric pump designed by former Dyson engineers. It can hold up to 5 oz from each breast in a single use.

It’s most obvious and direct competition is the Willow pump, another “wearable” pump moms can put right in their bra and walk around in, hands free. However, unlike the Willow, Elvie’s pump does not need proprietary bags. You just pump right into the device and the pump’s smartphone app will tell you when each side is full.

It’s also half the size and weight of a Willow and saves every precious drop it can by pumping right into the attached bottle so you just pump and feed (no more donut-shaped bags you have to cut open and awkwardly pour into a bottle).

On top of that, Elvie claims this pump is silent. No more loud suction noise off and on while trying to pump in a quiet room in the office or elsewhere. It’s small, easy to carry around and you can wear it under your clothes without it making a peep! While the Willow pump claims to be quiet — and it is, compared to other systems –you can still very much hear it while you are pumping.

Elvie’s connected breast pump app

All of these features sound fantastic to this new (and currently pumping) mom. I remember in the early days of my baby’s life wanting to go places but feeling stuck. I was chained to not just all the baby gear, hormonal shifts and worries about my newborn but to the pump and feed schedule itself, which made it next to impossible to leave the house for the first few months.

My baby was one of those “gourmet eaters” who just nursed and nursed all day. There were days I couldn’t leave the bed! Having a silent, no mess, hands-free device that fit right in my bra would have made a world of difference.

However, I mentioned the word “tentatively” above as I have not had a chance to do a hands-on review of Elvie’s pump. The Willow pump also seemed to hold a lot of promise early on, yet left me disappointed.

To be fair, the company’s customer service team was top-notch and did try to address my concerns. I even went through two “coaching” sessions but in the end it seemed the blame was put on me for not getting their device to work correctly. That’s a bad user experience if you are blaming others for your design flaws, especially new and struggling moms.

Both companies are founded by women and make products for women — and it’s about time. But it seems as if Elvie has taken note of the good and bad in their competitors and had time to improve upon it — and that’s what has me excited.

As my fellow TechCrunch writer Natasha put it in her initial review of Elvie as a company, “It’s not hyperbole to say Elvie is a new breed of connected device. It’s indicative of the lack of smart technology specifically — and intelligently — addressing women.”

So why the pump? “We recognized the opportunity [in the market] was smarter tech for women,” Boler told TechCrunch on her company’s move into the breast pump space. “Our aim is to transform the way women think and feel about themselves by providing the tools to address the issues that matter most to them, and Elvie Pump does just that.”

The Elvie Pump comes in three sizes and shapes to fit the majority of breasts and, in case you want to check your latch or pump volume, also has transparent nipple shields with markings to help guide the nipple to the right spot.

The app connects to each device via Bluetooth and tracks your production, detects let down, will pause when full and is equipped to pump in seven different modes.

The pump retails for $480 and is currently available in the U.K. However, those in the U.S. will have to wait till closer to the end of the year to get their hands on one. According to the company, It will be available on Elvie.com and Amazon.com, as well in select physical retail stores nationally later this year, pending FDA approval.