These days, we yawn and roll our eyes at each new smartphone model. The changes seem to be tiny—evolutionary. Where are the big steps forward?
Well, it may be that there aren’t many big steps left to take. Every kind of machine evolves, finally reaching an ultimate incarnation of itself. How often, for example, do you replace your refrigerator? Or your air conditioner? There just aren’t many compelling new features left to add.
Even so, we’ve come a very long way since 2007, when Apple (AAPL) released the very first iPhone. Every year, there’s another model, each faster and loaded up with more features. As we prepare for the September 12 unveiling of the 10th-anniversary iPhone, here’s a chronology of what was new with each year’s iteration.
iPhone (June 2007)
The very first iPhone introduced a very long list of firsts. The big one, of course, was that it was all touchscreen—no typing keys. Not just a touchscreen—a multitouch screen, with all of those touch gestures we now take for granted, like “pinch to zoom” and swiping through lists.
It also introduced visual voicemail, where your messages appear in an inbox. Its email and web browser apps were full-fledged, showing all the formatting you’d see on a desktop computer—a first for phones.
It’s also worth remembering what the first iPhone didn’t have: A front camera. A camera flash. Video recording. Cut and paste. GPS. MMS (sending photos as text messages). A memory-card slot. Voice dialing. Word-complete suggestions. A choice of carrier (it was AT&T [T] only, and really slow).
And there was no app store. You got 16 apps, and you were happy.
The base model cost $500, and packed 4 gigabytes of storage.
As I wrote in my review in The New York Times: “The iPhone is revolutionary; it’s flawed. It’s substance; it’s style. It does things no phone has ever done before; it lacks features found even on the most basic phones.”
iPhone 3G (July 2008)
The second iPhone was intended to address the first phone’s Achilles’ heel: Its excruciatingly slow internet. This model took advantage of AT&T’s 3G network, which was at least twice as fast as the old one.
The storage options doubled, to 8 and 16 GB. A white color option debuted. And the phone gained true GPS. (The original phone simulated GPS by triangulating from known WiFi hot spots and cell towers.)
Software: Focusing on only the hardware of the iPhone is missing the bigger picture: Each new phone is accompanied by a new version of its system software, which we now call iOS. In general, each new iOS version’s features also work on earlier iPhone models.
The iPhone 3G, for example, was accompanied by the debut of the App Store, a single, central catalog of add-on apps. The idea that you could download new programs directly onto the iPhone, instead of having to transfer them from a computer, was a huge breakthrough at the time.
iPhone 3GS (June 2009)
The “S,” Steve Jobs said, stood for “speed.” This phone was faster in every way. Its camera got bumped up to three megapixels, and gained a long list of features: auto-focus, tap-to-focus, exposure lock, auto white balance, auto macro shots, “rule of thirds” grid lines, and a 5x digital zoom. A new magnetometer permitted the creation of the Compass app.
Software: Video recording! And voice control of music playback and dialing.
iPhone 4 (June 2010)
The comfortable rounded plastic back disappeared in this redesigned model, which had crisp edges and hardened glass front and back panels—plus the first “Retina” screen (much higher resolution). A front-facing camera appeared on this model, plus, for the first time, an LED flash.
Apple also added a second microphone, at the top, for noise cancellation during calls, and a gyroscope, which can precisely calculate how you’re turning the phone in space (handy for games).
This was the first iPhone that could run on the CDMA cellular network, the one used by Verizon (VZ) and Sprint (S). Once Apple’s early exclusive contract with AT&T ended in 2011, the iPhone 4 became the first model offered by Verizon and other carriers.
Software: iOS 4 introduced FaceTime video conferencing (over WiFi only) and limited multitasking, including an app switcher.
iPhone 4S (October 2011)
This model introduced Siri, the voice assistant that paved the way for Microsoft’s (MSFT) Cortana, Google (GOOG, GOOGL) Assistant, Amazon (AMZN) Echo, and so on. The 4S was, of course, faster, and its camera received its usually resolution bump (to 8 megapixels, good for 1080p hi-def videos).
Software: iOS 5 was a big one. It introduced iMessages, the Notification Center, Reminders, built-in Twitter (TWTR), iCloud, and the ability to let nearby computers get online via tethering (Personal Hotspot).
iPhone 5 (September 2012)
The iPhone 5 had a thinner body and taller screen; compatibility with much faster LTE cellular data networks; and a faster, better camera, capable of snapping stills while recording video.
With this phone, Apple eliminated the 30-pin connector that it had used for charging and syncing all iPhones and iPads to date—and replaced it with the tiny Lightning connector. Millions of people had to buy and fuss with adapters.
Software: iOS 6 introduced panorama mode for the Camera app, more Siri commands, one-tap responses to incoming texts and calls (like, “Driving—I’ll call you later”). Apple also replaced Google’s fantastic pre-installed Google Maps app with a shockingly incomplete Apple app. Its guidance was so poor, Apple CEO Tim Cook wound up apologizing for it and suggesting that people use Google Maps instead.
iPhone 5s (September 2013)
Apple’s fingerprint sensor, cleverly embedded in the Home button, let you unlock the phone without a password for the first time. As usual, the camera got better and the processor got faster—its A7 was the first 64-bit chip ever used in a phone. Apple replaced its time-honored, coin-shaped iPhone earbuds with the blobbier AirPods earbuds.
(A budget model, the iPhone 5C, came out at the same time, in a choice of five plastic colors. It was otherwise essentially identical to 2012’s iPhone 5.)
Software: iOS 7 was a huge software release. It introduced a massive and controversial redesign. Its sparse look eliminated “skeuomorphic” design elements, in which on-screen things depict real-world materials (lined yellow paper for Notes, leather binding for Calendar, wooden shelves for iBooks).
iOS 7 also came loaded with new features: AirDrop made it simple to shoot pictures, notes, and contacts among iPhones. Control Center is the panel that slides up from the bottom of the screen to offer commonly used settings. In the Camera app: slow-motion video, zooming while recording, photo filters, and 10-frames-a-second bursts.
iPhone 6 (September 2014)
With this model, Apple followed Samsung’s lead—and went for bigger screens. There were now, for the first time, two iPhones in the same line: the iPhone 6 and the larger 6 Plus. Both had faster chips and Apple Pay (wireless payments at special cash-register terminals). The 6 family gained a barometer to detect altitude changes (?!), and upgraded wireless components that permitted WiFi calling.
The upgraded cameras offered slow-mo video at 240 frames a second (quarter-speed), phase-detection autofocus (faster and more accurate), and optical image stabilization on the 6 Plus. The front-facing camera got better low-light capability, burst mode, and HDR (high dynamic range) ability.
Software: In iOS 8, Apple finally added a row of three next-word guesses above the keyboard, to save typing. The Continuity feature permitted interaction between the phone and a Mac, like calling and texting from the Mac—and, in later iOS/Mac versions, copying on one device and pasting on the other. Family Sharing allows up to six family members to share stuff they’ve bought from Apple (music, videos, apps, etc.).
The Camera app gained a self timer and a time-lapse mode, iCloud Drive (Apple’s version of Dropbox) debuted. Eventually, in iOS 8.4, Apple Music came along—its subscription music plan.
iPhone 6S and SE (September 2015)
In addition to the usual speed and camera-resolution enhancements (12 megapixels, 4K video), the 6S and 6S Plus introduced what Apple calls 3D Touch: a pressure-sensitive screen. You can press harder on an app to see a menu of common commands, or peek into links or lists without actually leaving the screen you’re on. These models also featured a front-facing “flash” that works by overcranking the front-facing screen by 3X.
(The iPhone SE packed most of the same features of the 6S into a much smaller body—the traditional iPhone size—to the delight of the small-handed.)
Software: The iOS 9 update introduced debuted Live Photos, which are three-second video clips that you can capture with every photo.
iPhone 7 (September 2016)
Most people will probably remember the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus primarily as the phones that killed off the headphone jack. But these models also gained waterproofing (up to 30 minutes under a meter of water), a larger battery, stabilized camera even on the smaller phone, better low-light photos, an array of four LED flashes on the back for greater brightness, stereo speakers, and a Home button that doesn’t actually move, but instead just simulates a click using a vibration motor.
On the iPhone 7 Plus, Apple installed two lenses: one wide-angle, one a 2X zoom. This is true, optical zoom, not the cruddy digital zoom on most previous phones.
Software: iOS 10 introduced a huge range of small tweaks, and a couple of big ones. First, there has been a colossal revamp of Messages, Apple’s text-messaging app, adding a wide range of visual treats, animations, and effects to dress up your message. Second, iOS 10 requires fewer steps to unlock the phone—for example, to check the latest alerts or fire up the camera.
iPhone X and 8? (September 2017)
Nobody knows for sure what Apple will unveil in the new iPhones on September 12. But the rumor millers seem pretty confident about a few things:
A massive redesign. No more black panels above and below the screen. Instead, a gorgeous OLED screen will extend to all four edges of the flagship phone, rumored to be called the iPhone X.
No more Home button. You’ll have to get back to the Home screen, and perform other functions, using new swiping gestures on the screen. (Or maybe there’ll be an on-screen Home button.)
Face ID. You’ll be able to unlock the phone by looking at it.
Pad-based charging. As on the Samsung Galaxy, instead of plugging in a cable, you’ll have the option of setting it down on a pad) to charge. (That’s why front and back will be glass.)
AR features. Augmented reality means seeing graphics overlaid on the camera’s view of the world around you: arrows that show which way to walk to get to the nearest subway stop, for example, or info boxes that identify the prices of apartments in nearby buildings.
Nosebleed price. The number people are kicking around is $1,000. However, there’s also some intel that a less expensive iPhone model or two (called iPhone 8) will be released simultaneously, without the OLED screen.
Software: We already know what iOS 11 will bring, because Apple’s told us! It will be a lot of nips and tucks, like auto-Do Not Disturb when you’re driving; a more real-sounding voice for Siri; screen recording; more compact photo and video formats to save space; and person-to-person payments within the Messages app, like Venmo.
See you on September 12!
We’ll be at Apple’s unveiling show at 10 a.m. Pacific time on September 12, live-blogging the event and posting a complete set of articles, photos, and videos about what’s new.
We’re pretty sure you won’t want to miss it!
More from David Pogue:
David Pogue, tech columnist for Yahoo Finance, welcomes nontoxic comments in the comments section below. On the web, he’s davidpogue.com. On Twitter, he’s @pogue. On email, he’s firstname.lastname@example.org. You can read all his articles here, or you can sign up to get his columns by email.