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Latest iPhones, Pixels, Galaxy Smartphones Are Cool, but Software Updates Can Improve Current Device

Google, Samsung counter Apple with AI photo-editing tricks and, in one case, a thermometer

spinner image a man wearing a watch holds an iphone 15 pro during an event on the apple campus
AP Photo/Jeff Chiu

Getting seduced by the newest crop of splashy smartphones is easy.

Apple. A quartet of iPhone 15 devices were announced Sept. 12 at Apple’s Silicon Valley headquarters and were available 10 days later. Apple’s new top-of-the-line iPhone 15 Pro and 15 Pro Max, made of aerospace-grade titanium, are refreshingly lightweight despite having screen sizes of 6.1 and 6.7 inches, respectively, and sport Apple’s latest chips and pro-level camera systems. They have the kind of innards tech enthusiasts salivate over.

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Google. On Oct. 4, the rival countered with the new Android 14-flavored Google Pixel 8 and Google Pixel 8 Pro phones, with 6.2-inch and 6.7-inch displays and starting prices of $699 and $999, respectively. They feature upgraded cameras and are built around advances in artificial intelligence (AI) and Google’s own Tensor G3 chips.

Samsung. AI is also a big driver behind the Galaxy S24 series phones Samsung unleashed Jan. 17 that will be available at the end of January. Prices start at $799 for the Galaxy S24, $999 for the S24+ and $1,299 for the S24 Ultra that also has a titanium shell.

When it comes to AI, Samsung is touting such features as real time translation so that you and someone speaking a language you don't understand can converse during a call. The feature supports audio and text translations for up to 13 languages at launch, the company says, and will work no matter what phone the other person is using, including a landline. Translations work in person, too.

spinner image Samsung S24 smartphone
The back of Samsung’s Galaxy S24 Ultra has four cameras and a laser focus sensor, plus a selfie camera in front.
SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg via Getty Images

A new Note Assist feature that generates meeting summaries in the Samsung Notes app also takes advantage of AI.

And the S24 devices will be among the first to exploit a fresh Google AI search feature called Circle to Search, which is also coming to the latest Pixels Jan. 31.

As the name implies, after a user long-presses the home button, they can circle, scribble, highlight or tap objects within an image or video playing on the display and without leaving the app they're in to summon search results. You can circle or highlight text, too.

For instance, if you're curious about the sunglasses or boots someone is wearing in a video, you can circle those items to learn about the product, where to buy it and what it costs. You can return to whatever you had been looking at before your search by swiping.

New editing tools make your photos look better

Both Google and Samsung are also taking advantage of AI-generated photo editing tools.

When viewing a picture in the Samsung Galaxy app, the S24s may automatically suggest editing options. For example, if a photo is marred from harsh overhead lighting, buttons will appear that will let you Erase shadows or Erase reflections. 

On the Pixel, a Best Take AI photo-editing feature will let you replace the faces of the people in a group shot so all have their eyes open, are smiling and are looking at the camera. Another feature dubbed Magic Editor uses generative AI to let you resize and reposition a subject in a scene while making everything else in a photo look natural.

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7 years of phone updates

Google and Samsung are both promising seven years of free operating system software updates for the smartphones, dropping in fresh features and security fixes as they become available.

One intriguing baked-in feature on the Pixel 8 Pro model is a contactless thermometer that can tell you the temperature of a canned beverage or cookware simply by scanning it.

You can’t yet take your body temperature with the phone. Google first must get the OK from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Why you might want to wait to buy

Now, here’s the reality: You might not be ready to spring for a new iPhone or Android. 

Maybe your budget is tight. Even with ever-generous carrier trade-ins and payment plans that can dramatically lessen the cash outlay each month, the devices that get media attention aren’t cheap. 

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Apple didn’t raise prices for three of the four new phones this go-round, but they’re still expensive. The most expensive model, the iPhone 15 Pro Max, climbed $100 compared with the starting price of last year’s iPhone 14 Pro Max. The latest iPhones start at $799 for the 6.1-inch iPhone 15 and $899 for the 6.7-inch iPhone 15 Plus but jump to $999 for the iPhone 15 Pro and $1,199 for the 15 Pro Max model. If you max out the Max with 1 terabyte of storage, you’re up to $1,599.

At least the cheaper iPhone 14, 13 and the smaller display SE remain in the lineup. And Apple continues to eschew foldable phones that morph between smartphone and small tablet, such as devices from Samsung, Google and others. Samsung’s Galaxy Z Fold5 costs around $1,800, same as the Pixel Fold.

Another reason to hold off on a new phone: You might be perfectly satisfied with what you have. Heck, it was state of the art when you bought the thing a few years ago and is still behaving just fine. 

What’s more, the new phone might not behave, at least at first. Apple earlier issued a software patch to quash a bug that apparently caused some iPhone 15 Pro models to overheat.

Gee-whiz features are reason to buy only if phone is aging

Here’s another truth: Smartphone hardware doesn’t change that much from year to year.

Geeks may want new devices, but for the masses, these are little improvements that you’ll notice only if your current phone is showing wear. Sure, better cameras are nothing to sneeze at, and all of us want better batteries. 

Arguably the biggest change to hit the new iPhones is the move from the company’s proprietary Lightning connector to the versatile USB-C standard that most smartphone rivals have long embraced. Apple has, too, on its Mac laptops and some iPads. 

Apple also ditched the traditional ring/silent toggle switch on the new Pro models in favor of a potentially useful and physical Action button on the side, which lets you not only silence the ringer but quickly access the flashlight, voice memos, accessibility and other features.

The Pro models have another feature that may bail you out of trouble. It is called Roadside Assistance via satellite, and can summon help from AAA when you break down in an area sans cellular or Wi-Fi.

New software will improve your current phone

The best news for folks holding on to older devices is that the older models can get better via software. Apple’s iOS 17 software upgrade, which arrived Sept. 18, is free and backward-compatible with iPhones dating to 2018’s Xr and Xs models.

Here are a few of the features that should appeal to older adults:

Check In. Think of Check In as an automated version of a friend or family member asking you to “text me when you get there.” When you set up this feature, a loved one will be informed when you arrive at your destination.

You can edit the estimated travel time to the place you’re heading, should you hit a delay or make a stop. But if you exceed that time and don’t respond when Check In asks if you’re OK, it will dispatch your current location and the phone’s battery and cellular status to the person you’re checking in with. Check In requires you and the other person to both have iOS 17 and Apple’s iMessage messaging system. 

Check In is similar to the Safety Check feature that is already available on most Pixel phones.

FaceTime messages. Now, when you call someone via FaceTime and they don’t answer, you can leave a message, via video or audio.

Live Voicemail. You don’t hear the voice of a caller leaving you a message on a smartphone like you do with an old-fashioned answering machine connected to a landline. But Live Voicemail lets you see a real-time transcript as the caller speaks.

You can answer on the spot if important, or safely let it go to voicemail. Calls identified as spam are instantly declined, Apple says.

NameDrop. You’ve just met someone new and want to share contact information. The NameDrop feature that is part of Apple’s AirDrop lets you swap that info and a new “contact poster” by bringing your iPhone next to someone else’s iPhone or Apple Watch. You can choose which phone number or email you want to share.

Personal Voice. You can clone your voice by reading 150 randomized phrases aloud. Why do this? If you develop a condition that puts your ability to speak at risk, you can create a replica of your voice before you lose it. Others will hear it when you type words though a separate Live Speech feature in iOS 17. Privacy protections are built in.

StandBy. You’re not always actively using your phone when its charging on a nightstand or desk. Now, when the device is charging and you turn it sideways, you’ll see large customizable clockfaces, quick-look widgets of curated photos, music controls, notifications, Siri results and the weather on the display in larger type that ought to be visible from a bit of a distance. Yes, the light dims in Night Mode. To best take advantage of StandBy, you may want to purchase an optional third-party stand.

This story, originally published Sept. 13, 2023, has been updated with information on Google’s latest Pixel smartphones and Samsung's latest Galaxy devices.

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