The new iOS is more exciting than the new iPhone this year

For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been carrying one of the new iPhone 14 models with me as my daily driver. When I’ve met up with friends — blissfully unaware of consumer tech goings-on — they’ll ask how work is going, as a matter of etiquette. At that point, my eyes gleam, and I pull the phone out of my tote bag.

“Well,” I say, “I’m testing the new iPhones.” I pause for dramatic effect, and my friend nods politely as I continue.

“It has this new feature called Dynamic Island. Here, let me start a timer and show you…” nodding continues but eyes glaze over at this point.

“And because the sub-pixel array…” At this point in the presentation, my friend is glancing desperately around the room for a convenient out as I explain how it’s meant to feel like a hardware feature.

The reaction when I talk about iOS 16 is very different. My husband got the same iPhone 14 Pro demo — he displayed mild interest — and then I showed him how to copy and paste a photo of our cat just by long-pressing the image. His reaction: “How do I get that?”

My husband and most of my friends aren’t what I would call consumer-tech-savvy, but I think even people with a mild interest in mobile technology would agree: this year’s iPhones are boring, but iOS 16 rules.

That’s the bluntest way to put it. The more nuanced version is that the regular iPhone 14 is boring — the 14 Pro and Pro Max are interesting but more because they’re a kind of blueprint for the future of the iPhone. The Dynamic Island is an interesting solution to some hardware and software problems, which is neat. But it’s not something that’s meant to stand out and call for attention as you use your phone; its job is to seamlessly blend into your experience so you hardly notice it after a while.

Until foldables take off in a bigger way, I think that’s just where we are with phone hardware lately: incremental new features that improve the experience of using your device. It’s not supposed to impress or awe you. It’s just supposed to work.

New software tricks, though, feel more tangible. A feature that my friends will use every day on the next iPhone they buy in two or three years is mildly interesting; copying and pasting a photo cutout of their cat with the phone they already own is more exciting. Same goes for the always-on display. In a few years’ time, everyone’s new iPhone will probably have one, and it’ll just be something we all get used to. But right now, a new customizable lock screen to show off a photo of your kid is much more impressive.

This may seem like an obvious point. After all, pretty much every iPhone owner gets a new iOS version in the fall, while far fewer will get a new iPhone. But it feels more pronounced this year than in recent history. This year’s iPhones feature minor upgrades over last year’s models, while iOS 16 provides more dramatic, dare I say fun, new features than other OS version upgrades in recent history. The new lock screens are fun! Photo cutouts are fun! Editing an iMessage after you sent it is… potentially relationship-saving! Anyone can appreciate that, whether you’re a yearly iPhone upgrader or not.

As long as most of us are carrying around slab-style phones, this will probably remain the case. I used a lot of phones this year, and the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 4 and Z Flip 4 were the only two that felt like they would fundamentally change my relationship with my phone. Until then, I’ll just be the one starting conversations with: “So, have you downloaded iOS 16 yet? Let me show you something cool about it.”