Last fall, Apple introduced us to the Dynamic Island with all of the usual hyperbole.
The new free-floating, pill-shaped notch on the iPhone 14 Pro was described as “magical.” It would enable “an entirely new iPhone experience.” And while we take everything with a grain of salt from the company that pitched the Digital Crown as the eighth wonder of the world, the Dynamic Island did seem promising at the time.
It looks good, for starters. In the right light, it really does look like the notch is stretching and shrinking. It wasn’t widely featured in the leaks or rumors leading up to the event, either, so it took us by surprise. But after our first week with the Dynamic Island, it was hard to know what to make of it. Sure, it did a fine job of telling you how long you’ve been on the phone or whether your AirDrop was successful. But the other stuff — the bold new way to interact with your phone stuff — depended on third-party app makers adopting Live Activities and putting time-sensitive information in the Dynamic Island, and that wouldn’t happen until later in the year.
Halfway through the year, the concept was still promising, but its limitations were more evident, too. Sure, watching your timer count down on the top of your screen as you do other things on your phone is helpful. Keeping an eye on your Uber’s arrival is handy, too. But it’s becoming more obvious that despite Apple’s claims, the Dynamic Island was never really meant to be a destination in itself.
For one thing, it’s often overshadowed by another feature introduced on the 14 Pro: the always-on display. When you have a timer or a game score displayed in the Dynamic Island and lock your phone, that info is handed off to the main display. More often than not, if I’m following a game or keeping an eye on a timer, that’s where I see it — not on the Island.
It’s just a handy tool that make your phone a little less annoying to use
Based on nothing but anecdotal evidence gathered by talking to friends and co-workers, the always-on display has been the more notable feature by far. People either hate it and disable it or find it distracting for a few days and then get used to it. But they all noticed it in a way that they didn’t see the Dynamic Island, which they mostly noticed the first few times they connected their Airpods or scanned for Face ID. Then, it faded right into the background.
I don’t think we’ve seen everything that the Dynamic Island can do. More apps will start using it, especially if the whole iPhone 15 lineup adopts the feature like the rumors suggest. But it’s definitely not an exciting new way to interact with your phone — it’s just a handy tool alongside some other new features that make your phone a little less annoying to use. And that’s fine.
On balance, it’s a step in the right direction. Apple has occasionally been known to sacrifice usability for aesthetics, but the Dynamic Island manages both: it looks nice and it’s helpful. It would just be nice for Apple to remember the other, less attention-grabbing things that we want, too. You know, a battery that doesn’t degrade to 90 percent after a year. Or adopting a messaging protocol that would let me send videos to my mom that don’t look like dogshit. Or a little more help managing the nine thousand app notifications I get every day.
Dazzling new UI features are the stuff that keynotes are made of, but the real magic is in the less exciting details. I’m hoping for plenty of those in the iPhone 15 — exciting is overrated, anyway.
Photography by Allison Johnson / The Verge