Apple’s new iPhone XR doesn’t include 3D Touch. App developers already didn’t use 3D Touch, but now they really won’t use it. Apple will have to design the iPhone operating system not to rely on 3D Touch so much.
Sure, the new iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max still have 3D Touch. But we wouldn’t be surprised to see it vanish from future iPhones. App developers can no longer rely on it.
Update, September 2019: A year later, none of Apple’s new iPhones have 3D Touch. With this hardware omitted from the iPhone 11, iPhone 11 Pro, and iPhone 11 Pro Max, 3D Touch is dead. You can still use it if you have an older iPhone with 3D Touch, of course.
“Haptic Touch” Replaces 3D Touch on the iPhone XR
The new iPhone XR features “Haptic Touch” instead of 3D Touch. Apple’s Phil Schiller quickly explained the new feature during Apple’s presentation, saying of the camera icon on the lock screen: “You just press on it, you’ll feel a haptic tap, and you’re taken right to the camera [app].”
As Apple points out, this is similar to how the Force Touch trackpad works in the MacBook Pro. You press, and you feel a haptic response. It’s just like when using 3D Touch or pressing the Home button on an iPhone.
But wait, hold on: That’s not like 3D Touch at all. From what we can tell, Apple is just adding haptic feedback to the usual long-press action that’s been used on iPhones forever. It doesn’t matter how hard you press. It’s just long-press with haptic feedback.
Wait, What Was 3D Touch?
Not familiar with 3D Touch? We’re not surprised. While many people did know 3D Touch existed, we don’t think the vast majority of iPhone users are aware of how 3D Touch works and when to use it.
3D Touch is part of the iPhone 6S, iPhone 6S Plus, iPhone 7, iPhone 7 Plus, iPhone 8, iPhone 8 Plus, iPhone X, iPhone XS, and iPhone XS Max—but not the iPhone XR. It adds pressure sensitivity to the entire screen. In addition to tapping and long-pressing, you can hard-press an area of the screen with more force to perform additional actions.
There are also different degrees of pressure sensitivity. A drawing app could use how hard you’re pressing your finger to control how thick the lines you’re drawing are. A game could perform different actions depending on the degree of pressure you’re applying. Even in Safari, you can start hard pressing on a link to open a pop-up preview or press even harder to launch it in full-screen.
This technology uses a layer of sensors attached to the phone’s display. When you press, they measure tiny changes in the distance between the glass on your screen and the backlight. In other words, when you press hard, the glass bends just a tiny bit, and your phone can measure it.
Most 3D Touch Functionality Works Fine as Long Press
3D Touch’s functionality is all hidden. You never know if something supports 3D Touch until you try hard-pressing on it and see what happens. And, if you try hard-pressing, you might just end up opening a long-press menu instead.
Apple has implemented 3D Touch in bizarre ways throughout the operating system. For example, you can hard-press the “x” in the notification center to access a “Clear All Notifications” button. This could easily appear when you long-press the button but doesn’t.
3D Touch is also used for accessing additional options in the control center. For example, hard-press the music control section and you’ll see options for choosing your sound output device. Hard-press the flashlight button and you can select different flashlight intensities. Again, these could all just happen when you long-press any of these icons—and that’s how the iPhone XR will work. So what’s the downside?
3D Touch’s Pressure Sensitivity Was Fiddly and Weird
When combined with multiple levels of pressure sensitivity or mixed in with separate long-press actions, 3D Touch just became fiddly and weird.
For example, on the home screen, you can either hard-press an app icon to view “quick actions” or long-press it to move app icons around. Some apps have no quick actions, so nothing will happen when you hard-press their icons. Sometimes you don’t press hard enough, and you start moving app icons. Sometimes you press too hard when you just want to move apps.
For a company that was once famous for using a simple one-button mouse, that’s a lot of different ways to interact with a touchscreen.
That preview feature used in Safari and other apps is weird, too. You can long-press a link for options, press it a little hard to see a pop-up preview (“peek”), or press it even harder to see a full-screen preview (“pop”). It’s easy to mess it up and not press hard enough or press a little too hard, depending on what you’re trying to do.
App Developers Didn’t Use 3D Touch
Here’s the main thing: Most app developers didn’t use 3D Touch. Oh sure, by now, a lot of apps have added quick actions so you can hard-press their home screen icons and access options.
But that’s just one little piece of 3D Touch. Most apps don’t use 3D Touch for much inside the app itself. Even if they do, it’s challenging for users to discover what 3D Touch can be used for, especially since most apps don’t use it. iPhone users have to experiment, and most of the time nothing will happen. So they stop experimenting.
Apple released the iPhone 6S with 3D Touch in 2015, so app developers have had three years to take advantage of this feature. They haven’t taken the bait.
The iPhone XR doesn’t support 3D Touch, and it may become the best-selling one of the bunch thanks to its lower price. App developers aren’t going to require a feature that all those iPhone users can’t use. They’ll have to design apps with normal long-presses in mind rather than relying on 3D Touch for features. 3D Touch may still be used in art applications for pressure-sensitive drawing, perhaps. But it’s not going to transform the way anyone uses an app.
It’s No Big Loss
We loved the idea of 3D Touch when it was first released. Adding a new way of interacting with your phone sounded great. Hard-press could be used for all sorts of things, particularly in mobile games or drawing programs. App developers could do a lot with it.
But, three years on, let’s be honest: 3D Touch is weird and difficult to discover. Most iPhone users don’t use it regularly if they even know it exists. Most actions that require 3D Touch could easily just require a simple long-press instead. App developers haven’t jumped on board.
While the lack of 3D Touch in the iPhone XR feels like a loss, we aren’t losing a feature that most people really took advantage of.
In fact, this is probably good news: Apple will be forced to redesign all these weird 3D Touch actions into simple long-presses that are easier for average people to discover and understand.
Image Credit: Jirapong Manustrong/Shutterstock.com.