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Living with the ‘benchmark’ jet-black iPhone 7 Plus

I’ve never loved a piece of electronics this much before.

Customers inspect the new iPhone models after the release at the Apple Store in Melbourne, Australia on Sept. 16, 2016.
Asanka Brendon Ratnayake / Anadolu Agency / Getty

A version of this essay was originally published at Tech.pinions, a website dedicated to informed opinions, insight and perspective on the tech industry.


“The iPhone is the industry gold standard,” said Tim Cook at last week’s Apple product-launch event. “The phone by which all other phones are compared.”

Yesterday, I articulated for Tech.pinions subscribers how this is true of Apple at an industry level, not just with the iPhone. But any reasonable person understands that Tim Cook is right. Apple sets the bar, and brings cutting-edge technology to the masses like no other technology brand.

During the past week, I’ve spent some time with the jet-black iPhone 7 Plus, and I’d like to share some thoughts from that experience.

Thinking about design

Apple

I said of the iPhone 5, upon seeing and using it, that it felt as though it were a piece of jewelry. I still feel that way about that design. It was iconic in many ways. With the new jet-black and matte-black designs of the iPhone 7 Plus, I’m reminded of sports cars. The jet-black finish is the reason I’ve been telling folks that I’ve never loved a piece of electronics this much before.

Reading the tea leaves about Apple’s design strategy around colors and materials, a few things stand out. First, a high-level observation is that the colors are not staying entirely the same. First it was gold, then rose gold, and now two entirely new blacks. Things will get very interesting if this is a continuing pattern. We have already heard rumors that Apple is looking into ceramics for future versions, maybe doing new things with glass, etc., which makes for an interesting design point with each passing year.

The key here is that we can expect new colors, materials, or variations to deliver some dramatic new finishes each year. Yet, they remain grounded in high-end or luxury coatings, the way high-end cars strategically span certain colors and materials. The idea that during each buying cycle consumers may be confronted with new types of innovative colors and materials is an interesting idea. Again, it reminds me quite a bit of how car manufacturers use color innovation and new types of materials (carbon fiber, mesh or other types of metals) to add design flair to their cars each year.

Similarly, sports car designs are iconic. You know a Porsche 911 when you see one, no matter what year it was made. I feel similarly about Apple sticking with certain design language, and thus establishing it as iconic. Iconic car designs have slight variations year to year, but never dramatic departures from the iconic look. I feel that Apple is on a similar design path.

I was curious about the car-choosing parallels with where Apple is going in color and design materials. I quickly polled iPhone owners in our panel, and found that only 2 percent say they always buy the exact same color car. Some 65 percent said they generally lean toward buying the same color as their last car, but they like to look around at new colors/materials in case something stands out. And 33 percent of the market tends to switch colors in order to use something new or have variety.

It is possible that I’m reading too much into the car/luxury car parallels, but I tend to do that from time to time.

Thinking about the camera

What happens when everyone can take professional-looking photos? This goes far beyond the resolution of the pictures to the ability to take a simple photo of a sunset or your kids, and have the camera do all the hard work.

In early research with consumers who have no photography background whatsoever, we looked at motivations and drivers for their purchase of a DSLR. It came back to the quality of the photo. We often heard the remark, “It lets me take so much better pictures of my kids or family.” Which makes sense. DSLR camera technology is great at taking professional-looking photos on the Auto setting — which is the only setting most consumers use to take pictures with on their DSLR. The bottom line is that they bought the DSLR because the camera did all the hard work of taking great pictures. I jokingly nicknamed these “point-and-shoot DSLRs,” because that is basically what they were for the mainstream, non-photography consumers who purchased them.

This has always been the clear value proposition of smartphones, and the quality of smartphone photos has undoubtedly gotten better over the years. But this time around, it feels like even professional photographers are making bold claims about the iPhone 7 camera. Emphasizing my point about the value perception of a DSLR. In consumers’ minds, “professional” is now achievable in a smartphone, and will continue on this path for years to come. I’m not saying this is a total DSLR replacement. I’m saying that the core value of a DSLR for the mainstream can now fully apply to the smartphone.

Certainly, there is more to my statement with the iPhone 7 Plus dual-lens camera, which many professionals have remarked is best in class when it comes to a smartphone camera. This is where Apple’s tight integration of hardware, software and custom silicon gives it an advantage. The combination of the hardware and the software designed to focus on a single thing — better pictures — is exactly why DSLRs helped the average consumer take a better-looking photograph. Just point and shoot and get near-professional pictures in terms of exposure and focus. This is what the mainstream values.

One of the best values of the dual-lens approach that Apple is taking is with the 2x optical telephoto. Having taken many photography classes in my life, I’ve learned that when taking portrait photos, you want the subject to “fill the frame” — basically, get as close as you can to fill the subject in the entire frame, or close to it. In the past, doing this with a smartphone meant getting right up in your subject’s face. With the 2x zoom, you can now be standing at the distance most normal people do from their subject, yet use the 2x zoom and fill the frame. This is a subtle yet powerful change in how people can use the dual-lens feature to get better photographs. Smartphone cameras were about as good as point-and-shoot cameras. Now, I’d argue that we are seeing the path for them to take on DSLRs. The key point for me is that all the best photos of my family — the ones in frames and on the walls— were taken on DSLRs. I’m certain that this will no longer be the case going forward.

Here is the 2x portrait technique in action. Both photos are shot from the same distance from our dog Nutmeg. I can’t emphasize enough how different an opportunity this presents for smartphone photography. Many subjects, like little kids, animals, etc., are less cooperative, so taking a true portrait, due to how physically close you have to be, is frequently an awful and frustrating experience.

Photo at 1x
Photo at 2x

Thinking about silicon

I maintain one of the most underappreciated things about the “new Apple” is its custom-designed silicon. The company designs its own processors and even many of the sensors in all of its products now, and the number of Apple-designed chipsets in every product seems to be increasing every year. I expect this to continue. We know that Apple’s iPhone and iPad stand out from their competitors because they have iOS, an operating system no competitor can use. Much of Apple’s objective differentiation is tied to the fact it runs an operating system no one else has. I’d argue that its efforts in custom silicon designs are as important as its work in custom operating systems as a differentiating factor. Both are best in class, and both are exclusive to Apple products.

Apple’s software plays a key role in making its products stand out. The company’s custom silicon makes the experience of that software stand out even more. While this experience can come in the way of more quality apps, graphics or other visuals, perhaps the best example of this advantage is the increase of battery life of the new iPhones.

Having tested many devices, and being among the top 1 percent of heavy mobile users, I routinely run out of battery life on every smartphone I try. For most of the past two years, I was on an iPhone 6s and, near the end of every day, my battery life was in the 10-20 percent range. Since June, I’ve been on the iPhone SE, and was routinely under 10 percent at the end of each day. With the iPhone 7 Plus, I have yet to get below 30 percent by the end of day on heavy usage days and, on light days, my battery life stays in the 40 percent range by the end of day.

Apple’s custom-designed A10 chip, and its ability to tune its software for better battery life, is a key reason for these gains. The A 10 Fusion processor uses a mix of two low-power-efficient cores, which can handle most tasks by most users and keep the higher-performance cores from turning on. When users need it, the higher-performance cores kick into gear and power the more intense graphics and visual elements of iOS. By not having to run these larger, more powerful cores all the time, the new iPhones are getting much better battery life than other devices in my initial testing. While there are many other objective benchmarks we can point to which highlight Apple’s silicon advantage, battery life is one of the many consumers will latch on to, because it is a known pain point.

When we polled consumers on certain features and pain points regarding both waterproofing and better battery life, we discovered that 51 percent of iPhone owners say they have run out of battery by 5 pm on their smartphone before, and had no way to charge it, and had to go some time without a working smartphone. Some 45 percent of consumers have, at some point, dropped their phone in the water; and, of those, 16 percent had to get a new phone because of the water damage.

Similarly, of existing iPhone owners planning to upgrade to the new devices and those strongly tempted to upgrade now they have seen them, the better-battery-life story resonates the strongest, with the improved camera the second-biggest motivating factor.

These are practical improvements which hit a key pain point in the market today, and these features alone could move the needle for Apple in the next few quarters.

While pundits may look at the current iPhones and claim that it doesn’t meet their expectations, the bottom line is that the new designs — and even more so, the improvements to the fundamental experience like camera, battery, performance, etc., — will speak most powerfully to the mainstream consumer. This market represents the 80 percent, and it’s worth remembering Apple makes products for the mainstream, not the tech elite, even though the tech elite can find many things innovative about the new iPhones should they only try.

Afterthoughts

  • I think it’s incredibly significant that there are APIs Apple has made available for Live Photos. I can’t wait to see what developers do to integrate Live Photo support into their apps. Primarily because I discovered something interesting about Live Photos. As nice as they are for your photos, they become incredibly interesting with other people’s photos. I discovered this with my 13-year-old daughter, as she was taking many pictures on our recent family vacation. With my Live Photos, I took the shot, so I know all the little secrets behind the picture. Going and looking at her Live Photos is an entirely different experience, because I get to discover the moments behind the photo for the first time. This is surprisingly delightful, and will add a dimension to friends and family posts on Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram or elsewhere that people will really love.
  • People have asked if the jet-black finish is slippery. The answer is no. To give you a sense of the feel of the jet-black version, just feel your iPhone’s screen. The feel of the screen is very similar to the feel of the back of the jet-black design.
  • People also wondered if the jet-black scratches easily. I’ll echo what others have said about it getting small microabrasions, but not scratches. Mine has very little microabrasions which you have to try really hard to see. Doesn’t seem to scratch easy as I’ve bonked it on hard objects on accident.
  • Concerning low-light photos: Here are two pictures I took on my porch last night. This is a tough photo because it is only using the ambient light from my porch lights. One is from the iPhone 7 Plus and the other from the iPhone 6s Plus. You can see that they are both great, but the 7 Plus has more light on my siding and cushions, less noise, more dynamic range, and overall less darkness.
iPhone 6s Plus
iPhone 7 Plus

Ben Bajarin is a principal analyst at Creative Strategies Inc., an industry analysis, market intelligence and research firm located in Silicon Valley. His primary focus is consumer technology and market trend research. He is a husband, father, gadget enthusiast, trend spotter, early adopter and hobby farmer. Reach him @BenBajarin.

This article originally appeared on Recode.net.

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