The Benchmark iPhone 7 Plus

on September 16, 2016

Tim Cook said, “The iPhone is the industry gold standard. The phone by which all other phones are compared.” I articulated for subscribers yesterday how this is true of Apple at an industry level, not just with the iPhone, but any reasonable person understands Tim Cook is right. Apple sets the bar and brings cutting edge technology to the masses like no other technology brand.

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
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 of 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 color 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 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 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 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 like high-end cars strategically span certain colors and materials. The idea that, 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 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, for example, 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 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 only 2% say they always buy the exact same color car. 65% said they generally lead toward buying the same color as their last car but they like to look around at new colors/materials in case something stands out. 33% of the market tends to switch colors in order to use something new or have variety.

It is possible 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. Bottom line is, they bought the DSLR because the camera did all the hard work of taking great pictures. I jokingly nicnamed 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 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 are best in class when it comes to a smartphone camera. This is where Apple’s tight integration of hardware, software, and custom silicon gives them 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 photo 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, you learn 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 we are seeing the path for them to take on DSLRs. 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 this will no longer be the case going forward.

Thinking About Silicon
I maintain one of the most underappreciated things about the “new Apple” is their custom designed silicon. They design their own processors and even many of the sensors in all of their 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 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 they run an operating system no one else has. I’d argue their efforts in custom silicon designs are as important as their 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 their products stand out. Their 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% 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% range. Since June, I’ve been on the iPhone SE and was routinely under 10% at the end of each day. With the iPhone 7 Plus, I have yet to get below 30% by the end of day on heavy usage days and, on light days, my battery life stays in the 40% range by the end of day.

Apple’s custom designed A10 chip, and their ability to tune their software for better battey 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 onto 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 51% of iPhone owners say they have run out of battery by 5pm on their smartphone before and had no way to charge it and had to go some time without a working smartphone. 45% of consumers have, at some point, dropped their phone in the water and, of those, 16% 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 the next few quarters.

While pundits may look at the current iPhones and claim it doesn’t meet their expectations, the bottom line is both the new designs and even more so, the improvements to the fundamental experience like camera, battery, performance, etc., is what will speak most powerfully to the mainstream consumer. This market represents the 80% and it is 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.

After Thoughts

Observation on live photos. I think it is 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 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 easily scraches. I’ll echo what others have said about the Jet Black getting small micro-abresions but not scratches. Mine has very little micro abrasions 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.

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 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

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

Photo at 1x

Photo at 2x