iPhone 7: Hits and misses

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Above: The iPhone 7 Plus in jet black. Photo courtesy Apple.

BitDepth#1058 for September 13, 2016

Last week, Apple announced major revisions to its mobile device line, unveiling a new, agreeably waterproofed Apple Watch and a new iPhone with revamped software for both.

I’ll confess to being quite keen on trying an Apple Watch as a lap counter and analysis tool in the pool, particularly since the eye-watering price of the device tracks closely with professional tools for doing the same thing which don’t include everything else a smartwatch can do.

There’s no question that the standout announcement of the evening was the jet black version of the new iPhone 7, sporting a finish that makes it look like the love child of Darth Vader’s suit and a Terminator T-1000.

Apple has revived its iconoclastic ways by ditching the decades old mini-audio jack port from the new iPhone, removing the last universal connection points left on modern computing devices.

The company has offered a sop for those who view this as a bad thing. In addition to including Lightning port native ear buds in the box, iPhone 7 buyers will also find a Lightning to mini audio port adapter, one more in a long line of dongles that have become part of the ecosystem of Apple’s devices lately. There are also new wireless earphones for those with a taste for that sort of thing.

So we have a revamped OS for both devices, a waterproof Apple Watch and a water resistant iPhone with the coolest metallic finish ever and no headphone jack. What else is in the mix?

In two words, lightfield technology.

With the iPhone 7, Apple became the second major smartphone manufacturer to add a second rear-facing camera to its device, the first being Huawei’s P9, launched in April.

Lightfield cameras are new enough and the technology deep enough that implementations are far from uniform as device manufacturers explore exactly what the science of the new imagemaking technology can offer.

Early devices like the Lytro and the Light L16 also took widely differing approaches, Lytro used a single lens to achieve its focus-shifting selling point and the still-unseen L16 makes use of 16 lenses of varying focal lengths to do both focus shifting and computational zooming.

The conceptual gulf between the Huawei and Apple devices is equally wide, despite the physical fact of both devices having side by side rear facing cameras.

The P9’s major failing was its slow dual lenses, which capture light at a small lens opening of f2.2. Huawei went for a sleek device profile and managed to avoid the bump in the case that faster lenses demand, but paid a high price in image capture capability.

Apple accepted the bump in placing a wide f1.8 lens and an f 2.8 “telephoto” lens on the new iPhone 7 plus, though they haven’t got the fastest lens on the market, with Samsung’s S7 making use of an incrementally wider f1.7 lens.

Still, f1.8 is plenty of light gathering capability, particularly when you consider that the lens equivalent on a DSLR is about the size of your fist.

The colour range of the new iPhohe 7 Plus. Photo courtesy Apple.
The colour range of the new iPhohe 7 Plus. Photo courtesy Apple.

Where Apple gets it wrong is in what they are using the dual lenses for. The lenses are intentionally unmatched. One is twice the focal length of the other, giving the camera double the reach in picture taking.

But you can ratchet the camera’s zoom well past the optical capability of 2X all the way to 10X. It’s likely that the phone’s custom Image Signal Processor is doing some computational magic to the raw capture data to upscale the image, but there are limits to what’s possible before you see a difference in the file.

I’m expecting acceptable digital zoom images to max out in quality somewhere around 5X with even the best possible interpolation algorithm.

Both the P9 and the iPhone 7 do passable shallow depth of field effects using lightfield’s depth mapping principles, but neither is likely to do better than the optical quality of a fast lens.

The iPhone 7 has the specifications and looks to make it another hit for Apple in the smartphone market, but its engineers wimped out on the phone’s hardware and software capabilities. Third-party developers may make better use of the capabilities of the hardware, but what could have been revolutionary is clever but ultimately pedestrian.

Computational photography is going to drive the big revolutions in smartphone image making and Apple could have stroked for the stands here, instead the iPhone 7 Plus is a bat and pad response in a fast moving market.