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by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Jason Snell

The large appeal of a better iPhone camera

Note: This story has not been updated for several years.

Earlier this week, Mark Gurman at Bloomberg confirmed most of the rumors we’ve heard about this fall’s new iPhone1. Among the details of the report was that the larger model—presumably the successor to the iPhone 6S Plus—would feature a dual-camera system, to enable better pictures and more flexibility in zooming.

Makes sense. The iPhone 6 Plus offered optical stabilization for video in low-light situations, and the iPhone 6S Plus extended that to all low-light photography. It was a minor difference, but perhaps it was also Apple dipping its toes in the water in terms of offering expanded camera functionality on the larger phone. And after all, the larger iPhone does have more surface area, giving it the space to integrate extra hardware that the smaller phone can’t fit.

I’ve been a happy user of the smaller iPhone 6S (and before it, the iPhone 6), since I don’t consider the extra size of the screen or small improvement in image stabilization worth the extra size and bulk. But I have to admit that an appreciably better camera on an iPhone Plus would make me seriously consider the larger phone when it’s time for me to upgrade.

What are these internet-connected supercomputers we carry around in our pockets for, anyway? Staying connected, yes, that’s a huge part of it. But the fact that they are cameras is vitally important. For my daughter, that basically means Snapchat. For me, it means not bringing my big SLR camera with me on family trips anymore because our iPhones have become our family cameras.

The wide angle of the iPhone camera makes it less great for some shots, which require a digital zoom.

In the early days of the smartphone, there was room for innovation and growth in every direction. Better and bigger screens, faster processors, battery faster data, you name it—everything could stand to be massively improved. But here in 2016, smartphones are pretty great. That’s not to say that there isn’t improvement to be made—every year, the phones will get a little bit better. But I’m not aching over a slightly bigger or high-resolution screen at this point, or a phone with an incrementally faster processor.

But the pictures these things take? Those could always be better, at least until they truly are indistinguishable from a great dedicated camera. (That may be a long time coming, just because of the physics of the situation—today’s ultra-thin smartphones are not the ideal shape to collect a lot of light and offer great depth of field, and I doubt tomorrow’s smartphones will be thicker.) There’s a huge amount of room to improve, and more importantly, getting good pictures from my phone is a priority for me—and, I suspect, a lot of people.

So where does that leave the “mainstream” iPhone, the successor to the 6S? I was talking about this with John Gruber yesterday, for this week’s episode of The Talk Show. Neither of us are particularly enamored with the large size of the 6S Plus, but we’re both excited about the promise of an improved camera.

By all accounts, the iPhone SE is a surprise hit. It’s got most of Apple’s latest technologies inside, but in a compact package wrapped around a 4-inch display. On the other end, we’re looking at a successor to the iPhone 6S Plus that offers a large display and a fantastic camera.

In the middle is the successor to the 6S. Is it sitting in the sweet spot, with something for everybody? Probably. Almost certainly. And yet I find myself feeling a little bit ambivalent about it, compared to the other two products. They both come with points of view: A Plus successor with a big screen and great camera, the SE keeping it as compact as possible. (It’s tough being the middle child, I guess.)

And as Gruber pointed out during our conversation, how does Apple extoll the virtues of an amazing dual-camera system in the iPhone 6S Plus successor, and how much it (presumably) improves the iPhone camera experience, while also releasing an iPhone 6S successor that doesn’t offer any of those features? (My answer: Apple will lean on the size of the larger phone, saying that because of its much larger surface area, it was able to add things to it that it just can’t add to the main iPhone model yet. Still… ouch.)

It’s great that the iPhone is no longer a product, but a product line. Having three mainstream, new-model iPhones at one time—small, medium, and large—is good for people who buy iPhones, because it gives us all choice. I just can’t decide if the middle phone is positioned perfectly, or if it just looks a bit too plain when compared to its larger and smaller cousins.

  1. Note that he didn’t at any point name it as “iPhone 7.”) 

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