Apple’s first ‘phablet’ bends margins to the limit.
Bend me, shape me,Any way you want me,
As long as you love me,
It’s all right.
Apple might be looking ruefully at those lyrics from 1960s beat combo The American Breed, but despite the headlines ‘Bendgate’ is the least interesting aspect of the iPhone 6 Plus, the tech giant’s first phablet.
Most early customers will be upgrading within the Apple family. For them, the phablet is a new form factor. There were similar complaints when the first phablets appeared in the non-iOS world. Though bigger screens were fundamental to the marketing, consumers still saw them as phones that could be slipped into a back pocket.
History repeats. All of us do farce occasionally.
The story behind the iPhone 6 Plus - and, largely, the plain old iPhone 6 - lies elsewhere. It is in new features, a new processor, better repairability and - this is Apple after all - clever pricing.
Both iPhone 6s have bigger screens. That on the standard model is 4.7in (12cm) diagonal and that on the Plus is 5.5in (14cm) - these are against 4in (10.2cm) for the iPhone 5. The Plus gets a few more upgrades, two of which are more significant: resolution is 1920x1080P at 401ppi, and the main 8MP camera comes with optical image stabilisation.
The iFixit teardown team described what they found to enable stabilisation: “The [rear camera] lens element is nested into a tiny metal cage, nudged to and fro by the electromagnetic coils surrounding the sensor. Constant readings from the gyroscope and the M8 motion co-processor give the iPhone 6 Plus detailed data on the movements of your shaky human hands, allowing it to compensate by rapidly moving the lens assembly. Result: sharper, clearer photos, even in low-light environments.”
The Plus also has a bigger battery, rated at 2,915mAh. That compares with 2,800mAh for the Samsung Galaxy S5 and 1,810mAh for the standard iPhone 6. The Plus can sustain up to 24 hours talk time on 3G networks, Apple says, and 384 hours on standby. But the greater capacity is mostly about offering more options for gaming, watching as well as capturing video and other draining tasks.
This brings us to Apple’s latest apps processor, the A8. Analysts concur that this is at least being part-manufactured on a 20nm process by Taiwanese foundry TSMC. Hitherto, Apple has exclusively used chips made by handset rival Samsung.
Chipworks, which has published the most detailed analysis so far, says the engine room of the A8 still comprises a dual-core ARM v6 64bit-based CPU, and a quad-core GPU (the IP probably coming from another UK company, Imagination Technologies).
Apple says that the move from the A7’s 28nm process to 20nm has allowed it to double transistor count to two billion, with 25 per cent faster general processing and 50 per cent faster graphics. This has been achieved alongside a 13 per cent die shrink, from 102mm2 to 89mm2, Chipworks says.
There have certainly been some tweaks. For example, the A8’s CPU area is 12.2mm2 against 17.1mm2 for the A7 (a 29 per cent shrink) and its GPU area is 19.1mm2 against 22.1m2 (a 14 per cent shrink). A simple node-to-node scaling of the designs would be around 50 per cent.
Chipworks speculates that as well as upping and expanding processor functions, Apple may have assigned separate rather than shared L2 memory caches to each CPU core and added more SRAM memory to aid graphics performance.
But its analysts say that there are other noticeable blocks that they have not yet identified: “and there is plenty going on in the A8 that is in addition to the CPU and GPU that they could be used for.”
Apple, as usual, isn’t saying. But one area where the iPhone 6 Plus is more open is repairability. The iFixit team found both the display and the battery are easier to remove and replace. These are two of the most commonly failing parts. Also, Apple has helpfully re-routed the cabling for the phone’s fingerprint sensor - on the iPhone 5S, there was the risk that this could be torn when the device was opened.
iFixit gives both the iPhone 6 Plus and its smaller sister repairability scores of 7 out of 10. This is about as close to full disclosure as Apple ever gets.
However, the company did not become as successful as it is without being as cute on its pricing as it is elegant in design.
According to IHS iSuppli, the 16GB iPhone 6 carries a bill of materials of $196.10 and this rises to $211.10 for the Plus. Both numbers can first be set against the $190.85 BoM on the iPhone 5S. So while the standard 6 and 5S both have the same launch retail price ($200 locked; $649 unlocked), the slightly bigger 6 is slightly more expensive to make.
The cuteness lies in the $15 BoM difference between the plain 6 and 6 Plus. Apple believes the market will sustain a $100 base retail price difference between the two, with the 16GB Plus selling at $300 locked and $749 unlocked. As ever, the prices of both models rise in $100 steps from the entry 16GB phones to those with progressively 64GB and 128GB capacity.
That is great margin piled on great margin, and initial indications are that Apple is getting it. During their first weekend on sale, the iPhone 6 models shifted more than 10 million units. As long as you love them it’s more than all right. *