The Inside Story of the Apple iPhone 14
There may be no product on the planet more closely scrutinized, passionately anticipated, and discussed in detail than every new iterative release of the Apple iPhone. Since its release in 2007 the iPhone has become the standard bearer of mobile technology, one often dictating the public’s expectations of what a smartphone should offer, often steering the highly competitive market one way or another.
Despite its global ubiquity, the iPhone has maintained a certain cachet as an object of aspiration – a high wire act attributable to the company’s methodical coordination between hardware and software into a holistic experience easily comprehensible as one that simply works and works simply.
Even so, this extreme microscopic-level of inspection has been primarily limited to the exterior and tactile attributes of the iPhone in coordination with iOS. While certainly integral to the device’s success, a portion of Apple’s ingenuity has always been obscured behind a curtain of secrecy in the form of the Retina display and Pentalobe proprietary screws, an inky veil Apple has been reluctant to pull back or allow users to pry open. Very few iPhone users know what lies underneath the jet black screen or glass back, with most opting – if not required – to seek the aid of their local Apple Store when troubles arise.
Apple has done a bit of 180° turn (maybe close to a 120° turn, as they still aren’t inviting user accessible repair), allowing for a closer inspection of the inner components of the latest iPhone 14*.
We recently spoke with Apple’s Richard Dinh (Senior Director, iPhone Product Design) and Francesca Sweet (Manager, Product Marketing) to ask what’s changed and why the inside of the Apple iPhone 14 may be one of the most interesting design stories of the year.
*Not including the flagship iPhone 14 Pro, nor iPhone 14 Pro Max.
Let’s start off with what has changed internally between the iPhone 13 and the new iPhone 14.
Richard Dinh: Since iPhone 5, we’ve used a single enclosure we call a bucket-style design. Every internal component – the rear cameras, the True Depth camera, the main logic board, the battery, the Taptic Engine – everything has had to come in from the front of the product. This also meant any internal repair whether big or small, required the removal of the front display. That was especially true for any of the components closer to the back glass.
Now with iPhone 14, the back glass is separate from the aluminum enclosure, allowing for improved heat dissipation across its entire surface while also improving repairability.
More simply put, the iPhone 14 now opens from both behind the screen and from its back glass assembly revealing a front, mid-frame, and back interior layout. Instead of dropping in and fitting every component into a carefully curated bucket-style enclosure, Apple has layered sections of the iPhone across four sides, with core componentry adhered and nestled across two sides of a mid-frame plane made from extruded aerospace grade aluminum.
The dual-access design effectively eliminates the surgical precision previously required to properly disassemble and reassemble the device. In crude terms, repairing an iPhone no longer requires a technician to tear everything apart to reach what needs to be replaced or repaired; the new design allows the device to open up like a Trapper Keeper folder to sort through, with componentry elegantly organized for uncomplicated access.
How thick is this new central plane the components are adhered to?
Dinh: Around 300 microns.
That’s extremely thin. Does it offer any structural strength?
Dinh: At this thickness, the material no longer acts as a core stiffness element, but it does provide protection in a lot of the reliability cases related to durability.
We’ve typically used copper alloy as a material to help us dissipate heat. But the new central structural plane is made from a lighter and custom grade high performance 7,000 series aluminum made from at least 50% recycled aluminum.
The central plane is also strikingly uniform and pleasantly finished, a strange attribute for a component intended to likely never be seen by its user.
Dinh: The finish isn’t just for looks. The [surface] is the result of a blasting process to attain certain tight tolerances and to meet stringent process controls typically reserved for our cosmetic finishes.
One ongoing complaint has been the amount of components adhered with glue inside the iPhone, not only complicating disassembly, but also reassembly. Did the redesign result in a reduction of adhered versus modular componentry?
Dinh: At a high level when we switched to this new architecture and improved direct access to components, we no longer have to bury components underneath one other, and turn we’ve been able to reduce the use of adhesive. But I think that would be more incidental and related to the assembly of the product.
We do not have to include as many connectors because now they are on the back side of the device where we can access a lot of those components. The other thing is we were able to reduce weight of components like the display assembly, paving the way for some of the new features like a larger front camera and sensor.
Beyond the camera sensors which have to face a specific direction, is there reasoning directing which components are situated on either side of the central plane?
Dinh: Core components have varying thicknesses. They’re almost like a skyline. By laying out components assembled to the same central surface we are able to improve the thermal performance. The [aluminum] surface carries and dissipates thermal energy to slowly escape via the display surface, resulting in a performance bump.
What sort of performance bump are we talking about?
Francesca Sweet: This new internal design’s optimized heat dissipation allows for improved sustained performance while working on computationally intensive workloads like video editing or playing graphics-intensive games. So for example, both the iPhone 14 Plus and iPhone 14 can deliver up to 15% better performance than iPhone 13 even though they all share the same A15 Bionic.
Apple’s laudable new internal iPhone 14 architecture paired with an improved components density should result in a longer lasting relationship between user and device. You may never crack open the iPhone 14 to repair it yourself, but the benefits of the internal designs should result in a device that operates faster and cooler, feels lighter in hand, and in the instance of requiring attention, be easier and more affordable to repair. We only hope Apple superimposes this same degree of care across all levels of iPhones in future generations, noting the best design should literally be more accessible than not.