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Yes, the iPhone 7 lenses really are sapphire

There's a YouTube video going around showing tests conducted on the sapphire lens of the iPhone 7 that's raised some internet controversy about whether or not the lens is actually sapphire. Here's what Apple told iMore in a statement:

"Apple confirms the iPhone 7 camera lens is sapphire, and under proper testing conditions achieves the hardness and purity results expected from sapphire."

So what's going on? The video is fine for what it is, but it doesn't include the necessary controls and contains enough theories throughout that the ultimate conclusion it reaches might escape people who don't understand the subject or don't watch it closely.

Let's break it down.

Is Apple using sapphire glass?

Apple is absolutely using sapphire glass. Read the comment above, refer to Apple.com (opens in new tab):

Sapphire crystal lens cover

See Phil Schiller's tweet:

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Or simply watch the YouTube video:

When I tested the outside of the lens, I got a huge reading of aluminum oxide [sapphire — Ed.], which means the lens is most definitely sapphire on the exterior.

So why is it scratching?

It's not. The lower hardness tools aren't scratching the lens. They're fracturing it.

The scratching of the watch vs. the fracturing of the lens is clearly stated in the video and shown under the microscope.

Fracturing — as opposed to scratching — is what happens when you have something so incredibly thin — unlike the much thicker watch used for comparison — and you apply pressure with no level of control.

You'd have to precisely apply the same level of force, likely to the same thickness of material, to properly do that test.

So is Apple just using a thin veneer of sapphire over glass and calling it sapphire?

The video spends a lot of time theorizing that that may be the case, which may confuse people who aren't paying attention, but ultimately says:

There is a silicon [glass — Ed.] layer, but it is incredibly small in proportion to the rest of the lens, so it's pretty much a non-issue.

The YouTube video theorizes that it's there to "minimize reflection or something minor," and that the "Vast portion of the lens is aluminum oxide [sapphire — Ed.]."

There are coatings on the lens, including a fingerprint-resistant coating, but the material of the lens itself remains sapphire.

Wait, if it's a "non-issue", why am I reading accusations of Apple not using sapphire or using a laminate?

Either they didn't understand the video, the science, or they just want attention.

What about contaminants? Is Apple using lower quality sapphire?

Apple says no, and the video makes it impossible to tell otherwise, since it states the machine could very well contain the contaminants. A test would have to be run on properly cleaned equipment to provide useful information there.

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Anything else I need to know?

Apple seems to have been using the same type of sapphire on its lenses since sapphire lenses were introduced with iPhone 5. Even at the anecdotal level, there's been nothing to even remotely suggest the material isn't hard enough for the job it's been given — to protect the camera system under normal conditions.

Rene Ritchie
Contributor

Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.

37 Comments
  • I generally ignore these videos that show phones dropping, bending and scratching. Just people looking for clicks and attention as far as I am concerned.
  • That is not the case with that channel. Much to be learned on the devices he tears down. Sure most yt posters are looking for clicks. But he is really in depth, not some hack making jokes for a few minutes.
  • Engineering specifications. Materials science. Marketing. OMG Internet craziness. Did I miss anything?
  • There's enough confusion in the various descriptions in this article, and the quotes to drive people off a cliff. Let me clear this up. Other than the fact that a clear cover material over a lens is considered to be part of the optical design, particularly when permanent, it's not actually part of the lens. It does no optical correction itself, other than being a material with two surfaces. It does need to be corrected for though. Therefor, the lens is not sapphire, as I'm seeing written here. Apparently the people making these statements know nothing about lens design. But these protective covers are sapphire, as is the one on the home button. Sapphire is second in hardness (for natural materials) to diamond. In my test set, only diamond scratches it. But as pointed out in the article, a fairly hard pointed object can exert very high pressure levels if the person using it doesn't know how to use it. That pressure can exceed several TONS, on that tiny area of contact. So yes, it can fracture it. It's how we cut glass too.
  • Yes, the outside cover is a lens. It is part of the optical design. It is designed to not do any correction. There is not one lens in a camera either, there are many. The other ones are not made of sapphire, and it is clear in the article that the lens they are talking about is the outer one. Second, you are correct about the hard pointy objects.
  • I had a year of optics when taking physics. I do understand the design of lenses. The cover is not considered to be a lens, because it does no intended correction, as it's a flat plate. But it does itself need to be corrected for because the thickness does cause a change in the rays passing through. The best filters are extremely thin, for that reason. A built-in cover can be corrected for by the designers, but it's not considered to be a lens itself. A lens element, which is the correct term, when it's part of a multiple element design, is considered to be part of that actual lens, when its function is to mediate the rays going through. The function of a cover is to protect, not act as an optical element. It's considered to be an unfortunate extra part that only degrades the image, but whose protective function is of more value.
  • I'd like to add that synthetic diamond dust is fairly common in industrial tools as well so it's possible to come into contact with dust particles that could possibly scratch it. As an anecdotal example I scratched a lower end Bulova watch with a sapphire crystal face while working at a PetSmart somehow.
  • So does that also include the plus model? That's a much bigger lens that covers a whole lot of black area. Sent from the iMore App
  • Yes.
  • It can be made of the dried tears of Lumia owners for all I care, so long as it's as scratch resistant as the 6S (which after a year of being shoved in and out of my trinket filled pocket remains scratch free). So the question to all those with a 7 or 7 Plus is whether they have noticed any scratches yet or not? Posted via the iMore App
  • I have the 7 Plus. And although I've only had mine for a week and a half, the lens is as it was right out of the box. To be fair though, I keep my iPhone in a case where the lens opening extends beyond the lens frame by a few millimeters so the lens isn't touching anything hard when laying on a hard surface.
  • Apple just love praising their products Isaiah Heart.
  • Samsung just hates it when people praise theirs.
  • It's funny how the people here immediately relate to Samsung whenever there is a comment that against Apple is posted.
  • it's only a 'link' because Samsung phones battery explodes and it happened around the same time frame.. It this was at the start of the year, then they would be less "links" to it... as "Hey remember when this happened"
  • Now why is that ah yes it's because Samsung is Apple's biggest competitor. Sent from the iMore App
  • And why wouldn't they, Isaiah? Samsung praises their products as well as every company that makes anything. What a dumb thing to say.
  • He's just a troll/Android fanboy
  • This article confirms another issue. The debate of what phone platform runs smoother. It states that it need to be tested with the same force. So this is the same for the OS right? Test Android on an iPhone and ios on a android device. Posted via the iMore App for Android
  • What does that even mean?
  • Very misinformed statement and false equivalence. And to your point, the smoother platform is the one that appears to be smoother to the user. A platform is the OS and the hardware it's running on. Even if running Android on an iPhone and vise versa were possible, what would that prove? Absolutely nothing. Benchmarks test hardware performance regardless of OS, they make the CPU or GPU run cycles. And an OS can't be smooth or not smooth without hardware, it's just code. It's only smooth when running on the hardware it's made to run on. So your test would be utter nonsense without any practical goal.
  • I hear if you fun this test on a Samsung phone it starts smoking. Menthol or not??? Sent from the iMore App
  • Doesnt matter to the common consumer if its fractured and not scratched , still affect video quality from a $900 device Sent from the iMore App
  • That's not the point. The point is that it's made to be scratch proof in normal usage. No one takes a sharp pointed hard object to their lens cover on purpose.
  • So it doesn't scratch but fractures. Regardless it still leaves a mark on the "Sapphire" glass. What am I missing?
  • That puzzled me too. It's almost as if Rene is trying to distract from a potential issue via the power of pedantry. Posted via the iMore App
  • LOL omg the insanity of ignorance. It's not a potential issue. Sapphire glass has never been claimed as indestructible. It's scratch proof under normal use. If you take a brick and smash it, it will shatter, what's your point? Take a $20,000 Rolex with a sapphire crystal and hammer a nail into it. Guess what, it'll fracture!! Oh no potential issue, #rolexgate.
    There's nothing to see here, its basic physics and material science. If you apply a force to a tiny area on a material that can fracture, it will. The purpose of the sapphire isn't to survive a test like this, it's to never get scratched up in your purse or pocket, just like the watch. The test was flawed, it applied too much pressure, more than the material can withstand. How is this now a story?
    This is the problem with the internet. It's giving every moron who wants clicks the ability to click-bait people who don't understand things, and create sensationalism around non issues.
  • Maybe it is ignorance, but what I got from the video is that yes the lens cover is sapphire, but it is of such a mediocre quality that its effectiveness is comparable to Gorilla Glass.
  • Sapphire crystal is sapphire crystal, there's no quality element in it. It's exactly what the commenter said that you're replying to. A Rolex with sapphire crystal would fracture just as easily, as would anything with sapphire crystal
  • So why did the Tisot watchface survive weaker attacks compared to the iPhone? A genuine question borne out of genuine curiosity.
  • What you're missing is that it's never been claimed to be "indestructible". It's scratch proof. This is pretty simple.
    No one takes a hard sharp pointed object to their lens cover on purpose do they? So in normal daily use, it will never get scratched. But yeah, if you feel like hitting the lens cover with a rock or a nail, it might fracture. Congratulations, call CNN!
  • A a general rule : - Believe Apple,, ignore everyone else. :) Well done iMore.
  • Maybe we could also believe the chemical makeup of the lens cover? Just a thought, or does Apple manipulate nature as well?
  • A general rule:
    - Believe internet click-bait that does non scientific tests; ignore material science and Apple. ;)
    Well done internet folks.
  • I always knew that the lens on both the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus were sapphire crystal. Sent from the iMore App
  • Internet ****** bags looking for attention. Nothing to see here. Sent from the iMore App
  • I am not sure if the confusion over fracturing and scratching is already cleared but let me try my two two cents here... 1. Scratch versus fracture issue. Scratching a material is a matter of resistance to abrasion (softness or hardness) against two materials. While fracturing is cause by how much force is applied to material. When scratch testing is used, enough force must be used to attempt to see how hard the material is. Just enough force to scratch per se. A nail cannot scratch a sapphire watch crystal but put on more force that the sapphire watch crystal can take, it will crack/fracture/break. 2. Second issue is about the composition of the iphone sapphire lens (actually a lens cover, yes, just a lens cover, the actual optical lenses are inside fixed to the camera module). From the videos it seems like the sapphire crystal is just a thin layer fused to a glass that composes majority of the lens cover. This theory definitely is scratch proof under normal contact to hard objects such as keys and some grits BUT will eventually shatter when a hard tip is forcefully stabbed on the thin material. The same force wont shatter the sapphire watch crystal because it is much more thicker. For the test to be successful (in this case) enough force must be applied while attempting to scratch to really check the hardness especially if the tip is as strong as sapphire. You can apply a little more force if just using a key or something metal that is relatively 2 points away due to sapphire is relatively harder to most metals. Another theory is the whole thing is a sapphire crystal and the one that actually scratches are just the coating. Now most think this is a useless idea since the goal is to avoid scratches. For me, not entirely, some few scratches might be possible over time because of weak coating BUT if the whole thing is sapphire glass, it WILL prevent shattering as compared to optical glass. Furthermore, coating significantly improves image quality (which i think is equally or more important). Bottomline, It does makes sense. P.S. These tests are extremes of a normal to heavy scenario. You have to break your own camera lens cover to judge if it is weak or quite sturdy. I have an iPhone 7plus and my wife has i6 and no scratch until now. She jams her phone inside her purse with keys and all and i shove my phone on my tight pocket along with keys, lanyard, and usb cables. Some big drops. No scratch so far. I'd say for me, no matter how the lens cover is constructed, it is durable enough. Definitely not plastic or ordinary glass.