#588. Zeiss ExoLens. Down the Smartphone Photography rabbit hole?

By pascaljappy | Review

Apr 28

Smartphone photography is a bit of a polarizing topic, here on DearSusan :  some photographers herald it as the definitive solution for close-up, spontaneous, huge DOF explorations, while the arrière-garde argue that they’re perfectly happy with their large bodies (cameras, that is) and super lenses. I personally fall in both camps.

Well now, there may be a unifying solution. It comes from Zeiss, who else, bringing with it the promise of jaw-dropping optical yumminess while bolting on to your ever-present friend, the Smartphone. It’s called the ExoLens, and consists of an exo-skeleton designed to hug your phone and hold a lens over the phone’s inbuilt camera.

My daughter recently bought a similar bolt-on lens systems for her OnePlus 3T phones. A Holga-like fun addition that creates the sort of edge blur you expect from a toy camera and which, let’s be honest, is a lot of fun. Zeiss’s positioning is … different. More … serious. The photograph below (from the ExoLens website) illustrates this point quite clearly. The lenses look like they are polished from diamond by Astraea and a held together by parts that would look at home in a Koenigsegg.



Is this all marketing hype ?

Nope. To me, this is a niche game-changer, with a small target audience that will adore it.


Unboxing the ExoLens System

So, a parcel turned up a few days ago, sent by the great people at Rivolier (Zeiss representative in France) and it felt like they’d mistakenly sent me a baby Otus. Inside the parcel, 4 Exolens boxes : one bracket for iPhone 6/6s, one wide-angle lens, one macro lens, one telephoto lens.

Unboxing followed, somewhat bewildered. Yes, unboxing. Some have questioned the price of these accessories. And I’ve yet to assess image quality. But in terms of packaging and build, you’re clearly getting your money’s worth. This is clearly not toy territory.

In fact this isn’t even usual photo lens territory. The Tele Exolens, while small, is built like a Milvus. Which, for those who’ve never seen one, means heavy and beautiful. Full metal jacket. Large glass elements. Aspheric design. T* coating. The whole shebang. Immensely desirable. Here’s another photograph from the website.

The front of the barrel is roughly 40mm (1.6″). 50mm (2″) with the metal hood. And – wait for it – the lens cap is brilliant. On my MacBook Pro, the above photo is roughly 10:9, 10% over real life size. Adjust according to your dpi resolution 🙂


Have they lost their mind ?

However, once past the very positive first impressions, it’s hard not to question the rationale for this lens system.


1) Image quality is never going to be good

Let’s face it. What you’re buying is a real lens. Something like a downsized Milvus 50/1.4 (a brilliant, brilliant lens, by the way). It’s heavy. It’s expensive (by phone standards, dirt cheap by lens standards, and for what you are getting). And, although my shock at seeing these things has prompted me to start writing before any testing, I have no doubt quality will be excellent.

But … Isn’t the final quality of the image tied to the quality of the lens inside the camera ? If so, what’s the point ?

The ExoLenses can’t possibly be optimised for a specific smartphone camera. That would render most of the available mounting brackets useless and would imply a redesign for every new smartphone release.


Here’s what Oliver Schindelbeck, master brain behind the ExoLens system, explains :

The basic parameters of smartphone cameras (Viewing angle, aperture, entrance pupil, sensor size) do not vary so much. The Exolens lenses are afocal systems and we calculated our lenses to fit to the maximum most of these parameters. Therefore the Exolens lenses fit to most of the existing smartphones from optical point of view. The limiting factor in most cases is the mounting of the lenses. We need a very precise and sturdy mounting system to guarantee the image quality (…) afocal photography allows to cover a range of different parameters.


2) But who on earth wants to carry heavy lenses for a Smartphone ?

Well, it’s all relative. The lenses feel large and heavy compared to the plastic toys on offer elsewhere. If you’re worried about carrying 3 Otuses in your bag, don’t be 😉


3 Exolenses and an Otus 85


In fact, the largest is not half the size of my tiniest lens, the C-Sonnar 50. It’s only compared to usual phone accessories that the size is noticeable.

Plus all 3, and the bracket, come with dedicated textile pouches. So, it’s quite conceivable to shove all this into a tiny town bag and carry along a tiny, high quality 16-56mm + macro system with you at all times rather than rely on digital zoom. All for less money than an entry-level compact with crappy ergonomics.

And that does make sense. But …


What if you’re not Wolverine-compatible ?

This one’s a biggie. There are a few mounting brackets available for the most common phones on the market. And, yes, they seem built out of something from Wolverine’s claws. But some people will inevitably fall outside that range. Like me, with my Samsung Galaxy 6. Oliver tells us that a Sturdy and precise mounting system that aligns the lens in the exact position is important and that Unfortunately in the Android world the variety of phones is too big to offer solutions here.

So, if you’re listening, Samsung, Google, HTC, LG, OnePlus … (yeah, right) please take note : if you want to compete on photo-related arguments, maybe you need to take serious third-party add-ons into consideration.

If you’re not the owner of a phone compatible with one of the brackets, cases or edge clips provided (see website), you can test your patience by holding the lens in front of your phone’s camera.

But I wouldn’t bother. It’s pretty easy to live-view when you’re centering and when you’re decentering but it’s a very hit (orchid, above) and miss (daffodil, below) affair. With plenty more of one than the other 😉



Since my phone isn’t physically compatible with the mounting bracket, co-author Philippe took on the hard task of making photographs with his iPhone 6 and providing his insights, below …


Shooting with Zeiss Exolens (Philippe)

The promise is simple: a trio of add-on Zeiss lenses for smartphones. What Zeiss do is deliver “other” focal lengths than the native one. One wide, one long-ish, one for macros.

Let’s face it, I was more than skeptical, because I couldn’t see how mounting glass in front of my iPhone 6 was going to make it other than what it is, a very average camera-phone, as high-end smartphones go (Pascal’s Samsung Galaxy S6 runs rings around it, both for IQ and UI/creative software). But it could conceivably make it worse, as many add-on lenses do on high-end camera systems.


iPhone 6 with Exolens Wide


Up to now, I thought if someone has the “right” idea on how implement real camera IQ  on a smartphone, it is Sony with the Qx and DxO with the One. Meaning putting a real camera with APS-C sensor onto the smartphone. The Sony bombed, and I can’t say that I’ve seen the One set the world on fire. Thus the Zeiss sounded like a bad idea: bound by the limitations of the iPhone 6 IQ, and further burdened by the weight (and cost) of the Zeiss add-ons.


Photograph made with an iPhone 6 and Zeiss Exolens

iPhone 6 without Exolens

Photograph made with an iPhone 6 and Zeiss Exolens

iPhone 6 with x2 Telephoto Exolens

To be honest, to a large degree, I have to eat my own words. I still don’t understand how, but the fact is, my iPhone with Exolens delivers vastly better IQ than without it. Not just marginally better, vastly. It definitely puts it in the Galaxy S7 category in many ways, and ahead of it in some ways. Astounding, shocking even…

iPhone 6 with Zeiss Exolens Wide

iPhone 6 with Zeiss Exolens Wide

iPhone 6 with Zeiss Exolens Wide


More specifically, and here I am talking about the wide and the long lens add-ons, because a shot with the macro add-on is so different from without it (its range is very close-up indeed) that the two cannot be compared, my phone has more dynamic range (its most frustrating limitation) and vastly better colors than without the add-on.


iPhone 6, no Exolens

iPhone 6, no Exolens. Harsh and uninteresting.

iPhone 6 & Zeiss Exolens Tele plus minimal post processing

iPhone 6 & Zeiss Exolens Tele plus minimal post processing? Night and day …


With such improvements, my phone’s ability to handle contrast and less-then-easy situations, just where it usually falls apart, is transformed. Pascal and I went to the Grau-du-Roi on a very sunny day. I took a few shots with the short tele mounted, and showed them to Pascal. He just went ”wow” at how the “system” handled the massive light and glare of a sunny day in Provence. He even asked me to re-shoot some scenes without the Exolens, just to make sure we weren’t seeing things, the way you do after too much rosé de Provence. Then he tweaked the image with a modicum of PP (30 seconds worth) to make it even better. The shadows are no longer just dark and colorless blotches, and the highlights no longer feel screechy. The picture is no longer a pain to look at. Many would consider it mildly attractive. And, remember, we are talking just about maximum contrast conditions, the sort of light that makes any smartphone cry “uncle”, and which is a challenge for any “serious” camera.


iPhone 6 with Zeiss Exolens Wide

iPhone 6 with Zeiss Exolens Wide


So, in a nutshell, look at the results, and I can’t see how you can fail to be a convert, as am I.


iPhone 6 with Zeiss Exolens Macro

iPhone 6 with Zeiss Exolens Macro


There is a catch, however. You know the story about things that are too good to be true …

The catch is the material implementation. The extra hardware takes a bit too much time and effort to screw and slide on. Then it can slip off all too easily. The extra weight makes the iPhone ridiculously top-heavy, making it impossible to keep it in my breast pocket where it usually sits. Because weight and finish-wise, the Exolens is real Zeiss. Metal construction and all the hallmarks of German quality, including a “convincing” amount of weight.


iPhone 6 with Zeiss Exolens Macro

iPhone 6 with Zeiss Exolens Macro


So, in conclusion, I find Exolens to be conflicted. A brilliant feat of optical wizardry that puts better IQ at the disposal of anyone who shoots iPhone 6 and 7 (you’re talking a 9-digit number of people!). But clunky implementation which, while not ruining a smartphone’s simple and elegant way to take pictures and zip them online, to my mind, makes carrying one or more Exolens around a less than attractive proposition.


iPhone 6 with Zeiss Exolens Macro

iPhone 6 with Zeiss Exolens Macro


Pascal concludes

From a scientific point of view, it’s hard to explain how a passive system (lens) can have an impact on digital aspects of photography such as dynamic range. But the fact are there. On every comparison we’ve made on the iPhone 6, shadows are less murky and highlight roll-off is more gentle. Colours are just better to look at. It’s possible this wouldn’t be the case on other cameras but we can’t deny what we saw with this one.

At the end of the day, there are 2 ways of looking at a product like this, if you’re interested in photography.

(1) You already own and use a camera and your Smarpthone is just your selfie accessory or a documentation tool. Forget about the Exolens system. It won’t make your phone better than your camera (except if that’s a few generations old and your phone is very recent). And you’ll probably not be interested anyway because “traditional” photographers tend to shun phone cameras.

(2) You started photography with your Smartphone and have outgrown the feeble possibilities of its digital zoom. You want to step up to a more mature system without breaking your back, the bank or the Smartphone shooting process. Or you’re convinced that Smartphone photography has something to offer as a complement to the more traditional approach but are reluctant because of the usual IQ issues.


iPhone 6 & Zeiss Exolens Wide processed in MacPhun Tonlity CK

iPhone 6 & Zeiss Exolens Wide processed in MacPhun Tonlity CK


In that second case, the Exolens system makes a lot of sense. The relative size and weight of the lenses (compared to the toy-category competition) and the asking price are less than a new camera.

With your bracket permanently attached to the phone and the lenses packed in their pouches in a bag, you’re just seconds away from a lens change at any moment (heck, that’s actually how co-author Paul carries and handles his Fuji / Leica / Zeiss kit). Although we can’t help thinking a clipping system would be quicker than a screw mount, changing your Exolens isn’t that much more cumbersome than changing a lens on a traditional camera and you never get dust onto your sensor. You save weight, a lot of money and retain the great screen, on the fly editing and social sharing capabilities of phones that somehow continue to boggle the minds of traditional camera makers in 2017 …

For a traditional generation of photographers, it probably all sounds ridiculous. For the younger person that wants to get into serious photography making no compromises in convenience or optical quality, it’s simply brilliant. You already know what camp you fall in. Or do you ? 😉


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  • Joakim Danielson says:

    “For the younger person…” ouch, that’s where I failed. Seriously though I rather invest in proper camera gear than trying make my phone into something it isn’t (now I really sound like an old fart).

    • pascaljappy says:

      Ha ha, sorry Joakim 😉 If that makes things any better, I’m significantly older than you 😉

      But yes, you clearly fall in the first category. You have honed your use of your Leica gear (how’s that monochrom, by the way …) and it would make no sense for you to try to replicate that set up starting from a phone.

  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    I think it’s inappropriate to be dismissive at this early stage, simply because nobody’s worked up a sensible means of attaching these lenses to a cellphone.

    Sigh – good luck to those who are having a love affair with their cellphones. As long as they respect other people’s rights to travel a different path.

    If the attraction is simply “convenience”, there’s no space for arguing it’s somehow “better”. Anyway, I rather think it would be impossible to mount such an argument.

    And if that’s where it all stalls, I’m still yawning. Over the past 24 hours, I’ve been introduced to a camera produced by Sigma (of the famous 24mm ART lens they sold me, with almost incurable back focus problems) and read about a weird camera from Pentax, which they claim can shoot at up to 819,200 ISO (although why they even bother mentioning the final 200 in that figure is completely beyond me). As well, there’s a stampede of medium format cams, and the Sony A9. This is all turning into a craze for techno junk.

    Someone else can deal with cellphones. Seems to me that photos from cellphones are hardly ever produced as prints, they just flit around from one screen to another and NONE of those screens has hi-def anyway, so any further discussion on image quality is fatuous.

    We’ve all been talking about the A9.

    And the medium format cams. (That mostly caused an outburst of nostalgia, with everyone dreaming about the Rollei or Bronica or Mamiya or whatever that they used in two & a quarter square days).

    This new Pentax? Well all the reviews I’ve seen suggest that beyond about 12,500 MAXIMUM, any further increase in ISO comes with such an increase in noise levels that nobody would want to use this new feature, unless ALL they were doing was stalking a foreign spy, or similar.

    And the Sigma? I will be gracious about this, despite what they did to me with that dreadful 24mm ART lens. This camera IS “interesting”. Why? Because it doesn’t use a conventional [??!! – whatever that means !!] sensor. Instead, it uses a thing called a Foveon sensor, which is totally different. Conventional sensors mix several colors and for some odd reason, two lots of green. The Foveon doesn’t. ONLY Sigma uses the Foveon sensor – because they were so keen on it that they bought the Foveon company, and nobody else can get these sensors.

    Here’s a brief description:
    The Foveon sensor features multiple layers to capture all of the colour information that visible light transmits, much like 35mm film, so that every pixel position on the sensor captures red, green and blue, compared to a normal sensor, which captures a single colour at each pixel.
    The Foveon X3 Quattro direct image sensor differs from the previous Foveon sensor thanks to a new top layer with a higher resolution. This is said to give high-resolution results, but with a lower resolution green and red layer, that means image processing is said to be quicker and noise is also said to be improved.

    I’ve seen three gigantic prints produced from one of these cameras, this afternoon, and I must say, they are SERIOUSLY impressive. Love them or hate them, they are GOOD. The third one I saw was a scene in the mountains, and it completely blew me away. I’m tempted to ask if I can buy a copy of it, it is awe inspiring and I cannot clear it out of my head. I was – and am – totally overwhelmed by it.

    So next time someone shows you a photo on their cellphone, just ask yourself this – does it produce that kind of reaction? – or is it something you can look at, and pass on, and not give it another thought later on?

    PS – or rather, as an aside – I shan’t tell you for 6-8 weeks WHY I was looking at those three prints – that’s a whole “other story”, to be told at a future date.

    OK – what really stirred me up was another article on pixel counting. A sensible one for a chance. Drawing attention to the limitations on “sharpness” generated by (first) our cams, (secondly) our monitors – whether they are computers, or laptops, or cellphones, or whatever else – and (thirdly) the technology of printing photos. The author of the article was rather kind – he didn’t even both to point to the stupidity of mucking around post processing our photos, when the medium on which they are display will vary so much from the screen on which we made all our post processing adjustments, to the extent that post processing is reduced to a ludicrous waste of time and effort. Or the fact that all these screens have such different characteristics that viewing exactly the same image on any two of them will scarcely ever look the same. Or the differences between “transmitted” light (an inherent feature of these screens) and “reflected” light (as in a print of our photos).

    Somewhere in all this rant, I feel a compelling argument to get down to basics. To decide what exactly do we mean by “photograph”? What ARE we trying to do? – to prove? – to show to other people? What is to happen to these images, after we create them?

    Example – I’ve had a deluge of “art” photos lately. OK so they are “clever” – someone must like them, and it’s not in my nature to suggest there’s anything wrong with them. But that said, I still reserve the right to say “well, they don’t do a thing for me – but please don’t let me talk you out of it, if you like them”. Reason? – because I expect and demand that they show the same respect for whatever I choose to produce, and to call a “photograph”.

    Now – bring on the angry horses !!!! 🙂 🙂 🙂

    • pascaljappy says:

      Is there anywhere we can see that mountain photograph online ? It sounds wonderful. Foveons have always been super interesting sensors. It’s a shame and a surprise that the cameras were never packaged a bit better around them. They have been a big temptation for a long time.

      That said, maybe the photographer has a large part to play in the impact you feel in that image, right ? It’s unlikely a phone would have provided the same IQ but maybe the talent of the photographer would have shone through all the same.

      At any rate, that’s not really what phone cameras are for or best at. It would be silly to use them in a context where other gear works better. Like bringing a knife to a gunfight. But, again, there are many (as in billions) of people who love their phone and will not consider an expensive, heavy and slow camera. Some of them have great talent, want to use phones in a way that you can’t use a camera and I’m just glad that someone is providing them with quality accessories to carry their vision.

      • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

        The mountain photo? Actually, the guy who took the three shots was more interested in showing me the other two he’d taken with the Foveon. He was pretty shocked when I told him the sad tale of my Sigma 24mm ART, and was really just trying to be diplomatic and restore a bit of my confidence in Sigma, by showing me those photos. His reason for showing me the mountain photo was even simpler – it was created by stitching three shots together, and that was why he showed it to me. But the impact of it was like being whacked in the face! Maybe it was just my reaction – how could I know, without everyone else getting to see it?

        With cellphones, I am very much in favor of nuking the “controversy” by saying it boils down to one simple sentence. “Each to their own!” And the enraged enthusiasts on either side of that can shove a cork in it. I was brought up to be more polite, than to go around telling other people “I’m right, and you’re wrong” – that, to me, is bad-mannered & ignorant “opinion-itis”.

        So if Ming wants a ‘blad, and you want an A7rII, and someone else wants whatever – peace, man! Go for it! Nobody is ever likely to produce a good image from a camera (or cellphone 🙂 ) that they don’t like, don’t feel comfortable using.

        I just don’t “get” why it’s necessary to defend any one solution over any other.

        There’s a nut case just like me in Belgium, who has had a lifetime love affair with Zeiss, and when he wrote his views down, he was using an Otus on a Sony A7r. It is an interesting read – he acknowledges there’s no “perfect” lens, no perfect camera, no perfect whatever out there. But enthuses over what HE’S chosen, because it suits HIM. He sums it all up in this paragraph – and leaves the door wide open, for him or anyone else to choose or use anything else, whenever they feel like it.

        “But then I thought of how I always have compared musicians, that merely show off their technique, with a circus act (“look what I can do!”) – impressive, but having not much to do with music. Since, as a matter of fact, my professional education has been in music, it always helps my photography to think of comparable situations in music. All of a sudden, I realized that I absolutely don’t have to show off the Otus’ superiority. Whatever lens is used, one rather just needs to think about the picture, and how to shoot it in the best possible way, but not about how to come up with the most “virtuoso” images, using this exceptional lens. That would only have a paralyzing effect and stand in the way of creativity. From that moment on, I felt kind of liberated and relieved. I could use all apertures again in regard of the most favorable DOF and not regarding the “applause” I’d get for the “stunning technicality” of the picture.”

    • Adrian says:

      Sigma’s Foveon sensors are interesting.and claim to give much better colour fidelity. Their interchangeable lens cameras that uzs them are interesting, as as the “pocket” cameras they make with them. The major weakness is iso performance making them moat suitable for god light. Even tripod use isn’t ideal as the sensors also don’t deal with long exposures in low light very well. At their best, the files look magnificent – but you have to use Sigma software to develop the raw files, it’s very slow, and the cameras have some foibles such as focus speed. For landscape and studio work they could be excellent, for other types of work, rather less so. I looked seriously at them after release but decided they were a red herring for my work, but for others could work well. I’ve always liked quirky cameras, so there is a part of me that respects sigma for doing it.

      I had an earlier Sigma 24mm f1.8 EX which would never focus accurately either (worked fine on film, or appeared to) – close focus was ok but anything from.aboit a meter to infinity was also desperately front focused.

  • Théo Grimeau says:

    I have already chosen my camp even if I am interested by the world of cameras. I already have lenses for smartphone but actually the quality is not at all the same. Too bad that the Exolens is only compatible with the iPhones otherwise I would have already bought !

    • pascaljappy says:

      Ah, yes, at last someone to defend the Smartphone. Thanks Theo. Yes, it’s a shame that more frames aren’t available … Maybe you can contact One+ ? 😉

  • Adrian says:

    As usual, random thoughts…

    Phones are terrible ergonomic devices to take photos with, I can only assume having a clamp and a lens screwed on the front only males them worse.

    Surely one of those tiny Nikon 1 cameras with it’s tiny lenses would make a better photographic tool with less fiddling around in an almost equally small package?

    Or, simply buy one of those 1″ pocket cameras?

    Or, why can’t a camera maker produce a decent small camera (possibly ilc) and embed a phone into it? (Yes I know Panasonic did, rumours abound that Nikon might).

    Being unpleasantly blunt – I don’t see the point. Why not simply get a good quality small camera that goes in the pocket and doesn’t require exoskeletons and all the problems that brings, paired with a sensor smaller than the nail on my little finger.

    Or is the appeal simply that it comes in a box thr says “Zeiss” (but is probably made in Japan by someone like Cosina)?

    • pascaljappy says:

      My guess is that when you’re coming from the other direction and are used to the smartphone process, buying a camera is a real pain. Also, the image quality from a modern phone (particularly the OnePlus 3 / 3T, the Samsung Galaxy S7 / S8, the Google Pixel) is way better than most people imagine. I’m staggered by some of the results in reasonable conditions. I don’t think compacts are worth it, these days. The only real jump I’d consider would be m43, Olympus’s EM1.2, for instance. Not the same size, budget or process, though.

      Not sure who makes the lenses, but quality is superb. Way better than most big name photo lenses.

      • Adrian says:

        All perfectly valid comments Pascal. I guess for me the image quality, ergonomics, AF performance etc of many 1″ sensor devices seems to be ideal for consumers, combined with small size. Fiddling with exoskeletons and screw on lenses just sounds tiresome when a small camera with a bigger sensor probably does the job rather better. I think where phone cameras excel is not particularly with their sensors or lenses but with all the signal processing that happens to optimise a consumers “snaps” (and there’s nothing wrong with that) – it just odd that the camera makers can’t find it in themselves to make something as painlessly capable for the mass consumer.

        Clearly these zeiss add ons are not aimed at general consumers.

  • Mikokael says:

    Very pleasing to read and to watch 🙂 Even if I don’t usually take pictures using my smartphone (but I am starting to use the video side of it more regularly), it’s a small iPhone 5S and I’m not fond of the output but the real “dealbreaker” for me is the editing app’s (for stills and video) and the way you use them. On it’s small screen I can’t do anything I just poke the hell out of it in despair, hard time to change tools, to edit tone curves, laggy to see the result in real time, hard to switch to 1:1 magnification to see if there are no artifacts etc… I just love my computer ^^

    PS : I may, there is a little “faute” in the beginning of the paper, it’s “arrière-garde”, no “u” in it 🙂

    • Mikokael says:

      *If I may. Now I look like a fool 😀

    • pascaljappy says:

      Ooops, thanks Mikokael 😉

      Yes, phones for photography should have larger screens and better apps. I prefer my computer too for PP. But things are moving fast in this sector, so my guess is we’ll be seeing more and more adoption in the years to come.

  • Rick says:

    I have all 3 Exo lenses with an iphone6s. Most of my photos are real estate and architectural for my business and nature photography for my pleasure. They are easy to work with. It takes some technique to use them but my results are fantastic. I bought an extra mounts so each lens is readily available. They all fit in a LowePro 100AW case.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Thanks Rick. Having a separate mount for each lens is actually a great idea !!

      Do you also find that the quality of the camera seems drastically improved by the lenses (colour, dynamic range …) ?

      • Rick says:

        Yes I do. I have always liked Zeiss optics from my film days. My first digital camera was a Sony DCH-H9. The matching optics and chip gave great results. The prints from a Canon i9900 printer are great. When I used the Zeiss 0.6 wide angle for interior shots the colors popped, no barrel distortion, rectilinear and everything was sharp. The macro and tele lenses are also just as good. My clients are happy with the work.

        To my eye it seems Zeiss figured out something special with the iPhone.

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