Tech News

Please Do Not Mount Your Phone to Your Motorcycle (Despite Apple’s Cool Ads)

Apple says two interesting, opposing things about the iPhone 13. One, an advertisement, says it’s the perfect phone for a dashing Spanish moto-scooter courier, guiding them to deliveries and meet-ups from a handlebar mount. Things get hectic, but no worry: “Relax, it’s iPhone 13,” the overlaid copy reads. It’s a compelling ad.

Apple’s other statement is that you should absolutely not strap the iPhone 13 to your motorcycle handlebars. It “might impact iPhone cameras,” and result in “reduced image quality for photos and videos,” Apple’s support document reads. “It is not recommended to attach your iPhone to motorcycles with high-power or high-volume engines due to the amplitude of the vibration in certain frequency ranges that they generate.”

There is some light-gray text at the bottom of the video, while the kinetic mounting and map-zooming is happening: “Always use a dampener with your iPhone when riding as shown. Use only with low-powered bikes and avoid prolonged use.” It’s quite easy to miss; you’re only likely to catch it after reading this paragraph.

iPhone 13 loading navigation directions on a moped handlebar.
An iPhone 13 ad showing off exactly the thing Apple tells you not to do with an iPhone 13 (printed in not-quite-obvious text at the bottom).

A gigantic corporation having two divisions with contradictory messaging is nothing new. But it’s important to point out that, no matter what kind of two-wheel motorized contraption you’re riding, what kind of smartphone you’re holding, however amazing your day is going: do not mount your phone to your motorcycle. At least not without a specialized, vibration-dampening mount.

In case you’re wondering if Apple is being over-protective: they are not. They probably don’t go far enough in warning you against a motorcycle-mounted smartphone, be it Apple or Android or almost any modern kind. Ask two people whose motorcycles have killed three different smartphone cameras.

Two rides, two dead iPhone cameras

Few people know the cycle-camera conflict better than Brian X. Chen, lead consumer technology writer for The New York Times. In 2020, Chen used his iPhone XS to navigate on a Suzuki TU250X. The bike is “super lightweight and not very powerful, max speed of 70mph,” Chen wrote in an online chat. He mostly took 20-mile-ish touring rides, with occasional freeway segments.

“I remember riding to Pacifica one day and hopping off the bike to take some pictures at Mori Point. And when I was taking pictures, the phone was making this buzzing sound, and it could no longer focus on a subject,” Chen wrote. He took the XS to his favorite phone fixer, who replaced the camera. Chen later searched and found lots of other motorcyclists with vibration-broken cameras (we know some similarly disappointed mountain bikers) . Chen tweeted about it.

Suzuki TU250X on a street side.
Brian X. Chen’s iPhone-camera-assaulting Suzuki TU250X. Via Brian X. Chen/Twitter (archived).

Chen later upgraded to an iPhone 12, and to a larger, more powerful motorcycle. One day he got lost. He knew the risks, but thought his seemingly more durable iPhone 12 could survive a brief stint of navigation. He thought wrong.

“Just a single ride broke the camera,” Chen wrote. “For some reason, when I took photos outside, the image was shaking a lot.” He recorded the psychedelic viewfinder experience (3MB video) and took the still-under-warranty phone to an Apple Store.

The Apple Store employee, unprompted, asked Chen if he rode a motorcycle. The camera was replaced. A few months later, in September 2021, Apple published its warning about “Exposure to vibrations, like those generated by high-powered motorcycle engines.” It recommends a vibration dampening mount, only on lesser-powered bikes, and not for “prolonged periods.”

GIF highlighting an iPhone 13 mounted to a moped handlebar (with "Relax, it's iPhone 13" text.
Relax, it’s iPhone 13 (and it’s full of tiny, sensitive moving camera parts).

And then, just over a month after that notice, a young man rode the heck out of a scooter with a mounted iPhone 13 in the device’s introduction ad. That scooter might only have a 50-150cc engine, but this impossibly hip person is riding all day and night, and visibly not using a vibration-dampening mount.

Why motorcycles break smartphone cameras

Apple’s support document lays out exactly what’s failing inside cycle-shaken cameras: optical image stabilization (OIS) and autofocus (AF). They are hardware features that compensate for your shaky hands. As Apple puts it:

OIS lets you take sharp photos even if you accidentally move the camera. With OIS, a gyroscope senses that the camera moved. To reduce image motion, and the resulting blur, the lens moves according to the angle of the gyroscope.

Apple support page

Similarly, Apple states, closed-loop autofocus uses magnets to detect gravity and vibrations, shifting the lens back where you originally wanted it to be. 

We first saw this iPhone camera feature in our iPhone 6 Plus teardown, back in September 2014. There, in Step 17, we explained how OIS and AF actually do their corrective nudging:

“The lens element on the left is nested into a tiny metal cage, nudged to and fro by the electromagnetic coils surrounding the sensor on the right.” … “Constant readings from the gyroscope and the M8 motion coprocessor 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.”

iPhone 6 Plus teardown

Note some key words in these descriptions: “moves,” “rapidly moving,” and “tiny.” Keep them in mind as we move on.

We dug deeper into smartphone camera focusing last summer, when Raquel Smith’s Pixel 2 died on the handlebars of her Ninja 650. Smith, a former product manager for Dozuki (iFixit’s sibling company that makes step-by-step repair guides), rode from San Luis Obispo to Lopez Lake and back, about 30 miles in 45 minutes. It killed the focus on her Pixel 2. Smith replaced the camera, and donated her thoroughly shook scrap to our technical writing team. We took it apart and compared it to an intact Pixel 2 camera unit.

It was a tricky autopsy. The Pixel 2’s camera, like most smartphone cameras, is glued into a metal shell. Getting into that shell, however light a touch you use, will almost certainly destroy some part of the unit.

Prying open the camera module of a Pixel 2.
Disassembling the Pixel 2 camera shell, as gently as we can (which is still kinda destructive).
Side-by-side comparisons of disassembled Pixel 2 cameras.
Disassembled Pixel 2 cameras: the moto-dead unit (left) and intact (right). Nothing seems immediately different, other than typical gunk/grime from use.

Once inside, we noticed something particularly fragile: four wires, suspending the lens module over the image sensor. One of the four inside our disassembled Pixel 2 camera unit was snapped. These angel-hair wires allow the lens to ever so slightly “float” inside the shell, adjusted and corrected by electromagnets to keep focus and prevent hand-shaken blur. 

Inside the broken camera shell, there was a “distinctly audible tinny rattle.” Our guess was that if one of those wires broke—and heavy engine vibrations seem likely to snap them—the lens could lose its ability to shift and glide. And a lens loosened by one broke wire could hit one corner of the metal shell, possibly explaining the rattle we heard.

Nudging a lens module with a spudger point (and showing off the weak little wires).
The Pixel 2 camera lens and its housing, mounted on thin wires over the sensor and a circuit board.

At the same time, we couldn’t be sure that we hadn’t broken one of the wires ourselves during our disassembly. But given Apple’s own statement describing the dangers of motorcycle vibrations, and our peek inside, we think the simplest explanation is the most likely: tiny moving parts don’t like to be moved by outside forces.

“[W]e think of modern electronics as lacking moving parts, ever since we transitioned to flash drives,” Chen wote. “But the camera components are these tiny moving parts.”

What you can do about this

If you’re stubborn and want to mount your phone to your motorcycle, despite having read this far, there is one option, though there’s likely still some risk: get a vibration-dampening phone mount. Quad Lock’s vibration dampener appears well-regarded among motorcycle enthusiasts. It’s made specifically to prevent smartphone image stabilization damage, and was tested against a wide variety of motorcycles. Still, comments and reviews mention broken cameras. It likely depends a good deal on the bike, the ride, and the phone.

If you’ve already damaged your camera’s focus or stabilization, iFixit sells replacement cameras for a number of iPhones and Android phones. Depending on the model, swapping a camera can be a relatively simple matter of unplugging one module and plugging in a new one. Some models, however, require you essentially remove the phone’s logic board, unplugging almost everything on it, to get at a camera underneath. It can be done, however: I replaced my wife’s Pixel 3 camera after she lost focus through a more traditional, lower-speed means of dropping it.

Maybe the most useful thing you can do is spread the word: don’t let your motorcycle shake your camera to death.