iPhone 7 Review

iPhone 7 Review

The future in disguise

By JAY | Photography by JAY

The iPhone 7 and 7 Plus are deeply unusual devices. They are full of aggressive breaks from convention while wrapped in cases that look almost exactly like their two direct predecessors. Even that continuity of design is a break from convention; after almost a decade of Apple’s steady two-year iPhone update pattern, merely retaining the same design for a third straight year plays against expectations.

Inside that case, everything else about the iPhone 7 is a decisive statement about the future. The dual cameras on the iPhone 7 Plus promise to usher in a new era in mobile photography. The iconic iPhone home button is no longer a physical button, but instead a sophisticated ballet of pressure sensors and haptic vibration motors that simulate the feel of a button. The new A10 Fusion processor blends two high-power cores that rival laptop performance with two low-power cores that combine with a much larger battery to extend run time by up to two hours.

And, yes, Apple has removed the headphone jack.

EVERYTHING ELSE ABOUT THE IPHONE 7 IS A DECISIVE STATEMENT ABOUT THE FUTURE

Removing the headphone jack is an act of pure confidence from Apple, which is the only company in tech that can set off a sea changes in the industry by aggressively dropping various technologies from its products. Floppy drives, optical drives, its own proprietary 30-pin iPod connector, flash, even USB — Apple decides that it’s time to move on, and it has a massive installed base of customers that love and trust the company who make it happen. And now it’s decided that — yikes — the headphone jack is over.

After using the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus for about a week, it’s clear to me that Apple has forceful, but considered opinions about how the next generation of phones should fit into our lives. But it’s also clear that the iPhone 7 is a transitional step to that vision of the future, not a complete expression of it. The question for would-be upgraders is simple: is all of the latent promise in this phone worth the inconvenience of that transition?

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DESIGN

There’s really no getting around it: the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus look more or less exactly like the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus from 2014. They are now water resistant, which is nice, although they’re not fully waterproof — keep them submerged in a meter of water for more than 30 minutes and things might not go your way. Samsung’s Galaxy S7 and Note 7 are technically even more water resistant, but I think it’s basically a push — you can get these phones casually wet now without catastrophe, and that’s a big win. If you want to go snorkeling with your iPhone, you should probably get a case anyhow.

ONCE YOU PUT THE IPHONE 7 IN A CASE, IT LOOKS EXACTLY LIKE AN IPHONE 6

Apart from the water resistance, there are three main external differences between the 6 and 7: first, the antenna lines on the back have been tweaked and colored to blend into the body on the matte black and glossy jet black models, which is a welcome refinement. (The antennas remain a dull gray color on the silver, gold, and rose gold variants; Apple says there are limits on what colors can be applied.) Second, the camera bump has been enlarged and more artfully curved into the rear casing, which looks particularly handsome on the smaller phone with a single camera.

And third — here it is again — there’s no headphone jack.

But really, once you put the iPhone 7 in a case, it looks exactly like an iPhone 6. And if you get a jet black model, you’ll want to get it into a case immediately — my jet black review unit scratched and scuffed almost instantly, and the only time it’s remained fingerprint-free is when we literally handled it with white gloves for the photo and video shoots accompanying this review. Apple is being unusually open about the propensity of the jet black finish to scratch, but beyond that, I’d get the matte black anyway — it just looks meaner.

The iPhone 6 has always been one of the more utilitarian designs in Apple history, and a smoothed-out camera bump and less visible antennas don’t really change that. Apple’s competition is getting better at making beautiful phones, and nothing about the iPhone 7’s design exceeds the rest of the industry. The iPhone 7 Plus in particular is actually falling behind its large-screened competition; the 6 Plus was always a bit of a surfboard, and new devices like the Galaxy Note 7 fit enormous displays into much smaller, tighter packages. (Too bad about the explosions, though.) This is still a phone that looks best in a case.

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HOME BUTTON, DISPLAY, AND SPEAKERS

The iPhone 7’s new home button will elicit instant reaction from people; it’s much more different than you might think. The button no longer moves at all — it’s totally solid, just like newer MacBook trackpads. A linear vibration unit that Apple calls the Taptic Engine jolts when you apply pressure to the button, tricking your brain into feeling a click. It’s nothing like the clumsy haptic feedback on other phones, which I’ve always disliked — it really does feel like a click.

This system works tremendously well on MacBooks, but on the iPhone 7 it feels like the entire bottom of the phone is clicking, not like you’re pushing a button. You can set the haptic feedback to one of three force settings that make it feel like a harder or stronger click, but it’s definitely still strange, especially if the phone is lying down on a table instead of in your hand and you can see that you’re just pushing against nothing.

IT FEELS LIKE THE ENTIRE BOTTOM OF THE PHONE IS CLICKING

I’m sort of okay with all this, but other people who’ve tried my review units really don’t like it. There’s something about a really great button, and the iPhone home button was an all-time great button. Apple says it switched up the home button to make it more customizable and more durable — there’s a lot of people with the software button floating around their iPhone screens — but it’ll take some adjustment to really get used to. You’ll have to try it to decide for yourself.

The Taptic Engine also adds all sorts of other fun feedback to iOS 10 — when you drop the notification shade down, the phone does a little bump, for example. It makes it feel like the software on the screen has real weight and inertia, and I love it. Third-party apps can use the Taptic Engine as well, and I’m really hoping the industry adds support faster than the slow, somewhat muted rollout of not-very-useful 3D Touch support. Taptic Engine feedback is the first really valuable new UI concept I’ve seen on phones in years, while 3D Touch always seemed like more of a gimmick. It’s strange that the iPhone 6S won’t get these features even though it has a Taptic Engine; Apple says the unit in the iPhone 7 has been revised and made more precise, but it’s still an odd omission.

3D Touch is still present on the iPhone 7’s display, and the display itself is improved. It’s not as insane as the 2K and 4K OLED panels that have been popping up on Android phones, but it’s a sharp, bright, and beautiful LCD, and sharp, bright, beautiful LCDs are very nice to look at. My review unit is also noticeably warmer than the iPhone 6S display, which I’ve come to appreciate.

THE DISPLAY CAN SHOW A WIDER RANGE OF COLORS NOW

You won’t notice it in most apps, but the display can show a wider range of colors now, which is really obvious when you look at photos taken by the iPhone 7’s camera — which now also captures a wider range of colors. Photos taken by the iPhone 7 look ridiculously good on the iPhone 7 display; you can tell the difference between a 7 photo and a 6S photo on the 7’s screen almost instantly. That’s the only place you’ll really see the benefit of the new screen for now, but it’s another place where app developers can really take advantage of powerful new hardware. Instagram has already announced an update to support wide color; let’s hope others follow suit.

Apart from the revised camera, the new home button, the screen, and — heyo! — the headphone jack, the other notable external hardware change to the iPhone 7 is the addition of stereo speakers. One speaker is at the bottom of the phone, as it has been, and the other is actually integrated into the earpiece. They’re much louder than before, and sound decent, with better treble performance in particular. They’re never going to replace real speakers, but you can watch a bunch of YouTube videos or Snapchats and not get annoyed, and conference calls are dramatically improved.

Okay, I’ve made you wait long enough. Let’s talk about that headphone jack, shall we?

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LIGHTNING STRIKES

So there’s no headphone jack on the iPhone 7. Apple says it needed to take out the headphone jack so it could make space for better cameras, the Taptic Engine (even though the 6S also had a Taptic Engine), and perhaps most importantly, a bigger battery. It was also easier to make a phone with one less hole in it water resistant, but Apple tells me that it wasn’t a huge factor.

Apple ships a pair of its EarPods headphones with a Lightning connector in the box, as well as a Lightning-to-3.5mm dongle so you can use your traditional headphones. You’re not totally out of luck if you have a big investment in corded headphones, but you’re going to want to stock up on those adapters if you regularly plug your phone into a car or have a variety of headphones you like to use — the dongle is small enough that it’s not obtrusive, but also small enough so that it’s destined to get lost if you move it around a lot. At $9, the headphone dongle is the cheapest Apple hardware you can buy; the company thinks people will just buy a few and keep them permanently attached to older headphones. And I’m sure third parties will come up with a million other options, although it’ll be hard to beat $9.

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The Lightning EarPods are exactly like Apple’s regular EarPods, which is to say that they sound average-to-bad and fit either fine or not-great depending on your ears. Competitors like LG and HTC ship much higher quality headphones with their flagship phones, and Apple owns Beats, so it’s just really hard to understand why it’s still shipping such decidedly mediocre headphones with the iPhone. Especially when the company is trying to get everyone to be enthusiastic about the move away from 3.5mm. But here we are.

Of course, the real move Apple’s trying to make is to wireless audio, and the company also gave me a preproduction set of its AirPods wireless earbuds to try out. I can’t fully review them here since they’re not final, but they worked well — they’re basically Bluetooth headphones that pair easier and faster with Apple’s products because of a proprietary controller chip called the W1 and special software built into iOS, macOS, and watchOS. Once you pair the AirPods with one Apple device, they can seamlessly switch to all the others, which is very cool. But AirPods sound just like EarPods because they’re basically EarPods without wires, so what you’re getting for your $159 is convenience and early adopter status, not necessarily sound quality.

I asked Apple if Dr. Dre or Jimmy Iovine consulted on the sound or design of the AirPods and there was a lot of demurring. I don’t know why Beats is putting out new wireless headphones that have the W1 chip in them and Apple is putting out AirPods that sound just like EarPods when there’s such obvious corporate collaboration opportunity there, but two of the three new Beats models charge via Micro USB and one charges via Lightning, so searching for order in this universe remains an entirely futile exercise.

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More importantly, it’s disappointing that Apple didn’t put more work into making wireless audio a better overall experience on the iPhone 7. The company’s own new W1 headphones get the fancy new pairing support, but other Bluetooth headphones and speakers still use the same somewhat flaky Bluetooth setup interface as before. And AirPlay feels all but abandoned; it was already getting less and less competitive over time, and the iPhone 7 and iOS 10 don’t seem to offer any noticeable improvements.

I’ve been spending some serious time really thinking about when and where I use the headphone jack, and it turns out that I already do much of my music listening wirelessly: Bluetooth in the car, an Amazon Echo, a few Sonos speakers, a couple Bluetooth speakers here and there. This is about as messy and unintuitive as it gets, but it’s not too far off the mainstream. I could buy a nice set of Bluetooth headphones that also support corded audio for watching movies on planes and basically be covered, but I won’t get any of Apple’s improvements to the wireless experience unless I buy a Beats Solo3 with the W1 in it.

IT’S DISAPPOINTING THAT APPLE DIDN’T PUT MORE WORK INTO MAKING WIRELESS AUDIO A BETTER OVERALL EXPERIENCE

That is the definition of ecosystem lock-in, and it’s incredibly frustrating.

Apple took away an established open standard in favor of new technologies, but instead of making the experience of using those new technologies better across the board, it made every third-party wireless audio product a second-class citizen of the Apple ecosystem. If Apple is serious about wireless audio, it’s going to have to allow other companies to use the newer, better Bluetooth support in iOS that enhances its own W1 products, and it’s going to have to make managing Bluetooth devices a lot nicer than it currently is.

And if Apple is really serious about wireless audio, it will allow third parties to extend the AirPlay interface just like it allows third parties to extend Siri and iMessage; an iPhone without a headphone jack needs to have dead-simple integrations with all kinds of wireless speaker systems, whether they’re from Sonos or Samsung or Amazon. To make wireless audio happen, Apple has to do the work of opening up and making the experience of connecting to any audio system on the iPhone as simple and frustration-free as pushing a button — as simple as wired audio has always been. Apple says it hasn’t yet had any serious conversations about opening or extending its wireless audio interfaces, but that it’s committed to a wireless world, so let’s hope the company moves quickly.

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It would also be nice if Apple would put out an adapter that lets you simultaneously charge your phone and listen to music that isn’t the size of a VGA dongle, because I have no intention of letting this ridiculous Belkin thing anywhere near my bag. There’s a huge opportunity for third-party accessory makers to fill all the gaps left by the removal of the headphone jack, but it’s also clear that the first wave of accessories is going to be a little clumsy while everyone learns exactly what those gaps are and how best to fill them. (And if Mophie isn’t working on a battery case with a headphone jack, customers should start picketing the company.)

If you squint, it’s possible to see a future iPhone that has no wires at all — an iPhone that does everything wirelessly, including charging. But the iPhone 7 is not that iPhone. In fact, right now you need more wires, dongles, and adapters to make it work with the rest of your life than ever before. I love that stuff — it’s part of the thrill of being an early adopter. But if you don’t want to devote even a moment’s effort toward figuring out how to do something as simple as charge your phone and listen to audio at the same time, it might be worth waiting for things to settle into place.

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CAMERAS

One of my favorite recurring bits at iPhone introductions is when Phil Schiller notes, correctly, that the iPhone camera is likely the best camera most people will ever own. He’s been saying it fairly regularly since the iPhone 4S came out in 2011, and he said it again last week when he introduced the iPhone 7 camera. This is an incredible fact, as is the fact that a huge number of people now quietly upgrade to a better camera on a fairly regular basis, and then use the hell out of that camera. The explosion in mobile photography is one of the most revolutionary aspects of the entire smartphone revolution, and the general excellence of the iPhone camera over time is a big reason why.

The iPhone 7 represents another upgrade over the iPhone 6S: there’s a new, faster f/1.8 lens, the addition of optical image stabilization, a new four-color True Tone flash, and wider color capture. This all adds up to a decent improvement, but the iPhone 6S was already operating at the top of the scale, bested only recently by the latest cameras in the Galaxy S7 and Note 7. In low light, that faster lens and optical image stabilization means that the 7 significantly outperforms the 6S. But compared to the iPhone 6S, the iPhone 7 is a step improvement, not a major leap.

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The attempt at a major leap is on the iPhone 7 Plus. Instead of a single lens and sensor, the 7 Plus has two: the same f/1.8 28mm wide-angle lens as the iPhone 7, and an f/2.8 56mm telephoto lens. These cameras operate simultaneously; they’re always working together. Right now, what this means is that you can switch to a true 2x zoom by tapping on a button, which is very nice. You can also digitally zoom the 1x lens to 2x, where the telephoto takes over, and then digitally zoom the 2x lens to 10x. Digital zoom is still digital zoom; anything past 4x definitely looks like what you’d expect from grainy digital zoom.

And, well, that’s all it really does right now. Zooming is great, but that’s not the only reason to put dual cameras on a phone. Other phones with dual cameras, like the Huawei Honor 8, let you do all kinds of wild focus and depth of field adjustments, and some even let you refocus the image after the fact, like a Lytro camera. The effects can be a little fake-looking, but they’re the sort of thing dual cameras enable. But the iPhone 7 Plus doesn’t do any of that, although a forthcoming software update will enable a portrait mode that blurs the background into what looks like a very nice bokeh.

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Even that is just scratching the surface of what can be done with two cameras on a phone with as much processing power as the iPhone 7 Plus, and I’m really hoping Apple allows third-party developers to tap into the system and experiment with possibilities like refocusing and perspective shifts. But for now, you get zooming. We spent a lot of time shooting with the 7 Plus, and it gets noticeably warm when you use the cameras for an extended period; it takes a lot of processing power to meld those two cameras into a single unit. I’m very curious to see the impact on heat and battery life when Apple enables features beyond zooming.

Apple has been blowing up iPhone photos to billboard sizes and crowing about its cameras for years now, so at this point the opportunity for improvement is fairly small. I took a few photos with the iPhone 7 Plus and the iPhone 6S Plus under decent light and asked people to tell them apart on a laptop screen. It was pretty hard for most everyone, although the 7 definitely has more vibrant colors and a noticeably shallower depth of field because of the brighter lens. You can tell if you know what to look for, but the difference in most shots will be imperceptible in an Instagram or Facebook feed.

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Front cameras are almost more important than rear cameras in our Instagram Stories world, and the iPhone 7’s front camera is excellent, with a new 7-megapixel sensor replacing the 5-megapixel unit in the 6S. The lens is not quite as wide angle as Samsung’s cameras, but it’s bright, sharp, and the Retina Flash is still a terrific idea that was absolutely worth lifting from Snapchat. It’s a solid improvement, and a welcome one.

We conducted some pretty extensive camera testing against a Samsung Galaxy Note 7, an iPhone 6S Plus, a Fuji XT10, and a Canon 5D MkIII — you can see the results for yourself. The iPhone 7 and 7 Plus clearly hold their own, but I don’t think they blow the pack away. That might all change when Apple starts taking more advantage of the dual cameras, but for now, I don’t think the 7 Plus will keep anyone away from a mirrorless rig. Which is exactly what I said about the iPhone 6S last year.

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PERFORMANCE

The iPhone 7 has the new A10 Fusion chip, another product from Apple’s industry-leading chip design team. It’s a new design with four cores: two high performance cores, and two low-power cores that use less battery power during everyday tasks.

It’s lightning-fast, of course, with early benchmarks indicating that the A10 Fusion is faster than even the A9X in the iPad Pro. But In my super boring day-to-day Twitter / Facebook / Gmail / Slack / Safari usage, the iPhone 7 Plus wasn’t really all that much faster than the A9 chip in the iPhone 6S Plus — likely because I wasn’t pushing the processor enough to use the high-performance cores. It’s impressive that Apple was able to create a more efficient processor that delivers the same perceived performance as the previous generation while using less power, but that also means that in everyday use I didn’t see anything like the performance leaps that were so noticeable in previous iPhone updates.

Still, faster is better, and once app developers start targeting the A10 Fusion, we might see a new wave of apps that harness its raw power. But that’s a familiar waiting game we’ve been playing with ever-faster iOS devices for years now.

Apple claims that a combination of a larger battery that fills some of the space formerly used by the headphone jack, the more efficient processor, and iOS 10 improvements allows the iPhone 7 to run for two more hours than the iPhone 6S, and the 7 Plus to go for an hour longer than the 6S Plus. That was mostly borne out in my day-to-day testing, which saw the smaller phone run for about 10 hours of medium usage and the larger iPhone 7 Plus go for about 12 hours. Under a heavier load, I get the sense that battery life will be more like the 6S models, but those extra hours will be meaningful for those desperate moments on the way home from work.

IOS 10

Speaking of iOS 10, it’s wonderful. Seriously, it’s the nicest iOS update in a long time, with a clear sense of how you should flow between operations and a much more inviting visual design. We’ll have much more about iOS 10 in a forthcoming review, but know that it has a slick new version of iMessage with all kinds of new features, a new version of Siri that can be extended by third-party apps, better integration with smart home devices, a much-improved Control Center, better Music and News apps, and a ton of other new features.

(As an aside: my personal favorite iOS 10 tweak is that Apple has gotten rid of slide-to-unlock because the Touch ID sensor on the 6S and 7 is so fast — sliding to the right from the lock screen now brings you to a widget screen. You unlock the phone just by pressing the home button, which is enough time for Touch ID to recognize your fingerprint. Apple’s slide-to-unlock patent was at the center of many of their lawsuits against Android phone makers, and I once made an entire video exploring how Android phones were carefully designed around that patent. And now it’s gone, because Apple figured out a better idea that’s genuinely useful.)

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CONCLUSION

Down to brass tacks: do all of the new features of the iPhone 7 make up for the inconvenience of the missing headphone jack? This may or may not surprise you, but I don’t think so — not yet.

The iPhone 7 and 7 Plus are legitimately among the most interesting, opinionated, powerful phones Apple has ever shipped, and the most confident expressions of the company’s vision in a long time. iOS 10 is excellent, the cameras are better, and the performance is phenomenal. And the batteries last longer. These are terrific phones.

THESE ARE TERRIFIC PHONES

But they are also incomplete. The most interesting feature of the iPhone 7 Plus’ new dual camera isn’t shipping at launch. Apple’s making a big bet on iMessage and Siri apps in iOS 10 but it hasn’t paid off yet. Apps haven’t been updated to use the Taptic Engine or the new wide color gamut display. The entire ecosystem of new headphones and adapters required to make use of Lightning and wireless audio is just getting off the ground. Only Apple or Beats headphones offer the best wireless audio experience, and you might not like how they sound or fit. By the time developers even come close to hitting the performance limits of the A10 Fusion chip, Apple will be shipping the A11 Fusion Pro with six blades.

The entire time I was using the iPhone 7, I felt like I had a prototype of next year’s rumored drastic iPhone redesign disguised as an iPhone 6. All those bold bets on the future are legitimately exciting, but here in the present using the iPhone 7 in a case feels a lot like using a iPhone 6S with a weirder home button and more adapters.