By Jason Snell
September 16, 2016 7:23 AM PT
iPhone 7 Review: Many additions and one subtraction
Apple’s iPhone development cycle has been a two-step for a while now: The company changes the outside design one year, and then keeps it steady the next year (while substantially updating the technology on the inside). But not this year. In 2016, Apple’s staying with the base design introduced two years ago with the iPhone 6 and upgraded last year with the iPhone 6S.
Perhaps Apple’s got something special and new in the offing for the iPhone’s tenth anniversary in 2017. As for today, the iPhone 7 is an upgrade that precisely follows the Apple playbook: A whole bunch of improvements that make the device better than last year’s model and dramatically better than the two- or three-year-old phones most users will be upgrading from.
One more crack at it
Jony Ive did something special since he got a third crack at this design. He turned loose some of Apple’s advanced materials science and built a device that is, in his words, “the most deliberate evolution of our original design.” The iPhone 7 (in Jet Black, most assuredly) is probably the unattainable ideal Ive was reaching for when he designed the original iPhone.
As I write this, I’ve got an original iPhone with me, and you can see it: the rounded corners and edges have been a quest from the start. But the original iPhone was a composite beast, with two separate back portions and a shiny chrome ring around the front glass that didn’t remotely match the pretty aluminum back. Compare that to the Jet Black iPhone 7 model, which (when turned off) appears almost featureless, the glass front indistinguishable from the shiny black sides and back, one endless curved expanse. If Ive’s dream was to sculpt a rounded version of the Monolith, congratulations are in order, because he’s done it. It makes the original iPhone’s mishmash of materials look like clown pants.
The other new iPhone color, regular ol’ Black, is a matte finish that you might mistake for Space Gray until you place the two side by side. Space Gray is a shade darker than the Silver color option; the new Black is much darker, more akin to the color of the Space Gray Apple Watch. It doesn’t share the screen-matching glossy feel of the Jet Black model, but it’s still gorgeous. (And the antenna lines are, similarly, invisible.) As someone who dearly loved my black iPhone 5 and lamented the coming of Space Gray, I would embrace the new Black iPhone color option—were it not for Jet Black.
I’ve heard from some people who are concerned about Apple’s warnings that Jet Black iPhones will pick up small scratches over time. That’s undoubtedly the case, though I haven’t managed to spot any on mine yet. But nothing’s permanent in this world—time moves on and everything changes. You can embrace it—my two-year-old leather iPhone case is gorgeous in its aged state—or you can run screaming from anything less than perfection. If the latter scenario sounds like you, don’t get the Jet Black iPhone.
I found that the Jet Black model indeed felt much more grippable than other iPhone 7 or iPhone 6 colors. Imagine placing a slightly damp finger on an iPhone screen, and how much harder it is to swipe your damp finger along that screen. That’s what’s going on with the Jet Black phone: even a little dampness on your fingers will cause them to skid along the surface, while it might slide right over the rougher anodized aluminum surfaces of the other colors.
Last year’s iPhone 6S was sort of a stealthily water-resistant update; Apple never made any claims about it, but evidence abounded that the company was making strides to make their phones more likely to survive a dunking. The iPhone 7 makes it official: This is a water- and dust-resistant phone that can survive a fall into a lake, a drop in the ocean, or the ultimate indignity of an accidental slide into the toilet bowl. (It happens, but… yuck.)
I wouldn’t recommend you start using the iPhone for underwater photography—and Apple cautions that water invasion can void your warranty. But if you should get an iPhone 7 a little wet, everything will be okay. Even if only a tiny percentage of iPhone owners accidentally dunk their iPhones in a given year, that’s still tens of thousands of fried iPhones that will now not be fried. That’s a fantastic upgrade for all concerned.
The iPhone 6 base design has never been my favorite, but thanks to the new colors and materials, I’m inclined to agree with Ive that this is a delightfully evolved representation. I still hold out hope that one day Apple will deign to mix strongly colored dyes into their anodizing machines for devices not named iPod, but today is not that day.
Full of sound and fury
So the iPhone 7 doesn’t have a headphone jack. We’re lucky that we live in a digital age, or otherwise the world’s ink supply would’ve run low considering the number of think pieces written about that much-rumored change over the last year. Apple officials told BuzzFeed it was an engineering decision based on freeing up space on the inside of the device. Sure it was—but Apple also clearly decided that an analog audio unitasker should no longer be considered untouchable. Apple had to feel good about killing the headphone jack, or those Apple engineers would have had to compromise somewhere else in order to keep it.
The best reason Apple felt okay with killing the most standard of industry standards? It knows that almost nobody uses any headphones except for the ones that come in the box. For the edge cases—and yes, all of us with our own beloved headphones are edge cases—there’s a very small adapter in the box, tucked in a neatly folded paperboard package along with a set of EarPods with a Lightning plug on them. And in the long run, Apple figures that wireless headphones—including, but not limited to, its soon-to-arrive AirPods—will be the preference of most people who don’t just use the headphones in the box.
Are there limitations to this approach? Sure, all over the place. I can bring up a whole host of scenarios where dropping the headphone jack will lead to inconvenience and frustration. It will probably be years until most of that gets smoothed out, either by technological evolution or by the wearing out of those beloved corded headphones and their replacement by something newer and more compatible. And in some cases, we’ll be using adapters (to attach to the auxiliary jacks in old car stereos, sound systems in community-center meeting rooms, and the like) for years to come—I own a Lightning-to-VGA adapter, for Pete’s sake.
Here’s the good news: Apple’s little adapter, which converts the digital audio stream from the iPhone (and it’ll work on any device running iOS 10) to the analog signals required by our ears, works fine and sounds fine. My old wired iPhone headphones worked well with it, right down to the microphone and control buttons. Yes, if I want to listen and charge at the same time I’m out of luck. Yes, that’s kind of a bummer. But we’ll all adapt—in some cases by changing our behavior, and in other cases by literally buying adapters.
Moving beyond the headphone jack that’s not there, this is the first iPhone model to offer stereo speakers. They’re tuned for video, in the sense that the second speaker is actually near the top of the phone—so if you’re holding the device in landscape orientation to watch a movie, you’ll hear sounds coming from left to right with some real stereo separation. The new speaker is actually a modified version of the speaker you listen to when you’re holding the device to your face to talk on the phone. Not only does it still work in that (much quieter) mode, but it will blast sound much more loudly.
I was impressed that the stereo separation works well, and never felt that I was listening to one speaker pointed right at me and another pointed 90 degrees away from me. Apple’s to be congratulated for tuning the speaker hardware to make the pair seem balanced. And they’re loud—noticeably louder than the speaker on the iPhone 6S, though just as tinny. Even when you’re playing music and not holding your phone in landscape orientation, the iPhone 7 will produce a stereo sound field—when I listened to the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood,” the sitar came out of the top speaker and the guitar out of the bottom.
Expressed with a tap
The iPhone 7 will almost certainly go down in history as the model that did away with the headphone jack, but another iPhone mainstay was also sent to the cornfield: the physical home button. In some ways, the home button is the most important part of the iOS interface, the ultimate reset to get you to a familiar place, no matter where you are. The iPhone 7 still has one, but it doesn’t move. Instead, along with its integrated Touch ID sensor, it’s also a pressure-sensitive surface. You push on the little circle, it registers it and provides a little vibration to let you know that your push was felt.
When I first felt the new home button, I was really disappointed. The vibration felt halfhearted, and it made the act of pushing the home button feel like a letdown. I shouldn’t have worried: Apple actually offers three different levels of vibration in the new Home Button entry in the Settings app. And the most aggressive of those three levels worked great for me. No, the feel’s not the same as the old moving home button, but I managed to get used to it after about three button presses.
The vibration for the home button is courtesy of the new Taptic Engine in the iPhone 7. Apple says it’s been upgraded to be more precise than the one in the iPhone 6S, and it’s enabled Apple to add haptic features to other parts of the interface, only on iPhone 7 models. Flip open Control Center and there’s a slight stutter; spin the timer wheel in the Clock app and you’ll feel the ticking as it moves along; pull to refresh in Mail and you’ll feel a slight tick as you reach the top of the pull. (Yes, you can turn vibration off in the Accessibility settings.)
Apple’s shown restraint in using haptics: There’s no vibration when you type a keystroke or anything like that. Instead, they’re fun accents to amplify visual and audio feedback. And access to the Taptic Engine in the iPhone 7 is open to developers, so they can add similar feedback to their apps. I was able to try an arcade game that used the Taptic Engine to simulate explosions, and while it wasn’t quite as rumbly as a console game controller, it was still pretty great. I’m looking forward to seeing how third-party apps use the feature. It could be a lot of fun.
Like the ones on the retina iMac and the 9.7-inch iPad Pro before it, the display on the iPhone 7 can display a wider range of colors than we’re used to in our displays, thanks to support for the P3 color gamut. The fact is, our device displays can’t show the entire range of color that our eyes can see, so images displayed on them don’t always seem as vibrant as real life. The P3 color gamut covers more of that area than traditional displays, so in certain areas you can really tell the difference between a device that’s displaying a wider color gamut and one that’s displaying a more traditional, narrower gamut.
Now, I’m not great with color—fine gradations of red and green are lost to me. But even I can tell the difference between the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus screen and the one on my iPhone 6S. I took a picture of a vase of sunflowers with all three devices, and displayed them side by side. The yellow of the sunflowers is far more vibrant (and accurate) on the iPhone 7 models than on the iPhone 6. Most people will not ever consider the color gamut on their smartphone, but they may notice that the pictures they’re seeing are more true to life. That’s still important, even if the technical details fall by the wayside.
So yes, the iPhone 7’s display is visibly brighter and more beautiful than the one on the 6S. I do wonder, though, if it’s also the last iPhone we’ll see with this kind of display technology. Many of Apple’s competitors in the smartphone space have switched to OLED displays (and Apple uses one in the Apple Watch). One advantage of OLED is that it only uses power when it’s lighting up pixels, something that has allowed some Android phones to offer an “always-on screen” that displays information in white text on a black background even when the phone is locked. It sure would be the nice if the iPhone (and Apple Watch, for that matter) were capable of always displaying some information even when resting, so we could glance at our phones without lifting them.
Another innovation of Android phones that I’m a lot less concerned about Apple not following: increasing the pixel density of displays way beyond Retina resolutions. I’ve never had the sharpest vision, but still: beyond a certain point, adding more pixels to a display doesn’t actually provide information anyone can see. The iPhone 7 Plus offers a 1920-by-1080-pixel resolution, the equivalent of an HDTV, at 401 pixels per inch. Jamming more pixels in there doesn’t really help. The iPhone 7’s display, at 1334-by-750, is arguably on the light side. I think the screen looks great, and I’m not sure I would really be able to tell the difference if it was a 1080 display with a higher pixel resolution, given how it’s jammed in a 4.7-inch diagonal space.
A new camera, or two
One of the truths of every year’s new iPhone: The camera’s better. The camera’s always better. This year’s no exception. The new iSight camera on the back of both models is a 12-megapixel sensor that captures in the same P3 wide color gamut that’s supported by the display. For the first time, the non-Plus edition of the iPhone gain optical image stabilization. The LED flash has been improved to provide a wider range of color responses to get the best tone. The lens systems and sensors have received an upgrade. And, yes, the results are clear: the photos these phones produce are better than the photos produced by previous iPhones. The colors are especially notable, and stand out when you compare a photo captured and displayed on an iPhone 7 to the same photo captured on the 6S.
But even more interesting is the iPhone 7 Plus: it’s got a second lens, zoomed in to twice the zoom of the base wide-angle camera. This enables not just better framing on shots of items that are farther away, but also a 10x digital zoom that looks surprisingly good. As you take pictures, the iPhone 7 Plus shoots with both of its cameras and intelligently blends them, when appropriate, to improve the final picture. (Apple wouldn’t give me any real details of what’s going on here, but there are lots of advantages to having two separate cameras snapping a scene and then combining both sets of data.)
The standard iPhone camera is too wide for a lot of situations, but if you have to choose one field of view, the wide angle of the standard camera is the right choice to make. It’s the most flexible of the options. Adding a zoomed-in view, though, will result in much better photos in a lot of different circumstances. I love that Apple did this. As someone who has never used a Plus-sized phone for an extended period of time, it’s almost enough to make the switch and join the Plus Club.
There’s another fun thing you can do when you have two cameras snapping at once: detect depth. That’s what the iPhone 7 Plus will do when it offers a soft-focus “portrait” mode later this year; that feature isn’t available now, so I can’t test it. The image samples Apple has showed, in which the background is blurred via software while the foreground remains sharp, look great. But of course they do—they’re Apple sample images. I look forward to seeing how well that feature works in the real world.
I also need to mention that Apple continues to up its selfie game. The FaceTime HD camera now shoots at 7 megapixels, and supports the wide color gamut. I think my daughter would be fine if her iPhone didn’t take photos of other objects at all; but if it didn’t do selfies, there would be no point in even using it. It’s good to see Apple continue to move with the times and not write off selfies as silly and unimportant. For some people they are the most important thing a phone can do. (One of those people lives in my house.)
Two ways of thinking
So here’s the problem: The iPhone needs to have as much power at its command as possible to drive apps and games and apply billions of machine-learning calculations to your photo library. But it also needs to have good battery life. How do you balance things?
Apple’s answer is the A10 Fusion chip, which features two pairs of processor cores, one set designed for raw performance and the other for energy efficiency. An onboard performance controller intelligently manages between the two based on the iPhone’s needs. The result is not just a faster iPhone, but one with better-rated battery life than Apple’s ever claimed on an iPhone before. (Battery testing takes a lot of time, and I wasn’t able to spend enough time with the iPhone to run battery tests before writing this review, so I can’t verify Apple’s claims.)
This iPhone is faster than the one that preceded it and faster still from the the iPhone 6 that most people will be upgrading from. Two years ago I sat in Cupertino’s Flint Center waiting for the iPhone 6 announcement and seriously thought that Apple was unlikely to be able to keep the pace of processor speed boosts from generation to generation. Instead, the pace has increased. The iPhone 7 is far faster than an iPhone 6, and blows the iPhone 5 out of the water.
Make room for storage
This year, at long last, marks the end of 16GB as the floor of storage offers on any iPhone. It’s a change that’s long past due, but I’m glad that Apple has finally made the move. Do I need to wait a year to suggest that 64GB would be even better? The margins on Apple’s storage upgrades are high, so the cheapest phone needs to be painfully small in order to drive people to buy a more expensive model. Complaints about the size of the base model will, therefore, spring eternal. But for at least one year, let’s applaud: 32GB of storage is much more appropriate for a base-model iPhone.
Speaking of generosity, though: Isn’t it time for Apple to change its iCloud pricing? There was a time when 5GB was an appropriate amount to back up an iPhone, but it’s just not—and if you’ve also got an iPad, forget it. It would be nice to see Apple raise the free tier of iCloud storage to a higher amount, or allow users to accumulate more storage based on the number of active Apple devices on an account, or—here’s a thought—just offer enough free space to back up all your iOS devices and charge for extra features like iCloud Drive and iCloud Photo Library. All the investment in a delightful user experience will go up in smoke if a user is constantly nagged to spend $0.99 per month on an incremental iCloud fee.
Another, better iPhone
Look, we’ve done this nine times now: This year’s iPhone is better than last year’s iPhone. And way better than the iPhone from two years ago. The processor’s faster, the cameras are better, the works. This year’s highlights include the gorgeous Jet Black and extremely attractive Black color options, both of which make the antenna lines on the case vanish. People who really care about their iPhone photography will want the iPhone 7 Plus, with its second camera that provides far more flexibility in terms of shooting. The wide color gamut on cameras and display mean that everything you shoot and much of what you view is more vibrant and lifelike. And the new Taptic Engine will make using the iPhone a better (and presumably more fun) sensory experience.
Yes, if you are someone who is heavily invested in wired headphones or other accessories that use a minijack, this new model will require that you use an adapter. Most people won’t care, but if you do, it’ll be a pain for a while. You’ll be toting around adapters for a few years. Eventually it won’t seem like a big deal, but right now, for some people, it will undoubtedly be frustrating.
But it’ll be an awful shame if the iPhone 7 ends up being known solely as The One Without the Headphone Jack. It is that, yes, but it’s also The One With Two Cameras and The One With All That Color and The One With Better Battery Life and The One With All The Tapping Effects. This new iPhone, it contains multitudes. Just not a headphone jack.
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