If you’re going to buy a new iPhone, this is the one to get – there’s slightly longer battery life, a better camera, fast innards and protection against water. However, many of the changes are slight, and the iPhone 6S, for the lower price, suddenly becomes a very attractive option.
- Good low light camera
- Water resistant
- Double the internal capacity
- Lacks clear upgrades
- Same design used for last three phones
- Battery life better but unimpressive
Let’s start with the obvious: Looking at it on my desk, next to a 6s, there is literally no discernible difference. Turn it over, and you’ll see some slight changes – the antenna bands are in different places and the camera is noticeably bigger. But apart from that, little’s new: It comes in the same 4.7-inch and 5.5-inch screen sizes, has the same button layout, and the same curves.
If you’re the type that upgrades their iPhone when there’s a big redesign – as there have been every two years since the first phone almost a decade ago – you’ll be disappointed.
The only really significant change in how the iPhone looks is in two new colors – “jet black”, a glossy finish that has proven extremely popular to the point of selling out, and a more muted matte “black”. While my review unit is in the familiar silver, I’ve experienced both the new designs.
The black finish feels fairly similar to other colors, but the “jet black” undergoes a new finishing process to the phone’s aluminum body. This gives it a new feel that makes it feel more grippy and looks more polished. It’s really nice, and Apple is clearly proud of it given how much it features in its marketing materials, but touch it a few times in the real world and you’ll find it covered with fingerprints. Apple also says the jet black is liable to scratching and recommends using a case if you’re concerned about this.
Unless you’re crazy about jet black, the most exciting thing about the iPhone 7 is almost certainly the camera. It’s also the biggest differentiator between the 7 and 7 Plus, the latter featuring a new dual camera design (more on that below).
First, the technicals: The iPhone 7 has a 12MP sensor (the same as last year), but with a wider aperture, a new lens, a new image processor and optical image stabilization. What this means to you and me is that the lens lets 50 per cent lighter in, allows better colors, and photos will be less blurry.
In good conditions, you’re unlikely to notice too much of a difference between the photos on the iPhone 7 and the 6s. However, where the new camera really shines is in low light. Even photos taken as the sun was setting appeared vibrant and well-lit – a significant difference from recent iPhones. A new flash with four LEDs also makes photos taken with it much warmer.
The real game-changer, though, is on the 7 Plus and its two lenses. Lens one is the same as that on the iPhone 7, but lens two is telephoto – which has a longer focal length, magnifying the image. What this means it that the two cameras work together to produce optical zoom – something that has not been possible on an iPhone before.
When you open the camera app on the 7 Plus, you can switch between 1x and 2x zoom, and can zoom in up to 10x digitally, using a new one-handed wheel rather than the pinch to zoom users will be used to (other models allow only 5x zoom).
The results are really impressive: see this very unscientific comparison between the maximum (10x) zoom on the 7 Plus, compared to a cropped 5x zoom on the 7.
The main problem with smartphone cameras to date has been that digital zoom is just no substitute for optical, and Apple has taken a big step forward here. For longer-range photos, it’s the best phone camera you can get and, for me, makes the 7 Plus a better phone than the 7.
Both devices have an upgraded 7MP front camera for selfies, up from 5MP in the last model.
The headphone jack
By far the most controversial change on the iPhone 7, and one that will be argued about for months is that there isn’t a headphone jack. The 3.5mm analog port has been a fixture in consumer electronics for decades. Unlike chargers or other wires, your headphones will work in pretty much anything.
When the iPhone 7 was unveiled, Apple’s Phil Schiller said the headphone jack was outdated, and that removing it was about “courage”. Apple also has a host of solutions. The iPhone 7’s bundled headphones connect to the Lightning port, and the phone also comes with an adapter for your old headphones.
Apple is also soon releasing its wireless AirPods, which I didn’t try for this review but has briefly sampled. They’re very clever, sound good and fall out of your ear less than you’d expect, but are expensive – at £159, they aren’t a solution that most people are going to invest in. Of course, you can also buy Bluetooth headphones, which have come a long way in recent years, and are now outselling wired ones in some places.
But make no mistake about it: Removing the headphone jack is annoying. Say you want to charge your phone and listen to music at the same time, as you might on a train journey or using a handsfree kit or auxiliary cable in the car. You have to buy a £35 adapter. If you’re using the analog dongle and lose it, you’ll have to get a new one. If you switch to Lightning headphones or Bluetooth, they might not work with your other gadgets.
That said, it’s not that annoying. I don’t like Apple’s bundled earphones, so tend to use my own, but just keep the adapter on the end of them when I take them out. It hasn’t felt like a big deal and, pretty quickly, I imagine we’ll get used to it – despite the odd annoyance.
It’s a toss up whether you think the advantages of removing the headphone jack – water resistance (see below), a bigger battery, optical image stabilization on the smaller iPhone – are worth it, but the future is clearly wireless, and Apple is just getting ahead of the curve here.
One more point on the headphone jack: Lightning is a much more secure connection than the 3.5mm port. If you drop your phone and grab your headphones, the Lightning port could well be the difference between your iPhone safely swinging in mid air and it crashing to the ground.
The new home button and water resistance
If rumors are to be believed, this might be the last iPhone with a home button: reports suggest that next year, the entire front of the phone will be made up of the touchscreen. However, they haven’t left it alone.
Instead of the clicky mechanical button that we’re used to, Apple has installed a pressure-sensitive solid-state button. It doesn’t move but responds with a “haptic” vibration to simulate being pressed (another consequence of removing the headphone jack was allowing space for a new engine that allows this).
If you’ve experienced 3D Touch on the iPhone 6s or the Force Touch on the MacBook or Apple Watch, you’ll have an idea of how this feels, but on a button that looks like a button, it’s a strange sensation. When you set up the phone you adjust the level of feedback, but to me, all of them feel just a little weird, especially when you double tap the home button to switch between apps and get a sort of double shock. Ultimately, though, this seems like another thing we’ll get used to.
Haptic feedback is also used across the phone: scroll through a menu or switch toggles on and off in settings and you get a reassuring vibration.
More importantly, changing the home button means the iPhone 7 is water and dust resistant. It has IP67 certification, which effectively means it can survive up to a meter of water for half an hour. I can confirm this works (although testing it for the first time was a little worrying), and it’s a godsend for those of us who are clumsy enough to regularly spill drinks on our phones. Just don’t go swimming with it.
- The iPhone 7 now has stereo speakers – one at the top and one at the bottom – which are a big improvement if you’re watching YouTube videos or even just listen to music through your phone’s speakers. It’s not enough to replace dedicated speakers, but an upgrade that was a long time coming.
- The processor has been upgraded to Apple’s “A10 fusion” chip. This makes it 40 percent more powerful than the 6s and twice as powerful as the 6. The chip also has “efficiency cores”, which are low-powered, saving battery life for less intensive tasks such as sending text messages. The phone is noticeably speedier in person too.
- The combination of the A10 and a slightly bigger battery means a decent boost to battery life. Apple says an extra hour for the 7 Plus and two hours for the 7 under normal conditions. It’s always difficult to test battery life on a brand new phone but Apple has more information on its tests here.
- Thankfully, the iPhone 7 now comes in 32GB, 128GB, and 256GB memory, finally ditching the 16GB that was simply not fit for purpose.
The iPhone is almost a decade old now, so each year it becomes a little more difficult to make it better. Apple can tweak the software, add a new processor and change the screen size, but the leaps forward have become less noticeable.
At the same time, our phones are used more than ever. We use them to take billions of photos every day and rely on them constantly. In a way, that’s what the iPhone 7 reflects: It is more durable, the battery is better, it can survive falling in the bath.
These are all useful upgrades, but it’s also difficult to get excited about them. Apple has always been about making us want what we didn’t know we wanted. The iPhone 7 is about functional, incremental improvements that will make our lives easier.
When you look at what Samsung has done this year, launching beautiful phones with curved displays and other genuinely new features (albeit the odd exploding battery hiccup), the iPhone 7’s form feels a little dated. For me, it’s still the best phone you can buy, and its iOS 10 operating system is a brilliant leap forward in software terms, but it’s not the upgrade we’ve hoped for.
As for the headphone jack, the risk was that it would be a dealbreaker for many. Frankly, it isn’t: I can’t imagine many people giving up on their iPhones because of it. The change, as with the new home button, points to Apple’s wireless, button-less future, and the eagerly awaited iPhone 8.
If you’re on the lookout for a new phone – at the end of a contract, for example – the iPhone 7 comes highly recommended, especially if you take tons of photos. If you’re unsure, it might be best to wait.
- The new camera is a worthy upgrade, especially on the 7 Plus
- Water resistance is a massive bonus
- Battery life improvements are welcome
- No significant design changes to excite users
- Headphone jack removal will irritate some people
- New home button takes some getting used to
GET | iPhone 7 and 7 Plus