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Apple iPhone 7 and 7 Plus review: Big upgrades, but where's the next big thing?
By James Lu - 1 Oct 2016,5:00pm

Overview & Design

Note: This article was first published on September 16, 2016.


Overview

Apple has had the same formula for years now. First we get a new look iPhone with dazzling new features. Then, the following year, we get the same design, but with a faster processor and a few new tricks. Apple has been doing it since the iPhone 4, and it's a proven system that we've all become accustomed to. Which is why, when Apple revealed the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus, initial reactions were mixed. These phones look almost exactly the same as 2015's iPhone 6s, and 2014's iPhone 6. And all those rumors about edge-to-edge OLED displays, wireless charging and smart connectors proved to be, well, just rumors. Where's the new look? Where are the dazzling new features? The new iPhones don't look or feel like the "next big thing".  So then, is there still a reason to consider them? Absolutely.

  • The iPhone 7 and 7 Plus are now IP67 dust and water resistant, capable of surviving submersion in 1m of water for up to 30 minutes.
  • The cameras are better: they take better low light shots, and the smaller 7 even gets the optical image stabilization (which was previously reserved only for the Plus edition).
  • To keep the 7 Plus camera special, it now has two cameras, one for wide angle shots, and one that's a little more zoomed in. Eventually you'll be able to use this dual-camera setup to take artsy bokeh shots too.
  • The batteries are bigger and last longer, the storage has doubled, the processors are a lot faster, and the displays are much better - they're brighter and display more colors.
  • And finally, you get stereo speakers.

While individually, none of these features are mind blowing, they all add up to a pretty big upgrade over last year's models. There's nothing revolutionary here, in fact these upgrades aren't even innovative - we've seen all of them on Android smartphones before - but everything about the iPhone 7 is better. Well, almost everything. There's a certain missing 3.5mm port that's not better. 

  Apple iPhone 7 Apple iPhone 7 Plus
  Apple iPhone 7 Apple iPhone 7 Plus
Operating system
  • iOS 10
  • iOS 10
Processor
  • Apple A10 Fusion quad-core 2.33GHz processor
  • Apple A10 Fusion quad-core 2.33GHz processor
Built-in Memory
  • 2GB RAM
  • 3GB RAM
Display
  • 4.7-inch Retina HD / 1,334 x 750 pixels (326ppi) / IPS
  • 5.5-inch Retina HD / 1,920 x 1,080 pixels (401ppi) / IPS
Camera
  • Rear: 12-megapixel, f/1.8 iSight camera with phase detection autofocus, OIS and quad LED (dual-tone) flash
  • Front: 7-megapixel, f/2.2 FaceTime HD camera
  • Rear: Dual 12-megapixel, (f/1.8, 28mm & f/2.8, 56mm) with phase detection autofocus, OIS, and quad LED (dual-tone) flash
  • Front: 7-megapixel, f/2.2 FaceTime HD camera
Connectivity
  • Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac, dual-band, hotspot, Bluetooth v4.2, A2DP, LE, GPS, GLONASS, Lightning connector
  • Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac, dual-band, hotspot, Bluetooth v4.2, A2DP, LE, GPS, GLONASS, Lightning connector
Storage Type
  • 32 / 128 / 256GB internal storage
  • 32 / 128 / 256GB internal storage
Battery
  • 1,960mAh
  • 2,900mAh
Dimensions
  • 138.3 x 67.1 x 7.1 mm
  • 158.2 x 77.9 x 7.3 mm
Weight
  • 138g
  • 188g


Design

Apple has stuck to basically the same iPhone design for the past three years now. It's a clean and simple look, and it still looks great, but I can't help but look at the beauty that is the Samsung Galaxy Note7 and wonder if Apple couldn't have come up with something even better (maybe next year for the iPhone's 10th anniversary?). To illustrate just how similar these phones are, both the 7 and 7 Plus have identical dimensions to their predecessors. Both are marginally lighter - 5g lighter for the 7, and 4g lighter for the 7 Plus - but they're still noticeably heavier than the 2014 models. Despite the identical dimensions, I should point out that you can't actually re-use your old case as the camera modules on the back are in a slightly different position.

As mentioned, both the 7 and 7 Plus are now IP67 water resistant, which means you can dunk them in 1m of water for up to 30 minutes. Technically, Samsung's Galaxy S7 and Note7 are even more water resistant, but there's not actually that much difference between them. Unlike earlier water resistant phones like Sony's Xperia Z, there are no fiddly ports that need to be sealed shut and while you probably shouldn't take your new iPhone 7 snorkeling, it will survive an accidental drop into the toilet just fine. 

Apart from the dust and water resistance, there are three main visual differences between the 6s and the 7. First of all, the unsightly antenna bands on the back now curl around the edge of the phone, which makes them a bit less of an eyesore. On the Jet Black and Black models, they're also black to blend into the body, which is a much welcome refinement. Second, the camera bump is now molded into the rear. Instead of the metal ring surrounded the camera module, the back of the case now forms a small curved lip around the camera. And finally, as you already know by now, there's no 3.5mm headphone port.

Like last year's Rose Gold, Apple has introduced a new color to the iPhone range that is sure to be the go-to choice for status seekers everywhere. In fact, this year there are two new colors: Black and Jet Black. The former is a matte finish that looks like a much darker version of the Space Gray it replaces, and reminds me a lot of the the black/slate iPhone 5 - it's probably my favorite color for the 7 and 7 Plus. Jet Black is Apple's fancy new finish, and it's hard to believe that this phone is even made of the same 7000 series aluminum as the others.

Thanks to Apple's 9-step anodization and polishing process, the back and sides of the phone are just as glossy and slick as its glass display, which results in a gorgeous seamless finish that wraps around the entire device. It's worth noting that the high-gloss finish and slick feel actually make the Jet Black look and feel a little plasticky (the back of the phone reminds me a lot of my old iPhone 3GS), but you have to admire the finishing process Apple has come up with. Here's the other thing about the Jet Black color: you probably want to put it in a case. As Apple themselves have been remarkably candid about, the Jet Black finish "may show fine micro-abrasions with use." Consider that an understatement because, less than 24 hours after we got our review unit, it's already showing some small scratches. It's also pretty much impossible to keep this finish fingerprint or smudge free, so unless you can live with small scratches and fingerprints everywhere, get a case, or a different color.

There's one other design change that you won't see, but you will feel as soon as you turn on your new iPhone. The iPhone 7’s home button is no longer an actual button. Try pressing it with the phone off - nothing happens. The button uses the same Taptic Engine as Apple's newer MacBook trackpads and sends a vibration through the button when you apply pressure to it - it feels like a click, but the button never moves.

You can choose from three levels of click vibration, but none of them really replicate the click of the old mechanical button. While the vibration is localized around the button, you can feel it throughout the entire lower half of the phone. It's an odd sensation that takes some getting used to. Personally, I'm fine with it, but I passed the review unit around the office and a number of people said they really didn't like the new Home button; it just doesn't have the same satisfying depth that the old mechanical Home button had. There are benefits to the new Home button though, it's a lot more durable for one, and Apple has been able to integrate the Taptic Engine into other parts of iOS 10. For example, when you drag the notification panel down, there's a cute little thud vibration when it hits the bottom of the display. It makes the notification panel feel like it has actual weight.

Okay, time to address the elephant in the room. Neither the iPhone 7 nor the 7 Plus have a 3.5mm headphone port. When Phil Schiller was presenting this change on stage, he stated that it was an act of "courage." To me, that means Apple knew the negative reaction they'd get for removing this decades-old standard. Now, according to Apple, the reason for removing the port is that smartphones are best experienced as wireless devices. "It makes no sense to tether ourselves with cables to our mobile devices," Schiller told the audience "but until someone takes on these challenges, that’s what we do." At which point he revealed the wireless AirPods.

This is all well and good, but some of us have expensive headphones that we're very fond of that require a headphone port. Yes, you get a Lightning-to-3.5mm adapter with the iPhone 7 but it's just another thing to misplace or forget to bring with you. And with the Lightning port now also doubling up as your audio output, you can forget about charging your phone and listening to music at the same time - unless you have wireless headphones or you're willing to buy a third-party adapter to split that Lightning port. Right now, Belkin's Lightning Audio + Charge RockStar adapter is your best bet, but it has two Lightning ports, which means if you want to plug in regular headphones you'll have to awkwardly daisy chain the 3.5mm adapter into it. Apple wants to make my life simpler by removing cables, so why is it I now need more adapters (and the wires they're attached to) than ever before? Nothing about this is making my life any simpler Phil.

Apple's wireless AirPods aren't available until late October so I can't comment on the quality of those, but I did try out the Lightning EarPods that come with every iPhone 7 and 7 Plus. To my ears, they're exactly the same as last year's regular EarPods i.e. fairly average in terms of sound quality, and personally, I've never liked the fit in my ears either.

On the plus side, I used my regular Audio Technica ATH-M50 headphones with the Lightning to 3.5mm adapter and they sound exactly the same as before, so no loss in audio quality there. Still though, I feel like Apple could have put some extra effort into upgrading the audio quality of the Lightning EarPods to soften the sting of removing the headphone port, especially considering their acquisition of Beats two years ago. It would have been the perfect time to introduce a new Beats Lightning EarPods - complete with a musical performance by Dr. Dre naturally.

Obsessed with technology?
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