There’s only one thing that matters about the Apple iPhone 7, and that’s its lack of a headphone port. Everything else is irrelevant.
Except that’s utter nonsense, obviously.
That missing hole is a big deal, sure, but so are the improvements to the camera, the blistering speed of the new A10 processor, and the changes to the home button. In fact, to let any one feature dominate this review — whether good or bad — would be entirely out of keeping with the phone itself, which is the archetypal sum of its parts.
Some of the additions here may seem quite minor, but added together, they equal a surprisingly different beast from last year’s iPhone 6s.
Audio: Hit the road, Jack
Let's tackle the big issue right away. As you might have heard, the 3.5mm headphone port is no more, taken out back like Old Yeller and given both barrels by (presumably) a symmetry-obsessed Jony Ive.
You’ve got to switch to a pair of headphones with a Lightning adapter if you want to pump music directly into your ears now, or invest in some pricey Bluetooth buds. Sure, there’s a pair of Lightning EarPods in the box, but when have Apple’s bundled ’phones ever been the last word in critical listening?
So, just how big a deal is this? Well, let’s do a little fence sitting.
On the one hand, it’s an abrupt move by Apple which will definitely annoy millions of people who already own standard headphones and are quite happy with them really, thank you very much. We imagine there’ll be one or two upset headphone manufacturers too.
The change doesn’t really seem to bring many benefits and while Apple has at least included an adapter in the box so you can keep using that decent pair of in-ears or cans, it’s both pug-ugly and another thing to carry around (and lose) while you’re on the move.
On the other hand… so what? Wireless has been the future of audio for some time now and, in ditching the port, Apple has simply brought that reality forward by half a decade or so. Yes, it’s an arse if you feel the need to buy a new pair of quality headphones, but if you’re set to spend S$100 or so a month on a new iPhone the reality is you can probably afford the switch. When it works, wireless feels genuinely new and exciting.
Anyway, we've been here before. Apple does its thing, the world complains, Apple ignores the world, the world gets bored complaining and realises it still wants to buy an iPhone and yadda yadda yadda.
What you do get in place of the headphone port is a second speaker grille — however it doesn’t actually have a speaker behind it, instead just pumping out sound generated from behind the first grille. However up on top of the phone there is in fact a stealthy second speaker hidden behind the earpiece grille. All very strange.
It’s a first for Apple, and it really packs quite a lot of loud for its size. With both speakers pumping, it’ll easily overpower most other phones. Cover up one speaker and you’ll be amazed by how wide the stereo effect can be, too. Netflix in the bath just got a whole lot more immersive. And hey, this time your phone won’t drown if you don't fish it out quickly enough.
Design: (Oil) slick rick
So, does anyone actually like rose gold? Nah, us neither. And the good news is that this year Apple’s colours du jour are black… and black.
You can still buy the Rose Gold model, and the Gold and Silver versions, but Space Grey is gone, replaced with a darker matte black hue. It’s joined by Jet Black, which is so glossy it’ll rival the sheen of any shampoo ad. Seriously, it’s so reflective you could use it as a mirror.
It’s undeniably gorgeous, stealthily hiding the phone’s matching antenna bands, but it’ll only stay that way if you can keep your hands off it. Once it’s in your paws, it’s on a one-way trip to Smudge City (population: Jet Black iPhones). Unless your hands come miraculously oil-free, or you’re fine with rubbing it on your clothes from time to time, you’re probably better off putting a case on it as it’s prone to tiny scratches too. That’s a shame, because that shine looks hella fine — when it’s untarnished.
Otherwise, the overall look hasn’t changed. The antennas don’t dominate the back any more (they’ve been shunted closer to the curved top and bottom) but with only a few exceptions, the shape basically stays the same as last year’s model.
It has picked up a new party trick, though: The iPhone 7 is IP67 water resistant, meaning it’ll shrug off a spilled drink, and even survive a dunking down the loo. You won’t take one swimming (and you shouldn’t because Apple’s warranty doesn’t cover liquid damage), but there’s now there’s no need to run for cover when the heavens open.
As with the colour, waterproofing is a real-world feature that will make millions of iOS devotees happy. Alright so this merely brings the iPhone in line with most Android flagships, but it’d be churlish to criticise it for tardiness when we’re just glad it arrived at all.
Features: No place like home
The Home button has had a major overhaul — in fact, it’s not actually a button any more. Psych! Instead, it’s now one with the phone and uses Apple’s new Taptic engine (Apple’s fancy word for haptic feedback) to mimic the feel of a button.
It works just like the fancy new MacBook trackpad, which means you can customise how ‘clicky’ you want it, but even so it still takes some getting used to. That’s mainly because clicking isn’t isolated to the button — rather, it feels like you’re clicking the entire bottom of the phone and feel it through the rest of the phone.
This is hardly a deal-breaker, but might throw off long-time Apple fans when they first try it. Still, once you get used to it there are good reasons to be pleased about the new Taptic Home. Apps, for instance, can use the Taptic engine to add force feedback; the Zombie Gunship demo I tried had different vibrations for different weapons, which really adds another dimension to gaming on the go. You even get that nice clicky feedback when you scroll through your list of contacts within WhatsApp. There are going to be a lot more missed bus and train stops once the iPhone 7 arrives.
The button might be new, but there’s still a Touch ID fingerprint sensor underneath. This plays nicely with Apple Pay and secure online banking apps, and will unlock your phone just as swiftly as last year’s model.
Software: A perfect 10
The Taptic Home button is a gateway to familiarising new iPhone owners with 3D Touch — something they’ll be seeing a lot of in iOS 10. There are a ton of pressure-sensitive opportunities in the new OS, such as the ability to adjust the intensity of the flashlight or quickly jump into the camera app’s selfie mode. Little timesavers such as being able to answer a message directly from your notifications are further welcome upgrades.
Widgets have been moved to the lock screen, so you can get a lot done without actually unlocking your phone, and the Messages app has been overhauled with doodling capabilities and a sticker factory’s-worth of interactive emojis and animated adhesives.
There are other small improvements too, such as finally being able to listen to music while taking a photo. Hardly life-changing, but still a nice addition. We’ve gone into (a lot) more detail in our full Apple iOS 10 review.
Display: Light up, light up
With no screen size or resolution bump, the 4.7in, 1334x750 iPhone 7 is on paper light years behind the Android competition. Get one in your hands, though, and it’s easy to agree with Apple’s view that 326ppi is plenty for something you hold a few feet in front of your face: Small text is easy to read and pictures show plenty of detail.
QHD phones such as the Samsung Galaxy S7 and LG G5 win out on pixel Top Trumps, but Apple fans don’t have to feel too bad about it. That’s partly because it’s now rocking a wider colour gamut, which makes everything look more vibrant and lifelike from the injection of light and colour. It really makes images pop that little bit better - even if shadows and blacks aren’t quite as deep as they look on a Samsung OLED.
It’s also had a major brightness boost, so it pumps out 25% more light than an iPhone 6s. That means sunshine addicts won’t have to squint or shield the screen whenever they step outside - perfect for anyone that likes to hang out by the pool or the beach in order to take advantage of the fact that a bit of water or sand now won’t cause your phone to throw a fit.
No more tapping the home button every few minutes to check if your latest Tinder crush has replied to your pitiful pickup lines, either: The screen automatically springs into life whenever you pick up the phone.
Camera: Snappier than ever
There’s a reason six of the most popular cameras on Flickr are iPhones: They take great pictures. Not just “great for a phone” pics, but great pictures — period.
That trend looks set to continue here, but not because of a major megapixel increase. Apple’s sticking with 12MP, which means surface detail can’t quite match the higher pixel counts seen in top-spec Android phones, but pairing it with an f/1.8 aperture and OIS makes a big difference.
Optical Image Stabilisation used to be reserved for the larger Plus model, but the anti-shake stability tech is now found in the vanilla iPhone 7 as well; a lack of light won’t throw this snapper off its game. In our tests, the iPhone 7 turned out detailed pics that retained their true colours, instead of distorting reality with overly-saturated hues.
Even when magnified, detail isn’t lost — although things can get a little fuzzy around the edges. And when the flash is eventually needed, the two extra LEDs keep things looking natural instead of bathing your subject in a ghastly glare.
It might not have the dual camera setup seen on its bigger brother, but the iPhone 7 still proved its prowess at taking photos on the go. It focuses on subjects a lot faster now, even in challenging light conditions, which made it a breeze to take crisp and clear shots in the middle of a laser-light filled music festival.
That’s partly down to the sensor saving pics with a wider colour gamut, something you’ll spot straight away on the phone’s colour-calibrated display. It gives things more vibrancy and gradation, without edging into unrealistic territory. You won’t get the same effect when you share your snaps to Facebook, but you’ll still be impressed you got quality shots from something that slips into your pocket. Even if, deep down, you’ll know the iPhone 7 Plus is still superior.
The front-facing FaceTime camera has also been bumped up from 5MP to 7MP, which will keep the selfie-loving Snapchat crowd happy.
Performance: Need for speed
Apple has finally gone quad-core in 2016, doubling up on CPU power for the A10 Fusion chip. And as you might expect, the iPhone 7 easily matched our fast and furious tapping, swiping, and double pressing without breaking a sweat.
Even after half an hour of continuous Riptide GP2 racing, the phone handled the heat well. No amount of notifications could create any visible lag or stutter, proving just how capable Apple’s silicon is when it comes to gaming.
On the other hand, battery life hasn’t improved all that much from last year — something Apple seems to recognise given that an iPhone 7-friendly version of the bumpy Smart Battery Case is launching day and date with the phone.
It’s definitely got more staying power than the iPhone 6s, but this isn’t quite the all-day endurance champ we were hoping for. In day-to-day use, it hit 20% after 10 hours - adequate, seeing as Low Power Mode will eke out a few precious extra minutes when you’re nearing empty, but you’re still going to have some battery anxiety towards the end of the day.
Android phones might have more powerful hardware and higher-resolution-screens to power, but they’ve also got room for bigger batteries. If you need longevity in the same size, there are better options out there running Google’s OS. And if you can’t bear to leave iOS? Then you'll want the larger-everything Apple iPhone 7 Plus.
Storage: Sayonara 16GB
Struggling on with a phone that’s run out of storage space is no fun at all, and that’s a scenario all-too familiar to anyone with a 16GB iPhone. Thankfully, Apple has finally seen sense this year, bumping the basic iPhone 7 to 32GB.
There’s a colossal new 256GB option as well — perfect for anyone that absolutely has to have all their photos, music and movies with them at all times. And a fair bit of disposable cash to afford one, too.
It’s a real shame the 64GB version has been put out to pasture, though. With apps growing in size and an uprated camera taking better photos than ever, it’s not going to be long before you’ve maxed out 32GB. 64GB seems to be the sweet storage spot for many of the Stuff team — a figure that’s easy to get on an Android phone with a microSD card, but one that’s now out of reach if you’re committed to iOS.
This phone really shouldn’t feel like a major update. Standout features here, such as waterproofing, are long overdue in Apple land, the design has barely changed bar a few skin-deep tweaks, and some of the upgrades fans have been crying out for (more storage, for instance) come at the expense of mid-range models.
Buying into the iPhone way of life was never cheap, and you’ll be forking over S$1388 for the top-spec 256GB model.
It says a lot about the overall package, then, that we’re happy to put up with the shortcomings. The iPhone 7’s modest upgrades all come together to make a much more significant whole than you’d expect; in typically Apple fashion, the whole experience is just so polished.
The old “skip a year” mantra still holds true for anyone with an iPhone 6s, but for everyone else running iOS on older hardware, this is a very worthy upgrade and you’ll feel the substantial difference. Losing the headphone port, though? That’s going to sting for a while.
This story was first published on Stuff.tv.
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