The iPhone 7 is now available, and it’s tough to quantify if it’s a worthwhile upgrade. As always, it comes down to specific use cases of what device you own, and how you mainly use your device. This review will mainly cover the upgrade form the iPhone 6 to the iPhone 7 with the familiar 2 year upgrade cycle that many phone users are used to. There will still be some connections to the 6S, but it’s worth noting off the top that the 6S offered an improved processor, new camera sensor, and 3D Touch to the 6, and now the 7 builds upon that base. The iPhone 7 includes numerous changes, so it’s best to break down the changes into individual parts.
The iPhone 7 includes a new camera system with improved aperture, stabilization, flash, and image signal processor. The 7 Plus includes a neat new dual lens system with a wide angle and telephoto lens working together to create 2X optical zoom. That’s a great change, but this is a review of just the iPhone 7, and the optical image stabilization is the best change, and a welcome addition from the 6/6S Plus. It’s one thing to say optical image stabilization is included, and quite another to actually use it. OIS comes into play when taking low light photography, and it’s easy to see improved images, especially with the harvest moon we had on iPhone 7 launch day. Even taking pictures in a relatively dark room are much improved. Not only that, but recorded videos while walking offer a night and day difference for much less shake right when recording.
Apple has continued to improve the flash on the iPhone, but I have had flash turned off in the camera app as it never has been good enough. That changes with the iPhone 7, and now you can take a picture in partially pitch black, and the image delivers such accurate colors. Part of that is in combination with OIS as well as the larger aperture, and all combined make for a camera that can take worthwhile photos that simply weren’t good enough on the iPhone 6. The new camera can also Wide Color Gamut to further help with authentic color accuracy. The wide angle lens of iPhone 7 Plus is the same lens as the iPhone 7, and it’s just the telephoto lens that creates the difference for 2X optical zoom and depth of field effect. The iPhone 7 can take just as great as photos as the 7 Plus in every other situation, and it’s a camera that can be a stand alone option for great photos.
It’s tough to gauge the power of the new A10 Fusion chip in real world use with virtually no iOS apps that are that resource hungry. With that said, there are benchmark tests by Geekbench that shows the iPhone 7 has the best single-core and multi-core performance scores of any smartphone. In pure raw speed, the iPhone 7 is the best at the moment, and that’s without any enhancements from iOS working in tandem with the custom A10 architecture. In day to day use, there’s a noticeable speed improvement as you jump in and out of apps. You can cut out almost a second with each switch. Compared to the iPad Air 2, the iPhone 7 does everything a snap quicker. On the iPhone 7, there’s simply a rapid fluidity to using the device to the point that you can see apps fly back into place after pressing the home button. For example, if you have an app in the upper right corner, the app window sucks into that point.
The A10 Fusion chip’s power efficiency may be more important than any speed gains. Apple specifically designed the chip with two of the cores that use just 20% of the power of the other two cores. Apple designed iOS to assign lower resource apps to the energy efficient cores, and that may end up helping the most with battery life, which we will discuss next.
Battery life is tough to directly compare as your battery life can change from day to day depending on what you’re doing. Apple promises two more hours of battery life on an average day for the iPhone 7 compared to the 6S, and the 6S was about the same as the 6. In my testing, the battery life is a significant improvement to the point that the low power mode option at 20% hasn’t popped in since I’ve gotten the iPhone 7. My iPhone 6 seemed to hit low power mode in the early afternoon. Granted, a two year old battery doesn’t hold a charge like a brand new device, so that’s definitely part of it. Regardless, my iPhone 7 is handling a lot in the early days of use with setting up the device from scratch to install new apps, testing the new camera, trying the stereo speakers with various videos and games, checking the A10 chip with the latest games, and more.
One of the biggest battery drains I have seen is connecting to your car through Bluetooth to stream music through iCloud Music Library with turn by turn navigation with an Apple Watch Bluetooth connection too. Usually, I can see chunks come off the battery meter, but the iPhone 7 handles it much better with a sipping of the battery versus chugging the battery.
Apple has doubled the storage space of the entire iPhone line, so your purchase price goes further. The iPhone now comes in 32GB, 128GB, and 256GB instead of 16GB, 64GB, and 128GB. No matter what option you pick, you now can download more apps, snap more photos, watch or record more videos, etc. I have gone from a 16GB iPhone 6 to a 32GB iPhone 7, and 32GB is by no means large, but it’s a night and day difference for my iPhone usage. On my iPhone 6, I received a low storage space warning every few days, and had to turn off iCloud Photo Library, rely on iCloud Music Library, and keep all of my games on my iPad. Now, I can actually have my whole photo library, install some good on the go games, and store some music without even hitting 16GB used on my new 32GB device. It’s a small, but welcome change from Apple, and the higher increments are really nice.
The iPhone 7 includes an all new display that delivers the highest color accuracy, peak brightness, and contrast rating in bright light of any smartphone display, the highest contrast ratio of any IPS LCD display, and the lowest screen reflectance of any smartphone display according to DisplayMate Technologies. DisplayMate has tested tons of screens over the years, and have a better basis in this than me. In terms of specs, the iPhone 7 includes DCI-P3 Wide Color Gamut as found in 4K TVs, but lacks the True Tone system and anti-reflective coating on the iPad Pro.
To my eye, I don’t have an iPhone 6 or 6S to compare the display, but I do have an iPad Air 2. The color accuracy is a slight improvement for the iPhone 7 with seemingly more accurate colors as compared to the iPad Air 2, which is a bit of a cooler tone to all colors. The iPhone 7 still isn’t perfect in direct bright sunlight, but it is a bit easier to see the details, especially with bright white apps, rather than the camera app or a video. It’s a feature that is nice to have knowing of the improvements, but not something that is truly noticeable in day to day usage.
One nice change with the iPhone 7 is true stereo speakers with the addition of a speaker at the top of the phone to go with the speaker at the bottom. This change is distinctly noticeable whether you’re watching movies, taking a speaker call, or playing games. It was more easily noticeable playing games, as the sound finally didn’t sound thin as in previous iPhones I’ve had. Audio is subtly stereo, but noticeably more powerful even on lower audio output settings. The improved speaker system doesn’t push you to headphones as often, especially when at home for games and videos.
The story of audio for the iPhone 7 includes the removal of the headphone jack. Luckily, I have been using Bluetooth headphones the entire time I owned my iPhone 6 and have a 2013 model year car with Bluetooth, so it’s not that much of a transition. With that said, I understand some people have valuable wired headphones they love, as well as car connectivity to models without Bluetooth. Apple did include a dongle to connect lightning to 3.5mm headphone connector, but that isn’t a perfect solution. It gets the job done, and is included with the device. It’s a problem I can’t relate to, but I understand it, as well as understand the convenience of wireless headphones and car connectivity. Each person will view this differently from outrage to ambivalence, and your mileage may vary.
The bigger issue with the omission of the headphone jack is that Apple included lightning connected Earbuds. If I do need a pair of headphones, it’s mainly with my computer, microphone, or similar device, and now I can’t use the ones included with my iPhone. The included lightning headphones only work with iOS devices, and are a real waste. You can’t charge your device with the lightning headphones connected, so Apple is pushing wireless, but makes these headphones almost completely worthless.
New Home Button:
The new home button on the iPhone 7 is designed to improve water resistance of the device, and remove one of the few moving pieces on the device that has broken on older iPhones. It’s a surprisingly divisive change. Apple has included a taptic engine to replicate the feeling of the click of the home button, and there are three degrees of taptic feedback to choose from. I have found no issue with the home button, and it requires less force to actually “click”. The new home button requires less force than 3D Touch does on the screen, which is nice for unlocking the device, exiting apps, and bringing up multi-tasking. The taptic engine offers great feedback, and it’s used for more than just the home button for vibrations to appear for specific actions like scrolling through a list, flipping toggles, and more. I think developers might use taptic feedback for some interesting new apps, and especially games going forward.
One caveat with the new home button, is that it uses capacitive touch, so that means it needs contact with your skin. If you wear gloves, you need capacitive touch gloves to use the new home button. You can also enable on screen options in Settings > Accessibility. If you simply put your shirt between your thumb and the home button, the device doesn’t do anything no matter how hard you press. With winter approaching, it might be worth investing in capacitive touch gloves, and thankfully I have a pair and live in Southern California. Like the lack of a headphone jack, your mileage may vary. The TouchID portion of the new home button responds almost instantaneously, especially in comparison to the iPhone 6.
I have never had my phone be submerged in water, and the most liquid it has received is use in the rain or a few drops of water to clean of finger smudges. It’s nice that the iPhone 7 is water resistant, but it’s not something I’m prepared to test with my personal device. Thankfully, a lot of others have done so showing that the water resistance nature of the iPhone 7 surpasses Apple’s claims. That’s nice piece of mind, but not something I’m going to question.
Color is more of a personal preference than an actual new feature. That didn’t stop Apple from redoing their black iPhones with two appealing new offerings. I have had the white iPhone since the 4S with the 5, and 6 to follow. Now, I have the Black Matte iPhone 7, and it delivers a true and deep black like no iPhone before it. Even the Apple logo is black, and it makes for a very sleek device. The Jet Black is limited to 128GB and above, and it’s a bit too glossy for my taste. The Black Matter is understated, and yet still super slick for a true blackout on both sides of the device. The move of the antenna bands from crossing the back to the curved edges allows for an even more black solid on the back. The new home button is also integrated into the device, rather than the glossy curved button before it. Every part of the Black Matte device works together for the sleekest iPhone Apple has yet made.
iOS 10 isn’t exclusive to the iPhone 7, and most of the new features discussed below also come to the iPhone 6S. With that said, these are some valuable features that improve the usability of the iPhone 7, and add into the benefits of the features discussed above. Raise to wake might be the best change as it’s a methodology change. You simply pick up the iPhone 7, and the screen turns on allowing you to see if you have any notifications. If you don’t, you could always put your device back down for the screen to sleep. You also have the option to swipe right to view app widgets, or left to access the camera without even unlocking your device. If you do have notifications, they’re the new rich notifications that you can use 3D Touch to interact with to reply to messages, read and archive e-mails, view live sports scores, and more. All of this is done without unlocking your device, or even pressing any button. Raise to wake is kind of like the Apple Watch as a more passive way to interact with your world. This could end up saving you battery life, and even some time as you don’t get distracted unlocking your device, opening a specific app, and then maybe going into some other apps you didn’t originally intend to look at.
Like the iPhone 6S, the iPhone 7 includes “Hey Siri” support without having to be plugged in. You can say “Hey Siri” any time to activate the voice assistant, and iOS 10 includes new third party app connectivity to Siri. Simply say “Hey Siri, start a workout”, to which Siri responds, “Confirming you would like to use Zova”, say “yes”, and you’re ready to go. The all new Messages with stickers, fully playable games, scheduling and information sharing apps are an outstanding addition for any iOS 10 compatible device, and worth mentioning again.
3D Touch isn’t new for the iPhone 7, but it is new if you’re upgrading from the iPhone 6. It takes a bit getting used to just how hard you need to press, as I have gotten into the habit of the long press. Once you have it down, it’s so much better to use 3D Touch to look at e-mails, view photos full screen, preview a link, and more. You can get the gist of what you’re looking for from a 3D Touch preview without having to open full screen, and swipe to go back.
The iPhone 7 doesn’t reinvent the iPhone, and instead offers a valuable evolution. Every aspect of day to day usage is impacted whether it’s increased performance, better battery life, improved photos, more storage, enhanced display, or boosted audio. There’s no leap forward, and some may wait for that, but that’s an indeterminate amount of time. The iPhone 7 is a substantial improvement upon every part of the iPhone 6 making it well worth the two year upgrade cycle. The matte black is a great bonus.