Audacious Fox

iPhone 7

I imagine one of the most difficult parts of writing an iPhone review is that you have to carefully tease apart the capabilities of new hardware from nuances of new software. Inevitably, one always influences the other. For the past ten years, Apple has been iterating on the narrative that hardware and software should provide a seamless experience. The iPhone 7 is the most tightly edited, polished version of this idea yet.

A common goal of those who read iPhone reviews is to ascertain whether the newest model warrants an upgrade. Here’s my take. For most 6s owners, unless you have the money and really want to be on the latest model, I think you’re OK to hold off. The 6s has a great camera, 3D Touch, and looks almost identical to the 7 in every color but black.

However, if your current iPhone is a 6 or older, there’s a lot in the iPhone 7 to tempt trading up. 3D Touch plays a big role in iOS 10, and gaining that feature alone is a nice upgrade. When you add in the performance, camera, and display upgrades, moving to the iPhone 7 is something to seriously consider.


I went with the black black iPhone 7 in non-Plus, normal-person-size. I considered Apple’s new Jet Black finish, not because I like gloss, but rather because I find myself longing for the years when holding a naked iPhone didn’t evoke such a sense of panic. On an engineering level, I know my matte black iPhone 7 is made of aluminum and not wetted soap, but in practice, it might as well be. At least it’s water resistant this time around. More on that later.

As I mentioned above, the iPhone 7 design is similar to the 6s and 6 before it. Save for the new black colors, which I’m very happy with, casual observers probably won’t know I’m carrying an iPhone 7. And that’s OK. I’m sure there are still innovations to be had in how we design small glass rectangles, but much of what I consider “iPhone” design has everything to do with the internal components as the physical shape. In this regard, the iPhone 7 is remarkably different.

Jacked

Truth be told, too much has been made of the headphone jack removal. I think it has some folks really worried and overestimating just how much they’ll actually miss the little port when it’s gone. I won’t tell you it doesn’t hurt at times - one specific example below - but I can also confidently say the jack removal was overhyped, and I’m confident most people will go through a week of frustration followed by a fast forgetting it’s even gone. For those who remain worried, here’s what I can tell you:

One week.

That’s how long it will take most people to adjust to losing the 3.5 mm headphone jack. As a preview for the uninitiated, here’s what that transition will look like: 

  1. Plug old 3.5 mm headphones into included Lightning adapter, connect to iPhone 7. 
  2. Unplug from iPhone 7, attempt to shove Lightning adapter into your Mac’s headphone jack. 
  3. Curse repeatedly. 
  4. Disconnect Lightning adapter from 3.5 mm jack. 
  5. Plug old headphones into your Mac. 
  6. Go check if new Macs have been announced. 

Brief Interpolation on the New MacBook Pros — Step #6, intended as a joke, was written about a week before Apple’s October event where they announced new MacBook Pros. The new MacBooks are a topic for another time, but they’re worth mentioning in an iPhone 7 review for one reason: the new MacBooks do include a 3.5 mm headphone jack, and all additional ports are USB-C. I didn’t expect Apple to add a Lightning port to new Mac hardware, but I also feel a twinge of annoyance that will probably, repeatedly, manifest itself as Step #3 whenever I pick up a new machine. — End Brief Interpolation

The omission of a headphone jack is simply not that big of a deal. It would have been a big deal had Apple not included a Lightning adapter in every box, but they did. For every iPhone without a headphone jack, there’s a corresponding dongle.

Dongles suck, but so do wires in general. Design, particularly design limited by physical constraints, is all about tradeoffs. The iPhone 7 brings water resistance, an improved Taptic Engine, and Apple’s commitment to making wireless headphones a good user experience. To me, those tradeoffs are well worth it, and I’m willing to put up with some minor annoyances along the way.

For wired headphone users, like myself, the only medium-sized annoyance comes when you want to charge and use your headphones at the same time. Friends have mentioned flying as a reasonable example; wherein you typically want to land with a full charge, but also watch a movie or listen to music on the trip. In that situation, yes: you’re sort of screwed. Wireless headphones or a battery case are probably your best bet.

Water Resistance

The ability to withstand water is going to save a lot of people a lot of money. Full stop. And even though it felt incredibly taboo (and fun!) to get my iPhone out in the middle of a downpour, I quickly realized that actually using my phone in wet conditions would become that thing you forget about 99% of the time, as there isn’t an inherit advantage to whipping our your phone in the rain to check the weather.

Put another way: even though it’s neat that I can shower and check email, I won’t, because it turns out these new situations where I can now operate my phone were never ones I wanted to use it in the first place. 

Battery

The battery in the iPhone 7 performs better than the one in the iPhone 6s, but this isn’t because of a huge leap forward in battery size or capacity. Rather, this year’s increased performance has much to do with the Apple A10 Fusion system on a chip (SoC), which features two low-power cores for low-power activities.

Most of my day is spent writing iMessages or taking notes, so I reap more benefit than someone who plays games and watches videos all day. That said, I doubt many people are always going to be using the high-power cores, so most will probably eek out some extra life in the long run. Looking forward, and pending some incredible advance in power storage technology, most of our improved battery life of the future will come from improved power management and low-power cores.

System Haptics

I experience a surprising amount of joy when my phone physically responds to presses and prods. Most recent, digital devices have been striving for fewer moving parts, but mechanical switches, dials, and hard drives weren’t without their charm. The iPhone 7’s Taptic Engine does a fine job at bringing back the feeling of a device mechanical, without the baggage of older technology. 

Using vibration motors to send physical feedback is far from new technology, but the updated Taptic Engine in the iPhone 7 is noticeably more nuanced than anything else I’ve felt before. Furthermore, iOS makes full, but not annoying, use of these feedbacks through what it calls System Haptics. My favorite example is felt when you bring up a date picker and begin scrolling through the days; a pitter-patter of beats, accentuated by audible ticks, makes my phone feel more mechanical than digital. It evokes happiness.

One area I hoped would implement haptics was the keyboard. Alas, it was not. Android has long let users opt to receive short vibrational feedback when typing, and it’s something I enjoy. It reminds me of typing on a mechanical keyboard. However, because keyboard feedback on Android is generated by a traditional motor, the vibrations always feel significantly overpowered. The Taptic Engine, however, with fine-grained control over its vibration tempo and force, might be able to produce typing feedback that feels great.

Home Button

Given my fondness for the Taptic Engine’s ability to simulate mechanical pieces, you would think I’d lament the iPhone 7’s removal of a clicky home button. Yet, I don’t miss it at all. The new home button takes a couple of days to get used to, but once you do, using the old, clicky version will feel archaic. The new home button feels sturdy, the old ones feel like your thumb is trying to balance on a medicine ball.

The new home button’s actuation motion still has quirks though. The best way I’ve found to explain it is that you must press through the button. It’s similar to the rhythm you use when activating 3D Touch. Not a press, not a press and hold, a press through

A small quibble, there seems to be a brief hiccup with iOS’s activation of the app switcher. When I double press the home button, iOS gives me a few milliseconds of animation to the multi-tasking app switcher, before reverting those animation frames and shrinking back into Springboard. I have my old iPhone 6s beside me, also running iOS 10, and I just double pressed to launch the app switcher and saw no such animation feint. On the 6s, iOS appears to wait until the second press is completed, and then it begins the transition into the multi-tasking app switcher. I don’t think this is a problem with the home button itself, and I’d wager a future software update will fix the issue.

Camera

Casual observers will be able to notice the improvements Apple’s made to the iPhone 7’s camera. The updates are particularly noticeable when it comes to taking video, thanks to built-in Optical Image Stabilization (OIS), which was previously only available on the Plus models. OIS removes 80% of the jitters and shakes that make mobile video feel like mobile video, and it also helps your still shots capture less motion blur. OIS can’t replace a steady cam, but this is a phone, not a camera rig. If OIS is included in all future iPhones, which seems likely, mobile video footage may finally be watchable without getting a light case of vertigo. 

Still photos still look excellent, and I find myself noticing the extra colors and details that the iPhone 7 picks up that the 6s does not. Good photos are always going to come down to quality composition and photographer skill, but the iPhone 7’s camera works hard to compensate for you when it can.

Selfies are fun, but the megapixel bump for the front-facing camera means that my FaceTime sessions are that much more clear. I doubt we’re outliers, but my family seems to use FaceTime frequently, so any improvement in that area is welcomed.

Had Apple only upgraded the camera, you’d be missing half the fun. The iPhone 7’s screen has a new Wide Color Gamut, better overall better color display, and images look noticeably more vibrant and bright. Much hay has been made about the iPhone 7 not having an OLED screen, but I think Apple has done a good job at making the LCDs look really good. Sure, OLED can produce a blacker black than LCD, but the matte and Jet Black finishes make up for it in the meantime.

Anecdotally, I’m repeatedly impressed at how highly people seem to hold the iPhone’s camera quality. Several times this past summer, whenever we would be at a party and want photos, the group would, without fail, call out for the “person with the newest iPhone” to take the shot. This happened with different groups of all ages and all smartphones. When a photo was needed, you wanted the person with the iPhone to take it.

Closing

This year’s iPhone is both familiar and unexpected. Familiar because it carries the same look and feel as the two previous generations. Unexpected in how much I appreciated and was delighted by the internal innovations. There are more powerful phones. There are phones with bigger batteries. And there are definitely phones with headphone jacks. But there’s nothing quite like an iPhone, and there hasn’t been for the past ten years.

Apple has designed us a phone rooted in the ideology that the best user experience comes from tight coupling of precision hardware and performant software. When you spend a decade iterating on that idea, the end result is not just the best iPhone yet, but one of the best smartphones ever.

Monday, 7 November 2016