Apple iPhone 7 review:

THE GOOD Improved front and rear cameras — now with optical image stabilization — deliver much improved photos, especially in low light. Water resistant. A faster processor, plus better battery life. More onboard storage than last year’s models for the same price.

THE BAD No headphone jack (but there’s a dongle and compatible wired headphones in the box). Click-free home button takes getting used to. Only the larger 7 Plus has the cool dual camera. Shiny jet-black version scratches easily.

THE BOTTOM LINE The iPhone 7’s notable camera, battery and water resistance improvements are a worthwhile upgrades to a familiar phone design, but ask yourself if you really need an upgrade…and if the Plus might be a better choice.

Curved wraparound screen? Nope. Wireless charging? Not yet. Are you bothered that the new iPhone looks the same as last year’s iPhone? If you are, I understand the feeling. The iPhone 7 doesn’t feel like the “whole new thing.” Does that bother you? Maybe. But is it better? Yeah, it is. Except for one small 3.5-millimeter thing.

The iPhone 7, as you may have heard (you’ve certainly heard), has no headphone jack and it looks almost identical to the 2014 iPhone 6 and 2015 iPhone 6S. But there are still compelling reasons to consider an iPhone 7, even if you own last year’s model.

  • The iPhone 7 is now fully water-resistant (it can take a shallow dunking).
  • The camera takes notably better photos, especially in low light, and adds the optical image stabilization feature previously restricted to the 5.5-inch Plus model.
  • The battery lasts longer — probably a couple of hours or more a day, under normal usage. (We’ll update this review after we test the battery in our lab.)
  • The processor is faster, although you might only notice the speed on some intensive games and the video and photo-editing apps.

It’s also got a “wide color gamut” screen with enhanced color accuracy, and enhanced stereo speakers, though I didn’t find those improvements as critical as the ones above. And the home button isn’t “clickable” anymore — it uses the same pressure sensitivity and vibration feedback found on the 3D Touch screen. It works perfectly well, but takes some getting used to because there’s no mechanical click when you press the home button.

True, the iPhone 7 gives you a number of options: Get a pair of Bluetooth headphones. Apple’s AirPods, maybe? I’ll get to those in a minute. You could use the included wired Apple EarPods, which now have a strange Lightning plug instead of a 3.5mm one. Or the Lightning-to-regular-headphone adapter dongle, which Apple’s thoughtfully included in the box. (You can buy extras for $9 a pop.) But you have to remember to take it everywhere with you, and who wants to remember to carry a dongle? (If you leave it attached to your headphones, you better not bring another pair of headphones.)

That little headphone jack is the one thing that I could see bothering people about this phone. Like the single USB-C port on Apple’s newest MacBook, it’s a compromise that feels forced.

If you’re already a wireless headphone power user, you won’t miss a thing. But someday — who knows when? — you’ll find yourself somewhere wanting to use a pair of wired headphones. And you’ll find that you can’t plug them in because you left your dongle behind. Don’t cry to me when that happens.

Design: Black is the new black

In a world of curved eye-popping displays, the iPhone now looks a little old-fashioned. It’s slim and attractive and still very well-designed, but the iPhone 7 looks just like the iPhone 6 and 6S. It’s like the MacBook Air, or the iPad: A familiar, old form. Maybe more durable, but it’s mostly the same. Apple smoothed out the seams that used to hide the phone’s antennae, so the aluminum around the back looks smoother. The camera bump is larger, by just a bit.

Apple added new colors this year, too. Now the phone comes in two versions of black in addition to the existing silver, gold and rose gold colors. Regular black is matte, while jet black is a high gloss. Jet black, it turns out, is a fingerprint and scratch magnet. Mine is already peppered with microabrasions after just a few days. My suggestion: Don’t buy jet black if you care about scratches.

But if you’re looking at the iPhone 7 from the front, it’s almost impossible to distinguish from the iPhone 6 or 6S. That’s how similar the design is.

A home button that doesn’t click

Using the new home button, even after a week, feels weird. It’s been a hard adjustment.

I’ve clicked so many home buttons. The iPhone 7’s “button” is really a solid state circle that doesn’t move at all. It’s like the new MacBook trackpads, in a sense. Push down, and you get a haptic “click” that’s not quite as satisfying.

You won’t wear down the button, though, because it doesn’t move. And really, it feels a bit like 3D Touch — Apple’s new pressure-sensitive touchscreen tech introduced on the 6S and returning on the 7 — moved into the home button.

So if that home button is now just a flat surface, it also feels like a carrot on a stick to use 3D Touch more. I still don’t use it much, but iOS 10 uses it a lot more…and to some effective ends. There are so many ways to pull up apps from the home screen, or check info, that the home button really isn’t needed much. Now that the screen auto-wakes on lifting, that’s doubly true. I bet that home button will just disappear next year, with the fingerprint reader absorbed into the display. Why not?

Yeah, it’s really water resistant (but don’t go swimming with it)

Apple’s IP67 water-resistance rating on the new iPhone finally catches up to phones that have been dunkable for a while. Samsung’s Galaxy S7 can survive a drop in the sink. The Note 7 can do it, too. Even the supercheap Moto G4 can do it.

How water resistant is the iPhone 7? Apple calls it “splash and water resistant,” and by the way, IP67 means 1 meter of water for 30 minutes and complete dust resistance. But Apple also warns that any dip in salt water should be followed by an immediate rinse in fresh water. And also, you have to dry your phone for at least a couple of hours before charging (I’d take the safe side with this).

 

I took the iPhone 7 in the shower. I dropped it in a fish tank a few times. I put it in a sink and turned on the tap and filled the sink with the iPhone in it. Stay tuned for further, longer tests. But it’s survived every test easily. But FYI, capacitive displays go nutty in water. You won’t be able to use it when submerged — nor should you.

Other small perks: Stereo speakers, a slightly improved display, buzzier haptics

I couldn’t appreciate Apple’s wider color-gamut display on the iPhone 7, which is supposed to the best next to the iPad Pro 9.7 and 5K iMac, as well as 25 percent brighter. It’s good, don’t get me wrong. But to my eyes, next to a 6S or 6S Plus, it felt the same. And in direct sunlight (I used it in seriously bright New York September sun), it was sometimes hard to see. Like all iPhones, but not really better.

The speakers sound louder. They surround the left and right sides of the iPhone now, instead of a single speaker down by the home button. It’s better for casual game playing or movie watching, but I’d take headphones every time. Or, if I was sharing with someone, I’d pick a larger screen. They don’t always sound as defined and crisp as I’d like.

 

The best improvement of all might be haptics: the vibrations, or rumbles, or taps, or throbs the phone makes in response to your actions. Apple updated the “Taptic Engine” in the iPhone 7, which makes all the vibrations seem sharper and more defined. The silence mode is now a quick tip-tap. Pushing in on 3D Touch icons (if you even do that) throbs more readily. Some sounds and settings now come with phone-rumbling enhancements. Change the clock time, feel the click of the wheel as you spin it. It means that more tactile feedback is possible, even in apps with on-screen buttons. It’s like a phone-wide Xbox One rumble pack.

Nice camera bumps, especially in low light

The iPhone 7 gets an upgrade I wished were in the 6S — namely, optical image stabilization (or OIS). The slightly wider f1.8-aperture lens also lets in more light for low-light photos. OIS and that new lens both make a difference in everyday shots, I’ve found. Photos at dusk in my backyard that were barely viewable on the 6S looked far brighter on the 7.

The 12-megapixel camera’s other improvements, including a new ISP for other image improvements, might be too subtle for casual point-and-shooters to appreciate. The four-LED flash is brighter, and helped light up a room so well I could even shoot a barely passable photo of the darkened room next door. Note that Live Photo slows down the shutter speed, so turn it off for faster shots.

The front-facing FaceTime camera has been bumped to 7 megapixels now, and it looked great for selfies or videos. With one small caveat: I found that some shots seemed a little washed out in the background even with HDR on in my early review unit.

However, I still found that the I preferred the iPhone 7 Plus camera. Part of that is obvious: It has a dual camera on the back that allows for 2x optical zoom or extra levels of digital zoom. And the added screen size is more useful for looking at photos and editing them.

Fast, efficient

The iPhone 7’s new processor, called the A10 Fusion, promises another significant set of speed bumps with two cores. There’s also a new wrinkle: A lower-power battery-optimizing mode with two other cores. In classic Apple fashion, the phone switches between these cores automatically and you can’t tweak it.

In a few benchmarks using GeekBench 4 (an updated version of the no-longer-available GeekBench 3 that we use to test phones), the 7 made big gains (3,488 single-core, 5,605 multi-core in case you’re curious).

The phone is seriously fast. It’s faster than any other iOS devices including the iPad Pro, and faster than Samsung’s last batch of phones by a significant margin. But I have to say — as I do many years — that this iPhone feels about as fast the last iPhone in most everyday instances.

Someday, maybe, we’ll see phones stop getting relentlessly faster every year. For now, it’s something to appreciate. But I wouldn’t drop everything and get this phone just for any promised speed gains.

Battery life: An extra jolt

I wouldn’t call the 7’s battery boost dramatic, but I’d call it practical. Both the 7 and 7 Plus seemed to last a whole day without needing a recharge as I’m pretty used to doing. Performance seemed similar to theiPhone SE, anecdotally. Full battery benchmarks are coming this week.

But I don’t think battery benchmarks will tell the whole story this time. Our video playback test in airplane mode doesn’t reflect what everyday internet use is like, and with Apple’s new power-managing processor, what you do will possibly cause different results.

I liked having more battery at last, something I wanted in the 6S. Apple’s attentiveness to more power-efficient processing is promising. But lots of great phones now have super-size batteries in them. Think of the Motorola Moto Z Play and Galaxy S7. Apple’s battery capacities in iPhones, historically, are usually smaller.

And no, there’s no wireless charging option. Maybe next year.

More storage

All the iPhones finally got storage upgrades. Now $649, £599 and AU$1,079 will get you 32GB, and after that $749, £699 and AU$1,229 for 128GB and $849, £799 and AU$1,379 for 256GB. 32GB is the bare minimum I’d recommend anyone get for a phone that lacks expandable storage. I’m sad that 64GB went away.

256GB seems like an insane amount unless you’re a filmmaker and live off your iPhone. Shooting in 4K chews up space, and 256GB isn’t unrealistic at all if you’re out recording a day’s worth of video footage.

APPLE IPHONE 7 AND 7 PLUS STORAGE AND PRICING

Model Storage US UK AU
Apple iPhone 7 32GB $649 £599 AU$1,079
128GB $749 £699 AU$1,229
256GB $849 £799 AU$1,379
Apple iPhone 7 Plus 32GB $769 £719 AU$1,269
128GB $869 £819 AU$1,419
256GB $969 £919 AU$1,569

 

Phones are already the way we connect with tons of things around us. I spend my time with dozens of wireless wearable peripherals. Apple’s pushing its own versions more than ever: AirPods, the Apple Watch and probably more things to come. Virtual and augmented reality, perhaps. A whole universe of connected smart home gadgets.

The iPhone is the thing at the center. And this one’s better, overall. But if you want something that looks and feels different, wait till next year. Or, go elsewhere. Nearly every other phone, including Apple’s still-excellent iPhone 6S, still has that comfy old headphone jack.

That might change very soon, though, across the smartphone landscape. And the iPhone might change radically with it.

This iPhone feels like it’s laying the groundwork for a more sealed-off, improved, wireless system. In the meantime, it’s a little bit boring.

I’m OK with that if it’s reliable. This year’s upgrade isn’t something you need to have. But its improvements are likely doing some subtle paving of the way toward changes in another iPhone next year.

If you care about better photos, and want to be a little more future-proofed for whatever Apple has in store for that dual camera, seriously think about getting the 7 Plus.

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