iPhone 7 and 7 Plus review: Great annual upgrades with one major catch | Apple Mac Training UK

iPhone 7 and 7 Plus review: Great annual upgrades with one major catch

Enlarge / The iPhone 7, the iPhone 7 Plus, and the things these phones hath wrought.
Andrew Cunningham

Up until now, every one of Apple’s iPhone hardware updates has been additive. New iPhones do all the stuff that the old ones could do, plus some new stuff. Moving to bigger screens and swapping the 30-pin connector for the Lightning connector have caused a little pain for developers and users (respectively), but even those more disruptive updates were fundamentally giving you more of something than last year’s offering.

It made iPhone upgrades generally pretty easy to recommend. If your phone was two or three years old and wearing out, there’s a new phone waiting for you that will be better than what you have. Even small-screened phone die-hards eventually got the iPhone SE.

Broadly speaking, the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus still give you more: more speed, better camera, better screens, faster LTE, more battery life, more water-resistant. Year-over-year, it’s a respectable update. And compared to an aging iPhone 6 or 5S it’s a big jump forward. There’s just one thing missing. You know what we’re talking about, right?

Apple believes that wireless audio is the future, but instead of waiting for the future to get here, the company is forcing the issue. The iPhone 7 removes the standard 3.5mm audio jack in favor of audio over the Bluetooth protocol and its proprietary Lightning port. Older iPhones can do all three, but the iPhone 7 can’t.

What is it like to use the first smartphone of any real significance not to include a headphone jack? Where does it create problems? When is it beneficial? And are the other things that the iPhone 7 brings to the table enough to justify giving up such a venerable and widespread port?

Table of Contents

What’s the difference?

Specs at a glance: Apple iPhone 7
Screen 1334×750 4.7-inch (326PPI) pressure-sensitive IPS touchscreen with DCI-P3 color gamut
OS iOS 10.0.1
CPU Apple A10 Fusion (Two ~2.35GHz high-performance cores, two low-power cores)
RAM 2GB
GPU Apple A10 GPU
Storage 32, 128, or 256GB
Networking 802.11ac Wi-Fi (866Mbps), Bluetooth 4.2, NFC (Apple Pay only)
Ports Lightning
Camera 12MP rear camera with OIS, 7MP front camera
Size 5.44″ x 2.64″ x 0.28″ (138.1 x 67.0 x 7.1mm)
Weight 4.87oz (138g)
Battery ~1960mAh
Starting price $ 649 unlocked
Other perks Second-gen TouchID fingerprint sensor

Because we’re reviewing two phones in a single piece, let’s quickly run down the differences between the 7 and the 7 Plus. The two phones are broadly similar inside and out, but the Plus has a few extra features that the standard model does not.

  • Screen size and resolution: The iPhone 7 has a 4.7-inch 1334×750 screen, and the 7 Plus has a 5.5-inch 1920×1080 display. The 7 Plus is actually displaying a 2208×1242 image and scaling it to 1080p, but you can’t tell just by looking at it.
  • Internals: The iPhone 7 Plus has 3GB of RAM, while the iPhone 7 has 2GB.
  • Battery: Leaks peg the iPhone 7’s battery at 1960mAh and the iPhone 7 Plus’ battery at 2910mAh. We’ll need a teardown to confirm these, but they’re roughly in line with the size and battery life increases Apple is promising.
  • Camera: Both phones have a 12MP rear camera with an f/1.8 aperture and optical image stabilization (OIS), a feature that used to be confined to the Plus line. But the Plus adds a second 12MP camera with an f/2.8 aperture that can be used to simulate optical zoom.
  • Software: The iPhone 7 Plus’ larger screen lets it do a few things the iPhone 7 can’t.

Look and feel

Whether the iPhone 7 looks and feels “new” to you is going to be unusually dependent on the color you buy. The matte black finish and the glossy “jet black” finish will be popular because these colors telegraph to the world that You Have The New Thing (the gold and rose gold finishes did the same thing for the iPhone 5S and 6S, respectively). These colors also look the most different from the 6 and 6S.

The jet black finish in particular feels like a very different phone. Its back is still aluminum, but it has the same look and feel as the phone’s glass front—an effort to create the impression of an all-glass phone without actually being as fragile as an all-glass phone. The rounded edges of the phone and the rounded borders of the glass on the front create the appearance of a single continuous surface, which was always the intent with the 6 and 6S design even if the disparity in textures always ruined the illusion.

Like a glass phone, the jet black iPhone is more prone to slipping and sliding than the other finishes. A fingerprint-resistant oleophobic coating helps keep it grippy and safe in your hands, but if you rest it on anything uneven—a desk or table, your chest or leg, a chair—the phone is prone to falling. The rounded, smooth iPhone 6 design is already harder to hold on to than the sharper edges of the 5-series and SE design, so a glossy finish doesn’t help.

Apple also warns that the jet black finish may wear over time, not unlike what slowly happened to the glossy black finishes on iPhones 3G and 3GS. I’ve had the piano black version for six days, and the finish already has a few hairline scratches across the back of it. Here’s the full footnote from the iPhone 7 product page:

“The high-gloss finish of the jet black iPhone 7 is achieved through a precision nine-step anodization and polishing process. Its surface is equally as hard as other anodized Apple products; however, its high shine may show fine micro-abrasions with use. If you are concerned about this, we suggest you use one of the many cases available to protect your iPhone.”

The antenna cutouts on the back of the phone have changed, too. Metal interferes with wireless signals, so all modern iPhones have included cutouts in their aluminum cases to allow Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and cellular signals through. In the iPhone 5, 5S, and SE, those cutouts are the small slivers of glass you see on the back of the phone at the top and bottom. On the iPhone 6 and 6S, the cutouts became lines that ran all the way across the back of the phone and up over the edges—the “space gray” cutouts were vaguely similar in color to the surrounding aluminum, but the silver, gold, and rose gold phones all used white cutouts that were more obvious. You can still see the cutouts on the new phones, especially in the non-black finishes, but they only run around the edges of the phone now instead of all the way across the back.

Specs at a glance: Apple iPhone 7 Plus
Screen 1920×1080 5.5-inch (401PPI) pressure-sensitive IPS touchscreen with DCI-P3 color gamut
OS iOS 10.0.1
CPU Apple A10 Fusion (Two ~2.35GHz high-performance cores, two low-power cores)
RAM 3GB
GPU Apple A10 GPU
Storage 32, 128, or 256GB
Networking 802.11ac Wi-Fi (866Mbps), Bluetooth 4.2, NFC (Apple Pay only)
Ports Lightning
Camera 12MP rear camera (one f/1.8 lens with OIS, one f/2.8 telephoto lens), 7MP front camera
Size 6.23″ x 3.07″ x 0.29″ (158.2 x 77.9 x 7.3mm)
Weight 6.63oz (188g)
Battery ~2910mAh
Starting price $ 769 unlocked
Other perks Second-gen TouchID fingerprint sensor

Driving home their similarity to the 6S-era design, the 7 and 7 Plus have the exact same physical dimensions, screen sizes, and screen resolutions as the 6S and 6S Plus. They’re so close that the 7 and 7 Plus can almost fit into cases for the 6 and 6 Plus, but in most cases the larger camera lens and bump will get in the way. This also means that the bezels are the same size—Android phones with the same or larger screen sizes are generally slightly smaller in width and height than Apple’s phones, in part because Android phone makers are willing to fit extra components in by making phones slightly thicker.

That camera bump is larger than ever, particularly on the 7 Plus. In the iPhone 6 design the bump was a small, separate piece of metal; in the 7 the back of the phone is molded around the camera lenses, which probably helps with water resistance. The bump is still large enough to make the iPhone 7 Plus feel wobbly if you’ve got it lying squarely on its back on a flat surface, but the iPhone 7 still feels fine, and most cases will be thick enough to even out the bump.

In the end, the iPhone 7’s design is distinct from the 6 and 6S, but it’s not as drastic a departure as the iPhone 5 was from the 4 and 4S (or as the iPhone 6 was from the 5 and 5S). The naming convention hasn’t changed, but, judging purely from the exterior, this is more like an “iPhone 6S-S” than an all-new design.

The screen is likewise a small upgrade. Apple claims a 25-percent increase in brightness for both screens, but the contrast ratio, resolution, and density are the same as the 6 and 6S. Like a few other recent Apple products, the screens also upgrade from an sRGB color gamut to a full DCI-P3 gamut.

The move to DCI-P3, usually called “Wide Color” in Apple’s marketing and documentation, started with last October’s 4K and 5K iMacs and continued with the 9.7-inch iPad. DCI-P3 is a wider color gamut capable of displaying more shades of green and red, and both iOS 10 and macOS Sierra also improve support for Wide Color in system frameworks like Core Graphics, Core Image, and Metal. The effect isn’t always obvious if you don’t have sRGB and DCI-P3 pictures of the same thing sitting right next to each other, but it does make a visible difference.

None of this is anything users will have to worry about, except to know that you’ll need a DCI-P3 screen to be able to see the additional colors in any Wide Color picture or video. As more of Apple’s screens move to support the wider gamut, more people will be able to see the extra color information in your pictures and videos.

Solid-state Home button and new Taptic Engine

Another change made in the name of water resistance? The new, solid-state Home button no longer actually moves and clicks as it has on every iPhone since the original. The new one is cast in the mold of the MacBook’s Force Touch trackpad, insofar as it uses vibrations to replace physical movement.

When you set up an iPhone 7 or restore a backup made on an older phone, iOS asks you to choose how you want the Home button to feel. There are three different settings, with “1” providing the least amount of feedback and “3” providing the most. I found setting 3 to be the most button-y, but if you want to tweak the feedback later, you can do so from the General section of the Settings app.

Force Touch trackpads in MacBooks are pretty good simulations of physical trackpads. Click, and the trackpad surface (and just the trackpad surface) vibrates to create a click-like effect. The Taptic Engine in the iPhone 7 can’t produce localized vibrations like that, so “clicking” the home button gently shakes the entire phone. And the vibration effect, while button-like, has more in common with the force feedback you get by pressing Android buttons than it does with the classic clicky button. The feedback is also much-reduced if you’re pressing the button while your phone is lying on a desk or table, where you definitely won’t mistake the solid-state button for a physical one.

Apple says the removal of the headphone jack also created room for a larger, better version of the Taptic Engine, which is more versatile than the version in the iPhone 6S. Tiny bits of force feedback have been added throughout iOS—if you’re scrolling and you hit the top or bottom of a window, for instance, the phone can give you a small nudge to accompany the rubber banding animation. The same thing happens when you delete an e-mail or when you spin through a list of dates or times in the Calendar app. If you want, this can all be disabled in the Sounds section in the Settings (renamed “Sounds & Haptics” on the iPhone 7).

These tweaks don’t add anything essential to the iPhone experience, but they do drive home the subtle ways in which the Taptic Engine is different from a regular vibration motor. The iPhone 7 can vibrate incredibly quickly and precisely, and this vibration can be used to create feedback patterns that all feel unique. Most vibration motors can manage a short buzz and a long buzz, but the way the vibration feels in your hand and under your finger is always the same.

To show off the versatility of the Taptic Engine, Apple has included an API for developers to use in their apps to customize this force feedback. Apple showed me a music app with piano keys and a couple of different games that have been built to use the feature—the coolest demo was a zombie shooter that vibrated the phone in different ways depending on the weapon I was firing.

The new haptic feedback in iOS and the Taptic Engine API are only available in the iPhone 7. Apple has deemed the smaller first-generation Taptic Engine in the 6S incapable of supporting these features.

Water resistance

Glug.

Enlarge / Glug.
Andrew Cunningham

The first time I decided to upend a glass of water on one of these iPhones was deeply distressing. The first Apple product I ever bought myself was a first-generation iPod Nano in early 2006, so pretty much every pocket-sized Apple thing I’ve ever owned has had a liquid contact indicator inside that told Apple support people that you were lying when you said your gadget had “just stopped working all of a sudden.” Getting water on them was Not To Be Done.

The iPhone 6S made baby steps toward water resistance—Apple never mentioned it, but teardown artists figured it out—but the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus are Apple’s first to be fully, publicly declared to be water-resistant. Note the subtle but important semantic distinction between “water-resistant” and “water-proof.” Apple doesn’t want you to throw your phone into the deep end of a pool on purpose as a party trick, but spills, rainstorms, and even briefly submerging it in shallow water is no longer the end of the world.

If you want to see an example of what Apple has done on the inside of the phone, pull out the SIM tray and take a close look. There’s a small rubber gasket on the inside, and similar bits of rubber on the interior will keep water from getting in through the Lightning port, the speakers, or the earpiece.

Apple says the phone is IP67 rated, which is pretty common among waterproofed smartphones (Samsung and Sony phones made in the last two or three years are often, though not always, waterproofed, though it has never become a mandatory feature for all Android phones). If you’re not familiar with the IP code, here’s how it works: the first digit applies to a device’s dust protection rating, and the second digit refers to water protection. A 6 on the dust protection scale means the phone is “dust tight” and that the phone was tested in a dusty environment for at least eight hours without getting any particles inside it. A 7 on the water protection scale means the phone was immersed in a meter of water for at least 30 minutes without letting in a “harmful quantity” of water.

Water resistant or not, Apple does attach some strings to the iPhone’s water resistance. Here’s the relevant section from the footnotes on the iPhone 7 page:

“Splash, water, and dust resistance are not permanent conditions and resistance might decrease as a result of normal wear. Do not attempt to charge a wet iPhone; refer to the user guide for cleaning and drying instructions. Liquid damage not covered under warranty.”

You’ll still want to be careful about getting your phone wet, but it’s also incredibly freeing to be able to get it a little wet in the kitchen or outside without being worried that you’ll break it, void your warranty, or both. Apple wouldn’t tell us how the waterproofing would be affected by opening the phone up to service it—if you replace the screen or the battery, are you also compromising its water resistance? We’ll need to wait for teardowns to start cropping up before we know for sure.

Stereo speakers

Both new iPhones include a set of stereo speakers, one that pumps audio out of the bottom of the phone where sound has always come out and one that plays through the earpiece’s speaker grill—there’s not another extra hole on the top of the phone anywhere for sound to come out.

The sound the phone pumps out can get loud enough to comfortably fill a room, though you’ll still never mistake it for anything other than a phone speaker. It’ll do for music in a pinch, though I’d never choose it over my Bluetooth speaker if given the option. What it’s more useful for is listening to podcasts and things where audio fidelity isn’t as important as volume. Listening to a podcast in the shower with an iPhone 6S wasn’t doable because the speaker wasn’t loud enough, but with an iPhone 7 it’s totally fine.

The new cameras

A confederacy of camera bumps. 7 on the top, 7 Plus on the right, 6S Plus on the bottom.

Enlarge / A confederacy of camera bumps. 7 on the top, 7 Plus on the right, 6S Plus on the bottom.
Andrew Cunningham

Both new iPhones come with refined 12MP rear cameras, and for the first time Apple was able to fit optical image stabilization (OIS) into both the small phone and the big phone—the 6 Plus and 6S Plus got it, but the vanilla 6 and 6S didn’t. It’s something else Apple attributes in part to the removal of the headphone jack, and its benefits in low light are obvious in the darkest of our test shots below.

There’s also a new four-LED two-tone flash, which for the mathematically impaired is twice as many LEDs as before. Apple tells us that the four LEDs don’t increase the number of tones that the flash can try to match—the two-LED system can already put out “hundreds” of subtly different color temperatures—but that having four LEDs makes the flash much brighter and thus more useful if you ever need to use the flash.

But the most interesting change is, per usual, something that Apple could only fit into the larger of the two phones: the iPhone 7 Plus has a second 12MP “telephoto” camera on its back, which as of this writing simulates a camera lens with 2x optical zoom. It’s not the first time anyone has tried this idea in a smartphone, but Apple’s effort is a whole lot better and more usable than (say) HTC’s. A software update due later this year (presumably iOS 10.1, though Apple declined to confirm a version number for us) will also enable a faux depth-of-field effect, combining images from the two cameras together in software to create a bokeh effect. Again, not the first time it has been tried, but we are still waiting for someone to do it well. We’ll revisit the feature after it’s enabled.

In our sample shots, the 7 and 7 Plus cameras don’t look all that much better than the 6S and 6S Plus cameras when there’s plenty of light available. The amount of fine detail the new cameras can capture is about the same as last year, and the biggest improvement (albeit a subtle one that I can’t actually see on the three- to four-year-old Macs I’m writing this on) is support for the same DCI-P3 color gamut as the iPhones’ displays.

For the 7 Plus, we’ve included both “standard” and “zoomed” versions of all of these images. There’s a button in the camera app on the 7 Plus that you can use to toggle quickly between the standard and telephoto lenses, and you can also pinch-to-zoom or drag a slider if you want to get into digital zoom.

It’s in low light where the 7 and 7 Plus cameras really shine. In the nighttime skyline shots below, many of the iPhone cameras have trouble focusing enough on the skyline to take a sharp image. The 7 and 7 Plus not only manage it, but they capture more of that lovely light pollution that any major city gives off at night. The “dim indoor” photo again poses no real trouble to any of the iPhones, but the 7 and 7 Plus were able to take pictures with lower ISOs (i.e., less noise) and slower shutter speeds (i.e., letting in more light) than older cameras. The further back you go, the more noticeable the improvement is.

The low-light indoor shots also show the benefits of the new cameras, especially relative to anything older than an iPhone 6S. The pictures are sharper and easier to make out, without question.

There are some things you should know about the 7 Plus’ telephoto lens before you go out and buy one. First, that secondary camera isn’t quite as good as the main camera. It’s still a 12MP sensor, but the sensor isn’t as large as the main camera’s, which means that it captures less information and works less well in low light. I’ve compared the file sizes for every standard and zoomed photo I’ve taken, and while they are indeed the same resolution, file sizes are consistently smaller for the zoomed images.

There’s also evidence that the telephoto lens lacks OIS, something which will also hurt low-light performance. Your hands are always going to move a bit when you take a picture, but OIS compensates for some of that motion, which allows the camera to let more light in without making a blurry photo. The camera still performs fairly well in low light, but its pictures are noticeably grainier. Here are a few more standard and zoomed shots taken indoors with good overhead lighting.

None of this is to say that the telephoto lens is bad. It’s far-and-away superior to digital zoom, which is just cropping the standard un-zoomed image you would have taken anyway. This side-by-side comparison shows a photo of a distant building taken with the 7 Plus’ zoom lens (left) with its standard lens (right).

A picture from the 7 Plus' telephoto lens (left) and the standard lens (right). Note the extra detail.

Enlarge / A picture from the 7 Plus’ telephoto lens (left) and the standard lens (right). Note the extra detail.
Andrew Cunningham

There’s a ton more detail there, and it helps Apple get away with shipping cameras with slightly lower megapixel counts (megapixels aren’t everything, of course, but some of the better high-megapixel Android cameras are better at picking up distant fine detail than the iPhone). The only place the telephoto lens doesn’t help you much is if you’re taking a picture of something that’s right in front of you. Sometimes, the OIS plus the larger sensor make it so that you can pick up as much or more fine detail with the regular lens as you can with the zoomed one. For distant subjects, though, it’s a nice addition.

The whole headphone jack thing

Something is missing.

Enlarge / Something is missing.
Andrew Cunningham

The iPhone 7 includes plenty of improvements, but the thing it will probably always be remembered for—for better or worse—is its removal of the standard 3.5mm headphone jack.

For the sake of readability, I want to separate the “how do the Lightning headphones and AirPods actually work” questions from the “why is Apple taking my headphone jack away” questions. I’ll start with the latter topic, because I want to take one more stab at articulating why this issue is more complicated than “old = bad” or “the headphone jack stands in the way of progress.”

Apple and its most ardent defenders are framing the decision to remove the jack mostly as a conflict between “new” and “old.” The original version of the technology dates back to the late 19th century, and the modern 3.5mm version began life in the 1960s. In Phil Schiller’s words, it is “an ancient, single-purpose, analog big connector,” and it’s getting in Apple’s way as it tries to improve other aspects of its hardware.

Apple is doing all it can to directly or indirectly credit most of the iPhone 7’s major advancements to the space saved by abandoning that headphone jack, both in its presentation and in its briefings afterward. There’s more room for battery, for a better camera, and for a larger, more capable Taptic Engine. No headphone jack also means one less hole to waterproof. In any other year these would have been expected improvements delivered in a substantially redesigned enclosure that helped to make them possible, but sure, at least Apple is giving us plenty of sugar to help the medicine go down.

I don’t have a problem with any of those criticisms of the headphone jack. It is old. It does take up a lot of space relative to what it does. Wires are annoying, and you and I are currently bathed in cellular, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth signals that attest to the popularity and convenience of wireless protocols.

But that’s not where this conversation should begin and end. The headphone jack is old, but it’s also a widely used standard that’s so entrenched that you can just assume it will be there in almost anything you buy. And it has been that way for the entire lives of most of the people who are thinking about and writing about iPhones. I can plug the same headphones into a 1989 Game Boy and a 2015 iPhone 6S as well as the entertainment system on a multimillion dollar passenger plane. People regularly bring up things like the floppy disk, the optical drive, the 30-pin connector, or even Flash when they talk about the headphone jack, but the scale of the headphone jack’s entrenchment is on an entirely different level.

Yes, that technology is imperfect. But being able to assume the jack will be there is a valuable convenience that shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand. It pretty much only does the one thing, but you can always count on it to reliably and capably do that thing. There’s no pairing to do or product licensing to worry about, no “smart” bits anywhere in the process to “help” make your listening experience “better” with pop-up messages or configuration options.

To make any tech purchase in 2016 is to negotiate your way through a tangle of competing standards, proprietary technologies, and ecosystems. If I buy this, will it hook up to my other stuff? Is this some giant company’s version of a standard technology that is totally incompatible with three other versions of the same idea from three other giant companies? Will it play the streaming videos I already own? Will I need a dongle or adapter, how much will it cost, and how regularly will it need to be replaced? Will I need to upgrade anything else to get the most out of it? Now the ancient and single-purpose but unassuming, ownerless, and reliable headphone jack gets to be a part of the mess.

Don’t count on Apple changing its mind

Right now if you don’t want to deal with the headphone jack thing, you can either keep your current iPhone or buy a 6S or SE—iOS 10 treats older hardware well and the 6S and SE are all still solid, capable phones. But don’t hold off in the hope that Apple will reverse course and restore the headphone jack next year. That ship, barring some major unforeseen development, has sailed.

Apple won’t reverse course because it won’t have to. First, it is the world’s largest and most influential tech company, and people and other companies (Android phone makers included) tend to go where Apple leads. If you make accessories and don’t want to miss out on potential sales, you’ll start working around the headphone jack. Second, the rest of the iPhone 7 is good enough that many people will end up buying one anyway, tacitly endorsing all of the decisions that Apple made while designing it.

Now that the process has started, the headphone jack will vanish from the iPhone lineup with surprising speed. Remember, the TouchID fingerprint sensor was introduced in September of 2013, and by September of 2015 a fingerprint sensor was included in every single new iPhone sold. The NFC sensor used for Apple Pay was introduced in September of 2014, and by March of 2016 every single new iPhone sold included an NFC sensor. Apple’s control of its ecosystem combined with regular refresh cycles means that new hardware trickles downward and outward much more quickly than it does elsewhere (look at fingerprint sensors and USB Type-C in Android phones to see a more diverse ecosystem’s meandering path toward the future).

All of this is to say, do vote with your wallet if you feel strongly. Do send Apple reasonable, level-headed feedback if you have it, preferably by calling customer service or e-mailing or even letter writing rather than spouting 140-character hate at the Twitter account Tim Cook almost certainly never actually looks at. But if you want to stay in the iPhone ecosystem (and there are still many, many reasons to stay), start making peace with the idea of one day giving up your headphone jack, because you’ll almost certainly have to.

The good and bad about Lightning headphones and Lightning dongles

So how exactly has Apple implemented this change, and how do the new wired and wireless headphones work? To start, Apple ships a pair of wired Lightning earbuds and a short 3.5mm-to-Lightning dongle in the box with every iPhone 7, which is certainly a better way to treat users than Apple did with the separate 30-pin-to-Lightning adapter four years ago. Extra dongles will ship for $ 9 apiece, which likewise isn’t an awful deal for people who need dongles specifically for their cars, or for work, or whatever.

The Lightning earbuds look, work, and sound exactly like the 3.5mm version that they replace, which is good enough news for users even though it doesn’t do anything to demonstrate why a digital connector is better than an analog one. If you liked the old earbuds (I mostly do, or at least I don’t dislike them enough to replace them), you’ll be happy enough with these. If you hated the old ones, the dongle is still there for you, and Lightning headphones will likely become more of a thing as time goes on.

It should go without saying, but these Lightning headphones also work the same way with any and all other iDevices with Lightning ports going all the way back to the iPhone 5. If you’re the rare person who doesn’t have any devices without a Lightning port, you won’t have a problem swapping the 3.5mm earbuds out for your Lightning ones and getting on with your life.

The audiophile set could also see some benefits by using Lightning rather than 3.5mm headphones. They can draw power from the phone that can be used for noise-canceling, obviating the need for built-in batteries, and they can include their own higher-quality digital-to-analog converters (DACs) and amplifiers to provide better sound quality than the phone’s built-in DAC is capable of. Most users won’t notice or benefit from these improvements, but they’re there if you care to use them.

Most people will feel the absent headphone jack the most in two situations. First, if you’re listening to music on your iPhone and you’d like to plug into some non-iDevice with a 3.5mm jack but no Lightning port, including but not limited to your Mac, you’re out of luck. To solve this problem, I’ve found myself using my standard 3.5mm earbuds plugged into the dongle to listen to music and podcasts on the iPhone 7 just to make it easier to switch to my MacBook Air or 3DS when I want to.

The latter problem is more complicated: if you need to charge the phone and listen to audio at the same time. This runs up against the less-talked-about effect of the disappearing headphone jack, which is that the iPhone 7 only has one port where all previous models had two.

The iPhone 7’s greater battery life should help a little. You won’t need to plug your phone into an external battery pack or into the adapter that you keep at your desk at work quite as often, so you won’t run into as many cases where you need two ports at once. But if you, say, listen to music or white noise or ASMR videos or something to help you fall asleep and you also want to charge your phone overnight, it gets more complicated. Currently, there are no perfect solutions. You’ll either need to invest in a bulky Lightning dongle with two ports; in Apple’s official Lightning dock; or in wireless headphones, which remain more expensive than wired headphones and give you another battery to worry about.

And there’s one more thing to consider if you’re an entrepreneur or small business owner who uses a card swiping system like Square to conduct transactions. Many of these systems rely on the headphone jack in current iPhones rather than Lightning. It may be awkward, but in an interview with MacWorld a Square spokesperson said that these accessories would work normally using the 3.5mm dongle. The current version of Square’s card reader also supports contactless payments—once again, wireless is the answer.

I can totally accept the premise that the future is wireless, but the present is still mostly wired. If you buy an iPhone 7 on launch day, you’ll be wading into the most painful part of the transition. Make sure you go in with your eyes open.

The W1 chip fixes Bluetooth, but only Apple can use it

Wired headphones are there for people who want a low-cost option or for people concerned about audio fidelity, but Apple’s intent is clearly to push more people toward wireless headphones. Another important piece of that puzzle is the W1 chip, an Apple-developed piece of hardware that will show up first in Apple’s AirPods and in a few pairs of Beats headphones.

To clarify, the W1 is not intended as a competitor or a replacement for Bluetooth—according to Apple, it is in fact a Bluetooth controller chip with some other Apple-developed proprietary additions. It’s designed to speed up and simplify pairing (it does) and stabilize Bluetooth’s sometimes inconsistent and shaky audio streams (it does). But it’s not meant to replace standard Bluetooth, and AirPods and any other W1 headphones will work just fine with anything that supports Bluetooth, including Android phones.

That’s crucial—my worst fear here was that Apple would “fix” the wireless audio problem using its own proprietary wireless protocol, something that would forever keep Apple’s wireless headphones from being as useful and versatile and universal as good old 3.5mm headphones. But by augmenting Bluetooth rather than replacing it, Apple remains committed to the open standard everyone else has to use while also making the experience better for its customers.

Second, the W1 is a chip that goes in headphones, but it doesn’t need to be included in your phone itself. It’s pretty cool to be able to flip the AirPod case’s top next to a four-year-old iPhone 5 running iOS 10 and have the AirPods pop up, pair, and work exactly the same way that they do with an iPhone 7. So any W1 headphones will automatically work fine with any current iPhone, and these headphones will also be auto-paired to any Mac, iPad, or Apple Watch signed in to the same iCloud account.

As much as I like the W1, it’s still not a slam-dunk wireless replacement for the 3.5mm jack. Apple has total control over the chip, and unlike Lightning, Apple tells us that it will not be licensing the chip out to third-party headphone makers. That could always change, of course, but for the foreseeable future it means that getting the best possible wireless audio experience on iOS means buying headphones from Apple. It puts Apple in exclusive control of the kinds of headphones you can buy and how much those headphones cost to buy, and so far they cost a lot more than most normal people are going to want to pay for headphones.

Anyone who wants something different has plenty of Bluetooth options to choose from, but you also have to put up with the same old Bluetooth pairing wonkiness and audio skipping issues. Likewise, you’ll have those problems if you pair AirPods with any non-Apple Bluetooth device.

AirPods: Pretty good (if you like Apple’s headphones)

And so we finally come to the AirPods themselves, the $ 159 wireless earbuds (AirBuds?) that Apple will begin shipping in “late October.” Apple stressed that the pair I was given was technically a non-final version of what people will be able to buy next month, but this late in the game you can assume that your experience with them will be pretty close.

The AirPods come in a small glossy white flip-top case that is vaguely reminiscent of a dental floss dispenser or a cigarette lighter, and its finish is identical in style to the one Apple uses for the Apple Pencil (clearly white-and-silver is the way forward for Apple’s smart accessories). The case also serves as a mobile wireless charger for the buds themselves, and there’s a small female Lightning connector at the bottom so you can charge it with the same cable you use for your iPhone. There’s a nearly invisible button on the back of the case that’s used for pairing—the W1 plus iCloud will make it so that many buyers never need to use it, but you’ll have to press it with the AirPods inside to pair it with any normal Bluetooth devices.

A small indicator light between the two AirPods in the charger case tells you when the buds are charged and when they still need more time—green means charged, orange means charging. The light will also gently pulse white while the case is in pairing mode.

Apple says that the AirPods themselves can provide up to five hours of battery life on a single charge, that the battery case can charge them enough to get you up to a total of 24 hours, and that popping dead AirPods into the battery case for 15 minutes will yield about three hours of battery life. This is Apple’s standard answer to questions about longevity with its Bluetooth accessories: charging the Magic Mouse 2 with the port on the bottom, the Apple Pencil that juts awkwardly out of the bottom of your iPad, or the AirPods might be annoying, but in a pinch you don’t need to charge them for long to get you as much power as you need to finish doing whatever you’re doing. It’s a compromise, for sure, but it’s livable.

Charged AirPods sitting in their case will slowly drain its battery over time. I haven’t had them for long enough to fully drain the battery, but left completely unattended the case seems to discharge at the rate of 10 or 15 percent a day. You won’t need to charge daily, but once every two or three days seems like a reasonable estimate.

The AirPods are shaped exactly like Apple’s standard EarPods, so if you hate the way they feel or if they physically don’t fit in your ears, you won’t like these either (in the Ars Slack, this was by far the consensus view amongst the peanut gallery last Wednesday). But the sound quality is actually noticeably better than the 3.5mm or Lightning AirPods. Bass is clearer and louder, which is always the biggest issue with cheap or weak speakers and headphones. And you can attribute the improvement to the little cutout on the back of the headphones.

In regular EarPods, this cutout is just a tiny slit. In AirPods, it’s larger with its own little speaker grille. Put your fingers over that cutout on the AirPods while music is playing, and you’ll hear the bass tones fade out entirely. So AirPods may be expensive, but at least you’ll get an audio-quality upgrade if you spring for them.

The standard EarPods fit just fine in my ears, so I was never worried about the AirPods falling out even if I was running or tilting my head around. In fact, without a cable jostling them or getting caught on things, the headphones actually feel lighter and less prone to coming out than the standard EarPods do.

All of that said, Internet reaction to the aesthetic of the AirPods—tiny white straws poking two inches out of one’s ears—has been swift and unforgiving. I do mostly like the way they work and sound and fit, but I don’t particularly care for the way they look. It’s not a problem if I’m sitting at my desk or wandering around the house, but when you go outside in them you do feel as though there’s a giant white glossy arrow pointed at you that everyone can see. That feeling may disappear if they become successful and therefore normalized, but the image of the Loud Jerk Wearing A Bluetooth Headset is so entrenched that Apple may find itself with a Google Glass-esque dorkiness problem on its hands.

If you do hate the design of Apple’s headphones, the W1-equipped Beats models should give you the same pairing experience in a different package. Otherwise, it’s Bluetooth or bust.

How the AirPods and other W1 headphones work

Pop the top of the AirPod case next to an iPhone running iOS 10 (this won’t work with an iPad or an iPod Touch, though there’s no obvious technical reason why) and a special pairing sheet will pop up within a second or two, showing you a spinning image of an AirPod case and asking if you’d like to connect. If you don’t see it, hitting the pairing button on the back of the case will force the issue, though this wasn’t a problem for me.

Once paired, the cool thing about the AirPods is that they work exactly as they’re supposed to. Pop one out of your ear, and audio stops playing (you can hit the Play button again to restart it, though, and you can also make and receive phone calls and talk to Siri with one pod in your ear). Double tap the side of one, and Siri appears as requested—you can change the double-tap shortcut to Play/Pause in the settings, but if you want to use Siri you’ll need to activate it on your phone or with your voice.

The beam-forming mics work well with Siri and with phone calls in a crowded room with one or both AirPods in your ears, though for best results you’ll need to talk in a normal speaking voice. The mic doesn’t pick up whispers or low talking as well, probably since it can’t separate that out from background noise. Whatever the W1 is doing, audio playback stays consistent and stable from across the room, though going a floor or two up from where your phone is will still make the signal cut out or drop entirely.

The “seamless iCloud pairing” part worked less predictably. The first time I paired the AirPods to a phone, they quickly became available on my MacBook Air, my iPad, my Apple Watch, and the other iPhone that was signed into my Apple account. And the first time I sat down to my Mac with the AirPods in, played a video, and heard it through the AirPods without having to do anything, I was happy with the way that Apple’s products can pleasantly surprise you when everything’s working the way it’s supposed to.

But when I got home, I found that the AirPods didn’t show up on the iMac on my desk despite the fact that it’s signed into the same iCloud account (both the MacBook Air and iMac are running the golden master build of macOS Sierra, so it ought to be working as intended). I unpaired the headphones from my phone, which warned me that it would unpair them from all my other iCloud devices. This worked, but when I re-paired the headphones, not only did they still not show up on the Mac, but they also refused to come up on my iPad.

It’s the same sort of problem that you sometimes run into with AirDrop or Handoff or the Personal Hotspot feature—sometimes something goes wrong. And since there’s no real way to troubleshoot, all you can do is manually pair stuff or toggle the wireless interfaces or sign out of and back into iCloud accounts until everything starts working again.

Performance: The A10 Fusion

Ever since it launched the 64-bit Apple A7 a full year before anyone (including rival ARM chipmakers like Qualcomm) expected, Apple’s chips have consistently been one of the best and most surprising things about its phones. Rumor sites and supply chain leaks can forecast headphone jack removal months in advance, but Apple’s chips remain closely guarded secrets that the company only talks about in high-level, abstract terms.

Enter the A10 Fusion, the chip at the heart of the iPhone 7. It’s Apple’s first quad-core CPU, and it’s the first to combine two large high-power, high-performance cores with two small low-power cores to balance speed and battery life. This approach, called “big.LITTLE” when done using ARM’s processor cores, isn’t new. But it’s the first time Apple has used it rather than relying exclusively on clock speed scaling.

CPU architecture and speed

Here are all the high-level takeaways about Apple’s new CPU:

  • The A10 Fusion has four CPU cores (two high-performance cores, two low-power cores), but only two can be powered on at any given time. Functionally, it’s still a (very fast, very good) dual-core CPU.
  • The two fast cores run at about 2.34GHz, compared to 1.84GHz for the A9.
  • Most, but not all, of the performance gains over the A9 in the iPhone 6S come from that clock speed boost.
  • Apple’s high-level performance claims—that the A10 is 40-percent faster than the A9 and twice as fast as the A8—are more-or-less correct according to our tests.
  • The iPhone 7 Plus and iPhone 7 have essentially the same CPU performance, though the 7 Plus’ GPU does appear to be a little faster.
  • The two low-power cores seem to run at about 1.05GHz based on Geekbench 4’s CPU clock speed reporting while in Low Power Mode, though that’s an educated guess and not gospel. Other iPhones report the same clock speed in both standard and Low Power Modes, which leads me to believe that enabling Low Power Mode makes the phone default to the slower cores.

A10 Fusion may technically be a quad-core CPU, but in practice it’s still functionally a dual-core processor with two large, fast processor cores doing the heavy lifting, just like everything from the A9 going all the way back to the A5 (RIP). iOS and its software still only “see” two logical processor cores, and I confirmed this in the Xcode Activity Monitor by running various demanding apps. None of them ever exceeded 200 percent CPU usage, or 100 percent for each logical core. The iPad Air 2 and its A8X chip, Apple’s sole tri-core CPU to date, could reach 300 percent while performing the same tests.

Apple tells us that only two of the A10 Fusion’s cores can be lit up at any one time and that iOS automatically decides which tasks light up the low-power cores and which tasks hit the high-performance cores. It’s meant to be entirely invisible to developers, and early big.LITTLE implementations worked in the same way. More recent ARM chips have allowed both the high-performance and low-power cores to be enabled at the same time, but Apple has decided against it, either because it doesn’t actually improve performance much or because it wanted to keep things simple on the software side.

Primate Labs’ Geekbench reports the CPU clock speed in both the 7 and 7 Plus at a maximum of around 2.35GHz, making it Apple’s highest-clocked mobile CPU. The A9 was around 1.85GHz, and the A9X in the iPad Pros tops out around 2.25GHz. The iPhone 7 usually outperforms the iPhone 6S by 30 or 40 percent, so that 27-percent clock speed jump is responsible for most but not all of those gains.

While most other mobile chipmakers chase core count—anywhere from four to 10 cores is de rigueur in the Android world—Apple has chosen to remain focused on providing fewer cores with high single-core performance. That strategy has worked and continues to work well for Apple, and the company’s chips continue to top the charts in multi-core performance metrics while completely blowing away other ARM chipmakers in single-core performance.

Graphics

We know less about the GPU in the A10 Fusion, only that it has six cores and that it ought to be up to 50-percent faster than the A9 and up to twice as fast as the A8.

Apple usually uses Imagination Technologies PowerVR GPUs in its chips, and there’s a good chance that this year’s model does the same. Beyond that, we can only guess about the GPU’s architecture and speed, especially since Apple has been known to use GPUs that aren’t on Imagination’s “official” roadmap.

Apple’s performance claims are mostly on the money according to our OpenGL and Metal graphics benchmarks, with a handful of outliers where the GPU both undershoots and overshoots that 50-percent estimate. The improvements seem more pronounced in the Metal benchmarks than in the OpenGL ones, which makes sense given the way Apple is pushing its proprietary low-level graphics API. More demanding benchmarks especially show strong gains over the A9 and especially the A8, and Apple is aiming at those iPhone 6 and 6 Plus users with this update.

Storage

First, kudos to Apple for raising the iPhone’s base storage capacity to 32GB, which ought to be perfectly livable for a wide swath of iPhone users. 16GB is hardly enough for apps, media, user data, and even OS updates in the modern era—as much as Apple has tried to optimize its storage with cloud services and developer tools, there’s no substitute for actual space.

Second, it’s difficult to measure storage speeds on iOS, since there are no good, reliable, publicly available storage benchmarks for iOS. We know that Apple started using PCI Express and NVMe for iDevices’ storage last year, just like it does in the Macs. But we can’t get down into nitty-gritty numbers like we do for Macs or Android phones.

What I can say is that the iPhones 7 boot faster than any iDevices I’ve ever seen, which reflects kindly on their storage’s read performance at the very least. Be aware that the 32GB version may be slower because it uses fewer NAND chips than the 128GB or 256GB versions (part of the reason SSDs are so fast is that they read from and write to multiple physical locations at once), but the 256GB versions that Apple lent us are really zippy.

Phone Cold boot time
 iPhone 5 37 seconds
 iPhone 5S 28 seconds
 iPhone 6 21 seconds
 iPhone 6S 16 seconds
 iPhone 7 14 seconds

Wireless

The iPhone 7’s wireless capabilities are mostly the same as they are in the 6S: both include 867Mbps 802.11ac Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.2 (again, there’s nothing special related to W1 or wireless audio in the phone itself, just the AirPods). The iPhone does upgrade from 300Mbps to 450Mbps LTE, though the degree to which this will make your phone faster depends on how good your cellular network already is. Most people keep their phones for two or three years at this point, so at least you’ll be ready for faster speeds as newer networks are deployed.

Battery life

Apple says it managed to make the iPhone 7 last up to two hours longer than the iPhone 6S, and the iPhone 7 Plus should last up to one hour longer than the iPhone 6S Plus. Having a larger battery in both phones (another thing Apple attributes to the absent headphone jack) helps, and as always a new phone means new components, which means either more speed or better power efficiency or both.

Our Wi-Fi browsing test is fairly light—it loads a new page every 15 seconds until the phone dies, giving us an idea of how the phone will fare under “normal” light usage with lots of idle time for those low-power cores on the CPU. Both iPhones do well here, and they beat the 6Ses, albeit by a smaller margin than Apple claims. The iPhone 7 lasts for 12 hours in our setup, an hour more than the 6S performing the same test but still an hour or so less than the iPhone SE. The iPhone 7 Plus is now in the same neighborhood as the SE, continuing the Plus lineup’s reputation for solid battery life.

In the heavier WebGL test, which simulates gaming or other heavier workloads by keeping the CPU and GPU busy constantly, both phones do about the same as their 6S counterparts. The larger batteries are counterbalanced by the higher performance (and thus, power consumption) of those A10 Fusion chips.

Who should buy one?

If you’re already an iPhone user, when should you buy an iPhone 7, and when should you buy something else or keep what you have?

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that you can get over the headphone jack thing, or that you just don’t care about it at all (we’ll address people for whom the headphone jack is a dealbreaker in a minute). Anyone using an iPhone 6 or older should at least consider upgrading—maybe you’re still on a 2-year carrier contract, or maybe your current phone is just showing signs of wear-and-tear and your battery isn’t holding the charge it once did. For your money, you’ll get water resistance, a much faster phone with two or three times the RAM and better battery life, a significantly improved camera, and a few other perks.

iPhone 6 and 6 Plus users who are still happy with the speed and physical condition of their phones could comfortably get at least another year out of them, though. Upgrading won’t get you a significantly better screen than you already have, and iOS 10 should run just as well on your older hardware as iOS 9 does. If you’re unhappy with your current battery life, consider a battery replacement. Getting one directly from Apple will cost a fairly reasonable $ 79, or you can get a replacement kit from iFixit for about half that price if you’re not afraid to do the work yourself. Many of the iPhone 7’s new features are very nice to have, but none quite reach the “need-to-have” level that those big screens reached two years ago.

If you want a smaller screen (or if you’re still using an iPhone 5 or 5S that is starting to wear out), the iPhone SE is only six months old and still boasts good performance and excellent battery life. If you want a headphone jack more than you want the new stuff that the iPhone 7 is offering, the iPhone 6S just got $ 100 cheaper while still doubling the storage of the base model to a perfectly usable 32GB. For what you’re getting, that’s a pretty good deal.

And finally, if you’re a first-time smartphone buyer for whom cost is absolutely the number-one priority (or if you’re just not too deeply embedded in Apple’s ecosystem), you should at least take a look at the decent low-cost options available to you on the Android side of the fence. iPhones are often worth their premium price tag because of the extended software support, a higher resale value later on, and because of Apple’s generally excellent customer support. But plenty of Android phones offer the smartphone basics for less money.

Google’s Nexus (soon to be renamed Pixel) phones and the OnePlus 3 all offer premium performance and features for around half the price of the iPhone, and you can pay far less than that if you just want to find a Good Enough basic smartphone. The Nexuses manage to avoid most of the Android update problems, though the software support cycle isn’t as long as an iPhone’s. And Samsung’s phones do more to excite people who argue on the Internet about smartphones and the perpetually under-impressed tech media, explosions notwithstanding.

Conclusions: A unique set of trade-offs

The iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus.

Enlarge / The iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus.
Andrew Cunningham

The iPhone 7 is a very good phone with the sorts of logical, useful upgrades that Apple typically delivers with new hardware. I still have my quibbles with the iPhone 6-era design, and it’s too bad that we’re going to be trucking along with it for another year, but the iPhone 6 was also Apple’s most popular phone by far, so clearly actual people aren’t all that bothered by it.

We won’t know for months whether Peak iPhone or the headphone jack thing or both are going to affect sales, since Apple won’t be releasing opening weekend numbers and we’ll need to wait until January to get a full quarter of sales data. I suspect that many iPhone buyers will decide that the upgrades are good enough to justify the frustrations, but the fact remains that there are a lot of wired headphones out there, and the W1 chip that makes the wireless future seem Not So Bad will exclusively ship in Apple’s headphones at Apple’s prices.

If you understand things best when they’re phrased as tired idioms: the missing headphone jack is a fly in the iPhone 7’s ointment. Plenty of people will be happy to scoop out the fly and use the rest of the probably-fine ointment. It’s good ointment! There’s just a fly in it. And the transition from wired to wireless is going to be more painful now than it will be a year or two down the line when more accessories and devices have adapted to follow Apple’s lead. Waterproofing and better battery life have been common iPhone feature requests for years, and the camera and speed improvements are nothing to sneeze at, but you’ll need to buy into Apple’s vision of the future if you want to get them.

The good

  • A10 Fusion and everything else in the phone is super fast.
  • Great mobile cameras, particularly in the 7 Plus.
  • Better battery life than last year.
  • Solid, sturdy construction that you’d expect from Apple.
  • Screens support a wider color gamut than before, and they balance resolution/density and battery life well.
  • Water-resistant.
  • Apple has finally bumped the base model up to a perfectly reasonable 32GB, making it easier to recommend.
  • 128GB and 256GB storage options for $ 100 or $ 200 more ain’t too shabby, either.
  • And 3GB of RAM in the 7 Plus is another nice perk you get along with the bigger phone.

The bad

  • Same basic design with the same basic quirks as the 6 and 6S, including the camera bump, the rounded slippery corners, and large width and height relative to the size of their screens.
  • iOS and its ecosystem, four or five years of software updates, and Apple’s support network are arguably worth the price of admission, but you can still buy perfectly capable phones for much cheaper.
  • 7 Plus is very slightly more expensive than last year’s model.
  • 7 Plus’ telephoto camera isn’t quite as high-quality as the main camera.

The ugly

  • Even if you’re totally, completely, 100 percent on-board with the removal of the headphone jack and believe that the future of sound is totally wireless, you can objectively admit that the transition is going to be rough.

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Infinite Loop – Ars Technica