iPhone 7 and 7 Plus hands-on first look
We take a close look at Apple's new iPhone
The launch of a new iPhone or, since the arrival of the iPhone 5s and 5c in 2013, a brace of iPhones, is always a noteworthy event.Will the rumours be proved true? (Yes, mostly.) Will there be any surprises? (One or two.) And will, once the dust settles, the iPhone go on to notch up big sales? (Let’s see.)
This week’s big reveal in San Francisco saw the company in bullish mood, boasting of big sales of apps and services, shouting about the recent sale of the billionth iPhone and introducing the new model in great detail.
The phones are subtly but deeply different from the current iPhone 6s and 6s Plus models. Traditionally Apple changes the design of its iPhones pretty radically every two years – though it’s worth remembering the shift from iPhone 4s to iPhone 5 was more of a squeezing and stretching of the existing styling than something unrecognisably different.
Designer Jony Ive said that this year’s phone was “the most deliberate evolution of our design,” emphasising the company’s desire “to continuously simplify” (splitting the infinitive as he did so). It’s true the changes are sometimes pretty delicate, like reducing the size and shape of the antenna band, though even that makes a noticeable improvement to the look of the phone.
But when you see the new phone and, better, feel it in your hand, you know you have something different here. The most striking change is seen in the new jet black colour option. It has an aluminium back like the 6s but it is so highly polished that it’s almost unrecognisable. The glossy back is so seamlessly connected to the glass front that it’s hard to see or feel the join. Moreover, the black defies easy classification – it looks more like polished glass than aluminium, though that’s what it is. Immaculate build quality is nothing new in Apple gadgets but it’s certainly evident here.
The jet black iPhone is quite the fingerprint magnet and it’s also very difficult to photograph. Even Apple’s highly professional snaps don’t do it justice. If you don’t fancy constantly polishing it, there’s also another new colour, just called black, which is a matte version of the same thing. Which is considerably easier to photograph, since you ask.
The gold, silver and rose gold colours of the current range continue to the new selection of phones, too.The iPhone 7 comes with the same sized 4.7in screen of last year’s model and the larger-screen iPhone 7 Plus also sticks to the 5.5in display of the current 6s Plus. But this is a brighter screen, 25 percent brighter than last year and with a wide colour gamut.
In practice, this display looks tremendous with colours that pop without looking unnatural. I was looking at them in a very highly lit situation, designed to suit the broadcast cameras all around me but the screens still shone.
This iPhone sounds pretty good, too. It’s the first with stereo speakers and the small amount of music I listened to on it was lively enough, even in noisy surroundings. I could feel the vibrations move from one end of the phone to the other as a music app played.
Of course, for listening to music you’ll probably want to use headphones but for watching video, the accompanying audio from these stereo speakers certainly isn’t bad.
The top speaker is the part that serves as the earpiece for phone calls and the bottom speaker, well, that’s bigger than it’s been before. That’s thanks to space cleared by the thing for which the new iPhones have already become notorious – the removal of the headphone jack.If you want to connect headphones you must now do so through the Lightning socket which is used to power the iPhone. EarPods with this connector come supplied, as does an adaptor so that you can continue to use your premium headphones in your phone.
I was in two minds about the removal of the headphone jack. But there are advantages. Using the Lightning connector means the sound is all-digital. And it also means that the Lightning headphones can draw power from the iPhone, which is useful if you have active noise-cancellers that need juice to work.
It certainly reduces the compatibility of the EarPods – if you suddenly needed a pair of headphones to play a track on your laptop, say, you could just reach for the nearest pair. Now, if that pair are EarPods, you’re limited in terms of where you can use them.
Despite this, I’d still expect to see a lot of manufacturers releasing Lightning headphones and for other phone brands to introduce other kinds of cans. After all, USB-C connectors, like Lightning, are much thinner than a headphone jack and can in turn make thinner phones possible.
One of the most important features of any smartphone is its camera. So it’s no wonder that Apple was making a big deal about its new sensors, lenses and flashes.
The iPhone 7 Plus has two lenses, each with a 12-megapixel sensor behind it. The default one is a wide-angle snapper, the other a telephoto and you flick between the two, effectively providing the phone with a 2x optical zoom.
Apple has implemented this system extremely well, adding significant extra functionality with minimal extra fuss. More is promised: an upcoming software update will let the two sensors work together in portrait mode, mapping a photograph so that the subject is in pin-sharp focus while the background is dreamily blurred.
The iPhone 7 Plus, and the iPhone 7, both have improved front-facing cameras. These are 7-megapixel resolution, up from the five megapixels of the last iPhone.
Both phones share a new flash on their rear cameras with four LEDs to create a colour that flashes more harmoniously with the lighting situation. And the smaller iPhone 7, which only has one sensor, none-the-less has many of the features of its bigger brother, including an optical image stabilisation feature rare in smaller phones and a wide-open f/1.8 aperture to suck in more light and improve low-light shooting.
In recent years Apple has made much of the iPhone’s camera capabilities. Though some find the photos it produces over-massaged, it’s undeniably a simple-to-use camera that can deliver remarkable results. This new snapper should add to the phone’s reputation.Though I wasn’t able to test it, the performance of the camera has also been improved, Apple says. Not least because the Apple A9 processor of the 6s has been replaced with the A10 Fusion where fusion refers not to a kind of cuisine but a multiplicity of systems on one chip, managing energy consumption while working at blistering speeds.
Similarly, Apple’s claim that this is the most powerful battery ever in an iPhone is very welcome and if it proves true that users will spot a one- or two-hour improvement in the phone’s daily usage, that will be tremendous.
The revised Home button is an interesting improvement. Using the same Force Touch system as on a MacBook trackpad, the Home button no longer physically moves when you press it. But it pretty well convinces you it is moving thanks to a skilful haptic response. It’s neat.
Another improvement is the storage capacity of the new phones. It’s been doubled to, respectively, 32GB, 128GB and 256GB. If you buy an iPhone 6 or 6s Plus, you’ll find the storage in those has gone up to the same amount, too. In fact, the only way to buy a 16GB iPhone now is to plump for an iPhone SE.A word about another accessory, the AirPods. These cordless earphones will go on sale next month for £159. They use Bluetooth in conjunction with proprietary Apple technology to make connection easy (no pairing required) and versatile, since you can switch the AirPods from your Watch to your iPhone to another iOS 10 device with no effort.
The AirPods look and feel great, sitting in the ear with greater security than their looks suggest and stuffed with extra tech like infra-red sensors which know when you take an AirPod out of your ear and pause the music accordingly.
Noise-cancelling microphones make the AirPods good for phone calls and to allow you to use Siri by just touching the earphone before you speak to it. Do you need that? Well, that’s another matter but there’s no denying the AirPods are feature-packed.Of course, current users happy with their handset will get a different kind of feature boost to their phones when the new iOS 10 software arrives next week, with cool new features such as one where lifting the phone turns on the screen. This gives rise to a peculiarly intimate feeling.
My brief encounter with the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus isn’t enough to be conclusive but there’s certainly plenty here to like, from the irresistible glossiness of the jet black casing to the improved cameras and faster processor.
For some, it may be that the increased battery life will be the must-have improvement while others will lament the fact that the design hasn’t changed enough. Overall, though, the new phones look and feel different enough to make them potentially highly appealing.
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