What are the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus?
It was two years ago that Apple revealed the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, marking the company’s first serious steps into larger-screened phones. Those handsets did blockbuster business, up around 40 per cent on the previous year’s sales. No surprise, then, that last year’s iPhone 6s and 6s Plus couldn’t hope to make the same jump upwards again. In fact, they sold in almost exactly the same numbers. So what of this year’s phones?
True, the antenna arrangement which many felt blighted the 6 and 6s models has been reworked so that in some colour versions it almost completely disappears. And sure, there are other subtle changes, but for the casual observer, this phone is mighty like the 6s and 6s Plus phones it supersedes.
For some, this won’t be a bad thing: after all, this is the styling that set off those massive sales numbers. It still looks fresh and deeply attractive with its screen and its gently sloping edges to the matching curves on the back of the case. These are both designs that other phone makers have since referenced, if not downright copied.
But, come on, it’s already two years old! So how has Apple rung the changes?
For a start there’s the colour. As well as the gold, silver and rose gold versions familiar from last year, where the rewired antenna layout is especially noticeable, there are two brand new colours. If you want those around you to know you have the very latest phone, these are the clearest ways to show that.
First there’s black, which is a dark, matte finish, and is not to be confused with last year’s space grey which suddenly looks just dark grey in comparison. No, this is proper black. Of all the colour options, this is the one where that previously unmissable antenna vanishes almost completely.
And then there’s jet black. Which you have to see in the flesh to appreciate. It’s black but with a big dose of gloss. It looks spectacular. It’s true that fingerprint smudges appear if you even wave at it from quite a little distance, but polishing it is a satisfying process, or is that just me?
When it’s buffed up, it looks great all over again. Note that Apple points out that although this version is absolutely as tough and scratch-resistant as all the other colour options, this one is so shiny, the little scratches which all phones pick up show more clearly here. In the week I’ve been testing the jet black iPhone 7, this hasn’t been a problem.
What has changed is the colour range of these screens which is what Apple’s calling Wide Color Gamut and others refer to as the DCI-P3 colour space. In practical terms it means subtle extra colours and shades that were previously not seen. Although it really is subtle and for much of the time it’s going to pass people by in everyday use. But it’s a good step in the right direction and may lead to other manufacturers following suit. It will also mean that playback of 4K video on the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus will be especially strong, allowing users to watch content as it was originally created.
Another alteration is the Home button. In all previous iPhone models this has been a spring-powered affair. Now, it’s a solid-state circle that doesn’t move. At all. But while on some phones like the Google Nexus 6P this results in a disappointingly flat, unyielding surface, Apple has built in haptic feedback.
As you’ll probably know, this is a vibration effect, in this case from Apple’s extremely subtle linear actuator, which it calls its Taptic Engine. Apple resisted putting haptic feedback in its phones for years, perhaps because it can make a phone feel more like a child’s toy if it vibrates too much. Now, the company has embraced it with a vengeance. It pops up with different taps and wiggles when you delete an email or turn off the screen. But the main use is to fool you into thinking the Home button is moving. It does this very well and while it doesn’t have the squashy, deep movement of the spring-loaded version, it’s enough to convince you there’s motion going on.
The new iPhones are water-resistant, too, and not before time. They come with an IP rating of IP67, that’s the highest rating for dust (6) and not bad for water (7). You could leave your iPhone in water 1 metre deep for up to 30 minutes. Not that you would, obviously, but it’s great to know that dropping it in the sink won’t kibosh it any more.
But Apple has decided that it needs the real estate that a headphone jack took up to use for other things, like a bit more battery space. What’s clear is that when the old-style 30-pin connector was replaced with the Lightning connector which arrived with the iPhone 5, that the company had big plans for Lightning. So it was designed from early on to be able to handle digital output of audio as well as to receive power to charge the phone.
As a result, the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus come with EarPods which end in a Lightning connector instead of a headphone jack. The audio quality is very good, equal to that on previous bundled headphones.
And Apple has wisely decided to bundle an adaptor in the box, too, so you can attach your favourite headphones. This neat adaptor contains a digital analogue converter and is designed to stay connected to your legacy cans so you don’t lose it.
As it happens, the Lightning connector can be used to dispense charge as well. Suddenly the whole process makes sense – if you choose a noise-cancelling pair of headphones with a Lightning connection such as the JBL Reflect Aware, you no longer need the bulky battery pack active noise-cancellers had swinging around. Instead, they draw the necessary power from the iPhone. Clever.
They’re curious objects, tiny, lightweight and each resembling a glossy white electric toothbrush head. They are Bluetooth headphones, so will work with phones other than Apple’s. But you know that palaver of pairing Bluetooth headphones, where you must put them in pairing mode, open Settings, choose the right item from the list of Bluetooth devices and press on that?
Well, with the iPhone and the AirPods, none of that happens. You take the headphones out of their case (to continue the toothbrush analogy, it looks like a packet of dental floss but it’s actually a battery charger) and put them next to the phone. It recognises them and automatically connects.
Battery life is quoted at five hours for the AirPods themselves, and I found that to be about right. But the charger case has another 19 hours of power in it, replenishing the AirPods as soon as you put them back in the case.
There’s a lot of tech in these little buds – the W1 chip manages battery life, for instance. And an optical sensor means that it knows when it’s in your ear. So if you take either AirPod out, to ask somebody a question, the audio automatically pauses, restarting when it’s back in your lughole.
They work very well as a Bluetooth headset for phone calls and, most importantly of all, they sound terrific. The fit is reasonably snug – it’s very similar to the wired EarPods – so there’s some noise-isolating effect (though no active noise-cancelling).
Whether you will like walking around with little white plastic sticks poking out of your ear is another matter, they won’t be to everyone’s taste.
The iPhone 7 now comes with optical image stabilisation (OIS) instead of digital, a welcome addition since it was previously only the 5.5-inch screened models that had this feature. It’s just as easy to be a bit wobbly with a smaller cameraphone in your hand, you know.
Plus, the flash which previously had two different coloured lights in it so that it could match the colour temperature of the situation around it, now has four LEDs, for subtler, more faithful colour matching.
The front-facing camera on the iPhone 7 (and 7 Plus) has been uprated to 7MP for even better selfies. Oh, joy. Both phones continue the system for low light boosting by flashing the screen extra brightly as you take a snap.
Apple has set up two lenses next to each other but so perfectly aligned they can act as one. Open the Camera app and a small 1x logo onscreen shows it’s on the default camera, the wide-angle (28mm equivalent) which is the same as the one on the iPhone 7.
Tap the logo the image jumps to 2x, as shown in the photos below. It’s actually switching to the telephoto 56mm equivalent lens. From there you can zoom in to up to 10x zoom. That’s obviously a digital zoom again but from the telephoto lens image, so 2x optical, 5x digital.
The important thing – and this is frankly typical of Apple – is that you never notice any lens-switching. It is completely seamless and smooth. You can touch and drag the 1x logo to the left to zoom all the way up to 10x. Do it quickly and you can swipe from 1x to 10x in one go, swipe slowly and you can fix the increment of zoom precisely.
One more feature is coming for the 7 Plus camera, though it’s not here yet so hasn’t been tested. It’s a depth-of-field portrait mode which creates a complex depth map of a scene, working out what is the subject and what is the background and then blurring the background. Sample shots I have seen looked terrific but judgement will have to be reserved until the feature arrives in a software update later in the year.
The standout this year is Messages which aims to make sending a text more fun. There are lots of special effects, from stickers (which come from other apps like Lifesum or Jetpack Joyride, or you can buy them in the App Store) with which to decorate texts, to screen effects. These include balloons sailing gaily up the screen, to fireworks to nightclub laser effects. They are enormous fun, though the novelty may quickly wear off. More useful is an invisible ink setting where the text of your message is pixelated until the recipient swipes a finger across it.
Other apps offer extra features, so IMDb will let you paste a link with showtimes for a film into a message, XE Currency pastes the latest exchange rate data for a particular value and currency pair, and the Trainline will add chosen train times.
Of course, these clever message extras are only visible to other iOS 10 users.
Siri has been improved and opened up so other apps can use the voice interaction approach. For instance, you can order an Uber or dictate a WhatsApp message without even touching your phone, just by prefacing it all with “Hey Siri, send a WhatsApp to Steve” or whatever.
Photos has a bunch of new features, including facial identification to file photos according to who it thinks is in them. And there’s a very cool search engine in Photos. Type in the word “dog” and it’ll find all the relevant pictures. It does this from recognising what is in the picture, not from any tagging or filing, which I can testify to as I’ve done none.
One more Photos item is Memories. The app scans your photos and puts together a compilation of shots of, say, a particular person and adds the kind of music you want. Choose from uplifting, gentle, happy and more. Be warned, the sentimental option has a potently manipulative score.
The Music app has also been redesigned from the ground up and is now much simpler to use. Play a track and the menu even offers you the song’s lyrics.
There are lots more changes but I think my favourite is Raise to Wake. As it suggests, simply lifting the phone illuminates the lock screen to show you your latest notifications, or just the time. It’s simple but makes it feel like the phone is responding to you, which is both personal and intimate.
For most of the time, however, and for most users, it just seems to be a very responsive, quick experience that never leaves you hanging. The efficiency of the chip also contributes to perhaps the most important item on a phone customer’s shopping list: battery life. Apple claims that the new bigger batteries in the phones add two hours’ life to the smaller-screened phone and an hour to the Plus model.
In practice I found battery anxiety using the Plus was reduced. By the end of most days there was at least 25 per cent left in the Plus and not much less in the iPhone 7. These batteries and the more efficient energy management behind them are good steps forward though if you think you can avoid nightly charges, you’re kidding yourself.
- Superb camera, especially on the iPhone 7 Plus
- Strong, responsive performance
- Cool new home button
- Some great new iOS 10 features
- The best-looking iPhone yet
- Lack of radically new design may disappoint
- Headphone jack removal is controversial
- Smaller phone lacks second camera
- Better battery life still found elsewhere
Apple iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus Review
More controversially there’s the absence of the headphone jack though this feels less significant than I feared. I suspect that by this time next year it will be a non-issue and plenty of rivals will have phones with USB-C connectors instead of 3.5mm headphone jacks.
The design, if you were hoping for something different, may disappoint. But the new colours, improved antenna and solid-state Home button are gentle improvements. And in the case of the jet black version, Apple has made its handsomest smartphone yet.
Rival handsets like the brilliant Samsung Galaxy Note7, now its battery issues are fixed, the HTC 10 and Sony’s new Xperia XZ all have their own specialities which will appeal widely. Sony’s phone has really outstanding battery life, for example. Most are almost as expensive as the iPhone and it’s only less well known brands that offer something sleek for much less money, such as the Honor 8 from Huawei.
Apple’s phone costs from £599 and from this year its iPhone Upgrade Programme is available in the UK. With this you can buy the iPhone unlocked from the Apple Store and pay for your phone over 20 months, completely interest-free. Depending on how much you want to pay, you can also include AppleCare+ and arrange to upgrade each year. This will be appealing for some people who are happy on a sim-only tariff.
Overall, I’d say this puts Apple out in the lead again, offering a comprehensive and beautifully integrated system so that Siri works with more apps and the camera does even more so you don’t have to. Will it be enough to win diehard Android users over? Maybe not, but there’s certainly enough here to keep the Apple faithful, er, faithful.
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