Curved wraparound screen? Nope. Wireless charging? Not yet. Are you bothered that the 2016 iPhone looks the same as its predecessor? If you are, I understand the feeling. The iPhone 7 ($820.00 at Amazon Marketplace) 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 was released in September, so you've certainly heard by now that it has no headphone jack and it looks almost identical to the 2014 iPhone 6 and 2015 iPhone 6S. It's faster, it's better -- but its successor is likely to be announced in September 2017.
There are plenty of good or even great Android phones to choose from now, from the 2017 Samsung Galaxy S8 and OnePlus 5 to the 2016 Google Pixel. The iPhone 7 beats these on speed, but not on battery life. Its size, performance and camera are unique features -- along with being a way to use iOS, of course -- but the iPhone's unique qualities are, this time, improved in many subtle ways.
But there are still compelling reasons to consider an iPhone 7, even if you own one of those recent iPhone models... provided you have an affordable way to upgrade.
- 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 a little bit longer -- sometimes it's notable, other times it feels just slightly better than the iPhone 6S.
- The processor is definitely faster, although keep in mind that last year's iPhone 6S has more than enough speed for most people's needs.
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.
As with 2015's iPhone choices, you can also opt for the step-up iPhone 7 Plus, which offers a larger screen (5.5 inches vs. 4.7 inches). But that model's big attraction is the dual rear cameras, which enable 2x optical zoom and a cool in-camera "bokeh" effect portrait mode, which blurs the background while keeping the foreground in focus. (That's the model I'd pick this year, but the 7 Plus is still a handful to hold, and it's expensive.)
Now, should you wait until September 2017? All the rumors point to Apple delivering a major design overhaul for the iPhone's 10th anniversary -- anything from a Galaxy Edge-style wraparound OLED screen to a fingerprint sensor hidden under the screen to wireless charging. It's tempting. But in the meantime, especially if you want to take advantage of the various retro-contract "free with two-year commitment" offers, know that the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus are worthy, useful upgrades to their predecessors -- even if they look almost identical from the outside.
All things iOS 10
Let's not diminish the missing headphone jack. The loss will hurt, especially while other iPhones exist that still have a headphone jack onboard. If you want to plug regular headphones into your new iPhone, a process that seemed simple and uncomplicated before, you now need to consider whether you brought the included dongle, or have a pair of Bluetooth headphones. Or your special Lightning headphones that come in the box. But it's surmountable.
Looking back on the iPhone 7 months after its release, it's a great phone with a lot of worthwhile improved features, and its water resistance is a solid overdue feature. But, while I've moved on to Bluetooth headphones most days, I still miss that headphone jack.
To reiterate: Mark me down as someone who misses the headphone jack.
Despite living in a mostly wearable, wireless world, I don't tend to like Bluetooth headphones. And I also hate dongles. I'm learning to deal with both now. Apple's new AirPods make a case for how more-advanced Bluetooth mini-earphones could be fun to carry around, and I've gotten used to reaching for them over wired headphones. But to me, nothing beats a cheap pair of plug-and-play earphones for lazy convenience.
While some 2017 phones -- the HTC U11, the upcoming Essential Phone -- have followed the iPhone in ditching the 3.5 mm jack, other competitors, most notably the Samsung Galaxy S8 line, have managed to keep it while maintaining waterproofing to boot.
True, the iPhone 7 gives you a number of options: Get a pair of Bluetooth headphones. Apple's AirPods ($249.00 at Amazon Marketplace), 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 3.5 mm 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.)
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. 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 one 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 err on 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.
In more aggressive tests, we took the iPhone 7 a bit past its advertised aquatic limits: submerged at a depth of 1 meter in a pool of chlorinated water for a bit more than 30 minutes. In that case, the speaker quality got a bit mushy, but the phone was otherwise in working order.
Bottom line: the iPhone 7 should easily survive trips in rain and snow, as well as getting dropped in tubs, pools, sinks and other wet environs. But don't tempt fate by leaving it in water for any longer than you have to.
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.