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iPhone 7 REVIEW: The best iPhone ever is still very “meh”

The other day, a friend asked me if it was worth upgrading from his iPhone 6 Plus to an iPhone 7 Plus. My answer was “no.”

That conversation helped me understand how I wanted to approach this review, which I found to be particularly difficult this year.

First, no matter what I write, Apple will almost certainly sell tens of millions of units over the coming months. Second, this is the first time ever that Apple hasn’t really made a huge upgrade after an “S” model release. The design is relatively unchanged and a user could very easily be none-the-wiser in thinking this iPhone 7 was an iPhone 6 or an iPhone 6s. Save for a few tweaks, namely the camera and the home button, it very much looks the same.

That’s not to say there aren’t upgrades. There certainly are. It is indeed the best iPhone to-date, certainly the most powerful. But there aren’t enough justifications for most people to upgrade from anything newer than an iPhone 6.

For this review, I’m going to discuss the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus interchangeably, only pointing out the differences when necessary as we move along.

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Hardware

With the iPhone 7, Apple very clearly refined the design it first introduced with the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus. It started to do that a bit last year, but the company really finished up with the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus. While the phone feels the same, there are small bits here and there that make a difference, and the end result is excellent, if a bit boring to look at.

The biggest change, of course, is the lack of a headphone jack. I didn’t find this to be as big of an issue as I originally thought, given that my favorite headphones are a pair of Bose QC35s, which are Bluetooth. In my car, I use either the USB port or Bluetooth for connectivity, so the lack of an aux connection wasn’t a big deal. Some folks might be a bit annoyed, especially audiophiles, but this isn’t a huge concern for the rest of us. Apple includes an adapter in the box, in addition to a set of new Apple EarPod headphones with a Lightning connector.

I want to address that one more time, because there seems to be confusion among friends and family I’ve talked to. Apple still includes headphones in the box. These aren’t the wireless AirPods you’ve read about, which don’t launch until October. They’re wired, they plug into the bottom of the phone like before, and there’s no discernible quality change (to me). The adapter will allow your old headphones to work.

There are at least two troublesome situations the lack of a headphone jack creates, though. One: It’s not great for folks who charge their phone while listening to music through wired headphones. In fact, that’s impossible unless you have Bluetooth headphones or a special and ridiculously stupid dongle. Keep this in mind if you’re one of these users – perhaps someone who flies or travels on a train a lot. Second: I know audiophiles prefer analog out, which you get from a 3.5mm headphone jack. There should be some third party DACs hitting the market soon (if they aren’t already available) but this is, again, like putting a Band-Aid on the issue. Let’s move on.

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The home button now relies on Apple’s haptic system, providing the sensation of a “click” when the phone is on, but otherwise remaining totally rigid. This reportedly helps in the water-resistant design, one big bonus over previous models. The new home button feels a bit weird at first, but it’s easy to get used to in a few days. There are three different levels of sensitivity that you can tweak, too, so it can be a soft “click” or a hard one. I preferred the hardest, since it feels the closest to a physical button.

My favorite change is the addition of stereo speakers. You’ll hear music firing out of the top earpiece as well as one of the bottom-firing speakers. The second (left) speaker grill on the bottom isn’t actually a speaker. I love the new stereo effect, especially when watching movies or YouTube videos in landscape mode.

The displays are brighter than ever before, and, according to DisplayMate, they’re the best screens Apple has ever used on an iPhone. They’re easy to read in bright sunlight, are sharp enough for playing games and reading text without eye-strain and are generally pleasing to use. I’m partial to the inkier and more colorful Super AMOLED screens on Samsung’s Galaxy Note 7 and Galaxy S7/S7 Edge devices. They’re much sharper with a Quad HD resolution and support things like virtual reality with Gear VR. This is one area Apple knows its lagging in, which is why there are rumors it will upgrade to AMOLED next year.

Apple added new cameras on the back of both devices. You’ll still find 12MP sensors, which means the resolution of the captured images are the same, but Apple worked on improving the experience in other areas. We’ll dig into those later, but know that they’re great cameras for now.

Finally, and this is where Apple is playing a bit of catch-up, the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus are water resistant. I ran mine under the sink and took it in the shower, and it was fine. We made an entire video putting the iPhone 7’s water resistance to the test. But, I wouldn’t do any of this purposefully. Think of it more as an extra layer of protection in case something happens.

iOS 10

We’ve talked about iOS 10 in detail before, but this is probably the biggest consumer-facing change you’ll find on the new iPhones. The good news is that iOS 10 is also available to most older devices. There are plenty of improvements.

Siri is much smarter now and able to understand more of my queries bringing her closer to Amazon Alexa and Google Now. I still prefer those assistants, though; Siri had trouble finding the right restaurant I was looking for during my tests, and at times didn’t hear me at all. Also, while I appreciate that Siri has been opened up to third parties, it’s a bummer she won’t tap into other music services, like Spotify, since Apple wants to keep you using Apple Music. Alexa and Google Now let consumers use whatever they prefer. That third party integration, however, lets you use Siri to interact with other apps. Maybe you’ll send money to friends with Venmo, or book a ride using Uber.

I love other features like Apple Home in iOS 10. It lets me easily control all of my connected devices, including most of the lights in my house, with an easy swipe in the Control Panel. I’ve found it much easier than opening the Philips Hue app. Since I also own a new Apple TV, which serves as a hub for Home, I can control my lights even when I’m not at home, too.

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I dig the new widget support, which is available to the left of the home screen at all times. Simply swipe over, and you’ll see a variety of widgets that correspond with your applications. I can see package status updates from Amazon, for example, top news stories, the battery life of my connected accessories like my Apple Watch, my calendar and much more.

The new version of iMessage is a blast. I don’t use Apple’s animation effects much, but the ability to slap a Justin Bieber sticker smack dab in the middle of a conversation provides an endless amount of joy for me. If you turn your phone sideways, you can also jot out a scribbled note by hand. My friends and I have used this a lot more than I ever thought we would.

There’s an entire iMessage store where you can buy stickers and apps that will work inside of iMessage, which not only adds a new element to the chat service but also a whole new revenue stream for Apple. I imagine the chats between teenagers will be cluttered enough to give the rest of us headaches, so keep in mind that these tools, stickers and apps are completely optional. If you don’t like them, you can continue to use iMessage as you always have.

Ultimately, iOS, while less customizable than Android, is also quick and dead simple to use. It’s why I’ve continued to hold an iPhone as a daily driver, in addition to an Android smartphone, and I think it really shines on Apple’s new hardware. You either love it or hate it, and I’ve found myself in the camp of the former for years.

Cameras

Apple has some tough competition in the mobile camera space. It faces Samsung which, arguably, offers some of the best smartphone cameras on the market on the Galaxy S7, Galaxy S7 Edge and Galaxy Note 7. Apple’s approach was to add a new 12MP sensor – that’s the same resolution as last year for what it’s worth – that it says performs better in all conditions, particularly low-light situations.

I found this to be mostly true. I have some beautiful shots I snapped down at the New Jersey shore, in a local park and in my backyard at night. One friend even asked if I had used my “fancy camera,” a reference to my mirrorless Sony that I use from time to time, when I sent a portrait of my dog. It’s a fantastic camera, one that at the very least competes with what I see from the Galaxy Note 7, though I prefer that phone’s ability to focus almost instantaneously. You’ll still wait for the iPhone 7 camera to focus.

The iPhone 7 Plus has two camera modules, one wide-angle lens and another telephoto lens that can be used for up to 2x optical zoom, or up to 10x digital zoom. This is the camera I prefer. The 2x zoom is fantastic, and I found I never lost any detail (at least that I could see) when employing it. The camera is smart, too, and will actually use digital zoom if it thinks the telephoto lens isn’t the best option, like in low-light situations.

Apple will add a feature to the iPhone 7 Plus in iOS 10.1 that enables a new “portrait” mode that adds a bokeh effect using software. It isn’t the first to do this – others like HTC paved the way. Sample images posted by folks using beta versions of that software are impressive but, personally, I prefer to gain that effect using hardware. It’s still why I take out the aforementioned Sony mirrorless camera and why I own more advanced cameras in general. But for folks who don’t, the bokeh effect will likely please them with effects they’re not used to on an iPhone.

Take a look through my sample images and draw your own conclusions. I think the performance is top-notch.

iPhone 7 Camera Samples

iPhone 7 Plus Camera Samples

Battery life

Apple promises that you should see an additional two hours of battery life in the iPhone 7 and one hour in the iPhone 7 Plus, but I just didn’t see that. I think most people will find the phones last about as long as last year’s generation, perhaps a bit longer.

The iPhone 7 Plus seems to get about the exact same battery life I had with my iPhone 6s Plus. That’s to say, I’m able to get through the day and to my nightstand with about 10-30 percent of the battery left. Some days I have nothing, sometimes I have more. It depends what I do during the day, and it’ll depend what you do, too.

The iPhone 7 frequently died before the end of the day for me. I ended up buying Apple’s iPhone 7 battery cover, which worked wonders. At times, I’d head to bed with about 80 percent charge left, which suggests to me that the iPhone 7 battery is just a hair too tiny. I highly recommend this accessory if you want the smaller iPhone but don’t want to sacrifice too much battery life.

The biggest gripe I have with Apple’s battery situation is that it hasn’t really moved with the market. Apple doesn’t offer any sort of quick charging capabilities, for example, which nearly every Android handset has offered for a few years now. Qualcomm QuickCharge is already in its third generation, for example. Apple also hasn’t adopted wireless charging, which is a nice option when it’s available. My guess is it’s working on perfecting the technology – after all, the charging situation with the Galaxy Note 7 required a recall – which is why we haven’t seen it yet.

The less time I spend at the outlet charging, the happier I am, so I hope Apple considers wireless and quick charging technologies for next year’s iPhone.

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Rating: Buy

Ultimately, yes, this phone deserves a “Buy” rating because it knocks everything out of the park, but only if you need a new iPhone and find value in this year’s offering.


iPhone 7

When you take the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus as a whole package, you have two of the best Apple has ever created. I don’t think anyone denies this. The problem, if you can even call it that, is that Apple has done this time and time again. The iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus, two years ago, were the best Apple had created. While there are advancements in the hardware, I don’t see anything here that requires anyone with a device that’s two years old to upgrade.

That’s why I told my friend he didn’t need to upgrade from his iPhone 6 Plus. Maybe he’d enjoy the camera, the stereo speakers or the new home button. Maybe he could use a water resistant phone. But none of these features are game-changing. In fact, iOS 10 is probably the highlight feature here, and he gets that for free.

I love the iPhone 7 Plus, and it’s now my daily driver, but I’m always craving the latest and greatest from Apple and its competitors. It’ll sit as my daily driver right next to the Galaxy Note 7, which has my other SIM in it, until the iPhone 8 Plus comes out next year. I think that’s going to be the one you want to upgrade to.

PROS

  • Fast
  • Great cameras
  • iOS 10

CONS

  • No 3.5mm headphone jack
  • Battery life could be better

Disclaimer: TechnoBuffalo purchased an iPhone 7 to use and test at the office. Jon used TechnoBuffalo’s iPhone 7 for seven days before filming his review. Todd purchased an iPhone 7 as well and used it for seven days before writing his review.


Todd Haselton

Todd Haselton has been writing professionally since 2006 during his undergraduate days at Lehigh University. He started out as an intern with...

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