iPhone 7 Review: Close to Perfection

It’s that time of the year again. New iPhones, new glimpses of where Apple would like to take the industry. And thankfully, after (in my opinion) the relatively lacklustre 6s models, the iPhone 7 is a real return to form for Apple, with genuine user benefits in terms of speakers, imaging, durability and battery life. The iPhone 7 Plus goes even further, but that’s a phone for another review, another day. This is my Apple iPhone 7 review – the device is stunning. Expensive, yes… but stunning.

iPhone 7 and 7 Plus, side by side...
iPhone 7 and 7 Plus, side by side…

So… lacklustre, the previous ‘6s’? I was sceptical about the ‘3D Touch’ system from an engineering point of view (here’s my original review), though I’ll acknowledge that I haven’t heard of anyone’s iPhone 6s display packing up from repeated depressions, so maybe my cynicism was misplaced. Or could it be that most regular users just don’t use ‘3D Touch’ much, after eight years of Apple training us to use feather light capacitive touch? Regardless, the 6s range was indisputably an incremental upgrade on the ‘6’, which introduced the new shape, larger, but oh-so-slippery (bar of soap) current unibody.

Apple iPhone 7 review: iPhone 7 in hand

Incremental or innovative?

The ‘7’, despite what you may have read on other sites and in newspapers, is much more than ‘incremental’.

True, the very welcome improvements in speed, capacity (the range now starts at 32GB – yay!) and battery life (1960mAh has been quoted) could have been predicted. But the addition of OIS to the camera in the iPhone 7 is much more than a spec bump – it takes imaging into a whole new league by letting iPhone users shoot low light shots with confidence, knowing that the shutter can be open for much longer and that the final photo will have less noise and better colours. This even applies for human (i.e. moving) subjects to a degree, thanks to the world’s first quad LED flash (besting Microsoft’s triple LED on its Lumia flagships), ensuring that if flash is used there’s a good chance of a crisp enough photo, even in a pub or club.

Apple iPhone 7 review: Front - great screen - here in daylight and at an angle, decent speakers (above the screen and at the phone's bottom)...
A great screen – here in daylight and at an angle – and decent stereo speakers (above the screen and at the phone’s bottom)…

Then there’s the use of stereo speakers for the first time. As with OIS in the camera, this is something of a catch-up feature to many handsets in the Android world, but it’s brand new to the iPhone and will make a huge difference when watching media – think YouTube, Netflix, and so on. Social (in person) video sharing in the office, home and school is huge, and the stereo sound and double volume will help a lot here. Again, it’s not innovation as such, but it’s certainly a discrete step up from what has come before on the iPhone. The stereo isn’t quite perfect, since half the sound gets blasted out of the ‘bottom’ of the phone, but it’s easily good enough. Fidelity is excellent too, with surprising bass and crisp top end – in my tests, the iPhone 7 speakers matched or exceeded those in all its Android competition (bar the niche London).

I’ll come back to this in a big way in my upcoming iPhone 7 Plus review, no doubt, since watching media of any length on a 4.7″ inch screen still requires some patience. For speakerphone calls, sat nav and podcasts, the iPhone 7 speakers are more than up to the task in terms of both quality and volume.

From the bottom - one genuine speaker grille, one fake!

Somewhat cheesily, Apple has doubled up the speaker grille on the bottom of the iPhone 7, but this is just cosmetic and the left hand one is a dummy, apparently just hiding a ‘barometric sensor’. Apart from saving a couple of grammes in weight and looking symmetrical, was this all really necessary?

The home 'button' is a revelation - waterproof, effectively solid state and yet fully functional in all the right ways...
The home ‘button’ is a revelation – waterproof, effectively solid state and yet fully functional in all the right ways…

You could even argue that the change in home button from mechanical to solid state is playing catch-up, since Android and Windows Phones have had capacitive controls since day one, though Apple adds enough secret sauce in the configurable ‘Taptic’ engine so as to try and convince the senses that there’s still a moving part underneath the iconic home ‘circle’. It’s not 100% convincing, but it’s amazing how quickly you get used to this arrangement – think minutes rather than hours or days. You can set the degree by which the Taptic vibration kicks off when pressing the home ‘button’, with a choice of three amplitudes. I found that the strongest suited me best, but your mileage may vary here. Great to have a choice anyway.

Apple iPhone 7 review: set-up-screens

With the new home ‘button’ I did find that I was accessing ‘Reachability’ far too often accidentally – I’d double ‘press’ for the multitasking carousel and end up with one or more of these being construed as ‘taps’ and then the Reachability feature would kick in and my entire screen would scroll down – gah! This is a 4.7″ screen and I don’t need this help. Happily, it’s a setting under ‘Accessibility’ and is easy to disable.

The change from a mechanical system does play a large part in the new IP67 rating for water and dust resistance and, living in a household where water damage has been an issue in the past, this is greatly to be welcomed. You still can’t swim with this or shoot videos underwater – or at least you’re not supposed to, but drop it in the toilet or sink and you’ll be absolutely fine.

One other change from previous iPhones is worth noting and it’s to do with iOS 10. Gone is slide-to-unlock – instead you just apply pressure to the home button and you’re done, the fingerprint recognition being so quick. For other lockscreen actions, swipe the whole thing right to see widgets and shortcuts, or left to gain access to Camera. It’s very nicely done indeed.

Apple iPhone 7 review: swiping from the lockscreen

Then there’s the way that, by default, the lock screen lights up briefly to show time and notifications when you just lift the phone from a resting place, e.g. on a desk. This is a time saver, obviously – no button pushing needed.

Apple iPhone 7 review: wallpapers
Live photos as 3D touch wallpapers is still a nice touch. Here experimenting with supplied – admittedly majestic – animations, though in real life you’d probably have your kids or partner, etc.

There has been a bit of a kerfuffle in the media that, in cold weather, you can’t unlock the iPhone 7 screen with (capacitive) gloves on, since the new home sensor requires skin contact, but I’m not convinced this is an issue. Quite aside from full-on gloved use being niche, even in cold countries, do people really want to interact in a serious way with a cutting edge iPhone 7 using $5 capacitive-tipped finger gloves?

The 3.5mm jack controversy

The real innovation then is the – now – infamous decision to axe the traditional 3.5mm headphone jack, with Apple mainly quoting reasons of space and difficulty of waterproofing. These are both valid, though the company’s ultimate aim is to have everything (including charging, no doubt) be wireless and the iPhone a seamless glass entity with no orifices – that’ll come, perhaps, in the iPhone 8 in 2017 (I predict that there won’t be a 7s).

One Lightning port is your lot. Controversial? Yes. A showstopping issue? Not necessarily!
One Lightning port is your lot. Controversial? Yes. A showstopping issue? Maybe, maybe not. Here’s the supplied 3.5mm adapter with the (also supplied) charging cable, plus not shown are (yet again, also supplied) Lightning stereo headphones. So options all round, I’d argue…

In fairness, most of us do already use wireless audio a surprising amount – whether via AirPlay, via Bluetooth or simply by using the speakers – only about a third of my audio on a smartphone actually goes via the 3.5mm jack, so the removal of this isn’t going to be quite as distressing as most pundits have been predicting. I hate to sound like an Apple apologist, but the company really does have things covered here – there are Lightning versions of the old earpods in the box (even though I personally don’t rate them in terms of fidelity), plus there’s a Lightning to 3.5mm adapter included as well, so that you can simply plug in the quality headphones of your choice when the time comes. Many people will simply leave the Apple adapter on the end of said headphones, and thankfully Apple’s only charging around $10 or local equivalent for extra adapters, so it’s not a big issue to just grab a few of these and leave them on headsets or other convenient places in your life, for as and when needed.

Or, if you decide that you really, really need a 3.5mm jack on the phone, just stick to the 2015 iPhone 6s – it’s still available, cheaper than it used to be and still highly recommended. And, though Apple’s hesitant to admit it, the 6s is also pretty darned water resistant – there are various tests on YouTube which you’ll enjoy.

Also launched with the iPhone 7 was Apple’s own somewhat expensive auto-connecting wireless AirPods, though it’s worth noting that generic Bluetooth headphones, costing far less (or which you probably already own), work just fine, albeit with the slight hassle of pairing and connecting on the phone screen. And there’s another possible benefit that’s worth remarking on – by forcing wired headphone users to use the Lightning port, we should see more noise-cancelling headphones that don’t need recharging (a real hassle when travelling), since power can be supplied (in addition to the audio) via the Lightning connector.

Set against all this is that with only the one port, you can’t, out of the box, charge your iPhone and listen to wired headphones at the same time. I can think of occasions when travelling or at night, when this might be a requirement. It turns out that Apple offers a suitable Lightning dock with a 3.5mm output, though this then raises the question of how you use your new Lightning headphones – gah! The iPhone accessory market is scrambling to provide a host of solutions to suit every use case and price point, of course, I’m sure you’ll find something that meets your own specific needs.

Across the board then it’s a story of improvements, of catch-up and yes, innovation – or at least a glimpse as to how Apple thinks the future should work.

Performance and day to day use

In day to day use, it’s iOS 10, which most people reading this will already have on their iPhones. This is a subject for another feature (e.g. here), but suffice it to say that there’s a smooth next-gen version of Messages with Stickers, ‘Tapbacks’ and even applets, a new version of Siri that can be extended by (and to) third-party apps, a simplified Control Center (now expanded over multiple side-swiping panes), better integration with Smart Home gadgets, face lifted Music and News apps, and much more.

Swiping between Control Center panes

3D Touch has been extended to work for far more built-in applications with more quick access actions – as I said earlier, this technology has now served its apprenticeship so it’s time to go all-in and see what Apple and third parties can make it do. Within even the built-in applications, support is still patchy, but there are genuinely useful highlights, such as when peeking into and then diving into Calendar entries, emails, and so on.

Apple iPhone 7 review: 3D Touch
The range of quick actions for 3D Touch has been extended…

You may have seen various YouTube videos showing the iPhone 6s running rings around a Galaxy S7 in terms of opening applications one by one – while this test scenario is somewhat artificial, it does show how fast iOS is with these modern, super-optimised Apple-designed chips – the iPhone 7 has a quad core A10 Fusion, with two high speed 2.3GHz cores and two low power 1GHz cores (to handle operations when absolute speed isn’t needed), backed up by 2GB of RAM. The upshot, given the relatively low 750p screen, is very fast operation when needed (usually only ever restricted by the deliberate animations and transitions to help the user work out what’s going where in the UI) and terrific battery life the rest of the time.

Picking a burst shot
Imaging is, as usual, one of the beneficiaries of the speed of the iPhone chipset. For example, shooting burst mode photos and then picking the perfect frame later on, as here….

An iPhone 7 user should have more chance of getting through a full-on day than a 6s user. Again, I have family data to back this up and Apple’s Smart Battery Case has been nigh on essential here, but the power-efficient iPhone 7, with integral 1960mAh battery (up from 1715mAh on the 6s), may just reverse this trend – though more testing is needed over weeks and months. It’s early days in terms of battery testing, I’ve only had the iPhone 7 for three days, but so far I’ve been impressed, iOS is as frugal as usual when the screen isn’t on, i.e. standby use, and watching a Netflix movie only knocked out a quarter of my phone’s battery for that day. Of course, if you run the screen at full brightness and live in a weak cellular signal area then you’ll be faced with more of a challenge, but I’m optimistic. The main chipset is faster and yet more more efficient – add in the larger battery (than the 6s) and that Smart Battery Case might not be needed after all.

The iPhone 7 has (and I quote) ‘an improved display with DCI-P3 color gamut’. DCI-P3 was originally developed by Hollywood for movies and covers about 42% of the visible spectrum, which is a notable improvement over ‘sRGB’, the system previously used in iPhones and other older smartphones. Obviously, greater colour definition is better, though again this is something of a catch-up since several Android smartphones have used wide colour gamut for at least a year already. In fact, Apple itself already used DCI-P3 support to its 5K iMac in 2015 and also on the iPad Pro in early 2016.

Will you be able to tell that a different data-to-colour mapping system is in place in iOS 10 and the iPhone 7? Probably not. But photos will be captured with more accurate colours and should look better on the phone screen. And also on other devices supporting this system. In short, it’s a nice-to-have spec point, even if it flies a hundred miles over most peoples’ heads!

The iPhone 7 camera is first class, with large aperture, OIS, quad LED flash and some powerful image processing capabilities....
The iPhone 7 camera is first class, with large aperture, OIS, quad LED flash and some powerful image processing capabilities….

Imaging

As mentioned above, the addition of OIS to the standard size iPhone’s camera is huge. Every phone can take great snaps in the sunshine, but when the light levels drop then OIS comes into its own. Here the 12MP camera now has a f/1.8 aperture too (c.f. f/2.2 on the 6s) – add letting in 50% more light to exposure times that can be longer (up to 1/4s in my tests, though longer exposures can be set with third party apps), and you’ve got a recipe for superb evening shots. Focussing’s not as fast as on Samsung’s latest flagships but the Phase Detection Auto Focus (PDAF) here is still more than quick enough to capture everyday action. Shot to shot and burst mode times are amazingly fast, as usual, with Apple’s latest chipset.

Here are some test photos I shot on the iPhone 7, all in 4:3 aspect ratio, of course (this is the iPhone, not some Android malarkey!), all with comments, shown in full and then as 1:1 crops, for your inspection of quality:

Example photo from the iPhone 7
Terrific colours, details, contrast and shallow depth of field here in the sun. Just stunning.
1:1 detail from the previous full image
1:1 detail, fabulous job.
Example photo from the iPhone 7
Chanced upon this cat and didn’t quite nail the framing, since it was scurrying around so quickly!
1:1 detail from the previous full image
Turns out the phone and I didn’t quite nail the focus perfectly either, but the iPhone 7 still did a great job, as the cat was looking at me for much less than a second. I was quite happy with the snap.
Example photo from the iPhone 7
Face-blocked for obvious privacy reasons, I took a load of shots of my little niece in the playground – she loves playing around, though rarely hold any pose for more than a second. The iPhone 7 was very quick though and, in very poor lighting conditions, pulled off some crisp and very useable photos.
1:1 detail from the previous full image
There’s some evidence of processing at 1:1, as you’d expect, but well within control and super for a phone camera in tricky conditions (and with a tricky moving subject!)
Example photo from the iPhone 7
In very overcast conditions, almost raining, the iPhone 7 still made short work of a dramatic HDR shot of this ex-church…
1:1 detail from the previous full image
Great detail at 1:1 too. There are signs of post-processing and sharpening, but very tastefully and usefully done.
Example photo from the iPhone 7
Night time, and to my eyes it was quite a bit darker than the photo makes it seem. That’s the magic of OIS, of course, now present in the iPhone 7.
1:1 detail from the previous full image
At 1:1 you can see the noise and some artefacts from the small pixels and image processing, but considering how dark it was, the iPhone 7 still did very well. The orange-curtained window and guttering are about 100m away, yet even in near darkness there’s useful (crisp) detail.

It’s almost impossible to over-state how fast the iPhone 7 camera is – there’s not only zero shutter lag, you can shoot up to 10 photos a second in burst mode, all at full 12MP and at full quality. For kids, pets and sporting events, action is really easy to keep up with, even if you might be eyeing up the iPhone 7 Plus with its 2x telephoto lens if said action is more than a few metres away? Watch this space for more on that device.

Video capture was already excellent on the iPhone 6s at up to 4K and with high frame rates, way beyond what most people can view on most domestic equipment. Plus the software/electronic stabilisation was already good, yet the iPhone 7 camera’s OIS also works in video capture (not something that you can always take for granted on smartphones), giving almost a steadicam facility to iPhone-shot footage – Apple call it ‘cinematic’ and rightly so. My only complaint would be that the audio captured is still in mono, a step behind competing smartphone capabilities. I’ll have more on video capture in a future article, no doubt.

The front facing camera is now 7MP, up from 5MP and is more than sufficient for selfie lovers, with the same full-screen LCD flash that’s a beautiful idea and so effective. We’ll cover ‘selfie’ cameras in a future feature, hopefully, looking at competing devices across the industry. In the meantime, here’s an example selfie:

Example selfie from the iPhone 7
A typical selfie in overcast conditions, i.e. poor light. I had the screen-flash turned on, just in case…
Example selfie from the iPhone 7
Looking at 1:1, shows admirable detail and quality from this ‘front’ camera – sorry for the subject matter and wrinkles, err… I mean ‘laughter lines’!

Buying options

With so many iPhone (and iPad) users running into storage issues with 16GB variants (installed apps and games, captured media, temporary files, and so on), the fact that the new ‘7’ range starts at 32GB is extremely welcome, though the most popular of the previous range, 64GB, is now MIA, with the other two capacities being 128GB and 256GB, which seem a little over the top, even for media hoarders and obsessive gamers! My advice would be to get 32GB if you’re not big into your games and don’t need your entire music collection with you, else go for the 128GB and never have to worry about space issues again. It’s not entirely clear who the 256GB version is aimed at!

Back of iPhone 7

In terms of finishes, in addition to the usual ‘gold’ (variants) and silver options, there’s now (matt) ‘Black’ and ‘Jet black’, the latter in a deliberately glossy (think Darth Vader) polished finish that Apple warns right up front is going to show ‘micro-abrasions’. Still, with this being the most obviously new iPhone finish, it’s still going to be popular in some circles in order to boost street-cred. And hang the small scratches.

See also Gautam’s first impressions of the matt black iPhone 7 Plus, plus his unboxing of both sizes of black iPhone, if you’re interested in seeing what this finish looks like!

Verdict

And so to the title of this iPhone 7 review and my overall verdict. Anyone who knows my writing will appreciate that I’m usually covering Android and Windows 10 Mobile, so I’m coming to the iPhone 7 not as a fan-boy but as someone who knows full well how tough the competition is in the smartphone world. And I’m still blown away.

Don’t listen to the doom and gloom mongers – and I speak as a fan of 3.5mm headphones and audio fidelity. I predict that the Apple iPhone 7 (and even more the iPhone 7 Plus, review coming soon) will sell very well, better than the ‘6s’. From camera to battery to speakers to waterproofing, I’m running out of things to possibly complain about in an iPhone, even when comparing it to the tech goodies available elsewhere in the farthest reaches of the mobile world.

If the 3.5mm jack is an issue for you, then there are solutions and suggestions above, but for the rest of the world the iPhone 7 hits an awfully sweet spot in terms of technology. It may not appear that different from the 6s but looks are, in this case, deceptive.

A lot depends on how you pick up the iPhone 7, of course. For example, in the UK, an objective value for money assessment would say that you’re crazy to pay £800 including VAT for a 4.7”-screened smartphone, but pick this up on a contract for only £5/month more than you used to pay, or sell your old iPhone for a sensible amount, and then you’re in business and enjoying all the improvements. So yes, the iPhone is expensive – it has always been – but by now I suspect you’re already braced for that side of things!

Check out my video review of iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus:

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