Update: I’ve added a little additional review on the Portrait Mode / Depth Effect feature which became available in the public beta of iOS 10.1 later today, after I finished this review.
I’m not your classical reviewer — it’s not my job, and in addition I usually don’t get devices early enough to be able to release a review when all the professional reviewers do. However, I do get access to devices early enough to be ahead of most people, and part of my actual job is forming opinions about new hardware, especially from the big consumer technology companies I follow closely. So what follows isn’t a typical review, but rather my perspective as someone who’s used the iPhone 7 Plus for a few days and is trying to put it in context.
A quick review of reviews
On last week’s Beyond Devices Podcast (embedded above), we did a sort of review of reviews, discussing the various published reviews of the new iPhones, and it’s worth pulling out a few of those themes here quickly:
- There’s definitely a division between those reviewers who seem basically bored with reviewing iPhones at this point and those who are new to the game. The former’s boredom sometimes shows through in their reviews, often taking their frustrations out in ridiculous or overblown criticisms while overlooking subtle but important changes, while the latter find new and interesting ways to talk about the phones. I won’t call out the former but some examples of the latter were the BuzzFeed and TechCrunch reviews, as well as this great Business Insider video featuring the new AirPods.
- Speaking of the AirPods, I don’t have them and so didn’t review them below. But their inclusion by Apple in the package sent to early reviewers was something of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, they were clearly intended to soften the blow of the removal of the headphone jack, as a statement of Apple’s vision of the future, but on the other the units sent out were pre-production and therefore a little buggy. It also meant that even more time was spent during the reviews on the headphone jack, which as you’ll see from my review below was largely a non-issue for me.
- The camera reviews were often a little lacking — I’m by no means a professional photographer, but I also don’t go around taking random pictures of whatever’s close by. A phone camera review should mimic the kinds of photos you actually take in real life with your phone, and that’s what I tried to do in my sample images below. I saw far too many images of the inside of people’s offices, the random objects on their desks, or office buildings near their places of work. In this context, I thought this review of the iPhone 7 by Outside was much closer to the mark.
On, then, to my own review.
The device I’m using
The device I’m using is an iPhone 7 Plus with 256GB of storage, in the jet black finish, sent to me by Apple as a review unit. My past two main phones have been an iPhone 6 Plus and 6s Plus, both in the silver finish, so although I’m used to the size, the finish on this phone is new and different. I haven’t tested an iPhone 7, just the Plus, so everything I say below refers to the Plus explicitly, though bear in mind that the 28mm camera is said to be virtually identical on both and in almost all other ways except the battery the two devices will perform very similarly.
As far as I’m concerned, the cameras are the headline feature on the new iPhones, and so that’s where I spent a lot of time in my testing, and will spend a lot of time in this review. I’m not a great photographer, but I do enjoy taking pictures, and I always take a ton of pictures on my phone, including both nature shots and lots of photos of my four kids.
On the day I got the phone (last Friday), I went for a hike in the nearby mountains, which offer a nice combination of landscapes and detail shots. I took two older phones with me too: an iPhone 6 Plus and iPhone 6s Plus. Here are some samples.
The first shot here of a yellow flower. The order of the pictures, from left to right, is iPhone 6 Plus, iPhone 6s Plus, iPhone 7 Plus 28mm, and iPhone 7 Plus 56mm. The first image below is a 50% reduced version, while the second is a narrow slice of the original. You will need to click on both to enlarge them to full size.
Two things stand out here. First, there’s a change from the iPhone 6 to 6s as well as from the 6s to the 7, which is important because the typical two-year upgrader will get the benefit of both upgrades together in the iPhone 7. The colors get deeper and richer, and the resolution is also higher, in the 6s and 7 compared with the 6. Secondly, you’ll see that the last image uses the telephoto lens, and it’s a really nice improvement in both size of the central feature of the image and in the bokeh effect. Note that my iPhone 7 isn’t running iOS 10.1 and therefore doesn’t have the Portrait Mode which will come later — this is purely how the images looked straight out of the phone.
This next image is a close up on a dry grass field, again shot with the same four different lenses (this one’s been reduced to 50% full size/resolution):
Again, you can see some differences in color and detail capture between the three phones, and get a sense of how much closer you get to the detail with the 56mm camera. You also again get a sense of the native bokeh achievable with the telephoto lens, as well as the broader, subtler range of colors and shades.
This next one focuses again on color, with a shot of some leaves beginning to turn an orangey-red. The pictures are in the same order again, and again you can see a progression in the richness of the color as we progress through the cameras.
Here’s one last comparison shot on the photography side, with a sign in the foreground and landscape in the background. This gives you a better sense of the focal separation of foreground and background that’s possible with the new cameras (it’s unfortunately tough to exactly match lighting when you’re moving between cameras like this, so the iPhone 7 shots are a little better exposed for the background versus the others):
Here are a few more images just from the iPhone 7 Plus, just to give you a sense of what’s possible with these cameras (and there’s an even larger set of pics and videos on Flickr):
Overall, I’m very impressed with the new cameras. The 2x mode is transformational — it allows you to get much closer to subjects without either the discomfort or danger associated with getting physically closer — this is particularly useful with people and animals who might feel uneasy about you getting right in their faces. But even the 28mm lens (which, again, is the same on the smaller iPhone 7) shows some nice incremental improvements over the iPhone 6s, and even more so over the iPhone 6 camera.
The one big shortcoming with the new lens is that it’s like any other longer lens: it performs less well in low light. There’s a very noticeable difference in this regard, and the iPhone will actually switch to 2x digital zoom on the 28mm lens in poor light as a result. The big problem here is that there’s no transparency over this either when taking pictures or when viewing them after the fact. In fact, unlike the HDR or Burst modes on the iPhone, there’s no visual indication at all in the camera roll of which lens was used to take which pictures. In some ways, that’s to be expected – other cameras don’t do this either – but it’s frustrating sometimes, especially as a reviewer, not to know for certain which pictures were taken with which lens, even when using the 2x mode. Even when the telephoto lens is used in relatively low light, there are often noticeably more visual artifacts in the image than in a 28mm shot taken at the same time.
On, then, to video. All the same improvements that apply to photography apply to video too, but there’s one other interesting benefit for the two-year upgraders that I’ll mention too. The video below is a set of sample clips that I took with the three phones (and in most cases the two cameras on the 7 Plus) while on the same hike.
The video mode has access to both lenses too, as you’ll see in that compilation above. But the other big leap from the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus to the two subsequent phones is 4K video recording. Though very few Apple devices can play 4K video in full resolution natively, the other benefit of 4K video is that you can crop or zoom a little digitally on it and still get very high resolution video. In the compilation above, I have a couple of examples of video taken at 4k using the 56mm lens, which effectively gives you a combined 4x zoom over 1080p video taken on the iPhone 6 Plus when cropped. That’s a pretty significant bump in the kind of video you can capture when making this standard two-year upgrade. It won’t be great for poorly-lit indoor scenarios like your kids’ school plays, but should be perfectly fine for outdoor soccer or baseball games or other well-lit scenes.
Battery life on the new phones was advertised as being better, and does indeed seem to have improved. I haven’t done formal testing here, and I’m always hesitant to draw strong conclusions based on my first few days of use, because I tend to hammer these devices pretty hard when testing them. But from what I can tell, the 7 Plus battery seems to be lasting me a good bit longer than the 6 Plus, perhaps as much as an hour or two in a normal day.
Display and audio
Two of the ten tentpole features Phil Schiller talked through in the introduction of the new iPhones were the display and audio. I haven’t focused much on the display side, but comparing some brightly-colored images across the screens of the three phones certainly suggests the iPhone 7 shows a greater range of colors, which makes photos look brighter and richer.
The second speaker is a useful addition, but I don’t spend a lot of time listening to audio on speaker on my phone. If I’m in a place where listening to music out loud is acceptable (e.g. my home office or a hotel room), I’ll generally choose a larger, more powerful speaker like my computer or iPad, or even my AirPlay-connected stereo. Everywhere else, I’ll generally use headphones of some kind.
Which brings us to the item that was first in so many reviews — the 3.5mm headphone jack. As a reminder, Apple bundled both Lightning EarPods and a Lightning-to-3.5mm adapter in the box with the phone. Surveys suggest a majority of people simply use the headphones that come in the box, if they regularly use headphones at all, and that’s certainly been the case for me. I do have other headphones that I use occasionally, such as on planes, and the adapter will be fine for those occasions. I didn’t have AirPods to test, but did use some other wireless headphones which paired and worked just fine. To my mind, there’s absolutely no inconvenience associated with the new approach when using the phone. The only wrinke is that I typically use old-style EarBuds for Skype calls on my computer while traveling. I’ll now need to either bring two sets of headphones or the adapter to allow me to use headphones with both my phone and computer. But that’s it. On a trip I took this week I simply stuck the adapter into my headphone case. I also ended up using the Lightning EarBuds with an iPad Pro – a useful reminder that there are plenty of older devices that also support these.
Design and finish
This whole topic has been done to death elsewhere, so I’ll only touch on it briefly. As I mentioned, the phone Apple sent was the jet black one. It certainly is a beautiful piece of hardware – extremely glossy and nice to look at. It’s interesting to have a phone that’s black on the front after several years of white-fronted iPhones – I quickly changed my background image on my home screen to a pure black one, and also changed the lock screen image to one of the bright purple flower images I took in my first day with the phone. That combination looks great. With the phone in a black leather case most of the time, it still looks great, but I don’t see much of the great finish on the back of the phone. I’ve ordered a very thin transparent case from Peel that should be arriving in the next few days, which should show off that finish better.
In the small amount of time I’ve had the case off, I’ve definitely noticed the issues with smudges and even dust specks on the back of the device. I haven’t scratched it at all, but that reflects the use in the case rather than anything about the material. I’ve also noticed that dust collects in the corners of the front of the device, where the case overhangs it slightly, whereas that sort of thing was never visible on a white device. These are small things, but anyone considering the jet black finish should be aware of the tradeoffs. You’ll have a lovely device to show off, but there may be some downsides.
Speed and performance
I haven’t done GeekBench tests or any other formal testing of the iPhone 7’s speed and performance. But I don’t need to — it’s obvious from the way the device handles routine tasks that it’s faster than its immediate predecessor and very noticeably faster than the iPhone 6. Things just happen faster, with less lag, than they do on those earlier devices, and the whole system feels very snappy. This was really noticeable when I was doing my camera testing, taking the same photo in the same spot with all three phones in a row, and everything just took longer, with more lag, on the iPhone 6 in particular. Again, iPhone 6 owners will see a big boost here.
Home button and Taptic feedback
Another minor change on the new iPhones is the home button, which has gone the direction of Apple’s recent trackpads and no longer moves, instead providing feedback through the Taptic Engine which is intended to give a sense of “clickiness”. Unlike the trackpads, though, the new home button doesn’t really fool you into thinking it’s moving. When I first used the new button in the hands-on area at Apple’s event, I didn’t like it much, for that reason. But within two minutes of using it on the iPhone 7 review unit, I quickly became so used to it that going back to the iPhone 6s felt like a clunkier experience. This is the kind of thing most users will get used to equally quickly.
But of course the home button isn’t the only place where the Taptic Engine comes in. There’s now similar feedback at lots of points throughout the phone, many of them pretty subtle. Switches in settings now provide a little feedback when you toggle them, you get a little feedback when scrolling to the end of a page. There are other examples like this, and none of them feel intrusive or overbearing. Some you don’t even notice until they’ve happened a few times. And you can turn all this off in a setting labeled “System Haptics” in Settings. Overall, I think it adds a little to the experience without coming off as overly gimmicky. There haven’t been lots of third party apps yet that support the feature, though I tried a game briefly in the demo area at the event, but I’ve no doubt lots more interesting stuff will come in time that takes advantage of these features.
There’s probably more I could talk about, but I’ll wrap up there, safe in the knowledge that you’ll have plenty of other reviews to read if you feel the need for more. Overall, the iPhone 7 is a nice upgrade over the iPhone 6s, but with most users actually coming from the iPhone 6, it’s even more of an upgrade, as I anticipated it would be. Nowhere is that more true than the camera, where an iPhone 6 user upgrading to the iPhone 7 Plus will get Live Photos, 4K video, a much-improved standard camera, and the new telephoto lens on top of that. Pictures will be bigger, higher resolution, richer, brighter, crisper, and even look better on the screen.
What’s interesting about cameras in smartphones is that even a really good camera isn’t enough to make people buy one by itself. I remember well testing the massive camera on the Nokia Lumia 1020, which was really fun to use because it had enormous resolution and therefore allowed for significant zooming and/or cropping without the quality becoming compromised. That was a great camera experience on a smartphone, but no-one bought one, because of all the limitations of Windows Phone. A really top-notch camera really only makes a difference when it’s on an otherwise top-notch phone, and the iPhone certainly is that. All the other upgrades matter too, but the iPhone has been a great device for nine years now, and so the camera is just icing on the cake. The cameras in this year’s Samsung devices, by the way, are also fantastic, and arguably even better at some things like low-light photography and fast focus. But the iPhone’s new dual lenses and all the software cleverness behind them (including the upgrades coming in iOS 10.1) probably still put them in front for most people.
For anyone who really cares about taking pictures on their phone, I’d recommend the iPhone 7 Plus over the iPhone 7. Between this year’s differences and whatever will come in software in iOS 10 point releases and then iOS 11, there’s going to be a big difference between the performance of these two devices. But if you absolutely have to have a smaller phone, or just can’t justify the increased cost of the larger one, you’ll still be very happy with the iPhone 7, as the vast majority of what I described above except for the telephoto lens applies to that too.