Review: iPhone 7 is a seriously speedy evolution, but the 7+ is much better

The iPhone 7 in jet black.
Reuters

The iPhone 7 in jet black.

The normal sized iPhone 7 is a boring but seriously speedy update on a winning formula. The plus model's new dual lens camera is absolutely incredible.

 REVIEW: Apple has generally followed a reliable release schedule for their popular iPhones. In "tick" years, we get a new phone model with a new number - the iPhone 4 in 2010, the iPhone 5 in 2012, the iPhone 6 the in 2014. In "tock" years we get an updated version of that same phone with better internals - the 4S in 2011, the 5S in 2013 - you get the picture.

But last week, Apple appeared to release their second "tock" phone in a row, saving a more exciting tick phone for 2017. While it's got the requisite new name, the iPhone 7, which comes out on Friday in New Zealand, looks almost exactly like an iPhone 6 or 6S. It can't really do anything that those older phones can't. In fact, those older phones can do something the news ones can't: connect to regular headphones without an adaptor. It isn't hard to see why the company's stock took a dive.

before image after image
The second lens allows you to take a zoomed in photo with no quality loss. Apologies for the angle.
 
 

Yet after almost a week with both the 7 and the 7 Plus I'd happily recommend them over the 6S for people who like iPhones. These are both outstanding devices that improve on and underline what many people love about other iPhones - the ease of use, the simplicity, the quality of the apps, the excellent camera - and they are worth the difference in price when compared to older models. If you're a diehard Android person I can't see this phone changing your mind, but if you're closer to the fence, the speed and camera improvements - particularly that dual lens on the 7 Plus - could make the switch worth it. Let's get into why.

The matte black iPhone.

LOOK AND FEEL

The iPhone 7 is not identical to the 6, but they aren't hard to confuse. You basically get a very thin and very rounded aluminium pebble, with a screen taking up most of one side. As ever, that aluminium feels refreshingly cool to the touch - if you ever take it out of a case. Despite its lightness (138g for the non-plus) the iPhone feels anything but cheap - which is good, because it's not.

Things do look a little different: the camera bump is softer, the plastic antenna bands are gone from the back (they are tiny and on the side now), and there are two new colour options: black and jet black.

The jet black is glossy, meaning it looks great new but picks up fingerprints easily, and feels a little more slippery than the others - despite it being made of same aluminium. I usually find glossy black a little garish, but it isn't so bad here. The other "black" is a matte black which I'm personally much more enamoured with. It's understated, light plays across it interestingly, and it seems...expensive. This is a matter of personal taste though, be sure to try out colours in a store. The gold, rose gold, and silver are what they were last year. I myself miss the white iPhone.


The glossy jet black iPhone 7.
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The main change to the feel of the phone comes in the home button - which isn't actually a button any more. It's a solid state contraption that doesn't actually move when you press it, instead giving a short vibration that feels like you've pressed it. This tech is inherited from the newer MacBook and the Apple Watch and takes some getting used too. At first, it can feel kind of wrong, but after a week I've basically forgotten about it. While the rationale behind this move is sound - physical home buttons fail a lot from overuse and this helps seal the phone from water - I personally would prefer a physical button. That said, don't be scared off in the store: you do get used to it.

On that waterproofing: the iPhone 7 isn't waterproof, technically, but it should survive a quick dip (the specification says it should survive 30 minutes in water up to 1m deep.) Apple's people are at pains to not use the word "waterproof" here because they don't warranty for water damage and you shouldn't go swimming with your phone. The idea is more: accidents happen, you don't have to worry so much. In more practical terms, it means you should be absolutely comfortable using your phone in pouring rain. I didn't throw my review unit in the bath or anything, but I did (accidentally) spill a little bit of water on it, and it was nice to not have to worry about the phone shorting out.

THE CAMERA

I take photos on my phone like other people breathe. The light is different every day, even if your view isn't. If something catches my eye in any way I follow the impulse, given the entire process usually takes less than four seconds. But despite all this practice, plenty of these photos are terrible, badly lit and badly composed arrangements of pixels that don't deserve the term "picture".

The new iPhones haven't suddenly made all my photos perfect. But they are a lot better - particularly on the iPhone 7 Plus, where a new second camera allows you to zoom in on things with no loss of quality.


The optical zoom allows for much tighter compositions. This is an unedited photo of mine (not full-resolution).

This optical 2x zoom (as opposed to digital zoom, where you are artificially attempting to enhance a photo) is a dream to use. You tap a small button and the view suddenly jumps to a telephoto view - the equivalent of a 56mm lens on an old 35mm camera if you're a photography nerd. This makes for a much more tight composition, allowing you to control what is and isn't in your photo to a much greater degree, eliminating extraneous detail or the head of the person in front of you.

The camera on both phones is also notably improved in terms of sharpness (that new f1.8 lens helps) and low-light performance. Apple has hundreds of people working on the camera and say over a hundred billion operations are performed on each photo in 25 milliseconds. This kind of dedication shows, and after a year in which the competition edged ahead in the camera game, I would firmly say this is the best smartphone camera on the market right now.

But really - it's incredible how much that second lens makes the smartphone camera better. Other companies have used dual cameras for 3D, for colour, and for going ultrawide, but this seems like a much better idea. I've been in New York this week and being able to zoom past ugly buildings or other tourists with my photos has been actually fantastic. It's easily the best feature of the new iPhone, and the best reason yet to go for the Plus instead of the regular 7. I hope it makes it to the smaller iPhone next year, as I generally prefer something I can use one-handed.

THE GUTS

This thing goes. Apps and folders of apps appear to open immediately, while I was used to a teensy lag on my 6S. None of the apps I've tried have done that annoying autoclose thing iPhones do instead of freezing, while Snapchat would sometimes autoclose if I switched between lenses too fast. Graphically intensive games seem to work great too - it will be interesting to see what the mobile gaming landscape will look like when this phone is pushed.

Seriously: performance wise this feels like a more notable bump than any other iPhone upgrade. Apple has said both phones are 40 per cent faster than the 6S Plus and twice as fast as the 6. But we don't have to trust my feelings and Apple: we have benchmark tests!

I ran Basemark OSII on both phones. The 7 Plus scored 3667 overall while the 7 scored 3384 (more in-depth here and here). For comparisons sake, that puts them as number one and two on Benchmark's tested devices list, ahead of the smaller iPad Pro at 2997, the 6S Plus at 2485, and the Samsung Galaxy 7, at 2387. No one benchmark is perfect, but Geekbench's results look similar.

BATTERY

Every smartphone could have better battery life. Every smartphone needs better battery life. I found the Plus, which has always had better battery life, could do a full day of "touristing" - GPS maps, podcasts, lots of photos - with some change left over for the night time if I put it in low battery mode as a precaution. The regular 7 would do the day okay.

Apple says their new fusion core processor should deliver 12 hours of internet use for the regular 7 (two more than last time) and 13 for the 7 Plus (one more). This is a pretty good improvement but it is clearly not game changing. You're still going to need to charge it every day, and you're still going to get a bit worried if you want to go out after work and keep using your phone heavily.

A NOTE ON HEADPHONES

I understand why Apple opted to get rid of the headphone port, as I'm sure you've read about. But it's pretty annoying, and the wireless headphones that are coming out in October are some of my least favourite Apple products - but this could change by October.

To recap: Apple still ship wired headphones in the box of the iPhone, ones that look and sound like the old ones, but they plug into your lightning (charging) port instead. I have used these out and about and they are absolutely fine. The "AirPods", which are wireless, ship in October and will cost $269. Now, it's possible that some kind of fix will change my mind on these, but at this point they are definitely not something I would recommend.

They cut out several times when I walked past a group of people on their phones, or distorted my music (this is a problem with other Bluetooth headphones too). The mic was too unreliable for an indoors phone call (the person on the other side of two different calls I made said they couldn't hear me.) The nifty charging case doesn't come with its own charging cable, so you'll need to either charge it at a different time to your phone or buy a new cable. Worst of all, the lack of buttons means the only way to pause your music or change the volume without getting your phone out is to tap one of them and ask Siri too. Siri sucks at this. She couldn't really pick me up outside, and at one point she showed me "films with the word 'Skip' in the title" rather than skipping a song.

These are pre-release headphones, so a lot could change. I also haven't had a huge amount of time to use these headphones yet, and they do sound exquisite, even at their loudest volume, when they work right. I'll write something more in depth on these closer to their release.

THIS IS NOT A BORING PHONE

So should you buy one? If you're sitting pretty on an iPhone 5S or below, or thinking about switching over from Android, I would heartily recommend the 7 - probably the 7 Plus, for that camera. If you're on a 6 or 6S and don't find yourself actively frustrated with your phone's speed or camera, you're probably okay. If you do quite like using your phone as a camera, that second lens really is something of a gamechanger. And as ever - if you're into Android, this phone probably won't change your mind, although that performance is something to behold.

I'm right up on 2000 words here, so I'll be brief. This is not as boring of an update as it may have looked last week. The speed and camera improvements are intense and exciting, even if the headphone thing is frustrating to many of us. This is, in my eyes, the best phone for most people, one that can gives you essentially superhuman powers of recollection and organisation that were impossible just a decade ago.

It's just that we don't find that interesting any more.

Henry Cooke travelled to San Francisco courtesy of Apple.

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 - Stuff

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