A Brief Review of the iPhone 7

Every year Apple releases a new iPhone, and it seems that with each passing iteration of Apple's most profitable device, more people are aware and interested in what has changed. With the new iPhone 7, more than any previous model, I have received the most questions and inquiries via private messaging and social media.

It's no secret that Apple sells millions of iPhones, but it seems the mindshare is growing, where people even outside the tech bubble are increasingly interested in new releases as they happen (and are also aware when phones blow up).

The day preorders went live for the iPhone 7, a barista spotted my Watch and asked, "Did you preorder 'the 7'?" A few days later, inside a Wawa gas station I overheard one associate say to another, "You getting the new iPhone?"

Even more evidence of the increase in Apple's mindshare:

  • Apple's iPhone 7 keynote live stream was Akamai's highest ever peak video traffic (Akamai is one of the world's largest live streaming providers, their service was used to stream the Olympics).
  • While iPhone pre-orders are usually supply constrained, this year no Jet Black or Plus models were available on launch day without a reservation (which sold out quickly).
  • I've preordered a new iPhone as soon as they went live the past three years. The last two years I was able to choose the screen size, color, and GB's I wanted with no issue. My usual Apple Store, in Brandon, FL was completely sold out of preorders at 3:01am when they went live. The next two closest Apple stores were also completely sold out.

Despite minimal design changes and only a few new features, the iPhone 7 seems to have peaked the interest of many, even if it's only because there's no headphone port.

Design

iPhone 7 and 7 Plus are almost indistinguishable from the 6 or 6S, especially if put in a case. The antennae lines that were somewhat of an eye sore on the 6 models have been cleaned up and moved to the very top and bottom of the phone. There are also two new "black" colors rather than a "Space Gray."

The new "Jet Black" finish is a glossy black, similar to the older 3G and 3GS models. A grippy material if used without a case, but prone to scratches and fingerprints. The "Black" finish, a matte-like black, is not shiny and resembles the iPhone 5 back.

I went matte black, mostly because Jet black was out of stock everywhere. But after seeing them in person I would still go matte black.

Aside from the back of the phone, the only standout hardware change is the camera bump. On the 6 and 6S, the camera lens jutted out like a flat disc on top of the phone surface. The new 7's camera bump is molded into the casing and frankly, looks better. The 7 Plus also has a dual-lens camera system, making a larger bump and being the most noticeable change from previous models.

Home Button

The first of two big hardware changes is the new Home button mechanism. For nine years, the iPhone Home button has been an actual button that physically depresses. iPhone 7 takes a cue from the new MacBook trackpads and no longer uses a physical button.

When you "push" the new Home button, a Taptic Engine (vibrator), activates to simulate the feel of pushing a button. You can set the strength of its feedback to weak, modest, or strong vibration, but in my experience it does not feel great.

I may get used to the feeling, but for now I would prefer a physical button. Many times I want to turn on the screen while the phone lays on a desk, but pushing Home without holding the phone in your hands is a poor experience.

Some have speculated that the move away from a physical Home button points to a future design where the screen extends edge-to-edge and it is integrated into the screen. We'll see about that.

Water Resistance

With the new Home button and lack of a headphone port, Apple claims that iPhone is now water (splash) and dust resistant. Don't go swimming with your phone, but if you drop it in water or spill a drink on it, you don't need to reach for a bag of rice.

The Headphone Port

Is gone. Of all the rumors surrounding iPhone 7 before its announcement, the removal of a headphone port was the most reported and spoken about. A few things to remember:

Apple has no problem killing standard ports. For example:

  • 3.5" Floppy Drive
  • FireWire
  • Ethernet
  • CD / DVD Drive
  • Their own 30-Pin port
  • Headphone Port

Also, the new 12" MacBook has exactly two ports: Headphone and USB-C. It's no secret that Apple is striving for a completely wireless future. The analog headphone port, a 100-year-old technology,was destined for obsolescence sooner or later, and Apple has elected sooner.

Too lessen the blow, Apple includes a pair of Lightning wired headphones that connect to the charging port on iPhone, and a Lightning-to-Analog adapter in the box with iPhone 7. They have also announced wireless AirPods that will work seamlessly over Bluetooth with iPhone and Watch.

There is no chance the headphone port will be re-introduced, so was now the "right" time to do it? Some may say it should never go away, but knowing Apple's history, any physical port will probably be eliminated at some point. Was it too soon? Apple has historically killed ports and connectors before the masses were ready for it, so...maybe.

Personally, I rarely use headphones. In the car, I play audio over Bluetooth. At home, I AirPlay to an Apple TV or use a Bluetooth speaker. Every once in a while I listen over headphones, and I use Apple's.

I know this is not the case for everyone, but with Bluetooth increasingly available in cars and the rise of cheap Bluetooth headphones, I believe a majority of iPhone users will get over this quickly. An adapter is included with every iPhone 7, and while it may not be convenient, your $800 headphones are still useable with the new device.

Phil Schiller in the Keynote announcement said Apple's decision to remove the headphone port was courageous. That's probably overstating it, but the iPhone 7 does have longer battery life than the 6S and is water / dust resistant. Apple claims this is a result of the new home button and lack of headphone port.

I'd willingly trade the port for water resistance and more battery.

iPhone 7 Camera

If you need one standout feature to upgrade, it's the iPhone 7 camera. Apple always claims the camera is improved year-over-year, but this is the first year in a while that I could honestly say the difference is significant.

Going for the smaller 4.7" iPhone, your camera gets Optical Image Stabilization. Basically, the camera lens physically moves and tries to compensate for shaky hands. This is especially helpful in low light situations and makes for clearer photos with less grain.

The true magic comes with the larger 5.5" iPhone 7 Plus, which now has a dual-lens camera system. One, wide-angle lens that is equivalent to what has always come on the iPhone, and a second telephoto lens. Tapping a "2X" button in the camera switches to the telephoto lens and give you a much closer zoom while retaining clarity.

On all other iPhones, "zooming in" actually just cropped the photo and resulted in losing resolution. The new telephoto lens provides a much closer shot at the full, 12 megapixel resolution. Unfortunately, the telephoto lens does not have optical image stabilization. So if you are shooting in a low-light situation, the iPhone 7 Plus may fall back to the wide-angle lens that has OIS, and use digital zoom instead of the telephoto lens.

That may be a lot of high-photography talk, but all you have to know is that in practice, the camera captures noticeably better photos than previous iPhone generations. Here are a few examples of photos taken with the telephoto lens on the 7 Plus, unedited.

iOS 10

Whether or not you purchase a new iPhone, every model from the iPhone 5 to the 7 gets iOS 10, the newest software update to Apple's mobile operating system. Many apps function the same, but two deserve special attention.

iMessage experiences the most drastic change in iOS 10. Not only appearing different, but adding full screen animations, message effects, stickers, and most notably, third party apps have access directly to iMessage. This means you can send a friend cash with Square right from the message conversation. You can pull up a 7 Day Weather forecast and send it in a rich image message, and there is even a two player chess application you can play inside iMessage.

As developers experiment with this ability, I'm sure we'll see some interesting apps and ideas in the coming months. Also: Read Receipts can now be turned on per contact rather than being all-or-nothing.

The second app to get a facelift is Maps. Turn-by-turn navigation has a welcome refresh with larger arrows, text and better contrast for quick glances. Maps' main screen has also changed, aiming for simplicity it seems to have made navigating the app more obscure.

You may also notice the unlocking process is quite different. If you had an iPhone with Touch ID, before you would click the Home button and immediately be brought to the App home screen. iOS 10 adds a step to the process, where one press unlocks the iPhone, and a second press brings you to the app screen.

In practice, it's confusing. I've heard several podcasts claim you should "give it a week" and you'll like it, but if not, you can go to iPhone Settings > General > Accessibility > Home Button and turn on Rest finger to unlock.

Should You Upgrade?

In short, if you own an iPhone 5S or older, now is a great time to upgrade. Improved Touch ID, Apple Pay, larger screens, 3D Touch, significantly better cameras, and much faster processors warrant the upgrade. If you own an iPhone 4s or earlier, you've actually lost compatibility with iOS 10 and I certainly recommend upgrading.

If you have an iPhone 6 or 6 Plus, the decision gets a little more complicated. Screen sizes are the same, and if you use a case the 6 and 7 look almost identical. You'll gain 3D Touch and a noticeably better camera if you upgrade.

For those with a 6s or 6s Plus, the decision to upgrade comes down to this: Photography. If you use your iPhone as your main / only camera, you are an amateur to professional photographer, or just really care about the quality of photos you take, you will genuinely enjoy upgrading to the iPhone 7. And if photography is your reason, I highly recommend the 7 Plus.

Aside from the impressive camera on the iPhone 7 Plus, if you have a 6S and photography is not a priority, I suggest waiting for next year's model. Typically, Apple has made significant hardware / design changes to the "number-change" iPhones.

iPhone 3G went to a curved plastic back and added 3G data. iPhone 4 went to a glass, flat back and added a high-resolution Retina screen. iPhone 5 increased the screen size to 4" and added LTE data. iPhone 6 and 6 Plus introduced even larger screens with 4.7" and 5.5" sizes plus Apple Pay.

iPhone 7 brought no significant hardware design changes. Considering three iPhone models have shared the same design, and next year is the 10th Anniversary of the iPhone's launch, there is possibility of a significant (read: very innovate) hardware design change.

So for the photographers and early adopters, go for the iPhone 7. The camera is impressive and new black finishes are elegant. If those two features do not appeal to you, and you have either an iPhone 6 or 6S, wait and see what next year may bring.

Side Note: I was listening to The Talk Show with John Gruber, and in his [latest episode] they discuss who actually introduced each iPhone model on stage. I've watched every Apple Keynote since the original iPhone, and it felt like Steve Jobs released most of them. But in reality, here is who actually announced each model:

  • iPhone: Steve Jobs
  • iPhone 3G: Steve Jobs
  • iPhone 3GS: Phil Schiller
  • iPhone 4: Steve Jobs
  • iPhone 5: Phil Schiller
  • iPhone 5S: Phil Schiller
  • iPhone 6: Phil Schiller
  • iPhone 6S: Phil Schiller
  • iPhone 7: Phil Schiller

Out of ten iterations (not counting the 5C which was announced with the 5S, and the SE, a minor update to the 5S model), Jobs only introduced three. Crazy.

Stephen Robles

Story Group, Lakeland, FL

Director of Creative Arts & Technology @WeAreCrossing | Snapchat + Instagram: stephenrobles