Don't let the lack of a massive redesign put you off, the iPhone 7 is more exciting than it first seems. If you're looking to upgrade - and aren't put off by the lack of a headphone jack - Apple's kitted out the iPhone 7 with enough nice-to-have features to still make it feel like a big step forward.
Outright Cost: From $1,119
What Is It?
The iPhone 7 is a device that almost needs no introduction. It's Apple's latest flagship smartphone, succeeding the iPhone 6s and iPhone 6s Plus.
Once again, Apple launched two new handsets: the iPhone 7, and the iPhone 7 Plus. The iPhone 7 is the smaller of the two, rocking a 4.7-inch display. As the name suggests, the iPhone 7 Plus is quite a bit larger, boasting a 5.5-inch screen.
This review focuses solely on the iPhone 7. We'll have a separate review of the iPhone 7 Plus in the near future.
While the move to a new number typically heralds a redesign, the iPhone 7 is cut from the same mould introduced with the iPhone 6. There are a few minor differences - much cleaner antenna bands, a more seamless camera bump, two new colours, and of course, the controversial lack of a headphone jack - but otherwise, it can be pretty hard to tell the iPhone 7, the iPhone 6, and iPhone 6s apart.
The iPhone 7 might not look too different from its predecessors, but it still offers plenty of new features. Battery life is better, the camera takes better low light photos, the screen is brighter, and the phone is now water-resistant.
These might not seem like overly sexy changes (well, maybe water-resistance is), but they're all meaningful quality of life improvements that make the new number feel warranted, and almost make up for the removal of the headphone jack.
Apple's decision to axe the headphone jack on the iPhone 7 is easily one of the device's most remarkable changes, and I'll spend a bit more time discussing this later. You can still use Bluetooth headphones, use your old headphones with a dongle, use Lightning connector headphones (there's a pair in the box), or use the iPhone 7's new stereo speakers.
At the end of the day, the iPhone 7 is still a phone - and a small one at that - so the speakers aren’t really anything to write home about. They are an improvement on last year's, and stereo separation is surprisingly effective. At the very least, you won't be reaching for headphones whenever you want to watch a video on YouTube.
One of the iPhone 7's other big changes is a new home button; it looks the same, but feels completely different. This is because the home button isn't actually a button anymore. It's now a capacitive area similar to the Force Touch trackpads found in new Apple's MacBook laptops. Rather than physically clicking, it simulates the feeling of a click through haptics (tiny vibrations inside the phone). If your iPhone 7 is off, the home button is a flat surface with no movement.
If you're coming from an old iPhone, this will be a bit weird at first. The "click" is reasonably convincing, but it's a much shallower feel. If you're not holding the phone, the haptic feedback is further subdued, but there's still some physical sensation.
You do have some control over the intensity of this: Apple offers three different feedback settings of varying intensity. Personally, I prefer strongest setting, but the other two options still do the trick.
The iPhone 7 is Apple's first water-resistant smartphone, offering IP67 protection. This means it can safely be submerged as deep as one metre for up to half an hour. It's not quite as water-resistant as Samsung's 2016 flagship smartphones (which are all rated IP68, meaning they can go down 1.5 metres), but still water-resistant enough to survive a tumble into the toilet or the shallow end of a pool. The feature is more about peace of mind, rather than an invitation to use the phone underwater. An IP67 water-resistant rating does however mean the iPhone is now the perfect option for binging Netflix while in the bath.
Just make sure the water isn't too sudsy, because technically speaking, IP ratings only apply to fresh water. The iPhone 7 should still survive encounters with salt water, chlorinated water, or even beer, you'll just want to rinse it off with freshwater as soon as possible.
It's worth noting that while the iPhone 7 is water-resistant, Apple does not cover water damage under the phone's warranty. You also shouldn't charge the device when it's wet; you should give it a couple of hours to dry out entirely following any aquatic adventures.
While the iPhone 7 doesn't offer much new in terms of design, you do have two new colour options: matte black, and jet black. Matte black replaces space grey, and to be honest, is very similar, just a touch darker.
Jet black, on the other hand, is a whole new kind of finish. It's still aluminium, but it's super glossy to the point where it can masquerade for glass. As a result, the jet black iPhone 7 almost looks like a uniform black slab (the antenna bands are the only details that give it away, and even then, you have to be looking for them). Unsurprisingly, this turns the device into an even bigger fingerprint magnet.
One more disclaimer: due to the high gloss finish, any micro abrasions or scratches the phone picks up will be much more visible. Apple says that the jet black model is just as durable as any other iPhone, but the reflective surface means that wear and tear is much more noticeable. If scratches bother you, you'll want to spend a bit extra and grab a case, or alternatively, just opt for one of the four other finishes. For me, it's a toss-up between silver (for that classic Apple look) and rose gold.
It almost goes without saying, the iPhone family has a reputation for great cameras. While the competition is certainly getting tougher (especially from Samsung), the iPhone 7 reinforces Apple's position as top-tier camera manufacturer.
The iPhone 7 is the first 4.7-inch iPhone to offer optical image stabilisation, a feature that's previously been exclusive to Apple's "Plus" smartphones. Optical image stabilisation means the iPhone's camera lens will physically move in order to counteract shaky hands. This reduces motion blur, and is often most noticeable when shooting in lowlight situations or snapping a close up.
Lowlight photography also benefits from a new camera lens with a wider aperture of f/1.8. This allows the iPhone 7 to capture more light without dramatically lowering shutter speed or pumping ISO. As a result, you'll get sharper photos at night, without too much "noise". Samsung's S7 phones (and the Note 7) are able to capture brighter lowlight photos out of the box, but this often comes at the expense of shutter speed. The Samsung phones give you a brighter photo prone to motion blur, whereas the iPhone 7 gives you a slightly darker but sharper image.
The iPhone 7 Plus does however get a new feature that iPhone 7 owners miss out on: a second rear-facing camera. The iPhone 7 Plus' second rear-facing camera is used as a zoom lens, and facilitates a new "portrait" mode that simulates DSLR-esque bokeh (the soft out-of-focus areas behind a subject). While it's quite possible that Apple wasn't able to fit the second camera lens in iPhone 7's body, it's a shame nonetheless.
Either way, the iPhone 7's single camera is still a top notch option that takes great photos effortlessly.
It's hard to fault the iPhone 7 when it comes to performance; I haven't experience a single instance of slowdown. It's hard to image day-to-day functionality getting much faster. Unless you're opening a more demanding app that actually needs to load (such as a game or creative tool), you'll be jumping between applications in the blink of an eye.
As always, the iPhone 7 has a lovely display. It works well outdoors (even in direct sunlight), has wide viewing angles, and offers vibrant colours. It's not as high a resolution as screen as other manufacturers have been kitting their phones out with, but at the same time, it doesn't make much of a difference in terms of sharpness and clarity.
The iPhone 7 screen also doubles down on 3D Touch, a display technology Apple introduced in the iPhone 6s. For those not familiar with it, 3D Touch is the somewhat awkward name Apple uses for its pressure sensitive displays. 3D Touch means the iPhone knows how hard you're pressing on it. The screen and software are capable of distinguishing between three pressure levels: a light tap, a medium push, and a hard press.
iOS 10 - the latest version of the iPhone operating system - has made 3D Touch a lot more useful. 3D Touching app icons still reveals shortcuts (a la right click on a PC or Mac), but it can also be used to display widgets. For example, you can 3D Touch the Calendar app to see your next appointment without having to open the app. Many will still find it easier to just open the app, but it's still a nifty feature that can speed up the overall iPhone user experience.
One of the big reasons for buying an iPhone is the tight relationship between hardware and software. Since Apple makes both the iPhone and its operating system, you get a more holistic experience than you do on most Android devices. The most practical benefit of this is guaranteed software and security updates. Historically speaking, iPhones have continued to receive updates for between four and five years after they first went on sale. Not only does this mean you're constantly getting Apple's latest and greatest software, it seems to positively affect iPhone resale value.
A new feature I've found myself enjoying is physical feedback within the iPhone's software. Performing certain tasks - like opening the control centre, using a scroll menu, or toggling an on / off switch - all result in a small vibration. This adds a bit of physicality to the software, and makes the iPhone display feel like more than just a sheet of glass. It doesn't quite transcend the realm of software, but the haptic feedback does help blur the line.
It's not at all necessary, but it's a neat little feature that I've found oddly satisfying.
Lastly, the iPhone 7 now starts with 32GB of storage, rather than 16GB. It's a very welcome change, and a much more practical starting point. The iPhone 7 is also available in 128GB and 256GB configurations, with the 64GB model also getting the axe. 32GB might still be tight, depending on how many apps you own, much music you want to physically store on your phone, and how often you're taking photos, but you're not going to burn through it anywhere near as quickly as the frustratingly low 16GB.
What's Not So Good
There's no way around it, the iPhone 7's lack of a headphone jack will inconvenience a lot of people, at least in the short term. Most of us have been using 3.5mm headphones with smartphones since the very first iPhone, and while Bluetooth options are becoming increasingly popular, I still wouldn't exactly describe them as mainstream.
To Apple's credit, it's doing its best to make the transition period a little bit easier. You get a somewhat clunky Lightning-to-3.5mm dongle in the box, as well as a pair of headphones that plug into the phone's Lightning connector. However, either option prevents you from charging your phone and listening to music at the same time (at least, without the use of -another- dongle).
If you decide to use the Lightning headphones Apple includes in the box, you'll potentially face the hassle of carrying around two pairs of headphones; one set for your iPhone 7, and another set for your computer (given that no computer - PC or Mac - currently has a Lightning connector).
While both the dongle and Lightning headphones work well enough, Bluetooth is really the best option. It's a shame that Apple didn't throw a basic pair of wireless headphones into the box.
The iPhone 7's all too familiar design is another minor disappointment. I'm not someone who expects Apple to change how the iPhone looks every two years - after all, there's only so much you can do with a smartphone - but at the same time, it feels like Apple hasn't quite kept up with the likes of Samsung in terms of aesthetic.
While I don't really have an issue with the iPhone's overall look and feel, Apple could be doing more when it comes to screen to body ratio. Samsung has done a phenomenal job of making big phones that don't feel big; the Galaxy S7 Edge is a 5.5-inch that's only slightly bigger than the 4.7-inch iPhone 7. This is more an issue when it comes to the iPhone 7 Plus, but it feels like Apple could have reduced the amount of bezel surrounding the iPhone 7's screen. Keep it at 4.7-inches, just put it in a smaller form-factor.
You might have noticed that battery life fell under both "like" and "dislike" in the introduction to this review. The iPhone 7's battery is noticeably better than that of the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6s, but it still could be better.
As a relatively demanding smartphone user, I found I was typically down to somewhere between 40% and 60% around 6pm (depending how hard I was pushing the phone). On the iPhone 6s, this would often get down to between 20% and 40%. Battery life is much heartier, but heavier users will probably need to plug the iPhone 7 in for a quick top up at least once throughout the day.
More restrained users should be able to make it through a full day on a single charge, but there's a good chance you'll end up hitting the danger zone. On a good day, I'd have about 10% left around 10pm. That's not terrible, but it's not a comfortable buffer either, especially if you're planning on staying out late.
While the iPhone 7 doesn't offer "fast charging" as a marketing bullet point, the comparatively small battery (1,960mAh) means recharging doesn't take too long anyway.
Who's It For?
It's easy to call the newest iPhone the best iPhone, because you know, that's often the case. While there's no radical redesign, it's a device that's packed to the brim with "nice-to-have" features. You might not be rushing out to upgrade to an iPhone 7, but there's plenty to love about Apple's latest.
If you're an Apple fan still on an iPhone 5s or older, I'd say it's probably time for an upgrade. Unless you're still after a 4-inch screen (in which case the iPhone SE is perfect), the iPhone 7 is a good step-up and will provide huge benefits in terms of performance and camera quality.
If you're still using an iPhone 6, the question as to whether or not you upgrade to an iPhone 7 is a bit trickier. The iPhone 6 is still a great phone, and next year's iPhone is tipped to be a bit more exciting (as it will be celebrating the iPhone's 10th anniversary). At the same time, the iPhone 7 offers 2GB of RAM (like the iPhone 6s), whereas the iPhone 6 only has 1GB.
2GB of RAM allows the iPhone 7 to maintain suspended states of multiple apps simultaneously. This means that if you're in Safari reading WhistleOut, you can jump over to Twitter, then catch up on Instagram, play a few rounds of Hearthstone, and then return to Safari without waiting for anything to reload. Even if you're only using the basic apps that come with your iPhone, 2GB of RAM significantly speeds up the iPhone experience.
At the same time, the iPhone 7 Plus is arguably the more exciting of two new handsets, thanks to the second rear-facing camera. If you don't want to wait, don't want to deal with a 5.5-inch smartphone, and aren't put off by the lack of the headphone jack, the iPhone 7 is easy to recommend; it's one of the very best phones you can currently buy.
If you're an Android user, there's still a few reasons you might consider swapping to an iPhone 7. The simplest is that you want a phone with a screen smaller than 5-inches. With the exception of Sony's "Compact" Xperia range, small Android smartphones are all but extinct, with many manufacturers now opting for 5.5-inch displays as a standard.
An iPhone 7 could also be worth considering if you're upset about Android's lack of regular software updates, want to finally have a blue bubble around your text messages, or own other Apple devices. If you're thinking about making the switch from Android to iPhone, you will have to repurchase any paid apps. Subscription services such as Spotify or Netflix will keep working across phones though.
What Else Can I Buy?
If you still want an iPhone with a headphone jack, you should be looking at the iPhone 6s or iPhone 6s Plus. Last year's iPhones are still tier-one devices with fast performance and great cameras. You'll miss out on new features like water-resistance and better low-light photography, but you'll get to keep on using your old 3.5mm headphones for a little bit longer. History suggests the iPhone 6s and iPhone 6s Plus will continue to see software updates for another four or so years, so the devices still have some life left in them.
It is however worth noting a couple of things. Heavy users will burn through the iPhone 6s' battery like a hot knife through butter. I often found myself needing to recharge around 5:30pm. If battery is a concern, go for the iPhone 6s Plus.
Secondly, you're not necessarily saving money by opting for the older model. If you're looking at outright purchase, you'll save around $200.
On the bright side, Apple has refreshed the iPhone 6s family; the devices now all start with 32GB of storage, as opposed to 16GB.
I'm also personally a big fan of the iPhone SE. $849 for a new 64GB iPhone is a bargain.
Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge
If you're happy to look at the other side of the fence, the S7 Edge is one of the very best devices Android has to offer. You get a 5.5-inch display in a form-factor only slightly bigger than the iPhone 7, top-tier camera, IP68 water-resistance, expandable storage, and a hefty battery life.
Assuming you're happy enough with Android, there's two potential deal breakers. The S7 Edge uses "dual curve" display, where the left and right sides both taper off. While this creates the illusion of an edge-to-edge display and makes the S7 Edge easier to use one handed, it might not be to everyone's liking. The curved display doesn't change day-to-day usage, though. Secondly, the S7 Edge is a fingerprint magnet. Whether you get black, silver, gold, or pink gold, the back is going to get grimey fast.
Google Nexus 5X
If you're after a cheaper outright option, it's worth considering Google's Nexus 5X. While the phone feels very plastic, it has a lovely 5.2-inch display, fast fingerprint reader, and a reasonably reliable camera. The biggest benefit of opting for a Nexux device over a competing Android phone is that you're guaranteed a few years of software and security updates, which isn't always the case with other handsets. The Nexus 5X recently got an upgrade to Android Nougat, and will also receive next year's major operating system update.
Huawei's P9 is a cheaper alternative to the likes of the latest Apple and Samsung flagship, but is still premium enough to be a considering a flagship in its own right. The P9 beat the iPhone to a dual camera setup, and while it's not quite as polished as Apple's implementation, it still takes stunning photos. The biggest caveat is a heavily customised version of Android - that's almost designed to make the P9 software look more like an iPhone - but this might not be a problem if you're swapping. The familiarity could help ease the change.