iPhone 7 review: Not quite the new black, but raising the bar on basic

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New Atlas reviews the Apple iPhone 7, a second consecutive iterative update that still delivers a top-notch experience(Credit: Emily Ferron / New Atlas)

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The iPhone 7 isn't quite the new black, but it does establish a new high watermark for "basic." Like a great pair of jeans, the iPhone 7 is straightforward, versatile and attractive. If it fits you well, it's worth it, even if some specs fall short of superlative.

Body & build

The iPhone 7 could easily be mistaken for last year's model. It has the same dimensions and display size as the iPhone 6S. The now-capacitive home button (more on that below) has the same familiar size and placement, though if you look close, you can tell it's now a beveled, solid-state button instead of a mechanical one.

The familiar aluminum unibody has been streamlined. The antenna and camera are now fully housed; the antenna line interrupting the casing is significantly more subtle (especially on the black phones) but you would need to do a side-by-side comparison to notice the camera build difference. Of course, it's also missing a headphone jack.

We do like the new matte black color of our test machine. The back, edges and controls are all matte black, whereas the display and Apple logo on the back are glossy. The black-on-black minimalism is not groundbreaking, but it is elegant.

The IPS display is lovely too, though you wouldn't be able to tell from the resolution specs alone. At 1,334 x 750 and 326 ppi, the resolution's the same as last year's 6S model (as well as the previous year's 6), and is dwarfed by that of its AMOLED-sporting Android competitors. But pixel count alone does not a display make, especially on small screens.

The iPhone 7 display has a massive color range, precise white balance and color accuracy, with better brightness and contrast. I first noticed the upgrade when reading black text on a white background. The white is whiter, with less of a blue tint than what we've seen in older iPhones.

In terms of battery life, Apple said the iPhone 7's battery lasts "up to two hours" longer than that of the iPhone 6S, and anecdotally, that seems to be true. An hour of streaming video over Wi-Fi saw a 12 percent dip in battery, using our standard test with the display brightness measured at a consistent luminance. That's an improvement from 13 percent for the 6S, but it's definitely not a game changer.

On the other hand, the new processor is a speed demon. According to benchmark testing, the new A10 Fusion chip is 13 percent faster than the A9 chip in the 12.9-inch iPad Pro. Apple's also finally boosted RAM up to 3 GB, and while that's less than many Android competitors, we've yet to see any lag.

The iPhone's internal storage tiers have finally entered this decade; the phone's available with generous 32 GB, 128 GB and 256 GB capacities. This is more than several Android competitors, but those often have something that iPhone does not: external storage. Still no microSD here.

Additionally, the iPhone 7 is IP67 water-resistant, which means it should be safe from accidental immersion in water less than one meter deep. We tested it so you don't have to: The Apple warranty does not cover liquid damage. The IP67 rating might afford some peace of mind, but don't expect any support from Apple if it fails to protect your device.

In our test, we fired up the music app, put the speakers on full blast, then poured about a liter and a half of water on it. While the liquid was falling, the speakers crackled and sputtered, but snapped right back into action as soon as the pouring stopped. Then, we started streaming a video and submerged the phone in about 4 inches of water for 25 minutes. The phone was no worse for the wear – the video playback continued through the immersion. Speakers were muffled immediately after the bath, but after a few good shakes, they seemed to perk right back to normal.

On the capacitive home button

Apple has been talking up its new home button, but not in a way that explains its benefits. Even with the device in hand, we can't help but wonder why? Was it only to make room for a bigger battery, or is this supposed to add to the user experience? If the latter, then we aren't seeing it.

The new home button does not move. Instead, it works with the internal "Taptic Engine" (Apple's proprietary term for the component that provides vibration-based haptic feedback) to simulate the impression of a click. It does function as advertised. You press that button, and yup, it feels like a button. And the tactile feedback is customizable: Through Settings, you can choose one of three "clicks" which vary slightly in intensity but provide the same sensation.

One complaint about the haptic feedback – even on the lowest click intensity, the pressing sensation does not seem to be confined only to the home button. Instead, it feels more like the lower edge of the phone is being compressed as well. This imprecision seems like a bit of a misfire.

For all these changes, the haptic home button matches the mechanical one in functions: fingerprint sensor, click for home screen, or press longer to prompt Siri. It could be that the solid state button is more water resistant, and helped Apple squeeze in a larger battery, but hopefully it's setting the stage for something bigger. For now, this hardware update seems unfocused, like a major effort with middling results.

Speaker & headphones

As we already know, Apple nixed the headphone jack. Instead, the bottom of the phone has two symmetrical grilles on either side of the lightning port. But product teardowns indicate that the new second grille is not the newly added second speaker for stereo sound as many might assume. Instead, it's at least partially cosmetic, though it may provide additional microphone functionality as well.

To create its new stereo speakers, Apple made the iPhone 7's earpiece twice as loud, upgrading it into a proper audio speaker. It works with the original speaker in the base of the phone to create stereo sound. Don't expect the new audio to free you from a peripheral speaker altogether, however. Apple has said it's twice as loud as the iPhone 6S, but we did not notice that significant of a difference. The stereo speakers are great for personal video playback but are insufficient for blasting music. It's not as if they're not loud enough, they just sound tinny and weak.

The phone does come with a Lightning-to-headphone jack adapter and Lightning port earbuds. The adapter is small (read: easy to lose) and minimal, so it shouldn't add too much bulk to the listening experience overall.

Camera

While Apple did up the specs on both of this year's flagships, the iPhone 7 Plus took the lion's share of the upgrades. Still, iPhone 7 has a number of camera features its predecessor did not, including a 7-megapixel front camera, a quad LED flash, Optical Image Stabilization and a larger f/1.8 aperture.

These enhancements were visible in our tests, but they failed to wow us. We hoped the larger aperture would allow increased bokeh effects and strengthen low-light shooting. The following example shows that iPhone 7 does a slightly better job of narrowing the depth of field, for more emphasis on the flower in the foreground.

In low light, without flash, the differences between the iPhone 6S and iPhone 7 were nearly imperceptible. iPhone 7 results were slightly sharper, though the phone did struggle to focus in darker settings.

Shooting with flash, the iPhone 7's captures are darker, but we do see a fuller range of tones and less white blowout. It's still safe to say that the upgrade from dual LED to quad LED did not make flash shooting twice as good, at least in a still-life setting.

Lastly, the front-facing camera has 7 megapixels, one of the highest resolution selfie-takers out there. I'll spare you the selfies, but the increase does remove some of the granularity often seen in front captures.

All in all, the iPhone 7 has a strong camera that puts inherent capability over bells and whistles. But if you're already using a late model iPhone, you won't be bowled over. By extension, that probably holds true for the iPhone 7 total package: it's a great phone with solid looks and specs but few headline-worthy, can't-wait-to-upgrade features.

Final thoughts

Whether or not you're an iPhone fan, there's no denying that the Apple flagships serve as an industry standard each year. If you were to make a cluster graph of the year's smartphone specs, the iPhone's would fall on the medium-high end for nearly every rubric. Using this year's iPhone flagships as a barometer would indicate that this isn't a banner year for smartphones, but one of steady growth.

But step away from the technical specs and focus on the user experience, and the iPhone starts to look like the perfect pair of jeans again. Who cares about the technical details if the product at hand is a pleasure to use? In the same way I don't care about thread count if the jeans look great, I don't put too much stock in specs like screen resolution when the display is clearly on point. All in all, I appreciate the iPhone 7's simplicity, elegance, silky smooth operation, and of course, the familiar walled garden of iOS 10.

The iPhone 7 is available now in rose gold, gold, silver, black (matte), and jet black (glossy). Jet black is only available in the 128 GB or 256 GB capacities. Full retail price starts at US$649. For more, you can read New Atlas' review of the larger iPhone 7 Plus.

Product page: Apple

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