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iPhone 7 Review: Back in black

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The iPhone 7 is a good phone, but for every step forward we find with lifestyle features, there seems to be a step back somewhere else.
Overview
Processor

A10 Fusion chip with 64-bit architecture
Embedded M10 motion coprocessor
Quad-core 2.23 GHz
Hexa-core GPU

Screen Size

4.7-inch LED-backlit widescreen
1400:1 contrast ratio (typical)
1334-by-750-pixel resolution at 326 ppi

Memory

2GB RAM

Storage

32GB, 128GB, 256GB ROM

Battery

1960 mAh battery (7.45 Wh)

Release Date

September 7, 2016

Weight

4.87 ounces (138 grams)

Materials

Glass, aluminum (anodized)

Operating System

iOS 10

It’s the best iPhone ever! Though, the iPhone 7 arrives at a time when consumers are holding onto their phones for longer stretches of time, and this premium phone faces intense competition from mid-range and flagship phones from last year. Will this phone help spark a little more excitement in the iOS fan camp to upgrade?

It’s time to get down to brass tacks and see what’s improved, what’s stayed the same, and what might have taken a step back from last year’s iPhone. Learn about every aspect of this phone in our iPhone 7 review below.

Hardware

iPhone 7 Review

For you specs junkies, the tech updates for the iPhone 7 are fairly modest. Apple moves from a dual-core CPU in last year’s A9 to a quad-core CPU in the A10 chipset. This still comes with an impressively powerful six-core GPU. Offsetting the more powerful CPU, the battery is bigger than last year’s phone, and we’re very happy to see that now the base model iPhone ships with 32GB of storage instead of last year’s anemic 16GB base model iPhones. Otherwise, the rest of the platform is very familiar. We get virtually identical dimensions, the same size screen, and 2GB of RAM.

Design

We’ve all started talking about Apple products like we would purses or shoes, and new for this season, Apple is bringing back black. Customers have their pick between a glossy Jet Black, and a satin finished matte black. This author personally enjoys the satin finish on the matte black better than the glossy jet black, but even the matte finish will still pick up fingerprints like crazy.

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This is a pretty sharp look for a phone, and the better blended antenna lines are appreciated. It’s a shame Apple couldn’t deliver this on the other color options. We do have to question though, whether a new color, and a bit of sculpting around the camera, really constitutes “fresh” design. If an iPhone is to be considered a lifestyle accessory, shouldn’t Apple work harder at being a fashion vanguard?

iPhone 7 Review

What we have here though is maybe the last true premium small form factor phone. Only Apple this year seems interested in providing hardware options for folks with smaller hands.

To expand on that idea, as we received numerous comments on our iPhone 7 review video after making that last comment, Apple is the last company to focus its efforts on building a premium phone with a smaller screen. Many people commented with messages along the lines of:

“But the Galaxy is basically the same size.”

The iPhone is still smaller in every dimension, and with a smaller screen. Samsung has done a terrific job of shrinking the frame around the Galaxy S7 display, but it still has a 5.1” screen. We’re not too far removed from the display of the original Galaxy Note. Looking at that diagonal, with the overall larger volume and higher curb weight, it positions the S7 as “normal” sized. Is the Galaxy right near that border between “normal” moving towards “small”? Sure. But, you wouldn’t confuse one in the hand for other 4.7” screened phones like an iPhone 6-7, or an HTC One M7.

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Similarly, is the iPhone 7 near that border of “small” moving towards “normal”? Absolutely, but one hand usage is still easier on the iPhone 7 than on the smaller Galaxy, especially when interacting with the home buttons on each device.

Ultimately, claiming these two are “basically the same” is kind of like saying, “all sprinters in the Olympics basically run at the same speed”. We might be talking about small differences, maybe even splitting hairs, but at some point we need to draw lines and categorize these devices.

Display

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Checking out the screen, this is likely the best LCD we’ve ever seen for color and brightness, though it still loses to AMOLED displays for contrast. The Retina pixel density is fine for day to day activities on this screen size, but folks who really get their noses into their phones, or are interested in trying out some VR, will likely be disappointed in this 750p resolution.

Home Button

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The new home button isn’t actually a button at all, and this personally might be one of our favorite new features. It does a great job addressing one of the more common failure areas of previous iPhones. The tactile feedback here is fed through the phone’s vibration system, which can be customized. While it has a funky feel at first, it won’t take users long to acclimate. Manual buttons on older iPhones already feel a bit clunky.

Water Resistant

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We’re also very happy to see proper water resistance on this iPhone. Rated IP67, the iPhone should handily survive being submerged in up to a meter of water for up to 30 minutes. The iPhone 7 suffered no issues after dunking it in a pitcher of water for 30 minutes, nor after pouring a pitcher of water over the phone in some mud.

Software

Moving over to software, we’ve produced several videos on iOS 10, but as a quick recap, this new version of iOS brings better gesture and 3D Touch support. A new control center is nicely laid out, but this brightness slider can be easy to miss when on the move. The new photos app is spruced up, Music has a cleaner look with more options for cultivating playlists, and lastly messages gets a huge update for personalizing conversations with playful transitions and new emoji.

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We’d be remiss if we didn’t reiterate that some aspects of iOS haven’t aged well. Apple’s home screen organization options feel limited in this day and age. This system, pages of icons that can be divided up by user created folders, made more sense when the consumers were only apt to install a small number of additional programs. As digital media has exploded, and a hot new social app is released every week, this collection can easily become cluttered.

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There are also some vestigial UI elements like upper left corner back arrows, which made more sense on smaller iPhones. This corner was easy to reach on an iPhone 4. These elements remain unchanged as the iPhone screen size has increased. Apple is including more gesture support for these elements, like sliding back pages with a swipe, but the phone really doesn’t convey that gesture to new users.

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Conveyance also becomes an issue with 3D Touch. Apple is including more support for this press gesture, and more app developers are adding menus to home screen icons, but there’s no differentiating these icons from apps which do not support the force press. Consumers essentially need to memorize which apps can use this feature, and what those options might be.

Performance

The newest Apple OS on the newest Apple chipset is always a tasty recipe for performance. Though we occasionally see some subtle frame rate drops when flinging through the multitasking view.

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Apple’s A10 chipset benches like a monster, and when paired with such a low resolution screen, we also shouldn’t be surprised that this phone is a gaming champ, except for the battery life of course, which we’ll talk about later in this iPhone 7 review.

Cell

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Cell performance is good, but generally around my neck of the woods, reception fell slightly behind the iPhone 6S on AT&T’s LTE. Perhaps because these new antenna bands have a little less surface area? Comparing reception against the glass back Galaxy, we see Apple fall even a little further behind.

Wi-Fi

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What is impressive though is how strong Wi-Fi reception is during speed tests. Of course, Apple won’t let you just see reception, but moving as far from my router as I could, the iPhone consistently pulled a faster download than the Galaxy S7 from the same distance.

Camera

Talking about the camera, we have the most complete examination of the iPhone camera available online in our iPhone 7 Plus Real Camera Review.

As a quick recap, we’re happy to see a faster focusing system, a wider aperture, and optical image stabilization on the smaller iPhone, though the last two points mainly seem to benefit low light shots. Day light photos and videos are very similar to the 6S.

Video is high quality, though we’re encountering a few issues with exposure and white balance transitions which you can see in the full review embedded above. On the whole, UHD video is crisp and colorful. The 1080p at 60fps is liquid smooth, and adding image stabilization to the smaller iPhone certainly helps the photo and video situation.

The selfie camera also gets an upgrade. The 7MP front facing shooter delivers some of the crispest shots we’ve ever seen, and happily the app doesn’t seem hell bent on adding beauty-filter-blurring to all of our portraits. Though we do wish Apple would provide a wider field of view from this camera for better location and vacation photos.

Lastly, Apple still has one of the strongest games around for fun features like HDR and slow motion video. Though, this app is starting to feel old and limited against some of the truly great camera software found on competing devices. We have a whole separate video talking about the camera app too, which has proven to be somewhat controversial with our audience…

Audio

The most controversial aspect of the iPhone has to be the removal of the 3.5mm headphone jack in favor of moving to the Lightning connector or to a wireless solution. Moving the DAC off of the phone, and over to the included adapter or EarPods, results in slightly lower quality output than last year’s phone from the built in jack.

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Digital output isn’t particularly impressive. It’s little different than moving an MP3 file over a USB cable. You wouldn’t consider a file transfer “music”. At some point you need to actually create analog vibrations in the air which your ears can hear. Out of the box, the iPhone 7 is a small step backwards from the 6S.

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Apple was the gold standard when CD quality was top dog, but they just sort of stayed there. Competitors caught up, then passed them. Improving the situation requires buying more expensive accessories which have their own signal processing hardware, and these options can only be used with iPhones and iPads. Bluetooth is certainly more convenient than Lightning headphones or adapters, but currently Bluetooth 4 simply cannot compete against a traditional wired connection when looking at phones from HTC or LG.

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Apple followed Moto here, and we’re sure that more manufacturers will follow them, but if you own an Android and were to invest in USB-C headphones, you could still use those with your MacBook. No such luck with Apple’s EarPods.

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Apple lost a headphone jack but gained a speaker, moving to stereo output, which is certainly a welcome change when watching videos and playing games. Two speakers bring louder ring tones and alerts, but to our ears, actual quality lands mid pack. At full volume, we rarely encounter bad distortion, but highs can be a bit shrill. For phone speakers we’ve got a nice amount of bass, but there’s a dullness to the upper mids which can sometimes make the phone sound like it has a stuffy nose. It’s a valiant effort for Apple’s first stereo phone, but even mid-rangers like the Alcatel Idol 4S handily give the iPhone a run for its money.

Battery

We can still easily declare that Apple produces the most power efficient handsets on the market, but Apple faces Androids with larger batteries as a brute force response. This year the iPhone 7 battery grows to a 1,960mah cell over the 6S’s 1,715mah capacity. This is still well behind the number of Android phones which are breaking into 3,000mah territory.

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We can’t get too excited about this capacity increase though, as the iPhone 7 also packs a quad core CPU, two whole extra cores over the iPhone 6S. This brings battery life in line with last year’s phone. For most of our synthetic testing, the iPhone 7 falls ever so slightly behind the 6S, though in daily use, it’d be difficult to declare a clear victor.

Running our media test, streaming 30 minutes of HD footage over Wi-Fi at 190 Lux, the iPhone 7 drained seven percent of its battery, draining more than the Galaxy S7. We’ve already produced a full comparison between the iPhone 7 and the Galaxy S7, but we got several comments about this battery test.

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To expand, we ran another test playing thirty minutes of Marvel Future Fight. This game is terribly optimized for Qualcomm powered Android phones, but runs like butter on the iPhone. The Galaxy has a larger screen with 3 times more resolution, and we know that Samsung bloat keeps a lot more software running in the background. The Galaxy battery is over six months old, and I also made sure to run a level in the game where there was a lot of white background to keep Samsung’s AMOLED display juiced up and bright.

This comparison basically hands every advantage we can think of to Apple, and yet after thirty minutes, the Galaxy drained thirteen percent of its battery and the iPhone was down fifteen percent. The Galaxy is less power efficient, but it’s simply going to last longer during the day with similar use.

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The smaller iPhone is really at its strongest when it’s not being used, and we don’t mean that as a slight. Apple still maintains the best low power mode we’ve ever seen, and this phone really does seem to be built around the idea of short bursts of activity, not prolonged use.

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The charging situation isn’t particularly impressive either. After 30 minutes on the included charger we only topped off 26%. It’s a shame. Such a small battery paired with a faster charger would be insanely quick, but we’re still working with the minimum Apple can include with a $650 phone.

Conclusion

Few companies can generate an emotional response like Apple can. The iPhone 7 is a good phone, but for every step forward we find with lifestyle features, there seems to be a step back somewhere else. Trading pieces around, in many ways the iPhone 7 feels like a lateral move from the iPhone 6S, less like a true successor. Perhaps an iPhone 6SE if you will.

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If you own an iPhone 6S, water resistance and stereo speakers are nice perks, but little else will separate the daily experience from what you currently own. Ignoring Android options, the iPhone 7 actually finds itself in tough competition from the revised 6S with more storage for a hundred dollars less, and folks who like the iPhone 5 form factor can find a bargain in the iPhone SE.

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And both of those phones have better headphone audio.

Positives

+ Water Resistance
+ Increased Storage
+ Improved Camera

Negatives

- Conservative Design
- Poorer Headphone Performance
- Poorer Battery Life

Our Rating
User Rating
Rate Here
Build and materials
9.3
8.6
Design
7.8
8.2
Durability
8.8
8.5
Specs
9.0
8.3
Display
9.3
7.4
Audio
8.8
8.0
Camera
10
10
Software
8.8
8.2
User Experience
9.0
8.4
Bottom Line

Trading pieces around, in many ways the iPhone 7 feels like a lateral move from the iPhone 6S, less like a true successor. Perhaps an iPhone 6SE if you will.

8.9
Our Rating
8.4
User Rating
15 ratings
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About The Author
Juan Carlos Bagnell
Juan has been geeking out on personal computing since before PCs had GUIs. After studying Theatre in college, Juan worked with a contractor that supported servers and mobile devices for Department of Energy facilities. After moving to Los Angeles California, and working as a commercial casting director, he now dedicates his time to discussing the tech landscape as a consumer advocate. You’ll often see him pop in local news broadcasts. Passionate about mobile content creation, he recently published his first book on smartphone photography.