Review: Apple iPhone 7

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Say what you will about Apple, love it or hate it, the company invented the smart phone as we know it. The large screen, control by touch, a minimal set of physical keys. They were pretty much Apple (even if some of the ideas may have been drawn from elsewhere.)

But “big” is a relative word. By the time I moved into the Apple world with an iPhone 4, five years ago, the Android competition was already moving onto even bigger screens. These days Apple has more or less caught up, with the iPhone 7 offering a 4.7 inch display, and the iPhone 7 Plus going to 5.5 inches. For this review, I’m sticking with the standard iPhone 7.

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Features

The review phone was packed with the maximum amount of memory – a very generous 256GB, or a quarter terabyte. Thus the $1379. Going for 128GB brings that down by $150. The base 32GB model is $1079, another $150 reduction.

Now, 32GB seems to be the standard storage load for most premium Android phones at the moment, but do remember one thing: those phones typically accept a microSD card to expand storage by at least 128GB. With an iPhone, you’re stuck with what it comes with. Want to take a lot of photos or some video? Up to 4K resolution is supported, and that chews through a lot of storage. Like to carry an iPod’s worth of music with you? You’re going to find 32GB a touch too confining, and may end up spending a lot of time on iTunes, just managing memory contents and shuffling media on and off the phone.


So I’d say, if you can somehow swing it, do go for the 128GB model at least.

Perhaps it’s a little surprising that the HD Retina display in the iPhone 7 offers only slightly higher resolution than mid-priced Android models, with 750 by 1334 pixels. But that’s only a problem if you’re a specification junkie. In practice, putting more pixels on this phone would not increase visible sharpness or detail in any meaningful way.* Instead Apple has focused on higher maximum brightness – up to 625 nits maximum – and a wider range of colours. Apple says that it offers the P3 colour gamut, which is significantly wider than the sRGB usually offered. P3 is now the standard for digital cinema.

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Apple’s architecture and operating system is entirely different to that used by the competition, so I can only mention and describe. The operating system is now up to iOS 10.1.1. Version 10 introduced a number of changes, most noticeably the display of notifications on the lock screen. These can be switched off, or you can choose which things you want seen.

The iPhone 7 comes with the 64 bit A10 Fusion chip with an embedded M10 motion coprocessor. This is a quad core unit, running at up to 2.34GHz. Two of the cores are high efficiency, using only twenty per cent of the power of the two high performance cores, which themselves are forty per cent faster than those used in the A9 which powered the iPhone 6s. Therein lies a big part of the improved battery life claimed by Apple. The high efficiency cores can run most stuff most of the time, but the high power ones kick in when some performance is required. The A10 also has a six core graphics processor built in. Two gigabytes of RAM are provided.


What does all that stuff mean? Speed. Both speed tests and real world app tests around the world show the iPhone 7 doing equivalent things to other premium phone at significantly higher speeds.

The camera has been upgraded of course. It’s a 12 megapixel model with a maximum f/1.8 aperture and optical image stabilisation. There’s auto HDR, photo geotagging, a quad-LED flash, and wide colour support. For video, 4K at 30 frames per second, and full HD at 30 or 60 frames per second is supported. Slow motion at 120fps (full HD) and 240fps (at 720p) is available too. Still pictures can be captured while shooting 4K video. These are 8 megapixels, so they’re simply frame grabs.

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The front (FaceTime) camera offers 7 megapixels with a maximum aperture of f/2.2 and 1080p video.

The home button is not longer a button, although it looks the same. Instead it’s a physically delineated sensitive spot with a fingerprint sensor.

A great feature, new to the iPhone 7, is that it is splash, water and dust resistant. This is the real thing. No, it’s not suitable for scuba diving, but the IP67 rating means that it’s completely dust tight and good for being immersed at up to a metre for half an hour. Which means it’s pretty much guaranteed to survive a toilet drop.


There are some minor styling differences, but the truth is, when I popped the iPhone 7 into a silicon case to protect the sides and back, it was visually identical to my wife’s iPhone 6.

Performance

The non-moving home “button” felt a little weird. In part that was because I’d been coming from a line of Android phones with “soft” home buttons, requiring only a touch, not a press, so it took me a while to get back in the habit of pressing. But the other part was that because it didn’t move, a haptic feedback mechanism was implemented. That is, there was a slight vibration which felt somewhat like the clicking of a physical button. But this haptic feedback wasn’t confined to just the pressing finger, but also travelled through the phone body to the other hand that was holding it, and what it most felt like was as if the phone was creaking under the pressure.

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Still, after a week it came to feel as natural as any phone, and I can see myself missing it as I switch back to Android as soon I must.

Fingerprint recognition was practically instantaneous. And its use is expanding. Apple has Apple Pay, but I haven’t yet brought myself to trust a phone to replace my plastic cards. However more apps are supporting fingerprints. My NAB banking app can now be opened with fingerprint security rather than PIN or password.


In general, it was a pleasure to use. A 4.7 inch screen allows a narrower width and the ability to use the phone comfortably with one hand, tapping with my thumb. That’s the great weakness of large screen phones: they tie up both hands with a lot of the stuff that you do.

Nice colour on sky while reasonable detail in shade
Nice colour on sky while reasonable detail in shade

The screen was bold and bright and colourful, as good as any IPS screen. I can’t say that I noticed the wider colour gamut. Under my office fluorescent lights the screen seemed a little less bold and bright than that of the Samsung Galaxy S6, against which I compare most phones. But out in the bright late spring sunlight, the Apple’s display was more usable, with greater contrast and the ability to more easily see things to select.

I’m mostly an Android guy, but one big chunk of Apple envy occupying my soul is due to the relaxed attitude my family members take with regard to battery life. They’re iPhone 6 users, and they are perfectly happy to run their phones’ batteries down to 15% before deciding they’d better do something about it. Apple says that the iPhone 7 has better battery life than the 6 and 6s. I know for certain it has better battery life than most Android phones. I didn’t have a charger beside my bed, so I took to charging it up the night before. Then in the morning the battery indicator would show 98% remaining. Halfway through the next afternoon, after doing my usual morning Facebook cruising, account checking, email assessing, plus some careful photo taking and some Bluetooth music listening, the battery level stood at 83%. Apple seems especially good at power management. Like any phone you can drain it if you work hard enough, but it should last as well or better than most.


Indoors, handheld under artifical room light, yet nicely detailed and rich
Indoors, handheld under artifical room light, yet nicely detailed and rich

The built in speakers sounded about as good as tiny speakers on a phone can sound. The Bluetooth connectivity worked very nicely with speakers and headphones. I’ve got the Beats Solo 3 headphones from Apple here for a forthcoming review, and the connection with those was rock solid, while the quality was very good. You’ll see my review of those in due course, but in short they’re good headphones, unlike Beats used to be under previous ownership.

Famously, there is no headphone output on the phone. Apple supplies its earbuds with the phone, fitted with a built in DAC so that you can plug them into the Lightning port. I imagine they work okay but I refuse to put those hard plastic nubs into my ears. Silicon tipped earbuds have been around for a few years now, and they have the virtue of conforming to your ears, rather than trying to force your ears to conform to their shape.

Apple also bundles the little Lightning to analogue headphone adaptor with the phone, and this proved to provide very good sound quality to my own earbuds, and also to on and over ear headphones of high quality. One thing I had been unsure of was whether this adaptor was a simple DAC/headphone amp, or offered full service. Full service is the answer. If you have an iPhone compatible inline remote and microphone with your earphones, they’ll work fine: play, pause, volume and hands-free microphone all worked well.


But detail is softened, and colour less accurate with iPhone 7 (left) compared to Samsung Galaxy S6 (right)
But detail is softened, and colour less accurate with iPhone 7 (left) compared to Samsung Galaxy S6 (right)

So you’re not stuck with those awful Apple earbuds.

All the network – WiFi and 4G – worked smoothly and swiftly. Even with the appalling Telstra 4G coverage of Canberra airport, the phone was able to pull in a sufficient signal to provide a reasonable mobile access point for my computer. The WiFi functions include 802.11ac with MIMO for very fast comms, should your router support it.

Apple’s interface isn’t quite as wild and free as Android, but that’s a matter of taste. People seem to really take to Apple’s way of doing things. If you’re a musically orientated person whose home system is based around DLNA wireless connectivity, the iPhone has very limited options, although most equipment makers who offer control apps provide iOS versions as well. If you’re a Mac person and are happy with the lesser audio standards supported by Airplay, then you’re going to have wonderful, seamless operation across your devices. Apple seems very good at getting stuff to work together. Even Apple AirDrop on my Mac Mini worked reliably with the iPhone 7 which is quite the change, and certainly made moving photos and things around much easier.


Again, colour pops less, as though there's a faint wash, in iPhone 7 photo (left), compared to Samsung Galaxy S6 (right)
Again, colour pops less, as though there’s a faint wash, in iPhone 7 photo (left), compared to Samsung Galaxy S6 (right)

Transferring to the iPhone 7 from Android was fairly easy, as I discussed a few days ago.

The camera was fast and effective at focusing and determining exposure. The final result seemed a little too smooth compared to premium phones, and the colour accuracy and detail perhaps very slightly diminished. But for phone camera work, the pictures were overall very pleasing.

Finally, Siri. What can one say about her? I’ll say, so very close in effectiveness to Google Now, I wouldn’t want to claim either one to be better than the other. I just hope that they keep the competition up, so that they both continue to improve in their already strong voice recognition accuracy, and “understanding” of what you’re after.

Conclusion

It you’re an iPhone user and intend to stay one, the iPhone 7 will please you by being just a little bit better at everything, without being a revolutionary advance. If you’re an Android user switching over, you’ll likely be pleased with the iPhone 7 once you’ve adjusted your ways to Apple’s approach to smart phone design.


* Except, possibly, for use with VR goggles.


Overall
Features
Value for money
Performance
Ease of Use
Reader Rating0 Votes
The iPhone is an almost universal standard; very good performance overall; a pleasure to use; good fingerprint recognition
Fairly expensive; entry level memory a bit limited given it can’t be upgraded
4.5