Apple's Latest Flagship: Tick - Tock... Tock
Somewhat akin to Intel, Apple has trained consumers on its “tick-tock” cadence of releasing a newly designed iPhone and following it up a year later with an optimized “s” variant. That’s been the formula since the iPhone 3G and iPhone 3GS were released in 2008 and 2009, respectively. This year, however, Apple broke precedent by launching a third model on the same design as its two-year-old iPhone 6.
Add in the controversial decision to remove the venerable 3.5mm headphone jack as well as a major change in the new Home button and you have the making of a familiar iPhone that feels somewhat foreign.
Apple unveiled the iPhone 7 and its bigger brother, the iPhone 7 Plus, on September 7 at a media event in San Francisco. The phones went on sale a little over a week later in your choice of rose gold, gold, silver, black and jet black with 32GB, 128GB or 256GB or local storage (yes, Apple has finally retired the 16GB option). I’ll be taking a look at a 32GB silver iPhone 7 Plus, priced at $769.99 before tax.
The iPhone 7 Plus packs a 5.5-inch LED-backlit, IPS display with a resolution of 1,920 x 1,080 (401 PPI) and a contrast ratio of 1,300:1. Apple has been criticized for using dated LED technology when competitors have moved to OLED panels with higher resolutions but that doesn’t mean the iPhone 7 Plus’ display is rubbish – quite the contrary, actually.
Dr. Raymond M. Soneira, a well-respected display expert and president of DisplayMate, found it to be the best performing mobile LCD screen he’s ever tested. The panel earned high marks for its use of multiple color gamuts, low reflectance, and high contrast ratio for an IPS LCD.
Indeed, the display on the iPhone 7 Plus looks great. In a side-by-side comparison, the newer handset exhibits a slightly warmer tint whereas the iPhone 6s Plus is slightly cooler. Outside under direct sunlight and with auto-brightness enabled, the iPhone 7 Plus can boost its brightness above Apple’s rated 625 cd/m2 max brightness to make things easier to see.
Why a 1080p screen, you ask, when virtually every other flagship smartphone has graduated to 1440p or higher panels? It’s a trade-off between performance and perception.
At 401 pixels per inch, Apple is banking on your inability to make out individual pixels during normal use (some will even struggle to do so when pixel-peeping). By having to drive fewer pixels, there’s less drain on the battery and more performance to go around. For better or for worse, this approach has consistently helped iPhones rank among the fastest smartphones money can buy.
The iPhone 7 Plus officially measures 158.2mm (L) x 77.9mm (W) x 7.3mm (H) and tips the scales at 188 grams. That’s right on the money as the 7 Plus registered 186 grams on my kitchen scale, slightly lighter than the 190 grams of the 6s Plus on hand.
It bears repeating that the iPhone 7 Plus looks a lot like the two iPhones before it. However, upon closer inspection, there are some unmistakable differences between new and old. Eagle-eyed observers may notice that the cutout for the earpiece is roughly 1/8th of an inch wider, no doubt to accommodate the new dual-purpose speaker -- but more on that in a bit.
On the reverse, the horizontal antenna bands that previously stretched directly across the top and bottom portions of the handset have been removed with Apple instead relying on the remaining upper and lower lines that frame the aluminum chassis.
The rear microphone hole is a bit smaller and the True Tone flash now consists of four LEDs that collectively put out more light. The biggest change here is the new dual camera system which consists of a 28mm wide-angle f/1.8 aperture lens and a 56mm telephoto lens with f/2.8 aperture. Both are capable of 12-megapixel photos and feature optical image stabilization, six-element lenses, autofocus, and more.
New for 2016 is a solid state Home button that replaces the physical one, an iPhone staple since the very first iteration arrived nearly a decade ago... this is one of the better features of the new iPhones. The learning curve was virtually non-existent and the simulated button press is incredibly convincing.
This dual camera approach allows Apple to offer a “portrait” mode in which data from both cameras will be used to create images sporting the depth of field typically associated with more expensive standalone cameras. I say “will” because Apple is still tweaking portrait mode and thus, hasn’t rolled it out to a stable release of iOS 10 as of writing.
In the interim, you can use the two cameras independently. The primary 28mm camera is the better of the two as it lets in more light thanks to its f/1.8 aperture, a boon in low-light situations. Tapping the “2x” onscreen button switches to the secondary 56mm camera that affords more reach by letting you zoom in optically. This is ideal when you simply can’t get physically closer to your subject – like at the zoo or during a football game, for example.
While combing through sample camera images for this review, I noticed something peculiar. In the EXIF data, some of the images I snapped using the 2x option – which should have been taken with the secondary telephoto lens – reported an aperture of f/1.8. That’s impossible if the telephoto camera is only capable of f/2.8, right?
As it turns out, the camera app / iOS is analyzing data from both cameras in real-time, regardless of which camera you think you’re using. If it determines that the primary camera would produce an overall better image than the inferior telephoto camera, it’ll take the picture with the better camera and crop / use digital zoom to make it look like what the 56mm camera would produce.
To try it out for yourself, all you need to do is place your finger over the primary camera and switch between the two in the camera app.
In my experience, this is only likely to crop up when shooting items very close up (macro) or in dimly-lit environments. I’d call it more of a benefit than anything as it helps you get the best possible image although it’s hard not to feel a little bit deceived.
When the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus arrived in 2014, many (myself included) criticized Apple’s decision to have the rear camera stick out from the body like a sore thumb. It looked like a last-minute decision and seemed uncharacteristic of Apple up to that point. Little did we know at the time that it would be another two years before Apple addressed the ugly duckling.
With this year’s iPhones, Apple designed the rear aluminum shell in a way that it contours the camera modules. This is much more aesthetically pleasing although ironically enough, the camera assembly sticks out even further than before. If you carry your phone in a typical case, this won’t really matter but for those that go caseless or use a simple bumper case, it’s somewhat concerning.
Something else worth noting is the material that covers the rear camera lenses. Apple on its website claims its lenses are constructed using sapphire crystal, a man-made material that’s extremely hard and very difficult to scratch. Independent testing, however, takes issue with this claim.
Upon further analysis, it appears as though Apple is using sapphire crystal for the lens but it isn’t pure. An Apple patent for its sapphire references thin “sapphire laminates” that could be used to coat regular glass for added durability. As noted in the patent, this technique could save Apple some money as sapphire is more expensive to obtain and process than glass.
All things considered, the lens is scratch resistant although not as much as some may assume when the term “sapphire” gets tossed around.
Continuing the design tour, we find that the SIM card tray now has a rubber gasket that helps keep liquids out. The power button appears unchanged, at least from the outside. Apple has reworked the volume buttons on the opposite side, moving away from placing them in a recessed cavity. They’re still made of aluminum and are as sturdy as ever, as is the mute switch.
Both new iPhones feature a 7-megapixel front-facing camera, up from 5-megapixels last year, with an f/2.2 aperture lens, Retina flash (which uses the screen as a flash), auto HDR, auto image stabilization and more.
New for 2016 is a solid state Home button that replaces the physical one, an iPhone staple since the very first iteration arrived nearly a decade ago. In addition to further bolstering the phone’s water resistance, the re-engineered Home button should be more reliable over the long haul as it eliminates a moving component that’s bound to wear out at some point.
Touch ID, Apple’s fingerprint reader technology, persists as does the tactile feeling you’d get by pressing a physical button. It’s essentially a force-sensitive trackpad that responds to input via a new version of Apple’s Taptic Engine, a customizable linear actuator that provides precise vibrational feedback as acknowledgment of various tasks or inputs.
The Taptic Engine is widely used across iOS 10 but with the Home button, it is tuned to simulate a button press. In my testing, this is one of the better features of the new iPhones. The learning curve was virtually non-existent and the simulated button press is incredibly convincing. My girlfriend had no idea it wasn’t a physical button to the point that I had to power down the phone to prove that it is indeed stationary.
By far, the biggest and most controversial change with this year’s iPhone is the removal of the industry-standard 3.5mm audio jack. In its absence, Apple is asking customers to either adopt its proprietary Lightning connector for wired use or cut the cord and go wireless.
Apple is no stranger when it comes to putting familiar hardware and practices out to pasture, having previously done so with the optical drive, the physical keyboard on smartphones, the removable battery and the 30-pin connector used by iPhones until 2012. That said, this decision is really hitting home for some.
Eliminating the 3.5mm headphone jack accomplishes a handful of goals for Apple.
For one, it frees up internal real estate that makes room for a larger battery – 11.1Wh, 2,900mAh in the iPhone 7 Plus versus 2,750mAh in last year’s iPhone 6s Plus – as well as the aforementioned Taptic Engine and a barometric vent that helps equalize internal and atmospheric pressure for a more accurate altimeter. It’ll also allow Apple to continue to reduce the thickness of future iPhones although that’s not something we’re seeing this generation.
The long-term play is to move customers – and by proxy, the industry – towards wireless connectivity as evident by the fact that you can’t simultaneously listen to music via wired headphones and charge the phone at the same time without yet another adapter.
Conveniently enough, Apple owns Beats who will gladly sell you wireless headphones packing its new W1 wireless chip that eliminates many of the pain points of traditional Bluetooth. One has to think Apple will eventually license out the W1 chip to third-parties if it intends for the wireless standard to gain much traction.
The long-term play is to move customers – and by proxy, the industry – towards wireless connectivity.
How big a deal the missing 3.5mm jack is will vary from one person to the next. Personally, I’ve hardly even noticed as I use a set of wireless headphones at home paired with my desktop on a daily basis, Bluetooth to stream from the iPhone to the Alpine head unit in my vehicle or the portable speaker in the bathroom that allows me to take in some tunes or a podcast while showering. Often times, I simply play podcasts out loud (not in public, I’m not that guy) from the iPhone speaker. Come to think of it, the only time I use wired headphones is when I’m traveling long distances or on vacation.
In this respect, I acknowledge that this is not what the average user does and there are millions who rely on wired headphones each and every day – on the subway or bus to and from work, while working out at the gym or even at home while around family members. It’s these users that will feel the impact of the missing 3.5mm jack the most (by using a dongle, at least for now).
Apple has demonstrated its ability to influence industries and consumer behavior multiple times in the past and given its massive install base of iOS devices, I think we’ll all be looking back in a few years and wondering how we got along with wired headphones for so long.
To ease the transition in the meantime, Apple includes both a Lightning-to-3.5mm adapter and a set of Lightning-equipped EarPods with every iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus. There’s also a set of wireless earbuds from Apple dubbed AirPods that’ll set you back $159 later this month although if you aren’t fond of the fit that Apple’s current EarPods offer, you shouldn’t bother with the AirPods.
Speaking of audio, these are the first iPhones to feature dual speakers for stereo sound. The bottom speaker is positioned behind the right-side grill where it has sat for the past few years (the new grill on the left side hides the barometric vent discussed earlier). The additional speaker isn’t really a new speaker at all as Apple is simply asking the earpiece speaker to serve double duty as a loudspeaker.
It’s a good idea and it does create audio that’s more encompassing but the quality of the secondary speaker is far inferior to the traditional speaker on the bottom.
One of the first things I did with the iPhone 7 Plus was put the new speaker system to the test and boy was I disappointed. Something sounded off right away. I hopped into the accessibility section in the settings where I was able to adjust the balance slider from one speaker to the other.
The bottom speaker was comparable to what the iPhone 6s Plus uses which is very good but the earpiece speaker sounded as if it was on the verge of being overpowered. Worse yet, the top speaker creates a buzzing / vibration that dissipates across the entire phone when used at or near max volume.
Checking around some online forums, I found that this is not an isolated event. I was hoping to be able to simply disable the secondary speaker using the aforementioned balance slider which did work until you change the orientation of the phone, thus shifting audio to the other speaker. As someone who values quality audio, this was perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the new iPhone.