The iPhone 7 and 7 Plus are deeply unusual devices. They are full of aggressive breaks from convention while wrapped in cases that look almost exactly like their two direct predecessors. Even that continuity of design is a break from convention; after almost a decade of Apple’s steady two-year iPhone update pattern, merely retaining the same design for a third straight year plays against expectations.
Inside that case, everything else about the iPhone 7 is a decisive statement about the future. The dual cameras on the iPhone 7 Plus promise to usher in a new era in mobile photography. The iconic iPhone home button is no longer a physical button, but instead a sophisticated ballet of pressure sensors and haptic vibration motors that simulate the feel of a button. The new A10 Fusion processor blends two high-power cores that rival laptop performance with two low-power cores that combine with a much larger battery to extend run time by up to two hours.
And, yes, Apple has removed the headphone jack.
Removing the headphone jack is an act of pure confidence from Apple, which is the only company in tech that can set off a sea changes in the industry by aggressively dropping various technologies from its products. Floppy drives, optical drives, its own proprietary 30-pin iPod connector, flash, even USB — Apple decides that it’s time to move on, and it has a massive installed base of customers that love and trust the company who make it happen. And now it’s decided that — yikes — the headphone jack is over.
After using the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus for about a week, it’s clear to me that Apple has forceful, but considered opinions about how the next generation of phones should fit into our lives. But it’s also clear that the iPhone 7 is a transitional step to that vision of the future, not a complete expression of it. The question for would-be upgraders is simple: is all of the latent promise in this phone worth the inconvenience of that transition?
There’s really no getting around it: the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus look more or less exactly like the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus from 2014. They are now water resistant, which is nice, although they’re not fully waterproof — keep them submerged in a meter of water for more than 30 minutes and things might not go your way. Samsung’s Galaxy S7 and Note 7 are technically even more water resistant, but I think it’s basically a push — you can get these phones casually wet now without catastrophe, and that’s a big win. If you want to go snorkeling with your iPhone, you should probably get a case anyhow.
“Once you put the iPhone 7 in a case, it looks exactly like an iPhone 6”
Apart from the water resistance, there are three main external differences between the 6 and 7: first, the antenna lines on the back have been tweaked and colored to blend into the body on the matte black and glossy jet black models, which is a welcome refinement. (The antennas remain a dull gray color on the silver, gold, and rose gold variants; Apple says there are limits on what colors can be applied.) Second, the camera bump has been enlarged and more artfully curved into the rear casing, which looks particularly handsome on the smaller phone with a single camera.
And third — here it is again — there’s no headphone jack.
But really, once you put the iPhone 7 in a case, it looks exactly like an iPhone 6. And if you get a jet black model, you’ll want to get it into a case immediately — my jet black review unit scratched and scuffed almost instantly, and the only time it’s remained fingerprint-free is when we literally handled it with white gloves for the photo and video shoots accompanying this review. Apple is being unusually open about the propensity of the jet black finish to scratch, but beyond that, I’d get the matte black anyway — it just looks meaner.
The iPhone 6 has always been one of the more utilitarian designs in Apple history, and a smoothed-out camera bump and less visible antennas don’t really change that. Apple’s competition is getting better at making beautiful phones, and nothing about the iPhone 7’s design exceeds the rest of the industry. The iPhone 7 Plus in particular is actually falling behind its large-screened competition; the 6 Plus was always a bit of a surfboard, and new devices like the Galaxy Note 7 fit enormous displays into much smaller, tighter packages. (Too bad about the explosions, though.) This is still a phone that looks best in a case.
he iPhone 7’s new home button will elicit instant reaction from people; it’s much more different than you might think. The button no longer moves at all — it’s totally solid, just like newer MacBook trackpads. A linear vibration unit that Apple calls the Taptic Engine jolts when you apply pressure to the button, tricking your brain into feeling a click. It’s nothing like the clumsy haptic feedback on other phones, which I’ve always disliked — it really does feel like a click.
This system works tremendously well on MacBooks, but on the iPhone 7 it feels like the entire bottom of the phone is clicking, not like you’re pushing a button. You can set the haptic feedback to one of three force settings that make it feel like a harder or stronger click, but it’s definitely still strange, especially if the phone is lying down on a table instead of in your hand and you can see that you’re just pushing against nothing.
It feels like the entire bottom of the phone is clicking
Home button, display, and speakers
I’m sort of okay with all this, but other people who’ve tried my review units really don’t like it. There’s something about a really great button, and the iPhone home button was an all-time great button. Apple says it switched up the home button to make it more customizable and more durable — there’s a lot of people with the software button floating around their iPhone screens — but it’ll take some adjustment to really get used to. You’ll have to try it to decide for yourself.
The Taptic Engine also adds all sorts of other fun feedback to iOS 10 — when you drop the notification shade down, the phone does a little bump, for example. It makes it feel like the software on the screen has real weight and inertia, and I love it. Third-party apps can use the Taptic Engine as well, and I’m really hoping the industry adds support faster than the slow, somewhat muted rollout of not-very-useful 3D Touch support. Taptic Engine feedback is the first really valuable new UI concept I’ve seen on phones in years, while 3D Touch always seemed like more of a gimmick. It’s strange that the iPhone 6S won’t get these features even though it has a Taptic Engine; Apple says the unit in the iPhone 7 has been revised and made more precise, but it’s still an odd omission.
3D Touch is still present on the iPhone 7’s display, and the display itself is improved. It’s not as insane as the 2K and 4K OLED panels that have been popping up on Android phones, but it’s a sharp, bright, and beautiful LCD, and sharp, bright, beautiful LCDs are very nice to look at. My review unit is also noticeably warmer than the iPhone 6S display, which I’ve come to appreciate.
The display can show a wider range of colors now
You won’t notice it in most apps, but the display can show a wider range of colors now, which is really obvious when you look at photos taken by the iPhone 7’s camera — which now also captures a wider range of colors. Photos taken by the iPhone 7 look ridiculously good on the iPhone 7 display; you can tell the difference between a 7 photo and a 6S photo on the 7’s screen almost instantly. That’s the only place you’ll really see the benefit of the new screen for now, but it’s another place where app developers can really take advantage of powerful new hardware. Instagram has already announced an update to support wide color; let’s hope others follow suit.
Apart from the revised camera, the new home button, the screen, and — heyo! — the headphone jack, the other notable external hardware change to the iPhone 7 is the addition of stereo speakers. One speaker is at the bottom of the phone, as it has been, and the other is actually integrated into the earpiece. They’re much louder than before, and sound decent, with better treble performance in particular. They’re never going to replace real speakers, but you can watch a bunch of YouTube videos or Snapchats and not get annoyed, and conference calls are dramatically improved.
Okay, I’ve made you wait long enough. Let’s talk about that headphone jack, shall we?
So there’s no headphone jack on the iPhone 7. Apple says it needed to take out the headphone jack so it could make space for better cameras, the Taptic Engine (even though the 6S also had a Taptic Engine), and perhaps most importantly, a bigger battery. It was also easier to make a phone with one less hole in it water resistant, but Apple tells me that it wasn’t a huge factor.
Apple ships a pair of its EarPods headphones with a Lightning connector in the box, as well as a Lightning-to-3.5mm dongle so you can use your traditional headphones. You’re not totally out of luck if you have a big investment in corded headphones, but you’re going to want to stock up on those adapters if you regularly plug your phone into a car or have a variety of headphones you like to use — the dongle is small enough that it’s not obtrusive, but also small enough so that it’s destined to get lost if you move it around a lot. At $9, the headphone dongle is the cheapest Apple hardware you can buy; the company thinks people will just buy a few and keep them permanently attached to older headphones. And I’m sure third parties will come up with a million other options, although it’ll be hard to beat $9.
The Lightning EarPods are exactly like Apple’s regular EarPods, which is to say that they sound average-to-bad and fit either fine or not-great depending on your ears. Competitors like LG and HTC ship much higher quality headphones with their flagship phones, and Apple owns Beats, so it’s just really hard to understand why it’s still shipping such decidedly mediocre headphones with the iPhone. Especially when the company is trying to get everyone to be enthusiastic about the move away from 3.5mm. But here we are.
Of course, the real move Apple’s trying to make is to wireless audio, and the company also gave me a preproduction set of its AirPods wireless earbuds to try out. I can’t fully review them here since they’re not final, but they worked well — they’re basically Bluetooth headphones that pair easier and faster with Apple’s products because of a proprietary controller chip called the W1 and special software built into iOS, macOS, and watchOS. Once you pair the AirPods with one Apple device, they can seamlessly switch to all the others, which is very cool. But AirPods sound just like EarPods because they’re basically EarPods without wires, so what you’re getting for your $159 is convenience and early adopter status, not necessarily sound quality.
I asked Apple if Dr. Dre or Jimmy Iovine consulted on the sound or design of the AirPods and there was a lot of demurring. I don’t know why Beats is putting out new wireless headphones that have the W1 chip in them and Apple is putting out AirPods that sound just like EarPods when there’s such obvious corporate collaboration opportunity there, but two of the three new Beats models charge via Micro USB and one charges via Lightning, so searching for order in this universe remains an entirely futile exercise.
That is the definition of ecosystem lock-in, and it’s incredibly frustrating.
Apple took away an established open standard in favor of new technologies, but instead of making the experience of using those new technologies better across the board, it made every third-party wireless audio product a second-class citizen of the Apple ecosystem. If Apple is serious about wireless audio, it’s going to have to allow other companies to use the newer, better Bluetooth support in iOS that enhances its own W1 products, and it’s going to have to make managing Bluetooth devices a lot nicer than it currently is.
And if Apple is really serious about wireless audio, it will allow third parties to extend the AirPlay interface just like it allows third parties to extend Siri and iMessage; an iPhone without a headphone jack needs to have dead-simple integrations with all kinds of wireless speaker systems, whether they’re from Sonos or Samsung or Amazon. To make wireless audio happen, Apple has to do the work of opening up and making the experience of connecting to any audio system on the iPhone as simple and frustration-free as pushing a button — as simple as wired audio has always been. Apple says it hasn’t yet had any serious conversations about opening or extending its wireless audio interfaces, but that it’s committed to a wireless world, so let’s hope the company moves quickly.
It would also be nice if Apple would put out an adapter that lets you simultaneously charge your phone and listen to music that isn’t the size of a VGA dongle, because I have no intention of letting this ridiculous Belkin thing anywhere near my bag. There’s a huge opportunity for third-party accessory makers to fill all the gaps left by the removal of the headphone jack, but it’s also clear that the first wave of accessories is going to be a little clumsy while everyone learns exactly what those gaps are and how best to fill them. (And if Mophie isn’t working on a battery case with a headphone jack, customers should start picketing the company.)
If you squint, it’s possible to see a future iPhone that has no wires at all — an iPhone that does everything wirelessly, including charging. But the iPhone 7 is not that iPhone. In fact, right now you need more wires, dongles, and adapters to make it work with the rest of your life than ever before. I love that stuff — it’s part of the thrill of being an early adopter. But if you don’t want to devote even a moment’s effort toward figuring out how to do something as simple as charge your phone and listen to audio at the same time, it might be worth waiting for things to settle into place.