The iPhone celebrates its 10th year in 2017, and there’s no question that it is a huge force in the smartphone market. It is also more than half of Apple’s business, and as Apple’s flagship product, it competes at the highest level against a very strong Android competition.
If you read this review, you are probably weighing if you should buy an iPhone 7 or iPhone 7 Plus and assuming that your budget allows, your options may fall into one of those three:
- Should I upgrade from my current iPhone?
- Should I pick the iPhone 7 or 7 Plus?
- Should I pick this iPhone or an Android competitor?
There are other situations, but we’ll answer these common questions directly, and the review should help you make a decision even if your situation is a bit more complex. In this review, we’ll use the iPhone 7 Plus because it is a superset of the iPhone 7, but we will point out the differences (battery capacity, screen size+resolution, camera capabilities).
Industrial Design (good, classic)
The iPhone 7 keeps the general “design language” of the iPhone 6/6s and its predecessor. Although there are differences, the proportions and shape are extremely similar, and if you put it in a case, this generation is hard to tell apart from the previous ones, unless you look closely.
Apple has improved antenna gaps design, making them less obvious. The iPhone 7 has a continuous metal surface in the back, and the antenna gaps are only visible from the sides. That, and the larger camera bump (for a good reason) are the most visible changes.
As usual, Apple doesn’t have any branding on the front, which is nice (this is the first design feature that every OEM should go for). In the back, the Apple logo is low-key, and these choices have contributed to the agreeable visual appearance of iPhones.
New Home buttonThe home button is no longer a button that you press, but a capacitive button which is capable of sending a tactile feedback like a buzz, thanks to a Taptic Engine.
This taptic feedback can emit different kinds of “buzzes” depending on the context. For example, calls may get a different buzz “rhythm” than emails. App developers could also create their buzz patterns. The new Home button is pressure-sensitive so different levels of pressure may induce different actions/responses.
The taptic feedback resembles nothing like the press of a button. Instead, it feels like the phone simply emits an ultra-short “buzz”. If your fingerprint isn’t recognized, a longer buzz happens: I feel like the phone is micro-vibrating up and down with that one. Weird, but OK.
Some people are annoyed by the new button design, but I don’t mind it much. I don’t think that it makes life better, but saying that it makes life much worse is exaggerated. However, if the taptic is “the” justification to remove the 3.5mm audio connector, then I’m not convinced by the logic or the added-value.
No 3.5 mm audio “jack” connector
The iPhone is the first major smartphone to get rid of the 3.5mm audio connector. The good news is that an adapter is included in the box ($9 if you need to buy another). The bad news is that you need an “Apple Lightning-to-3.5mm” adapter, and sometimes you won’t have it on hand because people just don’t walk around with their dongles all the time. Many will be lost as well.
By itself, the adapter is OK, and there’s an argument to say that 3.5mm had been around for a long time, and could/should be replaced by a new interface. However, it’s not something people “asked for” (what’s the immediate benefit?). Many hate it; few love it — just vote with your wallet… It is what is it, and the rumor is that more (Android) OEMs will drop the audio connector. We’ll know next month if that’s true or not.
Since the Lighting port is now used to connect headphones, you cannot charge your phone while connecting wired headphones via the adapter. For that, you need another adapter which has a second charging port. Apple proposes a Belkin audio+charge adapter for… $40 (ouch).
Water resistance: IP67
For the first time, the iPhone gets a water-resistance rating of IP67, which means that a device is dust tight: no dust can penetrate. It can also withstand up to 1-meter (~1 yard) immersion for a limited duration without harm the device (tested for 30mn). Learn more about IP Ratings.
Although some phones have a slightly superior IP68 rating, we consider that IP67 is a very good start, and should contribute to significantly avoid situations where the phone will “die” due to water exposure. The main difference between IP67 and IP68 is that IP68 phones can support underwater pressure at a depth of 3 meters (~3 yards).
Note that although not IP rated, some iPhone 6s have been seen surviving in water. Without the IP rating, the survivability cannot be trusted to be considered consistent, but it’s a good sign that a design may have “partial” water resistance.
Older iPhones had water sensors that once tripped would “kill” the phone immediately and definitively (probably to avoid short circuits and burns). It was not uncommon that people would kill their phones by sweating on them during a heavy workout, or after splashing a bit of water at the wrong place.
When it comes to real-world water survivability, there is a grey zone, and things are never black and white. Keep in mind that most phones rated for IP67 or IP68 water resistance do not have warranty coverage for water damage… so I recommend thinking of the water resistance as the last line of defense.
Jet Black Edition: beautiful, but needs care
The iPhone 7 is optionally available in “Jet Black”, a beautiful polished ceramic finish. It is expensive, but I love the finish and its intense black color. Apple isn’t the first company to do this, and others such as OnePlus have also successfully produced ceramic finish surfaces.
Price aside, this works better for people who take great care of their phones. This kind of ceramic isn’t as hard as glass. When the highly polished surface gets those little scratches, it becomes duller. Apple recommends using a case to protect the ceramic, but one has to wonder what the point is in having this beautiful surface, just to put a case on top of it, even a clear one.
“The high-gloss finish of the jet black iPhone 7 is achieved through a precision nine-step anodization and polishing process. Its surface is equally as hard as other anodized Apple products; however, its high shine may show fine micro-abrasions with use” (Apple)
Some people have reported that the finish is holding fine, while others have reported micro-scratches, just as Apple warn. At the moment, there isn’t hard data to go by, but we encourage being cautious.
The iPhone’s design is quite good, but it’s hard to be “wowed” by its novelty. The iPhone 7 looks like the iPhone 6S, which looks like the iPhone 6. There are some aesthetic improvements, but it feels the same and doesn’t improve things like Display-to-Body ratio or bezel size.
Maybe a sign of the times is that many phone OEMs are now copying Samsung’s Galaxy S6/S7 Edge design by going with curved edges and dual-sided glass over a thin layer of colored metal. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Apple has lost its leadership position.
Camera (very good)
- 12 Megapixel main camera, f1.8 aperture
- 12 Megapixel 2X zoom secondary camera (iPhone 7 Plus only), f2.8 aperture
- Optical Image Stabilization (OIS)
- New on iPhone 7, already present in iPhone 6S Plus
- Quad LED flash
From a technical standpoint, there are a few things to highlight with the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus. First, the iPhone 7 (the small one) gets Optical Image Stabilization (OIS), which is critical for low-light situations. Secondly, the larger iPhone 7 Plus has a second camera in the back, which has a higher focal length (native 2X zoom/telephoto).
Learn more: What is Image Stabilization?
In broad daylight, most high-end phones are doing very well, and although there are differences at times, users are usually happy with the photos. In this shot of a San Francisco office entry, both images are great, with the S7 Edge being a bit more saturated and contrasted. Those differences are often an aesthetic choice in Photo Image Quality (IQ) tuning rather than a technical problem.
iPhone 7 Plus: f1.8, 1/272 exposure, ISO-20, 28mm focal, 2.25MB (4032×3024)
S7 Edge: f1.7, 1/315 exposure, ISO-50, 26mm focal, 3.37MB (4032×3024)
With high-contrast daylight photos, things get more difficult. This tree photo shows how both cameras handle HDR, to compensate for the difference in contrast between the bright sky behind the tree (the sun on the upper-left of the tree is stronger than you would think). *I noticed that the S7 Edge tends to save much larger files, possibly due to a lower JPG compression setting.
This is a challenging shot for any camera. Many would lose a lot of details in the leaves, but in this photo, the iPhone captures the leaves details. You can see that the S7 Edge captures a much more colorful and contrasted image. I didn’t have the Google Pixel with me then, but the Pixel would probably output a photo similar to the S7.
Also, the photo of the iPhone 7 feels a bit “hazy”. I found the crisp photo of the S7 to be more representative of the scene (minus the slightly more saturated colors, maybe). In this particular shot, a ranking would look like:
- Galaxy S7
- iPhone 7 Plus
- Huawei P9 (a bit dark)
- Huawei Mate 9 (too hazy)
iPhone 7 Plus: f1.8, 1/1520 exposure, ISO-20, 28mm focal, 1.90MB (4032×3024)
S7 Edge: f1.7, 1/1836 exposure, ISO-50, 26mm focal, 2.94MB (4032×3024)
Low light photography takes everything to the extreme and represents the most challenging situation for imaging systems. I’ll post a few examples here, but maybe this photo of a school is a good representation of the iPhone 7/7Plus vs. Galaxy S7 experience. The Google Pixel is close to the S7, although with some variations of its own.
iPhone 7 Plus: f1.8, 1/15 exposure, ISO-400, 28mm focal, 2.18MB (4032×3024)
S7 Edge: f1.7, 1/10 exposure, ISO-640, 26mm focal, 3.72MB (4032×3024)
This is a school which has a very colorful mural, and it was interesting to take a photo at night (with the floodlights) to see how this would come out. As you can observe, the iPhone 7 photo does well, and an iPhone 6S would have been in a more precarious situation here. At first glance, the Galaxy S7 has more vivid colors and seems to have sharper edges and details.
Also, you may notice that the Galaxy S7 exhibits more noise because it uses a higher ISO setting for that shot. The sharpening would make the noise even more visible.
The image above is a crop of the first two photos so you can see better what’s going on. Again, it’s pretty obvious the that the S7 has more saturated and defined colors, but you can also see that the details are better while the higher contrast doesn’t suppress any significant detail.
Interestingly, the Galaxy S7 manages to get a sharper photo, despite having an exposure time that is significantly longer. The OIS, but also the image alignment algorithm and sharpener are responsible for this.
Secondary camera: iPhone 7 Plus only
The secondary iPhone 7 Plus camera has a different focal length which makes it a 2X optical zoom relative the regular camera, which Apple calls “wide lens”. In this review, I’ll refer to the cameras as “main camera” (normal zoom) and “zoom camera” (2X zoom).
The “normal zoom” camera isn’t really “wide”. It has a focal length similar to the previous iPhone and comparable to most normal smartphone cameras. If you want to see a real “wide” camera, check the LG G5 or LG V20 which both feature a uniquely wide camera.
Learn more: Dual Cameras vs. Single Camera
The iPhone 7 user can zoom normally, and the Camera app will use either or both lens data to take a good photo. Because both cameras have very different low-light capabilities, Apple seems to fall back on the normal camera if the low light conditions are severe, even if you are trying to zoom (it will do a normal crop).
In low-light situations, the zoom camera isn’t good enough, so the Camera app will opt to shoot with the normal camera, and just crop the image. In broad daylight, and with high zoom settings 5X-10X, the iPhone’s zoom does make a visible difference, although don’t expect miracles: the image is still a bit fuzzy, but not as much.
Is the telephoto lens really useful? It depends on YOUR usage
Usually, when you zoom, it’s because you cannot get closer to the subject. You may be at the zoo, at a conference or at a concert. The general rule is: don’t use the zoom anytime you can get a bit closer. Also, the zoom camera is likely not to be utilized by the Camera app if the lighting conditions are too severe.
Now, it’s true that the higher the zoom, and the more the iPhone should shine. That’s because as other phones have to magnify (up-sample) and filter an image, the more it should look fuzzy. Obviously.
For example, I shot a photo of a scooter that was parked across a street. You can see that the iPhone 7 Plus photo is clearly better, with more details, even though the color-balance of the S7 Edge is a bit closer to the actual scene in this example. Convinced?
My opinion of the iPhone 7 zoom lens is that it is not as useful as a “real” wide lens such as the LG V20’s. With the V20, there are many shots that I could simply not take with a regular phone. With the iPhone 7 Plus zoom, I can take the same shot with a regular phone, but the i7+ quality is a bit better. I wish that Apple had chosen to use an actual wide lens. In an ideal world, I’d love to have all three lenses, but the telephoto would not be my first choice. You may have a different usage model, so it’s up to you to decide.
Bokeh effect (background blur)
The second thing that the secondary lens brings is the ability to take photos with great background blurs. This is an effect called “Bokeh” (which means Blur in Japanese) and which is created by a combination of large lens surface and large aperture size (lower f-stop). The mobile phone lenses are too small for this phenomenon to happen optically but there are ways to produce a similar effect in software.
"THE IPHONE 7 PLUS BOKEH IS BEAUTIFUL"The idea is: the farther you go away from the point of focus (in the depth axis), the blurrier things should get (more or less). The blurry area is called the Circle of Confusion and how blurry each pixel is can be calculated by looking at how far the pixel is from the camera.
This distance can be computed from two photos taken with a slightly different position – that’s how Huawei did it on the Huawei P9 phone. The Bokeh effect isn’t identical to an optical Bokeh, but it works reasonably well.
In this picture, both phones have created their bokeh effect instantaneously (no wait time). In my opinion, the iPhone 7 Plus bokeh is beautiful. However, there is a weird blur-bleeding (halo/fuzz) around the shoulders and head that should not be there.
I have seen this kind of halo several times with the iPhone 7 Plus. How noticeable it is, depends on the scene. Most of the time, you only see it if you pay attention. Other times, it’s much more evident.
The single-lens S7 Edge has cleaner edges around the subject, but a distinctly lower quality blur (The S7 photos is darker because the white balance was different, due to a larger coverage of the scene, sorry).
I took a picture with a Sony NEX 6000 to show what kind of blur one gets with a compact cam. Notice the absence of “blur bleeding” around the subject. It’s not the best camera for bokeh, but it gets the point across.
For single-lens phones, it is possible to produce beautiful bokeh photos using dedicated camera apps which do it by a software process that involves taking two pictures. Google’s version called Lens Blur is the best that I know of, but it’s much slower (~15-20 seconds of processing per photo) and not convenient for frequent use. It’s OK for a once in a while Bokeh shot. iPhone users have apps like Portrait Blur (app store link) and others. With dual-lenses cameras, it’s almost instantaneous.
Overall camera experience: very good.
Overall, the Camera experience of the iPhone is superb. The camera mostly does what the user would expect, and the white balance and color tuning are great. Obviously, it’s the best iPhone camera (especially the iPhone 7 Plus), but those who are willing to switch have great options.
The Galaxy S7 still has better AF, low-light capabilities and display. The Google Pixel also has a better image quality, HDR, and video recording. The LG V20 has a unique wide-angle mode, which makes it a very particular camera.
From an Apple user point of view, the iPhone 7/7+ camera is an exciting step up from the iPhone 6s. If budget is of no concern, you will be reasonably happy with the camera upgrade. Budget conscious 6s users may want to think twice before spending their money. iPhone 6 users who upgrade will get a good return for their money.
The iPhone 7 and 7 Plus display have the same diagonal size and resolution as their iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus predecessors. Nothing new here. Relative to the Galaxy phones, here’s a quick list of display specs:
- iPhone 7: LCD IPS, 1334×750 (~1M pixels), 65.6% Screen/body ratio, 326 PPI
- iPhone 7+: LCD IPS, 1920×1080 (~2.073M pixels), 67.7% screen/body ratio, 401 PPI
- Galaxy S7: AMOLED, 2560×1440 (~3.686M pixels), 72.1% screen/body ratio, 576 PPI)
- Galaxy S7e: AMOLED, 2560×1440 (~3.686M pixels), 75.1% screen/body ratio, 576 PPI)
As you can see, the technical display specifications of the iPhone 7/7+ displays are very decent, but not particularly impressive. That said, the numbers themselves don’t completely do justice to the iPhone 7 screen.
All LCD displays aren’t equal, and the iPhone 7 series has an upgraded LCD panel from the iPhone 6/6s. Its performance is derived from technologies used in the iPad Pro 9.7 with the support of two color gamuts, including the DCI-P3, which is 26% wider and used as the standard for 4K content. In short: colors are great.
We measured brightness at 579 NITs on the iPhone 7 Plus panel, which is very bright for a smartphone (means that you can easily use it outdoors on a sunny day).
For example, the Google Pixel XL hits (only) 343 NITs, and the Galaxy S7 Edge can output 558 NITs. Arguably, an LCD display can never have true blacks, and OLED technology still has some advantages, including flexibility, low-power potential, and even higher peak brightness. This is why Apple is likely to switch to OLED for the iPhone 8.
Learn more: LCD vs. OLED. Which is Best And Why?
We often say that the best indicator for battery life is the battery capacity, within a given platform. Notice the “within a given platform”. Why? Because each OS (platform) might have significant power consumption profiles. Apple has always been a bit more friendly to lower capacity batteries, and it’s fair to say that they have done quite well with ridiculously small batteries in the past.
As we mentioned in the Display section, the iPhone can have 3.6X fewer pixels as select Android competitors, and when Apple finally match Android phones for resolution+screen size, Apple will have to increase the battery size too.
If you are looking at an Android phone with an FHD LCD display and a comparable size+brightness, then a direct comparison between capacity (in mAh) makes more sense. I would rather see Apple spend more on the battery size, and less on the main processor.
Apple says that the iPhone 7 can last for “up to 2 hours more than the 6s”, but looking at the official site (i7, i6s), both have an estimated Talk Time of 14 hrs, both have an estimated stand-by time of 10 days. However, the “Internet browsing” is the item that has an estimated two additional hours on the iPhone 7. I’ll take it, but if that’s from browser optimization, it’s not the same as if it was from overall system optimizations.
The iPhone currently runs on iOS 10.2, and in general Apple does an excellent job at upgrading the OS for most users. Hats-off to that. If you have an iPhone that is a few years old, you should still get timely updates with new features. This is one of the things where Apple does much better than Android (except for Google phones).
If your phone is older than that, you might start having performance issues as the OS get bigger, and some apps will only work with the most recent OS, so skipping updates can only work for so long, and Apple and app developers make it quite hard not to upgrade since many important apps do require the latest OS version.
Older phones going back to the iPhone 5 can receive the iOS 10 updrade, so the OS in itself isn’t a reason to buy the iPhone 7. You can read up on the ten most important features of iOS 10, but I would point out to:
- The faster camera launch by sliding to the left
- The QuickType keyboard that suggests adding contextual information to conversations
- The improved photo sorting, thanks for facial recognition and geo-localization
- The opening of Voice Calls to 3rd party services such as chat/voice apps
System performance (best in class)
The Apple A10 SoC is at the heart of the iPhone. This processor is the main unit controlling everything, and inside it, are a collection of sub units including ISPs (image processors), GPU (graphics processor) and a low-power sub-processor called M10.
The A10 is a quad-core chip, where the A9 was a dual-core chip, but not all four cores are the same. The A10 has two cores dedicated to high-performance, and two to low-power efficiency (⅕ the power of the high-performance cores). Typically, users need high-performance 20% of the time, but they need as much as they can. 80% of the time, the phone is doing background tasks and should be optimized for low power.
"AMAZING SINGLE CORE PERFORMANCE"Most mobile chip vendors use such a technique which is based or inspired by ARM’s big.LITTLE architecture which lets the OS transfer tasks to either set of processors — interestingly the transfer has a power cost, but overall there should be a net gain if done properly. Apparently, Apple never uses all four cores at the same time.
The A10 is also known for its amazing peak single core performance. Single-core performance is crucial because 100% of apps use at least one core. Apps can easily be optimized for 2 cores and keep in mind that the OS and background services also run in the background, so using a few cores is common. It’s hard to find mobile apps that genuinely use 6-8 cores.
Learn more: Are more CPU cores always better?
iPhones usually offer a smooth user experience, an area where Android has a bad reputation, even if things got a lot better since. Interestingly, while I’m quite sensitive to UI smoothness and 60FPS user experience, many people aren’t.
That said, the “smooth experience” also depends on how many apps you have. For exemple, we still have an iPhone 6 at the office, and while it used to be super-smooth when we first reviewed it, adding a lot of apps (and never removing them) has put some strain on the user experience.
Apple has remained somewhat mysterious of the GPU configuration of the iPhone 7. Officially, the A10 has 50% more graphics performance as the A9, and it may very well be that Apple has purchased a PowerVR GT7600 cluster with 50% more graphics cores. Since Apple doesn’t mind paying for chip die size, this is a realistic possibility. In any case, this thing is fast.
Conclusion: very good
The iPhone 7 and 7 Plus are very good phones even if their design isn’t something to brag about. As long as you like and it and feel good using one, it’s fine. They are a bit different in the sense that they don’t compete directly with the rest of the (Android) market for buyers who are already “locked-in” (or just “happy”) in the Apple ecosystem. Now we can reach a conclusion to the initial questions:
1/ Should I upgrade from my current iPhone?
If you have an iPhone 6 or older, the iPhone 7 is a good upgrade. If you have an iPhone 6s, it’s not clear-cut, and the “bang for your buck” is not as great. I wouldn’t upgrade it if you ask me, especially since Apple is set to make a huge redesign with the iPhone 8 (read the iPhone 8 news).
2/ Should I choose the iPhone 7 or 7 Plus?
When it comes to choosing between the two new iPhones, choose by the size, pick the one that feels better in your hand (and pocket?). It’s nice to have a large battery, but I would argue that if you like the smaller iPhone better, then that should be a priority. Thanks to rapid-charging, there are ways to mitigate the battery-life challenges. You will have to decide which has the higher priority.
The iPhone 7 Plus also has a secondary camera which is capable of a 2X zoom without quality loss. If you tend to zoom a lot, then it might be a something to take into consideration. I dont zoom much, so I would not want to pay extra for it. As for the “bokeh” effect, I believe that people will use it rarely because it’s a “special mode” (Portrait Mode) and not something that is automatically turned on at the most appropriate moment.
3/ iPhone 7 or Android competitor?
In general, the choice between iPhone or Android should never be imposed by “specs” or specific technical features, unless you are very familiar with both platforms.You have to make sure that you have all the apps you like, and that the general experience is satisfactory to YOU. If you are happy with one platform, it’s understandably convenient to stick to it. The OS is the most important choice for any phone or computer purchase.
OS aside, and from a hardware perspective, the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus have a single distinct advantage: the faster peak performance. The thing is: it’s not *that* visible during regular usage unless you play video games often. The iPhone 7/7 Plus camera isn’t “the best” even if it is very good. The Galaxy S7 and Pixel are superior in image quality, and the LG V20 is in a category of its own.
Finally, if you are still on the fence between Android and iPhone, wait until the LG G6 (check the LG G6 news), and the Galaxy S8 (check the Galaxy S8 news) have been announced, because the rumors do look fascinating.