The iPhones 7

I loved the black iPhone 5. Nostalgic affection for the original iPhone aside, as a piece of kit, the black iPhone 5 was it for me. I never really liked the round shape nor the plastic material of the 3G and 3GS. I liked the 4 and 4S much better, but I didn’t love the glass backs. The black 5 though, that was it. The “slate” anodization did show wear and tear as the year went by, but I liked the effect. Like a good pair of jeans or a leather watch strap. Apple, apparently, did not agree, and with the 5S changed the black model from “slate” to “space gray”. Space gray aged much more gracefully — my used-for-a-year 5S has some nicks along the sides, but the nicks are the same space gray color as the unblemished areas — but it just wasn’t dark enough for my taste. The black iPhones 6 and 6S stuck with the same space gray anodized finish. For me, personally, both aged very well. I’m looking at both of them, close up, right now. My 6 has a few scuffs at three of the four corners. One looks like I must’ve dropped it on or scraped it against something very rough. But even that mark is rather small. My 6S, the phone I’ve been using every day since it arrived on September 25 last year, looks near mint. There is one tiny scuff on one corner. A few pinprick-like pockmarks along the sides. And that’s it. Not one serious scratch on the glass front. Not one scratch on the back surface. Not one scratch on the camera lens or the surrounding enclosure — even though they protrude from the back. Even the reflective Apple logo on the back is unscratched. I haven’t treated the more recent iPhones any more carefully. It’s possible that I’ve simply been luckier, but that seems unlikely. Looking at all nine of my previous iPhones — and yes, I kept them all — the trend is clear: Apple is getting better and better at making devices resistant to wear and tear.

That brings us to the tenth generation of iPhones, which, for the first time, offers two options for black: a matte-finished “black” and an incredibly glossy “jet black”.

I’ve spent the last five days testing one iPhone of each finish: a jet black iPhone 7 and a matte black iPhone 7 Plus. On Friday I devoted an entire piece — “Black vs. Jet Black” — to help pre-orderers decide between the two, based on my initial impressions. Long story short, my initial impression was that black looked better, and jet black felt better. I stand behind my initial description of jet black as the grippiest iPhone Apple has ever made. I also stand by my prediction that Apple wasn’t joking around about the footnote on the iPhone 7 web page:

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. If you are concerned about this, we suggest you use one of the many cases available to protect your iPhone.

After just five days — more than half of which I’ve spent using the matte black iPhone 7 Plus — this jet black iPhone 7 has a few “micro abrasions”, to use Apple’s own term. I can only see them when I’m looking for them, and only when I reflect light off the surface at the perfect angle, but they’re there. This is after two days of careful use, and never putting it in a pocket that contains anything else. The back surface of this phone shows more wear after (effectively) two days of use than my space gray 6S does after nearly a year.1

That said, the unblemished back of the 6S looks downright boring. The jet black back of this iPhone 7 looks glorious. What will it look like after a few months of these micro abrasions accumulate? I don’t know. But I don’t think I care — I love it. If it were the only black finish, I’d buy it in a heartbeat, and I’d accept the accumulation of fine scratches as the nature of the beast. Take a close look at the finish of a black car — you’ll see fine micro abrasions everywhere.

I’ve led with this segment on color, finish, and wear-and-tear for several reasons. First, because I think that even with Apple’s warning, it’s going to erupt into a “scuffgate” once these jet black iPhones hit the market. I wouldn’t be surprised if the news stories and pundit hot takes about jet black iPhone scratches and scuffs outnumber those about the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 literally exploding and hurting people. If you want your phone to look mint or near mint, get black, not jet black, or else keep it in a case. But if you’re going to use a case, it really doesn’t matter which black you get, because you can’t see the difference unless you look at the speaker grilles at the bottom.

Second, both black finishes exemplify Apple’s obsession with and mastery of materials engineering. Out of the box, I think most people would agree that the near-black “slate” iPhone 5 was a better looking finish than the almost-more-like-dark-silver “space gray” that Apple has used for the last three iPhone generations. I think it’s clear they abandoned slate because it was too hard to anodize in a way that didn’t show wear and tear by revealing the natural aluminum under the anodized coating. The new matte black finish is significantly darker than the iPhone 5 slate — it’s right there in their names. And, I’ll bet, it will wear better over time. I can’t prove it in a five-day review, but based on the last few years of Apple’s bead-blasted aluminum devices, I would bet on it.

And the jet black finish is like nothing I’ve ever seen or felt with aluminum before. Jony Ive’s “iPhone 7 Design Video” is devoted entirely to the jet black finish. The whole thing. The jet black models are overwhelmingly favored in their marketing materials. I handed it to a few non-nerd family members over the weekend and asked them to guess what material it was made out of. None could guess. It feels too plasticky smooth and tactile to be metal, too hard and cool to the touch to be plastic. All were surprised when I told them it was aluminum, just like the iPhone 6 and 6S, but with a different finish.

The most surprising thing to me about the jet black models is that they’re not an extra $100 for the same storage capacities as the bead-blasted models. But the only concession on price is that there’s no 32 GB tier for jet black. Based on conversations with a few sources and just plain common sense after watching the aforelinked design video (which uses footage from the actual manufacturing process), it takes way more time — and thus cost — to produce a jet black casing than a bead-blasted one.

Third, these finishes serve as a refutation to the notion that the iPhone’s “design” has stagnated. Yes, the physical dimensions have remained effectively unchanged for a third generation. That’s never happened before. But this is how evolution — a word Ive used prominently in his design video narration — works. Evolution isn’t about jumping from one design to another, for the sake of novelty. It’s about improvements. There’s the one-off original iPhone, flat-backed aluminum with a quirky black plastic pair of pants at the bottom to allow antenna signals to get out. Then the all-plastic round-backed 3G/3GS — utilitarian designs from an era when the iPhone’s components were, compared to today, painfully crude. The iPhone 4 and 4S got flat, thinner, and went retina. The 5 and 5S — aluminum backs done right, still flat, even thinner, and stretched to the superior 16:9 aspect ratio. The next obvious step — overdue, in hindsight — was to make them bigger.

Each step of the way, from the original iPhone to the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus form factors, was an evolution of what preceded it. Was it more radical in the early 3:2 aspect ratio era (aluminum, plastic, plastic, glass, glass) and more subtle in the 16:9 era (aluminum, aluminum, aluminum, aluminum, aluminum)? Yes, and that’s the sign of an evolution that’s on the right track. We’re getting to the point where the removal of unsightly antenna lines are about what we can reasonably expect year-over-year in industrial design changes. It’s a maturing product. The iPhone form factor will change again. But not for the sake of change. It will change in ways that make it better, ever more focused on its essence, the display.

Cameras

The biggest change — literally and figuratively — in the iPhones 7 is their cameras. The lens on the 7 is noticeably bigger. I don’t think it protrudes any further than the 6/6S cameras, but the diameter is much larger, and it has moved a little further from the corner. For this reason alone, I don’t think any cases designed for the iPhone 6 or 6S will be suitable for use with the iPhone 7. The casing for the camera bump is now drilled directly into the caseback itself. I do still very much wish the camera were flush with the caseback, but as I wrote last week, if you’re going to have a bump, own the bump. The iPhone 7 owns its bump; the iPhone 6/6S shied away from it.

The Plus-sized iPhone 6 and 6S had a major advantage over their 4.7-inch counterparts: optical image stabilization. With the 6 Plus, OIS was for stills only; with the 6S Plus OIS worked for stills and video. With stills, OIS lets you shoot useable photos in low light situations. It also helps when you’re in motion. With video, it noticeably smooths out motion from panning or especially walking. As someone who prefers smaller phones, the camera was the one and only reason I ever considered a Plus. There are other reasons other people prefer a Plus — noticeably better battery life, the bigger screen, easier typing on the bigger keyboard — but for me personally, the optical image stabilization was the only temptation. It hurt knowing that my iPhone didn’t have the best camera.

The iPhone 7 now has OIS, for both stills and video. It works great. Side-by-side with my old iPhone 6S, I got noticeably better photos at an outdoor family gathering at dusk. I got noticeably better photos shooting indoors at night. And video shot while walking around is noticeably more stable and fluid. OIS does exactly what it says on the tin.

This year, the Plus has an altogether new advantage: a dual camera system. The iPhone 7 Plus has two complete cameras right next to each other. The wide angle 28 mm (equivalent) camera is exactly the same optically as the lone camera on the back of the regular iPhone 7. It has the exact same lens system and the exact same sensor. There is a rumor, rampant on Twitter, that the wide angle camera sensor on the 7 Plus is smaller than that of the 7. I checked with Apple and they were adamant that there is no truth to this. Optically, the wide angle camera on the Plus is identical to that of the 7. The only differences between the cameras are their internal connectors. The sensors and lenses are the same.

The second camera has a 56 mm (equivalent) focal length. Apple is calling it “telephoto”. I would describe it more as “normal” — a field of view that appears “natural” to a human, neither wide angle nor telephoto. But given that non-photographers don’t know what a normal lens is, I endorse their description of it as telephoto: it’s more zoomed in.

Personally, I love lenses in this focal length range. I’ve owned Canon DSLRs for over a decade, and I’d wager 75 percent of the photos I’ve taken with them were with 50 mm prime lenses. Some of the best photographers in history made their careers shooting almost exclusively with normal lenses. Stills shot from 1× up until 2× use the wide angle lens, with assistance from the telephoto lens via software. Images shot from 2× to 10× (the maximum) use the telephoto lens. The iOS Camera app defaults to 1× zoom whenever you launch it. It just takes a single tap on the “1×” button to jump to 2× zoom — which is really jumping from one camera to the other.

The telephoto second camera has a few limitations. It does not have OIS, for one thing. Second, it has an f/2.8 aperture; the wide angle lens has an f/1.8. The smaller the f-stop number, the larger the aperture is. You know how the iris of your eyes open wide when it’s dark, to let more light into your eyes? That’s exactly the purpose of the aperture on a camera. A smaller f-stop lets in more light. (The cameras on the iPhone 6S and 6S plus had apertures of f/2.2.)

Thus, in my opinion, the second camera on the 7 Plus is mostly useful with well-lit-room-or-better lighting. In low-light situations, you’re going to want to shoot at 1× with the wide angle lens. But when you do have good lighting, especially outdoors, the image quality from the telephoto lens is terrific.

Perhaps the flagship capability of the 7 Plus camera system is “Portrait” mode. This is the mode where the telephoto lens is used to capture the subject, and the wide angle lens is used to create a shallow depth of field, creating a faux-bokeh effect with a blurred background. It is essential to note that you’ll be able to see this effect previewed live. I hope this feature works great. I worry that in practice, it’ll look like a gimmick. Alas, we won’t find out for a while — the software isn’t ready, and the feature is promised for an update “later this year”.

I suspect it just kills Apple’s camera team that the feature didn’t make the cut for the iPhone 7 Plus debut. The dual lens system is certainly useful without it, but it’s also certainly less compelling.

I’ve been saying it for years, but I’ll say it again, because the new iPhones prove it: Apple is now the leading camera company in the world, and the iPhone is fundamentally much more of a camera than it is a telephone.

Home Button

The home button on both iPhones 7 no longer physically clicks. Instead, it’s a force touch sensor, and it uses the improved Taptic Engine to provide simulated click feedback. Alas, it’s nothing at all like the new Force Touch trackpads, which use haptic feedback to simulate an artificial click. With the trackpads, the feedback feels like an actual clicking trackpad. In my opinion it’s uncanny. I like the simulated clicking on the Force Touch trackpads more than the actual clicking on older trackpads, primarily because it feels the same everywhere on the trackpad, whereas the old trackpads were less clicky the closer you got to the hinge at the top of the trackpad.

The new home buttons don’t feel like actual clickable buttons at all. It feels like the iPhone is clicking, not the button. This was especially disconcerting at first. In the hands-on area at the event last week, when everyone was experiencing it for the first time, reaction was overwhelmingly negative. Five days later, I’m getting used to it. But I don’t think I’ll ever like it as much as the actual clicking Touch ID home button on the iPhones 5S through 6S.

iOS offers three settings for haptic feedback on home button clicks. Apple labels them 1, 2, and 3. They correspond to low, medium, and high. Medium is the default, but you get to choose during the initial first run on-boarding process. I think I prefer the highest setting, 3. (This setting can be changed at any time in Settings: General: Home Button.)

The first few days I was using these phones, I found myself accidentally triggering Reachability a few times per day. That’s the feature where you tap — not click, tap — the home button twice to bring the top of the screen to the bottom, to make it easier to reach tap targets at the top of the screen. It only happened to me once today, so I think I’m getting used to it. I never use Reachability, but I didn’t want to disable it (yet) because I wanted to see if it was a problem that would go away as I acclimated to the new home button. [Update: I’ve triggered it inadvertently two more times today already. What happens is I like to rest my thumb, idly, on the home button. For some reason on the iPhone 7 Plus, this winds up triggering Reachability inadvertently. Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve seen this on both iPhones, so I’m turning Reachability off.]

This new home button is the one and only thing about the iPhone 7 that I don’t like. Why would Apple do this? It does remove one more potential point of ingress, improving water resistance. But the power and volume buttons are still actual buttons, and the iPhone 7 is IP67 water resistant. To me, it feels worse, not better. I could wind up in the minority on this point, but hands-on room feedback was on my side, and, well, I consider myself a connoisseur of button clickiness.

Here’s what I think is going on: in countries around the world, particularly Asia (China, Korea, Singapore), and also Brazil, iPhone users don’t use their home buttons. Really. They turn on AssistiveTouch, an iOS accessibility feature designed for people with motor skill problems. AssistiveTouch allows you to navigate across the system, in and out of apps, without ever clicking the home button. Why don’t they click the home button? Because of a widespread misconception that the home button will wear out, thus reducing the resale value of the iPhone. Here’s Gus Lubin writing about the phenomenon last year for Business Insider:

The Chinese tourist next to me was doing things I’d never seen with an iPhone. He was using an on-screen button to pull up a menu and perform a series of rapid commands, and moving that button around the screen, all without pressing the home button.

That floating button is called AssistiveTouch, and it’s an alternate input method buried in the accessibility settings. It’s designed for people who have trouble pressing hard buttons or swiping in a particular way, but here was a guy with no apparent disability or hardware problems using it like a pro.

I had to ask why: He said something about shortcuts being more convenient.

I asked if he knew other people who used it: He said, “everyone?”

Here’s a follow-up he posted the next day:

The rumor is so widespread that some vendors in China tell users to use AssistiveTouch all the time.

When we called this a Chinese trend, however, we were deluged by comments and emails about how people do this around the world.

“This seems to be used by most people in Vietnam as well. Perhaps it’s use is universal across Asia,” commented tom1295.

“Same here in the Philippines,” commented Nixon.

“All Asians do it, not only the Chinese, but also Singaporeans, Koreans, and Japanese,” commented Miguel Mateo.

“Not only Asia, but here in Brazil it’s pretty usual for people to use Assistive Touch. The main reason is that the home button breaks relatively easy,” commented LeoB.

“That’s true. Also happens in Brazil,” Luiz Santana commented.

Wang Yijie, on Quora, answering a question about why so many iPhone users in Beijing use AssistiveTouch:

It’s because of the fear that the home button may be broken. iPhones are not cheap in China so people take care of them while using. Several years ago people began to complain about their home button being easily broken and it has somehow been a widely recognized truth, so even the home buttons are not that easy to be broken, they tend to use AssistiveTouch instead. When you buy an iPhone in China the salesman would automatically turn on this function while helping you to do the settings. I myself have not experienced a broken home button during 4 years with my iPhone 4; however, I did have a broken sleep button from my 3rd year, which proved that the rumours are, in some way, true. So I turned on AssistiveTouch…

This seems a lot like the widely held misconception that iPhone users are doing themselves a favor by force-quitting all their apps. Not only are they not doing themselves a favor, they’re actually hurting system performance and battery life. Likewise, Apple’s modern Touch ID home buttons do not have a tendency to wear out. So around the world, there are tens of millions of iPhone users jumping through hoops to avoid using a button that is literally and figuratively central to the iPhone user experience.

There is, alas, a kernel of truth to the misconception, which has probably made the belief unshakable. To wit: earlier iPhones, pre-Touch ID, did have home buttons that often wore out or got squishy. Apple solved the problem with the vastly superior Touch ID buttons, but the belief persists that they’ll wear out. I think Apple designed this no-click button in the hopes that it will get these people to use the home button as intended. But now we’re all stuck with a button that doesn’t feel as good.2

The worst part is, I wouldn’t be surprised if this no-click button doesn’t change the behavior of these people. UI habits are hard to break, and superstitions are resistant to reason.

Miscellaneous

  • The new speakers are great. Up until now, there was only one speaker on any iPhone, on the bottom right. The iPhones 7 now have a second speaker — the earpiece for phone calls now doubles as a proper audio speaker. There are holes machined on the bottom, where the whatchamacallit jack used to go, that most people will think are another bottom-side speaker, but they’re just there for visual symmetry. The new speakers are much louder, and it doesn’t sound weird, even though the two speakers are seemingly on different axes. We, collectively, don’t talk about the iPhone as a telephone much any more, but the new speakers are a game changer for using the iPhone as a speakerphone. It’s terrific.

  • Speaking of audio, I love AirPods. They’re so good, so clever, so well-designed, and such a pleasure to use that they deserve their own standalone review. They’re not cheap at $159, but they make the $199 Beats Powerbeats2 wireless headphones I bought last year look like a joke. They fit great for me — no wiggle at all. I wouldn’t hesitate to jog with them. I used them all day long the day I flew home from San Francisco to Philadelphia. I made a few phone calls, then played music throughout the flight. When I got in the door at home, the AirPods still had 44 percent of their charge, and the case was at like 80 percent or something like that.

  • The new Taptic Engine is cool. Here’s my favorite use so far: the spinner control for things like picking a date or time (say, setting an alarm in the Clock app) now feels like a real spinner. It’s uncanny. I can’t wait to see how developers use these APIs.

  • Apple provided me with a leather case for each phone. If I used a case with my iPhone, I would definitely try one of these. They’ve improved them over the 6/6S leather cases by putting real aluminum buttons on the case for volume up/down and power. (Apple’s silicone iPhone 7 cases don’t have these buttons, alas.)

  • The iPhones 7 don’t have the color-temperature-shifting True Tone display that debuted with the 9.7-inch iPad Pro. I suspect that’s because it requires extra sensors, and the iPad has room for them and the iPhones don’t. The new iPhones don’t have the iPad Pro’s improved anti-reflective display, either.

  • I didn’t have time to run detailed battery life tests, but here’s a real-world stat. I’ve been awake for 18 hours today. I started with a fully-charged iPhone 7 Plus, and have used the Plus exclusively and extensively all day long. (Other than using the iPhone 7 or iPhone 6S for points of comparison.) As I type this sentence, it still reports 42 percent battery life. Coming from the non-Plus iPhone 6S, that’s amazing. I can see why people who dislike the Plus’s size and don’t care about the camera still prefer it, just for battery life alone.

  • I also didn’t have the time (or interest, frankly) to run detailed performance benchmarks. Suffice it to say the iPhones 7 handily beat the iPad Pro and iPhone 6S in GeekBench 4’s benchmarks. I think the real performance story with the A10 Fusion is not what it scores on benchmarks, nor how fast it feels in use, but what it does for battery life with its truly innovative dual two-core design. When high performance is called for, the A10 Fusion uses two performance optimized cores. When it’s not, is uses two energy-efficiency-optimized cores. To my knowledge there has never been a system like this in a phone. [Update: Apparently the basic idea has been used in Android phones for a few years now. ARM introduced something with the same basic idea called “big.little” in 2011, and several Android phones have CPUs that implement it. I don’t think Apple’s A10 Fusion is using ARM’s big.little — I think Apple created their own custom implementation. Browsing Geekbench scores for the phones Wikipedia lists as using this, the scores are not impressive.]

Conclusion

Five days with two phones is not a lot of time for a review. I almost titled this piece “iPhones 7 First Impressions” rather than the more authoritative “The iPhones 7”, but I feel pretty good about my handle on them.

Up until now, I’ve purchased each new generation iPhone as soon as I could — either waiting in line all day outside an Apple Store, or, in recent years, pre-ordering at the stroke of midnight Pacific Time. This year, I didn’t. I couldn’t decide. I couldn’t decide between black and jet black, and I couldn’t decide between sizes. For the first time ever, I decided to wait on my personal iPhone, and spend more time with the review units before deciding.

If I didn’t have these review units, I think I would have pre-ordered a regular black iPhone 7. Now that I’ve spent time with them, however, I think I want a jet black iPhone 7. I will be jealous of the Portrait mode on the Plus when Apple ships the update, but it doesn’t feel like enough to justify the way it feels in my hand and pants pocket. (After just three days, my left pinkie is killing me.) That the telephoto lens is “only” f/2.8 — I put quotes around “only” because that’s still a remarkable aperture for a lens system and sensor this small — and lacks OIS makes the Plus a little less compelling to me as well. The battery life of the Plus is impressive, but I made it through the day 99 percent of the time with my 6S last year, so the improved battery life of the regular iPhone 7 should be fine for me. It all comes down to the camera. And the camera decision all comes down to Portrait mode. And Portrait mode isn’t available yet.

That’s my subjective take. I feel more certain about sticking with the 4.7 size than I do about the black vs. jet black decision. I feel like I could wake up tomorrow and be back on team black. It’s not a hard decision because they’re similar — it’s a hard decision because both finishes are excellent, just excellent in different ways.

Even if you want to judge these new iPhones based solely on their industrial design, the new black finishes alone would make me want to buy one. But what matters is what happens when you turn them on and use them. And in every regard, from performance to battery life to camera image quality to haptic feedback to water resistance to wide color gamut displays to sound quality from the speakers,3 the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus are impressive year-over-year improvements over the 6S/6S Plus, and stunning improvements over the two- and three-year old iPhone 6 and 5S — which are the models most people considering the new iPhones will be upgrading from.


  1. I own a space black Apple Watch, which has a similar high gloss black finish. But it’s an entirely different material (stainless steel) and process (DLC coating). The “diamond-like” in “DLC” is no joke. After more than a year, my Apple Watch appears to be in mint condition. Not near-mint. Mint. Every time I think I’ve finally picked up a small scratch on it, especially the link bracelet, the underside of which takes a beating, it has turned out to be a bit of residue from whatever surface I scraped the watch or bracelet against. Apple’s jet black aluminum finish is nothing like this at all. ↩︎

  2. Another way to look at it is that AssistiveTouch is so good, so well designed as an accessibility feature, that it has enabled tens of millions of able-bodied people to be satisfied iPhone users without ever clicking the button that is fundamental to the entire system. It’s a minor tragedy if I’m right that this is why Apple has made the home button worse for the rest of us, but it’s a real feather in the cap for the iOS accessibility team. I’ll bet most people reading this think it’s impossible to use an iPhone without clicking the home button a hundred times per day, let alone not clicking it at all. ↩︎︎

  3. With the single exception of the new no-click home button. ↩︎︎

Ads via The Deck Ads via The Deck