Yes, this is the third generation of iPhones where Apple has made virtually no major external design changes. But look at little closer and there are some pleasant and important surprises in both the new models.
For starters the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus are the toughest iPhones Apple has ever made. They add IP67 dust and water resistance to the tough Series 7000 aluminium chassis introduced last year and both easily survive being fully submerged in water or taken into the shower (more handy than you might think). Other phones have done this for some time, but its an important catch up and Apple has done it well.
Also adding durability is the move to a fixed, capacitive touch home ‘surface’. The old moving home button on previous iPhones was one of the parts most prone to failure (Apple developed Assistive Touch to aid broken handsets out of warranty) and the good news is its capacitive replacement feels great.
An enlarged ‘taptic’ motor successfully simulates the feeling of a press (with three options of vibration intensity). I’ve seen some reports saying it feels unnatural, it doesn’t and you’ll soon forget you ever used anything else. Interestingly, that’s also only half the story.
The other half is Apple has opened up the taptic engine to app developers so they can program it to enable custom vibrations. This could be a gimmick, but the quality of app developers is so high these days that I suspect something fun, clever or even educational may eventually come out of it.
More superficially, Apple has also removed the antenna lines from the backs of both phones which gives them a cleaner look and offered new Black and Jett Black colour options while retiring Space Grey. My advice on Jett Black: Do Not Buy It. In hand it actually feels nicest of all the finishes due to a surprisingly sticky texture that provides grip, but it is both a fingerprint and scratch magnet (something Apple even admits).
As such my experience of my iPhone 7 Plus jett black review sample was that, even handling very carefully, I quickly picked up a multitude of scratches that would break the heart of anyone who spent a lot of money on it (jett black is only available on 128GB and 256GB models). You can put it in a case, but that destroys the point of this head turning finish in the first place. So stick to the other colours or accept the consequences.
And this brings me to my other design related complaint: these phones are starting to look old. Yes they are as well put together as every previous iPhone (despite doubts surrounding the sapphire components) and yes they are somewhat iconic. But there’s also a lack of progression here. Slimmer bezels are needed for more compact designs, they could be more ergonomic in hand like the Galaxy S7 and Galaxy S7 Edge and it all whiffs – rightly or wrongly – of stagnation.
We know big changes are coming in 2017 but until then these new iPhones are not head turners and the iPhone 7 Plus remains far more cumbersome than its needs to be for a 5.5-inch device.
Winner: iPhone 7 – the iPhone 7 Plus is simply far too big for a smartphone with a 5.5-inch display. The 5.5-inch Galaxy S7 Edge is a fraction of the size
Goodbye Headphone Jack, Hello Apple Profits
And yet the controversy of Apple continuing to stick with an ageing design is nothing compared to the controversy over the one big external change it has made: the removal of the 3.5mm headphone jack.
The move has been coming (I predicted it 2 1/2 years ago), but does it really do anything to devalue either the iPhone 7 or iPhone 7 Plus on a technical level? Well yes and no.
Before we get into this though, what we must do is cut through the disingenuous message Apple is pushing behind its removal: that it is old technology with inferior audio quality and needs to be removed to enable water resistance.
Firstly yes, the headphone jack is old technology (the phono connector is it based on is over 100 years old) but that only means it is ubiquitous and it isn’t remotely close to hitting the limitations of its audio potential. Why? Because just like Lightning, the headphone jack is capable of reproducing 32 bit audio which contains frequencies even dogs cannot hear.
Companies like LG are taking advantage of this as well as the new V20 comes with a 32 bit DAC. What’s inside the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus? The same as previous iPhones: a 16 bit DAC. So you can see the quality limitations argument falls through completely.