iPhone 7 review: Does Apple’s 2016 flagship still stand up against newer models?
iPhone 7 review: Waterproof and slicker than ever
Perhaps an even bigger change, at least in terms of toughness and reliability, is water resistance: the iPhone 7 is now officially dust- and water-resistant to the IP67 standard.
That isn’t as good as the latest Sony Xperia XZ or the latest series of Samsung Galaxy S7 phones, which both achieve IP68 (six is the dust-resistance score and eight is the water-resistance rating). However, when you look at the fine print there isn’t a huge difference between IP68 and IP67 phones. The Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge, for instance, is “more waterproof” than the iPhone 7, but only to the extent that you can submerge it an additional half-metre than the iPhone. Both phones can be submerged for up to half an hour.
It’s an academic difference, then, a phrase that accurately describes the changes to the rest of the iPhone 7’s overall look and feel. Changes to the iPhone in a non-“S” year used to mean a radical redesign of the iPhone’s chassis. The move from iPhone 4s to 5 and 5s to 6 heralded big changes to the look and feel of the phone. However, this time around, you have to look pretty hard to see the differences. The old “rail track” antenna lines have been shunted out of the way to the edge of the handset, which results in a cleaner rear panel. That’s nice, but not groundbreaking.
The rear camera bulge is slightly larger and more curvy, and there’s a pair of new colours. There’s the new glossy Jet Black finish you can see in these pictures,
which Apple says is produced through a special nine-step anodization and polishing process, and a matte black finish as well. Both of these look predictably spiffing, but my preference is for the smart, no-nonsense matte-black model. The Jet Black looks and feels weirdly plastic, and it collects fingerprints like a stamp collector picks up small squares of sticky paper at a philately convention.
On the plus side, it does at least clean up quickly with a quick wipe on your shirt. More worrying, however, is the fact that it scuffs up easily and picks up fine scratches at the slightest provocation. If you’re the type who thinks nothing of chucking your phone in your pocket with your keys (we all know someone who does this, don’t we?) your expensive Jet Black iPhone won’t look great for very long.
I tend to be very careful with the phones that are sent to me for review, but this one had picked up fine scratches around the bottom edge and its corners after a day or so of use. Buyer beware.
iPhone 7 review: Camera is a step up for photos
As for the camera, that’s a little more difficult to peg. On the surface, it ought to be a belter, and despite the fact that it doesn’t get the sexy dual-camera of its bigger brother, or a resolution bump (it still captures 12-megapixel stills and 4K video), a handful of specification improvements suggests better all-round image quality from the iPhone 7’s camera.
There’s now optical image stabilisation (OIS), where previously this had been restricted to the Plus version. There’s also a beefed-up ISP (image signal processor), which should ensure things such as better noise reduction and speedier HDR processing. A brighter f/1.8 aperture, which lets 50% more light onto the sensor, six-element lens and quad-LED flash round things off nicely. The iPhone 7 ought to be better at capturing images in low light, and at capturing action shots, and my initial tests reveal that the OIS works as you’d expect it to.
In bright light, the iPhone 7 captures images at both lower ISO sensitivity and higher shutter speed than on the iPhone 6s, which means it’s able to freeze action much more successfully and there’s slightly less grain.
In low light, meanwhile, photographs are typically captured at lower ISO sensitivity and lower shutter speeds, which should deliver cleaner, brighter, more colourful images. In practice, that’s largely what happens when you use the camera day-to-day.
Check out the two images below, shot in dimly lit conditions under fluorescent office strip lights. The iPhone 6s image on the left is far less colourful than the iPhone 7’s shot on the right. The iPhone 7’s image is crisper and sharper, too.
And yet, there are problems with the iPhone 7’s image. Examining the shadows in the background reveals an unpleasantly mottled, lumpy texture that’s obvious even without zooming right in (if you want to take a closer look click any of the images to get to the gallery, then click the View full-screen button). There is less grain than on the iPhone 6s image, but the graduation between light and dark areas is far less smooth and natural.
In fairness, in most situations it’s abundantly clear that the iPhone 7’s rear camera is an upgrade over the iPhone 6s. The advantages of the brighter aperture and OIS outweigh the processing problems causing the blotchiness, and mean the iPhone 7’s camera is more reliable than ever before. There’s far less risk of getting a bum shot with this phone than the previous generation. The blotch shadow problem is also an issue I imagine Apple will be able to iron out in a future software update. All things told, it’s an excellent camera.
And yet, it’s equally obvious that Apple hasn’t made enough of an improvement here to overhaul its big rival in the smartphone camera stakes: the Samsung Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge, which have the edge on all-round quality for me.
In fact, the biggest upgrade to the iPhone 7’s imaging capability is arguably to the front camera, an area Apple hasn’t been particularly strong in historically. It gets a boost this time around from 5 megapixels to 7 megapixels, and delivers photographs with significantly more detail and superior contrast to the iPhone 6s. I also found the fake flash (where the screen flashes momentarily to illuminate your face) seems to activate more readily on the iPhone 7 resulting in more flattering selfies.
iPhone 7 review: One of the best screen’s we’ve used
The quality of the screen is another subtle improvement, brought about not by a change in technology, but a different approach from Apple. After years of calibrating its screens to target the comparatively narrow, but most universally used, sRGB colour space, Apple is now also calibrating the iPhone 7 against the wider DCI-P3 colour space, traditionally used in the movie industry to ensure colour consistency from studio through to cinema.
Apple, as it typically does, has renamed this standard. It’s calling it “Wide Color”, and if you set the iPhone 7 down next to its predecessor the iPhone 6s, both with screen brightness set to maximum, the difference in colour profile between the two is palpable.
The colours on the iPhone 7’s display have more impact and more “glow” to them, while black looks deeper as a result. In fact, the screen on the new phone is almost AMOLED-like in appearance, but it stops short of that lurid quality that we typically associate with other phones using that sort of technology.
However, it’s clear that Apple is aware that in supporting a wide colour gamut like DCI-P3 the danger is that “normal” content will end up looking over-saturated. So, in order to step around this potential problem, certain apps the screen seems to revert back to sRGB to ensure backwards compatibility, and this is where our screen benchmarks throw up some odd results.
Because our tests are run through a browser, and in the browser, the iPhone 7 seems to be calibrated to sRGB instead of Wide Color, colour accuracy in this colour space is great. The screen covers 95.8% of the sRGB colour space, which is also impressive. However, it would also seem to explain why our tests report back that DCI-P3 coverage is less impressive, at only 73.5% coverage.
The long and short of it is that the iPhone 7 is as good as ever at representing sRGB colour sources where it needs to be, while appearing more vibrant in other places – the homescreen, video playback and so on. Overall, in terms of its colour performance, it’s superb and a match for any other smartphone around right now.[gallery:2]
Oddly, the iPhone 7’s screen comes out as not quite as bright as the iPhone 6s (I measured it at 540cd/m2 with the brightness slider at maximum and the screen filled with white), and it lags slightly behind on contrast ratio as well, hitting 1,458:1.
Those are still good numbers, though, and to the eye, the iPhone 7 display represents a notable step forward: it’s more colourful, more vibrant, and more immediately engaging.
iPhone 7 review: Slightly better speakers
Audio has received a boost in performance as well in the iPhone 7, and for the first time, the iPhone has stereo speaker output. It’s an odd arrangement, though, with one speaker at the top of the phone behind the earpiece, and the other in its standard position behind the right-hand grille at the bottom of the phone.
That’s right, the right-hand grille. Although Apple has removed the headphone socket from the left-hand side and balanced the design by replacing it with what looks like another speaker, the holes drilled into the chassis are purely aesthetic. No sound comes out of them at all. And don’t be fooled by that cheeky YouTube video suggesting there’s still a headphone socket behind that second grille. It’s well and truly gone, as iFixit’s teardown has proved.
Still, the iPhone 7’s speakers do sound better than the iPhone 6s’s mono effort, with a little more volume, body and presence. There isn’t a huge amount in it – the laws of physics dictate that there’s no bass and that it still sounds tinny – but the new phone does sound distinctly better.
There’s also no discernible stereo separation going on here – there’s a little more spaciousness to the sound, perhaps, but no sense of imaging or positioning to speak of – however, there are some practical advantages to having two speakers and a side benefit or two.
First, having a second speaker means the sound doesn’t disappear altogether when your hand grips the edge of the phone, which is great if you want to give your ears a rest from your headphones from time to time and catch up on a bit of Netflix or play your favourite game. And because Apple has replaced the earpiece with a new speaker module in the new phone, in order to get a bigger sound out of it, call quality gets a boost, too.
In short, the iPhone 7 is improved from an audio output perspective all-round. It’s just a shame that Apple felt it necessary need to remove the headphones socket.
iPhone 7 specifications
|Processor||Quad-core A10 Fusion|
|Screen resolution||1,334 x 750|
|Front camera||7 megapixels|
|Rear camera||12 megapixels|
|Storage (free)||32GB, 128GB, 256GB|
|Memory card slot (supplied)||None|
|Wireless data||3G, 4G|
|Dimensions||138 x 67 x 7.1mm|
|Operating system||iOS 10.0|
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