Thoughts on the iPhone 7

IPhone 7 recap

IPhone 7 Plus recap

Step 1, the emotional reaction — I want the iPhone 7 in black matte finish. This model, with this finish, would probably convince me to upgrade to a bigger display than the 4-inch of my iPhone 5 I love so much. The 32 GB storage size would be enough. My current iPhone 5 is a 32 GB model and I have about 9 GB free at the moment.

I’d probably use it without a case. It’s too cool to have it hidden behind a case.

Step 2, rationality starts kicking in — Or rather, rationalising why I would upgrade. Well, those advances in camera technology and CPU/GPU performance can’t be overlooked. The gap between my iPhone 5 and the iPhone 7 would probably be as tangible as the one I experienced when upgrading from the iPhone 4 to the iPhone 5. Also, while it’s true that my iPhone 5 will support iOS 10, perhaps it’s time I jumped on the 64-bit device bandwagon…

Step 3, reality and its cold shower — An iPhone 7 is out of my budget. I also have other aging devices — an iPad 3 and a seven-year-old MacBook Pro — and if I have to prioritise, the Mac comes first. I’ll wait and see how the upcoming redesigned MacBook Pros look and what they’ll offer.

Camera and performance

Camera features

Phil Schiller’s presentation was divided into ten chapters/features:

  1. Design
  2. Home button
  3. Water & dust resistant
  4. Camera
  5. Retina HD display
  6. Audio
  7. EarPods (with Lightning connector)
  8. Wireless (AirPods)
  9. Apple Pay (and Japan)
  10. Performance

If I theoretically could afford to upgrade, the two features that would certainly win me over are camera and performance. These are, in my opinion, the essence of the iPhone now. At every iteration, the iPhone is becoming an increasingly more powerful computer with the ability of taking increasingly better photos. My most advanced standalone digital camera is an 8-megapixel Nikon I purchased in 2006. I haven’t bought another since, because a) I’ve always been more interested in film photography, and after a brief love affair with digital cameras in the years 2002-2007, I progressively lost interest and returned to film; and b) since I got my first iPhone, it has truly become my main digital point-and-shoot camera. Especially since 2011, when I bought an iPhone 4 with a drastically better camera than the one in the old iPhone 3G, I’ve found that the iPhone has been more than enough for my digital photography needs.

Without belabouring the point too much, digital photography for me is like fast food, and film photography is like slow food. Most of my digital photography are snapshots captured and shared. When I want to slow down and take my time to hunt for interesting scenes and subjects to shoot, I grab my film equipment — it’s the process I enjoy most.

Therefore, considering the way I do digital photography, the iPhone is really the best device to have with me and the only digital camera I’ve invested in since 2011. If you’re into digital photography in a similar way, the camera improvements in the iPhone 7 are really worth considering, especially if you own an older iPhone like me. If you’re really into camera performance, I’d say you should take a look at the iPhone 7 even if you own an iPhone 6, while I don’t think it’s worth upgrading from a 6s.

Of all the new camera improvements in the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus — as ingenious as the dual camera system is on the bigger iPhone — my favourite is the flicker sensor. As Schiller explained, The flicker sensor reads the flickering of artificial lighting and can compensate for it in the photos and videos you take. I take a lot of indoor photos, and the flickering can be very annoying, especially when you want to include the source of artificial light in the frame. If this works as advertised, indoor photos and videos taken under artificial light will definitely look better, probably with more natural tones.

As for performance, well, I admit I was a bit speechless when I saw these slides:

Two high performance cores

Processing performance

Graphics performance

Graphics performance graph

This is certainly impressive. It is impressive how distant my humble iPhone 5 is on that graph, but equally impressive is the distance the iPhone 7 puts between itself and the iPhone 6 and 6s. Processing and graphics powers are tricky to evaluate in day-to-day normal use, though. My iPhone 5 feels fast and snappy enough. I remember trying out an iPhone 6 and a 6s, and they felt fast too, but not in a way that made my 5 feel hopelessly slow, if you know what I mean. The real difference can be appreciated when you give all these phones certain processing and graphics tasks (high-end video games, sophisticated image editing apps, photo apps that can overlay different complex filters, etc.) and see how long they take to complete operations.

Another advantage of the iPhone 7 CPU, the A10 Fusion chip, is that its asymmetrical architecture — two high-performance cores, two smaller efficiency cores, an Apple-designed performance controller — allows the iPhone 7 to simultaneously be more powerful and less power hungry than its predecessors. True, both the iPhone 7 and the 7 Plus also have slightly bigger batteries than the 6s and 6s Plus, but I’m willing to bet the A10 would have allowed for an increased battery life nonetheless.

Stray observations

  • The design may be nothing new compared to the iPhone 6s line. Nothing major has changed in the iPhone’s shape, but the jet black finish is striking enough to make the 7 look like a different iPhone altogether. And personally, a minor detail like the redesigned antenna lines, now decidedly less garish and noticeable, makes the iPhone 7 a more attractive model than the 6 or 6s. Have I mentioned I love the matte black finish?
  • To those who say the iPhone 7 is ‘boring’ because it doesn’t look different enough from a 6s: yes, outside maybe. Under the bonnet, everything’s different.
  • Regarding the new Home button, I’m ambivalent. A brief reminder: the Home button on the iPhone 7 is a force-sensitive, solid state button. It uses the Taptic engine to simulate clicking, like the trackpad on the MacBooks. Reports are divided — some say it feels great, other say it feels weak and weird, and while the Taptic engine behind a MacBook trackpad manages to realistically simulate the clicking movement, the iPhone 7 Home button is much smaller, and the effect isn’t as realistic. This is the classic kind of hardware feature I have to try personally before passing judgment. I understand the design decision: the Home button’s tasks have increased over the years, and now it’s used for quitting apps, Multitasking, Siri, Accessibility, Touch ID, Reachability, and Apple Pay operations. It’s logical to want to do without a moving part that gets so much used (and more prone to breaking or malfunctioning). At the same time, a true, clicky button is a better feedback. Again, I’ll have to try before having an opinion on this, but I understand where Apple is going and it makes sense.
  • The removal of the headphone jack: I’ve already expressed my opinion on the matter, and more specifically on the new AirPods in my previous article. But I want to sum up my position as follows: It’s not that I don’t think wireless is the future for audio. Nor I think Apple should continue to keep the headphone jack indefinitely. My argument against the jack removal is that the alternative solution Apple has presented doesn’t feel elegant, effective or compelling enough. Since everyone is quick to bring up past examples, I’ll say that again: every time Apple purposely dropped a technology from its hardware, the chosen alternative was better in every way, more elegant, more practical, more efficient — just compare the huge advantages of FireWire over SCSI, to make one example. What Apple has proposed as an alternative to wired audio on the iPhone doesn’t feel this better, but more like a stopgap. To make the necessary improvements inside the iPhone 7, the headphone jack’s space had to be sacrificed, so Apple needed a ‘Plan B’. I understand this, but I don’t have to like it. Schiller’s speech about ‘courage’ felt off to me because it sounded like when you have to devise a ‘Plan B’ and you try to make it pass as if it had been your genius plan all along.
  • Bye bye, 16 GB — The 16 GB storage tier is finally disappearing, and the 16/64/128 offering becomes 32/128/256, which are storage sizes much more in line with today’s needs. All iPads too have been updated, storage-wise, and the 16 GB tier is gone in favour of 32 GB. The only two devices that still retain a 16 GB option are the iPod Touch and the iPhone SE. And I believe Apple should just offer a 64 GB iPhone SE at $399, because the current 64 GB model at $449 is starting to feel a bit pricy when you consider that for $200 more you can get a 32 GB iPhone 7. (Not to mention the fact that every iPhone gets more expensive when you look at the prices outside the US.)

Conclusion

If you have an iPhone older than the 6s, I’d say it’s worth upgrading, unless you don’t give much importance to the camera improvements or you’re not comfortable with the two sizes of the iPhone 7 (4.7 and 5.5 inches). I already heard people say they won’t upgrade their iPhones until they see the next major redesign (coming with the iPhone 8, I assume), and that’s an understandable position if you never liked the iPhone 6 form factor. I have small hands and consider the iPhone 5 – 5s and SE form factor the best so far, and still the matte black iPhone 7 is extremely tempting. Alas, I’ll have to consider my restricted budget, so my more realistic path upgrade would be to aim for an iPhone SE — it has a familiar, comfortable form factor, it has Touch ID and most of the iPhone 6s features (especially that 12-megapixel rear camera), it has good battery life and an A9 CPU. It would still be a huge performance gap coming from an iPhone 5 and it should last me long enough until the iPhone 8 comes out.

If you’re comfortable wearing the EarPods, and they are your earphones of choice when you use your iPhone, then you’ll be fine using the Lightning EarPods that come with the iPhone 7, and the removal of the headphone jack won’t really bother you (unless you’re accustomed to charge your iPhone while listening to music or podcasts — in that case the solution isn’t very elegant).

If you mostly care about camera technology, processing power, and battery life, I think the iPhone 7 is a great upgrade in this regard. If you’re also a fan of the Plus size, the dual-camera solution and capabilities of the 7 Plus are amazing and should offer you an increased versatility, especially if the iPhone is your main device for digital photography.

If budget is a concern, and you own an old iPhone, and you don’t mind the bigger size, upgrading to a 6s might be good enough. Even looking for a used iPhone 6 might be a nice solution if you’re still using, say, a 4s or a 5/5c/5s. If you can’t stand the bigger size, the iPhone SE is your best option.

The iPhone 7 may be very similar to the 6s on the outside, but inside it’s a very different story. I wish I could review it properly, but even on paper it’s clear to me that the iPhone 7 is a worthy upgrade and a fantastic device overall.

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About Riccardo Mori

Writer. Translator. Mac consultant. Enthusiast photographer. • If you like what I write, please consider supporting my writing by purchasing my short stories, Minigrooves or by making a donation. Thank you!