Even after a few years, the iPhone 7 ($449) and iPhone 7 Plus ($569) are among the best phones you can buy based on their sheer value.
Despite the lack of a headphone jack in these new phones, you get a good camera, long battery life and pretty speedy performance. Both phones are water resistant, but the iPhone 7 Plus is better if you want longer endurance and a 2x optical zoom camera.
Shrugs Off Water, Slick Jet Black
With the exception of two new color options, the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus look nearly the same as their predecessors, but at least they can take more abuse.
Apple banished the unsightly antenna bands on the back of the handset, relegating them to the edges. It makes for a cleaner look, but if you want an iPhone that actually looks new, you’ll probably want to skip the Silver, Gold and Rose Gold and opt for the Black or Jet Black option.
The high-gloss Jet Black iPhone 7 I tested is a real head-turner, like a flattened, shiny Darth Vader helmet. The back does show finer scratches and fingerprint smudges more readily than other finishes, so you'll want to pick up a case (go with clear). The regular matte black iPhone 7 Plus I reviewed has a no-nonsense, executive-chic vibe.
Thanks to its IP67 water resistance, the iPhone 7 can survive being submerged in 1 meter (or about 3 feet) of water for 30 minutes. That's not quite as good as what Samsung promises for the Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge — 5 feet of water for 30 minutes — but it's better than previous iPhones, which could be done in by an unexpected splash.
I enjoyed — maybe too much — spilling a mug of water on the iPhone 7 and then dunking it in a water pitcher. After wiping off the screen it worked just fine. Just keep in mind that Apple designed this feature not as a party trick but as a way to prevent accidental damage.
Up front, Apple upgraded the display on the 4.7-inch iPhone 7 and 5.5-inch Plus to be up to 25 percent brighter than last year's iPhones, while showing a wider color gamut. A group of reds, yellow, light greens and purple heirloom tomatoes looked more vibrant on the new display versus the iPhone 6s. However, the iPhone 7 doesn't support HDR like the Galaxy Note 7, which delivers more natural colors and higher contrast in services like Amazon Video.
My issue with the iPhone's design is that it doesn't look as fresh or as sexy as the curved Galaxy S7 Edge or Note 7. Just as important, there's more bezel around the iPhone 7's screen, so l had to stretch my thumb farther across the screen on the Plus to reach app icons and type with one hand. The bezel is less of an issue with the smaller 4.7-inch iPhone 7.
Is the Missing Headphone Jack a Big Deal?
At the risk of sounding like an iApologist, no, it's not. Or at least, it won't be for long.
Wireless is the future, and Apple is clearly trying to push us in that direction. I started using Bose's QC35 Bluetooth noise-cancelling headphones a few months ago, and I'll never do the detangle dance again.
But Apple wants in on the accessory action, too. That's why the company will soon sell its $159 AirPods, which leverage a special W1 wireless chip for instant pairing and let you access Siri with a double tab. Unfortunately, they also look a lot like white earrings. If you're not a fan of that look, the company also has three new Beats headphones (two available now, one later this fall) that use the same chip.
So what about everyone else who hasn't gone wireless? First, Apple includes EarPods in the box that connect to the iPhone 7's Lightning port (the same you use for charging). They're hard and not very comfortable to wear, but they also deliver pleasingly balanced audio.
Just keep in mind that you can't charge your iPhone and listen at the same time unless you use an accessory like the iPhone Lightning Dock ($49) at your desk or Belkin's Lightning Audio + Charge Rockstar ($39) on the go.
Second, Apple also throws a Lightning-to-3.5mm headphone adapter in the box, which you can just leave attached to your favorite wired headphones. Just don't lose this little sucker; it's $9 to replace.
Speaking of audio, I'm glad Apple added a second speaker on the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus — one speaker is at the top of the phone, while the other is on the bottom. The pulsing beat and vocals on "Don't You Want Me" came through much louder on the newer phone than my iPhone 6.
Killer Cameras, But the Optical Zoom on the Plus Rules
Both the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus feature a new 12-megapixel camera that delivers excellent performance in low light — a weakness of the iPhone 6s. There's two reasons for this: a wider f 1/1.8 aperture lets in more light, compared with f 2/2.2 on the previous phones, and Apple finally gave both the 7 and 7 Plus optical image stabilization, which improves exposure while minimizing hand shake. (Previously, only the Plus phones had OIS.)
In a low-light photo I took of some colleagues using both my old iPhone 6 and the iPhone 7 Plus, the latter shot exhibited much less grain when I zoomed in, and colors were more natural-looking. The iPhone 7 and 7 Plus also benefit from a new Quad-LED flash, which is 50 percent brighter than the flash in the iPhone 6s.
Outdoors, the iPhone 7 really shined, such as in this shot of a pink hibiscus flower. When I zoomed in, I could easily make out the veins in the petal and individual drops of water. I also appreciated the new wide color aperture capability in the camera, which faithfully recreated the darker and lime green leaves that surrounded the flower. However, the Galaxy S7 did a slightly better job of also keeping the pistil in focus.
The reason to get the iPhone 7 Plus over the iPhone 7 isn't the bigger screen, but the second telephoto lens that gives you true optical zoom. In the live-camera view on the iPhone 7 Plus, you'll see a 2x button; press it, and you'll be able to get much closer to your subject without the typical digital zoom noise.
A shot I took of the Empire State Building with and without the 2x zoom resulted in completely different photos. It's like cropping without the work, and the close-up looked more dramatic with the late-day sun bouncing off its facade, contrasting against the clear blue sky. You can zoom in even farther from there to 5x or 10x by sliding your thumb on the screen, but it will be digital.
Soon, Apple will release a camera update for the Plus that will add a special Portrait mode for taking photos that leverage the dual-camera setup. You’ll be able to artfully blur the background for a dramatic "bokeh" effect.
Apple also graced both the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus with a sharper 7-megapixel front camera, an upgrade over the 5-MP camera in the previous iPhones. The camera did a fine job capturing my weekend stubble, as well as the folds on my gray O'Kelly’s Pub T-shirt. The flash accurately captured my skin tone without blowing out the background.
The New Home Button Feels Weird, But It's Effective
When trying out the iPhone 7 for the first time, my wife was convinced that the Home button was a real button. "The whole bottom of the phone feels like it's vibrating," she said. That's Apple's Taptic Engine in action, which provides feedback that makes the Home button feel like it's being depressed when it's not.
Then I turned off the iPhone 7 and she tried pressing again. Nothing. My wife called it "sorcery." There's a learning curve, but I'm glad Apple made this move, because you'll no longer have to worry about lint or other gunk getting behind that button.
Plus, because more than just the Home button vibrates, developers can tap into the Taptic Engine to make games and other apps feel more immersive, building on last year's 3D Touch experience. I got a taste of this capability when I played the Zombie Gun Ship shooting game and could feel each shot and explosion. Here's hoping developers give the Taptic Engine more love than 3D Touch got and update their apps.
A New Speed Champ
We'll get to the benchmark results, but what I appreciate most about the A10 Fusion chip in the iPhone 7 is how much more responsive it makes the iPhone 7 feel versus the iPhone 6. That nagging lag between opening an app and stuff appearing on screen, such as in the Settings menu, is practically gone. Exiting to the home screen is also faster, as is launching the camera, which takes a half second less.
That may not seem like much. Over the course of a day, though, and certainly a couple of years, all of those momentary delays add up.
Apple says that the four-core A10 Fusion processor is the most powerful chip ever in a smartphone, and our test results back that up. On the new Geekbench 4 benchmark, the iPhone 7 notched 5,507, compared with 3,917 for the Galaxy S7. The OnePlus 3 and LG G5 also trailed Apple's flagship.
Those who care about gaming will love the advantage the iPhone 7 has over the competition. The iPhone 7 turned in a score f 37,810 on the 3D Mark Ice Storm Unlimited Test. That demolishes the OnePlus 3 (29,957), Galaxy S7 Edge (27,851) and LG G5 (27,118).
When it comes to storage, I'm glad that Apple finally stopped ripping people off by starting with just 16GB. Now both the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus offer your choice of 32GB, 128GB and 256GB of storage. Each tier adds $100 to the price tag.
A Big Endurance Boost
You'll have much less of a need to slap a bulky battery case on the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus. They benefit from bigger batteries than the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus (according to iFixit), and the A10 Fusion chip has two low-power cores that kick in when you don't need intense performance.
On the Tom's Guide Battery Test, which involved continuous web surfing over AT&T 4G LTE network, the iPhone 7's 1960 mAh battery lasted 9 hours and 3 minutes. That's a huge improvement over last year's iPhone 6s 1715 mAh battery on the same network, which lasted just 6:46. The smartphone average is 8:54, and the Galaxy S7 lasted a slightly less 8:43.
The larger iPhone 7 Plus' 2900 mah battery (up from 2750 mAh on the 6s Plus) endured for 1.5 hours longer than the iPhone 7, lasting 10 hour and 35 minutes. That's longer than the lowly 8:16 from last year's iPhone 6s Plus and it also beats the Galaxy S7 Edge (10:09). However, several Android phones last 11 hours or longer.
Apple’s new software makes the iPhone more visually appealing and more open than ever before. For example, the Messages apps lets you share GIFs in your texts, as well as fun visual effects like Fireworks. There’s also lots of new apps that integrate with Messages, including OpenTable for booking restaurant reservations and Square Cash for sending money directly from within the messaging app.
Swiping to the left of the home screen brings up a Today screen that lets you quickly check the weather, news headlines, your next appointment and more. You can customize the order these widgets appear in and download more from the App Store as developers update their apps to take advantage of this iOS 10 feature.
Another highlight is that Siri is now open to apps. For instance, you can ask Apple’s assistant to book you a car via Lyft or Uber or send messages to contacts via LinkedIn with your voice.
Photos gets a welcome makeover in iOS 10, too, serving up curated Memories that consist of your best photos and videos over certain time periods. You can also search for images based on the People in them. And Photos now supports facial recognition, automatically grouping together photos featuring the same people.
There’s a lot more to this update, including proactive suggestions in Maps and when you’re typing, so check out our full iOS 10 review.
Based on early reports, shoppers should expect a much bigger overhaul with the 2017 iPhone. It could sport a curved OLED screen, and perhaps ditch the Home button altogether. I'd also expect cutting-edge augmented-reality features. But I don't want to wait.
I want better pictures, longer battery life and faster performance now, which is why I highly recommend both the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus to those who own an iPhone 6 or older phone. If you have an iPhone 6s or 6s Plus, I'd be patient. Like Android? The dual-pixel camera inside the Galaxy S7 Edge delivers slightly more detail than the latest iPhone based on our tests, inside a sexier curved design. The Note 7 adds a versatile S Pen and was my favorite big-screen phone — before the recall fiasco.
I would have liked to see Apple up the screen resolution on its flagship phones and shave away some of the screen bezel to make the Plus more one-hand friendly. But I really don't mind the missing headphone jack because I've already gone wireless. Between the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus, I'd go with the Plus. You get longer battery life, a bigger screen and a second telephoto lens that lets you get closer to your subjects.