Apple iPhone 7 review – subtle refinement

Thomas Wellburn
September 26, 2016

[highlight color=#336699 ]Introduction[/highlight]



Another year, another annual iPhone launch. It’s no secret that Apple has been feeling the pressure recently, with the first quarterly revenue drop in 13 years.

Despite beating forecasts, some were quick to point the finger and say that the tech giant is losing grasp of the premium tier smartphone market, of which Samsung continues to eat up a sizeable chunk. While the iPhone 6s signified a big refresh after Steve Jobs passing, the 7 seems like something much more subtle. Carrying the same physical design and no revolutionary standout hardware feature to differentiate, can it put Apple back on top? Let’s find out.

Technical Details

OS iOS 10
Processor A10 Fusion
Screen 4.7 inches
Resolution 1334 x 750 pixels (326 DPI)
Memory 2 GB RAM
Storage 32/128/256GB
Micro SD compatible No
Rear camera 12MP
Front camera 7MP
Video 4K
Connectivity WIFI, NFC, Bluetooth
Dimensions 138 x 67 x 7.1mm
Weight 138g
Battery 1,960 mAh

[highlight color=#336699 ]Design[/highlight]


From a design perspective, little has changed from what we saw on the 6 and 6s.

It still has the same rounded edges and aluminium body, while the Apple logo on the rear remains mirrored. The camera bump on the back has gotten a little chunkier, which is down to the inclusion of optical image stabilisation – a first for the standard 7 model. There’s also the glaring removal of the headphone jack, which it turns out was not for making the device slimmer after all. At 7.1mm thick, it’s exactly the same as the 6s and doesn’t even beat the Huawei P9.


dsc_0092Dimensions remain unchanged at 138 x 67mm which is probably a good thing, especially considering the iPhone 6s was already one of the most comfortable handsets to hold. It’s a tried and true design that is hard to fault, though some age is beginning to show in certain areas. The bezels on the screen seem pretty thick by today’s standards, with even my HTC 10 looking better in comparison. That said, you do get IP67 water resistance which is a definite bonus.



On the sides you’ll find the usual array of buttons which have now become staple with the iPhone design. A volume rocker sits on the left with a lock key situated above, while the power and SIM tray take up the right side. The SIM tray still has no microSD support, which in this day and age is pretty shocking. Whether Apple prefers the speed of internal memory is besides the point; a consumer should still be given the choice! Likewise, business users who were hoping for dual-SIM functionality will also be disappointed.

There’s a new stereo speaker arrangement on the bottom, which lies in place of the missing headphone jack. Contrary to what you might think, it actually serves no purpose. Despite the new Apple iPhone 7 touting stereo sound, the new left speaker grille merely serves as a dummy to improve design aesthetics. The second speaker is actually built into the earpiece at the top, taking a page out of the BoomSound implementation seen on the HTC 10.


So what has Apple actually done with the space salvaged from the headphone jack removal? Well, they’ve squeezed in a new and improved taptic engine to accommodate the new home button. It’s far bigger and lets out quite a punch when the home button is pressed, much more than any other handset we’ve tried thus far. On the topic of the home button, that has perhaps undergone the biggest change in the design department.

No longer a physical key, it now relies on the taptic engine to provide click feedback to the user. There’s also a force touch element in there too, with different levels of pressure offering different levels of interactivity. This is a genuinely welcome feature and we’re glad that Apple has forgone the clicker, which was always a common point of failure anyway.


It’s worth noting that the Apple iPhone 7 comes with a pair of lightning equipped headphones in the box, though it’s not the wireless ones we saw during the launch. They are an expensive luxury that most people probably won’t ever bother buying. These on the other hand are identical to last years earbuds and, aside from the connector, don’t seem to sound any different. So much for greatly improved audio?

[highlight color=#336699 ]Camera[/highlight]


The camera is one of the areas where Apple has really upped their game this year. It may have the same 12 megapixel count but everything else has undergone a significant upgrade. It now has a six lens arrangement for sharper images, a wider f/1.8 aperture for better low light performance and optical image stabilisation to reduce camera shake.

The iPhone 6s was already an excellent performer in the daytime and the 7 doesn’t really improve things too much. Things are slightly sharper and there’s perhaps a bit less noise when viewed up close, but our comparison images were incredibly close on both handsets. Scenes are still incredibly well exposed, with an impressive contrast between light and dark areas. Not one of our test images came out overblown, with the auto function doing a very good job of managing difficult shots. Turning on HDR mode enhances this further but it’s a small jump. Colours were also more natural on the 7, though a blind test in the office seemed to have more people choosing the iPhone 6s!

It’s during low-light photography that the benefits of the improved iPhone 7 camera really begin to shine through, with the longer shutter speeds offered by optical image stabilisation allowing much more light onto the sensor. During our low-light samples, it was obvious that the 6s just couldn’t compete. It’s not the best low-light performer out there – that accolade goes to either the HTC 10 or Samsung Galaxy S7, but it’s still one of the best. Noise is low but the others are just little bit more detailed.

Not to be left out, the front camera has also gotten a pretty big jump in performance this time round also. With an improved 7 megapixel sensor, it’s now captures more detail and less noise. Oddly though despite using the same sensor, it seems to be worse than the equivalent iPhone 7 Plus front snapper.

[highlight color=#336699 ]Screen[/highlight]

The iPhone 7 ships with the same 1334 x 750 IPS LCD LED panel, which is just slightly above HD resolution.

It equates to a pixel density of 326 pixels-per-inch, which is pretty low by today’s standards but still enough to make individual dots indistinguishable. With so many manufacturers now shifting to AMOLED panels for their improved power efficiency and better response times, why did Apple stick to the older LCD technology? It turns out that the panel now supports DCI-P3 wide colour gamut, which is the same technology as seen in those market-leading 4K televisions. It equates to the same standards used by cinema professionals, which is an accolade definitely worth mentioning. Essentially, it supports more colours than any other mobile panel currently out there and is probably the best screen on the market right now. Screen testing website DisplayMate, widely known for their in-depth analysis, called it “visually indistinguishable from perfect.”

Putting it side-by-side with other displays in the office, it’s easy to see the difference. Stock background images and films exude colour when viewed on the iPhone 7, with detail that would normally go unnoticed popping out of the screen. White levels also seemed to be pretty much exact, with no hue even at the most awkward of angles. Even displays which we previously thought were amazing, such as the Samsung Galaxy S7, looked dull and off-balance in comparison.

Readability is also excellent, with the claimed 25% extra brightness holding true. Whether you’re indoors or outside, you should have no problem seeing the screen in even the worst conditions.



[highlight color=#336699 ]Performance[/highlight]



The iPhone 7 comes with the newest A10 Fusion processor offering 40 percent faster performance versus the 6s.

The new six core graphics processor offers 50 percent faster performance versus the 6s, while using only 2/3’s of the power. Those are pretty bold claims and in real-world performance, there honestly isn’t much of a perceivable difference. The iPhone 6s was already blisteringly fast, with apps opening near instantaneously. On the 7 things are even quicker but it’s a matter of milliseconds.

Compared to the iPhone 7 Plus, the standard 7 is rocking slightly less RAM this year. With 2GB, it keeps the same amount as the 6s, while the 7 Plus gets 3GB. The extra gigabyte sounds like quite a big deal but once again, real-world performance tells a different story. The experience on the 7 was practically flawless even when opening multiple tabs and keeping apps suspended in the background. We’re sure that the extra RAM on the Plus will come in handy for extreme users but on the whole, it doesn’t offer the same performance jump that going from 1GB to 2GB did with the 6s.

Benchmarking the Apple iPhone 7 revealed what we already expected, it’s definitely ‘the best iPhone ever’. With a GeekBench 4 score of 3290 in single-core and 5348 in multi-core, the real-world performance increase seems closer to 30%. Amazingly, it manages to be faster in single-core performance than a late 2013 desktop Mac Pro.

For the graphics performance, it was again another whitewash. We used 3DMark Ice Storm, a visual test where the phone must render a space battle in real-time. The standard version was far too easy for the iPhone 7, with a near constant 60FPS. We cranked it up to extreme and found the same issue, another solid 60FPS.

Next was the RAM, which we measured using the application ‘RAM Benchmark’. The Apple iPhone 7 uses the newest Samsung 10nm DDR4 variety, which are smaller modules producing less heat and consuming less power. This allows the manufacturer to pack in much more, improving speed and performance. Looking at the results, it’s much faster than the previous generation iPhone 6s but no different to other devices with similar memory. This shouldn’t come as a great shock since that is the best memory currently available for a mobile handset.

The Apple iPhone 7 ships with the latest version of iOS 10, which launched with a variety of issues and bugs. Thankfully, most of them have been addressed in the recent 10.02 update. The first thing you’ll notice when booting up the device is that ‘slide to unlock’ has disappeared, a feature which has been around since the original iPhone device. A simple tap of the home button is now all it takes, though it’s far from perfect. The button is incredibly sensitive, meaning you’ll often press it without the intention. Thankfully, there is a way to disable it in the settings. You can also get straight to the camera application without ever leaving the lock screen, just by swiping right. If you’re worried about somebody using that as an opportunity to see your photo album don’t worry, as the sensitive parts of the camera application are securely sealed away until the phone is unlocked.

Notifications have also been given a significant change which further embraces the Force Touch feature added in the iPhone 6s. They now appear as floating balloons which can be hard pressed to reveal additional information and interaction. It’s an excellent way of keeping things private but also giving the option to respond in-line, without needing to back out into the actual application. There’s also finally an option to clear all active notifications, a feature they we’re amazed wasn’t included sooner.

There’s also a big change in the Today widgets, which now open in a similar way to the Google Now launcher on Android. Simply swipe right from the home screen and you’ll get a timeline of information from any installed applications that support the feature. It’s far more convenient.

The last big thing to ship with the iOS 10 update is the improved control center, which has been spaced out over multiple tabs for easier use. The music player has been shifted to a separate pane, while the night shift mode gets a full-size button instead of the smaller shortcut keys. We’re not quite sure what makes it so important that it deserves a giant button like that but hey, we’re not user interface designers. Perhaps it’s Apple’s attempt to make more people use the feature.

We should also mention that Siri gets a slight improvement, having fallen behind the likes of Google Now and even Cortana for functionality. The newest iOS update brings a bunch of new phrase and third-party developer support, opening up the voice assistant to the full App Store catalogue.

Other minor improvements include updates to the Apple Music, News, Maps and Phone applications, plus messaging improvements such as larger emojis and stickers.

The iPhone 7 ships with a slightly larger 1960 mAh battery which still doesn’t match that found on the older 6. By today’s standards this is a very small capacity but it also goes to show just how optimised the operating system is for power efficiency. We also have no doubt that the ageing 720p panel probably helps to keep things going longer, since the phone isn’t working as hard to push out more pixels. Apple claims the iPhone 7 provides about 14 hours of on-screen battery life, which we measured to be pretty spot on in testing with the brightness set to 50%. It managed a result of around 14.5 hours, though turn it up any higher and we reckon that figure could soon start to plummet. Using it in the real-world, things were a little underwhelming. You can push it to a solid day of use if you’re slightly frugal but don’t expect to go much longer.

We also think it goes without saying that the iPhone 7 battery is non-removable, so don’t even think of prying it open to try.

[highlight color=#336699 ]Conclusion[/highlight]

The Apple iPhone 7 is undoubtedly the “best iPhone ever” but it’s a surprisingly safe handset. With no defining features to truly make it appeal among the general public, most will probably see no reason to upgrade from their existing iPhone 6s. It’s a shame too because there’s some genuinely impressive stuff going on under the hood; the screen and processor being two notable examples. Problem is, only the most hardcore smartphone fans will care… 

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