Review: Why the Apple iPhone 7 is what I've always wanted but it's not really the phone I want

By Rod Chester at news.com.au

With a longer battery life, water and dust resistance and the fastest chip in a smartphone, the iPhone 7 is the iPhone I've always wanted.

But not anymore because this is the year that Apple has prompted me to switch camps.

Despite my long-held opposition to phablet-sized phones, the iPhone 7 Plus makes an offer that can't be refused.

Sure, there are reasons to be grumpy about the removal of the headphone jack with the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus although as someone who already uses wireless headphones I'm not as grumpy as many.

An adaptor, even though it is included, is a stopgap measure and the AirPods, Apple's distinctive tiny wireless earpods, have adjustment issues with both fit and functionality.

At the launch last week, Apple listed 10 reasons to like the new iPhone. We're focused on just one, but we like that one thing a lot.

The camera

Undeniably the headline feature in the new iPhone is the camera and, specifically, the main headline is the dual-lens camera on the iPhone 7 Plus.

This is not the first smartphone to offer a dual-lens camera but, as is often the case, while Apple is not first it has come to market with a product that sets the benchmark.

Since Apple stepped up to the phablet market two years ago, the choice between the two flagship iPhones has been more or less one of preference of size.

Yes, the iPhone 6s Plus offered optical image stabilisation which the iPhone 6s did not, and a longer battery life. But those features were not typically enough to force those who preferred the smaller form factor to go big.

But with this version of the iPhone, the differences are stark.

The camera in the iPhone 7 has been given a revamp over the previous model with a totally new camera.

Apple has taken some of that space it saves by dumping the headphone jack (and more on that later) and put optical image stabilisation into the iPhone 7. There is a wider aperture, a new sensor, a better flash and the promotion for the front-facing camera from 5 megapixels to 7 megapixels produces far better images when you're shooting selfies.

It's easy to dismiss each new iPhone as, in many ways, a combination of small improvements but consider this: most people upgrade their phone every 18 months to two years, so they will be going from the iPhone 6 with a 8 megapixel rear camera and 1.2 megapixel front-facing camera to the iPhone 7 with a 12 megapixel rear camera (or two, in the case of the 7 Plus) and a 7 megapixel front-facing camera. That's not a small step but quite a jump.

If you buy the iPhone 7, particularly as an upgrade from a two-year-old iPhone 6, you're going to be impressed with the 12-megapixel camera with f/1.8 aperture and 5x digital zoom. But if you buy an iPhone 7 then you are likely to be jealous of anyone who buys the iPhone 7 Plus with two 12 megapixel cameras, a f/1.8 wide-angle (equivalent to 28mm) and f/2.8 telephoto (equivalent to 56mm), and a 10x digital zoom.

There is another advantage the 7 Plus has, or at least will have. Apple could not get the feature ready for launch and it will be added through a software update but test shots show the potential of the Portrait feature which with face recognition technology will keep the person sharp and the background blurred.

We can't testify to the effectiveness of the Portrait feature in real-life use because it was not available to review yet but the test shots are convincing and the technique makes sense. Rather than just uniformly blur everything but the face like a bad Photoshop job which is how some apps have tried to mimic depth of field, the software sets blur based on the distance of the background behind the person - just as true depth of field works. It looks impressive but we'll hold judgment for now.

What we're willing to declare a winner is the 2x optical zoom. This is a game changer when it comes to smartphone photography. Already the iPhone is the world's most popular camera. It's only going to become more popular thanks to this extra lens and many more people will be content with this smartphone as their only camera because now the camera in your pocket has a real optical zoom.

The camera's ability in low light is very impressive, and shooting close-ups with the 2x telephoto gave a naturally shallow depth of field.

Digital zoom always results in image degradation. Apple's digital zoom that extends the iPhone 7 Plus camera past 2x and up to 10x is a good digital zoom, but the results can be mixed.

In good light, there can be little noticeable drop in image quality at 4x but from then on you have to accept a compromise. Still, on many occasions, people will use the 10x zoom and be happy with the results.

If there is something to complain about with the iPhone 7 camera it is that the two-lens model does not fit into the smaller phone.

The camera in the iPhone 7 is good but the camera in the iPhone 7 Plus is so much better.

The 2x telephone lens in the 7Plus gives great detail and a shallow depth of field. Photo / AP
The 2x telephone lens in the 7Plus gives great detail and a shallow depth of field. Photo / AP

Colours

The iPhone 7 Plus comes in five colours - or rather three colours plus one more colour repeated. There is silver, gold, rose gold, black and jet black. Jet black is blacker than black (literally in this case) and is produced by a classic Apple attention to detail in a mechanical process that was explained at the iPhone launch with a Jony Ive's narration. The Jet Black phone, out of the box, looks stunning. But it's also likely to show fingerprints and more likely to show scratches - so you're probably going to want to keep it in a case which to my mind defeats the purpose. If you do want Jet Black, then you will have to skip the low end 32GB option and go for 128GB or 256GB.

The iPhone 7 comes in rose gold, gold, silver, black and jet black. Photo / AP
The iPhone 7 comes in rose gold, gold, silver, black and jet black. Photo / AP

Water resistant

For years, everyone from technology reviewers to the poor sod who drops his phone in the loo has called for Apple to make the iPhone able to survive a dunking. At last, that call has been heard and this is the first official water resistant iPhone (after Apple kept quiet about improved water resistance in the iPhone 6s).

It has an IP67 rating, which means it is protected from immersion in liquid to a depth of 1m for 30 minutes.

If you happen to fall in the pool, or spill a cuppa over your phone, this iPhone will survive. But don't take it for a swim on purpose _ Apple says it's not designed for that sort of water exposure. And keep it away from salt water.

If it does get wet, Apple advises wiping it with a dry cloth and ensuring it is totally dry before opening the SIM tray and leaving it at least five hours before charging it. Don't try to blow dry it because it won't like the heat. And don't shove something into the Lightning port to dry it because the folk at the Apple Genius Bar won't like that if something goes wrong.

In the past five days, we've put the iPhone 7 Plus under a running tap, taken it into the shower to listen to Napoleonic War audiobooks and, yes, dunked it under water. It's survived, as it should. The best part of having a water resistant iPhone is not having to worry about it when the phone is near water.

It's worth noting that knocks and bumps of everyday life could affect the seals inside the phone, and dropping it on the ground could mean your water resistant iPhone isn't water resistant any more.

The new iPhone is protected from immersion in liquid to a depth of 1m for 30 minutes. Photo / AP
The new iPhone is protected from immersion in liquid to a depth of 1m for 30 minutes. Photo / AP

Specifications

With each iPhone, there is naturally an improvement in performance. This time it the chip powering the iPhone is the A10 Fusion, which will mean nothing to most iPhone users. All it has to mean to you is that this is the fastest iPhone by a long shot, with the longest battery life, while the screen is up to 25 per cent brighter and has a wider colour gamut. The home button takes some getting used to because instead of a physical button it is a solid bit of glass with a taptic engine that gives the sensation of movement. That haptic feedback is extended beyond the home button, and the new wave of apps made for the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus is set to exploit that ability.

Like the iPhone 6s, the iPhone 7 has 3D Touch which gives an quick access to menus and actions by a slightly firmer touch of your finger. Once you use 3D Touch, you'll find using a device without it to be cumbersome and limiting.

The iPhone 7 promises up to two hours longer battery life than the 6s and the 7 Plus promises 1 hour longer than the 6s Plus.

The new features on the new iPhone 7 have left consumers divided. Photo / AP
The new features on the new iPhone 7 have left consumers divided. Photo / AP

Sound

If vision, through the camera, is the headline of the camera then sound is the next major talking about.

This iPhone produces stereo sound, something that's particularly noticeable in apps like Noise which turns the iPhone into a musical instrument with haptic feedback enhancing the experience. While stereo sound is a solid additional feature, it's another of the features that Apple has achieved because of the space it freed up by dumping that headphone jack.

Let's address the elephant in the room. Some people are going to hate the removal of the headphone jack but most will get over it quickly.

The iPhone comes with headphones that connect through the Lightning Port and an adaptor. Belkin has also released a third-party adaptor which will let you connect your headphones and charge the phone at the same time.

They are all reasonable solutions to a problem that Apple has created, and people will either get used to the Lightning headphones or get used to carrying the adaptor on the end of their headphone cable.

But the real plan for Apple is wireless headphones, both through a new range of Beats headphones and the AirPods ($229), which were probably the most talked about item of last week's launch.

They are designed to fit comfortably in the ears of as many people as possible but they are never fully comfortable in my ears. That's headphones for you, and that's why earbuds typically come with such a wide range of silicon tips.

But assuming they fit in your ear comfortably, they are both very clever and occasionally frustrating at the same time.

Pairing them is perfectly simple. You open the lid of the box which is used to both store your headphones and charge them, and your iPhone will offer to connect them. Connecting them to your iPhone means they're also connected to all of your Apple devices. They turn on when you put them in your ear and turn off when you take them out. The voice quality on calls is quite impressive, and performed better in that way than any other wireless headphones I've tried.

They have five hours of play time on a charge and the storage/charging box contains enough charge for 24 hours. If you charge them for 15 minutes you'll get 3 hours of listening time.

So far, this is all terrific. But to control them rather than an inline remote you double tap to instruct Siri to play, make a call or adjust volume.

In most cases, Siri did a great job but when I was in a noisy environment or cycling, Siri had the occasional hearing problem.

Some people will hate these, some people will love them. We're still in two minds in terms of exercise with the AirPods. I was worried they would fall out on a run but they didn't, staying firmly in place despite the sweat factor of running 10km on a warm day.

With cycling, I wore just one in one ear, giving me a better sense of background traffic noise for safety. Wearing one gave good mono sound although I was worried my helmet strap would dislodge it.

It's worth nothing that there are at least two third-party products coming to market that will join the two AirPods with a strap for security _ so they look like conventional wireless earphones.

You can exercise outdoors with the AirPods but I recommend using other wireless sports headphones that are sweat and water resistance or wait for the Powerbeats3, which offer an over-the-ear clip for security, up to 12 hours play on a full charge.

Apple's wireless headphones were probably the most talked about item of last week's launch. Photo / AP
Apple's wireless headphones were probably the most talked about item of last week's launch. Photo / AP

Software

The iPhone 7 comes with iOS 10 which has some terrific features, but it's not a unique advantage given most people will update their older iPhones to iOS 10. Still, it's worth noting that the best features of iOS 10 are a revamped photo app, with the new Memories section that automatically combines your photos and videos into short films, animated messages and widgets on the lock screen.

Bottom line

The iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus look similar to the past two iPhones. But when you look past that, this is a phone that answers many of the complaints of the past few years - better storage, water resistant, longer battery life. That doesn't make it revolutionary, but it does make a better smartphone. There are plenty of people focused on the removal of the headphone jack. They'll get over it. What we should focus on with this is that Apple has given its Plus-sized phone a real edge. Smartphones became a good camera because they were always with you. The iPhone 7 Plus is simply a good camera that also happens to be a smartphone.

You would buy the iPhone 7 because you want a smartphone with a better camera. But I think you should buy the iPhone 7 Plus because you'll get the iPhone with the best camera by far.

- news.com.au

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