iPhone 7 Review: Familiar Outside; It's All Different Inside

Plenty of good outweighs the bad in iPhone 7

iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus
The iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus in Jet Black. image credit: Apple Inc.

The Good

  • Speedy
  • High capacity storage
  • Excellent camera
  • Improved internals
  • Great-looking jet black finish
  • Compatible with iOS 11

The Bad

  • 3D Touch Home button a little less intuitive than previous version
  • No headphone jack (if you care about that)
  • Same case design as iPhone 6/6S (if you care about that)

The Price
iPhone 7
32 GB - US$649
128 GB - $749
256 GB - $849

iPhone 7 Plus
32 GB - $769
128 GB - $869
256 GB - $969

Don't be fooled: The iPhone 7 series may look almost exactly like the iPhone 6 and 6S series phones from the outside, but this is a very different—and much improved—device. The exterior is similar, but the interior components are so different from, and so much better than, its predecessors, it more than earns the full new-model number.

The Infamous Headphone Jack: No Big Deal

Let's get this one out of the way up front since it's easily the biggest headline about the 7: yes, it lacks the traditional headphone jack. No, I really don't care—and I don't think you need to either. Is it slightly inconvenient? Yes, I suppose it is, though the greatest inconvenience I've encountered so far is having to get out of bed to get my adapter when I didn't feel like it.

And that's the key thing: Apple includes an adapter for traditional headphones with every iPhone 7 (and they only cost $9 if you lose it). Sure, it's a little annoying to have an extra dongle. That Apple is more and more relying on adapter dongles across all its products is also a little worrying. But overall it's really not much hardship. With the dongle, everything works just like it used to.

I don't detect any improvement in audio quality with the included, Lightning-only earbuds, but there's no decrease in quality either. I haven't had a chance to test Apple's wireless AirPods earbuds, which look advanced and smart, and I suspect that people who use them won't think about the headphone jack at all.

Major Camera Improvements

The story of the iPhone 7 series is its changed interior. The headphone jack is the most obvious change, but the one that may impact the largest number of people is the improvements to the camera on both models. The back camera is now upped to 12 megapixels, uses a larger aperture, and a four-LED flash for even better color fidelity. The 7 Plus also has the much-ballyhooed depth-of-field effects, too.

Apple is fond of saying that the cameras on these phones are likely the best camera most people have ever owned. I suspect they're right. Even compared to the already-very-good cameras on the iPhone 6S series, the 7 offers a big step up. Photos are clearer and more lifelike, especially in low light. I was recently able to take a photo of trees against a foggy, gray, pre-sunrise sky that looked great. With the 6S, the image would have been all but impossible to make out.

Whether you're a dedicated photographer or just like to snap pictures with family and friends, you're going to love the camera on the iPhone 7 series.

New Home Button: A Change That Takes Getting Used To

A somewhat less immediately successful change is the new Home button—if you can really call it a button. Unlike on previous models, on which you'd press a Home button that moved under your finger, the Home button on the 7 series is a flat panel that doesn't move. Instead, it uses the same 3D Touch technology that's in the phone's screen to detect how hard you're pressing and react accordingly. This means that, by default at least, you can't simply rest your finger on the button to unlock the phone and instead have to press it (there's a setting to restore rest-to-unlock). 

Because of this, unlocking the phone isn't quite as smooth as on previous models, at least initially. It doesn't tend to cause me major problems, but sometimes the phone unlocks by resting my finger, other times I have to press the button. It's a little inconsistent, and it's hard to know whether it's a change that will be worth it. There's tremendous potential in 3D Touch—both in the button and the screen—but as of now, it's untapped potential.

Familiar Case Design, But There's A Lot Going On Inside It

Some critics have called the iPhone 7 series a disappointment because the exterior casing is the same as the last two models. They're missing the point. As we've seen, the insides of the device are so different, and so much better, that the exterior casing doesn't matter too much.

Other major internal upgrades include: a substantially faster A10 processor, which makes the phone even more responsive than the already-fast 6S; water- and dust-resistance that should help the phone last longer and withstand rougher treatment; 256 GB of storage at the high end of the line (up from 128 GB on the last couple of models). Each of these upgrades is relatively small on its own, but taken together they add up to a terrific phone.

The Bottom Line

It's rare that a new iPhone model is a must-upgrade for all users. The iPhone 7 isn't. If you've got a 6S—or maybe even an iPhone 6, though that's debatable—you may want to wait for next year's iPhone 8 and its promised major changes (like, perhaps, a screen that takes up the entire face of the phone and a Home button integrated into the screen). If you've got any other model, though, the iPhone 7 is such a tremendous leap forward that you may not want to wait.

Don't let the criticism of the phone's design or the lack of a headphone jack fool you: This is a fantastic smartphone. If you buy it, you won't be sorry.