iPhone 7 Review: The Anti-Anxiety iPhone

Get over the missing headphone jack: The iPhone 7 and 7 Plus are worth the upgrade for longer battery life, better low-light photos and water-resistance

You’ve heard the bad news: Apple removed the headphone jack from the new iPhone.

Here’s the good news: They filled that space with precious, life-sustaining battery and other practical stuff.

Apple’s $650 iPhone 7 and $770 iPhone 7 Plus aren’t the holographic teleporting over phones of my dreams. But they fix much of what has long ailed the iPhone—and that’s reason enough to get over the headphone thing and upgrade.

Think of it as the anti-anxiety iPhone. Ponder for a moment the many ways Apple has elevated global blood pressure over the past decade: We beg, borrow and steal chargers for our depleted iPhones. There’s terror in getting these delicate rectangles anywhere near water. And we tap, tap, tap in vain at the camera, trying to get a nighttime shot that doesn’t make our children look like Sasquatch.

Over the past five days, I have squeezed an hour-and-1/2 more battery life out of the 7 and 7 Plus in brutal tests. I dropped an iPhone 7 in a pond, and it survived! And I’ve managed to snap more than a few after-sunset photos I’m actually proud of.

That’s how I spell relief! But I still won’t call it the most advanced phone money can buy. These benefits would make the iPhone 7 the best smartphone… of 2015. Last year is when Apple should have put it on sale. Now Apple’s just playing catch-up to Samsung , which added an equivalent camera and waterproofing to its Galaxy S7 six months ago.

It’s dumb luck for Apple that the iPhone 7 is arriving Friday just as Samsung faces abruising recall on the Galaxy Note 7, which would otherwise be the Simone Biles of 2016 smartphones. (I still think Android users should look to Samsung for an upgrade, just wait until the battery issue is fixed.)

The iPhone 7, left, is virtually indistinguishable from the iPhone 6s, right.ENLARGE
The iPhone 7, left, is virtually indistinguishable from the iPhone 6s, right. PHOTO: F. MARTIN RAMIN/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Apple trained us to think that every two years we’d be dazzled by a whole new shebang. Yet two years after the iPhone 6, it is hard to spot much externally that is different about the iPhone 7, save the new glossy black finish with a diabolical ability to retain fingerprints. (Seriously, Apple designers. Do you all wear gloves?)

But Apple offers plenty of reasons to retain our loyalty. It’s improving features that actually matter. It provides unrivaled retail and customer service. Its iOS remains the most elegant mobile software, and the new version, iOS 10, continues to prove we don’t have to cede the privacy of our emails, photos and to-do lists just to get helpful new capabilities.

So let’s talk about the other reason you might actually consider skipping the iPhone 7—the death of the headphone jack. Apple really blew it when it explained this. The iPhone 7 still comes with corded earbuds, but they plug into the Lightning port now instead of the old round plug, and the box comes with an adapter so you can use your old headphones. There’s one big downside: You can’t plug in headphones and the charger at the same time unless you buy another strange adapter—for $40!

The iPhone 7 has no headphone jack, but it comes with earbuds. They plug in to the Lightning port.ENLARGE
The iPhone 7 has no headphone jack, but it comes with earbuds. They plug in to the Lightning port. PHOTO: F. MARTIN RAMIN/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

While all that is annoying, it’s actually a good time to consider wireless headphones, whose tech has leapt forward recently. In October, Apple will begin selling its own $160 AirPods, wireless headphones that look like a cross between earrings and electric toothbrush heads. They are one more thing to worry about charging, and small enough that I could imagine losing them. But I enjoyed using a preproduction version on a plane and in the office.

So why is it worth losing the jack? Apple’s explanation, that it had the “courage” to move audio tech forward, has gone over like a lead balloon. Instead of patting themselves on the back, Apple’s brass should have stuck to the main message: It freed up a ton of space inside a phone that’s already more packed than a subway car to do more practical things we really want.

Battery: Apple managed to improve performance without changing the size of the phone. The battery capacity is 14% larger in the 7, and 5% larger in the 7 Plus, versus last year’s models. And Apple’s new processor, while faster, knows how to turn off portions that aren’t in use to save power.

In our battery test, the iPhone 7, left, lasted an hour-and-1/2 longer than a fresh iPhone 6s, right.ENLARGE
In our battery test, the iPhone 7, left, lasted an hour-and-1/2 longer than a fresh iPhone 6s, right. PHOTO: F. MARTIN RAMIN/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

In my punishing lab tests, the iPhone 7 lasted 10-and-1/2 hours. The 7 Plus (which has a bigger battery, but also a bigger screen to light) lasted about 10 hours. Both of these were about an hour-and-1/2 longer than a fresh iPhone 6s and 6s Plus, and two-and-1/4 hours longer than a 6s that has been in use for a year.

Bear in mind that in regular use, the Plus model always lasted longer than its smaller sibling. While that’s still true, the smaller 7 got a bigger boost this time and will get more people through the day. If you hammer your iPhone with intense apps, you may still need a hideous battery backpack.

Water resistance: Apple has finally owned up to an unfortunate reality: A lot of us drop our phones into swimming pools, hot tubs and, yes, toilets.

In our tests, the newly sealed-up iPhone 7 survived a half-hour in a fish tank, a duck-pond dunking—even an hour-and-1/2 in and out of a pool. But I can’t recommend you take it swimming: Apple promises only that its phones can live for up to 30 minutes under a meter of water. And the regular one-year hardware warranty won’t actually cover water damage. Important: If it does get wet, let it dry out for at least five hours before charging.

The iPhone 7, left, has a new camera with optical image stabilizer. The iPhone 7 Plus, right, also has a second camera for zoom and depth-of-field effects.ENLARGE
The iPhone 7, left, has a new camera with optical image stabilizer. The iPhone 7 Plus, right, also has a second camera for zoom and depth-of-field effects. PHOTO: F. MARTIN RAMIN/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Camera: If you long ago ditched your digital camera for an iPhone, I’ve got good news. The biggest improvement in the iPhone 7 is its ability to take pictures in low light. It has a new sensor, wider-aperture lens and optical image stabilization on both models.

One of the most dramatic examples from my testing is a photo I took of my buddy Nate in a dim bar: In the 6s shot, you can hardly make out his features; the 7 shows him smiling and raising a toast.

Compared with the excellent cameras in the Samsung Galaxy S7 and Note 7, I’d say it’s about a draw. In a night shot I took of Radio City Music Hall with both the Galaxy S7 Edge and iPhone 7, you can see that the Galaxy handles the dynamic range better, but adds more noise, while the iPhone overexposes by holding the shutter open a hair too long.

The iPhone 7 Plus has a larger screen and battery—and two cameras on the back, one for wide shots, the other with a 2x lens. It was nice to use when I couldn’t quite get close enough to my subject, though a cheap point-n-shoot would be able to zoom in much, much more.

Photo buffs are more excited about how that second lens can help create a background-blur effect in shots by capturing some depth information. Unfortunately, that wasn’t ready for me to test; Apple says it will come by the end of the year.

Speaker: Apple squeezed stereo speakers into the phone, doubling the volume it can crank out. That has been remarkably helpful for conference calls—even though call quality is about the same—watching videos in bed and listening to podcasts while in the shower. (Am I the only one who does that?)

The iPhone 7, in 4.7-inch standard and 5.5-inch Plus screen sizes, is a worthy upgrade. ENLARGE
The iPhone 7, in 4.7-inch standard and 5.5-inch Plus screen sizes, is a worthy upgrade. PHOTO: F. MARTIN RAMIN/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Not all iPhone 7 improvements are quite as big as Apple wants us to think. It’s great that they doubled storage that comes on each phone, but it’s still highway robbery that Apple makes us pay it for the storage instead of letting us stick in our own MicroSD cards.

The Home button isn’t actually a button any more—it’s a bit of the screen that just jiggles a little when you touch it, known as haptic feedback. It’s one less moving part to break, but it felt a little fake to me.

While Apple says the 7’s screen is more colorful and 25% brighter than past models, I couldn’t really see the benefit outdoors. Apple’s iPhone 7 actually lags behind Samsung: Its LCD has the same old thick border, while Samsung’s OLED screens go right to the edge. Those Samsung screens also cram in more than three times the pixels, making them amazing for looking at photos and text, and useful for new inventions like virtual reality.

On the subject of anxiety, when will we be able to carry an iPhone without fearing a cracked screen? Surely design guru Jony Ive doesn’t want us to keep encasing our iPhones in rubber.

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