iPhone 7 review
Apple announced the iPhone 7 on 7 September 2016, alongside the larger iPhone 7 Plus (reviewed here). The new iPhone handsets feature better cameras, new, super-speedy processors, two new colour options and improved water resistance.
If you're debating whether or not to buy an iPhone 7, our review is here to help. We test and rate the iPhone 7's design and build quality, features, tech specs, speed, camera capabilities and value for money. And we'd like to give a special mention to Mobile Fun for lending us the iPhone 7 we used to write this review.
Wondering how the iPhone 7 compares to the 2018 equivalent? We look at the iPhone 7 versus the iPhone XS in a separate article here.
Just bear in mind that the handset is now two years old so the iPhone 8, now at £599/$599 might be a better choice if you're on a budget.
Design & build quality
Let's address the elephant in the room before we go any further. While previous Apple releases, and the usual 'tick-tock' pattern of iPhone updates, led us to expect the iPhone 7 would be a completely redesigned iPhone, in fact it features essentially the same design of the iPhone 6 and 6s. That's the third year now with the same design. Many will say that's a bad thing - but it isn't quite so simple.
The iPhone 7 looks gorgeous, there's no doubt about that, boasting an aluminium unibody with curved edges and 2.5D glass - which is a fancy term that refers to the curved edge of the glass that helps make the phone sit in your hand much more comfortably, while also providing a nicer experience when swiping from the side of the display.
It isn't just standard aluminium, like the material used by its competitors, either - the iPhone 7 features 7000 Series aluminium, making the iPhone more durable without adding much weight and giving the device more of a premium feel.
The iPhone 7 is, physically, the same size and shape as its predecessors, the iPhone 6s and iPhone 6, measuring in at 128.3mm x 67.1mm x 7.1mm, but with a few notable differences.
The rear-facing camera and TrueTone flash are bigger, and the eagle-eyed among you will spot that the antenna lines are gone from the back of the iPhone. Well, not gone, but repositioned to the top and bottom of the smartphone to make them less noticeable and provide a cleaner look.
While the iPhone 7 is similar to the iPhone 6s in many ways, weight isn't one of them. It isn't heavier, despite the larger battery and additional tech; in fact, it's actually 5g lighter than its predecessor, weighing in at 138g. While 5g doesn't sound like a lot, we were surprised at just how noticeable the weight difference was in the hand when comparing the two smartphones, with the iPhone 7 feeling lighter and more comfortable to hold than the iPhone 6s.
At launch, there were two new colours available: Black and Jet Black. The first is a direct replacement of the Space Grey that came before it, but uses a darker shade of aluminium, which we definitely prefer, and is quickly becoming our favourite colour option.
Thanks to a black display and black body, there's no visible border between display and body, providing an almost completely uniform look that definitely works in Apple's favour. We've shown the black iPhone 7 to a number of people over the course of a week or so, all commenting that it looks different to any other iPhone - in a good way. It's great if you are watching a film on your iPhone, for example, because the black edge doesn't detract from the image as can be the case with the white edged iPhones.
Left to right: iPhone 7 & 7 Plus models in Rose Gold, gold, silver, black, Jet Black
The second new colour option is Jet Black, which has a high-gloss finish that Apple is showing off in most of its promotional material. While the Jet Black model looks great in photos, we can't help but worry about smudges and scratches. In fact, even Apple has suggested using a case with the Jet Black model if you're worried about imperfections. On its iPhone 7 page, Apple writes: "Its surface is equally as hard as other anodized Apple products; however, its high shine may show fine micro-abrasions with use."
However, despite Apple warning users about possible "micro-abrasions", nobody fully understood how easily it scratched until it started appearing in the wild. As you can see in the below tweet, it can go from gorgeous, high-end device to "ew" in a matter of minutes, and users should bear this in mind when thinking about purchasing it:
So you thought a jet black iPhone was a good idea. pic.twitter.com/L3j7iqlu5I— Vlad Savov (@vladsavov) September 19, 2016
Since the iPhone 8 and iPhone X were released, Apple decided to sell the iPhone 7 still but only in the 32 and 128GB storage options.
In March 2017, Apple added a sixth colour option to the range: red. This limited edition version was a partnership with HIV/AIDS organisation (Product) RED, and it's the first time the company has released an iPhone together with the charity, although there have been other (Product) RED Apple products.
It is no longer available, but you may be able to find it second hand.
As mentioned, the size of the camera on the rear of the iPhone 7 has been increased, and although it still protrudes from the back of the phone, it bulges out more seamlessly now that Apple has removed the aluminium ring around the camera you'll see on older examples of this design.
This is one more element contributing to the clean look that Apple was chasing with the iPhone 7, and although it initially took some getting used to, we love the look of the new camera. The benefits of the tech inside speaks for itself, although we'll come to that in more detail below.
However, it's worth noting that while the improved camera was welcomed by many, the new shape of the camera means that existing iPhone 6 and 6s cases won't fit the iPhone 7, despite having otherwise identical dimensions to its predecessors.
The iPhone 7 is also Apple's first water resistant phone. Apple has waterproofed individual connections within the iPhone rather than adorning it with ugly rubber plugs, and is officially calling it splash-, dust- and water-resistant, at IP67.
That means you can dip it in water up to one metre deep for up to 30 minutes, and the smartphone should survive. If for whatever reason it suffers water damage, however, it's worth nothing that this isn't covered by Apple's warranty and you'll have to fork out for a replacement/repairs yourself.
(For more, see How to dry out a wet iPhone.)
We've used the iPhone 7 in a number of wet situations, such as in the rain and answering a call in the shower, as well as outright submerging it, and it has performed quite well with no lasting problems or damage.
It is worth noting, however, that the sensitivity of the display is affected when submerged or covered in large water droplets, which makes the phone hard to operate when wet.
Goodbye, headphone jack
One of the big talking points of the iPhone 7, following months of speculation, is the lack of a headphone jack. You've got several options, though: you can plug your traditional (3.5mm) headphones into the Lightning jack using the Lightning-to-3.5mm adapter in the box; use the new Lightning EarPods that come with the iPhone 7; buy yourself a pair of Lightning headphones or wireless headphones, such as Apple's own wireless AirPods.
The headphone jack adaptor isn't the best-looking accessory, but let's be honest, when do adaptors ever look elegant? The adaptor works well and it can actually be left on the end of standard wired headphones, removing the need to carry it around separately. It works as well as any adaptor should, and for only £9, we'd be tempted to buy one or two and leave them in places where they're required, at work, say, or in the car (if you use an auxiliary input).
Of course, the removal of the headphone jack initially caused a bit of a stir, but we're confident that iPhone users will quickly come to terms with the fact that the 3.5mm jack has been ditched, just as we all did when Apple replaced the 30-pin connector with a Lightning connector.
In fact, we've been using wireless headphones for some time now, as they're actually a lot cheaper to pick up than most people realise. And even for those unwilling to stop using their wired headphones, you can buy an adaptor that'll make any wired headphones wireless.
Besides, the missing jack paved the way for other enhancements, including a new, larger Taptic Engine for use with new Home Button (more on that below) and a larger battery which Apple claims will offer an extra hour of battery life compared to the 6s. The removal of the headphone jack also paved the way for higher quality audio playback, and while we're not bad-boy teenagers sat on the back of the bus playing the latest Grime tracks full-blast, we've noticed a positive change in audio quality.
Playback is not only higher quality, but is also louder, and we can even feel bass emanating from what sounds/feels like the screen itself. While it's hard to notice the jump in audio quality when listening to streamed music, we especially noticed the richer tones when receiving text messages using the same tone we'd used on our old iPhone. It was much clearer, louder and crisper than ever before, making even the annoying text message jingle sound rather good.
The Home button is where that improved Taptic Engine comes into play. It's been used to enable a completely flush Home button, that is actually not a button at all, although it still has that familiar Touch ID ring around it. Here's the interesting part about the new Home button - instead of physically moving up and down, pressing the new Home button triggers the clever Taptic Engine to trick your finger into thinking the button is pressing down.
The Home button on the iPhone 7 is odd - not necessarily bad per se, but unexpected. And in a fundamental user interface tool like this one, a control you'll be using frequently, that can be off-putting.
The solid-state trackpad on the MacBook and MacBook Pro, as many readers will know, is an astonishing feat of deception: many users would be willing to swear that the trackpad is clicking downwards, so clever is the haptic effect. It doesn't feel like something clever is happening - it just feels like you're clicking it, when you're not.
The iPhone 7's Home button is not like that. You can tell at once that something is up: there's physical feedback, sure, and that's important to making a control satisfying to use, but it feels different. The designers have essentially given up on the pretence that you're clicking a button physically. It feels like you're pressing on a piece of unmoving glass, and something elsewhere in the object is buzzing promptly in response.
We're aware that the Taptic engine is situated close to the Home button - roughly where the inside bits of the headphone port used to be, going by Apple's publicised diagrams - but, as irrational as this might sound, it doesn't feel like it. It feels like the buzz is deep within the guts of the phone, some distance from the button.
To a certain extent you can customise the way the Home button reacts to your touch with varying levels of feedback, but none felt entirely naturalistic to us - at first, anyway. They all felt, well, odd, with setting one offering barely any feedback, setting three offering a much more intense vibration and setting two offering in our view the best of both worlds.
However, as we continued to use the iPhone 7, we fairly quickly grew accustomed to the feedback produced by the Taptic engine. After little more than a week of regular use, we had decided we didn't want to go back to the standard Home button.
The effort required to use the Home button is less than with the traditional Home button, providing a much nicer overall experience, and the software-enabled button is still sensitive enough to tell the difference between a tap and press, meaning you shouldn't get any accidental activations - we definitely haven't thus far. We've even come to like the feedback provided by the updated Taptic engine, and find ourselves clicking it for no real reason apart from to feel the sensation.
The new software-enabled Home button isn't perfect, however, mainly due to the fact that it requires skin-to-glass contact to activate. On the surface, that sounds great - when would a situation ever arise where you wouldn't tap the Home button with your finger? But we can offer a couple of scenarios that we've encountered over the past week or so.
The Home button can't be used when wearing gloves, and also can't be used by fingernail to turn on the display and check time/notifications without unlocking the device. That's in part due to the Touch ID scanner being so responsive that it only needs a split-second to unlock your iPhone when touched: a true first-world problem.
For the third year in a row, Apple decided against upping the (Retina HD-class) resolution of the 750x1334 iPhone 7 display, which is quickly becoming eclipsed by competitors like Samsung with the Quad-HD resolution Samsung Galaxy S7. The iPhone 7's 324ppi (pixels per inch) pixel density simply cannot compete with the eye-watering 577ppi of its main competitor, the Galaxy S7. Still, Apple has upgraded the technology inside the display to provide users with a brighter and crisper display without upping the resolution.
How? Apple has improved the display of the iPhone 7 by making it a whopping 25 percent brighter than the iPhone 6s, making it much easier to use in direct sunlight with a maximum brightness of around 700nits. This is combined with the new DCI-P3 wide colour gamut which is primarily used with high-end 4K TVs, and is one of only three smartphone manufacturers to integrate the tech into its phones. The end result? A display that is crisp and gorgeous with great colour reproduction, ideal for everything from scrolling through Facebook to watching movies on Netflix and even editing movies in iMovie.
Naturally, the display of the iPhone 7 features the 3D Touch pressure-sensitive technology introduced along with the iPhone 6s, and which allows the display to measure the pressure of the input (your finger), enabling it to tell the difference between a tap and a push. This opened up a whole new world for Apple when it was first introduced, and it has gone from strength to strength since then.
iOS 10 introduces a number of new ways to use 3D Touch on the iPhone, allowing you to 3D Touch icons on the Home screen to bring up brand-new widgets, and 3D Touch Messages notifications to open a mini Messages app above whatever app you were already in.
Of course, these are only a handful of examples of the ways you can use 3D Touch on the iPhone; you can find the best 3D Touch tips and shortcuts right here. 3D Touch really gives the iPhone 7 the edge over its competitors as none have quite been able to match the responsiveness and features available, including Huawei's flagship P9 Plus. It does take a little bit of getting used to at first, but trust us when we say that if you train your brain to use it when you first get the smartphone, you'll enjoy the overall iPhone 7 experience so much more.
Specs, performance and benchmark results
Apple's new processor is called the A10 Fusion, and is the first quad-core processor to be found in an iPhone so far. The M10 Fusion is coupled with 2GB of RAM, which remains unchanged from the iPhone 6s but should allow for more processing power, resulting in a responsive, speedy smartphone. Apple claims that this combination makes the iPhone 7 the fastest smartphone in the world, and although it performed far better thank the iPhone 6s in our benchmark tests, it (rather surprisingly) didn't steal the top spot - but we'll come to that below.
In real world use, the iPhone 7 is, of course, stupidly fast and responsive, with everything from apps to the camera opening almost instantly. We've played a number of games on the iPhone 7, from fairly basic side-scrollers to 3D, power-hungry apps and not noticed any kind of lag, screen tearing or outright freezing at any time. It can handle anything we throw at it and even when we intentionally tried to get it to slow down a bit by running power-hungry apps, we couldn't. If you're looking for a stupendously powerful smartphone, the iPhone 7 is a solid option.
However, whether you really need the extra speed of the A10 Fusion or not is debatable; the iPhone 6S is already plenty speedy enough in our opinion, and even when running iOS 10, there's no sign of lag. It does, however, allow seriously powerful games to be created for the iPhone in the future, and the processor is also designed with efficiency in mind. Apple says that, on average, users will find that their iPhone 7 battery lasts two hours longer than the iPhone 6s did, thanks to the A10 Fusion.
What does that translate to in terms of real-life usage? We've found the iPhone 7 battery life to be surprisingly good, allowing us to become less tethered to the wall on a daily basis. Will it last all day? Depending on its usage, sure. We've used the iPhone 7 constantly and never really found ourselves completely out of battery, and with the occasional battery top up throughout the day, we've got no real complaints when it comes to battery life.
(Read our tips on How to improve iPhone battery life.)
Along with the A10 Fusion processor, users can expect to find an M10 motion co-processor that allows the iPhone to track motion without a significant drain on battery, giving you better battery life when using GPS, fitness tracking apps and more. It also means that the iPhone can automatically track your steps, flights of stairs climbed and more without impacting on battery life, all of which is viewable via Apple's Health app.
Apple has also improved the storage capacity of its latest smartphone range, as the company bumped the base model of the iPhone 7 up to 32GB, getting rid of the 16GB option that was never enough space. The 64GB variant is gone too, replaced by a 128GB option, with the new high-end storage option being a whopping 256GB. Well, with a new, improved camera with RAW support and a range of high-performance apps, you'll need all that storage, right?
Read next: How to make space on an iPhone
Speed benchmark results
So, how did the "fastest phone in the world" hold up in benchmarking tests? As briefly mentioned above, while the results of the iPhone 7 were a huge improvement when compared to the iPhone 6s, they're not quite good enough to steal the top spot in this category. Why? Well, let's explain.
(And before we go any further, please note that across all of the following speed benchmark tests, higher scores are better.)
Let's start with Geekbench 3, which tests the overall processing power of the smartphone - while the iPhone 6s scored a rather respectful 2524 in single core mode and 4400 in dual-core mode, the iPhone 7 blew that out of the water with scores of 3503 and 6088 respectively. While this is a huge improvement on Apple's behalf, it doesn't quite beat some of its' high-end Android rivals, namely Samsung's Galaxy S7. In dual-core mode, the Galaxy S7 scored 6466 according to our benchmark results, 378 points clear of the average score of the iPhone 7.
However, while Apple's iPhone 7 wasn't quite the best in terms of general processing power, it comes into its own when measuring graphical power. To measure this, we selected two GFXBench tests - T-Rex and Manhattan - with varying levels of quality/textures, and recorded the average frame rate of each graphic. The iPhone 7 managed to score an impressive 60fps in both T-Rex and Manhattan, beating not only the iPhone 6s (60fps and 52fps respectively) but also Samsung's Galaxy S7, which scored 53fps and 27fps.
However, while the GFXBench results are impressive, we must take them with a slight pinch of salt. Why? It's down to screen resolution. While the iPhone 7 features a display with a resolution of 750 x 1334 (326ppi), the Galaxy S7 for example features a much higher resolution at 1440 x 2560 (577ppi). This means that despite being similarly sized, the Galaxy S7 has to power more than double the number of pixels on the display. When running the same game, the S7 will require more power than the iPhone, a factor that will affect its benchmark results.
In reality, both the Galaxy S7 and iPhone 7 are powerhouses when it comes to mobile gaming, and you shouldn't experience any real lag when using either smartphone in day-to-day life.
Anyway, back to the results. Lastly, we ran the JetStream benchmark which tests the speed of a smartphone's mobile browser - Safari, in the case of the iPhone 7, while Android smartphones often utilise Google's Chrome browser. The iPhone 7 destroyed the competition in this respect with a score of 160.2, blowing the Samsung Galaxy S7 (61), HTC 10 (44.1) and LG G5 (53.6) out of the water. In fact, Apple's iPhone 6s was the previous winner with a score of 113.8, proving that Safari is one of the best mobile browsers available today.
Take a look at the interactive graphic below to see how the iPhone 7 measures up to the competition:
Camera and photography
One area that has had quite the upgrade is the camera department. While the iPhone 7 misses out on the iPhone 7 Plus's dual-lens camera, it has still been vastly improved when compared to the iPhone 6s. It's still 12Mp, but finally has optical image stabilisation across both photo and video modes along with an f/1.8 aperture and a six-element lens.
What does this mean to those buying an iPhone 7? Apple says that the improvements will allow users to capture better low light photos and videos with up to 50 percent more light than the iPhone 6s - but does it?
We've tested the iPhone 7 camera in a number of conditions including low-light, and we were quite surprised by the images provided by the smartphone. Of course, no phone camera will ever match the quality of low-light images taken by a DSLR, but the iPhone 7 does pretty well. Take a look at this photo taken on the streets of London at night (click to enlarge) - the overall photo looks good with no blatant noise or softness, and with fairly even exposure and good detail.
Even when zoomed in at 100% with a 1:1-pixel ratio, you can still make out the details of elements such as the brickwork of the buildings on the lefthand side of the photo, as well as the window frames of the row of houses in darkness. Text, such as the writing on the bus stop to the far left of the photo, is slightly too soft to make out. This is a common issue with low-light photography and something that most smartphones struggle with.
In terms of macro photography, the iPhone 7 performs well. It's fairly easy to take macro photos on the Camera app, and combined with the display, it's easy to spot whether it's in focus or not (the Camera did well with focus most of the time). Even when zoomed in at 100%, you can see details of the leaf - although in this respect, we're not sure much has changed from the iPhone 6s as that was also impressive at macro photography.
Standard photos are generally evenly exposed with great colour reproduction and fine detail, although environmental factors may affect the quality of the image taken. Take a look at the above photo of St. Pancras Hotel, taken on an overcast day in London - the colours are even and you can pick out individual bricks on the hotel and surrounding buildings, although it starts to get 'soft' towards the back of the photo, an issue prevalent in most cameras. You can clearly make out the writing on buses and vans, and even the Euston Road street sign.
Of course, the iPhone 7 features Live Photos support, and this feature has also been improved with the camera of the iPhone 7. Live Photos capture a second and a half of movement before and after the original photo was taken, along with audio, and offers this to you in a GIF-esque fashion activated by pressing down on the still photo. One of the main complaints from iPhone 6s users was that Live Photos were generally a bit shaky and not too clear, a sentiment we tend to agree with. However, thanks to the Optical Image Stabilisation of the iPhone 7, Live Photos are now much improved with better clarity and stabilisation, which should encourage more people to use the feature.
The lens isn't the only element of the rear-camera setup to be improved, as the True Tone flash has been enhanced, too - it now features four smart LEDs for a more natural light that is 50 percent brighter than that of its predecessor. It performs well, offering a range of slightly varied light tints for the perfect selfie in dark conditions, although we usually avoid using flash when taking photos unless necessary, as harsh light is never flattering - top tip there.
As for the front-facing (selfie) camera, you'll now get 7Mp to play with, up from 5Mp on the iPhone 6s. And to be quite honest there's not much more to say about it. The camera produces more detailed photos than before, but we've not noticed a huge jump in quality as we have with the rear-facing camera. It should be great for FaceTime and Skype, but as you'll be using it to film yourself, you won't see the benefit - only the recipient will.
Read next: iPhone photo tips
But what about videos? How do they fare on the iPhone 7? The good news is that unlike in the past, the Optical Image Stabilisation will work across all photo and video modes, providing users with much smoother videos whether they're filming in 1080p @ 60fps, 4K @ 30fps or 720p @ 240fps for slo-mo. The stabilisation is impressive, there's no doubting that, and can provide users with stable video even when walking along the road, holding the phone with one hand. Take a look at the short GIF below for a better idea of what we mean:
The only real gripe that we have with regards to video on the iPhone 7 is that Apple refuses to put some kind of toggle in the Camera app that allows you to change recording modes on-the-fly. Currently, if you want to switch between [email protected] and [email protected] (for example), you need to go to close the Camera app, go to Settings > Photos and Camera > Record Video and select your preferred option. This can make a difference in terms of light levels, as [email protected] will capture less light than [email protected] and thus shouldn't be used in low-light situations, but with no way to quickly change prior to recording, many of us are left with dark videos.
The iPhone 7 ships with the latest version of Apple's mobile operating system, iOS 10. There's plenty we can tell you about iOS 10: It has a refreshed design, Siri enhancements, Photos, a brand new Messages app with its own App Store, Maps and News improvements and lots more. We'd recommend reading our iOS 10 review and iOS 10 tips for more information about what users can expect with iOS 10 (and you'll get these new features even if you choose not to buy the iPhone 7 - assuming your current handset is an iPhone 5 or later).
However, there are a small number of iOS 10 features that are specific to the iPhone 7 and its bigger brother, the iPhone 7 Plus. The first feature is haptic feedback, which we think is quite surprising given that Apple made a huge song and dance about the Taptic engine in the iPhone 6s, claiming it could create subtle bursts of haptic feedback much more accurate than a standard vibration motor. While we're not disputing that the Taptic engine does this (the Taptic engine on both phones are fantastic), we're just surprised that the feature didn't even make it to the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus, as we're fairly confident they could've supported it.
Anyway, when you interact with certain elements of iOS - from swiping down to access the Notification Centre to swiping through options on a dropdown window - you'll get corresponding haptic feedback that slightly crosses the bridge between software and hardware. It's an interesting sensation, as the phone will give you a subtle 'tap' as the notification centre 'hits' the bottom of the display and bounces, just as it would if the Notification Centre were a real, physical element. It's fun, creates a new sense of depth for iPhone 7 users and we're really disappointed that iPhone 6s owners won't get to experience this new way to use Apple's Taptic engine.
iOS 10.1, an update to iOS 10 that came a month or so after the launch of the iPhone 7, introduced additional camera features, namely Portrait Mode. Portrait mode is designed to mimic the kind of shallow depth-of-field photos taken with expensive DSLRs, with the subject of the photo in focus and the background blurred. This is done in part via software on the smartphone, but needs the dual-camera setup of the iPhone 7 Plus to achieve the effect, meaning that even iPhone 7 users cannot access this feature.
So, is the iPhone 7 worth it? While we think the iPhone 7 is a sleek, gorgeous and generally fantastic phone with enhanced cameras, an improved design (with beautiful colour options), better battery life and a supercharged quad-core A10 Fusion chip, we think it’s a more appealing upgrade for iPhone 6 (and earlier) users. We don't think we could justify the upgrade from an iPhone 6s to an iPhone 7, especially with the price hike in the UK, as the changes aren't as groundbreaking as some we've seen in the past.
Don’t get us wrong: we love the IP67 water resistance, the doubling of the storage tiers, the cameras and more. But we think of the iPhone 7 more as a fine-tuned iPhone 6s rather than the next step in the iPhone lifecycle. Think evolution, not revolution.