The iPhone 7 and 7 Plus are deeply unusual devices. They are full of aggressive breaks from convention while wrapped in cases that look almost exactly like their two direct predecessors. Even that continuity of design is a break from convention; after almost a decade of Apple’s steady two-year iPhone update pattern, merely retaining the same design for a third straight year plays against expectations.
Inside that case, everything else about the iPhone 7 is a decisive statement about the future. The dual cameras on the iPhone 7 Plus promise to usher in a new era in mobile photography. The iconic iPhone home button is no longer a physical button, but instead a sophisticated ballet of pressure sensors and haptic vibration motors that simulate the feel of a button. The new A10 Fusion processor blends two high-power cores that rival laptop performance with two low-power cores that combine with a much larger battery to extend run time by up to two hours.
And, yes, Apple has removed the headphone jack.
“Everything else about the iPhone 7 is a decisive statement about the future”
Removing the headphone jack is an act of pure confidence from Apple, which is the only company in tech that can set off a sea changes in the industry by aggressively dropping various technologies from its products. Floppy drives, optical drives, its own proprietary 30-pin iPod connector, flash, even USB — Apple decides that it’s time to move on, and it has a massive installed base of customers that love and trust the company who make it happen. And now it’s decided that — yikes — the headphone jack is over.
After using the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus for about a week, it’s clear to me that Apple has forceful, but considered opinions about how the next generation of phones should fit into our lives. But it’s also clear that the iPhone 7 is a transitional step to that vision of the future, not a complete expression of it. The question for would-be upgraders is simple: is all of the latent promise in this phone worth the inconvenience of that transition?
There’s really no getting around it: the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus look more or less exactly like the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus from 2014. They are now water resistant, which is nice, although they’re not fully waterproof — keep them submerged in a meter of water for more than 30 minutes and things might not go your way. Samsung’s Galaxy S7 and Note 7 are technically even more water resistant, but I think it’s basically a push — you can get these phones casually wet now without catastrophe, and that’s a big win. If you want to go snorkeling with your iPhone, you should probably get a case anyhow.
“Once you put the iPhone 7 in a case, it looks exactly like an iPhone 6”
Apart from the water resistance, there are three main external differences between the 6 and 7: first, the antenna lines on the back have been tweaked and colored to blend into the body on the matte black and glossy jet black models, which is a welcome refinement. (The antennas remain a dull gray color on the silver, gold, and rose gold variants; Apple says there are limits on what colors can be applied.) Second, the camera bump has been enlarged and more artfully curved into the rear casing, which looks particularly handsome on the smaller phone with a single camera.
And third — here it is again — there’s no headphone jack.
But really, once you put the iPhone 7 in a case, it looks exactly like an iPhone 6. And if you get a jet black model, you’ll want to get it into a case immediately — my jet black review unit scratched and scuffed almost instantly, and the only time it’s remained fingerprint-free is when we literally handled it with white gloves for the photo and video shoots accompanying this review. Apple is being unusually open about the propensity of the jet black finish to scratch, but beyond that, I’d get the matte black anyway — it just looks meaner.
The iPhone 6 has always been one of the more utilitarian designs in Apple history, and a smoothed-out camera bump and less visible antennas don’t really change that. Apple’s competition is getting better at making beautiful phones, and nothing about the iPhone 7’s design exceeds the rest of the industry. The iPhone 7 Plus in particular is actually falling behind its large-screened competition; the 6 Plus was always a bit of a surfboard, and new devices like the Galaxy Note 7 fit enormous displays into much smaller, tighter packages. (Too bad about the explosions, though.) This is still a phone that looks best in a case.