The best improvement of all might be haptics: the vibrations, or rumbles, or taps, or throbs the phone makes in response to your actions. Apple updated the "Taptic Engine" in the iPhone 7, which makes all the vibrations seem sharper and more defined. The silence mode is now a quick tip-tap. Pushing in on 3D Touch icons (if you even do that) throbs more readily. Some sounds and settings now come with phone-rumbling enhancements. Change the clock time, feel the click of the wheel as you spin it. It means that more tactile feedback is possible, even in apps with onscreen buttons. It's like a phone-wide Xbox One rumble pack.
Nice camera bumps, especially in low light
The iPhone 7 gets an upgrade I wished were in the 6S -- namely, optical image stabilization (or OIS). The slightly wider f1.8-aperture lens also lets in more light for low-light photos. OIS and that new lens both make a difference in everyday shots, I've found. Photos at dusk in my backyard that were barely viewable on the 6S looked far brighter on the 7.
The 12-megapixel camera's other improvements, including a new ISP for other image improvements, might be too subtle for casual point-and-shooters to appreciate. The four-LED flash is brighter, and helped light up a room so well I could even shoot a barely passable photo of the darkened room next door. Note that Live Photo slows down the shutter speed, so turn it off for faster shots.
The front-facing FaceTime camera has been bumped to 7 megapixels now, and it looked great for selfies or videos. With one small caveat: I found that some shots seemed a little washed out in the background even with HDR on in my early review unit.
However, I still found that the I preferred the iPhone 7 Plus camera. Part of that is obvious: It has a dual camera on the back that allows for 2x optical zoom or extra levels of digital zoom. It also has a really cool portrait mode that keeps the foreground subject in focus while blurring the background. And the added screen size is more useful for looking at photos and editing them.
The iPhone 7's new processor, called the A10 Fusion, promises another significant set of speed bumps with two cores. There's also a new wrinkle: A lower-power battery-optimizing mode with two other cores. In classic Apple fashion, the phone switches between these cores automatically and you can't tweak it.
In a few benchmarks using GeekBench 4 (an updated version of the no-longer-available GeekBench 3 that we use to test phones), the 7 made big gains (3,488 single-core, 5,605 multicore in case you're curious).
The phone is seriously fast. It's faster than any other iOS devices including the iPad Pro, and faster than Samsung's last batch of phones by a significant margin, faster than Google's Pixel ($219 at Amazon) phone. But I have to say -- as I do many years -- that this iPhone feels about as fast the last iPhone in most everyday instances. You don't need all this speed, but this iPhone is a speedster in the phone world without a doubt.
Someday, maybe, we'll see phones stop getting relentlessly faster every year. For now, it's something to appreciate. But I wouldn't drop everything and get this phone just for any promised speed gains.
Battery life: Minor gains
It's hard to judge Apple's battery-life claims on the iPhone 7, because a lot of what's being touted involves low and high-power performance management that happens automatically in Apple's processor, and can't be adjusted in settings.
It also took us a while to figure out how best to test battery life on this iPhone.
Our battery life test involves a video playback loop in airplane mode, which doesn't reflect everyday use cases for how most people would use an iPhone. But on that test, using iOS 10 .1, the iPhone 7 lasted around 10 hours, 45 minutes -- a bit better than last year's iPhone 6S, but not by much. Android phones like the Samsung Galaxy S7 and Google Pixel both fared a lot better on our test.
And, as Apple's own claims suggest, your mileage may vary depending on how you use the phone. I still find myself needing a top-off charge around 4 p.m. That being said, I found the iPhone 7 eking out better battery life through the day, lasting me a little longer than before. I'd say the difference is subtle. With Apple's new power-managing processor, what you do will possibly cause different results.
Apple's attentiveness to more power-efficient processing is promising. But lots of great phones now have supersize batteries in them: think of the Motorola Moto Z Play, the OnePlus 3T and Galaxy S7. If you want an even better battery, consider the iPhone 7 Plus, a battery pack, or another phone.
All the iPhones finally got storage upgrades. Now $649, £599 and AU$1,079 will get you 32GB, and after that $749, £699 and AU$1,229 for 128GB and $849, £799 and AU$1,379 for 256GB. 32GB is the bare minimum I'd recommend anyone get for a phone that lacks expandable storage. I'm sad that 64GB went away.
256GB seems like an insane amount unless you're a filmmaker and live off your iPhone. Shooting in 4K chews up space, and 256GB isn't unrealistic at all if you're out recording a day's worth of video footage.
Apple iPhone 7 and 7 Plus storage and pricing
|Apple iPhone 7||32GB||$649||£599||AU$1,079|
|Apple iPhone 7 Plus||32GB||$769||£719||AU$1,269|
Hub to the connected world
Phones are hubs. They're utility devices. They're essential. Some people want a phone that's totally swappable, fixable, functional. Some want great battery life. Some want an awesome camera or a huge display. Some want weird things. Some want something easy. There's no right answer. It's complicated now, but in a good way. Most phones do a better job now than anything that ever existed before.
Our favorite phones at CNET are those that mix great utility and awesome design. Now along comes the iPhone 7, and it's...well, it's kinda boring.
The iPhone is what it is: A highly designed, perfected fusion of hardware and software. This version is better than before.
Phones are already the way we connect with tons of things around us. I spend my time with dozens of wireless wearable peripherals. Apple's pushing its own versions more than ever: AirPods, the and probably more things to come. Virtual and augmented reality, perhaps. A whole universe of connected smart-home gadgets.
The iPhone is the thing at the center. And this one's better overall. But if you want something that looks and feels different, wait 'til next year. Or, go elsewhere. Nearly every other phone, including Apple's still-excellent iPhone 6S, still has that comfy old headphone jack.
That might change very soon, though, across the smartphone landscape. And the iPhone might change radically with it.
This iPhone feels like it's laying the groundwork for a more sealed-off, improved, wireless system. In the meantime, it's a little bit boring.
I'm OK with that if it's reliable. This year's upgrade isn't something you need to have. But its improvements are likely doing some subtle paving of the way toward changes in another iPhone next year.
If you care about better photos, and want to be a little more future-proofed for whatever Apple has in store for that dual camera, seriously think about getting the 7 Plus.