(Pocket-lint) - "It is the best iPhone yet", proclaimed Tim Cook on the stage at Apple's Special Event in San Francisco at the beginning of the September last year.
He would be right, the iPhone 7 is, but it is not the leap of technological advancement that many of the fanboys would have liked or hoped for.
Indeed, the iPhone 7 is more the refinement of a phone that is been nine years in the making. But even if Apple is playing it safe, safe is a great place to be. Here's why the iPhone still cuts it in today's market.
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The iPhone 7 is not the overhaul that Apple usually presents us with every two years, but there is enough here to keep those upgrading from the iPhone 6 happy.
At first glance, however, it's perhaps not the phone to draw in iPhone 6S fans who might be upset that their phone is now old and needs to be replaced - for the iPhone 7 could almost be seen as an "S" version of the iPhone 6S.
The removal of the 3.5mm headphone jack may remain briefly controversial, while the odd-looking AirPods (Â£159) have also raised some eyebrows. But this biggest point of change isn't really going to impact most users as much as it might sound.
Ultimately it's the iPhone 7's other, more subtle changes - the new Home button and glossy/matte black finishes with better hidden antennas - that add to the refinement, without tearing up the rule book and starting again. It's also these technologies that continue to ensure the iPhone 7 is a state-of-the-art smartphone.
So Tim Cook is right: the iPhone 7 is the company's best iPhone yet. It's just that the best is only slighter better than what we've already had for the past year.
Alternatives to consider
As Android phones go, the Pixel is arguably the best small-ish phone out there. It's a five-inch screen boasting super colours and contrast, and the camera snaps images impressively quickly. Even the rich, contrast-full HDR images are taken and processed in the blink of an eye. Add that to the latest, purest version of Android, and it's a brilliant all-round package.
Read the full review: Google Pixel review: Android at its best
Samsung Galaxy S7
Until the Galaxy S8 is released, the S7 represents Samsung's iPhone 7 challenger, and it's a great one. It runs Android and has easily one of the best screens and cameras we've seen in a smartphone. It's powered by Samsung's Exynos chip too, which means it's buttery smooth and fast. It's elegant, water resistant and lasts more than a day on a full charge.
Read the full review: Samsung Galaxy S7 review: The unsung hero?
If the iPhone 7 is still too big for you and you're more keen to keep to the smaller iPhone form factor, the iPhone SE is the ideal option. It offers the same design as the older iPhone 5 and 5s models, but its internal components bring it more up to date with the more powerful new iPhones.
Read the full review: Apple iPhone SE review: Great things can come in small packages
Apple iPhone 7
- Refined design and new finishes make for best-looking iPhone to date
- Great camera with image stabilisation
- IOS 10 makes for the most in-depth use yet
- New Home button works brilliantly
- More like an S version of the iPhone 6S than a total overhaul
- Still no wireless charging
- No dual cameras feature here
- No true battery improvement
- No headphone jack will irk some
Best Apple iPhone 7 deals
Apple iPhone 7 review: Similar design with some tweaks
- 138.3 x 67.1 x 7.1 mm
- 138 grams
- IP67 rated water/dust resistance
- Jet Black and matte "Black" options
The new iPhone might come in a similarly designed chassis to the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6S models, with the same 4.7-inch screen, but it looks noticeably different thanks to the more subdued antenna lines. Oh, and there are two new finishes - glossy "Jet Black" and matte "Black" - which join the gold, rose gold and silver colour options also available.
We have the glossy black model on review, which is a fingerprint-magnet of a model - reminiscent of the iPhone 3G. The deep black colour hides the newly designed antenna incredibly well, while the new finish also makes the transition from metal to glass almost impossible to see. It is "proper shiny".
In contrast, the new "regular" black model is more the stealthy option. The finish, which replaces the "Space Gray" option of the previous 6S range, is less likely to be prone to smudges and scratches (those old enough will remember that issue made the iPhone 3G look rather tatty by end of its first year), and it is a much blunter finish compared to the whimsical rose gold and gold options. It is on those models that the new antenna design is more apparent - it now cuts around the top edge of the phone rather than intersecting top and bottom.
New finishes aren't the only design changes. The headphones socket has been dumped (yep, no 3.5mm jack here) and replaced with a speaker grille, while the physical Home button has also been changed from a solid state one to one that doesn't move.
Apple iPhone 7 review: No headphone socket
- Lightning port delivers audio
- Lightning to 3.5mm adapter included
At the iPhone 7 launch hysteria quickly settled in that Apple had lost the headphone jack and that it would be the end of the world as we know it. Turns out it wasn't, and it makes barely a jot of a difference.
In the iPhone 7's box you get a set of in-ear headphones that connect via the phone's Lightning port instead. If these aren't for you then there are so many brilliant wireless headphones on the market. But we realise that, for some, that might mean the prospect of buying new cans all over again, and sucking up the expense, or using the included adaptor in the box to convert Lightning to 3.5mm.
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During our testing we've been using the rather controversial-looking but quick-pairing AirPods (which aren't included in the box, they're £159 extra) and a range of other headphones. All work seamlessly.
Apple iPhone 7 review: New Home button
- Physical switch is gone
- Taptic engine provides click feedback
The iPhone 7's Home button is the part on the phone you probably interact with the most, and upon hearing Apple was ditching the physical "click" element and replacing it with the same technology found in the Apple Watch and MacBook trackpad, we were worried.
In practice, though, it works amazingly well. Like the MacBook trackpad that uses the same technology, you get the feeling that the button is moving when "pressed" - without anything physically moving.
Tap the Home button, and the so-called Taptic Engine inside the phone makes it vibrate gently - making you believe that the button is moving when in reality it isn't. Removing the physical element means there are less parts and less things to "stick". It's all-round neater.
The Home button offers three sensitivity settings to make it as responsive as you prefer. It still allows you to flawlessly use it for double-tapping or Touch ID fingerprint recognition. Although Apple says that Touch ID hasn't been upgraded, it feels a lot more responsive to our touch in the iPhone 7 - even with sweaty hands after a run.
Once you try it, you'll wonder why Apple hadn't changed the Home button earlier.
Apple iPhone 7 review: Water-resistance
Apple has made the iPhone 7 water-resistant to a rating of IP67 - meaning it can be immersed in a metre of water for around 30-minutes without drowning.
Yep, dropping your phone down the toilet or in the swimming pool isn't going to be the major headache it once was. We nervously ran ours under the tap and it continued to work just fine.
It's not going to allow you to take pictures under water in a pool, because the screen won't necessarily operate properly, but it should protect you from any accidental dunks.
Apple iPhone 7 review: Taptic Engine
The same Taptic Engine as used to convince you the Home button is physically moving is also used to greater affect across the new iOS 10 user interface.
Playing Codemaster's F1 2016 game, for example, it adds vibrational nuances when crashing into the barriers or going over bumps. Likewise, the rather dull Zombie Gunship showcases the technology too.
In both cases it's as if the whole phone is vibrating rather than just a part of it. "Feeling your phone" is going to be a thing now.
Apple iPhone 7 review: Stereo sound
The space where the headphone socket was in the iPhone 6S is now replaced with a set of six holes to match the speaker grilles. Sadly, it's not covering a second speaker. It's purely aesthetic, and covers only the microphone. The iPhone does offer stereo sound of sorts by using the extra, less powerful speaker at the top.
The audio enhancements certainly make a difference: the iPhone 7 produces a richer sound that the iPhone 6S. It's not as good as the speaker setup on the iPad Pro, nor will it be loud enough to fill the room with music, but it's ideal for watching a YouTube video or Facebook Live stream around the house (if you're not plugged into the Lightning port or making the most of wireless).
Apple iPhone 7 review: Upgraded cameras
- 12MP camera
- Optical Image Stabilisation
- Quad-led flash
- f/1.8 28mm equivalent lens
The iPhone 7 has a camera update on both the front and back. However, it misses out on the dual-camera offering and wide-angle lens of the iPhone 7 Plus.
Instead the iPhone 7 offers a new 12-megapixel sensor and an improved lens, plus an improved 7-megapixel front-facing camera for FaceTime and selfies. Apple has also added a new flash for better skin tones and plenty of processes in-camera to make sure your photos zing.
The camera protrudes out the back of the iPhone 7, just as it has before, and sports a more accentuated circular design - meaning your old cases are unlikely to fit. That's something else for the shopping list. The protrusion is visible, but it's not enough to warrant any concerns and certainly not enough to make the phone wobble when laid on a desk or table.
Although you don't get the dual lens technology, the iPhone 7's camera isn't to be sniffed at. It's very good in all situations and noticeably better than the already very good camera on the iPhone 6S. At a team meeting we snapped some side-by-side comparisons to get a closer look and the new camera produced sharper-looking results in all cases.
That's partly thanks to the new f/1.8 aperture lens and the addition of optical image stabilisation (previously OIS was only available on the 6S Plus), but we also suspect a lot of the image processing Apple is able to do with the new more powerful processor on board.
The colour in all our test shots looks just natural; the camera auto-detects and handles exposures for different situations well (back-lighting, neon strips, faces, etc); there's detail in the close-up shots we've snapped; and that f/1.8 aperture doesn't overdo things - so further-away subjects remain crisp, while close-up subjects get that lovely blurred background effect.
However, we can still see grain in some areas (we're talking when zoomed to 100 per cent) and we've found that images look better on the phone at smaller scale than they do on a larger computer monitor. Some processing does smear away some detail, too, such as the thread in a shirt, as one example.
For those really wanting to take things to the next level, you can now shoot raw, but Apple has held back from adding that capability to its own Camera app, so you'll need a third-party app to get access to that feature.
Unlike previous years, there aren't any new camera modes to play with the iPhone 7, and it won't be getting the Portrait mode that the iPhone 7 Plus will be getting later in the year.
Apple iPhone 7 review: Speed and performance
- Quad-core A10 Fusion processor
- 2GB RAM
- 32/128/256 GB storage
A new iPhone means upgraded speed. The iPhone 7 gets the new Apple A10 Fusion processor that promises to increase the power and performance over previous models.
Ultimately, it means your phone will be able to load things faster, process things faster, and generally not be in any way sluggish. That's exactly what we've found in our testing to date: games load almost instantly and graphics are rich.
The screen - which is the same 4.7-inch size and 1334 x 750 resolution as the iPhone 6S - also feels a lot brighter (it's 25 per cent brighter and comes with a greater colour gamut according to Apple). It's not the Tru Display technology found on the iPad Pro 9.7, though, so no ultra-high resolution to be found here still - but that ought to help battery life.
Apple iPhone 7 review: Battery life
- 1,960mAh battery
- A comfortable full day for light users
Apple made a fairly big song and dance over how the battery life had improved for the iPhone 7 following efficiencies in processor and software performance. But we've not really seen those in our tests.
After the initial few days using the iPhone 7 and trying to catch-up (the Photos app blasted our battery trying to work out what to do with the 15,000 images we've taken over the years) and we've still not seen the huge improvements promised.
The iPhone 7's battery still lasts a whole day, but it soon drains away - especially if you use social networking or chat apps. A full day in London when using GPS, camera, Slack, Twitter, Facebook, and Mail meant that 13-hours in, by 6pm, we had around 20 per cent battery left. For us that's not improved over our iPhone 6S experience.
As always, how you use your phone will determine how long the battery lasts. Play Pokemon Go and you probably won't make it past breakfast, let alone dinner.
Apple iPhone 7 review: iOS 10
- New Messages app w/effects
- Redesigned Today view + widgets
- Home app for HomeKit enabled smart home products
The new iPhone comes with the latest operating system, iOS 10, as standard. Like the hardware refinements, this new software experience is a subtle change over what users will have seen in iOS 9.
iOS 10 comes with a number of new features like a dedicated Home app to allow you to control and manage your HomeKit accessories, a much more advanced Messages app that bring things like apps and stickers, and Widgets to the lock screen so you can quickly grab information snippets from your favourite apps (if they are supported).
The notion that iOS is a simple operating system is now a long and distant memory, given the complexity it opens up for power users. In iOS 10 Apple has focused on layering the experience with even more complexity and depth than ever before. In the same breath, if you're not a phone geek it's still a breeze to use.
So Tim Cook is right: the iPhone 7 is is the company's best iPhone yet. It's just that the best is only slighter better than what we've already had for the past year.