Thursday 27 October 2016

Hands-on with the iPhone 7: five things you need to know

Published 09/09/2016 | 07:22

On Wednesday, got our first hands-on session with Apple's latest iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus phones. Based on first impressions, here are the five main things you need to know.

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1. The new pressure-sensitive Home button might take some getting used to

One of the physical changes to the iPhone 7 is the replacement of a clickable Home button with a pressure-sensitive 'haptic' Home button. It's a little bit like pressing down on very thin glass that gives you a clicking sensation. You can apparently adjust the level of 'haptic' resistance feedback you get from the button, too.

The reason for this change in button dynamics may be in line with Apple's desire to make the iPhone 7 more water resistant (which it is: it can now survive underwater immersion to a depth of one metre) and also, perhaps, to let developers design new functionality for it. In any case, it wasn't difficult to use although it remains to be seen whether it would become irritating or pleasant in use over time.

2. The lack of a headphone jack felt a little weird

I know that Apple is probably on the right side of history in opting for wireless over wired, but it might take some time to get used to the idea of not having a fallback 3.5mm headphone jack. Apple is still giving you earphones with each iPhone 7 sold, but they will now plug in to the phone's Lightning charger port instead. In the testing area, we got to try the wireless Bluetooth 'AirPod' earphones (which will cost €179 and will work with any iPhone or even any Bluetooth device) that Apple has launched to replace wired headsets. They sounded pretty good and they fit our ears quite easily. Crucially, they were very easy to set up ('pair') with the iPhone 7 -- as soon as you open the small AirPod carrier case, your iPhone asks you whether you want to connect to them. The AirPods have a stated battery life of 'up to' five hours, meaning that you might be stuck if you're on a long flight. However, the small case actually recharges them when you stick them back in. Apple says that putting the AirPods back in the case for 15 minutes will add three hours' charge to the earphones. (The case itself needs to be recharged occasionally to perform this function.)


3. The camera on the iPhone 7 Plus looks absolutely amazing

Arguably the biggest new feature on the iPhone 7 is its improved camera system. Or, to be more precise, it's the impressive new dual-lens camera on the larger iPhone 7 Plus model. Apple has gone all out here. It has added an entire second 12-megapixel lens to the camera. It is a huge upgrade on previous iPhone models and is easily the biggest reason to upgrade to the larger model.

This is how it works: the iPhone 7 Plus now has a 28mm wide-angle lens (similar to the iPhone 6S) and a new, additional 56mm lens beside it. What this means is that for the first time, you now have something very close to a real optical zoom on your phone. So the 2x zoomed photo you take isn't just the normal one artificially stretched with the loss of resolution and quality: it's a full-resolution photo in its own right. There are other benefits, too. You can now take photos that have DSLR-style 'depth of field'. This sounds technical but it really does provide a beautiful effect: when you take a photo of someone, their features are sharp while the background is mildly blurred. (Photographers also call this 'bokeh'.)

We didn't really get much of a chance to test this ourselves in the hands-on session with the iPhone 7 Plus. But we did see some of the photos on taken on individual handsets in our hands. We also have some experience of dual-lens camera handsets, having reviewed Huawei's P9 phone earlier this year. The results from that phone's double Leica lens were great.

We still have one or two questions about the physics of the depth of field, as Apple says it won't fully be available until a software upgrade later this year. This would indicate that a lot of the camera activity is still based on processors and algorithms instead of actual camera glass.

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Nevertheless, in our view, this extra lens is a very big deal. It will absolutely improve photos for ordinary people to a significant degree.

However, there is a reason we keep referring to the 7 Plus model in all of this: the dual lens is only available on the bigger, more expensive model. That means that the smaller 4.7-inch iPhone 7 still comes with just one lens. There are improvements here too, though. It now lets in more light than the camera on the iPhone 6S thanks to an f1.8 aperture setting. This means it's better for photos in poor light, such as parties or dimly lit rooms. You can shoot videos in 'ultra' high definition 4K. And the iPhone 7 now gets stabilisation, meaning less likelihood of blurred photos or shaky videos.

Still, the grand prize goes to those who opt for the iPhone 7 Plus. You get all the improvements of the iPhone 7's lens multiplied by two. For once, the hype is right: this really will make a difference to photography.

4. It looks and feels very similar to the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6S.

That's because it's almost indentical in shape and form. Apple hasn't really revamped the shape, size or styling of the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus. This definitely took a little pizazz out of the experience - it felt like you were picking up a replica of your existing iPhone. There is a new glossy black edition (which seems to have replaced the 'space grey' colour edition) which was attractive enough to pick up and hold, although it was clear in a couple of seconds that it would be a fingerprint smudge magnet. (Also, Apple is itself guiding that the glossy material will be more prone to showing "micro abrasions" and should probably be covered over with a case.)

The lack of a different form factor is probably most pronounced for the 5.5-inch 7 Plus model because this really is a big thing to hold in your hand. And when you know that some rivals are currently shrinking the overall footprint of their 'phablet' models by bringing the screen out to the edge, it feels like an opportunity missed for the larger iPhone. Nevertheless, it's still an attractive phone to pick up and play with.

5. This is probably worth getting but it may not have people queuing around the block

This iPhone 7 is largely about two things: a better camera and a move away from wired headphones. There will be some disgruntlement about the headphone port as many people have invested significant sums in their own high quality earphones or headphones. However, Apple is probably on the right side of history. When it comes to phones and portable tech, wired almost always gives way to wireless. Few use DVD or USB ports anymore. And improvements to the quality of audio streaming over Bluetooth mean that you're not taking a significant dip if you go wireless for your music.

There might also be some cribbing about price. The European pricing has gone way up here, with the iPhone 7 starting at €779 (compared to €699 when the iPhone 6 was launched) and the 7 Plus starting at an eye-watering €919. Apple might say that this reflects the extra storage the phones have (the basic one now has 32GB instead of 16GB and the top model now has 256GB).

Picking one over the other, the iPhone 7 Plus is clearly the star of the show. The new dual-lens camera that comes with it is probably the best snapper on any phone, ever. It will hammer more nails into the coffin of the consumer camera market.

Ireland is one of the first launch countries with pre-ordering available from September 9 and availability from September 16.

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