Monday 26 September 2016

Is the iPhone 7 Guinness resistant? And 8 other things you need to know about Apple's new product

Published 13/09/2016 | 11:00

So is it worth it or not?

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The iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus officially go on sale this Friday. I’ve been using both for almost a week.

Is the successor to the world’s best-selling handset worth upgrading to?

It is. After a good deal of poking and prodding, it’s evident that the iPhone 7 is a significant bump up from the iPhone 6S. Moreover, if you value your photos in the same way I do, it’s a major advance.

It’s not a perfect upgrade. For some, its near-identical design to the iPhone 6 might make it feel a little same-old, same-old. And the removal of the headphone jack could cause momentary flutters.

Read More: Listen up: Apple's AirPods offer practical, discreet and stylish alternative to clunky headphones

But for me, the improvements under the hood, allied with the substantial extra imaging prowess, power, battery life and integration of iOS 10, make it a thing to be sought after.

In particular, the new dual-camera system on the larger iPhone 7 Plus is a revelation. It will permanently change the quality of photos and videos for a great many people.

If you’d like to know a bit more about the phones, read on: I’m going to deal with the main individual features of both the iPhone 7 and the iPhone 7 Plus as I found them.

1. The home button is odd for about two seconds

The new home button is a ‘button’ in name only: it’s actually a fixed solid-state panel that gives the impression of being pressed without much actual mechanical movement. (So when the phone is off, nothing happens when you go to press it.)

In this ‘haptic’ environment, you can choose the virtual ‘depth’ of the home button’s pressing technique in settings, although there isn’t much of a difference between them.

'If you value your photos in the same way I do, it’s a major advance' (Photo: Adrian Weckler)
'If you value your photos in the same way I do, it’s a major advance' (Photo: Adrian Weckler)

Apple has introduced this change partially to make it more “durable”. It probably helps a lot with the phone’s new official water-resistant qualifications (and boy, does this work -- see our video test). It also gels with the general progression of the phone’s 3D Touch screen, which offers already offers haptic-powered virtual pressing on apps.

At first, the whole thing with the new home button felt a little iffy. Whether it’s nostalgia or muscle-memory, there is something satisfying about pressing down on an actual button.

But the new system is not hard to get used to at all. And the new mechanism hasn’t interfered with my operation of the phone. It certainly shouldn’t scare anyone off.

2. I don’t miss the old headphone port one bit

'The new dual-camera system on the larger iPhone 7 Plus is a revelation' (Photo: Adrian Weckler)
'The new dual-camera system on the larger iPhone 7 Plus is a revelation' (Photo: Adrian Weckler)

Seriously. Granted, 95pc of my audio listening on a phone is with wireless headphones anyway.

They’re far more convenient than wired equivalents (if sometimes not quite at the same audio quality level). Because of their in-built microphones, wireless headphones also act as effective hands-free headsets for phone calls. Indeed, I usually just leave a phone’s supplied (wired) earphones in the box.

In this context, it is not much of a blow that the 3.5mm headphone jack slot is gone. But even it was, Apple has included a 3.5mm adaptor that fits the end of your earphone jack and goes into the Lightning port. And it still gives you a pair of EarPod earphones included with the new iPhone 7 anyway: they’re exactly the same as the old EarPods except that they connect directly with the Lightning port.

The only ones who might really rue the abolition of the 3.5mm jack port are those who have invested in specialist accessories that use the slot for other purposes. These could range from mobile payment terminals to professional audiovisual equipment.

But for everyone else, this isn’t going to matter very much in the long run. Headphones are going wireless anyway. Until then, you get a supplied adaptor and Lightning EarPods in the box.

3. This iPhone is really, really water-resistant

'The camera on the iPhone 7 Plus is the single biggest reason to upgrade' (Photo: Adrian Weckler)
'The camera on the iPhone 7 Plus is the single biggest reason to upgrade' (Photo: Adrian Weckler)

We’re not joking here. We gave this phone a pretty good ‘water’ test (see the video above) and there’s no disputing its pass rate.

Technically, the new iPhone 7 has an officially-recognised IP67 certification, which means that it can remain operational for up to 30 minutes at a water depth of one metre (covering almost all toilets). This doesn’t actually mean that the phone is “water proof”, or even that Apple will replace your phone if it succumbs to water damage (its terms and conditions rule this out). So you shouldn’t really take it swimming with you.

However, this phone can certainly withstand liquids. We dropped it in a pint of stout. The iPhone 7 came out with flying colours. Not only was there zero sign of any ill after-effects, but the phone kept on working perfectly even as it remained sopping wet with the black stuff.

Obviously this isn’t something we would plan to do on a regular basis. But it’s nice to know that if you’re out and about, your new iPhone is more than capable of putting up with splashes or even the occasional fall into some liquid-filled vessel.

On the science end, Apple has an interesting way of keeping water out of ports such as the Lightning recharging slot, using a system of expelling air. I don’t know exactly how this works. But it really does seem to work.

4. The camera on the iPhone 7 Plus is the single biggest reason to upgrade

The iPhone 7 Plus camera is insanely good and is, hands-down, the biggest driver to switch phones.

I have long argued that a camera is now the single most important feature on a phone.

I used to love Sony Xperia phones for this reason. Samsung’s S-series models still do a very good job, too.

But the camera on the iPhone 7 Plus moves things on another notch. It’s actually two cameras (with two sensors, according to Apple) on one device. There’s a wide-angle 28mm lens and a telephoto 56mm lens.

This allows the phone to 'zoom' from one angle (or view) to the other without compromising much quality in the photo. Typically, a single-lens phone's 'zoom' is only the process of artificially stretching the photo to give the impression of a closer view. It generally results in poorer quality.

On this phone, to switch between the two optical lengths, there’s a small on-screen button that tells you whether you’re at ‘1x’ (28mm equivalent) or ‘2x’ (56mm). You can either toggle or slide between them. You can also extend the zoom to a 10x setting, although this is mainly a case of digitally stretching (hence diluting) the image.

I found myself using the 2x zoom (56mm lens) an awful lot. Going back to a single-lens camera would now feel like a step backwards.

I also took advantage of the iPhone 7’s new higher-resolution video recording settings. While the 4K (or ‘ultra high definition’) level is nice to have, having a choice of either 30 frames per second or 60 frames per second at ‘full HD’ is a gift. (The latter standard looks fantastic on any screen under 40 inches.) There’s also the choice of a lower standard, 720p at 30 frames per second, which uses less storage memory.

Of critical importance to this whole process is the iPhone 7 Plus’s optical stabilisation (also now available on the smaller iPhone 7). We first saw this in the iPhone 6S Plus but it’s worth restating here. When used with video, even a zoomed-in, apparently shaky filming process results in a nice, smooth video result. You have to see this to believe it: it’s a huge advance. (See timelapse video posted below.)

The amount of light that the camera lets in is much improved, too. The 28mm lens has an f1.8 aperture while the 56mm is at f2.8. As is apparent from some of the shots I took this week, these give pretty impressive detail on photos, even in fairly shabby light.

What all of this really means is that that you have a much, much better camera in your pocket than with any phone before. No more blurry, shaky videos. This is going to have a big effect on photos at matches, concerts and other events where the photos we currently take are pretty awful.

There’s one other feature of the iPhone 7 Plus’s camera system that has yet to arrive (via a software update, we’re told). That is its ability to create 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'.)

When this lands, it’s going to significantly impact the casual portrait shots we take of friends and family.

Lastly, the selfie-camera on the iPhone 7 Plus (and the iPhone 7) has been upgraded to 7 megapixels. And there’s a better selfie-flash system that measures the light in your background to come up with what it things is the optimal lighting for your skintone.

As for DSLR comparisons, they are limited. The iPhone 7 Plus camera is not optically at a DSLR level. Indeed, much of the detail and quality in the photos coming out of the new camera system are digitally sewn together by clever processors and engines (performing 100bn operations per photo, according to Apple). This is a key difference to DSLRs, which still most rely on the optical quality of the (huge) lenses to provide the real quality.

But DSLRs are still clunky, large and complicated to master. This iPhone 7 Plus is easy to use.

So while an expert handling a DSLR will shoot a (far) more technically accomplished photo than that from an iPhone, hardly any of us will get to that level. Neither will we have a DSLR in our pocket, ready to shoot a photo or video whenever the occasion arises. So the DSLR comparison is a bit of a false one. The real competition is with other phones. And in that context, the iPhone 7 Plus is now ahead.

5. The iPhone 7’s battery life is better than previous iPhones, but it still doesn’t set the pace

The battery life on the iPhone 7 is slightly better than the iPhone 6S. Apple puts it at up to two hours per charge more than previous models and credits this largely to the reduced energy consumption of the phone’s new A10 processor.

I used both the iPhone 7 (and the iPhone 7 Plus) fairly constantly throughout the day for Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, email and Spotify. I also used the camera reasonably frequently, as well as a couple of photo-editing apps to play with pictures.

In that context, I found that the iPhone made it to around 5pm (from a 7.30am start) before it needed a recharge. That’s actually pretty good -- I’m a heavy user and I find that many phones run out in the early afternoon.

The battery on the iPhone 7 Plus model unquestionably lasted a bit longer, with one caveat: the big screen on it and the added camera invited me use it more, especially for photos and videos. So while I technically got more juice out of it than the smaller iPhone 7, I still didn’t make it past teatime due to the heavier application rotation I threw at it.

It should be said that this isn’t the market-leading phone for battery life. Of the big sellers, that title probably rests with Samsung’s Note 7 (yes, the overheating one that has been recalled).

But it’s better than most phones out there.

6. The new glossy ‘jet black’ version smudges a lot

Having used the new, glossy, ‘jet black’ iPhone 7, I found that fingerprints and general smudging showed up a lot more on it than on the regular (matte) black iPhone 7 Plus model.

Apple has also guided that ‘micro-abrasions’ might be more of an issue with the jet black model and that a cover is thus advisable. There may be a catch-22 here: if you’re to cover it up, the phone’s colour is surely not as important.

7. iOS 10 performs really well here

Anyone with an iPhone under four years old (from the model 5 up) gets to upgrade to iOS 10. But it shines with the newer iPhone 7 and iPhone 6S.

There’s too much in iOS 10 to fully cover here. But the things I enjoyed most were the new message animations and the iPhone 7’s 3D Touch for ‘quick actions’ and ‘peek and pop’ moves within apps.

For those who haven’t used a 3D Touch screen before, it feels like you’re double-pressing the screen when you apply a little more pressure to it. If you do so on an app, a little menu pops up inviting you to perform some action within the app. For Mail, it’s a choice of a new message, a search or to go to the inbox. For Messages, it’s an option to write a new message or go directly to one of the last three numbers you messaged. (I’m using this one a lot.) And so on.

But iOS 10 piles on more functionality. So within Mail, for example, I can now add a ‘widget’ (of frequent or VIP email correspondents, perhaps) onto my quick action menu.

In Messages, if I 3D Touch any of the messages I see, I get a view of the last couple of messages sent as well as the ability to swipe up for a list of possible responses.

Speaking of Messages, there’s now a bunch of new animated effects you can use, ranging from emoticons to ‘invisible ink’ messages which only reveal themselves when the message is opened.

This is probably the iOS 10 effect that a lot people will end up noticing.

But in Photos, the 3D Touch in the iPhone 7 let me select individual photos (or videos) for a quick peek without opening them and then a quick menu on what to do with them.

And while we’re Photos, iOS 10 now has a new movie-stitching engine that automatically pulls together some of your photos and videos to make related collages. Being a bit fussy about my photos, I didn’t really jump into this. But I can see its appeal in an era where many have thousands of photos on their phone without any apparent archiving order in place.

One new iOS 10 app you’ll see on the iPhone 7 is the ‘Home’ app, which is supposed to become the central control hub for all the smart devices in your house.

As said before, anyone with an iPhone 5 upwards will get to use iOS 10. But the additional firepower under the hood of the iPhone 7 (it’s over three times faster than the iPhone 5) means it flies on this handset.

8. There are other things of note, like more storage, speakers, screen resolution and power

(i) It’s hard not to welcome the (long overdue) bump in storage that the iPhone 7 brings. The basic model now has twice the storage (32GB) of previous entry-level iPhones. And the other storage levels are doubled, too, to 128GB and a new top-end storage capacity of 256GB.

This will be a welcome development among those of us who quickly run out of space due to photos and other things clogging up the system.

(ii) The screen on both the iPhone 7 and the iPhone 7 Plus is bright and vivid, even it’s very close to the same screen you got on the last iPhone 6S and the iPhone 6 before that. The pixel resolution is actually identical -- 401 pixels per inch (ppi) for the iPhone 7 Plus model and 326ppi for the iPhone 7. But it’s about 25pc brighter than last year’s iPhones. And Apple has also added a colour-enhancing ‘wide colour’ feature first introduced on the iPad Pro and 5K iMac.

In terms of pure pixels, the iPhone 7’s screen is a semi-notch down on what you’ll get from one or two other top-end phones which boast ppi figures of 500 and over. But in reality, the difference is pretty very hard to make out on a 4.7-inch or 5.5-inch screen.

Unless you’re an absolute pixel nerd, I can’t see any reason why ‘only’ getting a HD screen would put one off getting this handset.

(iii) The iPhone 7 has added stereo audio, mainly through a new speaker around the earpiece. This works well, especially when looking at a video or clip with someone else: you don’t have to cup the top end of the phone to hear amplified audio. (You’ll still get louder audio if you cup the lower speaker, though, as it’s facing out from the end of the phone.)

It wasn’t quite enough to get me to settle down for a Netflix episode without headphones. But audio speakers are very underrated on phones. It’s good to have relatively decent ones.

(iv) The iPhone 7’s new A10 chip makes the iPhone 7 as fast as many laptops and PCs. This is ultimately of note because it’s going to let developers push the boat out more when it comes to more powerful, more useful apps.

9. In conclusion, if you buy one you’re getting a proper upgrade

The iPhone 7 may look and feel the same to pick up, but there’s a lot more going under the hood. And in the iPhone 7 Plus’s camera, the range has a genuine killer application.

Personally, I’d opt for a Plus is you can afford the stretch: the extra functionality of the double-camera is just too enticing to pass up.

As for price and availability, the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus are currently available to pre-order and go on general sale later this week.

The 4.7-inch iPhone 7 costs from €779 for the 32GB model. The 5.5-inch iPhone 7 Plus costs from €919 for the 32GB model. Irish mobile operators have 24-month contract subsidy deals ranging from €99 upwards.

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