Apple held an event at the Bill Graham Auditorium at just about the regular time as they’ve done for years to announce their new iPhones.
Here’s a brief summary of what’s changed in this year’s phones.
As was rumored, the iPhones 7 have dropped the headphone jack. It was generally used as a single-purpose port based on an ancient design from the 1800s whose time had come.
In retrospect it seems amazing how this change was leaked early. Tech people were prepared for the change by the leaked information, and although they grumbled about it still they were more ready for the change after the leak as it became increasingly apparent that it was going to happen.
It’s not surprising how many people reject change, and although there are some not-so-great effects to this change, I feel like it is ultimately a positive one.
I can’t tell you how often I’ve caught a headphone cable on a door knob and had my headphones violently ripped out of my ears, or found earbuds tangled up in my pocket and given up trying to untangle them. Once, I even foolishly spent more than $100 on a set of earbuds only to have them break, and then the replacement from the company broke within a month. These cables break devices, they are the failure points in headphones, they get tangled and the port itself is often faulty. Pocket crud fills it up and causes random issues with the jack dropping one stereo channel or the other.
There are true negatives to the change, accessibility devices used that port. So do a number of other accessories that couldn’t afford to pay Apple’s certification fees for their Lightning port or where it was just the best mechanism to connect. I’ve got apps that process guitar audio and the only way to connect my guitar the hardware accessory for a long time was via the TRRS jack.
Fortunately Apple has solutions for almost everyone. An adapter ships in the box alongside a pair of their EarPod earbuds that use a lightning cable. The adapter will also be available separately for $9 which is pretty cheap.
I wonder if all of the accessories that have connected through that port over the past 9 years of iPhones will work with whatever hardware is in the adapter. It isn’t clear yet if it moves the digital audio converter outside of the phone yet or not and what capabilities it has. So I won’t know if this will work with my guitar kit.
Apple has also introduced their own wireless AirPod earbuds. All wireless headphones have tiny computers in them, the AirPods have a new system on a chip they call the W1. These look just like the regular EarPods but without a cable, and you’ll notice metal at the ends for the new microphone. They’re smart, they detect if one is pulled out because you want to hear something or someone in your vicinity and pause whatever you’re listening to. Pairing regular Bluetooth headphones can be a pain, but the AirPods begin the pairing process with your nearby Apple devices when you open their case. That case is pretty smart, too. It charges the AirPods whenever you put them away.
Since you can use just one AirPod you could swap between them for hours and hours of listening. I use one earbud all the time to keep a better ear to my surroundings when I’m listening to podcasts. These have the advantage of being smart enough to switch to monaural output when you press play after removing one.
Most Bluetooth earbuds have a cable between the left and the right sides in order to just have the one tiny computer and battery. I’ve got a Motorola set from years ago that do this, they’re tough to kill and have great battery life although they’ve finally lost the little dingus that keeps the cables organized and attached to the part that goes around my collar. That’s where they get thick and have their battery and computer. Otherwise, the earbuds themselves are just dumb cheap earbuds like most.
People complain about the price of the AirPods at $170, which is kind of ridiculous considering that Bluetooth earbuds without cables have a computer and battery in both ears in order to communicate with each other and whatever device they’re connecting to. Most of those sets are also way more expensive. A set of truly wireless earbuds that were originally crowdfunded and looked very interesting Bragi’s Dash, go for $300 and lose their connection between each earbud while in-use causing all kinds of issues. The AirPods will be available next month so we’ll find out then if they’re better, they should be.
There are other changes, but the headphone issue is front and center for most people. It’s reasonable to be upset about it, but wireless audio connections are pretty damn good already so I expect most people will be very happy to move to those headsets.
I’d still understand if this issue would make people hesitant to get these phones at first, but I think that the change is inevitable at this point. Where Apple goes, the rest of the phone and tiny computer in your pocket industry follow. There will be some holdouts, and the transition will not be fun, just as there were with hardware keyboards, flip phones, floppy drives, disc drives, but I’m excited for fewer wires. Finally.
Water resistant, not waterproof.
Moving on to other improvements. The iPhones are now water (and dust) resistant. For up to 30 minutes and 3.3 feet (1 meter), the iPhones 7 can remain in water. So a quick dunk in a toilet or pool shouldn’t be an issue, don’t make a habit of it or try to charge your phone for 5 hours after getting out. Apple won’t cover water damage to the phone under warranty, which makes sense. How do they know if it was in water for less than 31 minutes or 3.3 feet?
Every year when iFixit tears these devices apart I’m kind of surprised at what is inside besides electronics. If you build a computer you know there are gaskets and seals, but glue? An adhesive is what makes up much of the sealing around the device’s screen. It clearly works, they’ve used adhesives for years to keep small mobile computers like iPhones together, but it feels strange to me to buy something held together with glue even if it is in addition to screws.
The cameras on the iPhone are all improved, and there is one more of them if you get the larger Plus phone.
The front-facing camera people use for FaceTime video chat and selfies is now 7 megapickles and can record video at 1080p compared to the 5 megapickles of last year’s iPhone 6s and 6s Plus. The front-facing camera on my current iPhone, the 6 Plus, is just 1.2 megapickles. People love selfies, it’s how I take most of the pictures of my son and I together, this is a great improvement.
Previous big iPhone Pluses had a camera feature called optical image stabilization (OIS) that was exclusive to them. Both iPhones now have OIS in their primary camera on the rear of the device, which is great because it makes low-light shots much better as it physically moves the camera system to help keep the shutter open longer and let in more light. Hold out something in your hand and try to keep it steady. That is why we all need OIS.
I called it the primary camera because the Plus now has an additional camera on the back. The regular camera is wide-angle, as it always has been and needs to be in order to let in so much light. The new camera has the trade-off of letting in less light but giving you way more zoom. Apple calls it a telephoto lens, but it’s more like a regular lens in contrast to the wide-angle of the primary camera.
Unless your phone has a camera lens that physically protrudes and can change it’s length, it can only have digital zoom with the typical camera sensor and lens fixture. Digital zoom is complete garbage. All it does is crop whatever picture you get out of the regular sensor. You get less picture data and less of a digital thing means you’re getting crap. Images from phone cameras tend to look like impressionist watercolor paintings when you get in real close via a tight crop or “digital zoom.” This second camera gets you a real, physical, 2x zoom and cropping from that point will be much better than cropping from the wide-angle lens and sensor.
On the iPhone 7 Plus both cameras also work together to improve every photo you take. If you’re outdoors and taking a photo the image processors on the phone will try to get data from both sensors in order to make your pictures better. If you’re indoors and the telephoto camera can’t get enough light to take a good picture, the image processors will dump the data from that sensor. Brilliant.
Both of the cameras on the rear of the phone shoot 12 megapickles.
Adding in another camera is a bizarre but frankly necessary solution, and it’s impressive that Apple recognizes the necessity of making the hump on the back of the phones that contains the lenses and sensors larger in order to include this secondary camera system. Most people think of them as a company that puts form behind function in their designs, this is clearly the opposite. That hump is hideous, and makes the phone slightly more unwieldy because it can’t lay flat on a table. I think Apple recognizes that most people use cases, and cases easily make the hump a non-issue.
The iPhones 7 are, of course, faster. They have a new processor with the marketing name, A10 Fusion. The numbers are kind of not important, benchmarks show that they’re faster than their Android cousins, but you should use whatever device you’re comfortable with.
More important than the processor improvements are the fact that instead of going quad-core like other smartphones, the new iPhones are quadcore with a twist. The two other processor cores are slower. What, why? Because then less important tasks take less battery. Smart.
The display on the iPhone has improved, it now has a wide color gamut. This means that reds and greens are supposed to be more correct to life. The cameras are set up to capture this new detail, but that does mean most older photos won’t have the additional colors. It also means that we can’t see these improvements on regular phones and computers, so you and I won’t know what the wide color gamut looks like until we see a new iPhone in person while it is displaying something that has more color data in it.
It’s a little disappointing that the iPhone didn’t receive the true-tone display improvements of this year’s 9.7 inch iPad Pro. That feature detects the lighting conditions in a room or outside and makes a white background look like a sheet of paper would in the same room.
The home button will no-longer physically move. Instead, the phone will attempt to trick you into thinking it moved with haptic feedback. That same haptic feedback will be used throughout the operating system to make the virtual interfaces more physically responsive. I’ve had the home button on a few iPhones fail in the past, so this is a welcome improvement although I’m sure it will take some getting used to.
The speaker on the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus is now in stereo and can be twice as loud thanks to the speaker in the earpiece gaining new capabilities. If you watch shows or movies on your phone, this is great. If you ride public transit, I’m sorry for your loss.
One of the most important upgrades I’ve saved for last, and this has carried over to every other iOS device Apple sells, is that the 16GB models are finally dead. You cannot buy an iPhone with too little storage. The only options are 32GB, 128GB, and 256GB. These upgrades still cost too much at $100 for each storage bump, but I felt a small pain whenever a friend or family member bought a 16GB iPhone or iPad. It would have been nice if the base model were 64GB, that’s what I have in my current iPhone 6 Plus, it’s plenty, but 32GB goes a long way to making things better. It should have happened way sooner.
My biggest disappointment with these phones is that the design is largely unchanged from the past two years of iPhone. It’s becoming difficult to differentiate one rounded rectangle with a screen from another, and although Apple has replaced one color (Space Gray) with two others (Jet Black and a matte Black), I wish there were more physical improvements. The rumor mill says that these big design changes are coming next year, which will be the tenth anniversary of the first iPhone.
Would I buy these?
I like these improvements, but my initial plan was to keep using my iPhone 6 Plus until at least next year. It does what I need it to, in general, and these feel like a second “s year” for the iPhone. However, the resale value of that iPhone 6 Plus became almost nothing after this year’s lot were announced. Then along came T-Mobile with a deal to get people locked into two years of service. In exchange for trading in their iPhone 6 and 6s’, people could receive a severely discounted iPhone 7 or 7 Plus. It’s like if you were driving an older Honda and the gas station offered you an almost free new model if you keep buying their gas.
One of the reasons I love the iPhone is that I don’t usually have to deal with a carrier and their terrible service policies and retail stores directly. Attempting to upgrade my iPhone through this T-Mobile deal has proven why I hate doing business with cell phone carriers.
T-Mobile screwed up so badly they had to completely cancel the upgrade order I put in on the first day the phone became available and I’m still not sure if a phone is actually going to come in the mail and if they will actually honor their deal.
I would still recommend that most people save up and buy their phone outright from Apple in order to not have to deal with these carriers directly. Carriers are all scum.
Carrier issues aside, these new iPhones 7 are otherwise fine upgrades if you aren’t going to be very upset about the loss of the headphone jack and I would recommend upgrading to anyone on an iPhone 5 or older device. If you have an iPhone 6 or 6s, you probably shouldn’t do what I did unless you get that good of an upgrade deal. Next year’s iPhone may be an amazing improvement in appearance when this year’s was more about functional improvements to an existing design that is good.