Apple spent a lot of time today explaining that the iPhone 7 is the most “refined” iteration yet. Which is just a fancy way of saying that this phone’s design is going to look very similar to last year’s phone. Aside from a slightly different finish for the jet black model (glossy!), some redesigned antenna lines, and that apocalyptic loss of a headphone jack, the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus look very similar to their predecessors.
In a way this makes sense—over the last decade, Apple’s phone has come a very long way, and you would expect the design to plateau a bit. The need for radical changes disappears as the asymptote approaches what people really want.
But far from just a listless can-kick forward, the iPhone 7's got big changes that will surely turn some heads.
The home button isn’t a button anymore, which is weird
There are rumors that Apple will be killing the home button next year, but for now it remains, albeit in hardly recognizable form. It’s now a solid-state component with no moving parts. It makes up for this thanks to a “taptic engine,” which gives you vibration feedback much like the buzzing of the iPhone 6s’ 3D Touch screen.
Pressing on the button for the first time, I was shocked at the immediate vibration feedback. The good news is that while it’s not actually a clicky button with moving parts, the very responsive vibration makes it feel like one.
The bad news is, well, that the button vibrates. This is different than the slight vibration/feedback you get on the current-generation iPhone when you use TouchID or Apple Pay. It’s more pronounced and forceful feedback.
The Apple rep who demonstrated the new home button told me it took him just a few minutes to get used to the feel of the vibration. I think it may take some users longer, just because getting used to feeling a vibration under your finger after years of not having one is a bit of a trip.
Mercifully you can adjust the “click” sensitivity of the home button, and apparently even broader customization is coming. By default, the sensitivity is set at level 2, but you can make it require a lighter or harder touch to click. Personally, I thought option one—which required just a soft touch—was the best.
Even if the vibration isn’t immediately your bag, getting rid of moving parts comes with advantages. For example, you’ll never have to worry about a home button sticking or breaking again. Even better, it means that the phone is now waterproof. For anyone who has ever dropped an iPhone in a sink (or a toilet) and then had to immediately soak it in a bag of rice, you know this is a big improvement. Of course, the iPhone isn’t the first water- and dust- resistant phone. Samsung, Sony, and others have been at this game for a while. It took Apple longer, but it got there.
The new camera has the potential to be incredible
The flashiest feature by far of the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus is the new camera system. Broadly, the camera system on both phones has been redesigned to work better in low light and to capture colors more accurately and with better focus. The real story with the cameras, though, is the new dual-lens system for the iPhone 7 Plus. Apple slapped two 12-megapixel cameras into the back of the device, which work in concert. It might be the most powerful mobile shooter ever made.
The key here is that the dual cameras aren’t exactly the same. One of them has the same 28mm lens that’s on the back of the iPhone 7. The other is a new 56mm “telephoto” lens. This means that by toggling between the cameras, you get a 2x optical zoom—none of the fake-ass digital zoom that only ruins your photos.
By default, you’re using the wide-angle 28mm lens, but after a tap on the “1x” button, you immediately go to the 2x mode, which engages the longer lens that’s zoomed in.
You can also use digital zoom for up to 10x. The 10x digital zoom looks like terrible digital zoom—though in my brief tests it definitely had less noise than most digital zoom implementations. And I was downright blown away at what the software zoom could pull off at 5x. You still get a grainy digital zoom effect, but the distortion and pixelation around the edges was much, much less visible than normal.
Unfortunately, the coolest trick Apple will have for the iPhone 7 Plus camera isn’t ready quite yet. Its depth-of-field mode that will use both cameras to capture great-looking bokeh effects. Basically, the camera will take the foreground image with the telephoto lens and use the wide angle to help blur imagery in the background. This is a feature that won’t be available until later this year, but the samples I saw looked great. Even better, Apple is opening up functionality to developers. too.
I use a Sony RX100 MkIV as my day-to-day pocket camera. Although I’m sure it will take better photos (and has more zoom) than an iPhone 7 Plus, I’m not sure the difference would be worth it those times I really don’t want to bring that (very tiny) camera with me.
It goes without saying that the new iPhone models will almost certainly be the best iPhones made. Apple could probably shrug out a minor upgrade and tens of millions of people would buy it before the end of the year. It’s refreshing that Apple appears to be trying to do things differently, and to move phone technology forward. Sure, maybe the home button will annoy us to death. And maybe the camera won’t live up to Apple’s hype. But we can say these changes are different than anything that has come before. Indeed, though we haven’t had the chance to fully review the phone—stay tuned—it’s clear that the iPhone 7 is hiding some very big ideas in that very familiar aluminum chassis.