Apple’s annual Special Event is an industry staple, as dependably scheduled as it is unimaginatively named. Every September, the company announces its next smartphone, and this year it was the iPhone 7. Given that Apple leaks like the open end of a garden hose, none of the phone’s features were too surprising, but there was a sense of finality about the event. It did, after all, mark the end of the era of the headphone jack.
At least, that’s what Apple wants us to believe.
For months, rumors that the iPhone 7 wouldn’t have a 3.5mm audio jack have stirred frustration and controversy. Its absence was confirmed at Wednesday’s event. Apple’s response to naysayers? That it was the courageous thing to do.
Before we dig into the controversy of the audio port’s demise, let’s take a good look at the actual products Apple revealed: the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus. Both bear more than a passing resemblance to their forebears, but there’s enough different here to warrant a second glance.
I See You, Antenna
The plastic bands that wrapped around the back of the last two iPhone models have had their own share of controversy. They marred the unibody aesthetic of the phones but were functional, giving the internal radio antenna access to the outside world. In the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus, Apple’s finally gotten rid of them. No longer are there plastic gaps for radio signals because the phone’s antenna isn’t on in the inside anymore; it’s been built into the chassis itself.
However, that doesn’t mean it is invisible. The new antenna curves around the top of the phone in an almost Tron-like pattern, designed to amplify radio signals so you get clear cellular service. On four of the five models it’s rather obvious, and on several it’s downright glaring, a clear design element that won’t quiet unibody purists anytime soon. The fifth jet black model – we’ve heard it called “piano black,” but it’s really just a super-glossy black finish – is the outlier. You can see the antenna lines if you look closely, but the finish and coloring give you the sense that your phone is one big onyx slate.
Apple’s home button is nearly as iconic as the iPhone itself, and no other brands (excepting copycats, of course) have rallied behind the broad circular input. Part of that is because the iPhone’s home button takes up so much space: It demands much more real-estate than the pill-shaped buttons Samsung and OnePlus favor, which means there’s a wide bezel at the bottom of the phone and an equally large one on top to keep things symmetrical.
While the home button is still around on the iPhone 7, it’s not actually a button anymore. Instead it’s a recessed circular pad with a Touch ID sensor. Apple’s ditched physical depression in favor of its Taptic Engine, a magnetic vibration element it first premiered in the MacBook. You can still press on the home button and it will respond, but you won’t get a satisfying click so much as a buzzy thump back against your finger.
If the rumor mill is to be believed, Apple ditched the moving part to help waterproof the phone, and indeed the iPhone 7 now claims IP67 water resistance. This means you can carry it in the rain, keep it in a soaked pants pocket, or drop it in the sink or toilet without risking your favorite toy. The success of the Taptic home button is a question best left to our full review, but at this point we’re definitely skeptical.
Apple and Samsung are locked in a camera war, and as of now Samsung’s Galaxy S7 and Note7 are leading; their rapid focus technology and great color depth have helped them edge out the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus.
With the release of the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus, though, that could well change. Apple has upped its cameras’ specs to match industry norms, offering 12MP sensors, optical image stabilization and f/1.8 apertures. This is all far from groundbreaking, but Apple’s strength has always been in its digital image processing. If what we saw on stage at the Special Event was accurate, the resulting photos should be stunning.
The real story here, of course, is the iPhone 7 Plus, which packs a second 12MP camera. Double-camera smartphones are nothing new – LG has been doing them for a while now – but Apple’s take is elegant and seamless, letting you switch between a classic wide-angle lens and a telephoto lens that sports 2x optical zoom. Apple’s digital zoom (up to 10x on the iPhone 7 Plus) also benefits from the phone’s dedicated image processing chip.
Apparently it’s not quite ready for prime time, but by the end of the year Apple will send out a free software update to all iPhone 7 Plus devices, adding an additional portrait control. This option uses both cameras to generate a depth map of your scene, letting you isolate targets with gorgeous depth-of-field and see real-time, deep-depth previews as you line up your shot. Again, depth mapping with cameras isn’t new, but it’s always been clunky in other companies’ iterations. Here, Apple has brought its trademark polish to bear.
The Headphone Jack: Inevitability vs. Timeliness
Let’s get one thing out of the way early: Wireless headphones are an inevitability.
On-stage at its Special Event, Apple claimed that ditching the ubiquitous headphone jack was a deft step toward the future, an example of its having “the courage to move on.” Such steps are nothing new for Apple – they were, after all, the first to ditch the floppy disc and DVD drive, and both decisions were unquestionably prescient.
Other, similar hardware changes have seemed less wise in retrospect. Apple stopped including an Ethernet port on its MacBooks, and now most of its users buy USB Ethernet adapters; wireless is common, but there are still too many situations where having a wired connection is crucial to connectivity. Apple pushed forward with the change too quickly, and the world still hasn’t caught up. It’s happening again, only this time with the audio jack.
Getting rid of the port will eventually be smart, but it’s not the right move right now. Wireless headphones are okay but inferior to wired setups – Bluetooth technology still has a long way to go. Apple knows this, which is why it announced its new wireless AirPods and the Apple W1 chip, which communicates with higher wireless fidelity than common Bluetooth. The tech is great, but it means buying more expensive headphones and recharging yet another. AirPods, for example, will only get a measly five hours of battery life when they’re released this October.
Granted, you can still use wired headphones with the included Lightning-to-analog adapter or simply listen with Lighting-cable headphones, but both solutions use the phone’s charge port, and the iPhone 7 doesn’t support wireless charging. Want to listen to tunes while recharging your phone at your desk? Too bad. Own an older car that doesn’t have a Bluetooth-capable stereo system? You won’t be able to plug in that AUX cable and charge your phone at the same time.
Eventually, getting rid of the headphone jack will be the right move, but Apple’s doing it too early, and it’s not hard to guess why: The company needs a win. iPhone sales dipped for the first time this year, and there’s been a noticeable dearth of true innovation in its product line. By dropping the wires, Apple gets to make headlines, appear different and modern, and pad its bottom line with earnings from Lightning and W1 chip licenses. We just get inconvenience.
iPhone 7: Pricing, Preorders and Release Date
There’s a lot more to talk about with the iPhone 7, particularly on the performance side. Apple’s introducing its new A10 Fusion chip with some impressive claims of speed – quad-core processing, dedicated low-power cores, a new GPU with 50 percent increased graphics power and so on – but without a test device in our hands, we can’t verify any claims. Rest assured, when we get our review device in for testing, we’ll run it through our customary benchmark gauntlet and see how it fares.
You can preorder the Apple iPhone 7 or iPhone 7 Plus starting this Friday, September 9. Shipments should begin arriving in fans’ mailboxes the following week, on September 16. The iPhone 7 starts at $649 for the 32GB model, with 128GB and 256GB models available for $749 and $849, respectively. Meanwhile, the iPhone 7 Plus starts at $769 for 32GB and goes up to $869 for 128GB and $969 for 256GB. If you want the glossy finish jet-black model, it’s only available in 128GB or 256GB, so budget accordingly.