Mossberg: Choosing the iPhone 7 is tougher than in the past


It’s a great phone, but where’s my headphone jack?

At a glance, you’d be hard-pressed to tell Apple’s new iPhone 7 and 7 Plus models, which go on sale Friday, from their 2015 and 2014 counterparts. They look almost identical and are the same sizes. But once you get your hands on them, the differences are clear: Better cameras, longer battery life, water resistance, doubled memory at essentially the same prices and more.

Oh, and upon closer inspection, you’ll notice something else: The disappearance of the age-old, standard, perfectly-fine audio jack that fits every earbud and headphone you own. Yeah, I know. I’m not crazy about that change either.

I’ve been using both the 4.7 inch-iPhone 7 and the 5.5-inch iPhone 7 Plus for nearly a week, equipped with the much improved iOS 10 operating system (which will be available for older models as well starting today). And I’m impressed. But I’m also annoyed. And impatient. All at the same time. Let me explain.

The impressive

The most important thing about the 2016 iteration of the iPhone is that, overall, it takes a truly excellent smartphone and makes it significantly better in a host of ways, even without overhauling the exterior design and despite the removal of the standard audio jack.

From Apple’s usual long list, I’ve picked five big improvements that impressed me most.

First, Apple is doubling the memory at every price point on both models, starting with 32GB at the low end ($649 for the smaller iPhone 7) and going all the way to 256GB ($969 on the costlier iPhone 7 Plus). The increase in base memory is long overdue, but it’s great to see higher memory at essentially the same price on costlier models (the larger Plus costs $20 more this year than last.)

Then, there’s battery life. Apple claims it’s adding two hours of battery life between charges to the smaller model, and one hour to the bigger one. This is mainly because of a bigger battery plus a clever new processor, which uses low-power cores for routine phone functions and only kicks in high-power cores when needed.

Battery life on phones is notoriously hard to test because it depends so heavily on what you’re doing and on how hard the phone has to work to find a strong cellular or WiFi connection. Still, in my short test period, on both coasts, the new iPhones had great battery life.

The bigger Plus easily turned in 13-15 hour days, often with power left in the tank, doing a wide variety of tasks. For instance, my test iPhone 7 Plus was at just a few minutes shy of 14 hours with 14 percent left when I got to my DC-area home after flying from San Francisco and using the phone heavily on cellular networks, and hotel, airport, and airplane Wi-Fi. That’s a scenario I usually find to be a battery-killer. The smaller model was typically in the 12-14 hour range, even after hours of streaming video and music.

An iPhone 7 partially submerged in water, taken from an Apple promotional video.
Apple

Then there’s water resistance — the ability to withstand being submerged in a toilet, sink or puddle for long enough to fish it out and still find it fully functioning. (Samsung phones have been water resistant for a while.) I left an iPhone 7 submerged in a large mixing bowl of water for about 20 minutes (it can go deeper and longer, Apple says — 1 meter for 30 minutes). It was fine when I fished it out and dried it off. No rice needed. The only effects were somewhat gravelly sound quality for about 5 minutes, and an admonition not to charge it for five hours thereafter.

Next, cameras. In my opinion, as a determined amateur who has never bought expensive cameras, the iPhone already had the best camera I owned. But Apple has redesigned it, with a larger, f/1.8 aperture that pulls in more light, a better flash and the ability to capture a wider range of colors. Yet that’s just the start. On the smaller iPhone, the camera now has optical image stabilization, which limits shaky shots — a feature available only on the larger model last year.

And that costlier iPhone Plus now has two cameras, one a wide-angle version and one a telephoto version. Through software, they act as one single camera, with easy, elegant controls. With just the tap of a button labeled “2X”, I was able to get vivid, detailed shots at true 2X optical zoom, not the grainy digital zoom smartphone users have been wise to avoid forever. For me, and I suspect many other average folks, real zooming is a huge deal, bigger than some of the more esoteric effects photo hobbyists might value. In fact, this beautiful zooming dual camera is the first feature I’ve seen that might lure me to a large-screen phone.

A side-by-side comparison of photos taken with the iPhone 7. On the left, a table with a caddy containing ketchup, salt, oregano and hot peppers. On the right, a closer version of the same image in which the flecks of oregano are sharply visible.
Walt Mossberg

The zoom feature on the iPhone 7 gets you close enough to smell the oregano.

Then there’s the operating system. This isn’t a review of iOS 10, which is a separate product from the iPhone 7. But since it comes with it out of the box, the two are wedded. And I found almost every aspect of it to be faster and better. Lock-screen notifications, widgets and the Control Center are more logically organized and easier to use. Messaging, maps, music, news and other features are improved. And then there are small things: For instance, to my surprise, the phone even automatically saved a map of and directions to where I’d parked my car.

The phone is also faster and its screen is brighter, and it has stereo speakers. But I wasn’t wowed by these things in my testing. You might be.

Apple has also replaced the home button with a non-mechanical, non-moving button that uses a vibration “engine” to simulate the feel of pressing a button. Three people I know said it felt like the whole bottom of the phone, not just the button, was being pushed. But it didn’t bother me, and it’s one less mechanical component to break.

The annoying

What did bother me was the aforementioned removal of the headphone jack. Yes, Apple has a long history of removing (and also pioneering) standard components, going back to the removal of the floppy disk from the first iMac in 1998.

I have often complained that Apple was acting too soon, but I always agreed that the move made sense at some point, because the displaced component (the floppy, the optical drive, the Ethernet jack) was being used less and less and there was something better (optical drives, the cloud, Wi-Fi) to replace them.

In this case, I see zero evidence that the 3.5mm audio jack is being used less or has hit a wall. It’s happily transmitting music, podcasts and phone calls to many millions of people from many millions of devices as you read this sentence. Apple says it needed replacing to make more room for bigger batteries and other components.

I also don’t see that Apple has come up with a better replacement. The company is clearly trying to move the whole industry towards wireless audio, which has never been great due to patchy Bluetooth connectivity, poor fidelity — especially for music — and limited battery life.

As a transition, the iPhone 7 includes Apple’s familiar white earbuds — and a free adapter — only with a Lightning connector at the end instead of the standard audio plug. It sounds the same. But now you can no longer charge your phone while making long phone calls or listening to music without a bulky adapter or dock. I label that worse, not better.

Apple says very few people do charge and listen at the same time. I respectfully disagree.

Two wireless AirPods — wireless earbuds — next to the iPhone 7 on a white background. They are white and shaped a bit like periscopes. The one on the bottom has some kind of design that looks like an exclamation point.
Stephen Lam/Getty Images

Next month, Apple will ship its take on wireless Bluetooth earbuds — called AirPods — which it hopes will solve some of the old wireless headphone woes and push the transition. Using a custom chip called the W1, the sophisticated AirPods supposedly make Bluetooth connections steadier and Bluetooth audio better. In my tests of pre-production AirPods, they delivered on these promises. And I could charge the phone while listening.

But the $159 AirPods only give you five hours of music listening time and two hours of talk time between charges in a handy little white case that provides 24 hours of additional juice. Apple notes that it’s proud of those numbers and that a fifteen minute charge in the case gets you another 60 percent of rated battery life. It adds that if you use only one AirPod for phone calls, and keep swapping it out for a fresh one, you could talk on and on. Still, to me, they impose a limitation that standard, wired earbuds don’t have.

(Note: During my testing one of the AirPods had trouble holding a charge, so Apple swapped it out. It didn’t affect my tests of connecting and listening and, since the product isn’t due out until late October, I can’t assume production units would have that problem.)

Not only that, but you have to charge the case periodically. Oh, and they kind of look like white plastic earrings. So you should hope that’s your style, if you’re planning to buy them.

I’m sure the wireless earbud and headphone revolution is upon us now and that, in a few years, the battery life will double or triple. For now, though, this Apple change of a standard component adds a hassle to your phone use, whether you are wired or wireless.

It’s an annoyance and a negative.

The impatient

I am impatient for Apple to do a top-to-bottom redesign of the iPhone, and the iPhone 7 isn’t it. Apple concedes this and strongly suggests a dramatic redesign won’t appear until next year, the iPhone’s 10th anniversary.

Let me stress: I am not for a redesign just for the hell of it. There are good reasons to change the look and feel of the iPhone, some of them evident in Samsung models. For instance, Samsung and others manage to fit a large screen like the one on the iPhone Plus into a smaller body and still squeeze in a big battery. But the iPhones still have big footprints for their screen sizes and big top and bottom bezels.

Another example: The iPhones still lack wireless or inductive charging. Adding that might require a redesign.

Bottom Line

The iPhone remains an outstanding smartphone, and this latest model makes it even better in many ways. And, unlike rival Samsung, Apple isn’t beset with the very serious problem of exploding batteries. But the whole audio jack thing makes choosing the iPhone 7 more difficult than it might have been.

You won’t go wrong buying the iPhone 7 if you can tolerate the earbud issue, especially if you’re on an installment plan like Apple’s that just gets you a new iPhone every year. You could get the iPhone 7 and then the big redesign next year, as long as you keep paying the monthly fee.

But despite the undisputed improvements, this new iPhone just isn’t as compelling an upgrade as many of its predecessors. Some might want to wait a year for the next really big thing — and maybe a better audio solution to boot.

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