Like adolescents coping with awkward changes to their bodies, the iPhone 7, due for release on Friday, introduces some uncomfortable transitions. They include the much ballyhooed removal of the headphone jack and the replacement of the physical home button with a virtual one.
For Apple customers, this creates a difficult choice. While upgrading iPhones in the past was typically a no-brainer, now people must wrestle with whether to deal with the hassle of having no audio jack. Many people could simply upgrade to last year’s model, the iPhone 6S, which is also a fast phone with great cameras and still has the jack.
Yet after testing the new iPhone 7 and its larger sibling, the 7 Plus, for five days, I have hopped on the 7 train. While it is irritating not to have an audio jack — Apple nixed the 3.5 millimeter port to make room for faster chips, better batteries and to make the iPhone water-resistant — and the older physical home button feels better to press than the new virtual one, the new iPhones deliver on Apple’s promises.
The iPhone 7 and 7 Plus are tremendously fast — more than double the speed of the two-year-old iPhone 6 — and their cameras produce superb, vivid photos. The battery life is improved, and the iPhones survived water torture tests.
And after a while, I didn’t miss the headphone jack as much as I thought. Apple is pushing people toward wireless earphones with the introduction of AirPods, its first wireless earbuds, which I tried. I found AirPods to be a decent first attempt at wireless audio, though there were glitches.
The bottom line: Those who have been waiting years to buy a new phone are in store for a major upgrade with the iPhone 7.
Why you don’t need a jack
When rumors surfaced about the iPhone 7, they centered on Apple’s omission of the decades-old headphone jack, one of the longest surviving technology standards. The now-discontinued port let consumers plug many accessories in, including speakers, earphones and credit card readers. Now the new iPhones have only one port for hooking up accessories: Apple’s proprietary Lightning connector that was traditionally used for charging the iPhone’s battery.
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Apple understood that parting with the audio jack would be painful. So it made two moves:
1) The new iPhones include a converter, or a dongle with a Lightning connector on one side, for plugging into the iPhone, and an audio port on the other end, for plugging in an audio accessory.
2) Also included in the box: A pair of wired earbuds with a Lightning connector.
For iPhone owners who relied on Apple’s included earbuds, the Lightning earbuds solve that problem. But for consumers hoarding lots of wired audio gear, the converter solution is less convenient since the adapter is tiny and easy to lose. If you have a pair of great wired headphones, your best bet is to leave the converter connected to the headphones so you don’t forget it.
The most convenient workaround to not having a headphone jack is to make the leap to wireless earphones. Apple’s wireless AirPods, due for release in October, cost $159 and come in a box that resembles a dental-floss dispenser. They connect to the iPhone’s Bluetooth connection via a proprietary chip in the earphones, called W1.
This makes setting AirPods up extremely easy: When you open the box next to the iPhone, the earphones automatically pair with the device. (The box also charges AirPods.) From there, you simply put the earphones on and start listening to music or podcasts; removing the earphones causes the audio to pause.
Here is where AirPods fell short for me: Sometimes when listening to podcasts, a glitch caused the podcasts to rewind and replay a small segment — an eerie echo. In addition, when using AirPods outside, there was occasional interference, causing the audio to crackle and cut out.
An Apple spokeswoman said the company was looking into the podcast issue, adding that the AirPods I tested were early hardware and that bugs should be resolved by the time they are released next month.
Over all, AirPods sound decent, with loud bass and clear audio quality, comparable to the wired earbuds that Apple has included in iPhones for years. They aren’t, however, sufficient for drowning out the thunderous prattle of a loud co-worker.
While AirPods do a good job staying in your ears, they look odd, like dangling short white stubs. They evoked mockery from one of my editors, who said, “Cigarettes belong in your mouth, not your ears, Brian.”
I recommend waiting for Apple to fix the issues with AirPods before considering them. Meanwhile, there are plenty of great Bluetooth headphones. My favorite is Bose’s QuietComfort 35, a pair of fantastic wireless noise-canceling headphones.
Speed, cameras and durability
The most compelling improvement on the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus is the sharp speed increase. Spurred by faster chips, everything — switching between apps, opening the camera — feels snappier. The iPhone 7 battery also gets about two hours more juice than the 6S.
Using the app Geekbench 4, I tested the speeds of the iPhone 7, 6S and 6. The iPhone 7 was 39 percent faster than the 6S and 114 percent faster than the 6. So people who bought the 6S last year can probably skip upgrading to the 7, but those holding onto a 6 and anything older will benefit from a tremendous performance gain.
Apple also improved the iPhone cameras. Like the 6S devices, the iPhone 7 devices carry 12-megapixel sensors. The difference is that both the new iPhones include optical image stabilization, a feature that helps photos remain clear even when your hands are shaky. The larger model, the 7 Plus, also includes a second camera on the back. The two cameras work together to show the photo’s main subject clearly while gently blurring the background.
In my tests comparing photos taken with the iPhone 6S, 7 and 7 Plus, as well as a competitor, Samsung’s Galaxy S7, photos taken with the 7 Plus had noticeably better detail when reviewed on a large computer monitor. But when reviewing photos taken with each camera side by side on a smaller smartphone screen, the differences were negligible.
So while the new iPhones have great cameras, I wouldn’t let that drive your buying decision. If you prefer a larger screen for reading and watching videos, consider the 7 Plus, but if you prefer something easier to carry in a pocket and type on using one hand, go for the 7. (The iPhone 7 has a 4.7-inch screen; the 7 Plus has a 5.5-inch screen.)
Lastly, Apple made changes to the new iPhones to improve durability. The iPhones are designed to be water-resistant. In my tests, they survived a swim in a water pitcher. The physical home button was replaced with a force-sensitive virtual one. It remains to be seen if the new home button will be more durable. In the past, one of the first components to wear out on older iPhones was the home button.
There are two types of tech consumers: Those who upgrade on a fairly regular cycle (about every two years with smartphones) to embrace new technology, and those who upgrade only when they feel they need to.
If you’re in the former camp and own an iPhone that is at least two years old, the decision is obvious: The iPhone 7 and 7 Plus are great upgrades. But if you just bought the iPhone 6S last year, the improvements will be incremental, and you may want to save your money for the next iPhone.
If you’re in the latter group, it’s a tougher question. If you have, say, the four-year-old iPhone 5, you will see a great improvement with an iPhone 6S or a 7. Your decision may come down to how much the lack of a headphone jack and physical home button bothers you. Audiophiles with lots of wired accessories, for example, may find using a converter too inconvenient.
But taking the leap to the 7 may be a wise bet, even for late technology adopters. Apple is likely to continue making iPhones without headphone jacks, and next year’s iPhone will have a full-screen face with the virtual button built directly into the screen, according to two people at the company who spoke on condition of anonymity because the product details are private. Apple declined to comment on next year’s iPhones.
To compete with Apple, rivals may also eliminate the audio jack to make room for faster processors, better batteries and more durable parts. (A little-known fact: Lenovo beat Apple to removing the audio jack in its new smartphone, Moto Z, released this year.)
Sooner or later, consumers will probably look back at the iPhone’s puberty phase and accept that changes had to be made for the smartphone to mature. I, for one, am looking forward to a future with fewer wires.
The New York Times