The iPhone 7 is the best iPhone since the iPhone 6S

The same, but different.
The same, but different.
Image: Apple
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Before the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus were even released, rumors swirled that the phones would be underwhelming, and perhaps even boring. And then on stage in California two weeks ago, Apple unveiled something very similar to what many people already carried in their pockets: The iPhone 7, from the outside, looks exceedingly similar to the two iPhone models that preceded it.

The iPhone 7 is a great refinement on an already proven design, even if it wasn’t the massive overhaul that consumers have come to expect from Apple phones every two years. The 7 has a nicer camera, a faster processor, a slightly better battery and more storage space—all things that a customer might expect when Apple releases an “S” version of one of its models. This is not an overhaul, but almost like a nostalgic sequel to a successful movie that you didn’t really expect, but aren’t particularly annoyed or enthralled by. It’s like Toy Story 3.

Whether you need a new iPhone in your life will really depend on how much you feel the need to have the newest gadgets in your pocket, or if you’re due for an upgrade. There’s nothing groundbreaking about the new iPhone, but also nothing particularly terrible either.

Here’s what Quartz found after spending time with Apple’s newest flagship phone, the iPhone 7 Plus:

What’s good

The camera. At first blush, the iPhone 7 Plus, with its two cameras, seems to be where Apple spent the majority of its time upgrading this phone over the last one. The pictures shot from the 12-megapixel cameras are sharper, the colors deeper, and videos are far more stable than on old iPhones. The second camera also allows the phone to zoom optically at 2x—meaning you can zoom in twice the distance you can see on the screen with the same resolution. They say the best camera is the one you have on you, and the iPhone 7 Plus will do very, very well for you in a pinch. This random photo came out pretty great:

(It’s also worth noting that the iPhone 7 only has one camera, instead of two. It can do just about everything the 7 Plus cameras can, apart from the 2x zoom.)

It’s water-resistant. If you’ve ever dropped your phone down the toilet, spilled a drink on it, or gotten in some sort of waterborne trouble, you’re in luck: The new iPhone is immune to spills and dips in water. We tested it out when we first got the phones, and although the speakers seemed to have some trouble with the wetness, everything was fine in the end. However, you shouldn’t take this phone swimming—it’s only rated to withstand a little bit of water for short periods of time (you could shower with it, if you felt so inclined), and Apple’s warranty won’t cover any water damage to the phone.

The new finishes. The iPhone looks as good as it did last year in silver, gold, and rose gold, but now comes in two shades of black. Matte black, which I chose, is still a pretty deep black. It smudges easily from fingerprints, but has this nice industrial aesthetic, like a zinc tabletop or a coffee store in the hip part of town with exposed brick.

The new crowd.
The new crowd.
Image: Apple

Then there’s the new jet black option, of which there is none more black. Looking into it feels like staring into the abyss that are the eyes of lead Apple designer Jony Ive, as if through this black you can see what Ive meant when he said the iPhone 7 was the truest representation of the platonic ideal of an iPhone. Also, it scratches very easily. (More on that below.)

The speakers. Apple has promoted the iPhone 7 as its first phone with “stereo” speakers, and this is technically true. When taking calls on speaker mode, or listening to music without headphones, the iPhone can blare sound out of the two speakers on the bottom of the phone, but also the earpiece of the phone. It’s not going to replace your stereo, but the iPhone 7 sounds pretty good in a pinch. But be warned: It seems that the earpiece is now also much louder than it has been on previous models. With that in mind, turn down the phone’s volume before making your first phone call, lest you blow out your ear drum.

Battery life. The battery life on the 6S Plus was never a massive concern, but so far with the iPhone 7, I can easily go an entire day using my phone quite heavily and still have lots of battery life to spare. Even processor-intensive games don’t seem to be too much a drain on the iPhone. For example, I played about an hour of CSR Racing 2, a new racing game that seems to put an emphasis on making the cars in the game look as lifelike as possible, and it only took off about 2% of my battery life. On older iPhones, that could well have been 10%-20%.

iOS 10. Apple’s latest mobile operating system, iOS 10, has some updates that highlight the iPhone 7’s abilities. Apple has renovated iMessages, and has added the ability to throw in all sorts of crazy animations, which can only be accessed using 3D touch—the hard press function that can bring up additional menus. Also, thanks to Apple’s new computer operating system, macOS Sierra, you can now use the iPhone to authorize Apple Pay payments on your computer, and your iPhone can access all the files on your computer through the new version of its iCloud Drive software. (It’s worth pointing out that all these features are also available on the iPhone 6S.)

The new zoom function on the iPhone 7 Plus.
The new zoom function on the iPhone 7 Plus.
Image: Apple

What’s not so good

It looks just like an iPhone 6. Put it in a case, or just hold it in your hand, and it’s very difficult to tell that you’re in possession of a brand-new $800 smartphone, rather than a two-year-old phone that you could grab for about $200 online.

The new finishes. While most of them look quite nice, the new jet black finish seems to scratch so easily that if you look at it wrong it’ll lose its sheen. Even Apple recommends putting this model in a case.

The camera. The camera is still no replacement for a professional camera, no matter what Apple’s advertising suggests. And one of the double-cameras’ biggest features, the ability to create images with depth of field, such as where you can create portrait shots of people in pin-sharp focus while the background is blurred, wasn’t even available at launch. A beta release version of this software was released for developers Sept. 21, but it’s unclear when it’ll be available to the general public.

On top of that, the new camera feels buggy. It’s frozen on me multiple times in the last few days. There have even been instances where I’ve taken a photo, the camera app freezes, and I find the photo in my photo album days later.

The home button. The new home button takes some getting used to, especially considering it’s not actually a button. It’s essentially just a capacitive circle at the bottom of the phone that vibrates subtly when you press it. The vibration from the “Taptic” engine—the same type of vibration system that creates the buzzes and taps on an Apple Watch—feels like it comes from the middle of the back of the phone, rather than below the button, like it should. It’s just odd.

Also, with iOS 10, you no longer swipe to unlock your phone—you have to press down on this new non-button. But don’t press too hard, or you’ll activate Siri, and don’t press too lightly, or nothing will happen.

No headphone jack. Whatever you make of Apple’s “courageous” decision not to include a headphone jack in the iPhone 7, it’s a bit annoying in practice right now. You’re required to use the earbuds Apple provides, which plug into the Lightning port (and have had software issues since launch), or use the awkward one-inch dongle to connect a regular pair of headphones to the Lightning port, which just doesn’t fit particular well in a pocket. Or, you can use a pair of wireless headphones, though most of the ones on the market are either expensive or not very good. Apple’s own fancy answer to wireless headphones, the $159 AirPods, won’t be available until “late October.” It does feel a bit strange that Apple felt so bold as to kill off a 138-year-old standard, but didn’t have its replacement ready in time for launch.

I tested out the iPhone 7 Plus with a pair of Bose SoundLink wireless headphones that I tend to only use on planes and trains and other places where I try not to get tangled in wires. They worked fine, as they had on the iPhone 6 and 6S, which is to say, they still had issues. Every so often, the Bluetooth link will cut out, making your music sound like you’re on a cellphone call with someone going through a tunnel. Apple has said the connectivity of its AirPods will be better, but as they’re not out yet, I can’t tell you if that’s true.

A rose gold iPhone 7 in its natural habitat.
A rose gold iPhone 7 in its natural habitat.
Image: Quartz/Dave Gershgorn

Doesn’t feel faster. The iPhone 7 has a new Apple A10 processor inside, ostensibly a better chip than the one in the iPhone 6S, but I haven’t found the phone to be particularly speedier than the 6S. That said, as bigger, more complex games and apps start hitting the App Store, that may well change.

Should you get one?

If you’re running around with anything older than an iPhone 6, you’ll notice a massive difference with the iPhone 7, and the upgrade would definitely be worth it. It’s a great phone, but so is pretty much every iPhone that Apple has ever released. Coming from an iPhone 6S, I haven’t really noticed much—apart from the missing headphone jack and non-clicky home button. It’s definitely not a must-have phone if you have a newer iPhone, but it also won’t disappoint you. That is, unless you have nice headphones that you like to listen to music with.

If this phone had been released just a few weeks earlier, I would’ve said that it was the second-best smartphone available on the market, behind the Samsung Galaxy Note 7. But considering those have spent the last month or so spontaneously combusting around the world, it’s hard to recommend it over the iPhone 7. Samsung had a real chance to run away with the high-end smartphone market in 2016, as Apple seemed prime to bide its time until a complete refresh of the iPhone on its 10-year anniversary next year. But until Samsung sorts out its supply channels, it seems Apple will likely have the hit phone of the holidays, if just by default this time.

The iPhone 7 starts at $649 and the 7 Plus at $769. Both are on sale from Apple now, if you can get your hands on one.