End-Of-Life Review, iPhone 7 Plus


Closing in on four years ago I bought the then-new iPhone 7 Plus. It is the longest I have ever had a smartphone1. Granted, this should be expected; smartphones are maturing so we should expect to keep them for longer and longer periods of time. If the pattern were to continue, the phone I buy this fall should last until fall 2025.

So what is it like spending four years with the iPhone 7 Plus? Let’s see how the headline marketing features from its announcement hold up.

Design

The iPhone 7 Plus is too big for me, and with a case, holding it one handed becomes a challenge. I have dropped this phone an order of magnitude often than every previous iPhone simply because of its unwieldy size and weight. I have decidedly average hands but my hands feel strained if I hold it in the same position for too long. I acknowledge this is a completely self-inflicted wound—I could have had the regular iPhone 7 at the expense of a worse camera system—so I will refrain from deriding it on this point any more.

The contours around the edge of the phone are rounded. This has always been my least favorite iOS device shape through its association with the iPod Touch. In the formative years of the growing iOS family, the early 2010s, the iPhone had square edges, the iPod Touch had rounded edges and the iPad had pointed edges2. The rounded edge design has always felt cheap to me for this reason.

Overall, the details of this model refine upon the earlier versions of the type, the iPhones 6 and 6s. The camera bump is smoothed out into a continuous surface, no longer a separate element from the rear panel. The speakers and microphone are symmetrical thanks to the absence of the headphone jack (which the iPhone X and up regress on, interrupting the microphone with an antenna line). The antenna lines are more integrated into the design than before with better color matching and an improved shape. These are pleasantries that make an otherwise dull design feel nicer.

After three months of deliberating between Black and Jet Black finishes, I went with Black. I really love the Jet Black. The finish makes the phone appear as if it’s a single slice of glass, but I acknowledge that with all the scuffs and scratches I have on every corner of my phone, mine would not look nearly as sleek and polished as those I envy. Nonetheless, the Black is still attractive, and the finish has proven to stand up to many years of abuse—a far cry from the reports of finish chipping off iPhone 5 models.

Camera

The sole reason I suffered through a phone I considered too big for human ergonomics for such a long time is because of the then-new dual camera system.

Photos taken with the 1× wide-angle lens are rarely grainy, even in sub-par indoor lighting. The optical image stabilization (OIS) does a spectacular job eliminating camera shake. OIS doesn’t just make for more stable video; it helps keep photos in focus, too. This is especially important for Live Photos—the small snippets of video taken around pictures. All of this takes an incredible amount of processing power; in order to make the Live Photos feature work, the iPhone is continuously capturing video from the moment you open the camera. When you take a picture, the iPhone keeps about a second and a half of the video before and after the moment you pressed the button. Photos taken with this lens look great and the details upon zooming in hold up very well. This is the first iPhone camera that can take pictures high enough in quality to look good blown up on a wall.

Photos taken with the 2× telephoto lens are lower in quality but not poor. Images from this lens look much more natural to my eyes. There’s less ‘fish eye’ distortion for objects close to the camera around the edges. Because this lens has a smaller aperture it requires significantly more environmental lighting. If the lighting is insufficient it will take the picture with the 1× lens and crop the photo inwards. If it’s ever an edge case—late afternoon with the sun going down, indoors with only a few lights on—you can check if it’s really using the 2× lens by covering the 1× lens with a finger. Having the choice to take more professional-looking pictures with its narrow field-of-view at the tap of a button is a truly excellent feature3.

What you can enable when you have both of these cameras together is Portrait Mode. It’s commonplace among smartphones by now, so I’ll explain it only briefly: it’s a photo effect where the subject of the photo is clear in the foreground with a blurry background. When it used properly, it looks fantastic. Unfortunately it works under fragile circumstances. It can fall flat when there’s not enough light, the subject is a little too close or a little too far, the background isn’t distinct from the subject, there’s some extraneous object in the foreground that isn’t blurred out correctly, the subject has stray hairs, or if there’s a gap in arm or through glasses that isn’t blurred at all. It’s really great when it works, but it’s not very clearly explained to the user what it’s for or how to take one correctly.

There’s a front-facing camera too. It’s okay.

Home button

The Home button improvements from the iPhones 7 and 7 Plus are a classic example of the problems Apple loves to solve: Take something people feel neutral about and make it better in a way that makes the old way feel terrible and bad.

The Home button is not a button. It is a button-shaped impression in the glass that simulates a click when you press it. It’s absolutely unreal. In another classic Apple move, they add one more thing: you can adjust the button pressure. Do you want to press it hard with a lot of resistance or do you want to press it lightly with little?

This is the best the Home button has ever been. It feels like the final, inevitable stage in its evolution. But this is no longer 2016; the rest of the world has moved on. The suite of interface gestures built around the Home button—click once to go home, click twice to switch apps, hold for Siri, click three times for accessibility—feel clunky and slow. But this Home button-not-really-even-a-button will continue to faux-click for you, happily, forever, never wearing out.

AirPods

AirPods are a different product, not strictly a feature of the iPhone, but AirPods still fit into this story. They were launched alongside the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus as what Apple wants you to use in place of the removed headphone jack.

I was never among the people outraged by the decision to remove the headphone jack, even when it was rumored ahead of the fact. There were a lot of theories why: Did they remove it because they needed the space for the dual camera setup? No, they still had space, it’s even possible to add a headphone jack to a production iPhone. Was it because they wanted to improve waterproofing? I don’t buy that either because the headphone jack is almost completely insulated by design; water is more likely to enter through the speakers or the seams in the display and buttons and those already had rubber gaskets around them since the iPhone 6s. We in 2020 have the benefit of hindsight. We can say it’s probably because Apple knew they had to remove the headphone jack in next year’s iPhone X, but they didn’t want the story journalists wrote about their completely redesigned fancy new expensive phone to be all about the missing headphone jack. They removed it a year early so that the iPhone 7 would take the fall and the story surrounding the exciting new iPhone X could be all about how new and exciting the iPhone X is.

I can’t say I miss the headphone jack anyways. If you have AirPods, then you already know that they’re a much better product than the wired earbuds ever could be. If you don’t, then you still get a pair of earbuds that plug in the Lightning port instead. If you understandably don’t like Apple’s wired earbuds, then you get an adapter in the box, too. They give you all the tools they can offer to make it a seamless transition.

It’s the last paragraph in the AirPods section of the review, so I suppose I should actually review the AirPods. AirPods are a rare example of a brand-new product that answers every design choice correctly from the start. As a product, their design is simply too advanced for modern day battery technology—the tiny batteries inside them degrade with moderate use after just a year and a half.

Longevity

An adage about Ford cars is that the engine will outlive everything else. A blessing and a curse, it leaves you in a rusted shell with no AC, torn seats, a cracked and broken interior, questionable exhaust and twice-replaced sound system. You just can’t replace the car because it still runs fine4. The same thing happens to an iPhone when you keep it for four years. The speakers are barely audible. Every six months I go through a scare where the phone won’t charge, I clean out the Lightning port with a toothpick and pull several clumps of pocket lint out. Every corner is dented in some way or another, but you wouldn’t notice because it’s hidden beneath in a case that is also torn on every corner. The case hasn’t been taken off in at least a year; I wouldn’t dare risk it as it is holding together a large crack in the screen.

But the engine still runs. Blazingly fast. We are long past the days where every upgrade is a night-and-day performance shift5, regardless of whether you upgrade every year or every three. It is not unreasonable for me to expect my next phone to last me at least five years.

So how do I rate the iPhone 7 Plus? It was the best smartphone in 2016. It is without a doubt the best smartphone I’ve owned. Despite this, it is my least favorite. It is sufficient for performing the tasks asked of it, but I don’t find joy in using such a large phone. The design does not inspire. Needless to say, I’m looking forward to October.

Footnotes

  1. For those that are curious, here is my smartphone history: iPhone 4, July 2011; iPhone 5s, December 2013; iPhone 7 Plus, December 2016.
  2. I’ve always thought an iPhone with pointed edges like the iPad would be an interesting design.
  3. If you're keeping track, you know by now that I a) dislike big phones, and b) love the wide angle lens/telephoto lens camera setup. If rumors are to be believed, what do I do in the fall if the new iPhone lineup includes a desirably sized 5.4″ iPhone with a 0.5× lens instead of a 2× lens? I have no idea. Maybe I'll spend another three months deliberating over this, too.
  4. Based on a true story.
  5. Well, at least on this side of the pond.