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iPhone 7 review roundup: A very good iPhone, but not a clean leap forward

Reviews of the iPhone 7 and its associated AirPods are now making the rounds. When Apple unveiled the devices last week, the discussion largely centered around the company’s decision to remove the headphone jack and offer a dongle as a replacement solution for conventional 3.5mm wired earbuds. Another major announcement of the show was the company’s AirPods — wireless earbuds that connect via Bluetooth, albeit Bluetooth with a custom protocol courtesy of Apple’s W1 microprocessor.

Outside of the headphone and AirPods, which we’ll discuss separately, it seems the first round of reviewers generally like the changes to Apple’s new phone. The additional camera lens and telephoto zoom on the iPhone 7 Plus is widely lauded, and the camera is easily the best Apple has ever shipped. Apple’s new A10 Fusion processor has been discussed as a quad-core, but it turns out that’s not quite the right way to think about it. Ars Technica’s Andrew Cunningham confirmed that applications running under iOS 10 only “see” two physical processors and top out at 100% usage for each logical core. Apple’s A10 Fusion, in other words, acts more like the early implementations of big.Little, in which applications saw either the high-performance or high-efficiency cores, but not both at the same time.

Clock speeds on the new cores are higher, however, with the A10 reaching 2.34GHz compared with 1.84GHz for the A9. That 27% clock speed jump accounts for most (though not all) of the improved performance. Turn on Low Power Mode, and the system drops to 1.04GHz on the smallest CPU cores.

GPU performance has risen by 30-50% depending on the application and CPU performance more-or-less hits the 40% target that Apple specified. Battery life has improved by 47 minutes between the new iPhone 7 and the iPhone 6s and 122 minutes between the iPhone 6s Plus and the iPhone 7 Plus. Interestingly enough, the iPhone SE continues to score extremely well. Larger screens mean higher power draw, as do higher resolutions. Improved SoC and better power management can tamp down some of the increase, but there’s something to be said for a lower-power device.

Everyone generally approves of the iPhone 7’s increased storage tiers (now 32GB, 128GB, and 256GB), though Apple can scarcely claim much high ground here — Android devices have been offering higher storage base configurations for years, and the advent of 4K video has made 16GB a ludicrous starting point.

These three issues have been major points of contention since the iPhone 7 was announced. We stand by what we said last week — calling the decision to remove the iPhone’s headphone jack a moment of “courage” was farcical, even by Apple’s over-inflated sense of self-importance. These are separate topics, however, and deserve to be treated separately.

First, there’s the overall loss of functionality. If you were a person who simultaneously charged your device and used a pair of headphones, too bad. There will undoubtedly be some third-party docks with port options for both a battery and a 3.5mm jack, but there’s no free solution to the problem beyond not buying an iPhone 7. Better battery life will help to some extent, but it’s not a perfect solution. The chances that Apple will reverse course and bring back the headphone jack are practically nonexistent, so if this is really a deal breaker, you’re either going to be using an Android device or making do with an older iDevice.

Next up, AirPods. There’s some good news here: The music quality of the AirPods is better than the old EarPods according to some reviewers, though whether the AirPods will fit your ears depends on how your ears are shaped. They don’t form a tight seal, which means if you want an in-ear solution, these aren’t it. By all accounts they “just work,” and may well work better than Bluetooth earbuds. Pairing is mostly flawless and the devices can pick up and match older iDevices as well as newer ones, provided they are running macOS Sierra or iOS 10.

A few points of clarification. Last week, early reports indicated that AirPods might be Apple-specific. We now know this isn’t the case — you’ll be able to pair them as Bluetooth devices with other Android hardware, older iDevices not on iOS 10, or Windows PCs provided they support the Bluetooth standard. The pairing button is on the AirPod case rather than the pods themselves, and works like standard Bluetooth, for better or worse. I’ve never had the problem with generic Bluetooth earbuds that some of the reviewers seem to have run into, though I’ve also only used them for the past year. Still, the earbuds I’ve used tend to be $20 Aukey Bluetooth models from Amazon, not high-end hardware, and I’ve never had an issue with signal drops or lag. Apple claims to be proud of its charge time, but the 5 hours the AirPods offer is on par with the Aukey earbuds I own now.

As for whether anyone can make wearing a set of AirPods look good, well, images around the web speak for themselves. Apple does not intend to license the W1 chip or allow third-parties to buy it. If you want these features, you’re buying into Apple’s world (and you’ll need to use iCloud for automatic pairing). The general feeling on Apple’s decision to remove the headphone jack is “Sucks, but you’ll get used to it.” None of the published reviews state that this is enough of a reason to avoid the iPhone 7 altogether.

The review conclusions are surprisingly tepid given that Apple delivers improvements on a number of fronts. Walt Mossberg, writing for The Verge, states: “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.”

The New York Times is slightly more positive, writing: “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.” This is a common point with most smartphone cycles — you’ll see a larger boost if you skip a generation. Wired pins the promise of the device on its camera and the new taptic engine, which replaces the physical Home button. Besides that, the publication notes: “So far, unless you have a bad history with phones and toilets or an intense goth streak, there’s nothing about the iPhone that would make any 6s or even 6 owner jump at the upgrade.” Wired does think the camera and taptic engine are good enough to make the iPhone 7 exciting (there’s no short quote that captures this).

I’ve been an iPhone user since 2009, and I’ve watched the headphone jack situation unfold with some interest. I don’t consider AirPods a replacement for a wired jack and I’m not interested in buying a different dongle to enable the same use case my current iPhone offers now. The iPhone SE offers the best combination of battery life, value, and device features that personally interest me — except you’re still stuck with 16GB of storage on the base model. Once Apple updates the SE they’ll presumably kill the headphone jack at the same time they increase the base storage.

The iPhone 6s may now be the best pick. While its battery life isn’t as good as the SE, it’s nearly the same size and offers a 32GB base storage tier. It’s also got a headphone jack. Then again, Apple’s entire schtick for the past decade has been that it offers a no-compromise premium experience, not a pick-which-features-matter-most option. If I were personally buying an iPhone today, the iPhone 7 would be third, behind either the SE or the 6s.

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