Now that we've finished testing the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus, we can confirm that they're the best models Apple has ever produced, though not by much. Among the biggest changes: The new phones are water-resistant, they drop the traditional 3.5mm audio jack, and the larger of the phones has two rear-facing cameras.
If you're thinking about upgrading, you should know that while the manufacturer claimed big advances over the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus, we found only modest improvements in our labs.
For instance, while the 12.2-megapixel main cameras on the two phones are among the best we've seen, the still and video images they produced were not significantly better than those produced by their predecessors on the 6s and 6s Plus.
The dual cameras on the iPhone 7 Plus do bring one significant improvement: The 2x optical zoom offered by one of the cameras is a step up from the digital zoom on the old model's 1x (non-zoom) camera.
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Apple got a lot of attention—and some flack—for removing the headphone jack from its new iPhones. Our testers found that it did not harm the audio performance. The sound quality of the new Lightning EarPods appears to be no better or worse than that of the headphones that came with the 6s phones.
The new models have stereo speakers, a first for iPhones. The sound is a bit louder than that produced from the single speaker on the iPhone 6s Plus, according to our engineers, but the audio is more thin and tinny.
Our tests also didn't find much improvement in the new phones' battery life. For instance, talk time on iPhone 7 was an adequate 8 hours. On the iPhone 7 Plus, it was a more generous 13. By comparison, the LG G5 delivered more than 17 hours and the Samsung Galaxy S7 more than 20 in our testing. The S7 Edge stretched beyond 24 hours.
The bottom line: If you really want a water-resistant iPhone, you might want to spring for the upgrade. We've confirmed that the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus can withstand a 30-minute dunk in about 3 feet of water. But otherwise, there's little reason to abandon your iPhone 6s or 6s Plus.
The Finer Points
During our testing, we noticed a few minor details that didn't harm the phones' ratings, but they're worth noting.
When we tried to use the 2x optical zoom in dim lighting, the iPhone 7 Plus automatically chose the 1x camera instead, and applied a 2x digital zoom. According to Apple, the phone will also shift automatically to the wide-angle 1x lens when you’re too close to your subject for the zoom lens to focus.
The self-timer feature shoots photos only in burst mode, and in that mode image stabilization is disabled. That leads to some graininess in low-light photos. To avoid that problem, Apple says, you can connect your Lightning-enabled EarPods to the phone and press the Volume Up button to take a photo or trigger the shutter remotely using a Bluetooth accessory.
One concern raised by the loss of the analog 3.5mm headset jack was that customers could be corralled into an expensive world of Lightning headphones, Lightning adapters, and Bluetooth headsets. That might be true, but we also have some good news. While we were testing the audio against the iPhone 6s Plus, which has a 3.5mm jack, we noticed that the older phone acquired the ability to use Lightning headphones with the upgrade to iOS 10. In that sense, 6s owners can thank the iPhone 7 for some newfound versatility.
Overall, we recommend the new iPhone 7 and 7 Plus, which join the top ranks of smartphones on the market. They don't present a strong case for upgrading from the 6s models, but if you have an iPhone 6 or older smartphone, the 7 and 7 Plus might be worth considering.
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