Our secret shoppers lined up before dawn this morning at retailers across the New York area to bring Apple's newest mobile devices, the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus, to Consumer Reports labs. We buy all the products we test just like consumers do.
The new iPhones look very much like earlier models. But new features and hardware upgrades give them some advantages over predecessors. Here's what Consumer Reports testers and I have found so far:
First-Day Test Results
Water resistance. These are the first water-resistant iPhones, designed to withstand a 30-minute dunk in about 3 feet of water. Several other phones on the market are designed with the same spec (the lingo is IP67). Our initial results support Apple's claim, but as always we'll wait at least 24 hours to make sure the phones are still working before we conclude that they passed the test.
Still photography. Apple said it improved its front- and back-facing cameras for the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus. Our initial tests, however, found that still images produced by the main 12-megapixel camera were not significantly better than the ones produced by 6s-series iPhones.
The 5.5-inch iPhone 7 Plus has a second, 2x telephoto lens on the back, and our engineers found that camera's performance to be notably better.
Low-light performance was about the same in the iPhone 7, iPhone 7 Plus, and the older iPhone 6s.
We will be testing the cameras on additional phones to confirm our results, and also conducting in-depth video testing over the coming days.
Touch ID. One significant change to the iPhone 7 is the lack of a mechanical home button. The new "button" is just a region of the touchscreen that vibrates to simulate the click of a button. This is known as "haptic" feedback.
On the iPhone 7, it feels like you're pushing a real button. But using it can be a bit tricky. Often, my efforts summoned Siri instead of taking me to the home screen.
You can change the home button's sensitivity under the General section within Settings. There are three options: "1," for sensitive touch; "2," the default setting; and "3," which seems much better for lead-fingered users like myself.
Stereo speakers. The new iPhones 7's stereo speakers (a first for iPhone) are supposed to sound better and be twice as loud as the single speaker on earlier models of the iPhone. We did our evaluations using the iPhone 7 Plus.
Our engineers confirmed that speakers were louder than the single speaker on the iPhone 6s Plus, and they do provide a sense of stereo separation. On the other hand, they also found the sound to be more "tinny." And the two speakers in the phone we evaluated didn't sound identical. (The bottom speaker aims its sound out the side of the phone, away from the listener.)
Improved Battery Life. Apple says battery life is better on the new models, promising 14 hours of talk time for the iPhone 7 and 21 hours for the 7 Plus on 3G networks. Consumer Reports' battery tests take several days and involve many charging cycles; we'll publish the full results of those and other tests once they're ready.
Lightning headphone connection. Much has and will be written about the iPhone's boldest change: dropping the analog 3.5mm headphone jack. The phone comes with EarPods with a Lightning connector, as well as a Lightning-to-3.5mm headphone jack adapter.
We plugged old, iPhone 6s headphones into both an iPhone 6s Plus and the iPhone 7 Plus, using the adapter. And we listened to the iPhone 7 Plus with the new EarPods. Finally, we compared those two iPhones using a pair of reference headphones.
We found the sound quality of the new Lightning EarPods appeared to be no better or worse than the ones that came with the iPhone 6s-series phones. And the adapter didn't degrade the audio at all.
However, if you plan to rely on headphones with conventional jacks, you may want to get a few extra Lightning-to-3.5 mm headphone jack adapters (Apple charges $9 each) because we imagine they'll be easy to lose.
And here's one more thought about the loss of the 3.5mm jack, and how it could affect consumers.
The digital nature of the Lightning connector gives Apple more control over what travels though it. It may one day allow Apple to enhance the audio experience.
But that control could potentially be used against consumers, allowing Apple to block iPhone music from flowing to “unauthorized” equipment. The owners of iPhones could end up being herded into a world of more expensive, proprietary headphones and audio accessories. And that’s an unenviable position for consumers to land after spending money on one of the most expensive phones on the market.
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