Phil Schiller kept calling it “a new design.” And I kept thinking I must have missed something. The phone that was rotating around on the giant screen Apple erected inside the Bill Graham Auditorium looked just like the iPhone 6S. Was I missing something?After a few minutes of playing with the new device, I can say this: sort of. The iPhone 7 is, in many ways, exactly like the iPhone 6S. Same screen size, same bezels, same basic layout. There are fewer antenna lines on the back, and what you can see is much more effectively blended into the device. But it’s very hard to tell the difference: I walked into the hands-on area and waited to try a device for five minutes before realizing the rose gold phone on the table in front of me was actually an iPhone 7.
Most of the changes are internal, like the A10 Fusion processor that appears to be every bit the workhorse Apple says it is. Or the improved water-resistance, which I would have tested but I didn’t have a swimsuit with me. Or the improved battery life, reportedly an hour longer on the 7 Plus and two hours on the 7. A few other new things, like the much-improved stereo speakers and the somehow-even-brighter screen, were hard to test in a giant room full of hundreds of shouting people. But then I picked the phone up. I tapped the home button. And then I felt the difference.
The iPhone 7’s home button doesn’t physically click. Instead, it relies on haptic feedback, using buzzes and taps to give you a sense of response. There are lots of interesting and new things Apple can do with a button that doesn’t click, and it’ll save both Apple and its customers a lot of money on repairs, but I can tell you this: It doesn’t feel anything like a home button. Double-clicking felt mushy and strange, and even long-pressing to activate Siri wasn’t quite right. Maybe it’s a muscle memory thing, but it just felt wrong somehow that the button didn’t click.
The 7 Plus’s most important unique feature is its dual-camera setup, which uses two lenses at different focal lengths to capture better combined photos and let you zoom while you shoot. The setup is seamless and fast, jumping back and forth between 1x and 2x in an instant. The scrolling wheel of digital zoom is a little more awkward, especially when you’re trying to use the camera in one hand, but it works.
Apple made some big promises about the prowess of the iPhone 7’s camera, both the 12-megapixel sensor on the back and the new 7-megapixel selfie cam on the front. Both look great in my brief demos, and I’m eager to test them more. If Apple’s done some of the work it teased today, learning how to collect more data from your photos, this could be the beginning of a big change in imaging.
Back in Black
If you want to know how the iPhone feels and looks, though, I’ve buried the lede. The thing you’ll see first and most is the new set of colors, black and jet black. Jet black is really piano black, glossy and classy and dedicated to faithfully reproducing all of your fingerprints. The regular black is more matte, more subdued, and without question my favorite-ever color of iPhone. The colors, along with the hidden antenna bands and a slight change in the way Apple integrates the camera lenses into the back of the phone–the back slopes up a little, rather than just flatly ringing the lens–are the only things new about this design. But the blacks look and feel fantastic.
The iPhone 7 doesn’t really feel new. It feels better, sure, and there are some truly new things here. Your life is going to be different when you buy a phone with no headphone jack. But is this some wholly unique, paradigm-shifting experience that sets Apple apart once again? That’s hard to say. It doesn’t feel like it right now. But there’s always that camera.