The iPhone 7 hits stores on Friday, Sept. 16, but potentially record-breaking demand means many customers may have to wait until November to nab their preferred model.
Given the phone has largely the same form factor as the last two models — and this time, no headphone jack — what’s the deal with all the hype?
One possibility is all the under-the-hood improvements, from a better camera to a faster processor. During Apple’s announcement, marketing chief Phil Schiller trotted out his familiar graphics performance chart. The iPhone 7 blows away its predecessors, fully 240 times faster than the original handset.
SpecOut — an electronics research site from Graphiq — set out to make the same chart for six other key iPhone metrics: thinness, battery life, camera quality, display sharpness, RAM and price. Do the iPhone 7’s improvements in these categories match the significant step up in graphics performance? And how has the iPhone line in general changed over time?*
*The iPhone SE — a smaller, more affordable phone Apple released between major updates — has been removed from three of the below visualizations to keep the focus on the overall trend for the flagship devices.
If there’s one thing Apple’s known for, it’s thin devices. Some iPhones have been so slender, in fact, that Apple has been mocked for prioritizing beauty over more functional attributes like battery life.
The spec sheet, however, suggests Apple has been less obsessed with thinness since the iPhone 6.
From the iPhone 3GS (2009) to the iPhone 6 (2014), Apple chopped the iPhone’s thickness nearly in half — an impressive feat. Since then, however, it’s held steady at around seven millimeters.
3. Battery Life
Apple claims the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus get better battery life than last year’s devices by about an hour or two, depending on the model. Most early reviews tentatively agree, though some are waiting to perform more thorough tests. Tech journalist Walt Mossberg also points out how tricky these tests can be. Do you track web browsing only? Calls? Games?
A more consistent — though perhaps decreasingly representative — metric is talk time. Since the dawn of smartphones, manufacturers have reported how long you can talk on the phone before your battery goes kaput.
As it turns out, the new iPhone 7 Plus is actually a bit worse than its predecessor on talk time, while the smaller-sized iPhone 7 is about the same as the 6S. Keep in mind these are Apple’s own maximum “talk time” numbers.
As usual, the biggest difference comes between the Plus and standard-size iPhones — the two highest dots in the chart above represent the 6 Plus and 7 Plus, respectively.
Here, it’s likely Apple has prioritized battery efficiency for more common tasks like web browsing, rather than trying to improve talk time. The iPhone 7’s new quad-core design is made specifically to switch between high-power and high-efficiency cores, which likely leads to battery savings for more typical, day-to-day use, not constant phone calls.
Still, the data suggests this year’s battery savings won’t be particularly notable. Apple’s handset has improved significantly since the days of the iPhone 4 and 5, but the (non-Plus) changes have been less dramatic since.
4. Camera Quality
While battery life remains a controversial metric, it’s hard to argue with the iPhone’s improved camera quality. It’s been a big focus for Apple every year, and it’s no wonder: the iPhone is likely the world’s most popular camera.
The chart below tracks the iPhone camera’s megapixel count over time, but even this metric doesn’t do full justice to the device’s image capturing improvements.
A camera with a high megapixel count will allow you to blow up your photos to high resolutions without losing quality. But the camera’s aperture size is important too — a larger aperture lets in more light, allowing for more detailed photos and better low-light shots. Here, the iPhone 7 improves on the already impressive 6S (from f/2.2 to f/1.8, where a smaller f-stop represents a larger aperture).
In other words, the iPhone 7 sports the best iPhone camera ever, and the camera has only gotten better with each generation.
5. Display Sharpness
This is where things start to get a little geeky. How many pixels per inch of screen real estate does the iPhone offer? It might sound complicated to the average user, but in basic terms, it’s simply a measure of how crisp the display appears.
In contrast to many of its Android rivals, the iPhone has mostly stayed put in the 300 PPI range. The latest Plus models score a bit higher here, but even Apple’s larger phones can’t compete with the Samsung Galaxy S7 (534 PPI) or LG G4 (538 PPI).
In response, Apple would likely argue that 326 PPI is plenty sharp — so sharp that perhaps the human eye can’t notice many additional improvements. Tech geeks might also point out that other display enhancements, like Samsung’s fancy OLED displays, might be more important than pixel density in 2016.
All that said, the fact remains that the iPhone displays have remained relatively unchanged (at least visually) over the last several generations.
Why does RAM matter? Short for “random-access memory,” RAM stores temporary information, like a pause screen on a game or a loaded web page in Safari. When your device runs out of RAM, it dumps the older memory in favor of storing new information. As an iPhone user, any time you flip back to that old game, web page or email, only to have to wait for everything to reload, you’re experiencing a RAM limitation.
Here, Apple has been slowly, stubbornly playing catch-up. Samsung, LG and HTC have long been packing 3,000 MBs of RAM (or 3 GBs) or more in their flagship phones. As recently as 2014, Apple was still introducing new devices with just 1,000 MBs.
A sneaky extra reason to get the iPhone 7 Plus? More RAM. The latest plus-size handset from Apple is the least likely yet to make you reload Pokémon Go after you just paused to check a text.
With all the complicated pricing plans, it’s easy to lose sight of one key figure: the overall cost of an iPhone. The chart below includes the starting price for each base model over time.
Generally speaking, iPhones have gotten a bit more expensive over time. But two recent changes might have been easy to miss.
First, Apple quietly bumped up the cost of the iPhone 7 Plus in comparison to the 6 Plus. At $769, it’s $20 more than its predecessor. It seems likely the dual camera is to blame, as the iPhone 7 Plus is the first iPhone to sport two different rear lenses.
Meanwhile, Apple also released the iPhone SE last March, a small-screen, more affordable iPhone that nonetheless sports more recent internals. The iPhone SE is that lower dot in the above chart, and a great option for someone who wants an iPhone, but also wants to save (it starts at $399).
So at the end of the day, the iPhone 7 is truly a standout on graphics performance and camera quality, marginally better on battery life and RAM and hardly any different when it comes to display and thinness. Whether that’s enough to warrant a purchase is up to you.
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