What is the best smartphone? Does it even matter?
These are the questions I wanted to answer as I peeled back the plastic film on my new iPhone 7 — a device meant to replace my potentially explosive Galaxy Note7 after I’d spent years as a devoted Android user. I thought this would be straightforward, but Apple’s world is odder than I expected. This review is a journey of betrayal, laser-enriched cat poop and smartphone butts.
So, yeah: I went places I didn’t expect to go with the iPhone 7 and found little in terms of easy answers. Let’s dive in.
Apple does not approve this message
First things first: This assessment was not written using a review unit provided by Apple. I bought this iPhone 7 using an upgrade available on my family’s Verizon account (newly freed up after I returned my Note7), and I’ve been using it as my primary handset for about 16 days.
I wasn’t an Apple virgin. My first smartphone was an iPhone 4. I got it in February 2011, and I treated it like an Apple-stamped Fabergé egg on the icy walk from the store to my apartment on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Few people I knew had smartphones then, and I was convinced someone would snatch it. My gloveless hand covered the Apple logo to keep anyone from noticing.
Nearly six years later, that device is worth about 40 bucks on eBay and most Americans own a smartphone. In the time between then and now, I’ve used several different Android devices as my everyday phones and never looked back at iOS, even if my friends nagged me about how annoying my “green” bubbles were in iMessage.
It wasn’t my plan to betray Google’s mobile platform for iOS. I’ve always enjoyed Android — it’s customizable and “open,” encouraging competition between handset makers and app developers that leads to better products for consumers. If you’re happy sacrificing camera quality for a workable, budget-friendly Android phone, there’s a device for you. If you want to pour hundreds of dollars into a curved phone that’ll run a Nintendo 64 emulator on a high-def screen, you can make that happen.
Meanwhile, I chafe at Apple’s closed system and aggressive pricing models for the iPhone, which have always seemed to limit options for consumers in service of the tech giant’s bottom line.
But there was a perfect storm in September. I bought a Note7 the week it released, loved it, and then came to fear it after reports circulated that it could, you know, combust while charging on my bedside table, immolating my fiancée and me at 3:07 a.m. Then Apple announced the iPhone 7. Fed up with Samsung’s approach to the Note7 crisis — which is still unfolding — I decided now was the time to try iOS again.
A strong first impression
There’s one thing I can say for sure: The iPhone 7 is a beautiful piece of technology that, especially in its black variants, will make you feel as if you’re using a device that was promised decades ago in a science-fiction zine.
Forgive me, but its butt looks fantastic
People have said these things about the iPhone for years, but the praise is earned this time around. The iPhone 7 is a thin, cohesive device that — especially without a headphone jack — looks and feels like a little miracle.
There’s nothing I hate more than the dongle (the annoying plastic bit you need to hook into the iPhone 7 if you want to use traditional headphones), but an absent headphone jack brings a cool sense of symmetry to the device.
Forgive me, but its butt looks fantastic, especially compared to the gap-filled mess in my Samsung Galaxy Note 5, which I’d been using between returning my Note7 and the iPhone’s delivery.
I’ve used many Android phones over the years (several iterations of Samsung’s Galaxy line, recent HTC and Moto phones, the OnePlus 3) and none of them have felt perfect.
The iPhone 7 feels perfect
Yeah, the iPhone 7 feels perfect. But it’s also not a substantial step forward for anything apart from design and aesthetics — perhaps the least meaningful criteria for anyone looking to upgrade their handset. It’s worth wiping away the drool and recognizing that the compact design makes these devices difficult to recycle and repair, as is also the case with other smartphones, so if you care much about the planet or the afterlife of your pricy electronics, you might sit this one out.
Still, there are plenty of valid reasons you might be looking to upgrade. And if you’re an Android user, you might find that stepping into Apple’s walled garden is easier (and more desirable) than you’d think.
What I love about the iPhone 7
There are a few things, actually! But, apart from the look and feel of the device, none of them are exclusive to the iPhone 7.
First and foremost: I’m obsessed with iMessage, the vomiting hot mess of texting apps. It has legitimately transformed how I communicate with my friends. Your mileage may vary, of course: Most people I speak with on a daily basis are iPhone users, and a number of them have updated to iOS 10.
Thus, I get to handwrite messages like “I ate all the feta,” which I send with the “balloon” screen effect. (Because why wouldn’t you?)
I suppose it’s telling that iMessage is my favorite thing about the iPhone 7 (apart from its tush). This is a software feature, not a hardware upgrade, and you can get it on any recent iPhone. It just happens to be the case that, in daily use, this is what I’ve experienced as the most substantial upgrade from the Android phones I’ve been using all these years.
I’m obsessed with iMessage, the vomiting hot mess of texting apps
Talking to my iPhone-owning friends and family feels quicker, more natural and more fun than it ever did on Android — a platform that, frankly, has never offered enviable texting options. iMessage got a lot of new features in iOS 10 — which comes loaded onto the iPhone 7 — so you can send handwritten messages, GIFs and other special effects to your friends.
It’s juvenile, kind of feels like a holdover from the “Buddy Information” window in AOL Instant Messenger and, ugh, it’s delicious. With the handwriting feature, I’ve probably spent more time writing in cursive in the past two weeks than in the entire previous 15 years combined, and there’s nothing better than delivering dreadful news with an ironic “laser” screen effect.
I’m also really into Apple Pay. Again, this is by no means a feature that’s exclusive to the iPhone 7, but it’s an area where the device notably improves my life — to whatever extent shaving a few seconds off of shameless consumerism can improve one’s life, anyway. The uneven rollout of new chip credit cards has transformed many checkouts into a time-consuming mess — you insert the chip, something goes wrong, you swipe the card, the cashier hits a button and tells you to insert the chip again, repeat ad nauseum.
The iPhone 7 has basically made me better at irritating my friends and wasting my money
Apple Pay — a slightly quicker and, in my experience, more common alternative to Android Pay — cuts all of that garbage out. You just double tap your home button, hold your phone near the reader, and you’re done. The iPhone buzzes, a nice notification pops up, and it’s great. As with anything on so personal a device, your mileage will vary, but Apple Pay feels like it’s everywhere in New York City, so it works for me.
So, the iPhone 7 has basically made me better at irritating my friends and wasting my money. Those are good things from Apple’s perspective: “Ecosystems” are important. Enjoying Apple Pay and iMessage means I’m more likely to stick with this device and upgrade to another iPhone in the future.
But these aren’t really reasons for anyone to buy the iPhone 7, which, from a hardware standpoint, doesn’t feel so different than any other phone I’ve used. It has a nice camera, an incredibly sharp display, it runs apps quickly and it has all the storage space I need. These exact things could be said of any high-end phone in 2016.
The only meaningful hardware difference that any normal person would notice, apart from the headphone jack thing, is the transformation of the home button. It’s actually not a button, per se: It’s a panel that vibrates to give you feedback. (Try “pressing” it when the power’s off and you’ll find it doesn’t budge.) After thinking about this for too long — and forcing my very unimpressed fiancée and her mom to “guess the difference” — I have decided that I like how it feels and that no one should ever speak about it again.
Though, speaking of buttons, I do want to point out that I absolutely do not miss Android’s “back” function. What it offered in convenience it totally made up for in complete and utter frustration. I would constantly tap the back button accidentally — especially on Samsung devices, where it was a touch-sensitive area of the bottom bezel. Good riddance to that.
I kind of hate the iPhone 7, too
There’s a lot I like about this device. I’ll probably keep it until it coincidentally poops out three days before the iPhone 8 comes out. But, especially compared to Android, there are a number of things that drive me crazy.
First and most obvious: The headphone dongle is a sinister, greedy proposition from Apple that will make your life worse — no matter how much nicer the iPhone 7’s rear-end is as a result. It looks stupid, you will worry about losing it and it exists entirely to give Apple more control over how you use the device.
It is dangly white hubris, a wasteful piece of plastic that will fall out of our pockets, into sewers and down the throats of fish. I hate it, and you should too.
Speaking of being locked into Apple’s world, I dearly miss the customization offered on Android devices. My preference was to keep most my apps tucked away in the “app drawer,” allowing for a clean, functional home screen with minimal widgets. The idea was to provide at-a-glance access to my favorite apps and avoid digital clutter.
It looked like this:
Pretty nice, right? The second screen had the same layout but different apps, with the weather widget replaced by a Google search bar. Some of these icons were customized using a theme from the Samsung store. The bottom line is that this screen looked exactly how I wanted it to.
Apple doesn’t let you shove anything into a “drawer” on iPhone, nor can you customize icons. You could arrange everything such that you only ever had two rows of apps on a given screen, but it would take a lot of frustrating dragging and dropping. Everything would also be pinned to the top of the screen, not the bottom. It’s more effort than it’s worth.
So, my iPhone screen looks like this. It’s not really organized, and there’s nothing for my eyes to land on. The world keeps spinning, but I’m irritated whenever I spend more than a few seconds tracking down my calendar app.
What else? Many recent Android devices have an LED light above the screen that will help you understand what notifications await you at a glance — you might see a yellow light if you’ve received a new message on Snapchat, for example. I miss that on the iPhone 7, which is just a stylish, useless void when the screen is off.
I’m bothered a bit by the ring/silent switch on the side of the iPhone — a staple that’s been there from the beginning. Most Android phones I’ve used don’t really have anything like this: You just hold the volume button down until the thing vibrates if you want to set the phone to, you know, vibrate, and you press it once more if you want to silence the thing completely. I always expect that flipping the switch will also silence game or YouTube audio, which is not the case, and then I startle my cats with an outburst of sound from some random video someone sends me.
Conclusion: This, like many others, is a good phone
I’ve discovered that the iPhone 7 is probably the right device for me, because it fits into my life better than the Android devices I’ve used. It does occasionally drive me crazy.
So many people have asked me whether they should upgrade to an iPhone 7 based on a variety of factors like “my current iPhone is slow” or “I’ve had this phone for two years.” I’m in an odd position as a tech journalist in that I obsess about the devices that corporations heap onto consumers. That’s why I’ve had so many phones over the years, but it’s not a path I’d recommend to most.
For one, smartphones are expensive, and getting on an upgrade treadmill only encourages companies to push out incremental updates every year. The iPhone 7 is astonishingly similar to last year’s iPhone 6S — a device I used for a short period of time as my work phone at a previous job — and functionally it’s not so different from Apple’s other recent handsets.
These phones don’t evaporate when we’re done with them. You can sell or donate them, but recycling them is difficult — I’m a bad consumer who justifies upgrades based partially on my job and my own particular interests, but I don’t know that everyone should get in the habit of draining their bank accounts for a new device every year, if only because that’s not so nice for the Earth in general.
What I can say is that my transition from Android to iOS was surprisingly easy, which gives me hope that these two forces can continue to compete with one another in meaningful ways. If you are an Android user interested in jumping ship to Apple, I say go for it: All of these high-end phones essentially do the same thing, but you might find that the iPhone is a better fit for your life.
That’s worth considering. As much as I’d caution against the urge to change devices all the time, there’s absolutely no denying that your smartphone is likely the most important piece of technology you can buy today. You should have one that feels right.
And if that’s an iPhone — filled with laser message effects and irritating dongles — more power to you.