Review: iPhone 7 Plus

"There's always something accessibility-related with new iPhones."

I tweeted that in response to Farhad Manjoo of The New York Times about a month ago, when the initial iPhone 7 reviews hit the news. Manjoo’s take is that while the new iPhone is impressive, he's comfortable sticking with his iPhone 6s.

In a macro sense, my response to Manjoo is interesting in two ways.

First, it speaks to the importance of the iPhone to not only Apple, but to society and culture at large. The iPhone is Apple’s crown jewel, and the resources the company devotes to it (and to iOS) is reflective of that. It makes sense—the iPhone is the moneymaker. It’s the product that gets people lining up outside of Apple Stores on launch day. No one needs to buy a new iPhone every year, as Manjoo decided for himself this year, but that the iPhone and iOS gets better and better every year is a result of Apple continually polishing its bling to attract customers. In short: because it's so important to Apple and consumers, there is always something interesting with every iPhone.

This leads into the second point. A result of Apple’s constant refinement of the iPhone is there's always something notable related to accessibility. I don’t mean only the dedicated accessibility features, such as Switch Control or AssistiveTouch or VoiceOver. What I mean is that with every iPhone comes hardware-oriented details that have as much relevance to the experience for people with disabilities as the software does. The advent of the Retina Display in the iPhone 4 and Touch ID in the 5s are prime examples. As I often say, accessibility is not a concept that is inextricably tied to software. It can apply just as aptly to hardware.

The iPhone 7 is emblematic of this ideal. Of course iOS 10 is improved in many ways, including accessibility. But after using an iPhone 7 Plus—a review unit on loan from Apple—over the past few weeks, what has stood out most are the ways in which the hardware tweaks have influenced the overall accessibility of the device.

As someone with disabilities who’s used iPhones since the beginning, the iPhone 7 is the most fascinating iPhone I’ve ever used, hardware-wise. The iPhone 7’s accessibility story is unique; indeed, it’s unlike any other iPhone before it.

Holding and Using the iPhone 7 Plus

I love the iPhone Plus. It’s the iPhone I never thought I wanted. I so adore its gains in screen size and battery life that holding and pocketing a gargantuan phone is a tradeoff I’m willing to accept. I could never go back to an iPhone with a smaller screen.

My review kit from Apple included a 7 Plus in Jet Black and a “saddle brown” leather case. Believe it or not, the finish and the case have made the most difference in handling and using the new iPhone.

As with many others it seemed, I waffled a lot in deciding between Jet Black and matte black. I tend to baby my devices—I'm obsessively wiping the screen and checking for nicks and scratches. Apple itself even recommends people choose a case if they're, like me, faint of heart. A footnote reads:

The high-gloss finish of the jet black iPhone 7 is achieved through a precision nine-step anodization and polishing process. Its surface is equally as hard as other anodized Apple products; however, its high shine may show fine micro-abrasions with use. If you are concerned about this, we suggest you use one of the many cases available to protect your iPhone.

Knowing my tendencies and considering Apple's guidance, I eventually determined to get the matte black. It occurred to me, however, that going with the "safe" choice would be one that I would regret. I quickly realized the Jet Black is unique not only in its appearance, but its tactile "stickiness" makes for a unique angle in accessibility terms.

I was right to reconsider. Apple's marketing materials, including the Jony Ive-narrated design video, overwhelmingly favor the Jet Black version. It's for good reason: the Jet Black model is both beautiful (more on that later) and has a distinct tactile advantage. The Jet Black is grippier than any other iPhone I've ever used. Other reviewers have compared its feel to the iPhone 3GS, a model I never had. To me, the Jet Black's feel is reminiscent to that of the iPhone 5c. I never owned that one either, but I loved the way it felt in my hand. I rank it the best-feeling iPhone Apple has ever made.

Because of the reduced muscle strength caused by my cerebral palsy, I typically need to hang on to objects tighter than normal so as not to drop them. Especially in context of the slippery iPhone 6 and 6s models of the past two years, it's obvious why a slick phone would be problematic. To compensate for this, I've insisted on using a case. A case adds protection, but more importantly, a case adds friction. It's easier to hold an iPhone (especially the 6/6s) with a case than it is to hold one "naked." The fact that I have something more substantial to grab onto (the case) is reassuring. This, in turn, gives me more confidence when using the phone. Ergo, a good experience causes me to enjoy using the phone more.

As I said, the Jet Black iPhone 7 is very grippy. From an accessibility perspective, that grip can potentially work wonders for users, like me, who have fine-motor delays. In my experience, holding the Jet Black model sans case is much easier than it was holding a 6 or 6s. That said, I still prefer using a case—it’s better to hold that way and, frankly, I am paranoid about those micro-abrasions, beauty be damned.

Speaking of cases, the leather case I received with my 7 Plus deserves mention. Historically, I’ve preferred Apple’s silicone cases because I like the material and I’m not a huge fan of leather. Much to my surprise, I’ve been delighted by the Apple leather case. It feels great, very luxurious. I like the way the back of the case has weathered after a couple weeks of regular use. Interesting for accessibility, though, are the buttons on the case. The buttons are made from machined aluminum, and I love their feel. Whereas the buttons on the silicone case are kinda squishy, these new metal buttons are decidedly clicky. I’ve never had trouble using the silicone buttons, but I’ve found the leather’s metal ones much more satisfying. Adjusting volume or using the Sleep/Wake button is a breeze with these buttons. Better still, the buttons are color-matched to the color of the case; it makes for a nice look.

Overall, I’m sold on the leather cases. I’ll always want a case, but I foresee myself choosing leather over silicone from now on.

The New Taptic Engine: iOS 10 & Home Button

So I don’t rehash it all here, I recently wrote a piece for iMore in which I analyze the effects of the iPhone 7’s Taptic Engine on accessibility. (A good complement to that story is this one I wrote last year for MacStories wherein I give a general take on why haptic feedback matters for accessibility.)

The Cliff’s Notes version is haptic feedback on the iPhone 7 is impressive. The Taptic Engine matters for accessibility because its many ticks and buzzes provide a secondary cue that something is happening with the device. For someone with low vision, that’s huge. For instance: you get a buzz whenever you enable or disable an option in Settings in addition to seeing the green “on” indicator is a big deal. For me, that literal feeling of reassurance greatly enhances the experience. What’s more, the benefits of haptic feedback isn’t limited to iPhone 7. It’s also present in the Apple Watch, as well as the 12-inch MacBook and the MacBook Pros.

iOS 10 on the iPhone 7 is chock-full of haptic feedback. When you invoke Control Center or Notification Center, you feel a tick as the pane moves in. Likewise with moving through time when setting dates in the Clock app. And there’s 3D Touch, of course. It’s been wonderful for accessibility, and I use it all the time. On the iPhone 7, it’s faster and more capable. I like using it in Control Center and clearing notifications.

The new Home button, one of the iPhone 7's marquee features, also is impressive.

It doesn't work mechanically anymore, and I've adapted well to it. Like 3D Touch, users can choose their desired pressure sensitivity from one of three settings: 1, 2, or 3 (1 is the default setting). After some fiddling, I settled on 1 being the best fit for me. It's the path of least resistance, whereas 3 felt as if the bottom of the phone was moving as I pressed the button. In the abstract, 1 is pro-future. 3 feels like an anachronism in a sense; the haptic feedback exists, but using the button in this mode feels much closer to using the physical Home button on previous iPhones. This isn't to imply it's bad or wrong to choose 3—that's why Apple gives us choices!—but it's clear to me Apple is nudging people towards the future by making 1 the default.

In accessibility terms, the new Home button is advantageous over the old one insofar that it's one less button to push. For many with limited strength and/or low muscle tone in their fingers, pressing physical buttons can prove troublesome. Accessibility features such as AssistiveTouch and Touch Accommodations exist to accommodate these users. But someone who doesn't necessarily need the support of AssistiveTouch, but still has some fine-motor issues, should benefit by not having to physically depress the button to get it to work.

Generally speaking, the iPhone 7's increased emphasis on haptic feedback and the new Home button point to an exciting future for accessibility. Add in the Taptic Engine API for developers, and I'm keen to see how Apple and App Store developers leverage this technology in the years to come.

The Headphone Jack & Lightning EarPods

I agree wholeheartedly with Recode's Dan Frommer's sentiment that Apple's removal of the headphone jack has "turned out just fine" in practice.

In my testing, the Lightning EarPods have been fine for me. I haven't touched the Lightning-to-3.5mm adapter in the box. I say "fine," but only to mean that I'm able to use them. However, there are a couple of accessibility challenges.

First, the Lightning EarPods still need to be plugged in. As I wrote for iMore in August, I’ve long had difficulty plugging in headphones because of accessibility. It’s a two-headed beast: My impaired vision and fine-motor delays make finding the jack and plugging in headphones an adventurous task. My success rate is 100 percent, but not after some fumbling. The fumble is the sticking point—persistence wins the race, but it’s clearly an issue. Lightning doesn’t help; instead of struggling with a archaic headphone jack, I struggle with a modern Lightning connector.

The second problem is tied to the first. On iPhone 7, the issue of plugging in the EarPods is exacerbated by the Darth Vader finish. It’s esoteric, yes, but worth mentioning: it’s hard now to see the Lightning port on the phone because the color is so dark. I routinely miss the connection, causing me to scrape the plug into the finish. I’m sure there are micro-abrasions down there, but the color is so dark and my eyesight so bad that I can’t tell. More often than not, I have to get the phone in an angle that hits the light. That makes it easier to plug in.

The obvious solution to my woes is getting wireless headphones. I admit that I probably should have done so sooner, but hesitated because of concerns over Bluetooth and battery life. Which leads to the elephant in the room: AirPods.

I do not have a pair of AirPods. Apple says they’re arriving in “late October,” which, as of this writing, is very soon. I’m extremely excited about them, as I believe AirPods have extraordinary potential for accessibility. They’re interesting enough that they deserve a standalone review. As soon as I get a pair to use, I will file a full report.

Miscellany: Notes on Design & Battery Life

It ism’t relevant to accessibility, at least in aesthetic terms, but I’ve been thinking a lot about the iPhone 7’s design since I got it. In short, I think the Jet Black is gorgeous. While Apple may have used the basic industrial design for the third year in a row, the Jet Black is by no means boring. I got to handle one briefly in the hands-on area at the September 7 media event. It was really nice then, but I gained a new appreciation for how great it truly is after seeing it up close at home.

As I wrote earlier, I’m very happy I changed my mind to Jet Black. It’s very cool, and I hope Apple keeps this finish around for a while. It’d be a shame if it ends up being a one-off deal.

Regarding battery life, the iPhone 7 Plus seems about the same as it was on the 6s Plus. What I wrote last year still applies:

If there’s one reason for Apple to boost battery performance the iPhone, it would be screen brightness.

[…]

Toning down the brightness to preserve juice is an untenable compromise; I need all that light in order to use my phone effectively. Nonetheless, I admit to feeling pangs of guilt because I know my phone’s battery has to work harder. Hence, a bigger battery would make me feel better about having my screen so bright.

Here’s hoping Apple’s battery team has some breakthrough in the pipeline.

Bottom Line

To reference my iPhone 6s review once more, the iPhone is the “remote control” to my life. it’s an indispensable tool, and the main reason (aside from, you know, journalism) I want the newest one year in and year out is I want the best tool. And I can always count on Apple to keep making the best tools for me.

Apple’s done it again with the iPhone 7. The Jet Black makes it sexier and the Plus has two cameras, but it’s also the most accessible iPhone yet. Until next year, anyway.