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Reactions to the iPhone7 Announcement

A couple people have asked me what I think of the iPhone 7. I upgrade every other year, and this is my year, so I’ll be getting one.

I’m going to take Apple’s 10 points in roughly reverse order of how much I have to say about each one of them.

Apple Pay in Japan

Look, I love Apple Pay. I’m sure this is a big deal for Apple, but since I neither live in or travel to Japan, I don’t really care.

Jet Black and Matte Black Finishes

Uhh, cool, I guess? The real question is whether the jet black is just a vehicle for making fingerprints and scratches look prominent and awful. I’m going to risk it.

Water Resistant

About.

Freakin’.

Time.

Seriously. Thank you. Not that I get my phone wet a lot, but it’ll be nice to not worry about this.

Stereo Speakers

I’m going to have a lot to say about audio later, but this feature, while nice, isn’t really a big deal. I rarely listen to music directly out of my phone. Now, maybe I would more often if the speakers were better, so maybe this will make a difference, but I’m not expecting much. They’ll still be tiny little crappy speakers.

New Display

Brighter and with a wider color gamut. I’ve seen one of the iPad Pros that has this wider gamut and it is, indeed, beautiful. However, I’m not sure that it will really matter all that much in my normal daily use. I’m a terrible photographer (more on that in a moment) and it’s just not my primary concern, though I’m glad Apple worries about it so much. I am, however, interested in it being brighter, which hopefully means that it’ll be easier to see in bright sunlight. Any help there is actually useful, so I’m looking forward to that bit.

New CPU/GPU

The most relevant part of this is indirect, which is battery life. It’s always nice that it’s faster, but we’ve now reached the point where I have a two-year-old iPhone 6 and for the first time I’m not chomping at the bit for a new phone because my current one feels slow. Nope, it’s actually pretty much fine most of the time. So, while being way faster is cool and all (woohoo, 400 flying monkeys… except that I almost never play compute-intensive games), it’s less important to me than it has been before. Plus, you know, it’s kind of expected. They get faster every year. I mean, really, do you expect Phil Schiller ever to get up on stage and go, “oh, yeah, same CPU as last year.”

New Camera

As noted above, I’m not a particularly good photographer. And much like the new CPU, there is always a newer, better camera every year. And don’t get me wrong, I like that there’s a newer, better camera every year. It makes my crappy snapshots look a little less crappy. I am particularly pleased with this year’s improvements, though, as image stabilization will probably make a real difference for me (I get a lot of slightly blurry pics, so I guess I tend to jiggle the camera when I go to press the button), and better low-light capabilities are always welcome, as apparently I see better than most cameras do because I end up with a lot of dark pictures in circumstances when I feel like I can see just fine. So this is welcome but not really earth-shaking for me, as it’s just snapshots anyway.

New Home Button

So, up to this point, most of the new features have not been major (other than water resistance), but have all been at least not worse. I won’t know for sure about this one until I get a chance to play with it, but I’m worried that this could actually be worse. The presentation was suspiciously light on details and early reports from press folks who got to play with have been… well, mixed. Including one that basically said it was horrific. There’s something to be said for physical buttons. I mean, I get why not to have a physical keyboard—I was behind that one from the beginning—but if you are going to have a single* hard, dedicated button, seems like it wouldn’t be bad for it to be a real button, not just a sensor with a motor underneath it. We’ll see.

* This is actually kind of a bone I have with the iOS design, the single button. While Android certainly has its share of foibles (in particular, can a phone I buy this year run next year’s OS? Probably not? Hmm…), a universal “back” button strikes me as a really good idea, and I wish iPhones had this.

No Headphone Jack, and Airpods

These are both part of the same thing, and this is certainly one of the things that has gotten a lot of attention. And this one is a big one for me, too. See, I’m a bit of a headphone guy. As in, I own probably a dozen pairs of headphones (including $350 ones and multiple $200+ pairs), several sets of earbuds, dedicated headphone amplifiers, that kind of thing. I semi-regularly read a web forum (head-fi.org) devoted pretty much exclusively to headphone gear. I’m kind of invested in things that have a traditional headphone jack, and while most of my gear isn’t mobile stuff that I’d actually plug into a phone anyway, some of it is, including my beloved Audio-Technica ATH-MSR7s and ATH-ANC9s.

(Warning: Skip this paragraph if you already know what a DAC is and why it matters.) A little sidebar on what it means, from a technical standpoint, to not have a headphone jack. What the iPhone outputs over the lightning connection is not an analog audio waveform, it’s just bits—you know, 1s and 0s. The Apple 30-pin connectors that were on older iPhones actually did output analog audio, but the lighting port doesn’t. So, to get an analog signal out, you need two things: a DAC and an amplifier. The DAC (stands for “Digital to Analog Converter”) turns the bits into an analog waveform, and the amplifier amplifies that waveform so it’s loud enough to be audible. The iPhone has always had a DAC in it, and still does (it has to in order to get sound out of the on-board speakers). There are quality differences in DACs (high-end audio DACs retail for thousands of dollars), and the DAC in previous iPhone models was actually a pretty decent one for something as small as a phone. (The amplifier was nothing special, though.)

The upshot of all that is now you need a DAC and amp to listen to music out of your iPhone. While Apple has historically used pretty good DACs (given size constraints), I have my suspicions about how good the DAC/amp combo is in Apple’s included $9 adapter, mostly because it’s really small and really cheap. Plus, ugh, yet another adapter/dongle. I wonder how many of these I’ll lose, or be without when I need one. And let’s be clear, I’m probably mostly going to be using the dongle. One of the problems here is that while I generally like Apple stuff, their EarPods suck. No way I’m using Apple EarPods over my beloved Sennheiser MX760s (unfortunately discontinued) or even my Yuin PK2s.

So the other offered solution is Bluetooth. Unfortunately, Bluetooth technology also sucks. Every year it keeps sucking, and every year the Bluetooth consortium says “wait until next year—it’ll be great then” and every year it still isn’t. I’m even willing to believe that Apple has actually solved this problem with their custom W1 chip, but until someone else licenses those, it’s still not going to result in a great solution, because everything Apple is likely to put those into is also probably going to suck. I understand that Apple now owns a headphone company, Beats, and Beats has access to the the W1 chip. Unfortunately Beats is not an acceptable option in my book—Beats also sucks. Well, that’s a little unfair. Some Beats products are actually tolerable, but not at the price points they hit. As I said to John Gruber on Twitter, Beats doesn’t sell $300 headphones, they sell $100 headphones for which they charge $300. Seriously, go listen to a Beats Pro (retail $400 but easily findable for $300) and then compare it to the $100 offerings from companies like Sennheiser, Audio-Technica, or AKG. And that’s pretty much the top of the Beats line. Not exactly compelling.

Thus, for the time being, the most likely decent solution (from an audio quality standpoint) is an outboard DAC/amp like the Oppo HA-2 or the TEAC HA-P50. Not exactly something I will be able to carry with me all the time, and not particularly cheap. I’ll probably end up lugging one of these around when I’m bothering to lug around the MSR7s, but that’s only some of the time.

Now, maybe Bluetooth solutions that are along the line of the Bragi “The Headphone” will eventually be good, and Apple dumping the headphone jack will almost certainly spur a lot of development on this problem. I’m sure the universe of options will be much improved in a year or two. But I bet they won’t ever be as cheap as even good earbuds like the Yuin PK2 (under $50 if you can find them on sale) and definitely not the dirt-cheap but still decent Sennheiser MX385.

So, maybe this will be good for Apple because they end up selling a lot of AirPods and lots of wireless Beats (probably at a pretty good margin). But I have a hard time seeing how this will be good for me, particularly in the short term. I do understand that Apple says they could not have gotten the new camera and better battery life if they had kept the headphone jack (good article about this here) but it’s still a pretty steep cost. I mean, I don’t think it’s worth the apoplectic fury of the more virulent Apple-haters, but it’s certainly a substantial minus.

Redux

My wife and I each upgrade our phones every two years, and one of the kids gets our orphaned phone. That means right now my younger son’s phone is 4 years old and it’s dying. While I’m actually pretty happy with my current 6, he really needs a new phone. So no matter what I think, I’m upgrading anyway. (In fact, I already put in the order. Got up just after 2am on order day to put in my order for a 128 jet black regular 7, then went back to sleep.)

Were it more of a choice, I’m not sure I’d upgrade this year. While I’m thrilled to see it be waterproof (water resistant, whatever) and pleased to get a better screen, faster processors, and a better camera, I’m not so sure about the home button and I’m definitely in the camp of people who is put off by the lack of a traditional headphone jack. I knew it had to come eventually, I just wish the wireless offerings were better and cheaper.

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