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Apple buffs and polishes every inch of its iPhone 7 and 7 Plus

Constant refinement adds up
— 4:39 PM on September 7, 2016

Apple is continuing its relentless march forward with the release of the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus today. As we've come to expect from Cupertino, these latest phones aren't revolutionary in any one regard, but add up the changes and you get what may be some of the most compelling smartphones on the market. There's a lot to cover with these new iPhones, so buckle up.

Outside, the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus look a lot like the models before them. Apple removed the horizontal antenna lines on the backs of the phones, but external antenna lines still wrap around the corners and edges of the device. A bigger camera bump on the regular iPhone 7 and a pair of lenses on the iPhone 7 Plus also give away the fact that you're not looking at last year's iPhones, as well.

More processing power
Apple exec Phil Schiller closed his iPhone presentation with a peek under the hood of these new devices, but we're going to open with it. Both iPhone 7s will have a new SoC inside: the A10 Fusion. Though that name might sound like the renaissance of an AMD initiative from years past, it actually describes Apple's first quad-core mobile chip. The A10 blends two high-performance CPU cores with two more low-power cores on the same package—basically an ARM big.LITTLE setup.

Apple claims the high-powered cores on its new SoC are as much as two times as fast as the cores inside the A8 SoC of the iPhone 6, while the energy-efficient cores of this SoC apparently consume one-fifth the power of the big cores. Apple says it included scheduling hardware that will ensure light tasks like email run on those more frugal processors, while more demanding tasks will spin up the high-octane cores. All told, the new SoC should let the iPhone 7 run up to two hours longer than the iPhone 6S, while the iPhone 7 Plus is claimed to have an extra hour in the tank compared to its Plus-size predecessor.

The A10 Fusion also includes a faster graphics processor, as well. Apple said frustratingly little about what's going on inside the graphics block of the SoC, but we do know it's claimed to be as much as three times as fast as the A8's GPU. We expect we'll have to wait until the new iPhones are in reviewers' hands before we can learn just what's going on in the graphics department for the A10.

No more headphone jack, no more mechanical home button
In what may have been one of the most hotly-debated design decisions of recent weeks, Apple dropped the standard analog headphone jack from the iPhone 7 in favor of passing audio through the Lightning port. Schiller inexplicably described "courage" as one of the reasons for the change.

While we're still bemused by that logic from one of the world's largest companies, Schiller defended the move with a couple of more practical lines of reasoning. He says the Lightning port already has the necessary high-quality audio support necessary to serve as a headphone jack, and he also notes that the move lets companies make devices like active-noise-cancelling headphones that can pair with companion apps to offer better user experiences than an analog jack might.

To help the rest of the world catch up, Apple will include a Lightning-to-3.5-mm-adapter in the iPhone 7 box, and it'll replace the analog EarPod headphones with a Lightning-compatible version. Atypically for Apple dongles, the Lightning-to-3.5-mm adapter is only a $9 extra from the Apple Store, so folks who need to replace the inevitable lost adapter won't be out a ton. Lightning-compatible EarPod headphones are $29. Apple will also be introducing a pair of wireless earphones, the $159 AirPods, that we'll be covering separately.

As it's already done with the trackpad on the MacBook and MacBook Pro, Apple dropped the physical home button from the iPhone 7 in favor of a haptic-feedback system powered by a revised version of the Taptic Engine vibrator that handled 3D Touch duties in the iPhone 6S. Schiller says this move lets developers make the home button behave in ways it otherwise wouldn't be able to. We'll have to see how it feels in practice.

These changes are partially to thank for the fact that the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus are now IP67-certified, meaning they won't be taken out of commission by a dunk in the pool or a drop in the toilet. Whether that's worth making these phones incompatible with most every set of headphones currently in existence remains to be seen, but we bet many buyers will appreciate the move with time.