Teardown: Apple iPhone 7

Apple continues to eke out innovation as the smartphone market matures.

The iPhone 7 is the smaller of the two models Apple introduced in September. As such, it has borne greater criticism as merely an evolution in smartphone design and not the kind of groundbreaking innovation associated with a new generation. And that’s happened even though Apple has taken off the 3.5mm headphone socket.

But are we missing sight of the main target market? Given what Apple’s rivals have been up to, there is a slight ‘me too’ feeling to the iPhone 7’s design.

The addition of IP67-rated water and dust resistance is welcome. The standard allows the phone to be immersed in water to a depth of one metre for 30 minutes without damage. This addresses one of the many consumer gripes about iPhone failures. But it is also a feature that has been making its way into the broader market for some time – the budget Moto G smartphone range is already into its second generation of waterproofing.

The iPhone 7 has a much improved main camera. The big advance – the introduction of a dual-lens system – is restricted to its more expensive sister, the iPhone 7 Plus. But both models feature optical image stabilisation and a main six-element lens. Resolution is still 12MP, but all benchmarks show the iPhone 7’s ‘junior’ configuration still performing better than the iPhone 6S in low light. However, the integration of more cutting-edge camera technology is again becoming commonplace in higher-end products – consider the dual-camera system developed by Huawei and Leica for the P9.

Then there is the new quad-core A10 applications processor, with its energy-saving M10 motion coprocessor that extends battery life even with a heavy use of location services. It benchmarks well ahead of the A9, but slightly behind rival silicon in both the P9 and the troubled Galaxy S7.

You can see where the quibbles come from, but once inside the iPhone 7, you realise that this is a far from complacent design.

For example, the iFixit teardown team found that the real estate freed up by removing the traditional headphone jack has been used to install a larger Taptic Engine. This provides more sensitive physical feedback and response to the pressure of a user’s touch or tap. It has also allowed Apple to incorporate a flush, non-mechanical ‘Home’ button.

And in the same area, the design team has added a baffle that functions as a barometric vent. This serves to equalise the internal and external pressure so that the iPhone 7 continues to provide accurate readings for altitude.

Across the device, meanwhile, Apple has put the iPhone on a diet. In the end, the 7 may be only a few grams lighter than the 6s (138g vs 143g), but it now incorporates all those extra gaskets and other waterproofing features as well as a more substantial battery.

That battery has 3.8V and 1960mAh specifications for a 7.45Wh rating against 6.55Wh for the 6s, equivalent to roughly an extra hour’s heavy-duty use.

Apple has lifted its highest memory capacity to a new high of 256MB, with 32MB and 128MB options also available. The phone also incorporates Apple’s new iOS10 operating system. It is better attuned to the extra haptic feedback features now possible.

So, a more pragmatic view of the iPhone 7 would be that Apple has adopted an ‘if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it’ strategy across most of the smartphone while eking out a few innovations that keep it at the front of the market. That is no bad thing, even if the fanboys wanted more ‘shiny, shiny’.

As the smartphone sector becomes ever more reliant on replacement rather than adoption – and even markets like China are nearing saturation point – where should OEMs concentrate their R&D efforts? Once you have an extensive user base that is loyal to the ‘feel’ of your products, you do not want to push things too far.

Yes, Apple has got rid of the headphone socket, but the iPhone 7 comes bundled with a Lightning-to-3.5mm adapter – you do not have to throw away your existing cans. The more important point is that each new handset generation must now appeal first to owners of earlier generations that want more of the same, but better. Apple understands that. It is how the company has built the MacBook market. In that computing market, Apple has also built a reputation for reliability and functionality.

Finally, one other notable aspect of the iPhone 7 is its iFixit repairability score: 7 out of 10. That is respectable by any measure but, given Apple’s particular reputation for baulking ‘unauthorised’ repair, very high. Heck, even the battery now has tabs that make it easier to remove.

This is not a cheap phone. UK price ranges from £599 to £799 (Apple still gets tremendous margin as you trade up through the extra memory options). Notwithstanding the fall in the value of sterling (possibly because of it), that is a higher launch price than we have seen for some time. Chances are, though, its likely owners will suffer the hike because they know what they are getting.

Key components of the Apple iPhone 7

Exploded view

 1  Antenna flex cable

 2  Barometric vent

 3  Motherboard

 4  Main 12MP camera

 5  Earpiece speaker

 6  FaceTime camera

 7  Battery

 8  SIM tray

 9  Rear casing

 10  Taptic assembly

 11   Lightning connector assembly

 12  Antenna

 13  Speaker/Wi-Fi diversity antenna

 14  Home button assembly

 15  Display assembly and front case

Motherboard (top)

 16  A10 apps processor stacked with memory

Apple/Samsung

 17  LTE Modem

Qualcomm

 18  Module

Skyworks

 19  Power amplifier I

Avago

 20  Power amplifier II

Avago

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