iPhone 7: the beauty of the unexpected

iPhone 7: the beauty of the unexpected

Apple has now released what it describes as its best iPhones ever, the 7 and 7 Plus. Ian Macrae takes a look at some of their features from the disabled user’s perspective and discovers some surprises.

It was the most widely predicted demise of the summer. And no, we’re not talking about Owen Smith’s inevitable defeat to Jeremy Corbyn in the Labour leadership contest.

Since about April the mumble of rumours gathered in volume until they almost stopped being rumours. Apple was going to drop the 3.5mm headphone jack socket from its new iPhones.

On the lists and in the tech fora, and particular among sight impaired and other disabled customers, people said this was probably the worst marketing and strategic blunder Apple had ever made. Some even said it would be the ruination of the company.

In the end, the new iPhone 7 and 7 Plus models came to market and, just as in the story of Chicken Lickin’, for most the sky has not fallen in. The 3.5mm jack has gone right enough, but in its place Apple has put a new pair of earPods with a lightning connector: true, these can only be used with Apple products. In the box is also an adaptor with a male lightning to female 3.5mm Jack connector: some may have also liked  another with the opposite gender alignment. And soon to come are Apple’s own AirPods, wireless earPods which will pair and connect seamlessly with the new devices.

The main concerns of disabled users have been that either the lightning or wireless connection options will have an impact on the listening experience of particularly people with dual sensory loss, hearing and sight. Apple themselves point out that the current arrangement brings digital audio output from the phone to your ears. Of the small number of deaf/blind people I’ve consulted on the issue, one who has cochlear implants said that he was already using Bluetooth headphones to take the audio signal directly to his implants and he could not foresee any difficulty.  Another blind blogger who also uses hearing aids is more concerned. 

At its most rife, the speculation over the summer gave as the reason for the loss of the jack socket Apple’s desire to reduce the thickness of the new product. That may well be part of their plan for the future but for now, where the jack was on both previous models, there is now an extra speaker. Neither the 7 nor the 7 Plus is noticeably thinner than their predecessors. More about the non-headphone audio output later.

The other thing exercising people was the strong rumour that the electro-mechanical home button was to be replaced with a solid state one which apparently would not move. Those of us who knew that the most common cause of failure in previous iPhones was the wearing out of the home button wondered whether this move might not be a good one.

The main concern of those who rely heavily on touch when using their smart devices was that the new button would be difficult to locate. In fact, the home button is slightly indented just as the old one was, and while it’s true that it no longer moves when pushed, Apple has used what it calls its “Taptic engine” to create the impression that the button moves so it does actually feel like you’re clicking it just as in the old days. In fact, so realistic is this that my sighted son actually believed that movement was occurring when he pressed the new home button.

Taptic and haptic solutions are more evident on the new devices. For instance, if you go into the native timer application and flick on the minutes selector making it scroll, the scroll is apparent as haptic clicks. Also, across the device, when apps or other functions are turned on or off the Taptic engine now gives tactile indications. For the future it would be helpful if on and off setting could be indicated in different ways. It’s also worth noting that some of this Taptic functionality does not present itself when Voiceover, Apple’s proprietary screen reader across all products, is activated. There is no doubt that more could be made of this in the future by Apple themselves and the company very much hopes that third party app developers will explore Taptic/haptic options too.

So much for what was expected. And, by the way, if you want to know about the improved camera functionality – the 7 Plus has two cameras, for instance, then I suggest you check out Apple’s website for the whole nine yards.

In the meantime, back to the onboard audio which, I was chuffed to discover, delivers a couple of unexpected benefits to disabled users.

The 7 Plus, which I’m using because of its larger screen, now also offers stereo sound with speakers on the bottom edge of the handset and another set into the front just above the top of the screen. In addition, both of the new phones have been engineered to deliver fuller and richer audio output from their speakers.

Both of these developments mean a much more satisfying experience for users of the Voiceover screen reader. The speaker on the front of the 7 Plus in particular now directs the text to speech voice which reads you what’s on the screen directly at you. This is especially useful if you prefer, as many sight impaired people do, to use the screen reader at relatively low volume. It also makes things easier in environments where background noise levels are high.

But the final surprise, and the one that’s the real zinger for me comes once again from the Taptic engine. 3D touch allows you to push down onto or rather into the screen which can then detect the pressure you exert. In the home screen you can push down on one of the application icons and the Taptic engine indicates that something has happened. What’s appeared is a shortcut menu for that app giving you the top four options of things you might want to do in that app. This means you can get access to and begin using apps much more quickly and efficiently. And the really good news, this works for everyone in the same way, regardless of whether you’ve got Voiceover turned on or not. Of all the iPhone 7’s enhancements, this is my favourite, even more so as it came out of the blue.

Faster processing and more responsive screen and keyboard technology both make using the new iPhones a smoother experience, but for me the real joy as a disabled user has come from discovering benefits which, I suspect, Apple themselves had not necessarily recognised. And unlike the outcome of the Labour leadership election I have found that I’m surprised.

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