iPhone 7's secret weapon: The new Taptic Engine

You don't notice it at first. You're too busy trying out the new, virtual Home button on iPhone 7 to notice anything else. You "click" around, set your preferred level of feedback — I'm a "2"! — and get used to the sensation of pressing something that's not a button and feeling it respond. Basically, you get used to your fingers being liars. Then you move on to the Home screen, and that's where the real lying starts.

You load up a game, tap a blaster, and feel its boom. Then you tap a pistol and feel its rapid-fire pulses. You switch to a music app, dance your fingers across the screen, and feel the keys as you go. Then you get an iMessage and literally feel the unce, unce, unce of its laser effect. And you stop. And you curse. Because you just stumbled across iPhone 7's secret weapon — the new Taptic Engine.

On iPhone 7, the screen taps YOU

iMessage Lasers

iMessage Lasers (Image credit: Rene Ritchie)

Apple's second generation haptic feedback motor for iPhone — the one the headphone jack, in part, gave its life space for — is a substantial improvement over the previous one.

Where before you could press firmly on your iPhone 6s display to trigger 3D Touch and get a reassuring "thump" in response, with iPhone 7 you get a broader, deeper, more sophisticated range of responses.

Some of them are delightfully subtle: Spin through a date or time picker and you can feel a slight "tock" for each number. Thumb across alternate characters on the keyboard and you can feel a little "tick" for each accent.

Others reaffirm the interface. Try to zoom too close or swipe too far, and a small "knock" will inform your finger that you've reached a limit. It's not the "right" feeling and not an exact match to the perfectly visualized rubber banding effect iOS has had since launch, but, in context, you barely notice. The sensory input is in sync, and hence amplified, and you know exactly, unmistakably, what it means.

So, too, iMessage effects. If you've run the iOS 10 beta on a previous iPhone, you've seen the fireworks or lasers. But with iPhone 7, you feel them. The bursts or waves of light sizzle and rumble in your hand.

It's not the sloppy, annoying buzzing other manufacturers have been implementing for years either. And it's not localized to only half the phone, so when you turn it sideways only one of your hands feels anything.

No, Taptic Engine is haptics done right, and the potential is enormous.

This ain't your grandparent's rumble pack

All of that, impressive as it is at first touch, is simply Apple pointing the way to developers and hinting at what the next generation of apps can do. It's those apps that are really mind-blowing ... er, finger-popping?

Feeling the different types of blasters available to you in a game, or the keys of a piano, that's what's so exciting about iPhone 7.

The decades-old research that led to the Taptic Engine glimpsed a future where texture itself could be simulated beneath our fingers. Already, people are experiencing iPhone 7 and imagining fully tactile typing, guitar strumming — everything short of nail filing.

Developers have only just gotten the application programming interfaces (API) to access the new Taptic Engine, but if the previews I mentioned up top are any indication, we're in for an incredibly exciting few months as more and more apps roll them out.

I'm not sure what the new Taptic Engine means yet for accessibility either, but I'm hoping the better and more precise tactile responses will also be a boon to iPhone users with low and no vision, and augment the existing audio interfaces, at least a little.

The potential of the new Taptic engine may be the best-kept secret on iPhone 7 — but it won't be for long.

If you're working on an app that uses the Taptic Engine in a new and interesting way, get in touch.

Rene Ritchie
Contributor

Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.

85 Comments
  • So this gimmick is what caused the phone jack removal...? And before anyone comments, waterproofing has nothing to do with either.
  • keey the haptic, give me back my headphone jack! i can't stand the adapter falling out all the time.
  • IF you really wanted the headphone jack why would you buy a phone without one?
  • He is right...the 6S is more than capable of doing most of what 7 can do...it has the same MP camera and runs ios 10. it has 2 GB ram and other than the 16/32 GB difference, you could have just got last years phone. that's a YOU problem!
  • 6S has Taptic Engine as well. This is just an updated version, and it's not better enough to justify losing that useful port. If this is the killer feature of these phones, excuse me while I cackle.
  • I don't see how the headphone jack is a useful port, all it can do is provide audio, whereas the Lightning port can do many more things in combination with audio, as well as providing higher audio fidelity
  • you both make a valid point, my reasoning was that the battery life of my 6s that i had before was horrid, i was less than 30% by early evening on most days with little to no use.
  • My 6s also sucks, terrible battery life. So Iam switching to the 7 and getting the plus also. Hoping to get decent battery life.
  • The 7 has a better camera, a better CPU, a better GPU, more RAM, a home button that won't break, stereo speakers, water resistance, faster LTE. The 6S certainly can't do as much as the 7
  • Because people don't think. I want an headphone jack. I kept my 6.
  • Why do you want to cling onto old technology so much? The headphone jack isn't coming back and it will soon be gone from other phones as well. Motorola have removed it from the Moto Z, Intel are going to remove it, the only thing that happens from here is that others will follow
  • Perhaps you should stop driving. The automobile is over a hundred years old! And don't get me started on how old the wheel is! So outdated... we need to eliminate it.
  • Ah yes, except what is on the horizon? Cars that remove you from driving. In 50 years we will look back on cords connecting to phones and think how stupid they are. Like Apple did to contactless payments, they will do to headphones. I won't lie, I love a good pair of wired headphones. So much. But what I have never enjoyed are the cords. Walking my dogs when it is raining, while simultaneously listening to music with my wired headphones is an exercise in true, deep misery. I cannot count the times that things have gotten tangled up. That goes with anything. A bag? Sucks. Backpack? Sucks. Accidentally forgetting you are wearing wired headphones then standing up and either flinging your phone off the table or ripping your headphones out of your ears... oh and don't get me started on door handles and stuff. Ugh. Simply put, Bluetooth audio isn't perfect. It sucks that the money I've put out on wired headsets has relegated them to the "emergency pair" department, however this is a step that will help push the industry forward into BETTER wireless specs. Seriously, do you really WANT to deal with wires? I sure as **** don't. And while I don't like cables for charging, it's not like I'm magically putting my phone in my pocket where it will charge, no I'm laying it FLAT on a charger anyway, so who cares if there's a cable in my phone? I want to be unencumbered in my day to day, and I truly believe that the future will bring wireless audio to another level. No one taking the step will mean that the spec just sits. It works, sure, but why not try and build something BETTER that doesn't get tangled up.
  • We have cars that remove you from driving, they are called cabs. Or Uber. Or buses, or trains. But we still have cars you can drive if you want to. "Seriously, do you really WANT to deal with wires?" What I want is the option, I guess. Has wireless networking come very far in the last decade? Sure. But I still plug an Ethernet cable into my computer when I can because it's still much faster and arguably more reliable. I wouldn't drag an Ethernet cable all over creation with me of course, but for a device that is, even temporarily, just sitting there it's often the better option. Key word "option". Which is why I'm very glad for upcoming cases like the Daptr and the Fuze, which give you back both an analog headphone jack and a lightning port. One thing that will make me absolutely lose my mind is if Apple removes the headphone jack from the MacBook or especially the MacBook Pro at this week's event. I can think of absolutely no reasonable excuse for that.
  • Maybe iMore will be doing a video soon showing you how to insert the plug fully into the adapter. It's actually pretty simple.
  • i'm pretty confident that you are the only one that thinks that's funny. i have to use tape to keep the adapter in and it's getting old. i'm now shopping for bluetooth hearing protection which is going to cost me out the wazoo.
  • Sounds like you have a problem with your adapter rather than the loss of old technology. Ask the people at the Apple Store or buy a different adapter, there are some manufacturers that make better adapters/connectors than Apple's own ones
  • No one thing is the reason for the headphone port removal. It isn't like https://atap.google.com/ara/ where you have to remove one thing to add another. The phone is the sum of all of its parts and in order to fit EVERYTHING together, they use every bit of space. And removing the headphone jack gave them extra space.
  • +1
  • I believe it has more to do with futureproofing than waterproofing
  • I'm mixed about the Taptic engine on the Watch and the iPhone. I just think it's really big and takes up valuable space that could be used for other things I value more - especially on the watch. I'm curious on the size and battery consumption difference between the traditional Vibrator and the Taptic Engine. If there is a big difference in size in power, I don't feel the tradeoff is worth it. The question is, if the Apple Watch had a traditional vibrator instead of a Taptic engine, does that mean it could have had 50% more battery life and a cellular chip? If the answer is yes, I'd rather not have the Taptic Engine. If the answer is no, then I'd rather have the Taptic engine than the traditional vibrator. I'd like to add, as far as I'm concerned, 3D touch so far has been a gimmick. I tried to make use of it but it's rarely useful in practice. I also feel uneasy about the idea of pressing down on a beautiful screen. It just feels aweful. I'm hoping I'm wrong about both these things and that history goes to prove the usefulness of 3D Touch and the Taptic Engine. I don't see too much value in each of these for current generation devices.
  • I agree about the taptic engine. I do like the fact that it makes it possible to synthesize a home button for the rumoured full screen iPhone, but I hope that it can also be useful for other stuff. The teardowns of the iPhone 7 showed it to be massive so, as you say about the watch, it needs to be very useful to justify the space. There was a taptic engine in the 6S but it was much smaller and still cannot be controlled by the developer (for reasons I do not understand). We can control the new taptic engine in the iPhone 7 but there aren’t many things that we can do with it yet. That will undoubtedly change over time, and I'm sure that developers will find creative ways to use what is available. In this respect I think it is similar to 3D Touch. It was first used for simple stuff, but more creative uses have appeared since it was released a year ago. For example (and please excuse the plug) my app uses it to allow users to pan across maps by temporarily zooming out according to how hard they press the screen. And with the new taptic engine I can now add feedback like on peek/pop operations (although I can’t afford an iPhone 7 so I hope that I have used the right feedback!)