The iPhone 7 Plus is a beast of a phone, but it's not quite perfect
Why would you buy an iPhone 7 Plus over the iPhone 7? Especially since it’s considerably more expensive than the iPhone 7 and, in many respects, is a very similar phone.
It’s a question that’s pretty easy to answer: it’s the more accomplished of the two devices. And that isn’t simply down to the new twin-camera setup, which is the most obvious difference between the two handsets of course. There’s a whole lot more to the iPhone 7 Plus than initially meets the eye.
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It’s considerably larger, with a 5.5in 1,080 x 1,920 resolution display, and it has a more sizeable battery as well. And all that comes in addition to the improvements made to the iPhone 7: the new Home button, the improved battery life and faster performance, new colours and more generous baseline storage.
iPhone 7 Plus review: Twin-camera bonanza
So how much better is the iPhone 7 Plus’ dual camera? Well, from one perspective, not at all. There are two cameras here and one is exactly the same as the unit you’ll find in the iPhone 7. It has a 28mm, six-element lens with a f/1.8 aperture, optical image stabilisation and the same improved ISP.
And you won’t be surprised at all to find that the results from it look precisely the same as the results of the iPhone 7. It’s a much better camera than in the iPhone 6s for action shots in good light, and it produces brighter, more colour-rich photographs in low light – the result of slower shutter speeds and lower ISO sensitivity levels. But it isn’t entirely free of issues: notably, slightly blotchy processing in low-light shots, which is particularly noticeable in shadows.
It still can’t compete with the camera on the Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge, which produces more natural, colourful and cleaner images in low light. You can see the difference in the image below, where the iPhone 7 Plus is on the left, while the S7 Edge is on the right.
But the iPhone 7 Plus’ big party trick is its second camera, and that’s something the Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge can’t match. Its 56mm focal length adds a 2x optical zoom to the Plus, which you can flick in and out of by simply tapping the 2x icon at the bottom of the camera app screen.
This may not sound like much in a world where bridge cameras routinely hit 24x optical zoom and beyond, but to fit such optics into a smartphone as slim as the iPhone 7 Plus is a remarkable feat. And it’s a far more powerful feature than you might imagine, allowing you to get closer to far-off objects, and capture startlingly good macro images as well.
The iPhone doesn’t just offer two-stage optical zoom, although sticking to those two default settings is the best way to achieve the best-quality photographs. You can hold that 2x icon and drag up to venture into digital zoom territory – up to 10x – although the quality drops off quite dramatically when you do this.
Alternatively, you can zoom down to a point between 1x and 2x, at which point the camera snaps two photos simultaneously and combines them together to produce a better quality image.
A couple of things to note before I delve into the details of the second camera. First, it isn’t the same camera as the 28mm one. It has a narrower aperture of f/2.8 and doesn’t, therefore, perform as well in low light. Second, although it produces more “zoomed-in” shots, it isn’t really a telephoto lens, despite Apple’s protestations to the contrary. Its 56mm (equivalent) focal length is, in fact, closer to the “standard” 50mm prime lens that many DSLR photographers choose as their walkabout lens. True telephoto lenses start at 70mm and up.
Quality-wise, images captured with the 56mm lens are fine. In fact, they’re uncannily close to photos produced with the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus, with more grain in shadow areas and less vibrant colours than with the 28mm lens, but with better control over noise – and none of that blotchiness I highlighted above.
It’s a useful tool, in other words, and it sets the iPhone 7 Plus apart from most of the competition. But the really interesting part of the dual-camera equation will arrive later this year. Apple says it will release an update that enables fake, shallow depth-of-field photography. It will do this by combining images shot simultaneously by both cameras, creating a depth map based on that data and using it to artificially blur out the background while keeping the foreground in sharp focus.
If it works, it will be great. For instance, the feature will allow you to create portraits approximating those produced by professionals and keen amateur photographers with their DSLRs. However, this isn’t the first time the feat has been attempted. HTC tried it with its dual-camera HTC One M8 and quality was patchy. Hopefully, Apple’s attempt will be more impressive.
I’d also like to see Apple venture further, using the second camera to produce more effective HDR images, especially since one of iOS 10’s new capabilities is to unlock the capture and processing of RAW DNG images. Perhaps some other app manufacturer will get there first. I do hope so.
iPhone 7 Plus review: Design
If the dual camera is a dramatic upgrade, however, the design of the iPhone 7 Plus is anything but. Given that this is not an “S” upgrade, it’s surprising that the only major physical difference is related to the dual camera. Two cameras inevitably mean a larger camera bulge on the rear, but Apple has handled this well. It doesn’t look ugly or awkward.
The rest of the design remains identical, aside from the extra “speaker” grille on the bottom edge (note, this isn’t where the phone’s second speaker resides; that’s under the earpiece on the front), where the 3.5mm headphone jack has been removed. Of course, there are now two new colours to choose from – the glossy Jet Black and plain Black – while Space Grey has quietly been dropped. However, the iPhone 7 Plus remains as unwieldy in the hand as the 6s Plus and iPhone 6s was before it. Simply put, compared with rival 5.5in and larger smartphones, the iPhone 7 Plus feels bulky and oversized.
Perhaps Apple thought that removing the 3.5mm headphone was enough. It certainly has sparked controversy, but I’m not convinced it’s such a great idea. Sure, Apple includes an adapter in the box, and yes there are advantages to connecting some types of headphones via Lightning. For instance, active noise-cancelling headphones will no longer require an extra battery box.
However, there are also clear disadvantages. Lightning headphones will be more expensive since manufacturers have to pay a royalty to Apple to license the connector technology, and you won’t be able to charge your phone and listen to music via Lightning headphones unless you purchase a £35 Belkin adapter or Apple’s £49 Lightning dock.
The replacement of the mechanical Home button with one driven by Apple’s superb Taptic Engine technology is considerably less controversial. It does feel a little odd at first – the dig of feedback it gives you isn’t exactly like the click of a physical button – but it soon becomes second nature, and since it no longer has any moving parts, it should be more reliable.
Unfortunately, the new Home button doesn’t work with gloves – even smartphone friendly gloves. Previously, iPhone owners could use the physical Home Button and a pin code to unlock and access their phones. However, the new Home Button doesn’t respond to contact made from anything but skin, making the phone impossible to unlock with gloves on as iOS 10 requires a click on the Home Button to bring up pin unlock.
This may not be the biggest news while the weather’s still warm outside, but in a couple of months time it’s going to look like a real backwards step for the iPhone. Hopefully, Apple will have issued a software update by then. I’m confident it will.
The final design improvement, and possibly the most significant, is that the iPhone 7 Plus – just like the iPhone 7 – is IP67 dust- and water-resistant. In technical parlance, this means it’s completely dust tight, and you can dunk it up to one metre of water for up to half an hour. Other phones such as the Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge have “superior” IP68 protection, but the extra digit doesn’t always mean better water-resistance from a practical standpoint. In the case of the Samsung, you can submerge it in an extra 0.5m for the same period of time; it’s a bit more robust, but not by much.
iPhone 7 Plus review: Display
The display also represents a small step forward, but not that you’d know it from reading the specifications. It has the same Full HD resolution as before and Apple hasn’t changed the panel technology. However, it looks brighter and its colours are, in general, more saturated and “glowy” than on the iPhone 6s. So what gives?
First, Apple says it’s managed to boost brightness by 25%, quoting a typical brightness figure of 625cd/m2. But it’s also changing its outlook from a colour management point of view, tuning the display for the wider, richer DCI-P3 palette of colours instead of the older sRGB colour space.
I say “instead of”, but it appears that Apple is attempting to cover both bases here, employing different calibrations for different apps. Fire up the Opera browser we use to run our tests in (Safari won’t play ball with our testing equipment) and you see the slightly duller colours of the sRGB colour gamut. Open up the camera app, however, or take a look at the homescreen, and the more vibrant tones of Apple’s new “Wide Color” tuning become obvious.
That makes it tricky to benchmark the iPhone 7 Plus’ display fully, but even tested against the sRGB gamut in the browser-based tests we use, it’s evident that the screen is as good as ever. It covers 96.3% of sRGB, brightness hits 520cd/m2, the contrast ratio is an excellent 1,350:1 and colour accuracy is as good as you’ll see on any smartphone.
Performance and battery life
Internally, the iPhone 7 Plus and iPhone 7 share much of the same hardware. The Plus has an extra 1GB of RAM, but the same Apple A10 Fusion processor and M10 motion co-processor. In feel, both phones are identical; in fact, there’s very little difference between the old iPhone 6s Plus and the 7 Plus. Clicking the Home button gets you back to the homescreen a little quicker, but that’s about it.
The Benchmarks tell a different story, however. They reveal that the new phone has significantly more headroom for behind-the-scenes number-crunching and gaming. It holds a 30% advantage in the Geekbench 4 single-core test and achieves a 25% better score in the multi-core test.
In the gaming specific GFXBench 3 GL tests, once again it proves faster, achieving incredibly impressive 31% and 33% better average frame rates in both the Manhattan on-screen and off-screen tests. It has plenty of grunt, and although right now there’s little difference in real terms between the iPhone 6s Plus and iPhone 7 Plus, in a couple of years, once iOS has been updated a few more times, the likelihood is that the newer phone will run far more smoothly.
So far, so predictable. Battery life is a much more interesting issue, however. The new A10 Fusion processor is a quad-core part, and half of its cores are dedicated to less-demanding tasks. The theory is that, for the day-to-day stuff, the processor should use less power, with a commensurate improvement in battery life.
So far, in day-to-day use, I’ve noticed a small advantage in battery life. Where I’d typically get a day-and-a-half to a day-and-three-quarters out of the 6s Plus, the iPhone 7 Plus reaches the full two days.
iPhone 7 Plus review: Prices and verdict
I said it at the beginning of this review, and I’ll say it once more: of the two new iPhones, the Plus is the better handset. It has that dual-camera, better battery life and a bigger screen. If you have no aversion to its pocket-stretching dimensions and you absolutely must have an iPhone then the iPhone 7 Plus is the handset to go for.
But it’s also significantly more expensive than the iPhone 7, and due to the weakness of the pound, the iPhone 7 Plus worked out significantly more pricey than the iPhone 6 Plus when it launched. You do get double the storage, with the base model now offering 32GB instead of 16GB, but with prices initially starting at £719, that’s a tough pill to swallow.
That, in my opinion, is a price rise too much. With the superior Samsung Galaxy S8 costing around £520 SIM-free, and many other top-quality Android alternatives (such as the OnePlus 5T) going for even less, the iPhone 7 Plus is looking a tough, tough sell – no matter how good a phone it is.
|Quad-core A10 Fusion
|2x 12 megapixels
|32GB, 128GB, 256GB
|Memory card slot (supplied)
|158 x 78 x 7.3mm