Deep-dive review: The iPhone 7 Plus is the best iPhone yet

Let's get this out of the way about the biggest change to the iPhone 7: The elimination of the old-style audio jack doesn't mean Apple is trying to force users to buy wireless AirPods. The iPhone 7 comes with wired headphones (that plug into the Lightning connector port), and it comes with a free adapter if you have your own headphones you'd rather use.

If you're hung up on the missing audio jack, which you shouldn't be, then the iPhone 7 isn't for you. For everyone else, I'll be clear: The iPhone 7 is the best iPhone I've ever used - and I've owned every single version, dating back to 2007.

That this year's model is the best shouldn't be a surprise. Apple has to out-execute itself (and its rivals) every year if it's going to coerce millions of current users to upgrade and draw in Android users looking to switch. The iPhone 7 and 7 Plus, unveiled on Sept. 7 and in users' hands since Sept. 16, look much like the iPhone 6S and 6S Plus, but looks are deceiving.

The iPhone 7 features a water-resistant housing; a new, non-mechanical Home button that relies on haptics for feedback; major updates to the camera system; a modestly better display; faster system performance and up to 256GB of storage capacity. Battery life, too, should be improved, despite the demands of the faster system architecture.

In hand, I have the 256GB version of the iPhone 7 Plus in jet black - the shinier of the two new black options. I've been using the phone since it arrived Sept. 24 after a variety of shipping delays. And yes, I got up at 3 a.m. to pre-order like millions of others. But jet black supplies were constrained from the get-go.

Look and feel

For the third year in a row, Apple has kept the look and feel of the iPhone the same. This is a break from the company's every-two-year-redesign cadence, and has led to speculation that next year's 10th-generation model will represent a radical new look. The iPhone 7 sports a smooth casing made from 7000 series aluminum shaped to meet the all-glass front; build tolerances are tight enough to give a seamless appearance.

The iPhone 7 - the smaller of the two models - has a 4.7-in. LCD screen and weighs 4.87 oz.; the Plus model has a 5.5-in. screen and weighs 6.63 oz. Apple doubled the entry-level storage to 32GB, with 128GB and 256GB versions available for an extra $100 with each jump. (The jet black model is only available with 128GB and 256GB of storage.)

REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

Apple's iPhone 7 Plus on display in an Apple Store in Los Angeles.

The iPhone's high-resolution Retina HD display is flanked by either a white or a black bezel; the rear case comes in silver, gold, rose gold, jet black and matte black. (Sorry, space gray fans - the iPhone 7 isn't offered in that color.) The most noticeable change is that the antenna lines have been moved to the top and bottom of the case, giving the iPhone 7 an unbroken, smooth finish. On the darker colors, the antenna lines pretty much disappear (unless held to the light at certain angles).

The Power button, mute switch and volume buttons are unchanged, and the Home button/ Touch ID fingerprint scanner is still centered at the bottom of the display. But it's no longer a mechanical button that you press down. It now uses a haptic sensor - Apple's Taptic Engine - that is pressure sensitive and gives click-like feedback when pressed.

The new Home button takes some getting used to; it's not any harder or easier to use than before, but it does feel different. The response to pressing the Home button is more akin to a thump than a click. One of the benefits of the new design is that you can adjust how much of a response you'll feel. Just go to Settings: General: Home Button.

Same look, but improvements abound

Why would Apple take what's become an iconic design routinely copied by competitors and tweak the Home button and headphone jack? For one thing, both changes help make the iPhone 7 more resistant to dust and water.

How resistant? Apple states that the iPhone 7 has an IP67 rating under the IEC standard 60529, which is legalese meaning it can survive for 30 minutes under three feet of water. It's fine if you drop it in the sink or get caught in the rain, but try to avoid scuba diving. (One tester actually did take it scuba diving while recording 4K video with its built-in camera. But you shouldn't.) If it does get immersed, Apple recommends waiting about five hours before attempting to charge the phone again.

Internally, the iPhone 7 is built around Apple's custom-designed A10 Fusion chip. In normal use, the iPhone 7 is responsive and quick to load, as was the iPhone 6S. The 64-bit A10 Fusion chipset is rated 40% faster than the A9 found on the 6S, so anyone upgrading from an iPhone 6S will notice a speed bump for everyday tasks like loading apps, browsing the web and loading content. That speed boost will be more dramatic if you're upgrading from an iPhone 6 or earlier. Apple boasts that the A10 is twice as fast compared to the A8 chipset in the iPhone 6, which itself was dramatically faster than previous models.

That's speaking subjectively. Geekbench 4 CPU scores rate the average iPhone 7 (and 7 Plus) score for multi-core CPU at approximately 5600 (and a single-core CPU score at around 3440). How does that translate into real-world performance? This video shows how the iPhone 7 and 6S stack up. In this test, rows of apps and games are launched, loaded, and closed in succession for two laps. The first lap is a good indicator of system speed as apps are loaded; the second lap shows how well the operating system handles resource management as it reloads each app. I like this test because that's what everyone does on their phone every day: open and close and reopen apps.

The iPhone 7 naturally bests 6S. And the 7 Plus tops the smaller 7, especially in the second lap. That's because the 7 Plus comes with 3GB of memory; 1GB more than what's in the iPhone 7. Because the iPhone 7 Plus can store more in memory, reloading apps is faster. That's not the only thing the additional memory is used for; I'll get to that below in the Camera section.

(For the curious, here's how the iPhone 7 stacks up against the Samsung Galaxy Note 7.)

Fast performance is important, but it shouldn't come at the expense of battery life. I'm pleased to report that I'm getting more life out of my new phone than I did with the iPhone 6S. I've been averaging between 20% and 40% of remaining battery life, having used the iPhone constantly between the hours of 8:30 a.m. and 5 p.m. (During my commute, I recharge both my Apple Watch and iPhone, so both start my work day at 100%.) With the iPhone 6S, I was having to re-charge by the time 4 p.m. rolled around each day.

So Apple delivered better performance and better battery life. How? At least some credit has to go to the A10 Fusion chipset. Fusion isn't just a slick marketing name; this CPU has four cores, one pair for high-performance work, another pair of lower-clocked cores for non-intensive tasks like fetching email. An Apple-designed performance controller determines which processes use which cores.

The Taptic Engine has also been updated. It's stronger, and can react faster in an expanded range of frequencies. For that reason, Apple tweaked iOS 10 to trigger haptic feedback for some specific actions. When activating 3D Touch (where you press down harder on the screen and get a pop-up menu) or using the Home button, this haptic feedback is useful; at other times -- when pulling down the Notification drawer or spinning the roulette interface like the Timer in Clock app -- it's just a fun addition.

Something to really smile about

The iPhone 7 flat out takes better pictures than previous iPhones, especially in lower- light situations. That's true for both the smaller iPhone 7 and the larger iPhone 7 Plus, which has a new two-camera system.

In the iPhone 7, the rear camera has optical stabilization, an ƒ/1.8 aperture, and a six-element lens; it takes 12-megapixel photos. In low-light situations, photos still show some digital noise, but the new system is able to pick up more details and colors than before, and the optical stabilization helps reduce blur due to light camera shake. Not everyone has steady hands.

An updated True Tone flash system relies on four LEDs to compensate for low-light cases when a flash is needed. These LEDs are brighter than before (Apple says 50% brighter), and help bring out more natural colors (such as skin tone) compared to a traditional flash.

The rear camera also records video at up to 4K resolution at 30 frames per second and can capture better footage in low-light situations. As before, the iPhone 7 can also record Time Lapse and slow-motion footage.

Ken Mingis

The iPhone 7 Plus has two cameras that allow for 2X optical zoom.

The front-facing FaceTime camera also received a bump in resolution, moving from 5MP to 7MP. The resulting photos are sharper, which should help the selfie crowd, and they make for smoother video when on FaceTtime video chats.

All of the camera functions are processed by a custom-built image signal processor that's part of the A10 Fusion chip, automatically adjusting images and video for cleaner and clearer results as data is recorded.

While the iPhone 7's camera system is a nice step up from the 6S, it's not the best camera on an iPhone. That honor belongs to the iPhone 7 Plus. The Plus model's two rear-facing cameras include one that takes traditional wide shots at a 28mm focal length, while the second camera is fixed on a 56mm focal length (with an ƒ/2.8 aperture). Together, they effectively deliver 2x optical zoom, with the built-in camera software switching between the two on the fly when you press the on-screen zoom button. The iPhone 7 Plus camera system allows for up to 10x digital magnification (6x for video), and since it uses the 56mm lens as the starting point, you'll get better detail than possible with just the 28mm wide lens. But you may see some pixilation.

Here is where the additional memory in the 7 Plus comes into play. When photos are taken, both cameras fire off simultaneously, and Apple's image signal processor uses the data from both lenses to form a single image. (This happens automatically, without user intervention.)

The new system on the 7 Plus works really well. The only caveat is that the telephoto lens needs a lot of light, or the picture may be soft or a little noisy. Otherwise, having true optical zoom capability on a cell phone is a real advance.

Speaking of advances, there's one more feature the iPhone 7 Plus camera system can do using the two lenses, but it won't be available until the iOS 10.1 update arrives in a few weeks. The 7 Plus will soon support a new Portrait mode that uses both lenses to determine depth, applying a gradual blur to the background to emphasize the foreground subject. This technique, called the "Bokeh effect," is a staple of DSLR cameras. On the iPhone 7 Plus, the resulting image is a composite, with the level of blur determined by nine separate planes gauged by the depth perception allowed by using the two lenses together. Composite or no, it's a neat trick. And it's coming soon. That's something to consider if you're constantly taking photos with your iPhone.

Ken Mingis

The two cameras in the iPhone 7 Plus are used to create the "Bokeh effect," which uses software to blur the background when used in portrait mode. The feature is still in beta and is expected to be tweaked before being released later this year.

Well, that sounds good

One of the pains of owning an iPhone in the past involved the built-in speaker: Its location at the bottom of the device made it difficult to hear, forcing you to cup your hand to redirect the sound. With this year's models, that's no longer necessary. The iPhone 7 and 7 Plus come with a louder speaker set that delivers stereo sound. The earpiece speaker works in concert with the lower speaker to produce the left and right channels, and it's much louder and clearer than with previous iPhones.

As I already noted, the iPhone comes with white EarPods, just as before, except these EarPods connect to the iPhone via a Lightning connection, which is the same port used to charge the phone. They sound the same as previous versions; if you've replaced your Apple EarPods with your own headphones and want to continue using them, there is a 3.5mm headphone jack adapter included on the underside of the EarPod box with the iPhone.

Of course, the iPhone will pair with any Bluetooth headset. Apple offers several under the Beats brand, as well as its own $159 set of AirPods. I'll have more to say about them when they ship later this month.

Looks good, too

The iPhones have the same resolution displays as before: the iPhone 7 gets a 1334-x-750-pixel resolution at 326 pixels per inch (ppi); the 7 Plus offers a 1920-x-1080-pixel resolution at 401ppi. But both displays are about 25% brighter than the iPhone 6S in bright sunlight, and they support a wider color gamut for truer colors.

Screen experts at DisplayMate evaluated the iPhone 7 and had this to say: "The display on the iPhone 7 is a truly impressive top performing display and a major upgrade to the display on the iPhone 6. It is by far the best performing mobile LCD display that we have ever tested, and it breaks many display performance records."

They went on to say: "[The] iPhone 7 excels due to its record absolute color accuracy, which is visually indistinguishable from perfect, and is very likely considerably better than any mobile display, monitor, TV or UHD TV that you have."

Ultimately, what that means in the real world is that the iPhone is easier to see outside, and colors have a more natural range with improved accuracy.

Speaking of good looks, let's talk about jet black, the super shiny new color Apple rolled out with this launch. This model offers the biggest visual differentiation from previous versions, and, to me, looks more like a science fiction prop than a functioning device. Its aluminum backing is polished to a high-gloss finish using a nine-step anodization and polishing process. The result is lovely - but fleeting. The finish is prone to tiny scratches that affect the way the light bounces off the housing -- Apple even warns that this will happen, and recommends a case. On top of that, the glossy jet black housing collects fingerprints like it's a passionate hobby, so be prepared for that.

For the first time ever, I bought a case for my phone because of the concerns about scratches and smudges. I'm hoping to keep it as pristine as possible for as long as possible.

Final thoughts

As I've used my new iPhone, several standout features have really impressed me. These include:

  • The speaker system. It's strange to hear stereo sound from an iPhone, and even stranger to hear audio clearly without having to cup your hand.
  • The haptic feedback. Used throughout iOS 10, it really is a useful addition and adds a new element of interactivity that works well in daily use.
  • The extended battery life. While the iPhone doesn't last as long as some competing phones, the extra few hours the new models provide is enough to meet my constant use throughout the day.
  • The impressive options offered by the camera system. The optical zoom means I no longer have to be in someone's face to get some of the shots I like to take. And, the camera system will only get better for iPhone 7 Plus users with the upcoming iOS 10.1 update.

To sum up: The iPhone 7 doesn't break dramatic new ground in the looks department - aside from the arrival of jet black - but delivers real improvements under the hood in the areas users can most appreciate - especially with the new camera setup in the iPhone 7 Plus.

If you like the iPhone and are already in Apple's ecosystem, you can't go wrong with the iPhone 7 or 7 Plus as an upgrade; if you're new to the iPhone, you couldn't have picked a better time to switch.

Apple made better an already great phone. Recommended.

IDG Insider


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