You’ll have already read my review of the smaller new iPhone 7 here, hopefully. It’s a terrific little smartphone and by far the best iPhone ever, whatever you might think of the future-looking removal of the 3.5mm headphone jack. But I’ve saved the best til last, since the larger iPhone 7 Plus is even better. With higher resolution, bigger battery, a technologically advanced zoom camera and the usual ‘Plus’ iOS tweaks, the 7 Plus is just about the most technology, with the most uses, ever crammed into one phone shell…
At first glance, you’d think that the ‘Plus’ is just an over-sized regular iPhone, but for 2016 Apple has pushed the boundaries further in terms of distinguishing the larger and more expensive model, in that imaging is taken on a generation. Will we then see the 7 Plus imaging in the vanilla iPhone 8 next year? Oh probably, that’s the way Apple phases in this kind of technology – but in the meantime you’ll need to look at the larger iPhone to see what the fuss is all about. But more on that in the ‘Imaging’ section below.
By the way, I make no apologies for using a few phrases from my iPhone 7 review below – there is still quite a bit that is common to both iPhones. So bear with me for the odd repeated paragraph – there’s plenty of new stuff too!
Improvements across the board, innovative imaging
As with the smaller ‘7’, everything has been improved across the board for the 7 Plus – even the display, which the specs say should be the same as on the 6 Plus, has a brighter LED backlight for better sunlight performance. Then there’s the faster A10 Fusion chipset, now up to 2.3GHz, the greater RAM, now 3GB on this larger iPhone. Add in higher capacity (the range now starts at 32GB – yay!) and greater battery capacity (2910mAh has been quoted, up from 2750mAh on the 6 Plus).
Then there’s the use of stereo speakers for the first time. Now, this is something of a catch-up feature to many handsets in the Android world, but it’s brand new to the iPhone and makes a huge difference when watching media – think YouTube, Netflix, and so on. Social (in person) video sharing in the office, home and school is huge, and the stereo sound and double volume helps a lot here, aided by the larger iPhone adding some distance between the left and right speaker outputs. Fidelity is excellent too, with good (punchy) volume, surprising bass and crisp top end – in my tests, the iPhone 7 speakers exceeded those in all its Android competition (bar the niche London).
It all adds up to (as Apple always say, but it’s true) ‘the best iPhone yet’.
As you’ll see below though, the biggest innovation is in imaging – adding a second telephoto lens is something that’s never been done before (ignore pundits pointing out the LG G5 and Huawei units, they work differently). The upshot is that you can take better, more intimate portraits of people (and Apple has an extra trick up its sleeve for this, as I shall explain later) and more detail of objects in the middle distance.
As with the smaller iPhone 7, the change in Home button design from mechanical to solid state is a surprisingly nice touch, since Apple adds enough secret sauce in the configurable ‘Taptic’ engine so as to try and convince the senses that there’s still a moving part underneath the iconic home ‘circle’. It’s not 100% convincing, but it’s amazing how quickly you get used to this arrangement – think minutes rather than hours or days. You can set the degree by which the Taptic vibration kicks off when pressing the home ‘button’, with a choice of three amplitudes. I found that the strongest suited me best, but your mileage may vary here. Great to have a choice anyway.
With the new home ‘button’ I did find that I was accessing ‘Reachability’ far too often accidentally – I’d double ‘press’ for the multitasking carousel and end up with one or more of these being construed as ‘taps’ and then the Reachability feature would kick in and my entire screen would scroll down. On the smaller screened iPhone, I just turned Reachability off, but on the larger 5.5″-screened phone it’s probably useful to keep this enabled. Which means that I’ll just have to be more careful to press and not tap(!)
The change from a mechanical system plays a large part in the new IP67 rating for water and dust resistance and, living in a household where water damage has been an issue in the past, this is greatly to be welcomed. You still can’t swim with this or shoot videos underwater – or at least you’re not supposed to (ignore the boundary-pushers on YouTube!), but drop it in the toilet or sink by accident and you’ll be absolutely fine.
One other change from previous iPhones is worth noting and it’s to do with iOS 10. Gone is slide-to-unlock – instead you just apply pressure to the Home button and you’re done, the fingerprint recognition being so quick. For other Lock screen actions, swipe the whole thing right to see widgets and shortcuts, or left to gain access to Camera. It’s very nicely done indeed.
Then there’s the way that, by default, the lock screen lights up briefly to show time and notifications when you just lift the phone from a resting place, e.g. on a desk. This is a time saver, obviously – no button pushing needed.
There has been a bit of a kerfuffle in the media that, in cold weather, you can’t unlock the iPhone 7 Plus screen with (capacitive) gloves on, since the new home sensor requires skin contact, but I’m not convinced this is an issue. The 7 Plus is a serious mobile computing device and I can’t see anyone doing anything non-trivial with it with gloves on. As it is, if a call comes in, the screen will light up anyway – even replying to messages can be done at a pinch (e.g. surveying in the Antarctic?) without taking off capacitive-tipped gloves to activate the home sensor.
The 3.5mm jack controversy
Apple has been on the receiving end of some fierce criticism for the decision to axe the traditional 3.5mm headphone jack, with Apple mainly quoting reasons of space and difficulty of waterproofing. These are both valid (as teardowns have shown, the Taptic engine is pretty large now and encroaches on what would have been the jack’s internal space).
In fairness, most of us do already use wireless audio a surprising amount – whether via AirPlay, via Bluetooth or simply by using the speakers – only about a third of my audio on a smartphone actually goes via the 3.5mm jack, so the removal of this isn’t going to be quite as distressing as most pundits have been predicting. I hate to sound like an Apple apologist, but the company really does have things covered here – there are Lightning versions of the old earpods in the box (even though I personally don’t rate them in terms of fidelity), plus there’s a Lightning to 3.5mm adapter included as well, so that you can simply plug in the quality headphones of your choice when the time comes. Many people will simply leave the Apple adapter on the end of said headphones, and thankfully Apple’s only charging around $10 or local equivalent for extra adapters, so it’s not a big issue to just grab a few of these and leave them on headsets or other convenient places in your life, for as and when needed.
Or, if you decide that you really, really need a 3.5mm jack on the phone, just stick to the 2015 iPhone 6s Plus – it’s still available, cheaper than it used to be and still highly recommended. And, though Apple’s hesitant to admit it, the 6s Plus is also pretty darned water resistant – there are various tests on YouTube which you’ll enjoy.
Also launched with the iPhone 7 was Apple’s own somewhat expensive auto-connecting wireless AirPods, though it’s worth noting that generic Bluetooth headphones, costing far less (or which you probably already own), work just fine, albeit with the slight hassle of pairing and connecting on the phone screen. And there’s another possible benefit that’s worth remarking on – by forcing wired headphone users to use the Lightning port, we should see more noise-cancelling headphones that don’t need recharging (a real hassle when travelling), since power can be supplied (in addition to the audio) via the Lightning connector. And yes, these are pretty expensive, though not necessarily much more than the Apple AirPods – in either case you’re talking about £150 or so (in UK money)…
Set against all this is that with only the one port, you can’t, out of the box, charge your iPhone 7 Plus and listen to wired headphones at the same time. I can think of occasions when travelling or at night, when this might be a requirement. It turns out that Apple offers a suitable Lightning dock with a 3.5mm output, though this then raises the question of how you use your new Lightning headphones – gah! The iPhone accessory market is scrambling to provide a host of solutions to suit every use case and price point, of course, I’m sure you’ll find something that meets your own specific needs.
Performance and day to day use
In day to day use, it’s iOS 10, which most people reading this will already have on their iPhones. This is a subject for another feature (e.g. here), but suffice it to say that there’s a smooth next-gen version of Messages with Stickers, ‘Tapbacks’ and even applets, a new version of Siri that can be extended by (and to) third-party apps, a simplified Control Center (now expanded over multiple side-swiping panes), better integration with Smart Home gadgets, face lifted Music and News apps, and much more.
3D Touch has been extended to work for far more built-in applications with more quick access actions – as I said earlier, this technology has now served its apprenticeship so it’s time to go all-in and see what Apple and third parties can make it do. Within even the built-in applications, support is still patchy, but there are genuinely useful highlights, such as when peeking into and then diving into Calendar entries, emails, and so on.
As with the iPhone 6s Plus, the 7 Plus offers the unique selling point that the whole interface works in landscape mode – the obvious uses cases are productivity, perhaps with a Bluetooth keyboard, and media consumption, and in each case you really don’t want to have to keep rotating such a big smartphone. In addition to working in this mode, a handful of built-in applications do offer extra UI features – Calendar and Mail being the two most prominent, the latter being shown below:
It’s a little disappointing that more iOS applications don’t do something similar and make use of the extra possibilities of a large screen in landscape mode. Something for Apple to add in due course?
You may have seen various YouTube videos showing the iPhone 6s running rings around a Galaxy S7 in terms of opening applications one by one – while this test scenario is somewhat artificial, it does show how fast iOS is with these modern, super-optimised Apple-designed chips – the iPhone 7 Plus has a quad core A10 Fusion, with two high speed 2.3GHz cores and two low power 1GHz cores (to handle operations when absolute speed isn’t needed), backed up by 3GB of RAM. The upshot, even with a 1080p screen, is very fast operation when needed (usually only ever restricted by the deliberate animations and transitions to help the user work out what’s going where in the UI) and terrific battery life the rest of the time.
As with the 6s Plus before it, the larger form factor allows for a larger (2900mAh) battery and the iPhone 7 Plus’s battery life is excellent, thanks also to the A10 Fusion chipset, which is more efficient than on the older phone.
The iPhone 7 Plus has (and I quote) ‘an improved display with DCI-P3 color gamut’. DCI-P3 was originally developed by Hollywood for movies and covers about 42% of the visible spectrum, which is a notable improvement over ‘sRGB’, the system previously used in iPhones and other older smartphones. Obviously, greater colour definition is better, though again this is something of a catch-up since several Android smartphones have used wide colour gamut for at least a year already. In fact, Apple itself already used DCI-P3 support to its 5K iMac in 2015 and also on the iPad Pro in early 2016.
Will you be able to tell that a different data-to-colour mapping system is in place in iOS 10 and the iPhone 7 Plus? Probably not. But photos will be captured with more accurate colours and should look better on the phone screen. And also on other devices supporting this system. In short, it’s a nice-to-have spec point, even if it flies a hundred miles over most peoples’ heads!
As mentioned above, imaging is where the iPhone 7 Plus starts to get very interesting indeed. The second camera lens isn’t just a ‘me too’ effort after looking at what other companies have done over in the Android world. Huawei have been playing with dual cameras for two years – colour and monochrome or two colour with complicated depth effects – without really creating a Unique Selling Point, while LG went for a second ultra-wide angle lens that was trivial to implement and which no one really needed.
Apple, thanks in part to some bought in expertise (Google ‘Corephotonics’ for some clues), has done what was feared to be impossible, and implemented a zoom lens within the standard iPhone thickness (plus the small ‘bump’). Here are the difficulties with the concept:
- the longer the focal length of a camera, the more space it will take, length-wise in the hardware.
- the longer the focal length, the smaller the aperture has to be for a given physical camera size, i.e. the diameter of the hole that lets light in
- mechanical zoom mechanisms are bulky, heavy and prone to unreliability
- the more zoomed in the shot, the smaller the optical circle on the sensor and the smaller the sensor itself needs to be, along with smaller and smaller pixels
The solution turned out to be ditching the concept of a mechanism and simply having a permanently zoomed lens, formed to give 2x. This figure is the compromise forced by the thickness of the camera unit and also means that the 12MP sensor has to be smaller, at 1/3.6″, with pixels that are just less than a micron each (i.e. less than a thousandth of a millimetre each!), and with an aperture of just f/2.8.
Since users won’t always want exactly 2x, Apple’s put in enough processing power and intelligence that you can, in most conditions, simply move seamlessly from 1x through 2x and up to 10x, with traditional interpolative zoom filling in the gaps and extending the zoom as appropriate. As you might expect, the photos captured are only ‘perfect’ at 1x and 2x, i.e. when there’s no interpolation going on – which is why there’s a ‘2x’ control in the viewfinder – tap this to go straight from 1x to 2x and back again.
For this initial hardware implementation, there’s no OIS – Optical Image Stabilisation – on the 2x lens, which is something of a shame since the more you zoom in at capture time, the more you need the image stabilised to mitigate against hand shake, plus the smaller the aperture, the longer the exposure needs to be, meaning that any hand wobble will be even more accentuated. OIS is there on the 1x lens, just as on the 2016 iPhone 7 (4.7″), just not on the telephoto one. It’s not clear whether this was a mechanical constraint (e.g. couldn’t be done yet), a physical one (e.g. would have added an extra millimetre or two to the camera ‘hump’) or simply down to cost (i.e. it would have added an extra few tens of dollars to the Bill of Materials for such a specialist little component). You can, however, bet your bottom dollar that 2017’s iPhone 8 Plus will have OIS on its 2x lens – you heard it here first!
But the addition of OIS to the standard size iPhone’s camera is very welcome. Every phone can take great snaps in the sunshine, but when the light levels drop then OIS comes into its own. Here the 12MP camera now has a f/1.8 aperture too (c.f. f/2.2 on the 6s) – add letting in 50% more light to exposure times that can be longer (up to 1/4s in my tests, though longer exposures can be set with third party apps), and you’ve got a recipe for superb evening shots (at 1x anyway). Focussing’s not as fast as on Samsung’s latest flagships but the Phase Detection Auto Focus (PDAF) here is still more than quick enough to capture everyday action. Shot to shot and burst mode times are amazingly fast, as usual, with Apple’s latest chipset.
Here are some test photos I shot on the iPhone 7 Plus, all in the usual 4:3 aspect ratio, of course, using both its lenses and all with comments, shown in full and then as 1:1 crops, for your inspection of quality:
It’s almost impossible to over-state how fast the iPhone 7 Plus camera is – there’s not only zero shutter lag, you can shoot up to 10 photos a second in burst mode, all at full 12MP and at full quality (using either lens). For kids, pets and sporting events, action is really easy to keep up with, even with the 2x telephoto lens? In most cases you’ll just hit that 2x control and go with it, but long pressing on this then gives access to a smooth set of part-digital zoom factors from 1x up to 10x. Obviously, the further you get from the physical 2x zoom, the more pixel data has to be ‘made up’, with a resulting blockiness.
Interestingly, in low light, the iPhone 7 Plus’s software is clever enough to know that the 2x lens’s narrow aperture and lack of OIS will let the quality down and the phone deliberately keeps using the main stabilised lens, using digital zoom instead. So it’s all been well thought out, following Apple’s usual mantra of ‘we know best, just trust us’!
Announced at the launch was a special ‘Portrait’ mode for the 7 Plus, optimised (in theory) for faces and to be made available in the next few months (it’s already in beta) – the idea here is to combine the output from both camera lenses (depth information from the main lens and – obviously – detail from the 2x lens) to produce a hybrid image with artistically blurred background. Smartphone watchers may remember HTC trying the exact same trick with the One M8 almost three years ago, but HTC’s attempt was amateurish and fuelled by low resolutions – Apple’s mode looks better, thanks to the two 12MP cameras.
Video capture was already excellent on the iPhone 6s Plus at up to 4K and with high frame rates, way beyond what most people can view on most domestic equipment. Plus the software/electronic stabilisation was already good, yet the iPhone 7 Plus camera’s OIS also works in video capture (not something that you can always take for granted on smartphones), giving almost a steadicam facility to iPhone-shot footage – Apple call it ‘cinematic’ and rightly so. You can use the 2x zoom lens in video mode, but you obviously lose the optical stabilisation and, oddly, if you then tap the ‘2x’ control to go back to the ‘1x’ lens then OIS doesn’t kick in again until the next video capture. Hopefully this can be fixed in software by Apple.
My main complaint would be that the audio captured is still in mono, a step behind competing smartphone capabilities. I’ll have more on video capture in a future article, no doubt.
The front facing camera is now 7MP, up from 5MP and is more than sufficient for selfie lovers, with the same full-screen LCD flash that’s a beautiful idea and so effective. We’ll cover ‘selfie’ cameras in a future feature, hopefully, looking at competing devices across the industry. In the meantime, here’s an example selfie:
Although the new ‘7’ range starts at 32GB (a welcome bump up from the almost unusable 16GB on the 6 Plus), if you’re going for an iPhone 7 Plus then you might as well spend the extra $100 (or whatever) to get the next tier up, i.e. 128GB. The very fact that you’re choosing the Plus means that you have more planned for it, either for media consumption or media creation, and in each case the more capacity the better. There’s also a 256GB, which does seem a little over the top.
In terms of finishes, in addition to the usual ‘gold’ (e.g. in the shots here, plus variants) and silver options, there’s now (matt) ‘Black’ and ‘Jet black’, the latter in a deliberately glossy (think Darth Vader) polished finish that Apple warns right up front is going to show ‘micro-abrasions’. See Gautam’s first impressions of the matt black iPhone 7 Plus, plus his unboxing of both sizes of black iPhone, if you’re interested in seeing what the new finishes look like!
As usual, anyone who knows my writing will appreciate that I’m usually covering Android and Windows 10 Mobile, so I’m coming to the iPhone 7 Plus as someone who knows full well how tough the competition is in the smartphone world. I’ve played with all the other ‘dual lens’ camera phones on the market and none of them attempt what the iPhone 7 Plus does. The use of a genuine 2x optically zoomed lens in such a thin and sold state form is unique – and works brilliantly, in daylight at least. And ‘unique’ is good in 2016, with so much plateauing of smartphones elsewhere.
On the taking away of the 3.5mm jack from the 6s Plus, don’t listen to the doom and gloom mongers – you’ll either be using the supplied adapter or headset or will be experimenting with Bluetooth headphones. The rest of the iPhone 7s Plus is all positive, with the extra waterproofing, the great stereo speakers, the improved Taptics, the longer battery life.
If you have to ask how much the Apple iPhone 7 Plus is then you probably can’t afford it. If you can afford it then I really don’t see how you can be disappointed – as I said at the start, this is just about the most technology anyone’s ever crammed into the humble smartphone (ok, ‘phablet’) form factor.
Check out my video review of iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus:
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