iPhone 7 Plus review: Brilliant technology that cries out for a redesigned case


I’m going to put my cards on the table from the start: I’m a committed iPhone man. Yes, I’ve used Android, and I’ve even bought Android phones, but iOS always feels like home.

And yet, as you’ll find out from reading through, I’m left a little cold by the iPhone 7 Plus. I’m not moving to Android, but despite virtually everything in the phone being updated, for the first time in many years I’m not going to run out and place a pre-order for this phone.

Why? The answer to that means looking in depth at each of the most important aspects of the iPhone 7 Plus.

That whole port thing

First of all, let’s deal with possibly the least interesting feature of the iPhone 7 Plus: the lack of a standard 3.5mm headphone jack. You’ve probably read thousands of words on this already, but the bottom line is that for most users it will make no difference whatsoever. The majority of iPhone users stick with the supplied headphones, and Lightning-equipped EarPods come in the box. For those who already have a favoured pair of non-Apple headphones, Apple includes a Lightning-to-3.5mm converter in the box too. And if you’re buying new headphones, go for Bluetooth or Apple’s snazzy new AirPods.

No, you can’t charge your phone and use headphones at the same time, at least without buying some kind of weird dongle. But this is a phone that’s routinely capable of more than a day’s battery life, so how often will you be in that situation anyway?

Personally, I’m glad to see the back of the 3.5mm jack for one simple reason: it gives Apple more options to push the design of the phone further. The more you remove in terms of external ports, the more you can do with design. This may not apply to the iPhone 7 Plus, which, as we’ll see, doesn’t push the design of the phone hard, but in the long run in matters.

iPhone 7 design and internals

Put an iPhone 7 Plus down next to an iPhone 6s Plus (or even 6 Plus) and you’ll be pushed to tell the difference without looking at the ports on the bottom. Only when you turn it over can you immediately see the difference. Space Grey is out, and replaced with a genuinely lovely anodised black. There’s also gold, Rose Gold (AKA pink), and silver, along with “jet black”, which is a sort of glossy black which reminds me of the very first iPhone’s plastic cover. This one is metal, but Apple has made such a good job of disguising it as plastic you’ll barely know it.

The antenna bands are barely there, and as we’ll see later, the camera has changed. There is, though, one obvious change at the bottom of the phone, where a second speaker grille lurks. Yes, finally the iPhone has two speakers and it sounds quite a bit better. Not “forget about buying that Sonos system” better, but still better.

Internally there are quite a few changes. Finally, the 16GB iPhone is dead, and in its place, the range becomes 32GB, 128GB and 256GB. This is a very welcome change, although it again highlights the miserly 5GB free storage you get with iCloud.

The enclosure is also now water-resistant. Note: not waterproof. You’re not going to take the iPhone 7 swimming with you, and dunking it in a jar of water isn’t recommended. But it’s now much more likely to survive spills, splashes and dust. We’d like to think this is also the end of having to fish pocket lint out of your Lightning port with a pin when it becomes dense enough to stop the connection working properly, but that may be beyond even Apple’s design capabilities.

There is, of course, a faster and more powerful chip, dubbed the A10 Fusion. Apple claims it is the faster processor ever found in a phone, and we have no reason to doubt it. Certain, in real-world use it’s more than fast enough, but I never found the iPhone 6s Plus to be slow.

It is, though, more power-efficient. The A10 Fusion has four cores, two of which are devoted to high performance, and two to low power consumption. When the phone needs more performance, it uses the “performance” cores. When it’s idling, it changes to use the more power-efficient cores. This gives the phone, in theory, around an hour more. In practice, I was always getting around a day-and-a-half’s use from my iPhone 6s Plus. The iPhone 7 Plus stretched this further. We’re not yet at the point where you can get two days out of an iPhone, but it’s getting closer.

The home button

Another big design change is the home button, which now uses a new version of the “Taptic Engine” to give tactile feedback. Yes, it’s no longer actually a physically moving part. Instead, the Taptic Engine’s feedback simulates the feel of the button clicking down, in a way that is very similar to the latest trackpads on the MacBook series.

How good is it? I gave the phone to people and asked them to click on the button, then powered the phone down and asked them to click on it again. In every case, they were utterly confused by the fact that, powered down, the “button” didn’t click. It’s realistic enough to fool anyone who doesn’t know it’s not physically moving.

This is showy, but it’s also practical. Anything that physically moves, especially something which is clicked as often as a home button, will be a consistent failure point for the device. Moving parts break more often than solid-state ones, and that, coupled with the water resistance, is likely to make this a much more reliable phone than any previous iPhone.

Photography: More than okay, but still no Bokeh

It’s a cert bet that every time a new iPhone comes out, Apple will make great play about the quality of the camera. Photography is one of the distinguishing features of the iPhone, enough for Apple to devote huge billboards to photos “taken with iPhone”.

Previously, the larger and small iPhones shared the same camera, although the Plus had optical image stabilisation. This year the iPhone 7 Plus has stretched the differences further, adopting a dual-lens system which includes a 27mm lens alongside a 57mm lens. This gives the iPhone the equivalent of 2x optical zoom, a feature we made a lot of use of in testing.

There’s also up to 10x digital zoom, and here’s where the dual-lens system becomes interesting. Between 1x and 2x is actually a digital zoom that makes use of both camera lenses, interpolating the “best” elements from each. Beyond 2x, you’re into standard digital zoom territory – which is, as you’ll know if you’ve ever used it, not brilliant.

The 1x lens has also been improved over the previous model. It now uses a new six-element f/1.8 lens, compared to the relatively slow f/2.2 lens on the 6s Plus. In theory, this should significantly improve low-light performance.

What’s missing at the moment is the much-trumpeted Bokeh feature, which makes portraits look pretty amazing by altering the image to put the background out of focus. This is incredibly clever, and is made possible by the two lenses, but the bad news is that it’s not yet available. It’s coming in a software update later this year.

So, what are pictures actually like? In some cases, the images we took showed a clear improvement in detail and colour quality over the iPhone 6s Plus. Outdoor shots, in particular, were better – sometimes much better. However, low-light shots indoors didn’t really show as much improvement as we’d expect given the changes in hardware, which was a surprise. And, for my taste, the flash was still far too harsh if you’re close to the subject you’re taking pictures of in low light. It reminded me why I’ve turned off auto-flash on every single phone I’ve ever owned.

Looking at the shots in detail, and after long conversations with our reviews team, I suspect this is down to the algorithm Apple is using to process images. Apple has always written really good processing algorithms, often using this to compensate for less-than-leading-edge hardware. Remember the days when Apple’s cameras were “only” five megapixels, but the image quality easily matched competition with better hardware?

With the iPhone 7 Plus, it almost feels like the situation has reversed. Now, Apple’s hardware is better – but it’s being let down a little by the software. This is entirely speculation, but I think the failure to release the Bokeh feature at launch gives us a clue, pointing towards the conclusion that the camera software hasn’t had as much polish as you would expect from Apple. The good news, of course, is that this can be fixed with software, and I’ll definitely be revisiting this camera once the Bokeh update comes out.

However, one thing that really stands out is the optical zoom. This is one of those features which, once used, you wonder how you lived without. Yes, you can’t smoothly zoom in using the optics, as it’s fixed at 2x. Go over 2x and you’re into digital zoom territory, just as you were before. And as always, digital zoom gets more and more patchy the higher you go. But I absolutely adore tapping a button for an instant 2x view, and used it constantly and to great effect.

How about the screen?

I’ve always personally preferred Apple’s screens to the OLED ones used on most Android phones, although that’s very much a personal preference. To my ageing eyes, even the best OLED and AMOLED screens look a little fuzzy, despite the blacker blacks and more vibrant colours.

The iPhone 7 Plus doesn’t move to AMOLED (hurrah!) and it retains the 1,920 x 1,080 resolution of previous models. It also has the same 3D Touch system that allows you to hard-press “into” the screen, a feature that’s made more of in every new release of iOS.

However, what has changed is the brightness and colour gamut. Apple claims the screen is 25% brighter than the iPhone 6s Plus, and the colour gamut is wider. Side by side with an iPhone 6s Plus, the difference between the two devices is clear. Colours are just a little warmer, without being over-vibrant. Blacks are a little more black. Overall, it’s just a bit nicer than the previous model. It’s not a major change, but it’s a good one.

It is disappointing, though, that Apple hasn’t made the iPhone 7 Plus with the same True Tone technology that’s used on the iPad Pro 9.7. That remains the gold standard of displays on Apple devices, and I had really hoped this year we’d get it on a phone. Perhaps manufacturing True Tone displays in the quantity required for iPhone still isn’t possible, but I’d expect the technology to come across to the phone next year.

Conclusions

What to make of the iPhone 7 Plus? It’s undoubtedly the best phone Apple has ever made, and the camera puts clear water between the Plus and its smaller sibling that goes beyond just screen size.

I’ll reserve full judgement on the camera until the Bokeh feature is released, but Apple has taken a good camera and made it better in most circumstances. The addition of 2x optical zoom doesn’t sound like much, but it makes a big difference in day-to-day use. Low-light performance still has some issues that need ironing out, and given the new hardware I’d expect better, but it’s not in any way bad.

The screen is nicer, it’s faster, the new home button is clever, and the outcry over the removal of the headphone port strikes me as a storm in a teacup.

I love this phone. But do I love it enough to upgrade from the year-old 6s Plus? Probably not. But most people don’t upgrade their phones every year, and if you’re coming from an iPhone 6 Plus or older, you’ll be very happy with the iPhone 7.

This is the best phone Apple can build. But is it flat out the best phone? Is this the phone that will attract users from Android, and retain users who already use iOS?

That’s a much tougher question to answer. Other than the 2x optical zoom, there’s nothing really added that will make the owners of a recent flagship Android phone insanely jealous. If you’re already using iOS, then you’ll get a better experience overall with the iPhone 7 Plus than you would from switching to (say) a Galaxy S7 Edge or Note 7. iOS 10 is a major upgrade, and this is the best device to run it on.

The iPhone 7 Plus feels like an intermediate release, a phone that’s paving the way for something else. Apple often introduces new technologies that pave the way to planned features – for example, Touch ID was introduced along with the secure enclave on the processor long before the release of Apple Pay, which is what it was designed to support. Many of the new features in this phone feel like that: things we’re not yet getting the most use of, but which will be important in the future.

Almost everything about the phone has changed. It’s faster, the cameras are better, it’s water-resistant, there’s more memory, it has a dinky new home button. Yet still, despite loving it, I’m not left with the immediate need to run out and order one, as I usually do (don’t worry, Apple, I probably will anyway).

I think much of this is down to the design. If all of the improvements in the iPhone 7 Plus had come with a major redesign of the case, I suspect a lot more people would be calling this the best phone on the planet. But the design is definitely getting a little tired. It’s still an iconic design, but even iconic designs can become a little dated, and placed next to a Galaxy Edge, the iPhone looks little old.

The iPhone isn’t the only Apple product that feels like it has a tired look. Apart from the MacBook, there’s little to differentiate Macs from models a few years old. The iPad 9.7 may now be “Pro” (and great), but it’s also essentially the same look as the three-year-old iPad Air.

Design isn’t simply about how something looks, but Apple’s failure to refresh how its products look is puzzling and for me worrying, especially in the iPhone. The iPhone is the most personal device Apple makes. How it looks is incredibly important for its customers, and failing to regularly update that look is baffling.

Overall, Apple has packed an awful lot of great technology into a phone that cries out for a redesigned look. But it’s still a great phone, and if you’re a committed iPhone user you’ll want it.

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