iPhone 7 Plus review: How good is the new Portrait camera mode?


UPDATE: I’ve updated this review of the iPhone 7 Plus with my first impressions of the new Portrait camera mode (still in beta), which uses the twin cameras to blur out the background on portrait shots so they look like they’ve been captured with a DSLR.

Scroll down to the camera section to read more or click on the dropdown navigation menu above to read more. The full review follows immediately below.

iPhone 7 Plus review 

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?

And of course for the truly-committed, there’s Apple’s AirPods. We’ve reviewed AirPods separately, but in the context of looking at iPhone 7 Plus, they do tell us something interesting about Apple’s view of the future. What the AirPods highlight is that removing the headphone jack isn’t just about taking something away: it’s about moving as much as possible towards wireless technologies. 

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. A second speaker grille lurks where the 3.5mm headphone jack used to be – but there’s no speaker beneath it, it’s purely for decoration. The iPhone 7 Plus does have a second speaker (at last) but it’s at the top of the phone, at the earpiece.

It sounds quite a bit better, too. 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.

The A10 Fusion

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

It is, though, more power-efficient. The A10 Fusion is Apple’s first quad core processor, but it’s taken quite a different approach to the architecture to the norm. Two of which are devoted to high performance, and two to low power consumption, with the two “performance” cores clocked at around 2.34GHz, compared to 1.84GHz in the iPhone 6S Plus. When the phone needs more performance, it uses the “performance” cores. When it’s idling, it changes to use the more power-efficient cores.

What this means in practice is that as far as apps are concerned this is a dual core phone, something you can confirm using Xcode Activity Monitor. On the plus side this means that developers don’t have to worry about optimising their code for performance across four cores. On the minus side though, the process of the OS deciding which pair of cores to use is entirely opaque. 

This core switching 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.

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