The Apple iPhone 7 Plus – an in-depth review

10/14/2016
Orestis Bastounis

A small change in appearance but a complete internal overhaul makes the iPhone 7 Plus the must-have handset for Apple users and a worthy upgrade.

Apple’s 2016 update to its flagship ‘phablet’-sized iPhone features only a handful of slight cosmetic adjustments to the physical design and alterations to the external appearance of last year’s iPhone 6S Plus.

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Apple iPhone 7 Plus

With previous iPhone generations, we’ve become used to the idea that every two years, Apple launches a radically overhauled iPhone design, with an ’S’ model filling the gap in the interim year that gives a large boost to the internal hardware and phone performance, often adding a few new hardware features.

The iPhone 7 Plus breaks with tradition somewhat, with only a few minor external changes, although some of these have quite far-reaching effects. Internally though, the iPhone 7 Plus has received an enormous performance boost, with a big update to the phone’s camera, which now includes an optical zoom. We’ll look at all the major differences in more detail over the next pages.

Appearance and design

The ugly antenna bands that wrapped around the case of the iPhone 6 have thankfully disappeared, and the iPhone 7 is now available in two new colours – a new, attractive glossy Jet Black, and a matte black variant, simply called Black. These replace the Space Grey option in the lineup. The Jet Black is the colour that really stands out, but like most glossy gadgets, will easily attract fingerprints, which does somewhat detract from its sleek looks.

The iPhone 7 Plus has a 5.5-inch screen like its predecessor, just as the iPhone 7 retains the 4.7-inch screen size of the iPhone 6S. It has a similar 1,920 x 1,080 resolution display – perfectly adequate and attractive, but not especially impressive, given some Android phones now manage to squeeze in a 4K resolution. Once again, this display supports ‘Force Touch’, which is Apple’s technology that allows iOS to recognise changes in pressure on the phone’s screen. Harder presses display alternative sub menus, for example.

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Rose gold, Gold, Silver, Black, Jet Black

This generation, the screen has had a small upgrade, adopting a more accurate DCI-P3 colour standard, as used in Apple’s most recent iMacs and iPads. The effects are subtle, but side by side, you will see the difference, with brighter shades and colours.

The iPhone 7 Plus dimensions have not changed at all, with the same 158.9 mm width and 77.9 mm height x 7.3mm depth, but the handset has lost a small amount of weight, shrinking from 192 grams to 188 grams.

The battery capacity has improved too, from 2750 mAh to 2900 mAh, a small 5% increase.

Lastly, the storage capacities have been doubled across the board, with Apple finally ditching the base 16GB capacity, offering 32GB of storage as the minimum. The next tiers are 128GB and 256GB.

US prices are $769 for the 32GB model, $869 for the 128GB model and $969 for the 256GB model. Once again, storage becomes cheaper (per GB) for the larger capacities, so the best value option is the largest capacity. You should be able to squeeze a huge amount of content on either the 128GB or 256GB iPhone 7 Plus models, with dozens of movies, TV shows and 1000’s of music tracks, perfect for long flights or train journeys.

If you’re holding out for more radical changes, then the rumour mill is saying that a true redesign is coming in next year’s iPhone, which will mark the 10th anniversary since the launch of the first iPhone. Although all gadget rumours should be treated with caution, leaks suggest next year’s phone will have an all-glass build, covering the entire unit, with a crystal-clear, bright OLED screen. Some of the changes in this year’s model could be to support such changes.

The end of analog

At this stage, it’s hard not to mention one headline-grabbing physical change to the iPhone design – the removal of the 3.5mm headphone jack. Apple justifies this decision with the reasoning that the digital Lighting connector is perfectly capable of delivering audio as well as power and data, making an analog connector unnecessary. It frees up internal space and allows for thinner future designs.

Audiophiles in particular will find its removal annoying. Some people love listening to music at the best quality possible, and own headphones from high-end brands such as Sennheisser that can cost as much as an iPhone itself, all of which will have 3.5mm connectors. Apple includes a set of its own EarPods with a Lightning connector, and an adapter so you can still use headphones with a 3.5mm plug, but it’s one more thing to have to carry around with you and is easily lost.

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Apple AirPods – wireless earbuds

Plus there’s now the issue that it’s impossible to charge the iPhone 7 Plus and listen to music on wired headphones at the same time. For this situation, Apple now sells its own wireless headphones, called AirPods, which come with a charging carrying case that provides up to five hours of listening time.

In time, it’s likely that headset manufacturers will adjust to this change in the iPhone design, and offer multiple connectors, or different versions of their headsets for different phones. But until then, it’s a niggling annoyance.

The Home button, which as before features Apple’s TouchID fingerprint sensor technology, is now no longer a button, and is not physically pushed in to activate. Instead it’s a solid touch-sensitive sensor, that provides haptic feedback to vibrate, which provides the illusion that it’s been pressed. It takes some getting used to but is easily adapted to.

This change is likely due to just one of the major new features of the iPhone 7 Plus – waterproofing to IP67 standards, which means it will survive being fully submerged – and will certainly stand up to everyday incidents involving liquid – but not quite resilient enough to be used as an underwater camera. We can live with that limitation, although notably the iPhone 7 is only catching up with some Android competitors that are already on the market, which have a waterproof design.

Camera

As with previous iPhone generations, the smaller 4.7-inch iPhone and the 5.5 inch iPhone are closely matched in most respects, with the same processor and near-identical specifications. The iPhone 7 Plus has more memory this time, but the killer feature that sets it apart from the smaller model is a unique dual camera system with two 12MP rear lenses, one of which as an f/1.8 aperture for better low-light photography. These join a 7MP FaceTime camera at the front, an upgrade from the 5MP camera on the iPhone 6S Plus.

Apple iPhone 7 Plus dual camera

Apple iPhone 7 Plus dual camera

The other camera has a more standard f/2.8 aperture, but it also has a 2x optical zoom, the first time an iPhone camera has offered this.

Behind these new lenses is a new image processing chip, twice as fast as that in the iPhone 6S Plus.

Apple puts this processor and dual camera system to good use. Using two cameras it produces a clever trick, taking two photos at once, and using one to create a blurred background behind any foreground objects that are kept in focus, offering a beautiful composition that (in the right situation) looks like it was produced on a professional SLR camera. Not bad for a pocket-sized device.

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Performance

The overall improvements to the iPhone 7 Plus performance is one of its biggest draws, with the most notable change being its the new processor, the Apple-design Fusion A10, which makes the iPhone 7 Plus the fastest phone on the market, comfortably beating even Samsung’s flagship Galaxy phones in tests such as Geekbench by a considerable margin.

The iPhone 7 Plus means for the first time, the iPhone has a CPU with more than two processor cores. Some Android phones have as many as eight; but until now, Apple has never seen it as necessary to offer more. Two of the cores are dedicated to powering the phone when its running demanding tasks – loading graphics-heavy webpages, or playing a game, for example. The other two cores are designed to operate at a lower speed for when the phone isn’t being used, and putting less strain on the battery life as a result.

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Since Apple is in the unique position of designing every aspect of the hardware and software that goes into the iPhone, iOS makes highly efficient use of all the hardware available to it. Despite specifications that make it seem as though the iPhone is underpowered, in benchmark tests, Apple’s processors usually pull ahead of the chips used in competing phones. With the A10 Fusion, the numbers are now eclipsing the performance of some laptops, which is really astonishing.

Graphics performance has also received a notable boost,, meaning exiting games will run with better frame rates, and more detail will be possible in future games. Indeed, in Apple’s demonstrations, visual quality of iOS games is now comparable to home consoles. It’s very impressive.

Unique to the iPhone 7 Plus is the inclusion of 3GB of system memory, with only 2GB in the standard iPhone 7. Once again, this might seem unremarkable, given how some high-end Android phones have as much as 6GB, but the general efficiency of iOS means every bit of this memory will be put to good use. Applications frozen in the background will appear to load almost instantaneously, and with more system memory, you should expect the iPhone 7 Plus to swap between games, email and Facebook without losing that illusion of ‘snappy’ performance.

Conclusion

Wherever you live, the decision between an iPhone and its iOS software or a handset from one of a legion of different Android manufacturers, could be seen as one of the most personal expressions of individuality in the modern world. On Apple’s side, the iPhone has tight integration of hardware and software, an app store that gets the lion’s share of new software and generally superb handset design. It offers extremely fast performance and close interoperability with other Apple products.

The iPhone 7 Plus feels like a logical extension of where the iPhone 6S Plus was going, offering a similar design, outstanding performance and a fantastic camera. The overall experience of using the handset and iOS software is superb in just about all respects. If you’re a Mac user, or already have invested heavily in software or music from Apple’s stores from owning other Apple products, then you’ll probably be looking to an iPhone rather than Android.

In many ways, the iPhone 7 Plus just doesn’t provide much of a leap ahead of the iPhone 6S Plus to make it a must-have if you already bought a new iPhone last year. Sure, it’s fast, it takes great photos and the new Jet Black colour looks great. The trouble is, the iPhone 6S Plus was already fast, and with a camera that’s perfectly capable of some good photography.

The performance boosts aren’t likely to be noticeable in the majority of everyday tasks – Facebook, Twitter or web browsing are unlikely to be particularly faster on the iPhone 7 Plus than they were on the iPhone 6S. Only in heavy use situations will you see the difference.

The new camera system is the single feature that really sets the iPhone 7 Plus apart from its competitors, previous iPhone generations and the smaller 4.7-inch iPhone 7 model. Do you love taking photos with an iPhone? Then the iPhone 7 Plus is undoubtedly worth upgrading to, even if you have an iPhone 6S.

Aside from the camera, the iPhone 7 Plus offers few other revolutionary changes from the previous generation, but if you have an iPhone that’s older than the iPhone 6S Plus, then there’s a whole lot more on offer here to tempt you

We’re still looking forward to the potential for next year’s new model to blow our socks off with a radical new design, but in the meantime the iPhone 7 Plus is still an all-round killer handset, and shows Apple still has what it takes to produce a champion phone, even if it’s not quite the revolution we were hoping for.