Pros: Dual rear cameras delivers true 2x optical zoom, with a cool bokeh Portrait mode. Battery lasts longer than last year’s model, and longer than iPhone 7. Water resistant. Fast. Bigger storage options include 256GB model for serious photographers.
Cons: There’s no standard headphone jack: you’ll have to use Lightning, or the included adapter, or go wireless. Design is showing its age, as competing phones squeeze a 5.5-inch screen into smaller, sexier bodies. And it’s really expensive.
In General: The iPhone 7 Plus is one of the best point-and-shoot cameras ever — and it’s a great phone, too.
Apple has unveiled a trio of new iPhones. The dramatically redesigned iPhone X, which will becomes available Nov. 3, starts at $999 and comes equipped with Apple’s new Super Retina edge-to-edge OLED display; a gesture-based user interface that replaces the home button; and front-facing cameras and facial recognition technology that drive new features like Face ID and Animojis. The company says the iPhone X delivers about as much battery life as the iPhone 7 and adds support for wireless charging, though you’ll need a third-party accessory that supports the Qi standard to use it.
In terms of design, the new iPhone 8 and 8 Plus, starting at $699 and $799, are extremely similar to the previous generation iPhone 7 and 7 Plus, reviewed below, which now start at $669 and $549, respectively. The biggest differences are the new models’ superior cameras, support for wireless charging and the A11 Bionic processor, which delivers much faster and more efficient performance.
Samsung’s Galaxy 7 the Google Pixel, and the iPhone 7 all take photos that sometimes border on astonishing. In that sense, the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus aren’t as distinctive as phones anymore. They’re excellently made, superfast, and this time they’re water-resistant, too.
When Apple first made the larger Plus phones back in 2014, the appeal was always about screen size, battery life, and to a small extent, the camera. Really, all the larger 5.5-inch model had that the standard 4.7-incher didn’t was optical image stabilization (OIS). This year, the iPhone 7 finally gets OIS — great for smoothing out shaky-handed pics and videos.
That’s just one of the many similarities between the 7 and 7 Plus. Really, they’re two variants on the same phone:
- Both are water-resistant.
- Both have the same fast A10 Fusion processor.
- Both have optical image stabilization on the rear camera for better low-light photos.
- Both lack headphone jacks.
The iPhone 7 Plus has a few distinct advantages:
- Two rear cameras — one wide angle, one telephoto — that can zoom in at 2x or even further digitally. And it can create depth-of-field blur effects, or “bokeh” type effects, with portrait photos in a unique camera mode.
- Better battery life, but not by a huge amount.
- Larger 5.5-inch 1080p display.
- 3GB of RAM, instead of 2GB
- It’s heavier and bigger.
- And, of course, it costs more.
Samsung and other manufacturers are doing a far better job folding identical 5.5-inch or larger displays into bodies that feel smaller and better in your hand, like the S7 Edge’s. But now with cameras that can truly differentiate it from its smaller sibling, the 7 Plus finally has an easy justification for that jumbo size. It’s finally the step-up experience the larger phone needed.
But keep in mind that next year’s iPhone may solve the size problem, and fold more screen into a smaller body. You might want to consider holding out and seeing what happens in 2017 with that new design.
How the dual cameras up the ante
The dual cameras don’t actually zoom, like a point-and-shoot camera with a protruding lens. Instead, the phone switches between the wide-angle camera and the telephoto, from 1 to 2x. From there, the camera app can digitally zoom up to 10x versus 5x on the iPhone 7. For video, it’s 6x.
Digital zoom works better than it used to, but zooming in too far still results in blurry, digitized pics. It can’t work miracles. But adding the 2x optical helps frame photos.
Note, too, that the camera equals the low-light performance of its smaller sibling, which is an improvement over the 6S/6S Plus models. But also note that the Google Pixel’s low light capabilities are even better. To compare Pixel vs iPhone 7 Plus.
Reflections from a pro
But let’s be clear: this phone could be a lot of people’s everyday camera, but it’s not the same as a pro dSLR, not by a longshot. Apple specifically avoided making claims that it will replace the Canons and Nikons of the world.
Google’s Pixel cameras are also incredibly impressive, especially in low light. They also feature astonishingly smooth video stabilization. But the 7 Plus is still among the tops in camera quality.
The new sensor has a dramatic ability to capture a wide range of colors, and separates the color well. There’s no muddiness or blending of edges, the pixels are well defined, and the colors sharp. The white balance is also noticeably better [than the 6S Plus], and the image depicts a true-to-life representation of the scene.
Rather than exposing for the blacks and blowing out the highlights, or exposing for the highlights and losing the blacks, the iPhone 7 Plus was able to capture a wide range of light and tones. There’s a lot of information being recorded in this sensor, and we’re hardly losing anything on either the low or the high end. The iPhone 7 Plus did an amazing job of capturing a broad swath of the middle — without appearing muddy — while also delivering tones on both the high and low ends.
Now in many ways, the “realness” of the iPhone 7 Plus images has solid competition from Samsung’s Galaxy S7 camera. In my opinion, the Galaxy S7 often produces images that are more pleasing straight out of the camera. The photos are bright and bold — images pop with an almost painterly quality. The S7 photos look fantastic, but arguably look less “real” than images coming out of the iPhone 7 Plus. I think of it as the iPhone 7 Plus producing a high-quality film image, while the Samsung Galaxy S7 is most definitely producing a “digital looking” image.
The other reasons to go Plus: Portrait mode
The 7 Plus can pull off one unique trick via a special “portrait mode,” which takes advantage of both rear lenses to create a blurred-background depth-of-field effect that makes photos of friends or pets look like they were shot on a digital SLR, sort of.
The effect is far better than similar tricks on other phones we’ve seen, but the effect, which mimics the “bokeh” look in SLR cameras, has limits. You have to have certain lighting, and be a certain distance from your subject. And it frames everything via the closer-up telephoto lens, which means wider-angle shots aren’t possible.
The camera keeps the blurred and non-blurred photos so you have options, but I find that the mode’s a special tool I don’t always use. Portrait mode’s in beta right now in iOS 10 .1, meaning it’s still a work in progress. But so far, it’s far better than a similar feature offered on the Pixel Phone, which tries to achieve the same effect from a single lens.
Who knows what else Apple will do with those dual cameras? Other new tricks, perhaps, using depth of field? Augmented reality, maybe? It’s always tough to bet on potential, but those dual cameras could be capable of more in future software updates.
Battery life: A minor upgrade
The iPhone 7 Plus lasted somewhat longer than the smaller 7 on the video-loop playback test with iOS 10.1, which puts the phone on airplane mode and doesn’t necessarily reflect “normal” phone use. It ran for 12 hours and 6 minutes, versus 10 hours 55 minutes from the iPhone 7. But last year’s iPhone 6 Plus lasted about the same duration on the same test running iOS 9.
Apple’s new A10 processor goes into power-saving modes that are designed to extend battery life better, and on average I found the 7 Plus handled the average work day better than the 6S Plus.
Next year’s model might unleash bigger things
Apple hasn’t entered the VR or AR game yet, and I wouldn’t get the iPhone 7 Plus hoping it’s the door to that potential world — get another phone if you want a taste of advanced AR or VR now. But there’s a chance that those dual cameras that the 7 Plus boasts could be put to interesting use in the next year or so. If you’re waiting for a new design and other new features, wait for another iPhone. The iPhone 8 could be that model, based on several rumors.
For now, just know that this camera is better and offers more potential than the iPhone 7. And know that, if you want a great, powerful camera phone, this is it. Samsung and Google (and others) make great camera phones, too. But if the 7 Plus offers the best package Apple’s offering right now, and one of the best phones anywhere.