Apple iPhone 7 Plus Review: The Best Gets Just a Little Bit Better
As Apple’s new flagship, the iPhone 7 Plus delivers an improved camera system and some new features that debuted first on various Android handsets. But where the iPhone 7 Plus really shines is in the details: Its pleasant if too-familiar industrial design, improved battery life and performance, and the consistency of the overall experience.
One might claim, cynically, that the iPhone 7 series might have been more honestly branded as the iPhone 6SE, since these devices are no more different from their predecessors than the iPhone 6S series was from the original iPhone 6.
That’s fair, but it’s also somewhat beside the point. Most iPhone users are upgrading from iPhone 6S, they’re coming from older devices. Too, there’s a case to be made that, as the iPhone and the overall smartphone market matures, the two-year product cycle we’ve come to expect is no longer sustainable. With the iPhone 7, we see the welcome start of a three-year cycle.
I embrace this change, as we already spend far too much money on these overly-expensive baubles. But it could cause some problems for those on a two-year carrier contract, which is still the norm, at least here in the United States. But work with me here: Stretching out your smartphone usage to three years is probably a great idea if you can swing it. And the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus are still perfectly viable handsets today, and are not all that different, in truth, from the iPhone 7.
So, yes, the iPhone 7 is a step up from its predecessors, of course. But it’s a smaller step than you might expect. There are unexpected delights, like the new Home button, and temporary annoyances, like the removal of the legacy headphone jack. Throughout, there is a sense of promise, that this handset is a step towards some incredible future. It’s just not a fully-realized vision of that future.
You see it everywhere. You see it in that missing headphone jack which, yes, will bite you in the ass at least once. You see it in the camera, which is the first in an iPhone to offer real optical zoom, albeit at only 2X magnification. And you see it in the haptic feedback in the new Home button, which is so much more enjoyable than the haptic-based Touch 3D screen that debuted in last year’s Plus.
So there’s a lot going on here. But let’s start with the missing headphone jack.
Not a headphone jack to be found.
Leaving aside the rationale for removing the jack for a moment—I give Apple credit for taking this dramatic step, frankly—it’s very clear to me that this change will be problematic in the short term. The first time I brought the iPhone 7 Plus upstairs—I listen to podcasts and audiobooks while I shave and clean up—I stood there, momentarily dumbfounded in the bathroom, with the speaker’s headphone cable in one hand and the headphone jack-less iPhone in the other. Right. I had forgotten the little dongle Apple provides.
Funny, right? But the second day, I did the same thing. So I bought three more of these stupid little adapters (thankfully only $9 a pop) and put them where they’d be needed: On that speaker, on my Bose noise-canceling headphones, and a spare in my travel bag. So I was at least ready for my Atlanta flights this past week. (Except that I had forgotten to download music to the new phone. Because I am firing on all cylinders, obviously.)
It’s a transition. And I know I’m not done being bitten by this change, regardless of my preparation. Someday we’ll just look back on this and laugh. Hopefully.
The new Home button has been a happy surprise. Here, too, I’m sure Apple had reasons for switching from a “real” mechanical button to a virtual button with haptic feedback. I’ve heard water-proofing as an obvious candidate. But whatever: There is something really pleasant about using this button. Granted, it’s not gloves season yet.
I noticed it immediately in the Apple Store when I bought the phone. I often joke that my phone has “thrown up in my pocket” when I feel it rumble with a notification, and I was no fan at all of the pointless haptic-based Touch 3D effect that debuted in last year’s iPhone 6S Plus. But this … works. It feels really neat. And there’s even a simple interface in Settings that lets you configure how much haptic feedback the button delivers.
The new Home button is so good, in fact, that I’m now starting to warm to Touch 3D as well. Though, to be fair, there is no reason to limit the Touch 3D interfaces—like the pop-up menus you get when you long press on a Home screen icon—to haptic-based iPhones. You can easily long-press on any Android or Windows phone too. That is very much a cheap stunt.
And then there’s that camera. Sorry, camera system.
The iPhone 7 Plus camera system looks like Bender from “Futurama”.
Here, I see a more clearly delineated upgrade as you move from the iPhone 7 to the 7 Plus than was the case with previous iPhones. Yes, optical image stabilization is now standard across the board, a long-overdue change, but the iPhone 7 Plus offers two 12 MP cameras, one wide-angle (28 mm) with a ƒ/1.8 aperture and one “telephoto” (56 mm) with a ƒ/2.8 aperture, compared to just a single 12 MP unit on the non-Plus iPhone 7. (That it appears to be the same camera as the telephoto unit in the Plus explains the quotes I used above.)
Smartphone cameras matter to me, a lot.
Two summers ago, I used the original iPhone 6 Plus as my camera on trips to Ireland, Lyon, Venice, and elsewhere, and the photos speak to the quality of that camera. Over the past year, I used my iPhone 6S Plus to take literally thousands of photographs, and I came away equally impressed. (That said, virtually all of my Paris photos this past summer were taken by the Google Nexus 6P, because of the low-cost Project Fi service. And those shots came out incredible as well.) With the iPhone 7 Plus’s move to two cameras, plus the addition of 2X optical zoom, I had big expectations for this version.
Taken with iPhone 7 Plus: Atlanta in the rain.
And … that hasn’t panned out. Yes, the iPhone 7 Plus takes absolutely fantastic photos, for a smartphone. But they seem to be on par with what I achieved with the previous two Plus handsets. That is, I have seen no major advantages to this system so far. Now, I don’t have my previous iPhones for comparison—I had to give up the iPhone 6S Plus as part of my iPhone Upgrade Program lease agreement, and we sold the iPhone 6 Plus on Craig’s List—but I do have several thousand pictures taken over two years to compare.
I will say this. The new 2X (optical) zoom capability is quite nice, and you can toggle it on the fly. But it’s also just a nicety, and a reminder that today’s smartphones still have a long way to go before they can match the zooming capabilities I had on point and click cameras a decade ago. My last few cameras had upwards of 20X optical zoom, and that really opens up some interesting possibilities that are still impossible with phones.
Taken with iPhone 7 Plus: Atlanta at night.
The iPhone 7 Plus camera system does let in more light than their predecessors and they work in tandem, with each other and with Apple’s custom-designed image processing circuitry. As a result, the device’s low-light photo performance is greatly improved, but such shots are still hit or miss. At various bars in Atlanta, I was able to get some decent shots in the dimly-lit rooms without a flash. But many low-light shots are quite grainy and are of low-quality.
Taken with iPhone 7 Plus: Mary Jo Foley and Richie Jennings in Atlanta.
Put simply, low-light shots are a step-up from previous iPhones, but that’s a low bar. This device can’t compete with the low-light performance of the camera in the Nexus 6P, for example: That camera produces truly stunning night shots, though to be fair, it’s a slow performer as well.
Taken with iPhone 7 Plus: Low-light, outside, in the rain.
I know. That’s a lot of complaining for something that is still very much a step forward. But this will evolve over time, as I use the phone more for real world photo-taking, and as Apple introduces the portrait mode functionality that is now only in beta. (My early results are unsatisfying because Portrait mode is just a software trick, sadly.)
Taken with iPhone 7 Plus: Early Portrait mode shots betray fuzzy edges. It’s in beta.
Beyond these three big changes, the iPhone 7 Plus is largely familiar.
It has the same basic size, form factor, and 1080p screen as its predecessors. Yes, Apple moved the antenna bands around a bit, but few people would notice that, especially those who use a case, as I do. (And seriously, how anyone could use an iPhone 7 Plus without a case is unclear: Its aluminum exterior is like a greased-up bar of soap in the hand.)
Be smart: Get a case for the slippery iPhone 7 Plus.
The iPhone 7 Plus screen is allegedly brighter than before, as well, but that is something you won’t typically notice. Unless you’re in the bright sunlight, where new brightness levels you can’t manually select come into play automatically. I still find AMOLED displays like the one on my Nexus 6P to be superior, frankly, but Apple has probably pushed LCD technology to its apex with its recent devices. (The 9.7-inch iPad Pro ups the ante even further with an auto screen warmth feature I wish was available for the iPhone.) Perhaps Apple will go AMOLED with the next generation.
Speaking of which, the iPhone 7 Plus still ships with a comparatively paltry 1080p screen in an age when Android flagships are hitting 1440p and even 4K resolutions. I don’t find this to be an issue per se, but I do wonder about the laughably low-res 1334 x 750 screen that Apple still uses in the non-Plus iPhone 7.
Performance is excellent, but then performance is one of the key reasons to buy an iPhone: Unlike even the best Android devices, an iPhone will never hitch or pause, and I find this consistency reassuring. Ditto for the reliability of Apple’s hardware, and the consistency of its software experiences, though there are always exceptions. (Check out Apple Music and Apple News for weird Windows phone-like UIs that aren’t repeated elsewhere in the system.)
Battery life continues to be excellent. I can’t vouch for the non-Plus iPhone 7, which comes with a smaller battery, but the iPhone 7 Plus delivers all-day battery life with no caveats. Indeed, even Apple’s spec sheet for the devices hints at the battery life advantages of the iPhone 7 Plus, which seems to deliver at least 50 percent better performance across the board. In two weeks of regular usage, I’ve never once worried about the battery. But then that was true of the iPhone 6S Plus as well.
And that’s the issue, in a nutshell. The iPhone is so good that making appreciable improvements is difficult. It’s easy to be dismissive of a device like the iPhone 7 Plus, which offers little in the way of revolution. But this is still very much the apex of the smartphone food chain, and while other phones may offer one-off features—better cameras, perhaps, though I think the differences are subtle, wireless charging, or curved screen edges—that improve on what Apple offers, the iPhone delivers on the big picture. It is clearly the best smartphone overall.
Choosing between the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus can be difficult. I find the non-Plus iPhone 7, with its 4.7-inch screen, to be just a bit too small; had Apple bumped this to the 5-inch sweet spot, I might have been tempted. Likewise, the iPhone 7 Plus can feel a bit too big at times, especially when it’s in your pocket. And I say that having just purchased the third Plus version in a row: I have big hands, and I really can’t use this thing one handed. It’s just top-heavy.
But I choose the Plus because of the camera. And while the differences may be minor, the iPhone 7 Plus camera system, with its 2X optical zoom and coming Portrait mode capabilities, is absolutely a step up from the iPhone 7, and a minor step up from the iPhone 6S Plus.
Still, for those considering the upgrade, I do have some unusual advice. If you are currently using an iPhone 6 Plus or iPhone 6S Plus, do not upgrade to an iPhone 7 Plus. Instead, use that phone as long as you can, or until we know what the next generation looks like. It’s just not that big of an upgrade.
In fact, one of the things that is shocking about the iPhone 7 Plus, compared to the iPhone 6 Plus, is how much heavier and denser it is. I recall this being the case with the iPhone 6S Plus as well, but when you hold these things side-by-side, the iPhone 6 Plus’s lighter 6-ounce frame pays off with a feather-like feel that is easily discerned. The iPhone 7 Plus, at 6.6 ounces, is a brick by comparison.
If you’re using an older and smaller iPhone, your choices are a bit more complex. Yes, by all means, consider upgrading to an iPhone 7 or 7 Plus, or even an iPhone 6SE, I guess, if you prefer that smaller form factor. But make sure you gets some hands-on time with these devices before you make any decision. With iPhone ownership stretching out to three years for many people, you want to make sure you get the right version.
iPhone: It’s where the apps are. It’s where everything is.
For those coming from other smartphone platforms—Android, of course, but also Windows phone—I’ll say this. In addition to the superior hardware, with its better reliability and performance, the iPhone offers a few other advantages over whatever you’re currently using. Many seem to believe that the Android ecosystem is just as good as that on iPhone, but that is not the case. Apple attracts the best apps, and the most apps, and it does so first. It also offers a wider range of digital media ecosystem choices as well. Put another way, everything you can get on Android is available on iPhone too, and then some. Just not the bugs.
And if you’re coming from Windows phone, my God. What an eye-opening experience this will be. Welcome to the 21st century. Apps as far as the eye can see. Broad support from all quarters. You’ll jump from a third-rate has-been to the front of the line. It’s freeing, and wonderful.
The only real downside to the iPhone 7 Plus is the price: The various models cost $769, $869, and $969, which is an astonishing sum. But look at it this way: You’re going to use this handset for two to three years, and it’s going to be the most personal device you’ve ever used. And flagship Android handsets, like those from Samsung, typically cost just as much. (We’ll have to see where Google’s new Pixel handsets fall, price-wise, but the rumor is that they’re going to be expensive too.)
It’s more than a bit trite to say you get what you pay for, but in the case of the iPhone 7 Plus, it’s true. This is an elegant, mature, and high-end handset, and it is absolutely the best smartphone, overall, that I’ve ever used. Highly recommended.