Apple iPhone 7 Plus Smartphone Review
Apple's newest phones are more about what's missing than what's new
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By the time Apple announced its newest generation of iPhones last month, two things were all but certain to anyone following rumors and leaks: both phones wouldn’t have a headphone jack, and the larger of the two would feature dual rear-facing cameras.
And those are the first things you’re likely to notice about iPhone 7 Plus (MSRP $769-$969, depending on memory); the extra camera and the absence of a headphone jack are really the only aspects of the phone that set it apart from last year’s iPhone 6s Plus. A fresh coat of paint on iOS helps flesh out the rest of the experience.
If you set aside the lack of headphone jack for a second, the story of the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus starts to lack a defining, memorable hook. In a lot of ways, the new iPhones are difficult to write about for this very reason; my instincts tell me not to harp on the headphone thing, but realistically, that’s probably what these phones will be remembered for.
For the second year in a row, Apple’s smartphones have favored methodical, incremental progress, favoring baby steps over bold leaps forward. If you’re a current iPhone 6 Plus or 6s Plus owner, you’ll most likely find the iPhone 7 Plus a refreshing upgrade (especially if you’re enlisted in Apple’s new-iPhone-every-year program).
This year’s iPhones are less about what’s there and more about what isn’t, but that doesn't mean the iPhone 7 Plus is a disappointment. If you can get past the headphone thing, you just might find it to be the best smartphone you've ever used.
About the iPhone 7 Plus
Apple finally nixed the 16GB iPhone variant, which is good news for consumers, but one that is frustratingly overdue. This time around, the iPhone 7 Plus is available in 32-, 128-, and 256-gigabyte models. Here it is at a glance:
• Apple A10 Fusion (quad-core, 2.23GHz)
• 3GB RAM
• 32GB/128GB/256GB internal storage
• 5.5-inch full-HD (1920x1080) LED display with 3D Touch
• Dual 12MP primary cameras, (f/1.8 and f/2.8 with OIS, LED flash, and 4K video support)
• 7MP f/2.2 front-facing camera with Retina Flash
• IP67-rated water resistance for up to thirty minutes in up to one meter of submersion
• 4G LTE, WiFi, AC/Bluetooth, and NFC support (with Apple Pay)
• 2,900mAh lithium-ion battery
• Lightning port
• Fingerprint scanner (Touch ID)
Included with the iPhone 7 Plus is a 3.5mm audio jack-to-Lightening dongle, for those of us who still want to use analog headphones with our smartphone (which, I imagine, is most people).
Like the iPhone 7, the 7 Plus is available in “Jet Black”, “Silver”, “Gold”, “Rose Gold”, and a regular “Black”, the latter of which forgoes the shiny, glossy finish of the jet black model in favor of a matte texture.
What We Like
The design is everything we’ve come to love about the iPhone, plus water resistance.
Once Samsung began sealing up its Galaxy line to protect them from water damage, water-resistant design went from being a neat feature found on relatively-niche devices (like the Sony Xperia Z3) to something premium phone shoppers expect.
It’s taken a couple years, but Apple finally worked IP67-rated water resistance into their smartphone offerings this year. Barring disaster, iPhone users can go back to using rice as a side dish rather than a phone-saving agent.
As far as the physical design of the 7 Plus goes, there’s really nothing substantially different between the iPhone 6s Plus and this year’s model. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again—if you’ve never held an extra-big iPhone in your hand, I highly recommend toying with one before plunking down hard-earned dollars on it. Apple certainly made the gargantuan 7 Plus as user-friendly as possible given its size, but phones this big aren’t for everyone.
The matte black model we received has a texture reminiscent of slate, which is a little slippery (but nowhere near as prone to smudges and fingerprints as, say, the “Jet Black” variant) and the unibody aluminum build creates a premium-feeling heft that isn’t heavy enough to weigh your pocket down, but not so light that it feels cheap.
You won't get burned by the battery.
The iPhone 7 Plus now holds the title of the best battery we've ever tested. At 2,900mAh, isn't the biggest battery around, but it ain't small, and the way it powers the Apple's internals (as well as its software) means it gets more juice for the squeeze, relatively speaking.
Geekbench 3 clocked the 7 Plus at just over ten hours; that's roughly two more hours than the Samsung Galaxy S7 in a lab setting. In the real world, you can expect the iPhone to last you throughout the day and well into the night, even with heavy, sustained use.
The dual cameras perform magnificently and offer a ton of flexibility.
Before I get into the 7 Plus's secondary, 56mm rear-facing camera, let's talk about the phone's primary camera, which is about as good as I've ever seen on a smartphone. Seriously—the only smartphone camera that comes close is the now-extinct Samsung Galaxy Note 7 (rest in peace, friend).
Across the board—from bright light, to low light, and everything in between—the iPhone 7 Plus delivers on Apple's promise to bring consumers a fast, reliable camera experience that stands well above the competition. The camera software's auto white balance and noise reduction rivals some of the best point-and-shoot cameras on the market, meaning your photos actually stand a chance in less-than-ideal lighting conditions.
In addition to producing images that just flat-out look great, the 7 Plus also shoots RAW images and 4K video, which rounds out its top-of-the-line status nicely. In a world where consumers are demanding more and more from their smartphone cameras, the flexibility is essential.
Speaking of flexibility, let's talk about the 7 Plus's secondary telephoto lens, which allows for an authentic, non-digital 2X zoom and intimate close-ups. We have more features on the way which explore the finer aspects of this lens (which is only found on the 7 Plus, not the standard iPhone 7), but for now, I can tell you that the convenience factor of this camera is off-the-charts. Although the cameras are constantly working in tandem, users can switch between the two when the situation calls for it. Up-close-and-personal shots come to life with a level of detail usually unseen in smartphone photos.
And although the software is still in beta, Apple's portrait mode uses both cameras to throw a subject's background out of focus, creating a pretty fun bokeh effect. It's not an entirely seamless effect (several people in our office find it to be a little too touched up looking), but it'll certainly set your photos apart from the rest of your Instagram feed and hopefully encourage the smartphone industry to make similar moves in the future.
Premium hardware combined with iOS is still the premiere smartphone experience.
Look, your mileage may vary, but for my money, no Android phone—be it stock Android or not—comes close to matching the harmony of an iPhone chugging away on Apple's hardware.
The reason is really quite simple—Apple rolls out software updates for a handful of iPhones at a time, so it's better-equipped to maximize iOS's efficiency throughout the lifetime of any given iPhone, even the ones that are a couple of years old. So yes, the 7 Plus's 3GB of RAM isn't as high as an Android device outfitted with 4GB of RAM, but the 7 Plus isn't hurting for that extra gig.
Apple's new A10 chipset, too, laid waste to our processor benchmarks, scoring about as high as a phone can score in our rubric. And while some people find iOS to be—ahem—a little pedestrian, I find it to hit the sweet spot for simplicity. It's surely no where near as versatile as Android, but consumers who don't need a robust amount of customizability from their smartphone will likely find it incredibly easy to approach.
What We Don't Like
You’ll probably miss the headphone jack.
If you’re even halfheartedly considering buying one of the new iPhones, you’ve almost certainly come up with an opinion when it comes to Apple’s much-talked-about decision to do away with the 3.5mm headphone jack (a feature that’s been a mainstay in just about every smartphone to date).
I won’t bore you with a think piece about the implications of the decision; plenty’s been written by our staff and others about the small-scale controversy. That said, my thoughts on the matter haven’t changed now that I’ve finally got my hands on the 7 Plus—the lack of a headphone jack needlessly complicates what should be (and has always been) simple.
Unless you plan on using the Lightning port-ready buds that ship with the 7 Plus or your own Bluetooth headphones, you’re stuck using a dongle that, at best, puts a Band-Aid over a self-inflicted wound.
It’s not courageous; it’s abrasive. It doesn’t bring us closer to the future; it drags us into an Apple store to buy more dongles or new headphones we didn’t think we’d need. It’s a solution to a problem that wasn’t actually there—a problem that Apple would prefer us to have.
The new capacitive home button is more than a little awkward.
The iconic iPhone home button is gone, and in its place is a static, nearly-identical-looking touch button that doesn’t depress whatsoever. Instead, Apple's Taptic Engine (similar to the one found in the touchpad of the latest MacBook) that responds to touch and sort of, kind-of-but-not-really simulates the click of an actual button.
On the MacBook trackpad, the effect is eerily similar to an actual click. On an iPhone, the effect just isn’t as impressive. The engine’s feedback ripples through the entire bottom-half of the device, and even with three distinct intensity settings, the response is either too subtle or too aggressive.
Worse still is the fact that the button is useless through clothing, meaning come wintertime, there’s bound to be a lot of frustrated, glove-wearing iPhone users that’ll have to de-glove at the bus stop before changing their music selection or checking their email.
Like most phablet-sized smartphones, the price is steep.
No surprise here, but the iPhone 7 Plus comes at a steep cost, even if you opt for the 32-gigabyte version. The upside is that, as expected, the $769-$969 cost (possibly more, if you nab an unlocked version) lands you a big-screened, premium smartphone that'll most likely retain its top-of-the-line status for a few years to come.
But if you're not sold on the 7 Plus's water-resistant design and you're willing to forgo its dual-camera rig and newer chipset, you'll find a remarkably similar phone in the 6s Plus, which is bound to see a decrease in cost thanks to the release of the 7 Plus.
Should You Buy It?
If you've got the funds and the appetite for a huge smartphone, the iPhone 7 Plus will probably sweep you off your feet. Now that the Galaxy Note 7 is dead, the 7 Plus stands alone; simply put, it's a phone without equal. The extra-large iPhone is packed to the teeth with exceptional hardware, the camera is one of the best (if not the best) in its class, and the battery is the best we've seen to date. Frankly, the implementation of IP67-rated water resistance is just a victory lap.
That said, it's still forced to stand in the shadow of what it isn't —a smartphone with a simple hardware feature we've grown accustomed to having in our lives on a day-to-day basis. Without a headphone jack, it's going to be a hell of a tough sell for a good portion of its would-be adopters, even with the included dongle.
I'm not a fan of the non-button home button, but that's a design point that most people will learn to live with. The same can't be said for the lack of an analog audio jack. If you use a 3.5mm auxiliary cable to hook up your phone to a Bluetooth-less car, for example, you're going to have to carry the dongle with you. If you don't go for Apple's Lightning earbuds and you don't want to spend the money on Lightning-enabled or wireless headphones, you're also locked into That Dongle Life.
The iPhone 7 Plus is one of the best smartphones we've ever tested. It's up to you to decide whether or not it's worth the severe pain point of not having a headphone jack.