iPhone 7 Plus review: A superb phablet, but the price tag's enormous
Welcome to our iPhone 7 Plus review, in which we rate Apple's newest and most expensive ever phablet for design, features, camera, screen, tech specs and value for money. If you'd prefer to read about the mid-size iPhone 7, head over to our iPhone 7 review.
The iPhone 7 Plus features improved specs over the iPhone 6s Plus, including a quicker-than-ever A10 Fusion processor chip and a twin-lens camera, along with two new colour options (both black - don't worry, we'll explain) and IP67 waterproofing. Our iPhone 7 Plus review will help you decide if Apple's newest and costliest phablet is for you. Thanks to MobileFun for lending us the handset we used for this review.
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iPhone 7 Plus review: Design & build quality
Apple traditionally follows a 'tick tock' update cycle with its iPhones: a major, full-number update with a visible physical redesign (iPhone 4, iPhone 5, iPhone 6) followed by a minor, S-branded update that looks roughly or exactly the same as its predecessor (iPhone 4s, iPhone 5c/5s, iPhone 6s). So after the relatively unexciting update last year we were expecting and hoping for a fundamentally different design.
In fact, the iPhone 7 Plus is largely the same in overall design to the iPhone 6 Plus and 6s Plus before it: the dimensions are almost identical to the 6s Plus. And the camera still sticks out at the back, which is mildly irritating.
Try placing the iPhone 7 Plus face-up on a table and it won't lie down flat: the back lens will prop it up very slightly. It's particularly galling given that the iPhone SE, released back in spring, has a design in which the camera is completely flush. Still, most of us will keep the iPhone cased (see best iPhone 7 Plus cases), which removes the issue entirely. And even if this design has been around for a while now, it remains very smart and attractive.
There are a couple of differences from the previous generation. The iPhone 6s's visible antenna bands have been removed, which produces a cleaner, more minimalist design. And more significantly, the headphone port is also gone, which has a similar aesthetic effect but is altogether more controversial.
iPhone 7 Plus design: Headphone port
The iPhone 7 Plus (like the iPhone 7) hasn't got a 3.5mm headphone jack. You'll need to use Lightning headphones (a pair of Lightning-based EarPods are included with the phone), or go wireless, or use an adaptor.
It got a certain amount of applause at the launch event (particularly when Apple ballsily claimed that the move demonstrated "courage"), but in the real world this has not proved to be a popular announcement. People already own headphones, in most cases based on the 3.5mm standard, and don't much like the idea of having to buy a new set to fit the iPhone 7 handsets. Apple fans got so disgruntled about the headphone removal ahead of the launch that a petition was set up to ask Apple to reconsider. More than 300,000 people signed.
But the headphone move being leaked ahead of the launch rather drew the sting of the online outrage, and I would say that most people have become relatively sanguine about the whole thing. In part this is because of Apple's announcement that a Lightning-to-mini phono adaptor will be bundled with iPhone 7 handsets, and cost just £9 even if you lose it. Sure, the idea of lugging around an adaptor if you want to listen to your existing headphones is annoying, but you can always use the new EarPods and keep your nice audiophile cans for home use with the adaptor. It feels like a retrograde step, or at least a premature one, but the inconvenience factor just doesn't feel like that much of a big deal now.
iPhone 7 Plus design: Home button
Piper Jaffrey analyst Gene Munster suggested ahead of the launch that the iPhone 7 handsets wouldn't have a Home button, and that the Touch ID sensor would be built into the screen itself. That hasn't happened. But Apple has substantially redesigned the Home button.
Apple has kept the Home button but modified it, changing the button from a moving to a non-moving part, equipping it instead with the haptic technology from the MacBook's Force Touch trackpad. In other words, it 'buzzes' when you apply pressure to simulate a downward press, while in actual fact not moving at all. (For more on the haptic Force Touch trackpad, read 13 ways to use Force Touch on the new MacBook.)
This felt odd at first, and on the whole isn't as effective a deception as the MacBook's Force Touch click. This feels different to the old Home button and there's no getting away from that fact. But you get used to it very quickly. It's different, but good in its own way. (Also, we recommend using the most subtle number-one setting for the Home button's haptic feedback, which seems the most natural to us. Read: How to customise the iPhone 7 Home button.)
iPhone 7 Plus review: Waterproofing
As predicted ahead of the launch, the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus are officially more waterproof than any previous iPhones - although Apple is studiously using the phrase 'water-resistant' instead.
The iPhone 7 handsets are rated IP67 for solid and liquid intrusion protection.
iPhone 7 Plus review: Screen
The iPhone 7 Plus has a very similar screen to the iPhone 6s Plus: it's the same 5.5-inch phablet form factor that's been a popular choice for the 6 Plus and 6s Plus, with the same resolution (1920 x 1080) and pixel density (401 pixels per inch): the highest of any Apple product. And while rival manufacturers have gone considerably higher still - Samsung's Galaxy S7 has an astonishing 577ppi - it's debatable whether the human eye is capable of getting much from densities above 400ppi. At this point it's about spec boasting more than appreciable differences in the user experience.
We find it a shade too large for our tastes (like the 6s Plus, it stretches the seams of our slim-fit trouser pockets…), but Apple has at least addressed potential problems using such a big-screen device one-handed with a feature called Reachability, which compresses the screen downwards when you double-tap the Home button. (That's not a new feature, mind: it was announced along with the iPhone 6 Plus.) Interface touches like that are key to Apple's appeal. (See: 7 tips for using the iPhone 6 Plus with small hands.)
There are a couple of enhancements to the screen for this generation. It's 25 percent brighter, Apple claims (we've not been overwhelmed by this in practice, although it does seem a little clearer for viewing in sunlight), and has a wider colour gamut.
iPhone 7 Plus review: Camera
As expected, the iPhone 7 Plus comes with a dual-lens camera setup on the back (there is no such upgrade for the iPhone 7).
This broadly fits with Apple's past behaviour, since the company generally likes to set apart its top-of-the-line phone with at least one feature that isn't available on any other - and it's often something in the photographic line, such as optical image stabilisation. But this is the first time a Plus-branded iPhone has had such a conspicuous physical advantage over its smaller cousin.
The dual-lens camera offers a number of potential benefits, many of which will emerge across the coming months as app developers and Apple itself come up with new software features. The most important are optical zoom up to 2x and Portrait Mode, an arty photo mode added in the iOS 10.1 update a month after the iPhone 7 Plus's launch. We're also hoping for post-shot refocusing - if you get a photo slightly off, it's possible with some dual-lens cameras to alter the focus later using the combined data from both lenses. But we're certain that app developers will come up with all sorts of clever things to do with this hardware.
The iPhone 7 Plus features two different lenses, one of them a telephoto; this is what enables the 7 Plus to offer an optical zoom by switching from one lens to the other. It also has 10x digital zoom, compared to the 5x digital zoom on the iPhone 7 and on the previous generation. We explore the capabilities of the optical zoom in the next section.
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We've spent a lot of time with the iPhone 7 Plus's camera, and while not every shot has come out perfectly - photos taken in harsh electric light indoors sometimes seem to have an almost 'painted' finish, as if they've been put through a retro filter - it's generally performed impressively. Colours are rich, detail is strong, and most of the time the shutter is faster than we're used to.
Click to enlarge - but be warned it's a giant file!
Let's talk about the zoom for a moment. Thanks to that dual-lens setup, the iPhone 7 Plus is supposed to offer optical zoom up to 2x, with digital zoom taking over after that point. You'll probably know that digital zoom isn't up to much: essentially the phone is cropping into the picture and using software to simulate the additional detail that's required, so photos taken with digital zoom will be that much noisier and more pixellated than a photo taken at normal 1x 'magnification'. Optical zoom, achieved through use of the glassware, should have no such problems.
It doesn't quite work out that way - some reviewers have speculated that in fact some element of digital zoom is combined with optical zoom before you reach 2x magnification - but the effect is noticeably better than the 2x zoom on an iPhone 6s Plus.
Here's a shot taken with the iPhone 7 Plus at 2x zoom. Click to zoom in (be warned that it's a very large image file).
And here's roughly the same shot achieved by moving closer to the subject and shooting at 1x. Again, click to enlarge.
Now let's repeat the shot with an iPhone 6s Plus. At 2x zoom:
And at 1x zoom, moving closer to the subject:
We can get a better comparison of how well the two phones handle the zoom by cropping in tightly to the subject's face. Here we do that for the iPhone 7 Plus:
And here's a comparison of the detail in the iPhone 6s Plus's shots:
At 2x zoom the iPhone 7 Plus's shot is a bit messier and we're starting to see some pixellation around the subject's ear and neckline. But it broadly holds up. The iPhone 6s Plus struggled much more at 2x zoom - although remember that this is a tight crop and the loss of definition won't be this noticeable in most cases.
On 24 October, Apple released iOS 10.1, which adds Portrait Mode to the iPhone 7 Plus's repertoire of skills. It's early days, but we're loving Portrait Mode so far.
Unlike Live Photos, say, which is toggled on or off at the top of the screen and applied to the standard Photo format (it cannot be applied to square shots, for some reason), Portrait Mode is an entirely new photo format accessed via the swipe menu along the bottom of the Camera interface. In the iPhone 7 Plus this menu now comprises, from left to right, Time-Lapse, Slo-Mo, Video, Photo, Portrait, Square and Pano.
When you take a shot in Portrait Mode the iPhone also keeps a copy of the image taken conventionally - by default, at any rate. You can tell the phone not to bother in Settings, but it's probably worth keeping on in case the phone gets the focus 'wrong', which has happened to us on several occasions. This also allows us to easily compare the effect of Portrait Mode.
(For tips on using Portrait Mode more effectively, see How to use Portrait Mode on the iPhone 7 Plus.)
By mimicking the 'bokeh' effect you frequently see when photographers work with DSLR cameras - blurring the background and giving greater prominence to the subject - Portrait Mode produces a more dramatic and attractive shot. Not every picture you take with Portrait Mode will work out this nicely, however: it's important to get the subject at the right distance from the camera, with a background a good distance further away, and good lighting is essential. But Portrait Mode offers tips on setting things up properly.
We've found that Portrait Mode works quite well when taking photos of people, and we think that this is in part due to the facial recognition capabilities of the smartphone. The camera then 'knows' where the main focus of the shot should be, and will adjust the bokeh effect accordingly and usually with impressive results.
However, the results become a bit more hit-and-miss when it comes to objects, especially if the fore- and background have similar patterns/colours. We've experienced issues mainly to do with focus, as the effect will sometimes blur part of the foreground image thinking it's a part of the background and vice-versa.
To read more about Portrait Mode, check out the fashion shoot our colleagues put together using the new feature: iPhone 7 Plus vs DSLR photo shootout. You can see how this went in the following video:
iPhone 7 Plus review: Battery life
Thanks to its larger chassis, the iPhone 6s Plus and the 6 Plus before it were both able to squeeze in larger-capacity battery units than their non-Plus equivalents - and these larger batteries were able to more than compensate for the additional power requirements of a larger screen with far more pixels, resulting in higher battery life than any other iPhones. The iPhone 6s Plus is good for about 12 hours of unplugged web surfing, compared to roughly 10 hours with the iPhone 6s.
The iPhone 7 Plus has a greater battery life than the 6s Plus (Apple claims that for the average user, it'll last an extra hour between charges), but the iPhone 7 has gained an average of two hours - which means the gap between the standard and Plus models is narrower than in the previous. We test these claims below.
Battery life is professedly a hot-button issue for many smartphone buyers, but comments by senior Apple staff make us sense that the company is happy with what it's offering at the moment - particularly for the Plus models - and doesn't intend to make any great sacrifices in order to significantly increase battery life. (And sacrifices would be called for: whether in terms of a larger and heavier device, a higher price tag, a lower-res screen and so on.)
Following iFixit's teardown, we know that the iPhone 7 Plus has a battery capacity of 2900 mAh, compared to 2750 mAh on the 6s Plus.
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We tested the iPhone 7 Plus's battery to exhaustion using the battery-test component of GeekBench 3 (a test which has been removed from GeekBench 4). It lasted 10 hours, 8 minutes and 20 seconds. That's a score of 6083.
We tested our year-old iPhone 6s Plus at the same time, and it managed only 7:03:30, a score of 4235 - although you should bear in mind that a year's heavy use will wear down a battery unit and result in lesser performance. A comparison between two box-fresh models would be closer.
The GeekBench 3 battery test is particularly demanding and you're likely to find that your phone lasts considerably longer between charges than the above figures.
iPhone 7 Plus review: Processor
The iPhone 6s Plus (and the iPhone 6s, for that matter) comes with a proprietary-design A9 processor chip with an M9 motion co-processor. It doesn't take a genius to predict that the iPhone 7 Plus would therefore include an A10 - but Apple has slightly sidestepped expectations by branding it the A10 Fusion.
The firm says to expect around 40 percent higher processing speed than with the iPhone 6s Plus's A9, and about twice the performance of the A8. But obviously we decided to see for ourselves.
GeekBench 4 processing speed scores
Here's how the iPhone 7 Plus compares to the iPhone 6s Plus in the GeekBench 4 speed-testing suite. Higher scores are better.
- iPhone 6s Plus: 2491 (single core), 4129 (multicore)
- iPhone 7 Plus: 3434 (single core), 5618 (multicore)
- iPhone 6s Plus: 122.54
- iPhone 7: 160.2
- iPhone 7 Plus: 168.68
GFXBench OpenGL graphics scores
We tested out the iPhone 7 Plus's graphics capabilities in the GFXBench OpenGL suite. Here's how it got on - and the scores for the 6s Plus, for comparison.
iPhone 6s Plus:
Manhattan onscreen: 39.9fps
Manhattan offscreen: 36.2fps
T-Rex onscreen: 57.2fps
T-Rex offscreen: 67.8fps
iPhone 7 Plus:
Manhattan onscreen: 43.5fps
Manhattan offscreen: 41.1fps
T-Rex onscreen: 57.8fps
T-Rex offscreen: 83.4fps
iPhone 7 Plus review: RAM
It's now been confirmed by iFixit's teardown that the iPhone 7 Plus has 3GB of RAM, which ought to give it an additional speed advantage over the iPhone 6s Plus, which had 2GB.
The iPhone 7, meanwhile, has only 2GB. It's understood that the extra RAM for the Plus model has been included to handle the demands of collating/combining the output of each rear-facing camera lens and generating a final image with the best elements of each.
iPhone 7 Plus review: UK price
The iPhone 7 Plus is available to buy now, having been announced on 7 September and gone on sale on 16 September.
Here's the pricing - note that Apple has doubled the storage allocation at each tier:
- iPhone 7 Plus (32GB): £719
- iPhone 7 Plus (128GB): £819
- iPhone 7 Plus (256GB): £919
The iPhone 7 Plus is available in five colours. Silver, gold and Rose Gold are the same as we got on the previous generation, but Space Grey has been ditched and replaced by two different black finishes, one in matt (just called black) and the other in gloss (Jet Black).
Jet Black is the braggers' choice, partly because it's only available if you buy the middle or upper storage tier options. The 32GB iPhone 7 Plus is not available in Jet Black.
The matt-black iPhone 7 Plus (just called "black") strikes us as pleasantly low-key, although some may find it dull. The highly glossy Jet Black version is more obviously lovely to look at, but it picks up fingerprints like nobody's business and appears to be scratch-prone, too.
The iPhone 7 Plus has plenty to be pleased about - waterproofing, a twin-lens camera, a specs bump, stereo audio, a customisable Home button - but is there anything here to get passionate about?
This is quite clearly the best iPhone yet, with a smart (if unradical) design and an impressive feature set and user experience; the new Portrait Mode is rather lovely, too. But the price is steep. Unless you're particularly in love with big screens or the very latest in camera features, the iPhone 7 may be a better and better-value option.