Apple iPhone 7 Plus Review: Making A Great Phone Even Better

Apple is ranked the #2 in global smartphone market unit share, #1 in premium phones and still accounts for the vast majority of smartphone profits globally. Apple has also experienced some share loss in markets in places like China, which it seems very keen to make up with the iPhone 7 and with full supply of the iPhone 6 SE. There were lots of leaks about what the iPhone 7 would be, but other than the dual camera and lack of a headphone jack they were mostly wrong. Everything has changed inside of the iPhone 7 and that’s something that’s been lost on some people, I think, primarily because they read about the leaks. I spent the last 72 hours with the iPhone 7 Plus and want to share some of my highlights on it. While Apple hasn’t changed the core industrial design of the phone itself, they literally changed everything else, a similar approach to the new Apple Watch Series 2. Apple once again brings out a great phone and at the same time may have fixed a problem plaguing mobility experience in the process. There are some things users will need to get used to, but in the end for me, it’s all worth it.

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Apple CEO Tim Cook takes the stage at the iPhone 7 event in San Francisco (Credit: Patrick Moorhead)

Camera

One of the most noticeable features on the iPhone 7 Plus is its unique dual camera that enables some unique features that no other phone has. This, to me is a big deal because Apple has always consistently had the best or one of the best cameras in smartphones. Sometimes competitors would deliver competitive offerings against the iPhone many months later, but the iPhone would always be the standard and always be considered top 3 no matter how biased a reviewer could be.

The iPhone 7 Plus camera improvements are numerous and start with a wider aperture 12 Megapixel sensor with a f/1.8 six-element lens with quad LED for the main camera. This camera is the same in the iPhone 7 as the iPhone 7 Plus, however the plus adds a second 12 Megapixel ‘telephoto’ camera with a f/2.8 aperture and 2x optical zoom. Combined, the dual camera setup in the iPhone 7 Plus allows for up to 2X optical zoom and 10X digital zoom, double that of the iPhone 7 and all other previous iPhones ever. I didn’t get a chance to run much deeper camera tests, but I expect Anshel Sag, associate analyst, to run these when he gets his own iPhone 7 Plus shortly. That includes the upcoming depth of field (DoF) features that Apple plans to release later this year that allows to create a sharp image with a narrow DoF with strong bokeh (background blur).

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Apple iPhone 7 Plus dual camera (Photo Credit: Patrick Moorhead)

To me, the biggest breakthrough is the 2X optical zoom. I’m sure we can debate the huge differences between this and a DSLR like my wife’s Sony A7R2, but this phone does it for me. I don’t foresee ever needing another digital camera again. Period. I also really like their decision to use one of the cameras for wide angle and the other for telephoto. The iPhone 7 Plus camera setup also takes pictures so much faster and images did seem brighter but not washed out to me.

Don’t forget that in addition to the main dual camera array, Apple also upgraded the front-facing camera to a 7 Megapixel front-facing camera with OIS (optical image stabilization). This feature is mostly preserved for the main camera of most smartphones, but Apple opted to intelligently include this feature for the front-facing camera as well since it is guaranteed to improve the quality of low-light selfies. This resolution improvement was a long time coming, especially for me because my daughters only communicate with me over Snapchat selfies so this is important. I think that this will help in Asia more than in the US as selfie quality means more in Asian markets, I know I am generalizing but this is what I see when I visit. This will also give their competitors less ammunition to crow about.

A10 Fusion SoC

The A10 Fusion SoC is Apple’s first quad core design, ever. They’ve done dual core designs for almost all of their phones and done the occasional triple core for iPads. This A10 Fusion SoC features two high performance cores and two low power cores along with a 6 core GPU that is yet to be announced but is very likely an Imagination Technologies PowerVR-based solution. Apple has claimed 50% faster GPU performance and 40% faster CPU performance compared to the iPhone 6S. I was able to confirm that their CPU claims were true, but am still working on confirming the 50% GPU because of unstable benchmarks like 3DMark and GFXBench.

I trust Apple’s claims, however, because they have a history of benchmarking exactly like they claim they will and I was able to verify their 40% CPU claims as seen in the benchmarks below versus the iPhone 6s:

  • 49% improvement on Google Octane V2 on Safari
  • 41% improvement on Basemark Metal 10.7
  • 40% improvement on Geekbench 3.4.1
  • 38% improvement on Geekbench 4.0
  • 25% improvement in Basemark OS II. This included a 45% graphics score improvement
  • 21% improvement on Kraken JavaScript 1.1

We must also consider that this is versus the iPhone 6s, not what most Apple upgraders will be using which will be the iPhone 6 or even the iPhone 5s. Compared to those you could  see a doubling of performance. The amazing part about the A10 Fusion and the year on year performance improvements are that they have continued to increase performance at these levels even though they aren’t primarily a silicon company. At some point I guess we need to start calling Apple a silicon company.

The A10 Fusion processor has resulted in the most responsive phone I have ever used and I cannot wait to see games that are optimized for it, the ones that really stretch the capabilities. Apple also included a new ISP inside of the A10 Fusion SoC and decided to talk about it for the first time, very likely because of the dual camera. I figure they thought that consumers needed another “reason to believe” why the camera performs so well.

Fixing broken Bluetooth headphones

We can all genuinely agree that Bluetooth doesn’t work very well with most smartphones. Connections are unreliable, setup is a pain, headsets never seem to be charged up, and they’re just so easy to lose. It’s really all about the lack of consistent experience that’s the core of issue. We’ve all had some good experiences, but all of us have had even more negative experiences ranging anywhere from a Bluetooth headset to Bluetooth in a car or wireless speakers.

Apple is a company that fixes things. It was the company who brought us the first commercialized graphical user interface for a computer, arguably the first consumer computer with any volume, made music easy to buy and play with the iPod and iTunes and of course re-wrote the book on smartphones. AirPods are the best attempt yet for someone to fix the broken Bluetooth headset problem. I got to use them at the Apple event in San Francisco, but did not use them for this 72-hour review as Apple did not make them available. When I did use them at the launch event, they instantly connected and sounded great while also staying in my ears as I vigorously jumped up and down trying to dislodge them (it was quite the sight to see). If they AirPods perform long term like they did at the event and onstage, I believe Apple has a winner here, even with all the mockery you’ve seen online.

The Bluetooth problem is being solved by Apple through their own silicon innovation and the creation of the W1 chip which is purposely built for Bluetooth communications. While details about the W1 are very thin, we do know that it is going to be used in both Apple and Beats-branded devices and is what enables the instant and high-quality experiences that Apple is promising to deliver with the new iPhone and accompanying earbuds like the AirPods.

That headphone jack, or lack thereof

If there is one thing I have been reading in other reviews and dialogue and discussion in the run-up of the announcement, it was the removal of the headphone jack. If Apple just removed the headphone jack and there was no other part of the story, I believe there would be an issue. That’s just not the case.

It’s important to know what ships in the box. Apple ships in the box an adapter which enables any standard headphone to plug into the Lightning port. Oh, and if you lose that then you can buy one for $9 with free shipping. Apple also ships in the box a pair of Lightning EarPods. I already talked about AirPods above.

With all of these things included in the box, I have to say it seems like much ado about nothing. I mean, I don’t prefer EarPods personally so I just plugged my favorite headphones, Apple “In-Ear Headphones” into the Lightning adapter and away we went. I bought a few of the adapters, spent $18 with 1-2 day free shipping

The only time I really had to pause was when I needed to use the headphones and plug in the phone. First, I’m the type of person who needs to charge their phone two her three times a day because I use it so much, so I don’t believe my usage patterns are normal. You could call me an excessive smart phone user. Based on my usage patterns, I feel like I do need the AirPods or a charging adapter like the $39.99 Belkin “Lightning Audio + Charge RockStar” where I can charge my phone and use physical headphones at the same time.

Overall, I don’t believe most people will have big issues with this. By the way, this really sets up apple in the future for wireless charging. Maybe by slimming the home button and eliminating the audio jack, we may have more room to add wireless charging.

Home button

The audio jack removal didn’t take me any time to get used to, but the new home button did. Apple has replaced the physical switch in the Home button with a similar solid state button and Taptic Engine technology you can find in Apple Watch and the new MacBook. When you press on the new Home button, you will feel a “tap” but it’s different from today’s “tap”. No longer do you get the sensation that the button is going down. In setup, Apple gives the user three choices in how strong they want the “tap”.

This is probably the only change in the iPhone 7 plus where consumers won’t notice an immediate improvement, unless you could the space saved for a longer battery life, better camera, or making it more waterproof and dust resistant. I have even heard in Asia, consumers use Assistive Touch which is on-screen, because they feel it makes the phone more durable.

It took me about a day of use to get comfortable with it and for most, it won’t be an issue.

Display

Displays are always an area where Apple has always shined, pun intended. The 5.5” 1080P display on the iPhone 7 Plus has a wide color gamut, which covers most of the DCI-P3 color space while also being 25% brighter than the 6S Plus and 3D Touch enabled. I didn’t necessarily think that the display on the 6S Plus needed a big improvement over than moving to OLED and maybe a resolution bump, but Apple made the above improvements anyways. It is not by any measure the highest resolution on the market with numerous 1440P displays on other phones, but it’s still a beautiful and bright display with the clearest reproduction of colors and images. 3D Touch is now very pervasive and is finally being picked up by most software developers as a feature to utilize and I believe that very shortly we can consider 3D Touch pervasive.

What wasn’t tested over 72 hours

I haven’t had a chance to test some things in the short time that I’ve had with the Phone 7 Plus.

Some of those things include the LTE modem and Wi-Fi connectivity speed, reliability or throughput. Do keep in mind that Apple states that this phone is capable of speeds of up to 450 Mbps and support LTE-Advanced which means all major carriers in the US support these faster LTE speeds.

I also didn’t have a chance to test out the audio or call quality, which includes the new stereo speaker setup which is a first on an Apple device and is partially possible thanks to the death of the headphone jack. In addition to that, as mentioned earlier I didn’t get to try out the AirPods and evaluate their prolonged usage.

When it comes to prolonged usage, since I only had this device for 72 hours I haven’t been able to adequately test battery life quite yet either but I am sure that other reviewers will do full comparisons. However, Apple consistently does well here and I believe Apple when they say that I am getting one more hour over the 6S Plus.

Finally, Apple states the iPhone 7 plus is water resistant and I didn’t do any specific tests to validate this. I take Apple on their word and if iPhone did have any issues with water resistance, I have two Apple stores within 10 miles from the house to get a replacement.

Wrapping up and “should you upgrade”

All in all, I believe that Apple has a winner on its hands with the iPhone 7 Plus. Aside from the obvious similar aesthetics, Apple has improved everything about the phone from top to bottom. The most significant improvements are in the cameras, A10 Fusion processor, AirPods and the continued improvement to battery life, but also improved the display, speakers, water resistance, LTE Advanced. Apple even improved the leather cases by adding real buttons on the sides.

I believe all these improvements far outweigh any inconvenience brought by putting an adapter on your favorite headphones or headset. If you are looking to upgrade from an iPhone 6 or older this is a no-brainer. Do it. If you have an iPhone 6S Plus, are a year in, and are wondering if you should move, you should probably make your decision based on the quality of the camera and if that’s important to you.