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This year’s iPhone 7 and Plus model updates break with convention. For the first time ever Apple has opted to maintain the same general design three years in a row, while introducing some exciting, divisive, and long-overdue features.
So is this a sign that the company is stagnating? Or is it simply a case of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” in action? I’ve spent a few weeks with the shiny new Jet Black iPhone 7 Plus, the first Plus model I’ve touched since 2014’s 6 Plus.
So is it any good, and should you upgrade?
Another Big Slab of iPhone
I’ve never owned a Plus-sized iPhone, though I spent a few months using the iPhone 6 Plus when it was first released around two years ago. Since then the design has changed very little — Apple still uses the same rounded aluminium chassis, a protruding camera, and a choice of 4.7″ and 5.5″ screen sizes.
Rumor has it the company is waiting on next year’s design to really shake things up, and considering the number of rumors that were proven to be true with the arrival of this unit you might be inclined to buy into that. The one difference in presentation this time round is your choice of glossy Jet Black, and a regular Black with a more traditional matte appearance.
I’d forgotten just how big the Plus models are, and more importantly how difficult one-handed use can be. I have relatively large hands and I still had to adjust my grip to use the phone one-handed. Add a case and you’re looking at an even bigger problem, though the weighting of the phone seems better this time round. The iPhone 6 Plus I last used felt very top heavy, like it was prone to slipping forward out of your hand — but that’s not the case here.
One-handed use becomes an even bigger predicament when combined with the glossy finish of the Jet Black model. In addition to being more slippery than the aluminium finish I’m used to, it’s a fingerprint and grease magnet. This might not matter very much if you’re in the majority who opt to protect their device with a case. In that case, who cares what color you choose?
There’s minimal difference in the weight and thickness this time round, with the 7 Plus weighing 188g to the 6s Plus’ 192g. It’s about 50g heavier than the smaller iPhone 7, and 0.2mm thicker. It’s very much business as usual on the outside, which might not be a bad thing, but I’m a little guilty of feeling like it’s a bit old hat now.
All models of iPhone 7 do great job of hiding the antenna on the back of the device, but you’ll probably never notice. It’s comfortable to hold, at least if you have big hands. Two-handed typing is a joy thanks to larger keys, but it still feels obnoxiously big in your pocket sometimes. I’m looking forward to a design refresh, but that probably says more about me than the iPhone.
One thing is clear though: don’t buy a Plus model if you think the 4.7″ model is big enough, especially if you’re still rocking an old iPhone 5s or coming from an SE.
Look Ma, No Headphone Jack
Most iPhone 7 related news stories focused on one thing: the lack of a headphone jack. It’s not the first time Apple has shunned technology in the pursuit of progress, and though it’s proven to be a divisive move, it’s not as bad as you may have been led to believe.
Apple includes a pair of their basic EarPods with a lightning connector in the box. These aren’t going to replace your nice pair of aftermarket headphones, but the do the job just as well as the last pair did. There’s also a 3.5mm to lightning adapter you can use, which doesn’t deliver any discernible loss of quality over the iPhone 6s or earlier models.
There’s also support for Apple’s new W1 wireless technology and Bluetooth headphones (over a low energy connection), but you don’t need to jump foot-first into wireless audio just yet. The only real problem is charging your device and using wired audio at the same time, for which you can buy third party adapters with lightning passthrough.
The iPhone 7 Plus’ standout feature is its dual-lens (and dual-sensor) camera. It’s a really nice touch, and one that smartphone photographers are going to love. Apple divides these lenses by “wide angle” and “telephoto” though both of these terms are a stretch given the effective focal length of each.
The “wide angle” is the faster, superior camera which is also found in the iPhone 7. It’s equipped with a slightly larger sensor, aperture of f/1.8, and a 35mm equivalent focal length of about 30mm. Low light performance is great thanks to the wide aperture, bokeh is creamy, and it’s a capable all-rounder.
The “telephoto” manages an aperture of f/2.8 and a 35mm equivalent of 56mm. It’s arguably a better focal length for portraiture, despite a slightly inferior sensor and slower lens. Most importantly it reduces the reliance on digital zoom, which is a blight on the digital camera world.
How much you’ll use it on a daily basis is debatable, but below you can see a quick comparison from the exact same angle.
As you’d expect, video performance is equally impressive particularly when using the wide lens in low light. A new quad-LED True Tone flash improves the iPhone 7 and Plus model’s ability to balance for white, and the front-facing camera has seen a boost from 5 megapixels to 7 for even better selfies.
Photo performance is probably one of the top reasons to choose a Plus-sized iPhone, and a compelling reason to upgrade from an iPhone 6-era device.
The iPhone 7 and 7 Plus are the first of Apple’s smartphones to include dust and water resistance, in accordance with the IP67 rating. This means you can submerge your iPhone to a depth of 1 metre for an hour, which in real world terms means your iPhone can survive a dunk in the sink or heavy rainstorm. Apple is a bit late to the party since Sony and Samsung have been doing this for a while, but it’s an important leap forward nevertheless.
Apple has also added stereo speakers to both models, and the phone is twice as loud as the iPhone 6s. They’re still tinny-sounding smartphone speakers, but they’re louder, and the positioning on the top and bottom really suit a device like the 7 Plus, which works well in landscape mode thanks to its large size. Like water and dust-proofing, it’s a catch-up feature but one that’s great to finally see.
The Home button has also received an overhaul, and it’s not longer a button at all. Instead Apple used haptic feedback to imitate the click of a physical button. It’s one of my favorite new features, and the result genuinely feels like the entire bottom half of the phone is clicking inwards. Less moving parts is another important step forward, and eliminates one of the iPhone’s longstanding liabilities.
Finally the screen features a 25% wider color gamut, just like the iPad Pro. It looks great, and it’s a huge step up from the screen found on the cheaper iPhone SE.
Living With the 7 Plus
In terms of performance, it’s business as usual for the new iPhone thanks to a new A10 Fusion chip which ensures a smooth and stutter-free experience. Each new iPhone needs to feel new and slick, and that’s exactly what the 7 Plus delivers. It certainly makes my two-year old iPhone 6 seem slow and outdated.
The iPhone 6s family with its A9 chip still feels relatively fast, but it’s started to show its age with the arrival of iOS 10. The iPhone 7 smooths out the experience, with fast Spotlight search, responsive widgets, better app performance and an instant-on “raise to wake” response.
This is all helped along with an added 1GB of RAM over the previous model, taking the total to 3GB. This ensures a silky smooth browsing experience, even when switching between tabs. Multitasking performance also benefits. This marks the third year of RAM improvements, with Apple adding 1GB per iPhone generation since 2014’s iPhone 6.
The iPhone 7 and 7 Plus also mark the death of the 16GB base storage capacity. The iPhone now starts at 32GB, with 128GB and 256GB options also available. There are reports of performance dips on the 32GB model, and if we’re being honest the arrival of 4K video and Live Photos will fill up the cheapest model pretty quickly.
The other reason to choose a Plus-sized iPhone over the regular version — aside from the telephoto lens — is battery life. A bigger device means more room for a bigger battery, and that’s exactly what Apple delivered. The Plus model can potentially last twice as long than its smaller counterpart, depending on what you’re using your phone for.
In terms of real world usage this means your phone is far more likely to last all day, even if you’re browsing on 4G, shooting 4K video, talking Siri’s ear off, and making heavy use of iOS 10’s new widgets. If battery really is your primary concern, ask yourself if you can live with a massive phone or not. If the answer is yes, the Plus model really does make the difference.
Finally it wouldn’t be an iPhone review if we didn’t at least mention iOS 10. The latest version of the iPhone OS hasn’t seen the biggest update in 2016, but there are a few standout features. The new lockscreen widgets are handy if you’re into that sort of thing, and the A10 chip means they don’t cause any of the stutters you may be used to if you’re coming from an older device.
3D Touch is used liberally all over the place, in particular to get more out of the new notifications. As the feature is a year-old now, it’s also far more common to see third party app support. And of course, Siri is much more capable which makes the “Hey, Siri” hands-free capabilities of the new iPhone all the more useful.
Should You Upgrade?
The iPhone 7 continues the iterative upgrade path Apple has laid out over recent years. It’s an evolution of the concept, and not the revolution many were hoping for. But it doesn’t seem right to complain that the iPhone 7 isn’t more radically different, when the iPhone 6s ticked so many boxes.
The catch-up nature of the device may be a bit boring, with water resistance and stereo speakers finally making an appearance, but these are features many of us have wanted to see on Apple’s smartphone for a few years. In fact, Apple’s biggest “innovation” this time round might be the removal of the 3.5mm jack — though the headlines would have you believe that most don’t consider it progress.
If you’re still hanging on to an iPhone 6-era smartphone, you might want to give the iPhone 7 (UK) or 7 Plus (UK) some serious thought. If you’re an iPhone 6s owner, there’s probably not enough here to justify the expense and you may be better off waiting for next year’s model anyway.
As for whether you need a Plus-sized iPhone, that depends. The camera is nice but you can live without it, the battery life is impressive especially if you’re coming from a regular-sized iPhone, and the lack of headphone jack isn’t as big of a deal as you might think. But it’s massive, so you should head to a shop and play with it (and perform the pocket test) before you lay down the cash.
An important leap forward for Apple smartphones, but the Plus-sized model still isn’t for everyone. A worthy upgrade from the iPhone 6 or earlier, but not so much if you still have last year’s model.