Apple iPhone 7 Plus review: Not quite a DSLR, but it pushes the envelope

27 Sep 2016

The iPhone 7 Plus. Image: Connor McKenna

The iPhone 7 Plus ups the game in smartphone photography. But, asks John Kennedy, will it cost DSLR enthusiasts a night’s sleep?

In three generations of iPhones that in shape and design are quite similar, the iPhone 7 series looks familiar but represents a big leap forward.

When Apple revealed the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus smartphones earlier this month, a lot of focus went into the removal of the traditional headphone jack and Phil Schiller’s use of the word “courage” for doing so was roundly derided afterwards.

Future Human

This is perhaps unfairly so because the context was Apple’s tradition of being first to jettison things like the floppy disk. It was a technological design thing. Schiller was not ruminating on battlefield courage or the courage of existing on this planet in adverse circumstances as many people outside of the rarified confines of Silicon Valley do.

Ultimately, the removal of the headphone jack is one of those chapters of Apple history that will be quickly forgotten about and absorbed just like the move to the Lightning connector or the removal of VGA ports from laptop computers. The world moves on.

What I was most excited about was the potential of the device as the next best thing to being an actual DSLR camera.

Schiller was quite clear on stage that the iPhone 7 Plus – with its dual-camera system, zoom and forthcoming depth-of-field capability – would not be a DSLR replacement, but would give users many of the capabilities.

Another curious innovation would be the taptic feedback on the new home button. And, of course, the loss of the precious headphone jack.

Look and feel

Apple iPhone 7 Plus review

The iPhone 7 generation comes in two sizes – a 4.7-inch iPhone 7 and a 5.5-inch iPhone 7 Plus.

Both devices come in five finishes: gold, rose gold, silver, matte black and the shiny new jet black.

Apple’s latest iOS operating system was launched just a few days before the new phones hit the shops, bringing nice new capabilities such as more functions in the lock screen, an update to Messages and other apps like Photos, Maps, Music and News, as well as an all-new Home app for the internet of things world.

At first glance, the iPhone 7 Plus looks identical to the 6 and 6s generations of iPhone. Obviously, the biggest change is the disappearance of the headphone jack, but when you hold it you will also notice a new antenna design that distributes the antenna to both ends of the device. Turn it around and you will notice the dual-camera system, which is unlike anything Apple has put on a phone.

When you touch and interact with the device, the taptic engine is immediately apparent, from when you tap the home button or fingerprint sensor to interaction with functions in apps. My favourite has to be the timer in the Clock app which clicks satisfactorily as you adjust the time and is reminiscent of the combination lock on your bicycle. Nostalgia, eh.

Helped by the wider colour gamut, the screen feels much brighter and immersive. In this way, games feel much more vivid and noisy and photographs are brighter and more sharper thanks to the new A10 Fusion chip.

The iPhone 7 also comes with two stereo speakers on the front, making it much louder than the iPhone 6.


Apple iPhone 7 Plus review

Image: Connor McKenna

The iPhone 7 and 7 Plus both feature an entirely new camera system that comes with optical image stabilisation and a larger f1.8 aperture and quad-LED True Tone flash. There are now six lenses behind the main 12MP camera and on the front there’s a 7MP FaceTime HD camera that also boasts image stabilisation.

The iPhone 7 Plus comes with the new dual-camera set-up and allows users to digitally zoom up to 10x, which sets it apart from competing smartphones.

The iPhone 7’s Retina HD display is 25pc brighter. The most visually arresting feature of the new phone is the brightness of the screen, which also embodies Apple’s 3D Touch capability. The iPhone 7 Plus comes with a 5.5-inch Retina display and 1920 by 1080 resolution while the iPhone 7 features a 4.7-inch Retina display at 1334 by 750 resolution.

Powered by the A10 Fusion chip, which is five times faster than the A8 that came on the iPhone 6, the iPhone 7 has also doubled its storage capacity across the board to 32GB, 128GB and 256GB configurations.

That missing jack

Most commentators have hit out at Apple for bothering to remove the audio jack, claiming any space-saving is minimal. The logic, however, is the jack’s removal frees up space for other things, most notably two stereo speakers on the front to make the device’s volume twice as loud as the iPhone 6s. While there have been reports that one of those speakers is an empty grille, I can’t argue with Apple’s claims that, in term of decibels, it is quite impressive.

Using the Lightning-connected headphones that came with the device, I did not notice any loss in quality whatsoever. Apple also thoughtfully included an adapter that allows you to continue to use your trusty old headphones and I have to say listening to audio or watching videos with my own pair of cans through the adapter was fine. I still didn’t notice any decrease in quality.

But the diminutive size of the adapter means that it is guaranteed to go missing at some point, unless you keep it attached to your headphones.

I had a brief chance to try out the new Apple AirPods, the wireless headphones that come in a little white box like Tic Tacs. It is an impressive sensory experience.

You can use one of the AirPods on its own and when you put in a second it immediately detects your ear and both start working in concert. Tap either AirPod twice and it launches a Siri search. The AirPods will have a five-hour battery life and the charging case – which has a nice little heft to it so it won’t get lost in your pocket or handbag – can store up to 24 hours of energy.

Will the audio jack be missed? It is a 57-year-old technology and, judging by how fast Apple is removing it, it won’t be mourned for too long. I suspect other manufacturers like Sony and Samsung will also remove audio jacks and replace then with USB-C connectors.

The camera

Apple iPhone 7 Plus review

The morning sky ablaze. Image taken on iPhone 7 Plus

I love photography and I take a good picture, but I have never really had the time or the inclination to learn all the technicalities around things like white balance or apertures or all that jazz. The truth is, most people don’t and won’t.

For Apple to make bold claims that its phone is almost as good as a DSLR – while well-intentioned – is still misleading and I’m sure most photographers who are masters of their craft will have a thing or two to say.

But you can’t get away from the fact that the iPhone 7 Plus takes sharper and brighter images because the A10 Fusion chip does all that technical work for you.

This is also mainly due to the 25pc increase in colour gamut.

For lovers of the selfie craze, the fact that the flash is actually built into the HD display of the screen means even brighter pictures in low-light conditions. Apple has increased the camera sensor at the front from 5MP to 7MP, which pushes the envelope in the specs war alright.

Apple iPhone 7 Plus review

El Dinger, the cat.

The zoom feature on the iPhone 7 Plus takes a little getting used to but it is certainly an improvement that makes it feel like you are using a DSLR rather than actually having one. It is quite smooth and you control it on a dial on the screen to get from 1x all the way up to 10x for photos and 6x for videos.

The two cameras work in concert to get the best attributes of both and give you an outstanding picture.

The depth-of-field feature is coming as a software update before the end of the year, and I don’t really understand why Apple didn’t bring it to the device right away. This will help users achieve the bokeh effect possible on DSLRs at present.

Only one other smartphone maker, Huawei, has already brought a phone to market with this capability of focusing on an object in front and blurring out the background.


Apple iPhone 7 Plus review

Image: Connor McKenna

The iPhone 7 Plus and its iPhone 7 sibling are designed to be water-resistant. Ostensibly to protect the device from spills and splashes, you can dunk it in a container of water for up to half an hour and it will still function.

While I resisted the temptation of putting it in vat of craft Irish cider just for the thrills, opting instead for a jug of water, there is just something unnatural about putting a perfectly good phone in liquid.

I didn’t really leave it in the water for long, opting instead for the AV team to experiment on its underwater durability. All I can say is it is still working perfectly.

The processor

Every year, Apple brings out a new device and announces the most advanced and powerful chip ever in a smartphone. The A10 Fusion chip carries on this tradition.

It is a CPU with two high-performance cores that are 40pc faster than the A9 in the iPhone 6s, and two high-efficiency cores that run about one-fifth of the power of the high-performance cores.

There is a whole untold story about the electronics aspect of what Apple does and I hope the tech giant sees the sense of telling it one day.

Overall, the new processor delivers a graphics performance that is understood to be 50pc faster than the A9 chip and over two times the processing performance of the iPhone 6.

What this means is crisp and fast processing and bright, impressive visuals on the screen. But how perfect is perfect? Most users won’t be able to discern these speed increases.

Where you really notice it is in the battery. The new processor enables up to two more hours of battery life on the iPhone 7 and one hour extra on the iPhone 7 Plus.

Verdict: 4 stars out of 5

Apple iPhone 7 Plus review

Image: Connor McKenna

I have to say I was very impressed with the battery life, which keeps pace with the Apple Watch throughout the day despite having larger screen.

The size of the iPhone 7 Plus definitely takes a bit of getting used to, especially since I previously used the iPhone SE which is about the same size as an iPhone 5s.

While iOS 10’s launch ahead of the new generation of smartphone’s physical arrival means that familiarity blurs the newness slightly, the new devices are a good exemplar for the new OS.

I for one am not fazed by the disappearance of the headphone jack. Apple quite helpfully packs a little adapter if you want to still use traditional headphones. I think all the whining about the decision to use the Lightning connector will go away, especially when the Android brigade starts manufacturing USB-C devices that also jettison the old headphone jack.

That said, if you are relying on the headphone adapter, keep it affixed to your headphones because, otherwise, you are certainly going to lose it.

The water resistance isn’t something I was looking for but having cycled in dense downpours, it is a plus.

The A10 Fusion processor makes this a blisteringly fast device, and this is very noticeable in apps and with the camera, while the wide colour gamut gives images a sense of reality that is hard to ignore.

The dual camera makes picture-taking flawless and the camera takes notably better photos, especially in low light.

All in all, while the iPhone 7 Plus looks identical to the previous two generations, under the hood it is a monster.

iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus are available in silver, gold, rose gold and the new black finishes in 32GB, 128GB and 256GB models starting at €779

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years