The quick take
It's not a hugely interesting year for the iPhone — as evidenced by the fact that much of the chatter around Apple's latest has to do with minor color differences, or with what the 7 series doesn't have. Even so, the iPhone 7 Plus packs enough technical innovation to rival — and in some cases beat — top-tier Android phones. The 7 Plus looks good, is approachable and easy to use, and does pretty much everything you'd want from a modern smartphone. But despite genuinely innovative technical feats like the telephoto camera and Taptic Engine, it's clear a more substantial upgrade awaits in 2017.
- Solid, sturdy build quality
- Lightning-fast performance
- Excellent camera, neat zoom features
- Reliable all-day (often multi-day) battery
- Water resistance
- No headphone jack
- Design iconic, but equally dated
- Bulky size compared to 5.5-inch Androids
- Slow charging
- Expensive SIM-free price
iPhone 7 Plus Full Review
OK, so first things first — why are we reviewing the iPhone 7 Plus on Android Central? Simple: The iPhone is a big deal. It's the biggest single competitor to the Android space as a whole, and that alone makes it worth our time. The 7 Plus in particular, with its 5.5-inch screen, lands around the middle of the Android field. And as the appetite for larger phones grows, the 7 Plus is the model that's seen greater demand.
There's one pretty big difference between the iPhone and most of the phones we review here at AC — obviously it's not an Android device. Nevertheless, we're still going to give it a fair shake, and treat it as we would any other flagship phone. Aside from the fact that I've mainly used Android phones for the past six years, I'm mostly going into this review with an open mind.
About this review
We're publishing this review after just over a week with an unlocked European-spec iPhone 7 Plus (model A1784) in silver with 32GB of storage. We've been using the phone on Vodafone UK in areas with mixed 3G and 4G coverage, mainly in Manchester and London. We began running iOS 10.0.1, before receiving an update to 10.0.2 about halfway through the review process.
Because we like to live dangerously, we didn't use a case throughout our time with the phone.
The same, but different
iPhone 7 Plus Hardware
When a friend first handed me an iPhone 6 Plus more than two years ago, the first thing I did was almost drop it directly onto a glass table. By the standards of the time, the 6 Plus seemed big, slippery and more than a little unwieldy — not the sort of phone you'd want to use without a case. Two generations on, although a lot has changed on the inside — and to a certain extent, around the back — the experience of wrangling this 5.5-inch slab of metal and glass remains largely identical. Fortunately, in the intervening period I've also gotten a bit better at handling oversized phones. It's a little slippery, but not horribly so, and I haven't felt in any huge danger of spiking it onto a table or sidewalk like I almost did to my friend's 6 Plus.
You already know how the new iPhone looks and feels.
Chances are you too already know what the iPhone looks and feels like. In a break with its usual cadence, Apple has kept its iPhone designs largely unchanged for a third generation running. As such, from the front, the iPhone 7 Plus is basically identical to a 6 or 6s Plus. Around the back, the differences become more pronounced, with less offensive plastic antenna bands that now run along the top and bottom edge, and the 7 Plus's standout hardware upgrade, that dual rear camera module. Yet again there's a camera bump, which I'm fine with, given that it usually means better image quality. The change in antenna lines, combined with the new mold of the camera bump — a part of the chassis, not a separate bit of metal — makes the 7 look a little more organic and cohesive than before.
Nevertheless, it's a riff on a two-year-old design. Iconic, to be sure, but also beginning to look a bit dated. Next to many 5.5-inch (and even 5.7-inch) Android phones, the 7 Plus is positively bulbous — there's a lot of space on either side of what's already a reasonably big screen.
Of course, the execution is still top-notch. Manufacturing tolerances are tight, the subtle chamfers around the power and volume keys add subtle flair, and the silver model I'm using has a pleasant shimmer as it turns through light. (And yes, the ports line up.) Despite the overarching slipperiness — which I'm told doesn't affect the hard-to-find glossy "jet black" variant — it's a comfortable fit in the hand. It size, curves and finish make it harder to one-hand than competitors like the glass-backed Galaxy S7 edge and Note 7, though.
So visually, we're looking at a handful of welcome tweaks to a design that's basically a known quantity.
A handful of welcome tweaks to a design that's basically a known quantity.
This generation's iPhone is more about the changes that don't immediately jump out and grab you. Like the much improved 1080p display — now with a wider color gamut, a higher brightnesssi ceiling and excellent daylight visibility, even with that highly reflective white border. It's not as saturated as Samsung's SuperAMOLEDs, but that's by choice, with apple choosing color accuracy over colors that pop. The iPhone doesn't lead in pixel density, and in fact it hasn't for a few years. (And with bigger upgrades surely coming next year it's easy to see why Apple would stick at 1080p for the moment, given the hassle that new screen resolutions impose on iOS developers.)
The iPhone's audio capabilities get a quiet improvement too, with the speaker behind the earpiece teaming up with the bottom-firing speaker for better playback without a headset. (We've seen this from both HTC and Huawei on the Android side.) I no longer have the HTC 10 around for comparisons, but the 7 Plus's playback closely matched that of the Huawei P9 Plus — decent-sounding, but tinny at higher volume levels. Fine for showing friends a YouTube video, not so much for extended listening in your own home.
Another stealth upgrade sits behind the new home button, which actually isn't a button at all. Like the display, it's pressure-sensitive, and the "click" you feel on pressing it is generated by Apple's Taptic Engine, like the trackpad of the newest MacBooks. The tiny haptic feedback motor produces a firm "click" when enough pressure is used, and the sensation is almost like that of a real button. I've heard more than a few people describe it as feeling "like the phone is broken" when pressing it for the first time — effectively, the entire lower portion of the body seems to click. But you soon get used to it, and there are three levels of click to choose from during setup.
The Taptic Engine is used throughout iOS 10 to deliver neat haptic flourishes in certain areas, like a gentle "thud" when the notification pane drops down, or a subtle bump when you're zoomed all the way in on a photo, or a quick triple-knock when you switch to silent mode. All this extra feedback contributes to the polish of experience.
Touch ID returns for fingerprint security, and Apple's sensor is still among the best — tied with Huawei and HTC's offerings in my completely unscientific testing, and comfortably more reliable than anything on a Samsung phone. (Once you're down to authenticating in a few milliseconds either way, you start dealing with diminishing returns.)
Audio, display and haptic changes stand out as some of the 7 series' major 'stealth upgrades.'
OK, fine. Let's talk about headphone jacks and #donglelife. Yes, the iPhone 7 series gets rid of the standard 3.5mm socket and replaces it with a speaker facade, behind which sits a barometric vent, which definitely isn't just a fancy term for a hole to let air in. Yes, it's moderately annoying. The dongle provided in the box is tiny, and works OK with smaller headphones (at least when compatibility issues don't strike), and looks ridiculous hanging off a pair of big studio headphones. If you're using this thing over two years, you're probably going to either lose it, or fray up the cable from the twisting motion that results from it being plugged into regular earphones.
Using the dongle is basically bad from a user experience perspective. Which is why Apple would rather you use wireless earphones or something that plugs in over Lightning. (Both of which it sells!) In the short term that's inconvenient, but — and I'll surprise even myself in saying this — it shouldn't be a deal-breaker. Switching to the iPhone is about an ecosystem change as much as anything. If that's the jump you're making, then you should probably just suck it up and buy some new headphones.
One area where having fewer ports helps is water resistance. Both 7-series iPhones carry IP67 certification against water and dust. (More on what that actually means here). Sure enough, the phone survives being dunked in the sink and run under a tap. But as with Samsung's high-end Galaxy line, where IP68 certification is increasingly standard, it's the added peace of mind when using the phone out in the rain, or around a pool, that makes water resistance really valuable.
Benchmarks don't always line up with real-world performance, but Apple's A10 excels at both.
Internal hardware specs are often the least publicized thing about an iOS device. Nevertheless, Apple's talking up its A10 Fusion chip, a quad-core processor which for the first time adopts a big.LITTLE configuration — two high-power cores for demanding tasks, two lower-power cores for background tasks. We've seen this approach in the Android space going back years and years, and it works pretty well.
Benchmarks don't tell you much about real-world performance, but as a measure of potential they can be interesting, and the A10 Fusion has been benchmarked at a higher level than some MacBooks in single-threaded performance. So it's no surprise that in the real world, the iPhone 7 Plus feels as absurdly fast — as quick as any Android phone out there. At the same time, standby battery life has been superb — more on that later. And an ample 3GB of RAM ensured I never experienced any obnoxious app reloads or slowdown.
Mercifully, the days of new 16GB iPhones are over, and so I opted for a 32GB 7 Plus, as it's not going to be my main device going forward. If it were, I'd almost certainly go for 128GB — after less than two weeks of loading up a handful of apps, and taking a few photos each day, I'm already past the halfway mark. Again, another example of where just sucking it up and spending more money will leave you better off in the long run.
So overall, the picture is of a known quantity in design terms, with a few quiet upgrades the impact of which might surprise you. At the same time, Apple's new chip extends its lead in single-core performance — a plus for gaming — and the new telephoto camera gives photographers a reason to look past the competition.
iPhone 7 Plus Software
I've used iPhones and iPads on and off over the years, usually as a side effect of working for Mobile Nations. The last time I used an iPhone full-time was back in 2010. That was an iPhone 3GS on iOS 4 — so obviously a whole lot has changed since then, both in iOS itself and how I use a phone.
I'll say it: The out-of-box experience of using an iPhone is just better than that of most Android phones.
Making the switch was as painless as you'd expect from an Apple device. I chose to set up my 7 Plus fresh "as a new iPhone," as opposed to using Apple's 'Move to iOS' tool. This lands you at an expectedly clean home screen after the initial cellular, Wi-Fi, Touch ID and Apple account setup, but the really striking thing about setting up a new iPhone was how much more smoothly the first hour or so after setup is compared to Android. No bloatware. No dumpster fire of built-in app updates waiting. No "optimizing apps" after a day-one OTA. It's an experience most Android phone makers could learn from.
iOS just isn't that good at handling a bunch of notifications at once.
iOS is about simplicity and approachability, sometimes to a fault. The OS's attractive, colorful and very much flattened design language hasn't changed appreciably since iOS 7 — though plenty of new features have been introduced, and some things now live in different places, or work slightly differently. There's also been ample cross-pollination between iOS and Android over the years, so as of iOS 10 it doesn't take much effort to learn one after having used another. Control center (quick settings) lives behind a swipe up, not swipe down. Notifications look a bit different and often aren't as easy to see in groups.
I'm not heavily into widgets or massive amounts of launcher customization on Android, nevertheless I fully expected to hate iOS's simplified home screen setup. Despite this, I adjusted to Apple's home screen setup relatively painlessly, and faster than I expected. You're still limited to a six-by-four grid of icons or folders for the most part, but the new widget space over on the right makes things a bit more functional, with a customizable feed of gadgets from apps, both built-in and third-party. It's not as smart as Google Now, but it is predictable and useful.
My colleague Andrew Martonik has joked about how notifications are still a mess in iOS 10, and I'm largely in agreement with him. I don't deny that part of that is just what I'm accustomed to. But compared to the ease with which Android Nougat — and, to a large extent, earlier versions — handle multiple alerts from the same app, iOS's notifications seem clunky and needlessly large, with poor information density. To put it simply, it's just way too easy to go away for a couple of hours, come back and be swamped with an unmanageable stack alerts. As a result, it's also way too tempting to hit "clear all," as opposed to actually reading through all that stuff. (You can "force press" to view notifications in more detail and act on notifications, but that's not as easy a gesture to perform as a simple swipe down.)
3D Touch is magical, but discoverability issues from the last generation remain.
3D Touch as a whole is a bit of a mixed bag. Apple, like iOS developers, is still figuring out how best to use a pressure-sensitive screen, and although the visual effects that accompany a "hard press" are delightful, there's still a real discoverability problem. There's no easy way for an iOS newbie to figure out what lives behind a long press, and what requires a hard press. The one place where it is clear — and genuinely useful — is on the home screen, where force-pressing icons pops up a shortcut menu to different areas of the app, and in some cases a handy widget too.
I may have hated on iOS's notifications as a whole, but the one feature I love is something first pioneered by Motorola — the way notifications pulse on screen when they first arrive, allowing me to easily see if they're worth acting upon. Similarly, the iPhone's lock screen lights up when you lift the phone or remove it from your pocket, giving you an easy way to see alerts without pressing any buttons. It also lets you quickly get to the camera app with a swipe — though Samsung's double-tap shortcut is faster by far.
While many iOS apps are now well optimized for the larger screen of the 7 Plus, there remain a few peculiar instances where things just don't seem to make sense on a 5.5-inch display. Case in point: A back button in the top-left corner, where it's hardest to reach. And while the vast majority of apps now reformat properly in landscape mode, there are outliers like Apple Music. With many iPhone owners sticking to smaller models — and, let's face it, many Android phones now being enormous — maybe that's not surprising.
Siri is smarter, but you might still feel a bit dumb talking to your phone.
Apple's Siri assistant has gotten a lot smarter in iOS 10, with the ability to book rides, send messages and interact with payment apps. Some of that functionality is built into the Google app and Google Assistant, others we're still waiting on. But the basic truth of Siri interaction remains: When it works, you feel like a wizard, when it fails you feel like an idiot. And I always feel like a bit of an idiot just for talking to my phone. Nevertheless, if that's your thing, Siri is now smarter and better-supported than ever before in iOS 10. Your mileage may vary though, and I'll admit that I'm not a massive user of voice feature on either platform.
Siri, like many other parts of iOS, hopes to keep you within the Apple ecosystem. I use a Mac, but I've never bought into Apple's services in a big way, besides finding the occasional obscure movie or TV show on iTunes. The good news is that the Apple services I didn't want to use were largely easy to ignore. Am I missing out in doing that? Probably. A big area I didn't explore was iMessage, where the phone number tie-in — and my overreliance on Android elsewhere — makes it unworkable. I'm missing out on stickers, custom backgrounds, app plug-ins, GIANT TEXT and other stuff, but many of those are also available in WhatsApp and iMessage. Needless to say, if you're fully bought into the Apple ecosystem, you'll benefit from seamless messaging, calls, document transfer, photo sync and a bunch of other stuff between devices.
Fortunately for me, it's easy to live in the Google ecosystem on an iPhone, which is exactly what I did. Gmail, the Chrome browser, Google Photos, Google Drive, Google Calendar, Google Keep and others work great on iOS, though some have to exist as second-class citizens behind the built-in options.
On the whole, iOS is pretty, polished, extremely fast and easy to use. The major points of frustration I ran into come from being used to many of Android's power user-centric capabilities, like apps having free reign in the background. It's a different set of compromises, the set that fits you best will depend on which ecosystem you're more attached to, and how much you like to monkey with your phone.
Other iOS observations:
- Sharing between apps on iOS has gotten a lot easier over the past year, but the experience is still a little unpredictable. Sharing a photo to Instagram, for instance, shares it directly to your feed without editing or filtering.
- Apple Pay is as simple to set up and use as you'd expect, and the 7 Plus's NFC antenna placement — right on the very top edge — makes reaching payment terminals easier than some Android phones.
- Thankfully, modern iPhones and iPads are now largely independent of the iTunes desktop app which, though improved of late, is still a usability trainwreck.
- Automatic photo backup (whether through Dropbox or Google Photos) wasn't as seamless on the iPhone, because of the limits Apple puts on apps running in the background. That's good for battery life, bad if you forget to open the app every few days.
- Night shift — the feature that lets you cut blue light levels at set times in the evening — should just be on every phone.
iMore on iOS 10
Want the full lowdown on everything that's new in iOS 10 on iPhone and iPad? Rene Ritchie breaks down everything that's new in Apple's latest OS, in iMore's extensive iOS 10 review.
iPhone 7 Plus Cameras
For a long time, the iPhone was a clear leader in mobile photography. Then the likes of Samsung and LG started to take cameras seriously, and now there's some serious competition afoot. In the iPhone 7 Plus, Apple's differentiating itself in a couple of days: Firstly, a solid, reliable main camera that takes photos as good as current Android flagships. Secondly, a neat new 56mm telephoto camera that lets you capture zoomed in shots without resorting to digital zoom.
The iPhone's main camera about matches up to its major Android competitors, but there's no clear overall winner.
By the numbers, we're looking at an optically-stabilized 12-megapixel sensor behind an f/1.8 lens — within striking distance of both the Galaxy S7 and HTC 10. Captures, as always, are lightning-fast, and photos produced look about as good as Samsung and HTC's latest in both daylight and low light. While Samsung uses a brighter lens, Apple's post-processing often produces better indoor low-light snaps, simply because it does a better job of gauging white balance. (Samsung phones, historically, tend towards yellowish low-light pics.) At the same time, I found the iPhone sometimes struggled to focus in a handful of outdoor low-light settings where the GS7 had no such issues.
It seems anticlimactic to say so, but for the most part it's a wash. The most noticeable difference between iPhone 7 Plus shots and GS7 shots has to do with the way the colors are processed, more than speed or low-light performance. Samsung (and to an extent HTC) favors more saturated output, whereas Apple's colors are less vibrant but more natural-looking. At the same time, Apple's Auto HDR algorithm is a bit less aggressive than Samsung's, for better or worse.
It should be no surprise that the iPhone is an excellent video camera, too. (Our friends at iMore actually shot their video review on it.) Although there's some predictable graininess in lower-light conditions, colors remain accurate, dynamic range is great for a smartphone camera, and the handy zoom UI helps you smoothly crop in while filming. What's more, if you want to go completely nuts, 4K recording is supported. (Hope you picked 128 or 256GB.)
For many people, the telephoto camera will be their go-to shooter.
Speaking of zoom, that second telephoto camera. It's actually a smaller sensor than the main camera, and behind a slower f/2.8 lens without OIS. For that reason, the phone actually uses a digitally zoomed image for "2X" shots in low light. But with decent lighting, your zoomed-in shots will benefit from a higher overall resolution, as opposed to being blown-up from a smaller crop.
The telephoto camera's limitations are pretty clear if you know what to look for. Darker areas are a bit grainier, and more fine detail is lost through noise reduction. But despite this, the second camera has been a joy to use, allowing me to capture scenes that any other smartphone wouldn't allow. It's probably only a matter of time before the optics on the telephoto camera are upgraded — for a lot of people telephoto will be the go-to shooting mode, especially when iOS 10.1's portrait mode update arrives. These are features I fully expect (and hope) Android manufacturers will borrow next year.
Other photographic notables:
- A f/2.2, 7-megapixel Facetime camera ups the game for selfies, with shots largely matching output from the GS7's overall. Again, selfies from the iPhone seemed to benefit from more accurate white balance.
- Apple's camera app remains simple as ever. No settings, plenty of quick toggles and you'll need to download a third-party app for manual controls and RAW shooting capabilities.
- Apple's animated Live Photos (introduced a year ago) are neat, but will make short work of a 32GB iPhone before long.
iPhone 7 Plus Battery Life
A 2,900mAh fixed battery isn't much in the Android world. But on the iPhone, that's what it takes to reliably see you through all day, every day, and often well into a second. (Because Apple controls the silicon and the OS, and is much more restrictive on how apps work in the background, its power budget goes further.) Even when traveling in areas with spotty LTE coverage, the iPhone 7 Plus got me through a full day of use and into the evening. On normal days, when I'm jumping between Wi-Fi and LTE, I never finished with less than 50 percent in the tank.
The 7 Plus is a comfortable 'two-day' phone.
iOS's power stats aren't directly comparable to Android's, but I was getting between 10 and 12 hours of "use" per charge. Use doesn't always mean the screen is on — and even when it is, brightness levels will mean the power drain will vary over time. What's more important is that those hours of use tended to be over two days, not one. That's better than the vast majority of Android phones, with the exception of newer Snapdragon 625-based mid-rangers like the Moto Z Play and Huawei Nova Plus.
Unfortunately though, the iPhone remains a relatively slow charger next to QuickCharge-enabled rivals. The standard bundled charger is a paltry 5V/1A brick, and charging from a 2A plug does little to boost charge speeds. Slower charges are better for the lifespan of the battery; they're also pretty frustrating when you're used to plugging in a dead phone for 30 minutes and being well past 50 percent.
Make the switch?
iPhone 7 Plus: The Bottom Line
Turns out the iPhone 7 Plus is a pretty good smartphone. Who knew!
It takes a decent (though aging) overall design, adds important under-the-hood changes, removes a port that probably didn't need to be removed, adds an awesome new telephoto camera, becomes water-resistant and calls it a day.
And all those small things — the Taptic Engine, IP68 certification, a ridiculously fast CPU, an optically-zoomed camera — actually add up to a pretty substantial update overall. It's a classic case of the sum being greater than the parts. In particular, the telephoto camera is a huge upgrade for mobile photographers.
The telephoto camera might be the greatest weapon in Apple's arsenal.
The removal of the headphone jack is a mild annoyance, but Apple's made it pretty clear that's just how things are now. Customers will need to live with it or look elsewhere, and for the most part they'll probably do the former.
Yet for all its improvements, this still feels like another "S" year. All the technology is there under the hood, but the overall vision — of the internals and external parts — won't be with us for another year. That's another year for rivals in the Android world to look at what works and what doesn't, and react to their biggest competitor.
The iPhone isn't automatically the best smartphone, though. It hasn't been for a long time. Samsung, Google and others are playing at the same level, and another great (but not mind-blowing) iPhone means the status quo will continue.
Should you switch to one or the other? Only you can decide. But we'll be here to help sort through the best the Android space has to offer in the year ahead.
iMore's iPhone 7 and 7 Plus review
Want to know even more about the iPhone 7 Plus, and it's smaller sibling the iPhone 7? You'll find way more detailed take over on iMore, where Rene Ritchie goes in-depth on both phones' feature sets.
(Then come back here and read all about the Android phones you could be buying.)
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