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printed November 20, 2017
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Review: Apple iPhone 7 Plus

Hardware Software Wrap-Up Comments  1  

Lock Screen

We've reviewed iOS 10 in depth here. If you're interested to learn about everything that's new in Apple's mobile operating system be sure to check it out. In the review, we speak in detail about the platform's updated, changed, and new features. Below is a less-wordy summary of how things work.

iOS 10 gives iPhone 7 Plus owners plenty of control over the lock screen experience, but managing it takes some patience.

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First, there's a raise-to-wake function. If you pick the iPhone up, the lock screen will wake and reveal your notifications. This is perhaps novel to iPhone owners, but this type of tool has been available on some Android handsets for years. Moreover, older iPhones don't have access to raise-to-wake. You can set raise-to-wake on or off to suit your own preferences.

A press of the screen lock button wakes the display and shows you the time. There is no always-on display to show you the time and recent notifications as there is on many Android phones. You can choose which apps are allowed to wake the screen briefly with notifications, and you can dial in just how much information is shared in those notifications. For example, you can elect to light up the screen every time you get a text message and also see the content of those text messages — including image/video previews. That might be a bad idea if you value your privacy or often receive racy messages. Thankfully, you can choose "you have a message"-style notifications instead.

Lock Screen  

Notifications are all accessed on what I'll call the central lock screen panel. Swipe to the left to access the Today View, which is where you can load up widgets. The widgets include a quick look at your calendar, email, messaging, maps destinations, the weather, stocks, news, and stuff like that. You can activate as few or as many widgets as you wish. You can also access the camera from the lock screen by swiping right.

The other two sets of tools available from the lock screen include the Control Center (swipe up from the bottom) and, yes, the notification shade (swipe down from the top). I dislike that the Control Center is now broken into two panels and is much larger than before. It now takes twice as many clicks to access/control music playback, for example. I also wish you could dismiss notifications en masse, but iOS still only allows you to dismiss notifications on an app-by-app basis.

Last: security. I've already covered how the new home button also includes Touch ID. There's simply no faster way to unlock the phone than your thumbprint. The reader recognizes prints in the blink of an eye. I found it to be very accurate, with little need for second attempts. Alternately, you may choose a standard 4-number PIN, 6-number PIN, or a regular alphanumeric password. These still work fine, but take longer to interact with.

I like that Apple allows you to secure iTunes purchases with Touch ID, but it's high time Apple also allowed iOS users to secure apps and files with Touch ID. That's something for Apple to work on.

Home Screens

Nine years after the debut of iOS 1, the home screens of iOS 10 look and behave in almost the same way. Home screens accommodate up to 24 apps/folders on each panel. Folders can contain dozens of apps, and you can populate nearly unlimited home screens with apps as long as you don't mind swiping to the right over and over again. The home screen panels don't directly accommodate widgets, but you can access the Today View (which does have widgets) from the main home screen. As always, apps placed on home screen panels still snap up and to the left into a self-forming grid. Four apps of your choice are always accessible from the dock at the bottom of the screen.

The settings tools grow in number each year, but their organization and usability is about the same as always. It's a cinch to adjust wallpapers, ringtones, alerts, and other custom behaviors. iOS allows you to tweak font and icon sizes, too. The accessibility options are plentiful.

Home Screens  

The one trick the 7 Plus includes that the 7 does not is the rotating home screen and apps. You can hold the 7 Plus in landscape orientation and the home screen, menu screen, and a good number of apps will rotate accordingly. More than a few of Apple's apps include user interface adjustments made exclusively for landscape viewing, such as two columns in iMessage. This is particularly helpful if you find yourself using the 7 Plus with a Bluetooth keyboard. It's a shame that Apple hasn't brought split-screen multitasking to the iPhone yet.

Landscape UI  

The iPhone 7 Plus supports 3D Touch, which means the screen recognizes light touches as distinct from more firm presses. Firm presses made on the home screen and in certain apps call up an action menu of potential secondary options. At the same time, the Taptic Engine produces a micro-burst of vibration so you know you've activated a 3D Touch action.

The actions available in these secondary menus vary by app. On the Twitter icon, for example, you can start a new direct message, new Tweet, or perform a search. iMessage lets you start a brand new message, or respond to one of the last three people who messaged you. The number of Apple and third-party apps that support 3D Touch has grown a lot since last year. In general, the action menus accessed via 3D Touch let you skip a few steps here and there.

3D Touch  

The iPhone 7 Plus has Apple's new A10 processor with M10 motion co-processor and 3 GB of RAM. That's an extra 1 GB compared to the smaller model. According to Apple, the A10 has two high-performance cores and two low-power cores. The latter two help conserve battery life. In terms of real-world performance, the A10 delivers a huge jolt. I've never seen apps download to any mobile phone this fast. Seriously, a 100MB app took about 5 seconds to download and install over WiFi. That's really fast. The same app took closer to a minute on an iPhone 6 Plus. The difference in performance is real.

Siri

Siri is better than ever. The iPhone 7 Plus of course carries over the "Hey, Siri" trick from the iPhone 6s Plus, which means Siri is always listening for that catchphrase. Simply utter those words and then ask of Siri what you want.

The biggest change in iOS 10 (more so than just the iPhone 7 Plus) is that Siri can work with third-party apps. As I said in my review of iOS 10, Siri is a capability that developers will need to add on their own. As they do, you'll be able to ask Siri to do things such as request an Uber or pay a friend with Square cash, and much more.

On the iPhone 7 Plus, Siri is incredibly fast and much better at deciphering your natural language commands. I noticed a distinct difference between Siri's performance on my 2014 iPhone 6 Plus when compared to the iPhone 7 Plus. Siri sings on the 7 Plus.

Camera

The camera application is a direct carry-over from iOS 9, which was mostly carried over from iOS 8. The iPhone 7 Plus has exactly one feature the iPhone 7 does not. You can launch the camera from the lock screen if you wish, or from the home screen panels. Either way, it opens in a blink.

The iPhone camera app offers a handful of basic shooting modes: normal, panorama, and square for pictures, plus normal, slo-mo, and timelapse for video. All six of these are accessed by swiping the viewfinder from one to the next. Several controls are positioned on the edge of the screen. They let you switch to the user-facing camera, toggle HDR and the flash through on/off/auto, as well as set a timer and select from filters.

The 7 Plus includes two cameras, compared to the 7's single camera. The 7 Plus doesn't shoot 3D photos, but it does offer what Apple calls "optical zoom." The main camera features a 28mm lens at f/1.8 and the secondary camera features a 56mm lens at f/2.8. The camera app on the 7 Plus allows you to access this second, "telephoto" lens via software controls.

Camera  

A little "1x" button appears in the viewfinder. Tap the "1x" button to instantly zoom in to 2x magnification, with full resolution and sharpness. There's also a slick digital zoom that will take you all the way to 10x, although (as with any digital zoom) you sacrifice some size/clarity doing so. Apple's software seamlessly switches the camera from one lens to another to provide a great zooming experience.

Camera Zoom  

The idea here, says Apple, is to let people take better zoomed-in shots. Adding optical "zoom" is certainly helpful and results in better pictures than digital zoom does.

Also worth noting: the increase in aperture between the main lens (f/1.8) and the zoom lens (f/2.8) means the zoom lens is not nearly as good in low lighting conditions.

Apple plans to add a Portrait Mode to the iPhone 7 Plus. It will make use of both cameras to enhance pictures of people by blurring the background so the subject stands out. This effect is often referred to as “bokeh” and many other phones have offered it for years (with varying levels of quality; a very smart algorithm is required for good results.) Apple said Portrait Mode will arrive via software update in October.

The iPhone 7 Plus also shoots Live Photos, as the iPhone 6s Plus did last year. Live Photos capture a short video clip along with each still picture. When Live Photos is turned on, the iPhone automatically captures 1.5 seconds of video before and after you actually press the shutter button. The result is a combined still image / video clip that includes motion and sound. For example, I took a picture of my daughter doing a cartwheel. The image is a still of her in the middle of the cartwheel, but the Live Photo shows the entire cartwheel from start to finish.

Other phones offer this feature, but Apple's is one of the best implementations I've seen. Moreover, Apple has slowly expanded the places to which one can share Live Photos. For example, Facebook and Google Photos now support Live Photos for viewing.

The iPhone's camera has always been dead simple to use, and that's not changed on the iPhone 7 Plus. Perhaps most importantly, the camera is faster than ever.

Photos/Video

Apple updated the iPhone's camera tech in an appreciable way. The iPhone 7 Plus has a sensor with bigger pixels, and a wider aperture of f/1.8. This means it lets in and collects more light, improving low-light performance. Other tech includes OIS (optical image stabilization, which was previously reserved for the larger Plus model), autofocus with Focus Pixels, wide-color gamut, and stabilization in Live Photos.

These all help the iPhone 7 Plus take the best pictures of any iPhone.

I'm truly impressed with the collection of pictures I captured with the iPhone 7 Plus. There's no doubt it surpasses the iPhone 6s Plus. Pictures are a bit sharper and show more color than before. The iPhone 7 Plus does a great job with white balance and exposure. It's still not perfect, but it's better than ever. The only issue I'd really complain about is some grain in low-light shots — but this is more or less negated by the added detail that's now visible in those same shots.

Photos - 1x  

The second camera produces better zoomed-in shots than the main sensor would, but conditions apply. Using just the 2x zoom delivers reasonably sharp images that have correct white balance and exposure most of the time. It definitely suffers a bit in low light, however, with softer images and more grain than what's captured by the main sensor. This is magnified if you also use digital zoom. You can also get away with using it for macro (really close-up) photography on occasion, as long as ample light is available.

Photos - 2x  

When pitted against the Galaxy Note7 and Moto Z Droid, I'd say the iPhone 7 Plus lands in between. The Note7 is just a small amount better, especially when it comes to focus, while the 7 Plus is better than the Z Droid.

The selfie camera got a huge upgrade, jumping from 5 megapixels to 7, with an aperture of f/2.2, wide color gamut, and more. It also carries over the Retina Flash from the iPhone 6s Plus. (Retina Flash will fire off a preflash to detect the lighting around you and adjust the tone of the screen/flash to match the ambient light. A custom chip blasts the display at a brightness that is up to three times as high as the screen can typically go.) Between the improved sensor, aperture, and Retina Flash, the 7 Plus produces much better selfies than the iPhone 6s Plus.

The iPhone 7 Plus offers plenty of video-capturing options, including slow-motion, timelapse, full HD, and 4K. For starters, the regular full HD footage looks great. I have no complaints at all. Apple's slow/fast motion capture tools are the easiest to use, produce fantastic results, and result in easy-to-share files. The 4K results look incredible on my 5K computer monitor.

The iPhone 7 Plus is all the camera most people will ever need.

Apple Bloat

Apple has relented, sort of. To start, the minimum storage available to the entry-level iPhone is now 32 GB, up from 16 GB. That's a welcome relief, though only 27.66 GB of it is available to iPhone owners. Further, Apple is allowing people to delete unwanted apps, or at least remove portions of the apps. You can dump the Stocks, Tips, Podcasts, and other apps at will.

What Apple is doing is allowing iPhone owners to delete each of these apps' data along with the icon on the home screen. No more stuffing unwanted apps into folders. The apps are still there, but basically hiding. If you decide you want to use them you'll have to "re-download" them from the iTunes App Store.

If you want to know more about Apple Maps, Music, News, Photos, and other iOS 10 improvements, be sure to check out our full review.

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