Review: The iPhone 7 Plus is the best iPhone yet

Even without an audio jack, the iPhone 7 Plus is packed with a host of new features, top-notch specs and welcome updates.

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The front-facing FaceTime camera also received a bump in resolution, moving from 5MP to 7MP. The resulting photos are sharper, which should help the selfie crowd, and they make for smoother video when on FaceTtime video chats.

All of the camera functions are processed by a custom-built image signal processor that's part of the A10 Fusion chip, automatically adjusting images and video for cleaner and clearer results as data is recorded.

While the iPhone 7's camera system is a nice step up from the 6S, it's not the best camera on an iPhone. That honor belongs to the iPhone 7 Plus. The Plus model's two rear-facing cameras include one that takes traditional wide shots at a 28mm focal length, while the second camera is fixed on a 56mm focal length (with an ƒ/2.8 aperture). Together, they effectively deliver 2x optical zoom, with the built-in camera software switching between the two on the fly when you press the on-screen zoom button. The iPhone 7 Plus camera system allows for up to 10x digital magnification (6x for video), and since it uses the 56mm lens as the starting point, you'll get better detail than possible with just the 28mm wide lens. But you may see some pixilation.

Here is where the additional memory in the 7 Plus comes into play. When photos are taken, both cameras fire off simultaneously, and Apple's image signal processor uses the data from both lenses to form a single image. (This happens automatically, without user intervention.)

The new system on the 7 Plus works really well. The only caveat is that the telephoto lens needs a lot of light, or the picture may be soft or a little noisy. Otherwise, having true optical zoom capability on a cell phone is a real advance.

Speaking of advances, there's one more feature the iPhone 7 Plus camera system can do using the two lenses, but it won't be available until the iOS 10.1 update arrives in a few weeks. The 7 Plus will soon support a new Portrait mode that uses both lenses to determine depth, applying a gradual blur to the background to emphasize the foreground subject. This technique, called the "Bokeh effect," is a staple of DSLR cameras. On the iPhone 7 Plus, the resulting image is a composite, with the level of blur determined by nine separate planes gauged by the depth perception allowed by using the two lenses together. Composite or no, it's a neat trick. And it's coming soon. That's something to consider if you're constantly taking photos with your iPhone.

juniper Ken Mingis

The two cameras in the iPhone 7 Plus are used to create the "Bokeh effect," which uses software to blur the background when used in portrait mode. The feature is still in beta and is expected to be tweaked before being released later this year.

Better speaker, better sound

One of the pains of owning an iPhone in the past involved the built-in speaker: Its location at the bottom of the device made it difficult to hear, forcing you to cup your hand to redirect the sound. With this year's models, that's no longer necessary. The iPhone 7 and 7 Plus come with a louder speaker set that delivers stereo sound. The earpiece speaker works in concert with the lower speaker to produce the left and right channels, and it's much louder and clearer than with previous iPhones.

As I already noted, the iPhone comes with white EarPods, just as before, except these EarPods connect to the iPhone via a Lightning connection, which is the same port used to charge the phone. They sound the same as previous versions; if you've replaced your Apple EarPods with your own headphones and want to continue using them, there is a 3.5mm headphone jack adapter included on the underside of the EarPod box with the iPhone.

Of course, the iPhone will pair with any Bluetooth headset. Apple offers several under the Beats brand, as well as its own $159 set of AirPods. I'll have more to say about them when they ship later this month.

Looks good, too

The iPhones have the same resolution displays as before: the iPhone 7 gets a 1334-x-750-pixel resolution at 326 pixels per inch (ppi); the 7 Plus offers a 1920-x-1080-pixel resolution at 401ppi. But both displays are about 25% brighter than the iPhone 6S in bright sunlight, and they support a wider color gamut for truer colors.

Screen experts at DisplayMate evaluated the iPhone 7 and had this to say: "The display on the iPhone 7 is a truly impressive top performing display and a major upgrade to the display on the iPhone 6. It is by far the best performing mobile LCD display that we have ever tested, and it breaks many display performance records."

They went on to say: "[The] iPhone 7 excels due to its record absolute color accuracy, which is visually indistinguishable from perfect, and is very likely considerably better than any mobile display, monitor, TV or UHD TV that you have."

Ultimately, what that means in the real world is that the iPhone is easier to see outside, and colors have a more natural range with improved accuracy.

Speaking of good looks, let's talk about jet black, the super shiny new color Apple rolled out with this launch. This model offers the biggest visual differentiation from previous versions, and, to me, looks more like a science fiction prop than a functioning device. Its aluminum backing is polished to a high-gloss finish using a nine-step anodization and polishing process. The result is lovely - but fleeting. The finish is prone to tiny scratches that affect the way the light bounces off the housing -- Apple even warns that this will happen, and recommends a case. On top of that, the glossy jet black housing collects fingerprints like it's a passionate hobby, so be prepared for that.

For the first time ever, I bought a case for my phone because of the concerns about scratches and smudges. I'm hoping to keep it as pristine as possible for as long as possible.

Final thoughts

As I've used my new iPhone, several standout features have really impressed me. These include:

  • The speaker system. It's strange to hear stereo sound from an iPhone, and even stranger to hear audio clearly without having to cup your hand.
  • The haptic feedback. Used throughout iOS 10, it really is a useful addition and adds a new element of interactivity that works well in daily use.
  • The extended battery life. While the iPhone doesn't last as long as some competing phones, the extra few hours the new models provide is enough to meet my constant use throughout the day.
  • The impressive options offered by the camera system. The optical zoom means I no longer have to be in someone's face to get some of the shots I like to take. And, the camera system will only get better for iPhone 7 Plus users with the upcoming iOS 10.1 update.

To sum up: The iPhone 7 doesn't break dramatic new ground in the looks department - aside from the arrival of jet black - but delivers real improvements under the hood in the areas users can most appreciate - especially with the new camera setup in the iPhone 7 Plus.

If you like the iPhone and are already in Apple's ecosystem, you can't go wrong with the iPhone 7 or 7 Plus as an upgrade; if you're new to the iPhone, you couldn't have picked a better time to switch.

Apple made better an already great phone. Recommended.

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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