For the first time, we’re recommending the big iPhone in this case, the iPhone 7 Plus as the one to get this year. Apple’s two new phones, the iPhone 7 and the iPhone 7 Plus, offer mostly step wise improvements over last year’s models. Older iPhone owners will probably most appreciate the significant improvement in battery life. There’s a cost beyond the price of the phone, as you’re going to struggle for a few months as an early adopter of the headphone-jack-less lifestyle. But the iPhone 7 Plus brings enough benefits and improvements to the table to make it worthwhile.
The iPhone 7 Plus is exactly the size of last year’s iPhone 6s Plus, at 6.23 by 3.07 by 0.29 inches (HWD). But it’s a little bit lighter, at 6.63 ounces compared with 6.77. It may not fit into the same cases, however, because the dual rear cameras require a larger cutout. The phone is still kind of a surfboard and doesn’t fit into my pocket or the phone strap on my backpack. But that’s the case with most phablets, other than the sadly doomed Galaxy Note 7 (0.30 inches wide).
The main visual changes are a larger camera bump on the back for the dual 12MP rear cameras and the lack of a headphone jack on the bottom, replaced by a grille for the barometer vent. The Taptic home button looks the same as last year’s, but it’s virtual rather than a physical button.
Whether you think the Taptic home button is weird depends entirely on whether you’ve used phones other than iPhones. As I spend most of my year with non-iPhones, I find it completely normal to use: It feels like a home button. It responds quickly, and you can even tune the haptic response (which is essentially a vibration) to your tastes. The new haptic engine also helps enhance gaming, offering a range of stuttering and buzzing responses to screen taps in general.
Phones are fashion objects, and two new colors join the iPhone array this year. Jet Black, which is glossy but very grippy, is gorgeous. It’s also the world’s worst fingerprint magnet. Our Jet Black review unit was impossible to keep pristine—it practically picks up fingerprints out of the air. Matte Black is the less frustrating (and arguably more attractive) finish. It’s far more resistant to scratches and fingerprints, and has a premium feel. Gold, Rose Gold, and Silver options are also available.
The phones are also now water-resistant: IP67 certification means you can dunk one in shallow water for half an hour. That doesn’t mean you should take it swimming—just that you don’t have to worry about dropping it in the sink. I submerged both iPhones in a bowl of water for half an hour with no problems. You can’t do that with the iPhone 6s, although you can with the Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge. Apple recommends that you let the Lightning port dry out for five hours after getting it wet before plugging it in again, to prevent short circuits.
Superficially, the iPhone 7 Plus’s 5.5-inch, 1,920-by-1,080 screen looks just like last year’s model. Apple says it’s 25 percent brighter and displays better colors, but I just can’t see the difference in any normal circumstances. The screen also still pales (often literally) against the rich color and precise text on Samsung’s latest AMOLED displays.
But this is another area where lab tests tell a different story than our eyes. Raymond Soneira of DisplayMate Labs says the screen is brighter and less reflective than previous iPhone displays, and mentions a second optional color gamut as a big plus. But that color gamut isn’t used by much content yet, making it more of a future feature than a present plus. Folks who found the iPhone 6/6s displays too blue will be pleased by a whiter white point on the iPhone 7, Soneira found.
That said, the Galaxy S7 Edge’s AMOLED display is higher resolution, brighter, and has better viewing angles. There are ongoing rumors that Apple will switch to AMOLED displays in the future, but that may just be wishful thinking.
Our battery test doesn’t properly compare iPhones and Android devices. That’s because while iPhones tend to have power-hungry screens, Android devices bleed more power in the background. On our standard test, which streams a video over LTE with the screen at full brightness, the iPhone screen’s power usage blows away all its other advantages.
So to say that the iPhone 7 Plus gets 6 hours of battery life while the Galaxy S7 Edge gets 10 hours really just reflects that Samsung’s AMOLED screen is far more efficient than the iPhone’s LCD. That said, the iPhone 7 Plus still gets much longer usage time than the 6s Plus, which clocked in at 4 hours, 11 minutes.
You have to go deeper to find the iPhone’s advantages over a new Android phone, for instance, in standby mode. Leaving one of the new iPhones alone for 6.5 hours, it bled only about 1 percent of battery, whereas the Galaxy S7 lost 9 percent of battery in the same amount of time.
Bluetooth also has less impact on the iPhone. An hour of Bluetooth audio consumed about 1 percent of the 7 Plus’s battery but 4 percent of the Galaxy S7’s battery.
All of this adds up to a full day of average usage, especially if you turn screen brightness down. Unplugging the iPhone 7 Plus at 8 a.m., I was down to 14 percent battery by 1 a.m. after a long day of heavy use including camera testing. That’s pretty great, and the S7 has never lasted that long without invoking its Extreme Power Saving mode.
The phone charges completely in about 2.5 hours, which isn’t quite up to the standards of Qualcomm’s latest fast charging but is still pretty fast.
A10 PROCESSOR, PERFORMANCE, AND STORAGE
Apple’s new A10 processor is the fastest processor available on a mobile phone in the U.S. today. I ran some benchmarks and found it to be about 30 percent faster than both the A9 in the iPhone 6s and 40 percent faster than the Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 in leading Android phones. It has two 2.33GHz “high performance” cores, which are the ones that show up on the benchmarks, and two “low power” cores that use a fifth of the energy the high-performance cores do and contribute to the iPhone’s long battery life with applications such as Bluetooth audio. None of the CPU-identifying apps I could find would tell me how fast those secondary cores are, though.
There’s a more powerful GPU in the new phones, too. Apple’s phones have always felt fast out of the box, and initially, it’s hard to tell the difference between the 6s and the 7 series. (It’s much easier to tell the difference between the 6 and the 7, as the 7 is twice as fast at heavy tasks like video exporting.) But differences begin to crop up when you’re playing high-end games. In Riptide GP Renegades, for instance, you see deeper reflections in the water on the iPhone 7 series than on the 6s. These differences will come out more clearly as new applications take better advantage of the new processor.
IPHONE 6S VERSUS IPHONE 7: GAMING
The iPhone is still, of course, the only model of phone that runs iOS. iOS is always tuned for the past two years or so of iPhones, and when I loaded it onto several phones for testing, the iPhone 5 and 5s felt quite slow. Not so on the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus, which are very fast.
iOS 10’s new home screen widgets can help wean away some Android loyalists, but its real strength, as always, is its tremendous APIs. Camera apps and high-end indie games, for instance, still come out first (and often better) on iOS. You’re also guaranteed to get updates, unlike on Android.
Storage options have changed this year, too: they’re now 32GB (for $769), 128GB ($869), and 256GB ($969). Most people should go for the 128GB model, especially if you play games. The latest games that take advantage of the new hardware, including Lumino City, Transistor, OZ Broken Kingdom, and CSR Racing 2 are all over a gigabyte each. Capturing 4K video eats up about 350MB per minute. A 128GB device gives you room to breathe and use the iPhone 7’s features to their maximum extent.
There’s one big performance difference between the iPhone 7 and the iPhone 7 Plus, although it didn’t show up in benchmarks: The iPhone 7 has 2GB of RAM, but the 7 Plus has 3GB. That should help the 7 Plus’s performance when you’re flipping between multiple apps.
Apple made a shockingly customer-unfriendly choice this year, choosing to roll back from delivering iPhones compatible with all U.S. carriers. Though relatively few people in the U.S. switch carriers with a given device, many want to resell their devices, and all-carrier devices have better resale value.
The Verizon, Sprint, Japanese, and Chinese models of the iPhone use Qualcomm’s flagship X12 modem and are compatible with all U.S. carriers. The AT&T, T-Mobile, and European models use the cheaper Intel XMM7360 modem and are not compatible with Verizon or Sprint’s networks. Yes, the Qualcomm X12 modem is better. But it’s probably not better enough to matter.
To scientifically test the two modems against one another, you need a network simulator, a very expensive piece of equipment we don’t have. So I compared the iPhone 7 Plus with an Intel modem, with a Samsung Galaxy S7 with a Qualcomm X12 modem, on the T-Mobile network. I took both devices to five locations in New York City and ran three speed tests at each location. The Samsung phone averaged 27.9Mbps down, while the iPhone averaged 26.2Mbps down. The Samsung phone was faster than the iPhone in 9 out of 15 cases.
I followed up by using Ookla Speedtest Intelligence to gather the results from 3,638 Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge tests and 2,052 iPhone 7 and 7 Plus tests taken on September 16 and 17. This kind of crowdsourcing has its own flaws—for instance, it can be skewed by different balances of locations—but it’s another signal to look at.
The Samsung devices, with Qualcomm modems, averaged 29.3Mbps down, while the Apple devices, with Intel modems, averaged 30.3Mbps down. Looking only at fast speeds, 23 percent of the Samsung tests were over 50Mbps, while only 20 percent of the iPhone tests were over 50Mbps. But that’s too small a difference to matter much, given all the other variables at play.
This is where a common theme comes in: Geek cred versus real-life differences. The X12 is a better modem, but the XMM7360 is apparently good enough, and Apple decided that good enough (and cheaper) is just fine. That said, if you purchase a full-price Verizon unit from an Apple Store, it will work on all U.S. carriers.
The new iPhones also have significantly better Wi-Fi performance than the 6s, much closer to the Galaxy S7. With a weak signal that pushed the 6s down to the 5-10Mbps range (on a 150Mbps connection), the iPhone 7 series was able to get 40Mbps or more, just like the S7 does. In fact, in all signal conditions, the new iPhones got faster Wi-Fi speeds than the 6s, and the larger iPhone usually showed faster speeds than the smaller one.
THE HEADPHONE JACK DILEMMA
No, the iPhone 7 Plus does not have a headphone jack. Instead, it has a Lightning port; it comes with Lightning EarPod earbuds and a flimsy, easily losable $9 dongle to adapt regular headphones.
Initially, I didn’t think this was a big deal; just leave the dongle on your favorite headphones and you’re set. Then I realized how many pairs of headphones, mostly throwaway earbuds, I have at my house and office, and how I’m used to plugging whichever one I want into my phone. The new port started to become a big hassle. Never mind that you can’t charge your phone and listen to music at the same time without another dongle or dock.
Bluetooth audio is one solution, but Bluetooth is as flaky as ever. My Bowers & Wilkins P7 Bluetooth headphones needed to be reconnected through the iPhone’s settings screen every time I turned them off and on again. Apple’s AirPods and new Beats headphones use a new pairing technology that looks to be more seamless, but they aren’t on the market yet.
Bluetooth also won’t satisfy audiophiles, as Apple’s implementation transmits music in 256Kbps VBR AAC. That’s the same quality as music purchased from the iTunes store—so iTunes tracks are pristine, wirelessly— but lovers of lossless music will be unhappy.
The Lightning port offers a potential audiophile solution, as Lightning headphones can have their own premium DACs for great audio quality. The problem is, while plenty of models have been announced, most aren’t on the market yet. This is one area where waiting a while is probably wise, especially if you have a lot of headphones lying around. An accessory ecosystem is going to grow up around the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus, but it’s going to take a few months; we’re probably going to see a lot of devices at CES in January.
With that in mind, the industry is transitioning away from the headphone jack. Motorola and LeEco came first, dipping their toes in the water. Now comes Apple. We are very early in this transition, though, and most people will be sticking with standard headphones for a few years yet.
The dual stereo speakers aren’t entirely front-facing: One is in the earpiece and the other is at the bottom right of the phone. But they do deliver noticeably louder, less tinny audio than previous iPhone generations. The iPhone 6s puts out 81dB at about 3 inches away, the iPhone 7 and Galaxy S7 put out 85 dB, and the iPhone 7 Plus (bigger, so bigger speakers) puts out 88 dB.
Both iPhone 7s have 12-megapixel main cameras with optical image stabilization and 7-megapixel front cameras. I put the new cameras through various lab tests and found that they aren’t quite as sharp as the Galaxy S7’s camera, although the differences can be hard to tell with the naked eye. They are measurably better than the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus cameras.
I tested also, by taking comparative photos in a range of different real-life circumstances. In good outdoor light, the Galaxy S7’s f/1.7 camera gives punchier colors than the iPhone 7 Plus’s f/1.8 lens, although the difference is really subtle. I also prefer the Galaxy S7’s exposure metering to the iPhone’s. In several macro images of flowers, the iPhone blew out the image by default, while the Galaxy S7 captured more highlights. The Galaxy S7 won the day with my outdoor shots.
But as you’d expect, with good light, the iPhone’s 2x optical zoom gives significantly more detail than the Samsung camera does using digital zoom. The iPhone’s 7-megapixel selfie camera also captures noticeably more than the Galaxy S7’s 5-megapixel unit and previous iPhone models (although that isn’t always flattering).
Excellent optical image stabilization means the iPhone 7’s main camera pulls ahead of the Galaxy S7. Our lab tests show the Galaxy S7 as sharper in low light, but as those tests are done while mounted on a tripod, they don’t take the blurriness caused by shaky hands into account. In our real-life tests, that makes a difference in the iPhone’s favor. It largely comes down to the blurriness caused by shaky hands on low shutter speeds. While the Galaxy S7’s low-light images show a little blur at 1/30 or 1/40 second, the iPhone’s images of stationary subjects are clearer at 1/15 second. The image stabilization more than counters Samsung’s wider f/1.7 aperture.
The iPhone’s 2x zoom camera isn’t nearly as good in low light, though, as it has a narrower f/2.8 aperture and isn’t optically stabilized. The Galaxy S7 takes clearer low-light shots than the iPhone’s zoom camera. But sometimes Apple’s strength isn’t in technical solutions but in usability. Having that 1x zoom button in the camera app made me much more likely to zoom images on the iPhone 7 Plus than on other phones, where you have to pinch to zoom and be careful about how much you pinch.
Apple is bringing zoom to the masses not through a second camera but through a few convenient pixels on the screen. And the iPhone 7 Plus is the best mobile video camera on the market, because unlike the Galaxy S7, it doesn’t put an artificial 10-minute limit on 4K recordings. Apple’s superior APIs also mean there are some terrific third-party video camera apps, such as Flimic Pro, which simply aren’t matched on Android. What excites me the most about the dual cameras isn’t what they do now; it’s what they could do in the future. Apple has promised (but not yet delivered) bokeh, an effect involving short depth-of-field that blurs the background of images while keeping the foreground sharp. But that’s only the beginning.
There’s going to be a dual-camera API. That means we could start to see stereo depth-sensing and AR applications using the camera. Tim Cook told “Good Morning America” he’s interested in augmented reality, and the iPhone 7 Plus could be the first step into that realm—although probably not at least until iOS 11 next year.
COMPARISONS AND CONCLUSIONS
So are the iPhone 7’s new features worth the headphone-jack hassle, especially right now, when there aren’t many Lightning headphones available and Bluetooth devices are still divisive? I think they are, but mostly for the iPhone 7 Plus, not for the iPhone 7. That’s because the iPhone 7 Plus has additional future- proofing, including the dual cameras (which may play a role in Apple’s AR dreams, but for now make your portraits look terrific) and the extra RAM, which will help with new versions of iOS. That all balances out the annoyance of a few months of waiting for the headphone world to catch up.
I also still strongly recommend the iPhone SE. No other phone on the market has that quality in so tiny a size. At $449 for the 64GB unit, you save at least $100 over the iPhone 6s and $200 over the iPhone 7, and the SE’s A9 processor is just as good as the one in the 6s.
As for very large phones, the Android world has the LG V20 and a new Google Nexus on the horizon, but they aren’t here yet. As of this writing, the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 is banned on airlines and most public transportation, making it an impractical choice even if it doesn’t explode. That makes the iPhone 7 Plus, with its fast processor, high-quality display, and dual cameras, your best bet and our best Choice for large phones. The iPhone 7 is still highly rated and a good upgrade for people coming from the iPhone 6 or earlier. I’d rather wait a little while for the headphone ecosystem to catch up there, though. In that medium size, our best Choice remains the Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge, with its better camera, modem, and screen, and traditional headphone jack.
- Dual cameras.
- Lots of memory and storage.
- Water-resistant design.
- Faster on all performance measures, with better battery life, than last year’s iPhones.
- iOS still leads on high-quality games and creative apps.
- No headphone jack, and not a lot of Lightning-compatible headphones yet.
- Not all models are compatible with all carriers.