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|Best Buy – Sprint||$275|
Dual cameras. Copious 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.
Lacks a 3.5mm jack, and there aren’t a lot of Lightning-compatible headphones yet. Not all models are compatible with all carriers.
- BOTTOM LINE
Absence of headphone jack aside, the 7 Plus is the best iPhone you can buy, with more memory than its smaller counterpart and dual cameras that peer toward Apple’s future.
The iPhone 7 Plus$275at T-Mobile is exactly the size of last year’s iPhone 6s Plus$235.00 at Apple Store, at 6.23 by 3.07 by 0.29 inches (HWD), but 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 (0.3 inches wide).
Whether you think the Taptic home button is weird depends entirely on whether you’ve used handsets other than iPhones. As a reviewer, I spend most of my year with non-iPhones, so 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 three new colors join the iPhone array. 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 far less frustrating (and arguably more attractive) finish. It’s much more resistant to scratches and fingerprints, and has a nice, premium feel. A new PRODUCT (RED) model launched in 2017 has a red back panel and edges with a white face. Gold, Rose Gold, and Silver options are also available.
Left to right: iPhone 7 Plus, iPhone 6s Plus
The iPhone 7 line is now water resistant: IP67 certification means you can dunk the phone 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, or well, the toilet. I submerged both iPhone 7s in a bowl of water for 30 minutes with no problems. You can’t do that with the iPhone 6s$275.00 at Apple Store, although you can with the Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge$275.99 at T-Mobile. 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.
Storage options have changed this year, too: they’re now 32GB (for $275), 128GB ($280), and 256GB ($275). We suggest the 128GB model for most people, especially if you play games. The latest titles that take advantage of the new hardware, like Lumino City, Transistor, OZ Broken Kingdom, and CSR Racing 2, are all over a gigabyte each. If you capture 4K video, that 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.
Superficially, the 5.5-inch, 1,920-by-1,080 screen looks just like last year’s model. While Apple says it’s 25 percent brighter and displays better colors, side-by-side, I just can’t see the difference in under and standard use 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. Dr. 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 they may just be wishful thinking.
Our battery tests don’t make it easy to 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 six and a half hours, it only bleeds about one percent of battery, whereas the Galaxy S7$669.99 at T-Mobile loses nine percent of battery in the same amount of time.
Bluetooth also has less impact on the iPhone. An hour of Bluetooth audio consumed about one percent of the 7 Plus’s battery, but four 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 batter 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 two and a half 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 US 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 like Bluetooth audio. None of the CPU-identifying apps I could find would tell me how fast those secondary cores are.
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 playing high-end games. In Riptide GP Renegades, for instance, you see deeper reflections in the water on the iPhone 7 series (at right) than on the 6s (at left), as shown below. These differences will come out more clearly as new applications take better advantage of the new processor.
The iPhone is still, of course, the only model of phone that runs iOS. For more on that, read our full iOS 10 review. 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, although three or four years down the road, those updates may slow down your phone. For more, see our Hidden Tips for Mastering iOS 10.
Left to right: iPhone 7 Plus, iPhone 7
There’s one big difference between the iPhone 7 and the iPhone 7 Plus in terms of performance, although it didn’t show up in benchmarks: While the iPhone 7 has 2GB of RAM, 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 US carriers. While relatively few people in the US 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 US 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.
Both modems are faster than the 6s generation, because of their support for 3x carrier aggregation. While the X12 itself supports even newer features like 256 QAM and 4×4 MIMO, which T-Mobile is activating before the end of the year to further boost speeds, industry insiders tell me that these features will be disabled by Apple, possibly so the X12 version isn’t seen as superior to the Intel model.
Here’s what I found: Yes, the Qualcomm X12 modem is better. But it’s probably not 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. The only independent source I know of is the team at Cellular Insights—keep an eye out for their conclusions. It would also help to have iPhone units with both modem types; Apple supplied us only with Intel modems.
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 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. (Note: Ookla is owned by Ziff Davis, PCMag.com’s parent company.)
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 US carriers and sport the better modem.
And how about the iPhone 7 versus previous models? Dipping once again into Speedtest Intelligence, looking at one day’s worth of tests on T-Mobile, I found iPhone 5s models averaged 20.3Mbps down, iPhone 6 models averaged 23.7Mbps, iPhone 6s models averaged 27.7Mbps, and iPhone 7 models averaged 30.3Mbps. That is a meaningful difference and a continual performance improvement year on year.
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
Yes, the iPhone 7 Plus does not have a standard 3.5mm headphone jack. Instead, it has a Lightning port; it comes with Lightning EarPod earbuds and a flimsy, easily misplaced, $9 dongle to adapt standard headphones.
Initially, I didn’t think this was a big deal; leave the dongle on your favorite headphones and you’re set. Then I realized how many pairs of headphones I have at my house and office, and how I’m used to plugging any pair 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. It’s clunky.
Bluetooth audio is one solution, but Bluetooth is wireless, so there can be connectivity issues. My Bowers & Wilkins P7 Bluetooth headphones had to be re-paired through the iPhone’s settings screen every time I turned them off and on again. Apple’s AirPods$159.00 at Apple Store (shown below) and new Beats headphones use a special new pairing technology that looks to be more seamless, but they aren’t on the market yet. We’ll test them, once they’re available.
Also, Bluetooth also won’t satisfy true 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. That will probably change by the end-of-year holidays.
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 gear at CES in January.
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. This is, in my mind, another reason to stick with the iPhone 6s or SE wired headphone compatibility matters to you.
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 81 decibels at about three inches away, while the iPhone 7 and Galaxy S7 deliver 85 dB, and the iPhone 7 Plus (bigger, so bigger speakers) manages 88 dB.
Both iPhone 7s sport 12-megapixel main cameras with optical image stabilization and 7-megapixel front cameras. Our camera expert Jim Fisher 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, however, measurably better than the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus cameras.
I did a different test, 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 (shown below), 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 shots than the iPhone’s zoom camera in low light.
Shots above taken with the main camera, showing that the iPhone’s images look a bit better in low light.
But here’s part of Apple’s genius. Sometimes its strength isn’t in technical solutions, it’s 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, like 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, a trick 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 augmented reality 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
There’s a simple question this year: 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 augmented-reality 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$256 at Verizon Wireless. There’s no other phone on the market that manages its level of quality in a 4-inch phone. At $449 for the 64GB unit, it saves you at least $100 over the iPhone 6s and $200 over the iPhone 7, and its A9 processor is just as good as the one in the 6s. Our upgrade recommendations are as follows in the chart at right.
In terms of very large phones, the Android world has the LG V20$309.99 at eBay and a new Google Nexus on the horizon, but they aren’t quite 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 Editors’ Choice—for large phones. The iPhone 7 is still highly rated, and a good upgrade if you have an 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 Editors’ Choice remains the Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge, with its better camera, modem, and screen, and traditional headphone jack.