iPhone 7 Plus review: Incremental and imposing

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New Atlas reviews the iPhone 7 Plus, which adds a little more than size this time(Credit: Will Shanklin/New Atlas)

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We could almost review the iPhone 7 Plus by pointing to our iPhone 7 review and saying "That. But bigger." There is at least one key difference, though, between Apple's standard and phablet flagships this year. Let's take a look at our experience with the bigger of the two: It's New Atlas' iPhone 7 Plus review.

As Emily much more eloquently stated in her review of the 4.7-inch model, the new iPhones do enough to maintain Apple's status as the designer brand of smartphones. They don't pack in the most eye-popping feature lists or spec sheets and they certainly don't reinvent the wheel. But if you want a top-notch experience that, for many people, gets the fit and finish just right – while delivering a small but notable step forward from last year's models – then one of the iPhone 7 pair may be your best bet for the foreseeable future.

The list of identical features shared between the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus could fill a long piece of parchment. The list includes (among other things) design, build, processor, storage, software, water resistance and a headphone jack that's now sleeping with the fishes.

But what's different? And is there any reason other than your personal size preference to pick one over the other?

The biggest point where the two phones veer off is the rear camera. Or, in the Plus' case, cameras. This new plurality arrives courtesy of the second rear camera on the phablet that gives you 2x optical zoom.

In case you're confused, thinking "I've been able to zoom in with every smartphone I've owned – what's so special about this?" then consider how those zoomed-in shots looked. Probably like something taken with a Moto Razr flip phone, circa 2006. That's because digital zoom is nothing more than a crop that happens before you take the pic. You could have held the phone at the same angle, snapped a shot with zero zoom and, upon cropping after the fact, gotten the exact same shot as if you'd used digital zoom.

The iPhone 7 Plus' second camera is permanently fixed at 2x the zoom of the main camera, giving you a shot that looks like you held the phone much closer than you really did – with no drop in resolution or quality. That also means that digital zoom beyond 2x will look much better than digital zoom at the same level on the iPhone 7 or any other phone.

It only takes a tap of an onscreen button to switch between the two cameras, and two optical zoom distances. The process works brilliantly from start to finish. If you don't mind using a big honkin' phone and you can afford to pay an extra US$120, the telephoto camera alone could make the 7 Plus the better buy.

Later this year Apple will launch a portrait mode camera feature that will be exclusive to the 7 Plus, which uses both cameras to simulate the bokeh (blurred background) effect that you'd get from an expensive DSLR or mirrorless camera with wide-aperture lens.

The feature isn't available yet, though, and the version that you can try in the iOS 10.1 developer beta shows that it's still a little rough around the edges. Literally. Like other companies' stabs at the feature (including the HTC One M8 from early 2014), fringing artifacts sometimes pop up up around the person or object that's in focus. A neat trick for the untrained eye, but hardly DSLR quality.

If Apple doesn't fix that before the iOS 10.1 public launch, portrait mode could end up being a very hit-or-miss feature, at best. On the other hand, if the company can somehow improve its algorithms enough to work near-flawlessly most of the time, this will be one less reason for your casual-hobbyist photographer to buy an expensive camera.

We'll revisit portrait mode in a separate article (and update this review) once it's ready for prime time consumption.

A more minor difference is display. Both the iPhones 7 and 7 Plus have terrific white balance, contrast, brightness and color saturation that help the screens transcend what you'd expect from their respective pixel densities. I think it looks incredible. The 7 Plus does have a 23 percent sharper PPI than the iPhone 7, but we don't think this alone makes it worth upgrading to the Plus (visible pixels aren't an issue at all in the standard iPhone 7). At most, it might give the Plus' display a very minor edge when reading tiny text or looking at finer detail in a photo you just snapped.

Battery life gets a modest bump over the 6s Plus. In our benchmark (streaming video over Wi-Fi with screen brightness measured at a consistent luminance), the iPhone 7 Plus dropped 12 percent per hour, the same as the iPhone 7. The 6s Plus, under identical conditions, dropped 13 percent per hour when we ran the same test a year ago.

Stretched out to cover a full battery, that has the 7 Plus' streaming averaging an extra 40 minutes over its 2015 predecessor.

That minor bump may stem indirectly from an otherwise pointless "improvement" in the iPhone 7 series, the new solid state home button. Similar to the trackpads on the latest MacBooks, the new home button doesn't actually move but feels like it does, including a "click" courtesy of Apple's haptic feedback. Since it doesn't really have any inward movement, though, that adds a smidge more space inside the phone.

Combine this with the offed headphone port (currently sitting at the bottom of the Pacific, due west of Cupertino, cement blocks around ankles), and that might explain the 5-6 percent bigger battery compared to the 6s Plus – and that extra 40 minutes (roughly) of video streaming.

Apple has never shied away from calling in the hit on hardware features that it believed had hung around long enough. But is this incremental bump in battery life enough to justify a slightly odd new home button configuration along with the inability to use your favorite pair of cans without an adapter? Or is Apple just trying to repeat a winning historical formula, sans the guiding vision of Steve Jobs that helmed those previous hardware assassinations? That remains to be seen. But know that all we have to show for these changes today are an adapter that you could easily lose, some new Lightning earbuds and ever-so-slightly better battery life.

Oh, and don't forget companies big and small coming out of the woodwork to announce their wireless headphones and earbuds that are "perfect for the iPhone 7."

If you're shopping for a smartphone, we're giving the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus our top recommendation, followed by the Galaxy S7 series, HTC 10 and, for those who want something a little outside the norm, the modular Moto Z. Why? Because, for the most part, Apple still prioritizes experience over gimmicky features or spec sheets, in a way that most Android phone-makers struggle to grasp.

We aren't too jazzed about the questionable removal of the headphone jack, we weren't blown away by battery life, and some changes in iOS 10 feel very much like they're trying: things like oft-confusing 3D Touch features being pushed harder on users and cluttering up the Messages app with silly features aimed at Snapchatting 15-year-olds.

But on the whole we think the new iPhones, incremental as they are, still give you that simple, cohesive and attractive designer brand feel that Apple is famous for. For many of us, that's enough to cinch it.

The outstanding, beautiful and aggressively pared-down – perhaps overly so – iPhone 7 Plus is available now, starting at $769 (full retail) with 32 GB storage. For more, you can read our review of the smaller 4.7-inch iPhone 7.

Product page: Apple

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