iPhone 7 Plus review — it’s all about the camera

Forget all the nonsense you’ve read about the missing headphone jack. It isn’t important. The key to the iPhone 7 Plus is that it carries a second camera with a telephoto lens.

Every new iPhone comes with a camera that is better than the last iPhone. Apple has been relentless when it comes to increasing camera speed, pixel numbers and camera performance.

This time both the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus have a 12-megapixel camera with the means to collect a wider range of colours. It also has optical image stabilisation.

New everything

Apple upgraded everything in the camera. There’s a new lens system, updated sensors.

The flash is brighter and delivers a wider range of colours. All this adds up to better pictures than you can get from earlier iPhones. The camera performs better in daylight and in poor light conditions. You’ll get better skin tones and more realistic colours all round.

While these tweaks are a step forward, they are only incremental changes from last year.

Second camera

The big difference is on the iPhone 7 Plus. Here Apple added a second camera with a zoom lens and half the field of view of the first camera. In effect, you get two different looks at the same image.

This gives you 2X optical zoom. That’s a useful hardware addition. It  brings the camera experience closer to what you might find on mid-price standalone digital cameras. Being able to zoom like this means the iPhone can do something other phone cameras are unable to do. At least for now.

Digital zoom is often disappointing. On the iPhone 7 Plus images from the two lenses combine so that you can get up to 10X digital zoom. The processing all happens in software. The effect is closer to what you might expect from optical zoom.

The iPhone 7 Plus 2X optical zoom appears as a button at the bottom of the screen when taking photos. If you press and hold this button you can crank up the digital zoom.

Portraits, close-ups

Two lenses mean you get better quality portraits and close-ups. That’s something other phone cameras struggle with.

Software updates are in the pipeline that will extend the dual lens camera. Apple says an iOS update later this year will do this. Example photos taken with the camera and the new software show a bokeh effect. The subject in the foreground is in sharp focus while the background is a blur.

Apple isn’t the only phone maker to add a second lens. The Huawei P9 features a dual camera that is co-engineered with Leica. Unlike Apple, Huawei uses one lens for colour and the other for monochrome. This works to improve shots in low-light conditions.

Until now you needed to buy a mid-range or better digital camera to get this kind of photographic effect. A bigger physical camera with a larger lens and more depth between lens and the sensors can still take better photos. Yet, having a good camera in your pocket all the time trumps having a great camera in a cupboard. There’s something else too.

Turning point

With the iPhone 7 Plus we are at a turning point. Earlier waves of camera phones wiped out the digital point and click camera market.

Since then some consumers have bought digital SLRs because they can get better pictures than phones. Despite the sophistication of dSLRs, most people never get much beyond the automatic settings. They want to take better pictures. That’s all.

There will always be demand for digital SLR cameras from professionals and enthusiasts. Yet most everyday photographers now have all they want from a camera in the iPhone 7 Plus. Expect more devastation in the camera market.

To use a camera well, you need a good quality display. It’s subtle, but the iPhone 7 Plus has a better screen than earlier iPhones. You have to see two iPhones side by side to notice how much better the display is on the 7 Plus.

The difference is most noticeable indoors. It’s brighter. Colours look more saturated. The effect isn’t as eye-catching as on a phone with an OLED display. In particular, blacks don’t look quite as black.

Other changes

While the headline says the iPhone 7 Plus is all about the camera, there are other important changes.

Some folk are going to miss the headphone jack. In the long-term we’ll all get over this. It’ll be like getting rid of floppy discs or optical disc drives on Macs.

For now there will be holdouts who will either hang onto old iPhones longer or buy another brand of phone.

Apple demonstrated AirPods to journalists at a product briefing. They are far more impressive than you might assume and have a whiff of magic about them. Bluetooth pairing is better than normal. Apple has tweaked standard Bluetooth to make it work better at this task.

Their small case is about the size of a TicTac packet. It carries about 20 hours of charge. The AirPods themselves have about five hours charge. So on, say, a long flight, you can recharge them enough to listen all the way to Europe.

Magic

When you take an AirPod out of your ear, perhaps because someone wants to talk, the audio track pauses. This, again, feels a little like magic. Built-in microphones at the bottom of the AirPods mean you can make phone calls.

A lot of people are critical of AirPods and the way they look. There is something nerdy about them. Yet this is Apple, they are not going to become unacceptable like, say, Google Glass. This time next year people will be wearing them on buses and trains like it is no big deal.

Apple hasn’t made a lot of noise about the iPhone 7 Plus processor. It’s not something that will make or break the buying decision for most users. Yet, the processing power inside the phone is off the scale. Throw what you like at it and it will cope. More than cope.

Elsewhere the new home button design with haptic touch is big step forward in phone usability. While the button doesn’t move, it feels like it does. When you put pressure on the button, there’s a kick as the phone vibrates. You get these haptic feedback kicks all over the place. At first it feels odd, within an hour or so phones without haptic feedback feel odder.

Should you buy?

If you’re an iPhone fan looking to upgrade, you’ll get a lot moving straight to the iPhone 7 or 7 Plus. If you like smaller phones, then the iPhone SE will be a better choice.

Most Android fans won’t like the iPhone 7, but you wouldn’t expect them to. Someone switching to an iPhone 7 from Android might find not being able to tinker with every aspect of the phone frustrating. Android users who prefer not to fiddle will find a slick alternative. Once they’ve adjusted, is easier to master and be productive on.

The question of iPhone 7 or 7 Plus is down to the screen size and the importance of having the far better camera. Both are big phones, but the Plus model is giant-sized.

Some Apple critics have described the iPhone 7 Plus as boring or lacking creativity. If that’s the case, you could say the same about every new phone in 2016. Putting the camera aside, it’s a steady-as-she-goes upgrade. You should get at least two years of value from the iPhone 7 Plus. It won’t look tired or jaded in 2018.

This story was first posted at billbennett.co.nz