It's September and that means new iPhones. In particular, a refresh of the larger-scale model in the iPhone 7 Plus.
The 2016 version of the almost ubiquitous 5.5-inch smartphone from Apple looks much likes its 6S Plus predecessor, except there's a new dual camera, new finishes and new tweaks under the hood too.
So has Apple created a flagship device that the faithful will lust after, or is the iPhone 7 Plus merely an incremental update that will leave those looking to upgrade turning elsewhere; and is that wide body just too large for a smartphone?
iPhone 7 Plus review: Similar design with some tweaks
The new Plus model might come in a similarly designed chassis to the last generation, with the same 5.5-inch screen, but it looks a little different thanks to the more subdued antenna lines, especially when presented in its glossy black ("Jet Black") or matte black ("Black") finishes - which join the gold, rose gold and silver colour options.
The new matte black model is the more stealth option of the two, which we have on review here. The finish, which replaces the so-called Space Grey option, is less likely to be prone to smudges and scratches than the gloss black and is a much blunter-looking finish compared to the whimsical rose gold and gold colours.
It's like a matte Bentley Continental - and certainly our choice of the two new blacks available (we also review the gloss black iPhone 7 here). By contrast, the gloss is a fingerprint-magnet, reminiscent of the iPhone 3G - but made from metal instead of plastic.
On the lighter colour models the new antenna design is more apparent, but it no longer cuts through the metal back plate design like it once did. It now wraps around the top edge of the phone rather than intersecting top and bottom. In our matte black model, it's hardly noticeable.
New finishes aren't the only design changes though. The headphones socket has been dumped (yep, no 3.5mm jack here - it's all about wireless or Lightning connector) and replaced with a speaker grille, while the physical Home button has also been changed from a solid state one to one that doesn't move.
Those changes mean Apple can now waterproof the iPhone to IP67 standard, meaning you'll be able to get it wet without it being the end of the world. Yep, dropping your phone down the toilet or in the swimming pool isn't going to be the major headache it once was - but we still wouldn't recommend swimming with it. The waterproof rating is 30-minutes in up to a metre of water.
Apple iPhone 7 Plus review: Cameras
The big differentiator between iPhone 7 Plus and the "standard" iPhone 7 is the introduction of a dual-camera setup in the Plus model.
We've seen dual cameras before in devices, from the LG G5's wide and super-wide lenses, to the Huawei P9's colour and monochrome sensors. But Apple does take a different approach to how other manufacturers are tackling it, by offering one wide-angle lens (23mm f/1.8 equivalent), and one standard lens (56mm f/2.8 equivalent; Apple likes to call it "telephoto", but that focal length equivalent is about as close to a standard lens as you can get).
The reason for these two lenses is two-fold: one, to resolve greater detail of farther-away subjects; two, to offset the depth data between the two lenses to create a depth map to create a soft blur to backgrounds via software. This new setup also means the iPhone 7 Plus is capable of digital zoom to a 230mm equivalent (that's 10x the wide-angle lens), while being able to resolve more detail than its equivalent wide-angle competitors.
The cameras protrude out the back of the iPhone 7 Plus but sports a more accentuated rectangular design than its predecessor - meaning your old cases are unlikely to fit. That's something else for the shopping list. The protrusion is visible and pronounced enough to make the phone wobble when laid on a desk or table.
The iPhone 7 Plus has a number of other camera-focused features, too, including a Quad-LED True Tone flash, body and face detection, and wide colour capture for photos and Live Photos. The front camera also sees an increased resolution to 7-megapixels with an aperture of f/2.2.
Like the iPhone 7, the camera in the Plus is very good. It has optical image stabilisation (OIS), as before, and the colour in all our test shots just looks natural; the camera auto-detects and handles exposures well for different situations; there's detail in the close-up shots we've snapped; and those wide apertures don't overdo things - so farther-away subjects remain crisp, while close-up subjects get that lovely blurred background effect.
However, we can still see grain in some areas (we're talking when zoomed in to 100 per cent) and images look better on the phone at smaller scale than they do on a larger computer monitor. Some processing does smear away some finer detail, too, such as the thread in a shirt, as one example.
For those really wanting to take things to the next level, you can now shoot raw, but Apple has held back from adding that capability to its own Camera app, so you'll need a third-party app to get access to that feature.
iPhone 7 Plus review: 2x Zoom
In the iPhone 7 Plus's Camera app the second camera is represented with a single "2x" icon that you can tap at any time to instantly switch from wide-angle to standard lens. A longer press means you can zoom beyond the optical zoom available and achieve up to 10x digital zoom (or 5x digital zoom from the longer focal length lens).
Designed to be used one-handed, by pressing and then moving your thumb in an arc, this zoom option works really well in practice.
However, the zoom feature is a novelty that you'll probably find yourself using at the kid's school play because you weren't able to get in the front row. It certainly gets you closer to the action, but so does walking forward too.
As for the digital zoom results, these are as you might expect: less detailed. Ever since digital camera manufacturers have been putting digital zoom on cameras we've recommended against its use. Zooming in digitally means you're effectively enlarging the pixels available from the sensor and making up the gaps in-between, which reduces the overall quality and sharpness of the resulting image. Our advice remains the same: if you really must get closer then walk forward a bit, or crop a touch after shooting (just not to the extreme of 10x, otherwise the results will be largely the same).
iPhone 7 Plus review: Depth Effect
Beyond basic zoom controls, which can be used in any of the camera's shooting modes (including video), Apple has also tried to be clever by utilising the results of both lenses together to create what it calls "Depth Effect". This is for use in Portrait mode only (that's from the 56mm standard lens only, not the wide-angle 23mm one).
Depth Effect is designed to deliver a more DSLR-like photo with a shallower depth of field (read: softer, out-of-focus background) by creating a depth map comparison of what the two differing lenses see in front of them. This allows software to digitally blur the background, which it identifies as being farther away, while keeping the foreground sharp. Or at least that's the idea.
Disappointingly, the new feature isn't available yet in iOS 10, but can be found in the iOS 10 Public Beta. Even then, the new feature is in beta as well - yes a beta in a beta. It's all very meta. Because of that, you'll have to take the results as a work in progress, as using it can be hit a miss.
Unlike the incredibly simple-to-use photo shooting modes already available, Portrait mode comes with a number of caveats: you'll need plenty of light, to be the right distance away from your subject with ample distance from the background, to have lots of contrast between the foreground and the background, for there to be not too many faces in the picture, oh, and for your subjects to stay still. This is no snap-and-go offering.
The blurred background effect - which pros know as bokeh, but we jovially call "faukeh" when it's being produced by software - happens in real-time on the iPhone 7 Plus's screen so you can see what's going on. At the end you get a Depth Effect picture in place, plus one without the effect so you can see the difference.
At times the system gets confused and gives you a blurry shot, but on the whole, and with practice, we've got some fairly good results.
We've found that the farther your subject is from the background, the more pronounced the blur effect will be; while you'll notice better blur if you have good contrast between your subject and the background such as contrasting colours.
It's clear to see why the feature is a beta in a beta though. The software algorithm is a tough one to crack - and one that no manufacturer has managed so far, Apple included. Subjects can be very soft, foreground details such as hair blurred unnecessarily, details skewed, and, to a trained eye, rather disappointing.
There are times when the algorithm goes way over the top, too, more so than you would ever be able to create using an equivalent lens on a DSLR, and it shows that phone cameras, no-matter how impressive in their normal use, still have some way to go when creating pictures with a pronounced shallow depth of field.
For most the Depth Effect results from Portrait mode will be good enough to share on screen, but if you are looking to print them out, then they're likely to have digital imperfections and blurred areas that don't reflect photographic reality - and that you may not be happy with.
The good news is that it's promising stuff, but as even Apple points out, it's still not truly ready for primetime. It's not a feature you should buy the phone for, yet.
iPhone 7 review: New Home button
The Home button is one of the most used elements of the iPhone's design, and upon hearing Apple was ditching the physical "click" element and replacing it with the same technology found in the Apple Watch and MacBook trackpad, we were worried.
Thankfully, in practice, it's really good. The button is as responsive as you want it to be and still allows you to flawlessly use it for double-tapping or Touch ID sign-in.
Tap the button and the so-called Taptic Engine inside the phone vibrates - making you believe that the button is moving when in reality it isn't. You can prove it's all "magic" by turning the phone off and seeing that the button really doesn't move.
The Home button offers three sensitivity settings to make it as responsive as you prefer. Although Apple says that it hasn't updated the responsiveness of the button compared to the 6S models, with a faster processor and optimised iOS 10, it certainly feels quicker to react.
Gushing to say this, but once you try it, you'll wonder why Apple hadn't changed the Home button earlier.
iPhone 7 review: Taptic Engine
The same Taptic Engine as used to convince you the Home button is physically moving is also used to greater affect across the new iOS 10 user interface.
Playing Codemaster's F1 2016 game, for example, we could feel the nuances of the crashing into the barriers or going over bumps throughout the phone. The same goes with other Taptic-enabled apps.
Feeling your phone is going to be a thing now - whether that's just rolling through the dials on a timer or playing with the Noise app by Roli. We are looking forward to seeing how much of a difference it will make to everyday use.
iPhone 7 review: Audio
Yes, Apple has ditched the headphone socket. There's no 3.5mm jack on the iPhone 7 Plus.
For those somewhat panicked by that move, a Lightning-to-3.5mm adapter is included in the box if you aren't going wireless, which means you can use your existing wired headphones. Or plug in Lightning connector headphones for the best wired experience and sound quality.
Where the 3.5mm socket was on the iPhone 6S Plus is now replaced with a speaker in the 7 Plus. That means the new phone features stereo sound from speakers at the top and bottom, which gives a better out-loud audio experience. The speakers are more than good enough for listening or watching - whether that's Netflix, YouTube, or a game.
During our testing we've been using the quick-pairing AirPods (which aren't included in the box, they're £159 extra) and a range of other headphones. All work seamlessly.
iPhone 7 review: Speed and performance
A new iPhone means upgraded speed. The iPhone 7 Plus gets the new Apple A10 Fusion processor that promises to increase the power and performance over previous iPhones.
Ultimately, it means your phone will be able to load things faster, process things faster, and generally not be in any way sluggish. Over the last couple of weeks using the iPhone 7 Plus it has been as zippy as you would expect, loading powerful games and processing video with minimal effort.
It's got more RAM than the standard iPhone 7, so is the one to go for if you're a gamer. However, the phone still gets hot when playing demanding games though for long periods of time.
The screen - which is the same 5.5-inch size and 1920 x 1080 resolution as the iPhone 6S Plus - also feels a lot brighter and more responsive, but Apple has held back from adding the Tru Display technology found on the iPad Pro 9.7.
Apple iPhone 7 review: iOS 10
The new iPhone comes with the latest operating system, iOS 10, as standard. Like the hardware refinements, this new software experience is a subtle change over what users will have seen in iOS 9.
iOS 10 comes with a number of new features like a dedicated Home app to allow you to control and manage your HomeKit accessories, a much more advanced Messages app that bring things like apps and stickers, and Widgets to the lock screen so you can quickly grab information snippets from your favourite apps (if they are supported).
The notion that iOS is a simple operating system is now a long and distant memory, given the complexity it opens up for power users. In iOS 10 Apple has focused on layering the experience with even more complexity and depth than ever before. In the same breath, if you're not a phone geek it's still a breeze to use.
The iPhone 7 Plus still gets a couple of dedicated features including a landscape home screen, and expanded keyboard functionality, which makes sense for a device of this scale.
iPhone 7 Plus review: Battery life
Apple made a fairly big song and dance over how the battery life had improved for the iPhone 7 range following efficiencies in processor and software performance. We didn't see gains on the iPhone 7, but with the iPhone 7 Plus the gains are more prevalent.
The iPhone 7 Plus battery lasts more than a whole day, with light use, and unlike the iPhone 7 doesn't drain as fast when using social networking or chat apps. A full day with plenty of messages will see you still with a good 30 per cent battery for the last train home.
As always, how you use your phone will determine how long the battery lasts. Messing around with Depth Effect shots in the camera soon gobbles battery, as does playing games, but the iPhone 7 Plus is a lot more forgiving with heavy usage than its smaller brother.
Of the two new iPhone 7 devices, the Plus certainly gets the most new features - making it the more worthy upgrade from either the iPhone 6 Plus or the iPhone 6S Plus.
The core design of the iPhone 7 Plus isn't an overhaul though, it's about refinement, with subtle changes - the new Home button and glossy/matte black finishes with better hidden antennas - elevating the design without tearing up the rule book and starting again. The lack of a headphone jack will either infuriate you or go unnoticed.
The biggest change is with the cameras. Sure, the Depth Effect is a work in progress, but it doesn't have to be used and doesn't take away from the cameras' overall excellence. Ultimately it's the resulting images that are great, and the 2x optical zoom functionality is welcomed.
However, as we've always said of the Plus range, it's a big and heavy device that will divide opinion because of its wide body. Equally, it's an incredibly well-built device that won't disappoint - especially on the power and battery life fronts - because you'll be hard pushed to find a smartphone as capable and well-rounded elsewhere.