Apple iPhone 7 review: Jacked up
A brighter 12MP camera
The iPhone 7 features an updated 12MP camera with a brighter aperture of f/1.8 that should let 50% more light hit the sensor, a six-element lens and optical image stabilization (which was reserved to the Plus model last year).
The sensor is reportedly 60% faster and 30% more efficient than the previous camera system, there is also an improved Apple-made image signal processor. The new Quad-LED True Tone flash fires much brighter than the dual-LED unit we had in the iPhone 6s.
There are camera improvements around the front as well with a new 7MP FaceTime HD camera, a healthy bump from the 5MP of old. The selfie snapper is aided by Apple’s excellent Retina Flash as they call it - it flashes the screen to serve as an ambient flash.
Live Photos are available as before - if you activate them, those 3s small videos are captured automatically and the new thing about them is that they are now stabilized so they look much smoother.
The camera interface is the same as before. If you tap to focus the phone will give you control over exposure through a slider. This way you can conveniently adjust exposure compensation depending on the scene. You can lock the focus and exposure as well.
We can confirm the camera is blazingly fast. There is no pausing for loading or saving even when taking bursts of photos (even a hundred images or more).
All settings and shooting modes are laid out logically and the only setting we miss is a toggle between 1080p ad 4K video recording, which instead of being accessible from the camera UI, requires you to dig deep in the phone's Settings menu.
Even though Apple upgraded the camera with a new sensor and a brighter f/1.8 lens, it's still 12MP in resolution and the daylight photos snapped with the iPhone 7 are quite close to what we had on the iPhone 6s.
In good light the resolved detail is good, but it's not at all better (or worse) than what the previous iPhones resolved.
We spotted some softness in the extreme corners of the images, something we haven’t seen on older iPhones - possibly a direct result of the new, brighter lens.
The image processing algorithm doesn’t look changed and it’s still among the best in the mobile business. Fine detail is nicely represented with good amount of sharpening which looks balanced compared to LG’s or Samsung’s.
Other than that, the colors and contrast are great and the dynamic range is simply great - probably due to some clever Dynamic Range optimization routine - much like you would get on dedicated big cameras. In any case, the iPhone 7 delivers the most balanced dynamic range from any smartphone at the moment.
As expected, HDR mode expands the excellent dynamic range of the iPhone 7. Apple’s approach is mostly about bringing back the highlight detail and only slightly enhancing shadow detail.
Interestingly, the HDR photos appear a bit darker than the non-HDR ones but they offer higher detail in both shadows and highlights.
The newly added optical image stabilization allows the iPhone 7 to drop the shutter speed to as low as 1/4s when shooting handheld, which is an improvement over the 1/17s the iPhone SE/6s camera settles at in the dark. This combined with the wider aperture should allow the iPhone 7 to take better low-light images.
We shot a few comparative night samples between the iPhone 6s and the iPhone 7. The exposure on both pix is comparable but if you pixel-peep the images, you can appreciate the higher sharpness and slightly lower noise levels on the iPhone 7 thanks to the lower ISO. The thing is that you really need to zoom in to appreciate the difference. Zoomed out to fit a computer screen, and the samples look almost identical.
The iPhone 7 has four LEDs for its flash and indeed, it's twice as bright as the one on the iPhone 6s/SE but this will probably matter at longer distances. On the other hand, if you use the flash as a flashlight, then you'll greatly appreciate the new one.
The optical image stabilization is the addition that really matters as it will keep the lens steady and won't allow for blurry shots at low-light. The iPhone SE on the other hand will often produce a blurred picture in low light.
The iPhone 7 offers 180-degree panoramic shots and they can go up to 15,000 x 4,000 pixels or 60MP. The stitching is great, there are no artefacts, and the color rendering is good, too.
We love iPhone panoramas because they are the only HDR ones around - meaning the exposure is constantly being adjusted to be even across the scene - we can’t believe Apple is still the only one doing this.
The front-facing camera got its resolution boosted to 7MP and records 1080p video. It can use the so-called Retina flash, where your screen lights up in different colors depending on the intended white balance of the scene.
The resolved detail is higher than before, the contrast and colors are very good, while the exposure is always aimed at the subject, which leaves the background overexposed at times.
You can check out how the iPhone 7 camera stacks up against the competition in our Photo compare tool. The low-light sample is really impressive - it was shot at ISO 100 at 1/6 speed and illustrates the true power of an OIS camera.
4K video recording
Apple iPhone 7 is capable of recording 2160p videos at 30 frames in addition to 1080p capturing at 30 and 60 fps. The slow-mo videos can be recorded at 1080p at 120 fps or 720p at 240 fps.There is a time-lapse mode, which works quite well.
The camcorder UI is as simple as it can get, offering nothing but the flash setting. You can find the resolution switch in the Settings menu instead of having a shortcut in the viewfinder, which is somewhat annoying.
The 4K videos carry a bitrate of around 47Mbps, but audio is recorded in mono at 85Kbps in AAC format. The 1080p videos at 30fps have a bitrate of 16 Mbps, keeping the same audio, while the 60fps ones came out with 23Mbps bitrate.
The 4K videos are slightly less processed than still images - there is some noise, but less sharpening while the detail is great if not quite class-leading.
Dynamic range is once again impressive and the frame rate is pretty steady, but the mono audio is disappointing. Some corner softness is visible at times, too.
The footage is well-stabilized thanks to the presence of both optical and software stabilization.
Compared to the iPhone 6S, the 7 has a much improved low light video, mainly thanks to the wider aperture. It’s got brighter exposure, there is less noise in the footage, objects are much sharper and we see a much improved white balance.
The 1080p videos at 30 and 60 fps are among the best we've seen, well stabilized again, with great amount of detail, fine colors, a steady framerate and superb dynamic range. Once again - the audio is just mono, which is rather hard to swallow at this price point.
The Apple iPhone 7 is ready to meet the competition in our Video Compare Tool. You can notice the clear superiority of the Galaxy S7 over the iPhones when it comes to detail.