Still Image Performance

Now that we’ve discussed the basics of the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus camera we can start to get into how it actually performs relative to the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus as well the current competition on the market. While we normally run an ISO test to check spatial resolution this has been deferred to a future portion of the review. Unfortunately we don't really have the ability to do time-invariant testing here in a serious manner to the same extent that an OEM might, so we're effectively limited to tripod comparisons of real-world subjects.

Daytime Photography

In this kind of scenario the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus are directly comparable in the 1x mode. Because the primary camera has OIS and the secondary camera doesn't, it looks like it's fairly difficult for Apple to do an exact pixel to pixel correlation to the extent that the two outputs can be merged into a single image. As a result it's fairly obvious that the 1x mode has less detail than the 2x mode here. I can really see how this would be useful in general, as the longer focal length means more detail relative to anything else on the market but also allows for more interesting framing. The 1x camera is identical to the iPhone 7, and here it's definitely noticeable that the iPhone 7 can't quite keep up with the Galaxy S7 or HTC 10 in sheer detail in these kinds of shots.

Daytime Photography 2

In the interest of trying to not just take a single landscape photo and declare it to be a representative sample for all photos ever taken of all time with a smartphone in daytime conditions, I went ahead and took another sample shot of a mostly static subject. Here the iPhone 7 Plus in 1x mode is pretty much comparable to the iPhone 6s and Galaxy S7 as far as detail goes. I would argue that the HTC 10 captures slightly more detail at the center, but this probably isn't a surprise when the sensor is significantly larger. It's also worth noting that the iPhone 7 Plus manages to show better dynamic range here as the highlights off to the right retain more color detail than most devices tested and the shadows contain more detail that what is found on the Galaxy S7 or the iPhone 6s Plus. Once again, at 2x the iPhone 7 Plus is really just ridiculously good at capturing the sheer amount of detail that the tree has which isn't really captured by the 1x mode as most of the detail has to be blurred away to avoid aliasing. It's truly impressive how the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus are actually capable of keeping up with the Galaxy S7 despite a smaller sensor, and we're really seeing the product of Apple's ISP lead here.

Low Light Photography 1

It probably is worth mentioning here that in low light the iPhone 7 Plus doesn't actually use the secondary camera at all due to its smaller aperture and lack of image stabilization, which means that the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus are identical in low light performance. Interestingly enough detail is fairly comparable between the iPhone 6s Plus and iPhones 7, with some minor adjustment to favor more noise reduction. I'm inclined to say that the Galaxy S7 and iPhone 7 are basically comparable here but the oversharpening on the Galaxy S7 remains fairly obvious and I would expect it to outperform in detail here but it's just comparable to the iPhone 7 due to the rather smeary noise reduction. The HTC 10 is the clear winner here as far as detail goes but both the Galaxy S7 and HTC 10 really oversaturate the green shrubs while the iPhone 7 is much closer to what it should actually be. The oversaturated, smeary look that seems to dominate the Galaxy S7 output continues to be seriously off-putting for me.

Low Light Photography 2

It's interesting to see how Apple's noise and noise reduction seems to have changed from the 6 to 6s to 7 here. Detail is functionality identical but the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus clearly handle shadows better here as there's more detail and noise is controlled noticeably better with better detail and less visible noise. It's really impressive what Apple's processing is able to pull off here when sensor size and sensor technology hasn't really advanced that much from the iPhone 6s to iPhone 7. This is especially obvious when compared to the Galaxy S7, which has comparable overall detail but the noise reduction used is much more splotchy and has obvious oversharpening if you look too closely. Again, relative to the HTC 10 the sensor size deficit is very obvious here if you try to read the text on the trash cans, but the HTC 10's gamma and noise reduction algorithms are just not competitive in the shadows and it's obvious that there are uncorrected optical distortions in the light flares. The HTC 10 also tends to feel like it has a filter over the entire photo that makes it look a little soft compared to the iPhone 7 even if it does have better detail in some parts of the frame.

Low Light Photography 3

For whatever reason this scene always seems to at least mildly challenging. Here we can really start to see the softness that I'm talking about with the HTC 10, as the white pillar "bleeds" a bit into the brick wall exterior of Knudsen Hall. Detail on the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus remains comparable to the iPhone 6s Plus, but with noticeably less noise. The Galaxy S7 manages to deliver similar levels of detail to the iPhone 7, but it definitely oversaturates the red brick colors which might be appealing but really isn't accurate when you look at the RAW reference. The noise reduction on the Galaxy S7 is noticeably splotchier here and gets much worse if you look at the top right quarter of the photo. I would actually say the iPhone 7 outperforms just about everything here but the LG G5, which has better detail but a really strange color rendition.

Overall, the iPhone 7 camera is impressive and I would argue is holistically a better camera for still photos than the Galaxy S7 on the basis of more accurate color rendition, cleaner noise reduction, and lack of aggressive sharpening. It may not be as lightning fast as the Galaxy S7 or have as many party tricks, but what it does have is extremely well executed. The HTC 10 is definitely better than the iPhone 7 at delivering sheer detail when only comparing the 28mm focal length camera, but the post-processing has a tendency to bleed colors in low light which sometimes causes the images to look a bit soft. In daytime the iPhone 7 Plus' 56mm equivalent camera helps to keep it well ahead of the curve when it comes to sheer detail and really is a revelatory experience after years of using smartphone cameras that have focal lengths as short as 22mm and can't really capture what the eye sees. However, in low light the sensor size deficit really starts to become obvious. I suspect the Pixel and Pixel XL will make this especially clear. If there's really no room to go up the ladder in sensor size, Apple really needs to consider some radical approaches to improving sensor sensitivity such as RWB pixel layouts or using the dual camera for an oversampling scheme.

Camera Architecture and UX Video Performance


View All Comments

  • lolipopman - Tuesday, October 11, 2016 - link

    I agree that Apple rules the market currently.

    *Currently*. It actually seems that the recently announced ARM A73 will be a beast.

    And let's not forget the Mali G71 which is said to be very close to Nvidia Shield's performance.

    I'm curious what the A11 chip will be bringing to the graphics table when the next revision of iPhones drop.
  • jospoortvliet - Tuesday, October 11, 2016 - link

    Sadly the A73 won't even make a dent, it is maybe 20% faster at same power, that isn't a third of the gap with Apple...

    GPUs are doing better indeed but with far higher pixel densities end user experience is still that much worse.
  • tuxRoller - Tuesday, October 11, 2016 - link

    Unfortunately it won't. The a73 looks to be quite good at efficiency, but per clock perf is still going to be decently far behind.
    As for graphics, no one can match IMG for efficiency. I really wish arm/Softbank would buy IMG.
  • ex2bot - Wednesday, October 12, 2016 - link

    Android has been competitive in many areas and just plain better in some important ones (customization, screen quality, flexibility, choice), but the truth is that Qualcomm fell behind in perf with the 810 and 820. It looks like the 821 is close in performance.

    Secondly, the 7 and 7 Plus are most likely going to show better battery life because they have bigger batteries than the 6s and 6S Plus.
  • CloudWiz - Thursday, October 13, 2016 - link

    821 is just a clocked-bumped 820, the performance difference between 820 and 821 will be less than 10%. Kryo is currently twice as slow as Hurricane in ST and far less efficient. Reply
  • cknobman - Monday, October 10, 2016 - link

    I'm just going to reference this:

    This was a blind test of over 13000 people voting on pictures taken in many many different scenarios. It compared 4 of the top smartphone cameras (which one of which was the iPhone 7).

    The Galaxy S7 won by a landslide, not even close.

    The iPhone 7 has its own drawbacks largely ignored by this review.
    The lack of a headphone jack is a bigger issue that anyone makes it out to be and iOS is a terribly hindered OS that makes using any iPhone an painful experience.

    Sure the battery life is good/great but this is largely because Apple choosing to remain so far back in their resolution. If you live in a Apple box and only look at their devices then sure its fine.
    But go use any of the dozens of non Apple phones out there and then come back to an iPhone (especially the plus) and you immediately notice the lowered resolution and display quality.
  • The Garden Variety - Monday, October 10, 2016 - link

    I was in tears and the injustice of this "review" until I read your supportive, nurturing reply. Thank you for giving all of us hope. Hope that the truth will reign, and that someday tech "journalists" will be exposed and jailed for their obvious bias. JAILED. Reply
  • cknobman - Monday, October 10, 2016 - link

    LOL Your butthurt was so painful it seems you could not even comprehend what I wrote.

    I never called out the reviewer for bias or injustice but you apparently only choose to read/see/envision what you want...............either that or you are just plain stupid.
  • grayson_carr - Monday, October 10, 2016 - link

    Let me propose a scenario. You have two identical displays. One is perfectly calibrated. One has the color saturation boosted and does not display colors accurately. If you pull a bunch of people off the street and have them look at both displays and vote on which one looks better, which one do you think they are going to pick? Answer: They are going to say the one with boosted saturation is better despite it being an identical display with objectively worse calibration. The average person does not know what is good, which is why I think blind photo comparisons are stupid. Now I'm not saying the Galaxy S7 doesn't have the best camera in a phone. The Galaxy S7 probably does have the best camera in a phone (in stills at least, video sucks). But I would much rather hear it from a professional photographer than a bunch of average Joes that know nothing about photography or cameras. That's just me. Reply
  • menting - Monday, October 10, 2016 - link

    a professional photographer will probably feel insulted to even consider a rating a photo from a phone. Reply

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