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iPhone 7 Plus appeal: Apple just made its jumbo phone more irresistible

By adding the new-fangled dual-lens camera only to the more expensive Plus model, Apple is widening the gap between its two flagship iPhones.

James Martin/CNET
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Apple didn't exactly pull out all the stops with its latest iPhone.

Sure, the company's latest iPhone 7 flagship product is faster, water-resistant and comes in more colors to boot. But with a body and look that is essentially two years old, it's a bit tough to get excited about this year's offering.

What may frustrate many fans, however, is that the new marquee feature -- a dual-lens camera with a wide-angle lens and a telescopic lens capable of zooming to 10x -- can be found only on the iPhone 7 Plus. There's something to get excited about, but only if you're willing to pony up the premium for the larger model.

Apple has taken this two-pronged approach since the debut of its first jumbo iPhone, the 6 Plus, in 2014. But the gap between the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus is wider, and that underscores a philosophical change at Apple. Co-founder Steve Jobs wanted to build a single phone for everyone. Now you have to get the iPhone 7 Plus to get the company's true flagship phone and its best feature.

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The iPhone 7 only has one camera, while the iPhone 7S has two: a wide-angle and a telephoto.

James Martin/CNET

"This is the best camera ever made on any smartphone," said Phil Schiller, Apple's marketing chief, at the launch event on Wednesday in San Francisco.

Of course, Apple has a reason to steer customers toward the bigger and more expensive iPhone. The higher price tag means even more profit for a company that already makes money hand over fist.

What's good for Apple, however, might be a raw deal for consumers. The $120 premium ($20 more than in years past) will be a financial burden for some and it comes after carriers have ceased subsidizing the cost of phones. That means consumers will have to shoulder the full price.

"Apple is clearly taking a risk here, just as it did when it eliminated the smaller iPhones a couple of years ago, but it's presumably decided that risk is worth taking," said Jan Dawson, an analyst at Jackdaw Research.

Some folks may simply prefer the more compact iPhone 7 and consider the hefty iPhone 7 Plus, which fits into what the industry refers to as the "phablet" category, too unwieldy. The decision is complicated by the fact that choosing the smaller iPhone 7 means choosing the lesser version.

Phone enthusiasts will note that Apple isn't doing anything that other manufacturers haven't done before.

For example, Samsung positions its Galaxy Note 7 phablet as a step above the Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge. But at least the Note 7 emerged months after the S7 and S7 Edge.

So what's new in the iPhone 7? Both models finally get optimal image stabilization as a default. (It was previously a feature on the Plus only.) They're also resistant to water and dust, joining Android phones from Samsung and Sony. Apple also swapped in a new home button that uses haptic feedback, where a motor simulates the feeling of the button being clicked.

As rumored, the new iPhones also took the controversial step of dropping the audio jack in favor of just the Lightning port. But Apple will sell you its new wireless earbuds, dubbed AirPods, for $159.

"Apple clearly does not feel any market pressure to out-innovate itself at every turn," said Jefferson Wang, a senior partner at IBB Consulting.

Apple Watch Series 2 makes a splash

Though the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus dominated the event, the company also introduced the second version of the Apple Watch.

The Apple Watch Series 2 adds a water-resistant design that allows you to swim with it. The Series 2 also has a faster dual-core processor, a more powerful graphics chip and built-in GPS. The new watch comes in aluminum, stainless steel and a new ceramic body that's four times as hard as stainless steel.

The company leaned further into the fitness theme, partnering with Nike to create the Apple Watch Nike+ edition, which features the same color scheme as the old FuelBand fitness tracker.

The new watch comes in the nick of time. Prior to this introduction, the Apple Watch was starting to show its age. The device, which cost between $349 and $17,000 at launch, hit the market more than a year ago and hasn't changed significantly since then. Apple has updated the software it runs -- called WatchOS -- and has added colors and bands, including some designed by fashion brand Hermes.

Apple Watch 2 will run on WatchOS 3, which the company previewed in June. The software allows the watch to load up apps more quickly. It also provides iOS-like interaction and scribble responses, plus new and more customizable watch faces, including one featuring Minnie Mouse.

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Apple is partnering with Nike for a watch model with runners in mind.

James Martin/CNET

There's also an "I've fallen and I can't get up" SOS mode, quick activity sharing -- including a dedicated algorithm for wheelchair users -- and breathing reminders.

The Apple Watch 2 could reinvigorate sales of the smartwatch market, which has waned as consumers question the usefulness of the devices. Apple doesn't break out sales of the Apple Watch, but IDC estimates the company shipped 1.6 million watches in the second quarter, down 55 percent from a year ago.

Pleasant gaming surprises

Beyond two new phones and a smartwatch, Apple also had a lot to offer for gamers.

Apple drew some of the biggest applause by announcing that Nintendo was bringing Mario to iOS via a new mobile game called Super Mario Run. The company even had Shigeru Miyamoto, the legendary game designer and producer behind Mario, on stage to talk about Nintendo's leap to the mobile world.

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You too can catch Pikachu on your watch.

Screenshot by Xiomara Blanco/CNET

Developer Niantic showed up to talk about a new Pokemon Go app for the Apple Watch, allowing you stay on top of local Pokemon and track your distance walked.

Lastly, Apple touted the company's A10 Fusion chip, a powerful new processor that lets you play near-console-quality games on the iPhone 7.

But if you're not a gamer, or really looking for a true breakthrough, you may be better off holding out for next year's model.