Reflections from a pro
But let's be clear: this phone could be a lot of people's everyday camera, but it's not the same as a pro dSLR, not by a longshot. Apple specifically avoided making claims that it will replace the Canons and Nikons of the world.
Google's Pixel cameras are also incredibly impressive, especially in low light. They also feature astonishingly smooth video stabilization. But the 7 Plus is still among the tops in camera quality. Not head-and-shoulders, perhaps, but up there.
James Martin, who spends his days shooting with just such an SLR, found a lot to like about the 7 Plus's photo chops:
The new sensor has a dramatic ability to capture a wide range of colors, and separates the color well. There's no muddiness or blending of edges, the pixels are well defined, and the colors sharp. The white balance is also noticeably better [than the 6S Plus], and the image depicts a true-to-life representation of the scene.
Rather than exposing for the blacks and blowing out the highlights, or exposing for the highlights and losing the blacks, the iPhone 7 Plus was able to capture a wide range of light and tones. There's a lot of information being recorded in this sensor, and we're hardly losing anything on either the low or the high end. The iPhone 7 Plus did an amazing job of capturing a broad swath of the middle -- without appearing muddy -- while also delivering tones on both the high and low ends.
And how did he feel about the 7 Plus compared to the-- arguably the best phone camera of the first half of the year?
Now in many ways, the "realness" of the iPhone 7 Plus images has solid competition from Samsung's Galaxy S7 camera. In my opinion, the Galaxy S7 often produces images that are more pleasing straight out of the camera. The photos are bright and bold -- images pop with an almost painterly quality. The S7 photos look fantastic, but arguably look less "real" than images coming out of the iPhone 7 Plus. I think of it as the iPhone 7 Plus producing a high-quality film image, while the Samsung Galaxy S7 is most definitely producing a "digital looking" image.
The other reasons to go Plus: Portrait mode
The 7 Plus can pull off one unique trick via a special "portrait mode," which takes advantage of both rear lenses to create a blurred-background depth-of-field effect that makes photos of friends or pets look like they were shot on a digital SLR, sort of.
The effect is far better than similar tricks on other phones we've seen, but the effect, which mimics the "bokeh" look in SLR cameras, has limits. You have to have certain lighting, and be a certain distance from your subject. And it frames everything via the closer-up telephoto lens, which means wider-angle shots aren't possible.
The camera keeps the blurred and non-blurred photos so you have options, but I find that the mode's a special tool I don't always use. Portrait mode's in beta right now in iOS 10 .1, meaning it's still a work in progress. But so far, it's far better than a similar feature offered on the Pixel phone ($280 at Amazon), which tries to achieve the same effect from a single lens.
Who knows what else Apple will do with those dual cameras? Other new tricks, perhaps, using depth of field? Augmented reality, maybe? It's always tough to bet on potential, but those dual cameras could be capable of more in future software updates.
Battery life: A minor upgrade
The iPhone 7 Plus lasted somewhat longer than the smaller 7 on our video-loop playback test with iOS 10.1, which puts the phone on airplane mode and doesn't necessarily reflect "normal" phone use. It ran for 12 hours and 6 minutes, versus 10 hours 55 minutes from the iPhone 7. But last year's iPhone 6S Plus ($390 at Amazon) lasted about the same duration on the same test running iOS 9.
Apple's new A10 processor goes into power-saving modes that are designed to extend battery life better, and on average I found the 7 Plus handled the average work day better than the 6S Plus. But I still need to top off that battery around 4 p.m. each day to be safe.
Next year's model might unleash bigger things
Apple hasn't entered the VR or AR game yet, and I wouldn't get the iPhone 7 Plus hoping it's the door to that potential world -- get another phone if you want a taste of advanced AR or VR now. But there's a chance that those dual cameras that the 7 Plus boasts could be put to interesting use in the next year or so. I'd say, though, that if you're waiting for a new design and other new features, wait for another iPhone. The iPhone 8 could be that model, based on several rumors.
For now, just know that this camera is better and offers more potential than the iPhone 7. And know that, if you want a great, powerful camera phone, this is it. Samsung and Google (and others) make great camera phones, too. But if the 7 Plus offers the best package Apple's offering right now, and one of the best phones anywhere. I'd pick the Plus over the regular 7.
But could you also wait a year and see what happens next? Yes, you could, and it might not be such a bad idea.
CNET Senior Photographer James Martin contributed to this review.