Apple has few secrets left, but it did pull a fast one on us last week when it unveiled its cutting-edge, all-new flagship as “iPhone X” (pronounced “iPhone ten”) and its iPhone 7 and 7 Plus upgrades as “iPhone 8 and 8 Plus.”
By all rights, the iPhone X should have been the 8, while the 4.7-inch iPhone 8 ($699 for 64 GB) and 5.5-inch 8 Plus ($799 for 64 GB) I’ve spent the last week reviewing are really the iPhone 7S and 7S Plus. Why Apple chose to shuffle the deck on its well-tread naming conventions is anyone’s guess, but there’s no escaping the fact that the attractive iPhone 8 and 8 Plus have much in common with their predecessors and what you liked about those smartphones, you’ll like again with the latest handsets.
You will also appreciate the handful of key updates, including the powerful A11 Bionic chip, itself a preview of the performance you can expect from the upcoming iPhone X, easy-as-pie wireless charging, and gorgeous and a durable glass back.
There are a lot of other incremental updates, like the faster frame rate when shooting 4K video (60 fps), richer colors on photos, and the addition of True Tone on the Retina HD display. These are all welcome changes, but none of them is a convincing reason for existing iPhone 7 and 7 Plus owners to trade up.
Don’t misunderstand: What you’re about to read is a favorable review of two excellent handsets, but I’m not recommending anyone drop their iPhone 7 for an 8 (I doubt Apple is, either). Apple’s true upgrade offering for iPhone 7 owners is the stunning, mid-sized iPhone X with its larger 5.8-inch edge-to-edge screen and fascinating True Depth module.
If you’re looking for radical change on your iPhone 7 and don’t want to spend the $999 price of the iPhone X, there’s still the upgrade to iOS 11 to look forward to. It changes so many fundamental aspects of the device that your iPhone 7 (and even your iPhone 6S) will feel like a new phone. Certainly, many of the reasons I like the new iPhone 8 and 8 Plus can be traced directly back to its smarter, more gesture-friendly interface.
Besides making much better use of 3D Touch (when the screen responds to stronger pushes with new or different functionality), iOS 11 brings Live Photo editing (swipe up for cool options like Loop, Bounce and Long Exposure), the all new customizable Control Center, Screen Recording (a personal favorite), Apple Pay via Messages, a more natural-sounding voice for Siri, and Do Not Disturb While Driving, which does exactly what it says on the label. That last feature kicked in while I was on the train, but of course it offers a “passenger” option to switch it off.
Bigger, not bolder
The first thing you’ll notice about the iPhone 8 and iPhone 8 Plus is that they’re heavier than their predecessors. The difference on the iPhone 8 Plus, which put on half an ounce (14 grams), is noticeable. At 7.1 ounces (202 g), it’s 1 ounce (30 g) heavier than the Samsung Galaxy S8+. The iPhone 8 is, at 5.2 ounces (148 g), 0.35 of an ounce (10 grams) heavier than the iPhone 7, but still lighter than the Samsung Galaxy S8.
There’s also a size difference, but it’s so small — a millimeter here and there — that it’s all but imperceptible on both phones. Button placement, speaker grilles, the Lightning port, the lock/mute rocker are all unchanged.
From the front, the iPhone 8 and iPhone 8 Plus look the same as their predecessors. However, flip them over and you see the gorgeous Corning glass backs. It’s not Gorilla Glass, but a new glass chemistry made specifically for Apple. It has, according to Apple, a 50% deeper strengthening layer.
Below the glass is a special seven-layer case-coloring process, which is especially attractive on the new gold iPhone 8 Plus I tested. The oleophobic coating keeps the devices smudge-free or, at least, I couldn’t see the smudges. Granted, I don’t think they show up as clearly on the gold and silver models I tested.
This is also one of the cleanest smartphone backs I’ve ever seen. Aside from the camera, microphone, Apple logo and the word “iPhone,” there’s nothing else on the back of the phone. On my iPhone 7, right below “iPhone,” are the tiny words, “Designed by Apple in California, Assembled in China,” as well as model, FCC and IC numbers. Apple worked with all the governing bodies to move whatever text they could off the phones. If you miss them, you can find them in the printed manuals and electronic documentation. It’s a small thing but speaks to Apple’s insane attention to detail and never-ending quest for clean design.
As in the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus, the iPhone 8 hides the antenna band in an almost imperceptible strip near the top edge and behind the glass. Once again, the body is comprised of 7,000-series custom alloy. Inside, the phone is strengthened with steel and copper.
I gave both the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus a good twist, torqueing them this way and that. The larger 8 Plus flexes a bit more, but neither phone bent. I also dropped the iPhone 8 from about a three-foot height onto hard pavement. The aluminum edge got a tiny bit scuffed, but the phone was otherwise unharmed.
As with iPhone 7 and 7 Plus, the new devices are IP67 rated for dust and water exposure. In practice, this meant I could drop the phone in a toilet or, as I did, in a sink full of water for a few minutes without concern (both phones can candle 30 minutes in up to 3.3 feet of water).
With iOS 11, Apple introduces Quick Setup, a new way to set up new phones that lets you quickly transfer numerous settings from your existing phone to the new one. I’ve been running iOS 11 betas on an iPhone 7 Plus, which meant I just had to move the phones near each other and the iPhone 7 Plus paired with the iPhone 8 (and then 8 Plus) via Bluetooth. Next, a circular, pulsing blue icon appeared on the new phone, and some accompanying text guided me to capture it with the iPhone 7 Plus camera.
As soon as I got the blue image inside the circle on my existing phone, the iPhone 7 started transferring setup information to the new iPhone. This included things like Wi-Fi network information and my Apple ID, but not my password or the CSV number for my credit card. I asked Apple for a comprehensive list of what is and isn’t transferred in this process and am still waiting for their response.
If you’re nervous about what life will be like without a Touch ID button on the iPhone X, the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus will seem like oases of consistency. The Touch ID button works the same on the new phones as it did on the iPhone 7. Registering your fingerprint and unlocking the phone are unchanged and work as fast and effectively as they did before.
The iPhone 8 and 8 Plus screens offer the same resolutions, 1,920 x 1,080 and 1,334 x 750 respectively. As they were with the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus, they’re great-looking screens, but are starting to seem a little dated in the face of Samsung’s Super AMOLED 2,960 x 1,440 Galaxy S8 displays.
As for noticeable, visual upgrades, the new iPhone display uses a tech Apple calls TrueTone, which uses ambient light to auto-adjust the color temperature of the display to make colors appear consistent across different lighting conditions. In fluorescent light, this made my screens slightly more orange.
Cameras and video
Continuing our tour of things that haven’t changed much are the cameras.
On the front of the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus are the 7-megapixel FaceTime cameras with f/2.2 aperture. These are the same specs as on the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus and, as a result, selfies with the FaceTime camera didn’t look much different.
Just like with previous generations, it’s the back camera that differs between the two iPhones: The back of the iPhone 8 has a 12-megapixel wide-angle lens with an f/1.8 aperture. The iPhone 8 Plus adds another 12MP camera for 2x telephoto shots, with a f/2.8 aperture. Again, no change from the iPhone 7 Plus.
What’s changed on the camera side is the image processor on the A11 Bionic, and the software that supports it. I’ve always like Apple’s iPhone cameras, but the results from this new imaging technology are impressive.
I took countless photos with the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus’s wide and telephoto cameras, alongside the original iPhone 7 and 7 Plus cameras. In virtually all instances, the colors were truer and brighter on the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus. Apple doesn’t push the colors so hard they become surreal, but I think they finally recognize that consumers like the colors on their photos to really pop (something Samsung has known for a long time).
Apple told me the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus shutters are faster than those on the iPhone 7, which means they should do a better job capturing action. I tested the speed in a different way, though, taking simultaneous pictures of a millisecond countdown clock. Each time, the iPhone 8 camera beat the iPhone 7.
Portrait Mode, only available on the iPhone 8 Plus (it uses both the wide and telephoto to achieve the background de-focus effect), got a significant upgrade, including optical image stabilization, much better low-light performance and flash photography support. In general, the result is much-improved, dare I say, pro-level portrait shots. I tried Portrait with a flash and it does work, but I still prefer natural light for the best shots.
On the iPhone 8 Plus, Apple is also beta testing Portrait Lighting. This feature relies on the 3D face mapping power of the A11 Bionic CPU to pickup face contours and then let you adjust lighting on-the-fly or after you shot the photo. You can choose Studio Light, which does a great job of subtly correcting for backlit Portrait shots, Contour, which tries to bring out facial features like the chin and cheekbones, the dramatic Stage Light, which turns the background black and Stage Lighting Mono, which converts the image to black and white. The default is Natural Light.
Of all these choices, Studio Light is the only one I would recommend using right now. Contour made everyone, including women, look like they had a five-o-clock shadow. Also, I wouldn’t use any of these with flash portrait photography.
Apple also upgraded the video modes, adding 4K 60 fps video, but hid the mode under the Camera settings in “Formats.” To use it, you must choose “High Efficiency” instead of “Most Compatible.”
That same setting will also let you tap into the highest resolution now supported for slow-motion video: 240 fps at 1080p. Otherwise, you max out at 720p fps.
I shot in numerous video formats on the new phones, but was most impressed with 4K at 60 fps, which gives the video a near-3D look. I just wish I had a 4K TV to play it on.
So much power
Without the six-core, 64-bit A11 Bionic CPU, the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus would essentially be a pair of pretty, glass-backed iPhone 7’s.
The A11 Bionic taps into every part of the handsets; there are discrete processors for the camera, display and all those graphics. In fact, this is the first Apple system on a chip (SoC) to feature an Apple-designed GPU.
It’s also architected for speed and efficiency. Thanks to asymmetric multi-processing it can spin up and down any or all its cores.
The benchmark numbers certainly bear out the A11’s awesome power.
I ran Geekbench 4 on the iPhone 7, 7 Plus, 8, 8 Plus and the octa-core-running Samsung Galaxy S8+ and was astonished at the results.
The A11 Bionic-powered iPhone 8 (with 2GB of RAM) and 8 Plus (with approximately 3GB of RAM), more than doubles the single-core performance of Apple’s A10 Fusion chip and tripled the multi-core performance scores. The Samsung Galaxy S8+ scores weren’t even close.
As you might expect, the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus are no slouches when it comes to graphics-rich gaming. Games like Injustice 2 and Samorost 3 look exquisite. As does the racing game, CSR 2.
Those games and the video I watched are now louder, too, thanks to the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus’s improved stereo system. It’s not only louder (Apple claims 25%), but the sound is sharper and deeper.
The iPhone 8 and 8 Plus are also the first Apple handsets to feature hardware (the A11 Bionic and updated positioning sensors) and software (iOS 11 and ARKit) designed to support augmented reality.
While the app experiences I tried were all quite different, each started by asking me to quickly scan the ground with the iPhone 8 or 8 Plus camera. It never took more than a second or two. After that, I tried, for instance, Insight Heart which let me put a beating heart in the middle of my office, walk around it, and look inside of it. I created a virtual layout on my living room floor with Thomas the Tank Engine toys, and I placed some virtual furniture and accessories around the house with Ikea Places.
Battery and wireless charging
There is one more major change on the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus, and it may be the most welcome: wireless charging.
You see, Apple didn’t just add that glass back for good looks — it’s what makes the Qi-based wireless charging possible. Apple’s own Qi charging pad, the AirPower, won’t be ready until next year, so I used a $59.99 Belkin wireless charger that Apple provided.
There’s a real convenience in being able to put the phone down on a pad (as opposed to connecting a charging cable). I would want one each for home and work, but the real benefit will be when I get to a place like McDonalds or Starbucks, have lunch, and just put my phone on the table to charge. Yes, Apple trailed behind Samsung to get this done, but I’m glad they finally did it.
Since I was testing battery life, I usually waited to put the iPhone 8 on the charger until the very end of the day. I tried it with and without a case; it worked both ways. The phone was always charged when I got up the next morning.
There were a couple of minor nits here. First, you can’t just drop your phone anywhere on the charging pad. If the iPhone 8 or 8 Plus is placed off center (too far to the left or right or with the top or bottom hanging way over the charging pad edge), the phone won’t charge. I also noticed that if I picked up the phone during a charge, it could feel noticeably warm. I held the glass back to my face, and the sensation was almost uncomfortable.
As for iPhone 8 and 8 Plus battery life. Both lasted roughly 12 hours through mixed use.
The iPhone 8 and 8 Plus are meaningful upgrades for many of Apple customers, but not all of them. Yes, they should have been called the iPhone 7S and 7S Plus, but that makes them no less worthy of interest for iPhone 5, 5S and even 6S customers looking to upgrade. If you own an iPhone 7 or 7 Plus, though, you may want to save up a few more bucks and wait for the iPhone X when it ships in November.
Apple iPhone 8 and iPhone 8 Plus
Excellent design and glass back • Wireless charging, finally • Powerful A11 Bionic CPU offers unprecedented performance • Better Portrait photography
Smaller model still has no dual camera
The Bottom Line
The iPhone 8 and iPhone 8 Plus move the needle forward in all the right ways, but the only substantive change from the iPhone 7 is wireless charging. If you own the 7, don’t bother, but everyone else should seriously consider upgrading.