By Jason Snell
October 27, 2017 9:02 AM PT
iPhone 8 review: The Inessential iPhone
For ten years, the release of a new iPhone model has been cause for celebration. People wait in lines, wake up at ungodly hours to pre-order their phones, and gleefully show off their new device when it finally arrives. And yet when I traveled to a conference in Chicago this month, one full of Apple-focused developers and media personalities, I was stopped several times by people who were struck by the brand-new iPhone I was carrying.
“Is that the iPhone 8?”, they would ask.
This is the fate of the iPhone 8. It will be ignored by many of Apple’s most committed followers, who see it as a speed bump on the road to the release of the iPhone X in early November. Instead, it will soldier on, doing its job as the latest iteration of the existing iPhone line, providing a substantial upgrade to people who haven’t bought an iPhone in two or three years and aren’t interested in paying $999 for the very first generation of a new iPhone, if they could even find one in stores. These people are ready for a better version of their existing phone, and the iPhone 8 will deliver that to them.
Two years of upgrades
This past weekend, we replaced the iPhone 6 my wife has been using for nearly three years with a new iPhone 8. After three years, her iPhone’s battery life is becoming a bit spotty, and the upgrade to iOS 11 had made the device much less responsive.1
With her upgrade, she doesn’t just get all the new features of the iPhone 8, which I’ll address in this review. As someone who hasn’t upgraded in three years, she’s never had access to features from the iPhone 6S like 3D Touch and Live Photos.
People upgrading from a two-year-old iPhone 6S—the classic smartphone upgrade cycle—join her in also experiencing the features of the iPhone 7 for the first time. That means a massively upgraded camera system, the multiple-LED True Tone flash, a display capable of displaying a much wider color gamut, stereo internal speakers, water and dust resistance, and a new taptic home button. These upgraders also get to experience for the first time what the rest of us had to come to terms with a year ago: A one-way ticket to Dongletown, courtesy of a Lightning-to-headphone-jack adapter required by the removal of the headphone jack.
A lot of people who read reviews like this are so committed to Apple that they buy a new phone every year; it’s easy to lose perspective about the buying pattern of the average iPhone buyer. Most people don’t update their phones every year, so a new iPhone doesn’t just come with one iteration’s new features—it also rolls in features from the previous phone, and perhaps the model before that. I’ve seen that first-hand in my family this week. These are upgrades meant to stack upon one another, and experiencing three years of progress in a single upgrade is pretty great.
Jet Black all the things
Last year, the iPhone 7 added some new color options, including a Jet Black model that coated the entire phone in a shiny black material that was prone to fingerprints and micro-abrasions. But that coating also addressed one of the biggest issues of the curvy design introduced with the iPhone 6: It was as slippery as a bar of soap. I had never used a case regularly on my iPhone before the iPhone 6 came out, but it was so slippery that I snapped on one of Apple’s leather cases and never looked back.
No, that last part’s not true. I kept looking back, wistfully, at the days when I could just slip a caseless iPhone in my pocket. So when the iPhone 7 came out, I got the Jet Black model and found that I no longer needed a case on my iPhone.
Good news, everyone: The feel of the iPhone 8 is basically the same as the Jet Black iPhone: It’s shiny and grippy. It’s prone to picking up fingerprints2, but not micro-abrasions, because instead of coated aluminum, the back of the phone is made of reinforced glass. I didn’t drop my phone to test how resilient it is to breakage, but Apple says this is the toughest glass it’s shipped on an iPhone.
I can see why they chose to return glass to the back of the iPhone, though: It looks and feels fantastic. The shiny back on the Jet Black iPhone 7 was a head-turner, and now every iPhone gets to sport it. On models with a silver aluminum band between the two glass panes, the back is a solid white; on gold models, it’s a very warm white (almost tan) that better matches the gold. As for the black, how much blacker could it be?3
More hardware upgrades
Taking a page from the iPad Pro, the iPhone 8 is the first iPhone model to offer a True Tone display. Basically, this means the iPhone is using an ambient light sensor not only to adjust the brightness of its display, but to set its color temperature. The net result is that if you’re in a warmly lit room, the white on the iPhone screen will be a warm white. If you’re in a more blue-skewing, fluorescent-lit office environment, the screen will be bluer.
It’s a subtle effect, but it makes looking at the iPhone screen much less jarring—a blue-white screen in a yellow room seems deeply out of place. If you’re someone who appreciates an iPhone with a white front bezel, this feature helps smooth out some of the color difference between the bezel (which changes with ambient light, because it’s a physical object!) and the screen (which previously didn’t change, but now does). I wouldn’t buy an iPhone just for True Tone, but it’s a very nice feature that incrementally adds to the enjoyment of using the device.
Apple says the speakers on the iPhone 8 are 25 percent louder than on the iPhone 7, and while I can’t measure loudness in that way, I can say that it’s changed my behavior in a few specific ways. When I’m making lunch I find that I’m frequently just laying my iPhone down on the counter and playing podcasts directly though the speakers, rather than connecting to an external speaker or headphones. The sound is plenty loud for a quiet room, and I’ll often find myself just standing at the counter, eating my sandwich while continuing to listen.
Apple continues its iteration on the iPhone camera. Every model gets a bit better, and while the iPhone 8’s camera captures the same 12 megapixels as the iPhone 7, it’s got an upgraded sensor that captures more dynamic range. Perhaps the banner feature is the ability to capture 4K video at 60 frames per second, a staggering amount of data that results in spectacular video. Improved image processing in the iPhone’s A11 chip helps in many areas, and HDR (high dynamic range) mode is so solid now that Apple defaults to saving only the HDR version to your camera roll, rather than saving both an HDR and non-HDR shot just in case the HDR version looked weird.
The camera also now supports Slow Sync, which is a fantastic feature that I’ve been using in point-and-shoot cameras for almost 20 years. It excels at photos in low-light environments where there’s a subject you want to illuminate with the flash, but not at the expense of blowing out all the dimly lit items in the rest of the shot. (If you’ve ever taken a flash picture of someone and ended up with a brightly lit person surrounded entirely by black space, you know what I’m talking about.) Slow Sync works by keeping the camera’s sensor open longer than the flash, allowing it extra time to gather light from the poorly lit background. The results can be spectacular, especially if you’re taking a picture of someone standing in front of a sunrise or sunset.
On the iPhone 8 Plus, there’s a new Portrait mode feature called Portrait Lighting. This uses the two cameras on the 8 Plus to calculate the depth of the image and then apply lighting effects, including a spotlight mode that drops out the background entirely, as if the picture was taken in a darkened studio. It’s a fun effect, though I found that it took some experimentation before I could get spotlighted pictures that looked good.
All depth-effect photos on the 8 Plus get a boost from iOS 11, because the new HEIF image format allows all the accumulated depth information of a photo to ride along in the file containing the image; this means you can edit a shot later and change or remove the depth effect, and third-party apps can read that data as well. Even Photos for macOS High Sierra can apply and edit the depth-effect shots, because it has access to all the data in the HEIF container.
All processor cores on deck
Now that they’ve hit double digits, Apple has taken to giving its A-series processors cute names to go along with their numbers. Last year’s was the A10 Fusion, and this year’s is the A11 Bionic. Stepping into my Apple Kremlinologist4 boots for a moment, I have always taken the names to refer to the processor cores at the hearts of these chips. The A10 Fusion chip was a four-core design, essentially creating two separate banks of processor cores: A pair of high-performance cores would operate when the phone really needed to crank on something (eating battery in the process), and a pair of high-efficiency cores took over when things were quiet (while daintily sipping from the battery).
The A11 Bionic doesn’t just suggest that the people who name Apple products are of an age where Steve Austin and Jaime Sommers ran across TV sets with their bionic body parts. It also suggests the duality that’s at work inside the A11 processor. Now there are six processor cores. There are still two high-performance cores, which Apple claims to be up to 25 percent faster than their A10 equivalents. And there are four high-efficiency, cores, which (despite their low power usage) are up to 70 percent faster than the previous generation.
Here’s the cool part, though: The A11 can use all six cores as it sees fit. So rather than flipping between two dual-core modes, the A11 can crank up all six cores if it really needs to do some heavy processing work. There’s also a new Apple-designed GPU that’s up to 30 percent faster.
The results are clear: The iPhone 8 is spectacularly fast, faster than Android phones and even faster than some of Apple’s MacBook Pro laptops. Of course, the standard questions apply. You may not think anyone needs that much processing power in her pocket, but plenty of modern mobile games—and especially augmented-reality applications—can really use as much processor power as they can muster. And that added power will also pay off down the line, when in two years both iOS 13 and its accompanying apps will be accustomed to using this much processor to enable who knows what advanced features.
Certainly a user upgrading from a phone with the A8 or A9 processor will notice how much faster the phone feels. It’s really, really fast.
Charging without wires… sort of
The iPhone 8 is the first iPhone to support inductive charging. Though nothing is included in the box, if you buy a third-party charger (I used one from Belkin) you can charge the iPhone battery without ever plugging in a Lightning cable. Just lay the back of the iPhone down on a Qi-compatible charger, and power will slowly trickle from the charger to your iPhone’s battery.
This is hardly new technology, but it’s notably new to Apple—and with Apple indicating that it will be releasing its own charging pad, the AirPower, next year, it’s possible that Apple will be introducing inductive charging to most of its mobile devices in the future.
The question is, is it worth it? After having spent a month with a wireless charging puck in my house, I’d have to say no. Inductive charging is slower than USB charging, so if I’m trying to top up my battery before heading out, I’ll invariably prefer plugging in a Lightning cable. Dropping the phone on top of the small circle of the charging pad so that it’s properly aligned for the charge—the phone indicates that it’s charging and a small light appears on the charger base—is not really any less difficult in terms of mental focus than plugging in a Lightning cable.
I can imagine that there are some scenarios where being able to place your iPhone on a charging pad would be more natural and comfortable than plugging in a cable, but I haven’t been able to fit any into my life. (I’m also coming to the conclusion that I’d probably rather use a larger charging pad that felt more like a natural part of the furniture surfaces than a small, elevated plastic puck.) I’ve also heard many people complain about vibrating alerts knocking their phones off the Qi charger overnight, leaving them with a depleted battery in the morning.
So while this technology is interesting and cool, I’m not convinced that it’s practical—yet. With two iPhone 8’s in our house, I can see how something like the AirPower—which Apple says will charge up to three devices at once—might actually be a better solution, when placed on the counter where our current devices usually charge with Lightning cables. But that’s theoretical and in the future. For now, Qi charging is a novelty, but I’m a bit dubious about its utility.
The Lost Phone for Nerds
Most people who have bought every single iPhone released thus far will skip over the iPhone 8, and that’s fine. The iPhone X is shiny and new and exciting… and full of new, untested technology with a $999+ price tag. For anyone upgrading from and iPhone 6 or 6S, the iPhone 8 models are pretty great. They aren’t cutting-edge devices like the iPhone X, but that’s not their role. Instead, they are the fourth design iteration of a familiar, reliable, and successful product line. As powerful as a laptop, with an excellent camera and a shiny, grippable design that’s the best-looking version yet, the iPhone 8 is a solid device so long as you measure it by what it is, not what it isn’t.
- This is where conspiracy theories about Apple intentionally breaking old phones to force upgrades get their raw material: iOS 11 is embarrassing on the iPhone 6. ↩
- Both glass sides have the same oleophobic coating, so prints wipe off fairly easily. ↩
- None more black. ↩
- Should I call us Apple Parkologists now? ↩
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