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I was at a party the other night with several people who knew I'd just been to annual iPhone launch event. After asking me tons of questions about the new Apple Park campus, they of course asked about the new iPhone — by which all of them meant the all-new iPhone X. More than one person didn't even know the iPhone 8 existed.
Their focus — and really, Apple's focus — is on the iPhone X, the phone with the complete redesign, the edge-to-edge display, the facial-recognition system, and the entirely new interface patterns developed around the removal of the home button.
The iPhone 8 doesn't have any of that. While the 8 and 8 Plus share a processor, wireless charging capability, and similar camera setups to the X, they lack any truly new ideas about what an iPhone is — they're both very much just the next step along a path Apple's been on for quite some time now.
But Apple will ship millions of iPhone 8s — to people on upgrade plans, people who don't want to pay $999 for an iPhone X or wait for what seems like limited availability, and people who just need a new phone without thinking about it too much. If the iPhone X is Apple's bold vision of the future, the iPhone 8 is Apple making sure everyone else at the party has a nice time too. If you know what an iPhone is and you want one, then the iPhone 8 is exactly that, one tick farther down the line. It's an iPhone.
The iPhone 8 is fundamentally the fourth generation of the iPhone 6 — Apple told us it thinks of the 8 as an "all-new design," but that's also what Apple said about the iPhone 6S and 7. It must take a lot of effort to keep reinventing the same basic design without actually changing it. The major difference you'll notice is the glass back, but other than that nothing has changed — the 8 and 8 Plus will fit right into 7 and 7 Plus cases perfectly.
That glass back is heavier than the aluminum on the 7, but it's not bad — in fact, I like how the combination of the glass and increase in weight make the phone easier to hold than the 6 and 7, which always felt like they were about to fly out of my hand. You don't need a case for these new phones, but you'll probably want one: Apple claims the glass is stronger than ever, but I've already scratched the 8 Plus by carrying it around in my pocket. We'll see what happens when millions of people around the world start dropping these things.
The iPhone 8 comes in three colors — I received gold and silver phones to review. The silver is pretty familiar, but the gold isn't exactly what you'd expect. The back is a very 70s-looking cream color, which several people I showed it to really liked. It might even appease those mourning the loss of the rose gold option.
At the end of the day, you're looking at the same basic idea as the iPhone 6, and the iPhone 6 is far from the most beautiful iPhone Apple has ever made. I've been calling out the basic clunkiness of the 6 design since the 6 came out in 2014, when I wrote that "The iPhone 6 Plus isn't beautiful the way the iPhone 4 was beautiful." In 2015, I wrote that the iPhone 6S Plus "feels particularly surfboard-y" and that it was "almost designed to be put in a case." And last year, I wrote that "nothing about the iPhone 7's design exceeds the rest of the industry."
And that's really the problem — while competitors like Samsung and LG have pushed phone hardware design far forward, the iPhone has basically stood still for four years. The iPhone 8 might be the most polished iteration of this basic design Apple's ever made, but compared to the Galaxy S8 and other Android flagships like the LG V30, it's just extremely dated. Apple's true competitor to those devices is the iPhone X, but the company tells us that the 8 is also a flagship phone, and those huge bezels and surfboard dimensions just don't cut it at the top end of the market anymore.
The Galaxy S8 is just a tiny bit bigger than the regular iPhone 8, but it has a larger screen than the iPhone 8 Plus, doesn't have a camera bump, and generally feels like a tighter and sleeker package. I don't love Samsung's riffs on Android, but there's no question that the S8 is a nicer piece of hardware than the iPhone 8. And it's not just OLED phones that are moving past bezels — the Essential Phone has an edge-to-edge LCD screen. It seems clear that Apple's put all of its design energy into the iPhone X, and that means the 8 suffers in comparison.
But of course, it just doesn't matter if you have no intention of switching away from iOS, or you're locked into iMessage. Android phones might as well not even exist for you. The thing to know is that spending money on an iPhone 8 doesn't get you the cutting edge of phone design, or even Apple design — for that, you'll have to get an iPhone X.
Display and speakers
Apple's added True Tone tech to the iPhone 8 display, which first appeared on the iPad Pro. I've always thought the iPhone LCD was the best overall display on the market in terms of color accuracy, and True Tone just makes it look better, by measuring ambient light with sensors on the front of the phone and adjusting color temperature on the fly. You won't notice it working while it's on, but if you obsessively click the button on and off under most indoor lighting you'll see things warm up a little when it's active.
The iPhone 8's upgraded stereo speakers are impressively good. Just as on the iPhone 7, the earpiece gets really loud to act as the second speaker, but the whole system gets up to 25 percent louder now. You can hear actual stereo separation, which is wild.
Bluetooth has been updated to Bluetooth 5, so future wireless headphones and (in particular) future smart home devices should be a little more reliable. There's no Bluetooth 5 stuff out yet, so we'll have to see how it goes, but it's ridiculous that iOS 11 barely improves the Bluetooth device management interface beyond a new toggle in Control Center's music widget. Wireless audio all around is just messy in iOS unless you limit yourself to one of Apple's five W1-enabled headphones, which pair and sync much more cleanly than third-party products. If you have a lot of speakers and headphones, you will spend more time bouncing around settings and apps than you ever really want to. It's all due for a complete rethink.
And I would be remiss if I didn't point out that there's no headphone jack, which is still routinely annoying on every phone that omits it. Apple's own headphone dongle is one of the lowest-rated products on the Apple Store, with just 1.5 stars. It's been a year, and the Lightning audio ecosystem is still extremely immature. All the more reason for Apple to clean up all those wireless audio settings.
Wireless charging and battery life
The glass back allows for wireless charging, based on the Qi standard. Apple gave me one of the Mophie charging pads it'll be selling in stores, and we tried it out on Qi pads from Samsung as well, and it all just worked.
Qi is pretty slow, though — Apple's goal is to match the charging speed of its own 5W pack-in charger, but I only saw about 15 percent more charge on the 8 Plus every 30 minutes with the Mophie, which is especially pokey when you consider that you can't pick up and use your phone during that time. A future iOS update will let the iPhone 8 draw more power out of the Mophie and Belkin pads Apple sells in stores, so hopefully things speed up when that happens.
The iPhone 8 also supports fast charging for quick top-offs, which seems much more useful — any higher-powered charger will work, according to Apple, but you'll see best results if you plug into a 29W USB-C MacBook charger, which will net you 50 percent charge in 30 minutes. Other chargers are similarly speedy, though: I saw 40 percent more charge on the 8 Plus in 30 minutes connected to an iPad charger. But you'll have to buy a high-powered wall charger separately to see those speeds — in the box is the same 5W brick that has come with the iPhone since time immemorial.
Wireless charging will be nice at night on a bedstand, and I think it'll be especially useful in cars, where you can just put the phone on the charger, connect wirelessly to Bluetooth, and be on your way without any cables at all. We tested it out in a new Prius Prime and it worked fine, but the phone got extremely warm. Apple told me that's normal for some charging pads, and the the phone will stop charging if it gets too hot.
If you're a CarPlay user, you'll still be plugging in, though: the only car on the market right now with both wireless charging and wireless CarPlay is the BMW 7 series. I'm sure there'll be more to come, but unless you're ready for a pretty intense new car purchase, you're living with the wire.
Oddly, the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus have slightly smaller batteries than the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus. Apple says both phones should last about the same on a charge as the older models, because the A11 chip is more efficient than the A10. Both my iPhone 6S and iPhone 7 saw significantly worse battery life after just a few months, so we'll have to see how the 8s do over time. But in these first few days of testing, everything seemed about the same as before, with just under a day of standard use on a charge. The battery drained far more quickly when we ran AR apps non-stop, which makes sense. And you can add the switch for low-power mode to control center now, which is very convenient if you routinely need to save power.
Over the past year, the S8 and Pixel pulled ahead of the iPhone 7 in various tests. Apple told me they don't look at benchmarks closely, but the images from the iPhone 8 camera definitely look more like Apple's competitors than before.
Like Samsung, iPhone images are now more saturated by default, although Apple says it's still aiming for realism instead of the saturated colors and smoothing of the S8. And HDR is just on all the time, like the Pixel — you can't turn it off, although you can set it to save a non-HDR image as well. We ran around shooting with an iPhone 8, a Pixel XL, and S8, and iPhone 7 on auto, and the iPhone 8 produced the most consistent and richest images of the group, although the Pixel was the clear winner several times, especially in extreme low light. We'll do a hardcore comparison test when the Pixel 2 comes out.
I didn't spend much time testing out the new video modes, which include a 60fps 4K shooting and 240fps 1080p slow motion. We'll do an in-depth followup on that later.
The big new feature this year is Portrait Lighting on the iPhone 8 Plus, which mimics pro lighting setups with presets called Studio, Contour, and Stage. It's in beta, so I won't be too hard on it, but it's not nearly as impressive as Portrait mode was when it debuted on the iPhone 7 Plus. It basically seems like the next logical step once you've masked off the background and applied a lens blur — you apply a lighting effect to your subject's face. Apple says it's actually mapping the effect to faces, but it's not a huge step up over a simple filter. And it's really, really easy to confuse the system into masking off the wrong portions of the image, which gave us a few laughs in testing.
That's really all — Portrait Lighting is fun to play with, and the Stage effect in particular will be all over Instagram. Here's hoping it'll get better when it's out of beta.
Inside the iPhone 8, there's the new A11 Bionic processor, which is the same chip as in the iPhone X. Apple told me it's called Bionic because the company realized names like A8 and A9 weren't particularly exciting compared to its competitors chip names, so it added "Fusion" to the A10's branding last year. So this year it's "Bionic."
Marketing-speak aside, it should be no surprise that the A11 is lightning-fast. Apple leads the industry in mobile chip design and performance, and the A11 has a new performance controller that manages six active cores: two high performance cores and four high-efficiency cores. It's also the first chip to have an Apple-designed GPU inside. Early benchmarks suggest that the iPhone 8 is faster than the A10 Fusion in the iPad Pro and even the lower-end 13-inch MacBook Pros.
I didn't notice a huge performance boost over the iPhone 7 while doing basic things like browsing the web, watching videos, and taking photos. I played a few games and everything seemed fast and fluid, of course. Apple sells iPhones for years after they're released — the iPhone 6S is still in the lineup! — so a lot of this extra power just feels like headroom for the future, not something you immediately sense when upgrading from a previous model.
Where you do get a sense of the extra performance is when you try new apps that use Apple's ARKit in iOS 11. There aren't many out there, but I got to try some early versions of a measuring app, an app that teaches you about the human heart, a stargazing app, a Thomas the Tank Engine game and of course, a demo app from IKEA that lets you see what furniture looks like in a room. I use a non-AR stargazing app called SkyView Free all the time, and the AR-enabled Sky Guide AR was a particular revelation — the tracking is so much better than anything I've ever seen. This stuff is going to be really fun to play with as it rolls out.
There's a whole future of phone interactions coming as AR goes from standalone demos to a core part of the app developer's toolkit, and Apple's way ahead of Google's Tango effortand new ARCore approach so far. Playing with AR on iOS 11 is a pretty exciting taste of the future. But you don't need an iPhone 8 to do it; the iPhone SE, 6S, and 7 will support it when they're updated to iOS 11 as well.
We'll do a full review of iOS 11 as well, but it's a huge update. You'll notice chunkier fonts everywhere, and redesigns of most major apps. I'm particularly impressed with the new App Store design, which is much more curated and editorially-driven than before — there are blog-like writeups of apps all over the place. It's like a fancy app catalog, and it turns the App Store into a repeat destination on your phone, not just something you have to deal with.
The new iOS 11 Control Center makes way more sense than before and offers a lot of customization options. And in extremely good news, airplane mode can now be set to just turn off the cell radio and leave WiFi and Bluetooth active, which is a huge boon for frequent travelers and people who travel in and out of spotty cell service areas.
There's tons of other little stuff: screenshots can be annotated and sent instantly, the new Files app lets you access file services like Dropbox and Box directly, notifications are a little cleaner, and on and on. Siri sounds a lot nicer as well, although it's not any more capable than before.
Overall, iOS 11 is a really solid update — and if you have an iPhone 7, you might not miss any of the iPhone 8's features once you have it.
After spending a week with the 8, I can't think of a single compelling reason to upgrade from an iPhone 7. The 7 is still extremely fast, offers virtually the same design in a lighter package with a bigger battery, and will get almost every feature of the 8 with iOS 11. If you really want Qi wireless charging, you can get a slim $15 case that supports it. And if you're dying for Portrait Lighting, there are tons of photo apps in the App Store that offer similar effects. Of course, if you're upgrading from anything older than an iPhone 7, the improvements in the camera and the overall speed of the phone are going to really impress you.
Apple's line is now more segmented than before, with models at every price point between the $349 iPhone SE to the $1,125 256GB iPhone X, and the iPhone 8 sits near the top of that range. Prices are actually $50 more than the 7 was last year, with the 64GB iPhone 8 going for $699 and the 64GB iPhone 8 Plus going for $799. The decision between the 256GB iPhone 8 Plus at $949 and the 64GB iPhone X at $999 seems particularly challenging: do you value Apple's best and newest design, or raw storage capacity? I know my answer, and it doesn't look like another version of a phone I bought in 2014.
And yet, a lot of people are going to buy an iPhone 8 — it's the phone to get if you're on an upgrade plan, your older phone breaks or finally gets too slow, or you just need a new phone right now. It's Apple's new default phone, and it's pretty great that a default phone is actually this good. But it's not the future, and it's not the cutting edge. It's just the default.
It's an iPhone.