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.