Review: Sure, the iPhone X Is Exciting. But Don't Overlook the New iPhone 8

Sep 19, 2017

The good: More storage space, slightly faster camera, improved screen, wireless charging
The bad: It doesn't feel radically different from the iPhone 7
Who should buy: Those upgrading from an older model like the iPhone 6s who don't want to spend $999 on the iPhone X

When Apple unveiled the iPhone 7 in 2016, all anyone could talk about was that it wouldn't have a headphone jack. Then on September 12 this year, Apple announced it was nixing another iPhone staple — the Home button.

But there's a crucial reason things are different this year. For the first time in its history, Apple announced three new smartphones in one event: the iPhone 8, iPhone 8 Plus and iPhone X (pronounced "iPhone ten"), giving potential buyers more choices than ever. In short, it means that if you're not ready to embrace the iPhone X's radical changes and premium price, you don't have to.

The iPhone 8 and 8 Plus look an awful lot like last year's iPhone 7 and 7 Plus because they are, but Apple has also added a few noteworthy changes. Both phones include a new glass back that enables wireless charging, a faster processor and improved cameras (that Apple says are better suited for augmented reality), and a slightly enhanced screen. The iPhone 8 and 8 Plus also come in the same size options as the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus, and both phones still sport a Home button. And most importantly: they're almost the same price as last year's iPhones. The iPhone 8 starts at $699, about $50 more expensive than the $649 iPhone 7, but the base model offers twice as much storage (64GB vs. 32GB). The iPhone 8 Plus begins at $799, while the iPhone X starts at $999.

Apple's iPhone upgrades have been relatively unsurprising the past two years. September 2015's iPhone 6s gave us 3D Touch (the phone can trigger secondary functions if you push harder, a feature I still rarely use even now), and September 2016's iPhone 7 included water resistance, a feature that should have been standard by that point anyway. By contrast, the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus, though they lack the more advanced sensors on the iPhone X, feel refreshed in more significant ways.

Some of that's the not-instantly-apparent convergence of all these upgrades working together to support a technology that now seems poised to erupt. Apple's been talking up the potential that augmented reality can bring to smartphones since it unveiled its new ARKit platform in June. The first apps that run on ARKit will begin to roll out with iOS 11, Apple's new operating system for iPhones and iPads that launches on September 19. The company reiterated on September 12 that the iPhone 8, iPhone 8 Plus and iPhone X were optimized for the new technology.

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Read more: Apple Needs the iPhone X More Than You Do

Let's start with the iPhone 8's True Tone screen technology, which previously debuted on the iPad and enables the display to adapt to ambient light levels. I found this often gives the screen more of a warmer, yellowish hue that tones down the blue light that typically comes from smartphone screens. As a result, text appeared crisper and bolder on websites, making it slightly easier to read news articles. The iPhone 8's display is definitely an improvement over that of the iPhone 7, though not as vibrant as the OLED display on Samsung's Galaxy phones.

The iPhone 8 and iPhone 8 Plus are also getting a speed boost compared to the iPhone 7 thanks to Apple's new A11 Bionic processor. This new chipset includes four high-efficiency cores and two performance cores, meaning it has six total cores contrasted with the iPhone 7's four. It's designed so that the performance cores only kick in when needed by demanding tasks, while the efficiency cores handle easier everyday duties, like email and web browsing. After spending a few days with the devices, I noticed minor speed improvements: Touch ID is much snappier at unlocking the phone, and the camera shutter has no lag whatsoever. The A11 Bionic's biggest job is powering other new features such as the ability to record 4K video at 60 frames per second, or the iPhone 8 Plus' new Portrait Lighting mode.

The latter is the most noticeable addition to the new iPhone's camera. When shooting in Portrait Mode on the iPhone 8 Plus, you can toggle between different lighting options. These include natural light, studio light, contour light, stage light and stage light mono shooting modes. Each setting changes the way the light in your environment hits the subject's face, resulting in images with effects and accents that differ from one another. It's a much more practical and creative way to build on the iPhone's existing Portrait mode feature than the approach Samsung took with its Galaxy Note 8.

Samsung's smartphone allows you to fine-tune exactly how blurry the background becomes when snapping a photo, allowing for more control over how sharply the subject appears against its surroundings. It's a nice option to have, but I find the ability to alter lighting much more valuable for taking higher quality portraits. Apple's Portrait lighting effects aren't perfect: some of them make the subject look artificially placed into the photo. But the current version of Portrait Lighting is in beta, so it's likely to improve over time. Take a look at the sample shots below to get a better sense of how Portrait Lighting can change a photo.

Natural Light

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Studio Light

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Contour Light

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Stage Light

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Stage Light Mono

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Otherwise, you can expect camera performance that's similar to that of the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus. Apple's new phones have a 12-megapixel sensor, just like their predecessors, which are capable of capturing intricately detailed photos in vibrant colors. But the sensors on Apple's new phones are faster than those on the 7, and I noticed that the iPhone 8's shutter snaps a bit more quickly than on Apple's older phones. The iPhone 8 Plus was also able to focus on a subject just a hair faster than the iPhone 7 Plus, especially in low-light environments.

Apple's smartphones are slightly better at taking pictures than Samsung's Galaxy Note 8, too. While Samsung's cameras are top-notch, I found that photos taken with the Note 8 were in certain cases a little washed out compared to those taken on the iPhone. When I shot the same portrait on both phones, I noticed the iPhone 8 Plus's image showed more facial details and more accurately represented the subject's skin tone. Samsung's photo was slightly brighter and made the subject's skin look smoother, but the iPhone's camera showed the subject more as they look in real life. The iPhone 8 Plus also preserved more detail in the dimly lit scenario, which you can see by looking at the brick wall in the background in the sample shots below.

iPhone 8 Plus

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Samsung Galaxy Note 8

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iPhone 8 Plus

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Samsung Galaxy Note 8

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The iPhone's cameras play another crucial role: providing augmented reality experiences. Some of the first ARKit apps for the iPhone, such as The Machines (the game Apple demonstrated on stage) and Insight Heart, already work impressively well. Both apps lay high resolution 3D graphics over your surroundings, making it possible to interact with these elements by tapping or swiping. Though still in beta, both apps ran smoothly without any hiccups.

Insight Heart in particular was interesting. It's an app that's meant to help educate users about the human heart its various conditions. The app makes it possible to zoom in on a realistic rendering of the human heart and explore it from multiple angles. It's apps like these that hint at the potential augmented reality holds for education, whether it be in the classroom or at home. It's also important to note that apps like Insight Heart will work on any iPhone that supports iOS 11 (meaning the iPhone 5s forward), and I didn't notice any meaningful differences in performance when using it on the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus versus the older iPhone 7.

Another one of the iPhone 8's headline features is its ability to charge wirelessly by way of its new full-glass back. That means the phone can be juiced up by placing it flat on a compatible power mat instead of plugging in a power cable. It's a small but important convenience (Android phones have had it since as far back as 2012), though you'll have to pony up another $60 for a charging plate like the one Mophie sells. (Apple plans to sell a wireless charging pad itself, dubbed the AirPower, but not until sometime in 2018.)

Wireless charging doesn't address the biggest annoyance about charging your phone, of course, which is that you still need to be near an outlet (solar and motion charging apparently remain elusive technologies). But the pad does make it easier to snatch up your iPhone while it's charging, though the convenience appears to sacrifice charge speed. When I rested my 61% charged phone on the charging plate, the battery still hadn't topped up over three hours later. That could have been an anomaly since Apple says this doesn't reflect typical performance. Charging wirelessly should take about the same amount of time as charging your iPhone through its Lightning cable, and the company is pushing out a software update later this year that will enable faster wireless charging.

That said, the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus's battery respective lives are just as lengthy as last year's models. I can easily get through an entire day with the iPhone 8 Plus and still have a little juice left over for the next day. Expect slightly less mileage from the basic iPhone 8 model.

The iPhone 8 and 8 Plus may not be as flashy as the iPhone X, but anyone upgrading from an older model will appreciate the jumps. Coming from the iPhone 6s, for instance, you're getting double the storage, the option to wirelessly charge your iPhone, a refreshed design, and a faster camera. If you're coming from the iPhone 7 family, on the other hand, it's harder to make the case. If you have last year's iPhone and want a comparable leap, I'd say boost than rainy day reserve for Apple's duly next-gen iPhone X.

4 out of 5

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