A great, fast phone, but without the shiny newness that made the early models feel special.
If it appears as though Apple is no longer trying to surprise and excite us with its annual iPhone revisions… it’s because it’s not. Now that the main iPhone has become the standard smartphone rather than a luxury item, Apple has reserved its real ambition for the upcoming iPhone X and its edge-to-edge screen. That leaves the iPhone 8 as an incremental upgrade over the iPhone 7, which was itself an incremental upgrade over the iPhone 6s, and the 6 before that.
The fact that you could easily mistake the iPhone 8 for its three-generation-old ancestor at a glance doesn’t mean it isn’t a great phone, because it absolutely is. By nearly every measure it’s the most powerful phone out there, and it matches or beats most of its competition with a high-quality camera (by smartphone standards) and a pocket full of excellent features. What it lacks in razzle-dazzle, it makes up for in high-quality construction and tested dependability.
There are a few telltale signs that this isn’t last year’s phone.
When you get up close, there are a few telltale signs that this isn’t last year’s phone. The back of the iPhone 8 is glass instead of aluminum, giving it a subtle but beautiful glossy look and more traction against your fingers. The downside is that it’s more expensive to repair than past iPhones if you break it – a case is recommended. It still has the solid Home button of the iPhone 7, which replaces the physical button press with a simulated click created by a sharp, short vibration. (That takes a little getting used to when coming from a 6S or older, but soon feels natural.) You’ll also notice that this is the second generation of iPhone without a headphone jack after its controversial removal from the iPhone 7, and if that’s a dealbreaker for you, the deal remains broken. Though Bluetooth headphones are great, it’s still a pain when you want to plug into both power and audio and can’t, even with the included adapter.
The base model iPhone 8 is $50 more expensive than the iPhone 7 was at launch, but that’s justified because it comes in 64GB for $699 instead of the cramped 32GB offered in the 7. That price is competitive with the Samsung Galaxy S8. For the high end, Apple skipped straight to 256GB for $849, dropping the middle-of-the-road 128GB option. But, as usual, there’s still no MicroSD slot for expanding storage – an area where most Android devices continue to have an upper hand.
But one of the big steps up this year is the processing power, which Apple claims is comparable to a Macbook Air. That’s definitely worth some bragging rights, and it’s impressive to cram so much power into such a small package. But when you have all of that in the palm of your hand, what do you do with it? Right now, outside of video editing and exporting on your phone, there’s not a lot that can take advantage of it. The iPhone 7 is already more than powerful enough to run anything on the App Store, so nothing makes the 8 break a sweat. What you’re really getting here is future-proofing: the iPhone 8 gives you a high degree of confidence that it’ll handle anything developers throw at it for the next several years. That said, when the iPhone 8 is under stress you can feel it. The top half of the phone can get uncomfortably hot.
For the moment, though, the day-to-day experience of using an iPhone 8 isn’t drastically different from the past couple of generations of iPhone. Some applications will open slightly faster, but it hasn’t been a night-and-day difference compared to an iPhone 6S, and there are still roughly the same number of small hitches when scrolling through applications like Twitter or your web browser of choice.
Display improvements this year are subtle.
The iPhone 8’s screen is the same 1334×750 resolution as it’s been since the iPhone 6, which is hard to complain about at 4.7 inches. The display improvements this year are subtle, including marginally brighter colors, but the most noticeable difference is that it automatically adjusts to the color to match light in the room to be easier on your eyes, similar to Apple’s Night Shift for Mac or the third-party Fl.ux utility for Mac or Windows. It’s a nice effect, especially in low light. But this is still can’t match the quality of an OLED screen, as found in high-end Android phones like the Galaxy Note 8, and soon the iPhone X.
The camera is another area with incremental improvements. Photos from the rear camera are the same 12-megapixel resolution as the iPhone 6s and 7, but a larger sensor captures more detail. Its contrast is stronger and has improved dynamic range (HDR is always on, but you can access a non-HDR version of your photo if you like), which gives better results when shooting scenes with both light and darkened areas. It also produces more accurate color than the 7, though it tends to oversaturate blues and reds slightly, and the strong contrast can create some haloing. All in all, it’s one of the best smartphone cameras for a 4.7-inch phone you can get.
In video mode the difference is more pronounced: this camera can record in 4K up to 60 frames per second, up from 30. It can also capture 240 frames per second in 1080p for slow-motion video, where the iPhone 7 was limited to 720p. But of course, if you’re really after the best quality smartphone photos and optical zoom, the iPhone 8 Plus’ dual-lens camera is the way to go.
Battery life in the iPhone 8 is up to the same all-day standard as the iPhone 7, even though the battery is slightly lower capacity. It’s easily survived a full day of moderate use, including around an hour of gaming time, with room to spare. While it’s obviously not as long-lived as the larger and heavier iPhone 8 Plus, it’s likely to be sufficient for most people.
It’s extremely convenient to simply plop your phone down on a nightstand to charge.
Charging up again is an area where the iPhone 8 has added a meaningful new feature: It’s the first iPhone to use the Qi wireless charging standard. That means you can pick up a charger for around $15, and it’s extremely convenient to be able to simply plop your phone down on a nightstand at night instead of fiddling with a cord or dock connector. It even works through a case. But keep in mind that this is a feature that’s been available on competing Android phones since 2012 – Apple is finally catching up here.
Wireless charging is slower than with a cable, but if you’re in a hurry the iPhone 8 supports fast-charging technology that pumps the battery up to 50% in 30 minutes. That’s impressive, but not cheap: that feature requires a heavy-duty 30W power adapter and a USB-C to Lightning adapter, which Apple will charge you around $75 for. (You can save a little money by buying third-party accessories.)
Most of the other new features are part of iOS 11 and work on the iPhone 6S or later, not just the iPhone 8. Most notable among them is the support for augmented reality, or AR. Right now it’s pretty gimmicky – you can do things like place virtual Ikea furniture in your home and then view it from any angle by looking through the phone – but now that millions of iPhone users have hardware that can do it, AR is the kind of fertile ground where a killer app could spring up at any moment.