iPhone 8 review

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The Good: The iPhone 8 offers wireless charging, lightning-fast performance and small but solid upgrades to its camera, screen and speakers. Its starting storage size is a roomy 64GB, double that of the iPhone 7.

The Bad: This phone has the same pedestrian design, missing headphone jack and battery life as the iPhone 7 — and no dual camera either. The iPhone 8 costs a bit more than baseline new iPhones in years past, and comes only in black, silver and a new shade of gold.

The Bottom Line: The sensible, speedy iPhone 8 makes a nice upgrade to the iPhone 6S and earlier siblings, but we won’t know until November how it compares to the much pricier iPhone X.

On Nov. 3,  Apple will roll out its seductive sports car of a phone: the all-new, totally redesigned, edgy, giant-screened iPhone X.

In the meantime, the iPhone 8 ($699.00 at Apple) and 8 Plus — the practical crossover and supersized SUV of the 2017 Apple phone line — have pulled into the lot. They’re here and available, and suddenly your iPhone purchase decision is wildly confusing.

So why buy an iPhone 8 when that sexy iPhone X is just around the corner? The 8 is last year’s design with this year’s technology. It feels familiar. It’s a safe pick. It’s a “let’s not spend a thousand dollars on an iPhone” iPhone. It’s a “Touch ID and a home button matter more to me than a leap of faith into the world of Face ID” iPhone.

iPhone 8

Make no mistake: The iPhone 8 is essentially the “iPhone 7S.” Apple saved the cool features and radical new design for the iPhone X, which costs 43 percent more — $999, £999 or AU$1,579 to start. And if you want the truly impressive dual camera, with portrait mode and 2x optical zoom — both seriously nice step-ups — you’ll need to invest in the much larger iPhone 8 Plus ($799.00 at Apple), or wait for that eventual X. It’s a different approach than Samsung, which made its whole line of Galaxy S8 and Note 8 phones look new. With the iPhone, new looks only come at the top end.

That X is tempting indeed, but my only real-world experience with the device is the brief time I spent with it at Apple’s Sept. 12 launch event. Until I can eventually get one and put it through its paces, I strongly recommend that you refrain from buying any phone whatsoever.

But if you need a phone right now, or if you have no desire to pay the iPhone X premium, let’s talk practical considerations.

2017 iPhone pricing (64GB, 256GB)

US UK Australia
iPhone 8 $699, $849 £699, £849 AU$1,079, AU$1,329
iPhone 8 Plus $799, $949 £799, £949 AU$1,229, AU$1,479
iPhone X $999, $1,149 £999, £1,149 AU$1,579, AU$1,829

The iPhone 8’s best feature is its processor, a fast new six-core A11 Bionic chip, similar to the processor in the iPhone X and 8 Plus. Thanks to an all-new image sensor, photo quality has improved in low light, as has video quality. The iPhone 8 adds an improved iPad-style True Tone screen, and the speakers sound nice and loud. All the new iPhones include wireless charging now, thanks to a glass back.

If you have an iPhone 7, you’ll find the faster speed, better screen and better camera on the iPhone 8 “nice to have,” but short of “must-buy” territory — unless you’re particularly enamored with the wireless charging Android owners have enjoyed for years.

For anyone with an iPhone 6S ($650.00 at Amazon Marketplace) or previous model, however, the benefits of jumping to an iPhone 8 ramp up dramatically. The speed, screen, audio and camera improvements will feel significant, and you’ll get nice upgrades you missed when you skipped the iPhone 7, including water resistance.

So, yeah: That iPhone X may look great in the showroom window. But ultimately, you’re driving off the lot with the practical four-door crossover. It’s more affordable. It gets perfectly decent gas mileage. But it still has the same nice high-end navigation package, entertainment system and fuel-injected engine as that sweet low-slung coupe. Not too shabby.

That’s the iPhone 8. The baseline 2017 iPhone remains a top-tier smartphone — a seriously good phone. Just don’t expect it to turn heads.

iPhone 8

Do you wait for the iPhone X? (Yes)

The X is compact — it’s got a 5.8-inch screen in a body that’s taller but barely wider than the 8 — and it feels great. Its dual cameras should be at least as good as those on the excellent iPhone 8 Plus. It has a weird 3D-mapping front camera array housed in a notch above the screen, a design compromise some iPhone purists find maddening. It uses your face to pay for things. And we have yet to see how its Face ID tech compares to Touch ID in real-world testing.

If any of that sounds attractive to you — or if you’re willing to pay a huge premium for “the best iPhone” — you should wait until November.

If you don’t care about that stuff, or if you just can’t see yourself paying $1,000 for a phone, the iPhone 8 is fine. Yes, it’s basically what we were calling it all year: the “iPhone 7S.” But S phones are often the best values, and the iPhone 8 is no exception. It’s a better iPhone that looks the same.

Editors’ note: In-depth battery testing is still to come, as is durability testing and additional photo comparisons to other phones. Ratings are provisional until we complete those tests.

iPhone 8

Wireless charging: Cool, but BYO and slow (for now)

The iPhone 8 comes with a Lightning cable and plug, but it works with the existing Qi wireless charging standard. That means there are already many affordable third-party chargers on the market, and many public places — like McDonald’s, for instance — already have counters with Qi-compatible chargers built-in.

Apple doesn’t have its own wireless charge base at all, at least not yet: AirPower arrives next year, a mat that charges the new iPhones, the Apple Watch Series 3 and AirPods ($175.76 at Amazon Marketplace) with a new charge case. In the meantime, Apple recommends Belkin and Mophie chargers that will charge the iPhone faster when it’s updated to allow 7.5W wireless charging via an update later this year. A test unit of Mophie’s new charger worked fine for me: It has a circular, rubberized base but has its own specialized charge cord (you can’t use Micro-USB, USB-C or Lightning with it).

For now, wireless charging is slow. Half an hour with Mophie’s charger delivered about a 15 percent uptick in battery. It’s intended for overnight charging, with a Lightning cable still the faster way to charge the iPhone 8. If you want faster still, spring for a separate higher-wattage MacBook charger — and, of course, the USB-C-to-Lightning cable, sold separately. The new iPhones will charge up to 50 percent in half an hour this way, but not with included chargers. (Stay tuned for more testing.)

Still, now that Apple’s on board with an existing standard — Samsung and others have long supported Qi — wireless charging looks to finally become a universal convenience. Starbucks has already pledged to make its existing wireless chargers iPhone compatible, and there are plenty of Qi chargers available on Amazon for as little as $20 in the US.

Apple claims that the iPhone 8’s battery will last about as long as the iPhone 7’s does. In our first days with the device, that has matched up with our anecdotal experience. Keep in mind that the similar-size iPhone X promises up to 2 hours more battery life than the 8 — similar to the battery life you’ll get with the 8 Plus.

iPhone 8

Better camera, but not dual cameras

The iPhone 8 doesn’t get a dual camera like the 8 Plus and the iPhone X, and that’s a shame. But its photos and videos do look improved.

This time around, the front and rear cameras get better mostly via new sensors and a new image signal processor. While low light shots do look nicer, and shutter speed and focus seem a bit faster, I didn’t see enough of a change from the iPhone 7 to astonish me, but the photos I took all looked really, really good. The 8’s camera still lacks the clever Portrait effects of the 7 Plus($785.70 at Amazon Marketplace) and 8 Plus, and telephoto lens (2x optical zoom) found on those phones, too.

iphone8-test-1

This phone also now shoots 60fps, 4K video and 240fps, 1080p slow-mo, and those video changes make a difference for serious video work. But if you’re buying an iPhone as a camera for professional use, you owe it to yourself to get the iPhone 8 Plus. Or, wait to see how the iPhone X performs — its front and rear cameras, on paper, are even better than the 8 Plus.

iPhone 8

Design: Old-school, but fine

When the iPhone 6 ($355.00 at Amazon.com) debuted, its screen size and design made big waves. But that was 2014. Much like with the MacBook Air or iPads, Apple has locked in the design one more time here, but with a construction facelift. A return to a glass back, the first since the iPhone 4S back in 2011, enables more than just aesthetics: that’s what allows the aforementioned wireless charging to work. The phone feels good, though, kind of like last year’s Pixel ($679.99 at Amazon.com), with a similar grippiness to the matte black iPhone 7. The glass actually makes it feel less slippery.

Apple says the glass in the new iPhones is 50 percent more durable than last year’s iPhone 7 glass, with impact and scratch improvements and steel frame reinforcements (and more durable aluminum). It’s hard to tell how impact-proof these phones will be in practice because Apple won’t make any specific claims, and we’ve only had these phones for about a week. Stay tuned for drop tests. We’ll find out. In the meantime, my natural inclination is to coddle all-glass phones. The good news is that most iPhone 7 cases will work on the 8, so long as they have a bit of flexibility. (The iPhone 8 is a fraction of a millimeter bigger than the 7 all around.)

Color options have shrunk to space gray, silver and gold. I’m testing the silver model, and it’s mostly white with silver aluminum touches. Gold looks a creamy blush-pink with gold metal highlights — more toward the older rose gold than “true gold” end of the scale. Space gray is very close to what was just “black” on the iPhone 7.

iphone-8-90

True Tone and better speakers are tiny AV improvements

The iPhone 8 screen isn’t OLED, the display technology used on the iPhone X and Samsung Galaxy phones, which is more energy efficient and offers far better contrast and black levels. In fact, the iPhone 8’s LCD screen is the same size and resolution as the 6, 6S and 7: 4.7-inch diagonal, with 1,334×750 pixels. It does get True Tone, however, a color warmth-adjusting ambient effect that the iPad Pro added last year. It makes the display seem less harsh in everyday reading, a bit like a more advanced all-day Night Shift.

Meanwhile, the speakers, which were louder with the 7, now get a bit beefier with some bass. It’s nice when you’re sharing TV, movies or YouTube videos with friends, or even just using the iPhone for music at home. My son said, “It’s a lot louder.”

I mostly use headphones, though. Which reminds me: Like the 2016 models, none of the new iPhones have a standard headphone jack. Go wireless, or use the Lightning-to-3.5mm dongle or Lightning earbud headphones (both included). It’s still annoying.

iPhone 8

New processors make the iPhone 8 a speed demon

Apple calls its new iPhone chips “A11 Bionic.” It’s a six-core processor, versus the four-core last year. Apple’s upgraded the rest of the chips, too: an upgraded Apple-made GPU, a new W2 wireless chip that’s meant to be more Wi-Fi efficient, upgraded motion-tracking chips, a modem chip designed for LTE-Advanced wireless networks and better camera sensors. It’s ready to keep up with the next-wave apps that will come. New sensors and processors help photo and video quality, too.

It’s a seriously fast set of chips based on benchmarks so far: In fact, the Geekbench 4 numbers we’re getting come close to what MacBooks with Core i5 processors can achieve. Multitasking scores double last year’s iPhone 7 tests, and it’s a step up over even the last iPad Pros from the spring: Geekbench 4 results thus far are 4,188 single-core, 10,213 multicore. On paper, they blow away the Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 chip that’s in most competing top-end phones, including those from Samsung, LG and OnePlus.

But, again, those gains are only as good as the software that pushes it. These phones should, however, handle onboard machine learning extremely well. That comes into play with Apple’s iPhoto library scanning, which happens on the phone, not in the cloud, for privacy reasons. Third-party apps could also eventually tap into onboard machine learning in iOS 11 without using the cloud at all.

More storage (for more money)

A word on price and storage. You may have noticed the baseline iPhone creeped up from $649, £599 and AU$1,079 to $699, £699 and AU$1,079. But at that price, you’re getting 64GB this year, versus 32 for last year’s iPhone 7 and just 16GB if you bought the entry-level model in earlier years. That 64GB should be OK for many people, especially since new photo and video compression formats on the iPhone save space, sometimes by as much as 50 percent. And iOS 11 has some space-management tricks that allow more cloud-storage of unused apps and files.

An extra $150, £150 or AU$250 gets you 256GB, which is best used for those who want to record lots of video, 4K or otherwise.

And, of course, if you buy on a monthly installment plan, all those numbers drop to something far more affordable.

iPhone 8 Plus

AR: Apple’s wild new iPhone trick

The most amazing thing you can do with Apple’s new phones is augmented reality. Apple’s ARKit works by fusing cameras and motion sensors to track the real world and layer virtual things on top of it, using your phone. Google tried this first with specialized Tango phones, and is now expanding AR to other Android phones like the Galaxy S8 ($745.11 at Amazon Marketplace) and Pixel. Apple’s AR promises immersive experiences without wearing any headsets or glasses. Based on a few test apps I’ve tried, ARKit can be pretty impressive. In SkyGuide, I aim my phone above the trees of the daytime skyline and a night sky fades in, with superimposed constellations and star names.

I float a transparent man with a glistening, beating heart in Insight Heart by Anime Res. The app is meant to realistically illustrate medical details of heart function. Much like Google Tango phones I’ve used, I can move around it and it stays in place. I can zoom my phone in to check out details.

A Thomas the Tank Engine AR app involves placing track pieces down on the floor and feeling like there’s suddenly a toy track on my office carpet.

img-0250

ARKit has its limitations: Sometimes the camera and motion-based tracking can’t sense certain surfaces, or there’s a bit of drift. Holding the phone up to see virtual things, as opposed to wearing glasses or goggles, is convenient but can get tiring. It can feel gimmicky, too. Some apps feel like AR is a trick, and maybe an unnecessary one.

But the level of graphic detail in these apps is stunning: It feels richer than VR, even if in a sense it is less immersive.

The possibilities here could extend into a future that involves things well beyond phones. As a first step, this has tons of promise. The new iPhones run these apps, but so can older iPhones going back to the 6S and SE, as long as you’re running iOS 11 (available Sept. 19). That’s a great perk for those who don’t upgrade, but it means that the new iPhones aren’t needed for what feels like Apple’s wildest new feature.

iPhone 8

Who should upgrade?

It’s Big Phone Season, and everything is sprouting up. Samsung’s great Galaxy S8 is already falling in price. The Note 8 sports a stylus. There’s the upcoming Google Pixel 2, which will be revealed on Oct. 4.

The iPhone 8 should be as powerful or more than any of them, but its conservative design and lack of new extra perks (like no dual cameras) could be a factor.

With that in mind, here are some quick-hit recommendations:

iPhone 7 owners won’t see much of a difference here, unless they’ve been waiting anxiously for wireless charging. I’d say they can skip the 8 — but they should check out the 8 Plus and the X (see below).

But iPhone 6S owners will get lots of upside from two years of waiting: water resistance, wireless charging, better cameras, better cameras and a huge leap in performance.

Anyone with an iPhone 6 or older — especially those with comparatively micro 4-inch screens on the iPhone 5S ($269.00 at Amazon.com) and earlier — will find the iPhone 8 to be a quantum leap forward.

Potential switchers from Android will likely find the iPhone 8’s 4.7-inch screen to be too small. They’ll be better served by the larger screens of the iPhone 8 Plus.

More budget-minded buyers who want power but don’t care about new looks: The camera and speed improvements here are the key. Are you OK with the smaller screen?

Again, though, it’s actually a good time to wait maybe a month or two to know the full spectrum of offerings to compare against, particularly the Pixel 2 and iPhone X.

(cnet.com, https://goo.gl/o8k4zM)

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