The first place I took the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus was a sticky, late-summer wedding just outside of Austin. It turned out to be the perfect way to stress-test the new devices. The iPhones 8 have new cameras designed to hack it even on a drunken dance floor. Faster processors made downtime game-playing run smoother. Theyâ€™re also easier to charge, so youâ€™re less likely to get stuck with a dead phone at the end of the night.
Everything works great. The iPhone 8 and 8 Plus are virtually perfect phones. For $699 (the iPhone 8) or $799 (the Plus), you get a device that makes calls, plays games, takes pictures, shows movies, gets you everywhere, and does everything better than ever before. Apple set the standard for smartphones a decade ago, and with apologies to the Note 8 and Google Pixel, still does so today.
Apple iPhone 8 and 8 Plus
The world is going camera-first, and this is a kick-ass camera. The glass design is a big improvement. Wireless charging makes everything better.
Thereâ€™s a lot of bezel on this phone. Next to the iPhone X, it already feels outdated. The iPhone 8 lets you do so much, but iOS 11 buries too much of it.
And yet itâ€™s already obsolete. Only minutes after Apple announced these near-perfect models of its original vision, the company re-set the bar. The iPhone X looms large over the 8, with its tiny bezel and Face ID and amazing cameras. Want to know where smartphones are headed? Look at the iPhone X. The iPhones 8 are probably just the last, best version of what your phone looks like now. And they donâ€™t cost $1,000. And for now, thatâ€™s great news.
In iPhone years, 2017 shouldâ€™ve been an â€œSâ€ year, when Apple upgrades the phone without redesigning or rethinking it. But the iPhone 8 isnâ€™t a 7S. Besides the standard spec bumps, Apple changed a couple of bigger things, starting with the design. The iPhone 8â€™s a vision in glass. Aluminum (or al-yoo-min-y-yum if youâ€™re Jony Ive) keeps the body rigid; glass on the back and front keeps it pretty. It may make the iPhone 8 more fragileâ€”Apple says it wonâ€™t, my history with glass phones says it willâ€”but it definitely makes it classier.
Otherwise, the design looks just like last yearâ€™s iPhone 7 and 7 Plus. Home button: still there. Headphone jack: still gone. Thereâ€™s a big bezel around the screen, which looks even larger compared to handsets like the Note 8 or Essential Phone. I suspect this is the last time an iPhone will ever look this way, as the all-screen design of the iPhone X takes hold of Appleâ€™s entire lineup. It already feels outdated, especially on the 8 Plusâ€”a humongous phone without a particularly humongous screen.
You wonâ€™t notice most of the other changes except in some undefinable, everything-just-works kind of way. The screen, enhanced with Appleâ€™s True Tone tech, adapts its white balance to whatever room youâ€™re in to keep whites looking white and colors looking vibrant. It also has a wider color gamut, upgraded Bluetooth and wireless radios, better speakers, and lots of other nice features. Nice changes, but nothing thatâ€™ll make you throw your old, outdated iPhone 7 into the garbage.
If you do buy an 8, itâ€™ll be for one of two very important, very noticeable upgrades. The first is wireless charging, a decade-old tech thatâ€™s finally made its way into the iPhone. Apple doesnâ€™t make a wireless charger yetâ€”the AirPower mat comes next yearâ€”but the iPhone 8 works with any pad using the popular Qi standard. The phone charges quite a bit slower on the pad than plugged into the wall, but itâ€™s worth it for the freedom. Wireless charging makes the iPhone feel less like a Tamagotchi needing constant feeding, and more like a digital sidekick thatâ€™s always ready to go. Pick it up when you need it, put it down when you donâ€™t; whenever youâ€™re not using your phone, itâ€™s charging. Android users have known this feeling for years, but a lot of iPhone users are going to love it now.
The other difference youâ€™ll definitely notice? The camera. More specifically, the combination of a new 12-megapixel sensor, the laptop-grade A11 Bionic processor, and a reworking of the iPhone 8â€™s internals to make everything faster and more efficient. The iPhone 8 has a single camera on the back with an f/1.8 lens and optical image stabilization. The Plus adds a second f/2.8 telephoto lens, which lets it take beautiful soft-background photos in Portrait mode. Both models have 7-megapixel selfie cameras, which make even my goofy mug look good.
Apple made a conscious decision to tweak the way it processes photos, grabbing more pop and vibrancy from colors than before. Some people will quibble about the pure color accuracy, especially after Appleâ€™s longstanding devotion to faithfully reproducing even the most drab red and yellow, but I suspect most people will love the more dramatic look. Every shot is now HDR by default. It still struggles in low light, like any smartphone cameraâ€”I took 100 or so shots of the father-daughter dance at the wedding and every single one is blurry. But with few exceptions, photos I take on the iPhone 8 look fantastic.
The best part of the new camera, though, is the sheer number of new things you can do. You can shoot slow-motion video in 1080p. You can shoot 4K video at 60 frames per second, which makes everything look super smooth and fake. You can even shoot at 24 frames per second to satisfy all your hipster friends. In addition to Portrait Mode, the Plus now offers Portrait Lighting (still in beta), which lets you artificially change the light in a photo. You can take a brightly lit photo and make it look like thereâ€™s only a spotlight on your subject, or tweak the light to bring out your subjectâ€™s features even more. When it works, itâ€™s cool; half the time the effect is ridiculous and bad. Hence the beta tag.
Of course, finding all those camera goodies takes some searching. I had to Google how to turn a Live Photo into a loop (just flick up on the photo), and it takes way too many swipes to switch between all the shooting modes. Luckily the Camera app itself remains simple to use, but you could spend years with this camera and not discover all its tricks.
Toward the Future
Like the iPhone X, the iPhones 8 were designed as augmented reality devices, and thatâ€™s where the camera and processor upgrades really start to shine. Iâ€™ve only had a chance to try a few AR apps so far, but all work remarkably well. Iâ€™ve inspected an oversized beating heart in the middle of a hotel room, and redecorated my living room with some help from Ikeaâ€™s new app. Playing The Machines, an augmented-reality table game in which you have to actually move around to make sure your armies arenâ€™t being attacked, was the most gaming fun Iâ€™ve had recently. Itâ€™s also exhausting.
Sure, youâ€™re going to look insane walking around in circles and squinting at your phone, but itâ€™s great. Appleâ€™s in a position to dominate these early days of AR, and the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus provide excellent ways to try it out. Having a big white bezel around the edge of the screen sucks, though, and reminds you that youâ€™re still looking through a phone. And without all the remarkable front-facing camera tech in the iPhone X, you canâ€™t put yourself in AR nearly as well.
Thatâ€™s the thing about the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus. These are very good and very impressive phones, and yet, theyâ€™re not even Appleâ€™s best handsets. The iPhone X represents Appleâ€™s vision of the future, and also Samsungâ€™s and Essentialâ€™s and Huaweiâ€™s and everyone elseâ€™s. Itâ€™s a future without bezels, and with enough camera power to really change how smartphones work. The iPhones 8 check every box a phone has ever checked before, but they feels like the last of something right as Apple and others prepare the first of something else. When your phone can see you, and see the world, it will change what a phone is, and does, and can be. This fall, Appleâ€™s giving you a choice: get a seat on the best piston airliner ever, or take a chance on jet engines.
If you want an awesome iPhone, this is it. Iâ€™d recommend the 8 Plus, if you can stomach the size, because the added camera power and battery life are really nice to have. But both are fantastic phones, upgrades over even last yearâ€™s model. But if you want to be part of the future, save your money for now. Then go get an iPhone X and see whatâ€™s really coming next.
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