By John Gruber
Plan your novel, finish your dissertation, launch a product. You need Tinderbox.
I’ve been testing the new Apple TV 4K for a few days, but I don’t own a 4K TV, so there’s no way I can pretend to write a full-on review when I can’t make use of the tentpole new feature. I do have a few thoughts, though:
Initial setup was amazingly simple. Plug it in, it boots up quickly, and it asks if you want to share setup information like your Wi-Fi network info from your iPhone. Hold your iPhone near the Apple TV and boom, Apple TV is on your network, and it knows some information like your iTunes Apple ID. This is true too for setting up a new iOS 11 device — you can get a headstart on setting up a new iPhone just by holding your old iPhone next to it. But this is especially helpful on Apple TV, where entering passwords and email addresses through the on-screen keyboard felt like a form of punishment. When you do need to type things, Siri dictation works like a charm — fast and accurate.
It is baffling to me that Apple didn’t redesign the remote control to make it obvious at a touch which way it’s oriented. The raised white ring around the Menu button is an improvement, but it’s truly the least Apple could have done. I really wish they’d either made it asymmetric (wedge-shaped, perhaps) or used texture to denote orientation along the back and sides. Nobody loves this remote. Most people I know outright dislike it. And Apple left it almost unchanged.
It seems to me that navigating around the Apple TV 4K interface is improved over the previous generation. Everything feels snappier, Siri seems to be faster and more accurate, and even navigation via the remote control feels more accurate. I’m not sure if that last one is thanks to improvements in the Apple TV 4K hardware itself, improvements to the remote control touchpad, improvements to tvOS 11, the reviewer’s placebo effect (I want navigation to be more precise), or some combination of the above. My guess is that it’s a change to tvOS to change the on-screen physics of navigation.
Apple TV 4K is tiny compared to a Mac Mini, but judging by Geekbench scores (Mac Mini; iPad Pro, which uses the A10X in the Apple TV1) it’s a slightly faster computer than even the maxed-out Mac Mini configuration. Apple TV 4K probably has better GPU performance too. In addition to all the performance problems stemming from the fact that the Mac Mini hasn’t been updated in three years, it’s also inarguable that it’s no longer even “mini”. You could arrange four Apple TV units in a 2 × 2 square and they’d take up the same volume as one Mac Mini.
I did get to see Apple TV 4K in action last week in California, in a product briefing with Apple. They had it connected to a gorgeous 70-inch display from LG. Apple’s remastered videos for the Aerial screensaver look amazing. There’s a daytime flyover in Dubai in which you can now see that one of the skyscrapers has a pool on the roof with two sharks in it. It’s on the left-hand side of the street. That’s some serious James Bond villain’s lair shit.
Upgrade advice: I often don’t give upgrade advice in reviews, because everyone’s situation is different. Instead, I try to write reviews that help you decide on your own whether it’s worth upgrading to this new thing from whatever you’re using now. But with Apple TV 4K, upgrade advice for people who already own the previous Apple TV is easy. If you have a 4K TV, you should upgrade (especially if you watch a lot of movies and TV shows from iTunes). If you don’t own a 4K TV, you shouldn’t.
In short, it’s the Apple TV you know and love (and/or hate), only faster, and with 4K support I can’t test.
Apple is firmly at the high end of the market: the Apple TV 4K starts at $179, much more than competing 4K HDR-capable devices like the $89 Roku Premiere+ or the $69 Google Chromecast Ultra. I was really expecting — hoping! — this thing would blow me away.
But the new Apple TV doesn’t support Atmos. And it doesn’t support YouTube in 4K HDR. And it doesn’t have Disney or Marvel movies in 4K HDR. And it makes some 1080p content look less than great.
I’m going to explain why these limitations exist, but you’ll have to bear with me. I suspect most reviewers will focus on the interface, the TV app and the various content deals that populate it, and the bare fact that the Apple TV now supports 4K HDR playback. But I need to tell you about video format arcana, because Apple’s decisions around some very wonky specs directly influence what it’s like to use the new Apple TV 4K.
Put some tape on your glasses. This is going to be nerdy.
The omission of Atmos support seems baffling. As Patel points out, for the premium price Apple charges — at $179 for the 32 GB model, it’s double the price a Roku Premium Plus — you expect support for premium features like Atmos. According to Patel, though, Atmos support is coming in a future update.
It’ll be interesting to see how the lack of 4K YouTube support plays out. The issue is that YouTube encodes its 4K content using the VP9 codec. No Apple device supports this format. Apple has thrown its weight behind H.265.
With regular HD content, YouTube supports H.264. If YouTube dropped H.264 support for HD content, you couldn’t play HD YouTube videos on any Apple device. There’s no way YouTube is going to do that — the iOS market is too big and too valuable. And you don’t need 4K to play at native resolution on iPhones — HD is enough. And even on iPads, the displays are small enough that upscaled HD is still good. But on a 70-inch (or bigger) 4K display, 4K content matters.
Unlike the iPhone and iPad, Apple TV doesn’t have enough market share to force Google’s hand. I think Google can stick to its VP9 guns and it’ll be Apple that pays the price. YouTube’s enormous popularity is more likely to force Apple into supporting VP9 than the Apple TV’s middling popularity is to force YouTube into supporting H.265. Even worse for Apple, the whole point of Apple TV is that — like with all Apple products — its entire reason for existence is to provide a premium experience for discerning users. Apple TV users are more likely to notice and be annoyed by upscaled 1080p content on their 4K TV than users of generic set top boxes are.
Apple may well have good technical or legal reasons for not supporting VP9. Apple TV users don’t care. They just want YouTube videos to look great on their TVs.
Another non-ideal aspect of Apple TV 4K — rather than have your TV switch modes from 4K to 1080p when playing 1080p content, Apple TV upscales the 1080p on the fly itself:
If you have a previous Apple TV, this lack of mode switching is familiar, but remapping SDR content into HDR is a whole new ballgame, and unfortunately, Apple’s HDR video processing is hit or miss. It was great when I watched HD content from iTunes, but it fell down in other apps. I watched The Dark Knight in HD on HBO Go with our video team, and the Apple TV 4K HDR processing blew out all the contrast in the image, sharpened everything to hell, and turned the film grain into noise. The same movie looked fine on iTunes, but it just looked bad from HBO Go. I checked on my older 1080p Apple TV, and HBO Go looked fine. So there’s definitely work to be done here.
There’s no Geekbench app for Apple TV, unfortunately. If anything, Apple TV 4K might be faster than iPad Pro, because iPad Pro runs on battery and Apple TV is always plugged in. ↩︎
When is the right time to ship a product? In particular, a hardware product? The answer, sometimes, is not when it’s done, but rather when it’s useful.
The original Apple Watch was too slow. It was too dependent on being tethered to an iPhone. The user interface was too unfocused. But it was useful in some meaningful ways — primarily fitness tracking and as a convenient display for notifications.
With WatchOS 2 and 3, Apple focused the experience on fitness tracking and notifications. With last year’s Series 2 hardware, performance improved and the screen got much brighter, making it far more legible outdoors.
With the addition of cellular networking in Series 3, Apple Watch gains something essential: independence. It’s not just a cool feature. It’s aimed smack dab in the middle of the two things people like best about Apple Watch: notifications and fitness. When are you separated from your iPhone? When you’re exercising. What do you miss most when you’re away from your phone? Messages and phone calls.
Phone anxiety is a weird, and, for me at least, irrational thing. I know that mankind survived for millennia without the ability to communicate with each other out of earshot. But once you get used to having your phone with you at all times, you get used to feeling that if anyone needs you, they can get you.
Apple Watch Series 3 with cellular networking completely alleviates this anxiety. It is not a replacement for a phone, and is not supposed to be. But it lets you leave your phone at home when you go for a run, or in your locker while you’re at the gym, or in your hotel while you go to the beach, and not worry in the least that you’re out of touch.
Audio quality for phone calls on the watch is very good. People I called via the watch said I sounded great, and I could hear them loud and clear. And all of my testing of phone calls on the watch took place mid-day on busy city streets — full of traffic and pedestrians — here in Philadelphia. People won’t know you’re calling them from your watch if you don’t tell them.
Siri sounds great on the watch, too: crisp and clear. The hardware performance improvements surely help here — the S3 dual core CPU is “up to 70 percent” faster, and the new W2 chip for wireless improves Wi-Fi performance “up to 85 percent”. (The W2 also makes Wi-Fi and Bluetooth more energy efficient, and, it seems obvious, is one of the reasons that cellular networking is possible at all.) The effect of these performance improvements isn’t that it makes Apple Watch Series 3 feel fast, but that it makes it feel not slow. When you dictate a text message to Siri and it just works, without delay, it just feels like it should.
But it really feels like a big difference that Siri now talks back to you. The non-talking Siri on previous Apple Watches now feels half-baked to me. (And, at least here in the U.S., you get the new improved Siri voice that also ships with iOS 11.)
The only thing I don’t like about the addition of cellular networking to Apple Watch is out of Apple’s hands: the monthly price to add it to a cellular plan. AT&T and Verizon are both charging $10 a month per watch. I don’t expect it to be free, but $120 a year feels like too much for a device that I’m using instead of the iPhone I’m already paying (a lot) for. With our Verizon family plan, it also costs $10 a month to add an iPad. But an iPad is a device we use in addition to our phones, not instead of.1 I think $5 per month is the right price. (And DF readers in Canada and Australia report that that’s about what it costs from the carriers in those countries — this is perhaps a U.S. problem, not a worldwide one.)
Battery life has been fine. “All day” is about right — charging at night, using it all day, and I’ve had plenty left in the tank when I went to bed again. That said, I’ve been testing a 42mm watch. I can’t speak to the battery life of the 38mm models. This is what I expected, but it’s kind of exciting when you think about it. Apple turned Apple Watch into a goddamn cell phone, without making the device thicker2 or heavier, and it still lasts all day.
It’s worth thinking about that. Apple is a company that is driven to make its devices thinner and thinner. To the consternation of many users, when Apple creates more efficient chips, they tend to keep battery life the same while making the devices thinner, rather than keep the devices the same size and extend battery life with bigger batteries. But in the early years of a new product line, they don’t do that. iPhone stayed the same basic thickness until the iPhone 4. In those early generations, it was more important to add essential missing features, like 3G networking, a better camera, and a faster processor, than to make it thinner. Apple Watch might stay the same size for a few more years.
There’s no way to review this watch without mentioning the red dot on the digital crown. All cellular equipped Series 3 watches, including all the stainless steel models, the ceramic Edition models, and the Hermès models, have this red dot. I don’t get it. It’s not that it looks bad in and of itself, but it draws unnecessary attention. I would much prefer this watch if it were black. Also, red doesn’t go with everything, and a huge part of the fun of Apple Watch is swapping bands. Apple sells a lot of watch bands that clash with the red dot.3
My two big wishes for future generations of Apple Watch: a camera and some form of always-on display.
A camera is the one thing I miss when I leave my iPhone at home and go for a run. I have no idea how a camera could work ergonomically on a watch. Maybe it’s just not feasible. But it is mildly frustrating when I’m out on a run and see something interesting that I’d like to photograph. In the same way that always carrying a phone gets you used to always being in contact with friends, family, and colleagues, always carrying a camera gets you used to always being able to take a photo.
Raise-to-wake works about as well as I could hope, but as someone who regularly wears mechanical watches, trust me, it’s no substitution for always being able to glance at your wrist for the time. With the current Apple Watch displays, the problem is obviously battery life (and perhaps burn-in too). I don’t know what the answer is, technologically, but I feel like Apple has to be working on this, and that it’s coming in some future model.
A third, bonus wish for the future: stronger, more precise haptic feedback from the next generation Taptic Engine. The Taptic Engine in Series 3 is unchanged from Series 2. It’s not bad, but I wish it were better, especially for the stainless steel models.
This is not a full review of everything new in WatchOS 4, but there are two features I want to point out.
First, I love the new option to show the app screen as a simple vertically scrolling list of apps, sorted alphabetically. The honeycomb design — which is still the default in WatchOS 4 — has frustrated me ever since the original Watch. It’s a bad design in several ways:
The new simple scrolling list of named apps solves all of these problems. I’d go so far as to say that Apple should have made this the default. The honeycomb design is a violation of the adage that design is how it works. The honeycomb looks cool, especially when you pan around, but it works like shit, and it’s a reminder of the unfocused nature of the original Apple Watch.
(Update: To toggle between these views of apps, 3D touch on the app screen. You get a choice between what Apple calls “grid view” and “list view”.)
Second, there’s a new feature in WatchOS called “Auto-launch Audio Apps”. It’s in the Apple Watch app on your iPhone, in the General: Wake Screen section. What happens with this is that when you initiate audio playback on your iPhone, if there’s a corresponding WatchOS app on your watch, when you raise your wrist that app is what you see, instead of your watch face. This was on by default with my review unit, which I set up as a new watch, and I noticed it while listening to podcasts in Overcast. Because I wasn’t expecting it, I was irritated at first, and thought about disabling it. But now that I know it’s there, I really like it. I don’t know how much of this to attribute to WatchOS 4, and how much to attribute to the performance improvements in Series 3, but there is zero lag involved. No spinner while the app launches or anything like that. When I play podcasts from my iPhone, my watch just automatically turns into a remote control for audio playback. It’s nice. ★
It’s worth noting here that a Series 3 Apple Watch’s cellular networking will only work in the country in which you purchase it. That’s because the link between it and your iPhone is handled by your carrier. The watch’s cellular connectivity is an extension of your carrier account. ↩︎︎
To be pedantic, as Jeff Williams pointed out on stage at the event last week, the casing for Series 3 watches is unchanged in size, but the covering on the back of the watch (ceramic on all cellular models, composite on non-cellular ones) is 0.2mm thicker. Not 2mm thicker — 0.2. As Williams described it, that’s “two sheets of paper”. Side-by-side it is indistinguishable in thickness compared to a Series 2, but I admire Apple’s exactitude. ↩︎
While I’m talking about aesthetics, allow me to plop in an unrelated suggestion: try the “Bold Text” option in the Brightness & Text Size section of Settings. When you toggle this, the watch warns you that it will need to restart. That warning kept me from trying this option for a long time, because it takes Apple Watch so long to restart. I was worried that if I didn’t like the way Bold Text looked, I’d have to wait for two reboot cycles to get back to the default setting. But it’s not really a full reboot. WatchOS just needs to restart its presentation layer, much like on iOS when you switch to zoomed mode. And I really like the way Bold Text looks. Small text in complications just looks cooler, more like the way I’d expect small text to be printed on a nice mechanical watch. Seriously, give it a try. ↩︎︎
I was tempted to write this review under the conceit that there was no such thing as the iPhone X. Just don’t even mention the iPhone X, and consider the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus as though they were the only two new phones coming from Apple this year. That conceit would work, insofar as the iPhones 8 are excellent year-over-year upgrades compared to their iPhone 7 counterparts.
But ignoring the iPhone X would actually do an injustice to the 8 and 8 Plus, because so much of what is inside the X is also inside the 8’s. These phones are in no way shape or form1 some sort of half-hearted or minor update over the iPhone 7.
These new iPhones look and feel great. I’ve been testing a silver iPhone 8 and gold iPhone 8 Plus since last Wednesday. Whether you like the way their polished back glass looks is subjective, but I like it a lot. Feel-wise, there’s no question in my mind that glass is better than aluminum. My personal iPhone 7 that I’ve been using for the last 11 months, however, is the jet black model, which in hand feels very similar to the glass of the iPhones 8. With both the iPhone 8 and iPhone 7 in my pocket I can’t tell them apart by feel, but that’s only because my 7 has the jet black finish.
I’ve never owned a Plus-sized iPhone, and last year my review unit did not have the jet black finish, so I found the 8 Plus with glass back to be a revelation. I prefer it so much to any previous Plus-sized iPhone I’ve tested that it almost feels like a different form factor, not just a different material. I’ve always found the Plus unwieldy, and part of that is that aluminum is slippery enough that, combined with the size of the device, it just felt like something I had to consciously think about to avoid dropping. However, just like the jet black aluminum finish, the polished glass back of these new phones is grippier. That grippiness is a nice feature for the 4.7-inch size, but for the Plus, I think it’s a necessity — it makes it far more pleasant to hold and use.
This is the fourth Plus-sized iPhone Apple has made, and it’s the first time that I personally would seriously consider buying one. (I probably would have thought the same thing if I had tested a Plus with the jet black finish last year, though. The difference for me is all about the grippiness.)
I’ve spent the last five days testing one iPhone of each finish: a jet black iPhone 7 and a matte black iPhone 7 Plus. On Friday I devoted an entire piece — “Black vs. Jet Black” — to help pre-orderers decide between the two, based on my initial impressions. Long story short, my initial impression was that black looked better, and jet black felt better. I stand behind my initial description of jet black as the grippiest iPhone Apple has ever made. I also stand by my prediction that Apple wasn’t joking around about the footnote on the iPhone 7 web page:
The high-gloss finish of the jet black iPhone 7 is achieved through a precision nine-step anodization and polishing process. Its surface is equally as hard as other anodized Apple products; however, its high shine may show fine micro-abrasions with use. If you are concerned about this, we suggest you use one of the many cases available to protect your iPhone.
After just five days — more than half of which I’ve spent using the matte black iPhone 7 Plus — this jet black iPhone 7 has a few “micro abrasions”, to use Apple’s own term. I can only see them when I’m looking for them, and only when I reflect light off the surface at the perfect angle, but they’re there. This is after two days of careful use, and never putting it in a pocket that contains anything else. The back surface of this phone shows more wear after (effectively) two days of use than my space gray 6S does after nearly a year.
After six days of daily use, this iPhone 8 shows no scratches or “micro-abrasions” whatsoever. With a wipe on my shirt to remove fingerprints, it could pass for mint new-in-box condition. The iPhone 8 Plus I’ve been testing has not been in my pocket every day, but it too looks flawless.
I don’t mind the micro-abrasions on my jet black iPhone. After nearly a year of daily use, almost all of it sans case, its back is covered with these fine scratches. That’s what I expected based on Apple’s warning last year. There’s no such warning from Apple this year. I think these glass backs are going to hold up nicely.
Color-wise, I can’t say much about space gray, since I don’t have one to test. But that’s the one I’d buy if I were going to buy an iPhone 8, because I always prefer black or space gray or whatever name Apple is calling the black one this year. But the silver looks nice, and the new gold is very interesting. Rather than two golds — a yellow gold and a pink rose gold — Apple has honed in on one true gold this year, a sort of slightly rosy gold. The back glass panel is a sort of taupe. It looks like a slightly different color under different lighting conditions.
A lot of people out there have been asking me who the iPhone 8 is for, other than people who can’t or don’t want to spend $999 or more on an iPhone X. One group, I think are people who’ll want this gold color.2
Now, everything I’ve written about what’s new about the exterior of the iPhone 8 is moot if you put your phone in a case, and from what I’ve observed, I’d guess 90-95 percent of iPhones in use are in cases. Some cases have clear backs, which do show the color and design of an iPhone’s back. I think it must be so weird to be a hardware designer at Apple, though, working to make these devices that look beautiful, knowing that 90+ percent of the people who buy them will put them in a case within minutes of unboxing them and never take the case off.
In a lot of ways, I think the iPhone 4/4S design was the pinnacle of the iPhone’s perfection. No camera bumps, no notches. So much symmetry, including a symmetric feel between the front face and back, because both were made of glass. Those backs were prone to shattering when dropped, and I’ve always suspected that’s what led them to switch to an aluminum unibody case with the iPhone 5. We’ll see how durable this new “most durable glass ever in a smartphone” is (those are Apple’s own words), but in terms of look and feel, I’m glad glass is back.
I asked Apple last week what exactly was “bionic” about the A11 chip system. The answer, translated from Apple marketing-speak to plain English, is that The Bionic Man and Woman were cool, and the A11 chip is very cool. I think they’ve started giving these chips names in addition to numbers (last year’s was the A10 Fusion) because the numbers alone belie the true nature of how significant the improvements in these chips are. Going from A10 to A11 is like going from 10 to 11 mathematically, which implies a 10 percent improvement. That’s not the case at all here — the A11 is way more than a 10 percent improvement over the A10. So they’ve given it a name like “Bionic” to emphasize just how powerful it is.
I wrote about the A11 Bionic chip last week in my thoughts and observations on the event, and I don’t have much more to say here, but I’ll repeat this line:
The specs aren’t what matters — the effects are what matters. But the specs are what we can measure, and the faster the chips are, the better the effects are in the user experience.
Apple isn’t using the power of the A11 simply to make the things older iPhones do faster. They’re using it to power new features, like the lighting effects in Portrait mode on the 8 Plus and the various machine learning stuff.
Six days is not a lot of time to spend with a new phone, let alone two new phones. Photography is one area where I don’t yet have a handle on how much better these iPhones are than their predecessors. The lighting effects in Portrait mode, though, are interesting. This feature is still in “beta”, but man, I’ve already taken some shots of my wife and son that I just love. There have also been a few where the edges of their hair have confused the hell out of the iPhone’s depth sensing. But the original Portrait mode last year shipped in similar state, and got better quickly. When it works, though, it’s amazing. (And when it doesn’t work well, you can always revert to the plain no-lighting-effect Portrait mode shot, with nothing lost.)
From a high-level perspective, a camera is three things: a lens, a shutter, and a surface on which to focus the image. That surface used to be film; today it’s a digital sensor.3 For the most part, if you wanted to improve the image quality, you had to improve (or change) the lens or the film. Over the decades, there were breakthroughs based on electronics — automatic focus and exposure are the ones that spring to my mind — but the biggest technical factors in photography were based on the simple physics of light passing through a lens and being focused onto a sensor surface.
What’s interesting to me is that some of the camera improvements Apple is talking about with the iPhone 8 aren’t about that. Yes, the sensor has been improved, and is apparently even better at capturing colors in a wide color gamut. But the advances in phone photography are driven more by computing — both hardware and software — than by advances in lens optics or sensors. There’s just not much more that can happen between such small lenses and sensors. The real action is in hardware and software.
Here’s one example from the iPhone 8, in Apple’s own words:
The intelligent, Apple-designed image signal processor in the A11 Bionic chip detects elements in a scene — like people, motion, and lighting conditions — to optimize your photos before you even take them. It also delivers advanced pixel processing, wide color capture, faster autofocus, and better HDR photos.
Apple is so confident in their improvements to HDR that with the iPhone 8, by default HDR is simply engaged automatically, and iOS no longer stores separate HDR and non-HDR images. HDR just turns on when iOS thinks you need it, and it simply leaves one image in your camera roll. The Settings app has options to enable manual HDR mode and to save HDR and non-HDR versions of images, but until I run into a problem, I’m sticking with the defaults. HDR is no longer something I need to think about.
In addition to the fact that the glass backs look and feel nicer, they also allowed Apple to add inductive charging to the iPhones 8 — a feature the industry and, alas, Apple itself insists upon calling “wireless charging”. Don’t get me started. Inductive charging is not wireless. But it is nice. Apple supplied me with a review unit of Belkin’s $60 wireless charging pads. Other reviewers were given Mophie’s, which is also $60. It’s convenient and works great. Design-wise the Belkin pad is what it is — it looks Belkin-y. My biggest complaint is that the plug that goes into the wall is enormous and ugly. I’ll probably buy the Mophie one simply because I prefer black to white, and their wall plug has to be better than Belkin’s.
I’m glad Apple decided to support the Qi (pronounced “chee”) standard, which several Android handsets already support. This is an area where Apple has been behind its competition. You know how like 10 years ago, hotels started buying bedside alarm clocks with built-in 30-pin iPod docks? And then they were rendered useless when the iPhone switched to Lightning? And how those Lightning docks are utterly useless to Android users? If they start switching to Qi charging pads, it’ll just work for everyone, and that’s a good thing.
The iPhones 8 also now support “high-speed charging” when you connect them to a Lightning cable attached to a high-wattage charger. In the box, both the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus both still come with the same rinky-dink 5-watt charger that all iPhones have shipped with since 2008’s iPhone 3G. iPhones have long charged faster when connected to one of the larger 10- or 12-watt chargers that ship with iPads.4 I went out and bought one of Apple’s 29-watt chargers that ship with the MacBook ($49 bucks, not cheap). I also bought a USB-C to Lightning cable ($25 for 1 meter, $35 for 2 meters — also not cheap). Anker makes a 30-watt USB-C charger that sells for under $30, but I figured I’d test fast-charging with Apple’s kit.
The bottom line: it’s faster, yes, but not that much faster. I ran the iPhone 8 battery down until it powered off. I plugged it into the 29-watt charger, and got the following results: after 15 minutes it was back to 27 percent, at 30 minutes it was at 54 percent, and at 45 minutes it was at 72 percent. But then I did the same thing with my year-old iPhone 7. After 30 minutes it was at 43 percent, and at 45 minutes it was at 65 percent. (I didn’t pay attention to where it was at after 15 minutes.) The iPhone 8 does charge faster than an iPhone 7, but not by much.
There’s one major difference between these displays and those of the iPhones 7 — True Tone. This is a feature where the device uses a 4-channel ambient light sensor to detect the color temperature of your surroundings. It then adjusts the color temperature of the display to match. I love True Tone. Back in March 2016, Apple introduced the first True Tone device: the 9.7-inch iPad Pro. Describing the feature, Phil Schiller said something to the effect of “Once you get used to it, you can’t go back.” I took this as a sign that it would be coming in the iPhone 7 last year, too. It didn’t.
But the iPhones 8 have it now, and it’s great. True Tone, though, is the sort of feature that you don’t notice, but rather that you notice the absence of in other devices. It ruins you. When I flew home last week, I spent the first few hours of my flight using the iPhone 8. I find phones to be convenient devices on planes — and the flaky nature of in-flight Wi-Fi is a good stress test for battery life. Two or three hours into the flight, I needed to check something on my personal iPhone 7 — I don’t remember what it was exactly, but it was something from an app I didn’t have installed on the review unit. When I took my iPhone 7 out of my pocket, my first thought was “What’s wrong with the display, why is everything gross and blue?” Then I remembered: True Tone.
(Battery life, by the way, has been fine. 4 hours into my flight last week and the iPhone 8 was still at 50 percent — that was pretty much non-stop use.)
The pricing has changed slightly since last year. Last year’s entry model iPhone 7 cost $649. This year’s 64 GB iPhone 8 costs $699. Apple, of course, has no explanation for this. But RAM prices have gone up so much in the last year that it’s probably the biggest reason.
Each phone comes in two sizes: 64 GB and 256 GB. The iPhone 8 costs $699 and $849; the Plus $799 and $949. I like this change from three sizes to just two. And even more than that, I like that after years of languishing with 16 GB base models, Apple has quickly moved to 64 GB as the base model capacity.
No one is going to describe the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus as having a radical new design. But they do have new glass backs that are the biggest change to their finishings since this general form factor started with the iPhone 6. The displays have gained True Tone. The cameras are significantly improved, both for still images and video. (Did I mention that both the 8 and 8 Plus can shoot true 4K video at 60 frames per second when you use the new HEVC format instead of the more compatible H.264?) The iPhone 8 Plus gets the new Portrait mode lighting effects. Both phones have the amazing A11 Bionic chip. They get inductive charging.
These are solid year-over-year updates — at least as impressive as the iPhone 7 was over the iPhone 6S. If they hadn’t debuted alongside the iPhone X we’d be arguing about whether these are the most impressive new iPhone models since the iPhone 6. There’s a lot to love about them and nothing to dislike.
But they did debut alongside the iPhone X, and because of that almost nobody is excited about them. There’s no use pretending otherwise.
But it’s worth noting that it’s just as instructive to compare the iPhones 8 to the iPhone X as it is to compare them to the iPhones 7. The iPhone X certainly has much to offer: the edge-to-edge 5.8-inch OLED display, the form factor that’s easier to hold and pocket than the Plus, the front-facing sensor array for Face ID and depth mapping with the front-facing camera, and an even better camera system on the back (with optical image stabilization for both lenses — the iPhone 8 Plus only has OIS for the wide angle lens). But the A11 chip (including the improved image processing that I described above), inductive charging, True Tone — all of these things in the iPhone X are also in both iPhone 8 models.
Pretty good for a boring update. ★
Well, I guess the shape and form are actually the same. I need a new idiom here that includes the word “finish”. ↩︎︎
Another group are people who value familiarity over being on the bleeding edge. You, the sort of person who reads the footnotes on Daring Fireball iPhone reviews, are not that person. But an awful lot of regular people out there just want a nice new iPhone that looks and works like the one they’re replacing. ↩︎
No offense to you photographers still shooting on real film. I love your work. ↩︎︎
I’ll go so far as to call the rinky-dink 5-watt charger the new 16 GB storage tier — a nickel-and-dime move whose time was up a few years ago. Oh, and one more nickel-and-dime move: Apple only includes a USB-A-to-Lightning cable in the box. The Google Pixel I bought last year included two cables, USB-A and USB-C. And Apple is the company selling laptops that only include USB-C ports. If you buy a new MacBook or MacBook Pro and a new iPhone 8, you’re spending upwards of $2,500 and Apple still requires you to buy a separate $25 cable if you want to connect that new iPhone to your new MacBook or to use the MacBook’s high-wattage charger to power your phone. That’s embarrassing. ↩︎︎