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The iPhones 8

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.

The Outside: Design and Display

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.)

Here’s what I wrote about about the jet black aluminum finish last year:

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.

A11 Bionic Chip

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.

Cameras

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.

Charging

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.

Display

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.)

Conclusion

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.


  1. Well, I guess the shape and form are actually the same. I need a new idiom here that includes the word “finish”. ↩︎︎

  2. 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. ↩︎

  3. No offense to you photographers still shooting on real film. I love your work. ↩︎︎

  4. 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. ↩︎︎