Apple’s release strategy this year is a bit more divisive than past iPhone launches. We’re going hands on now with the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus, but we’re all keeping our sights set on the iPhone X launch later this year. That divided focus is leading to a general reaction of the iPhone 8 becoming a consolation prize, the iPhone no one wants.
There’s a lot of strategy and philosophy to unravel, and it’s easy to lose sight of one simple fact:
There’s a phone on my desk that performs tasks and deserves a review on its own merits.
In the year 2017, Apple can’t say this is the best iPhone ever made, as that title is reserved for the iPhone yet to come, but does the iPhone 8 Plus deserve consideration when shopping a new phone? Is it a true flagship competitor? Is it merely a placeholder?
The main area of criticism for this phone is how Apple relies on an aesthetic we’ve seen three times before. Apple has not only strayed from the “Tick Tock” release of previous iPhones, this form factor is overly worn and more than a bit stale.
We’ve seen this shape. We’ve seen these forehead and chin bezels. Returning to glass for the rear of the phone does little to freshen up the feel of this phone. The industry has moved on. Apple will be moving on. The iPhone 8 Plus is an evolutionary missing link between the “Old” Apple, and Apple’s next evolution.
If we’re being kind, we can say the phone is “familiar”. It won’t rock the boat, but considering other advances in screen technology, the 8 Plus feels taller and wider than it really needs to be considering screen size and battery capacity.
Happily, the internals are a lot more exciting to talk about. Apple should be praised for quickly catching up to the lifestyle features of its competition like stereo speakers and water resistance. Previously niche options on a phone, now mandatory features consumers expect.
TouchID remains the main home button navigation and the only biometric security solution. Users know it. Users trust it. It’s a proven interface.
Storage options have gotten a boost, doubling last year’s iPhones. RAM has remained the same, but the new chipset under the hood is what’s really exciting. The A11 Bionic offering developers plenty of horsepower and new resources for next generation apps and services.
We’ll have separate sections on Performance, Camera, and Audio tech later in this review.
Mirroring our criticisms of the phone design, the screen on the 8 Plus also feels a bit dated. A 16:9 LCD with a 1080p resolution is perfectly capable of getting your daily tasks done. It has terrific viewing angles. It’s respectably bright and easy to read in all but direct sunlight.
This is all “good”, in fact performance is “very good”. However, as we mentioned before, the industry has moved on. Folks interested in virtual reality, folks interested in HDR, those people won’t find a great home here. Given the number of different display experiments we’ve handled in 2017, this form factor feels vaguely like viewing your apps through a chunky picture frame.
iOS11 is still experiencing a few teething pains. Our 8 Plus fell prey to the notification bug, where swiping wouldn’t open the app. The recent 11.0.2 patch seems to have corrected that issue. Illustrating a major selling point for Apple’s ecosystem, even when a product has a few gremlins, the company has earned some trust that patches will arrive in a timely fashion. More radical UI changes are coming to the iPhone X, so the 8 Plus again feels like the safe option. For folks who like where all of their settings currently live, who don’t want to re-learn how to navigate, this phone is comfortable and familiar.
We are happy to see some issues addressed. From iOS10 to iOS11, Apple is taking file management more seriously, especially for how users might store info on different cloud services.
The redesigned Control Center is also an excellent example of ergonomic evolution. One panel containing a collection of shortcuts and toggles. Easier to operate, no gestures separating music controls, and pressure response for more granular control over volume and screen brightness.
It also can’t be undersold how seamless messaging works on this phone. Family members in Apple’s ecosystem easily use iMessage and Facetime. It’s increasingly difficult to find the same kind of synergy on Android.
For these benefits and improvements, there are still numerous bumps in the road we wish Apple would address. Like how the notification shade and the lock screen are unnecessarily similar. That, and notifications are still messy, especially if you have a popular post on a service like Instagram.
Apple still preinstalls apps like Stocks or Watch, though those can thankfully be removed from your homescreens now.
Navigation indicators, especially the back button, move between apps. You can generally use a swipe gesture as a back button, but visual consistency would be appreciated for such a commonly used action.
There’s still no conveyance for what actions can be performed using 3D Touch. Users need to blindly memorize what apps have additional functionality. Most users we survey, ourselves included, rarely intentionally use press gestures.
More a service gripe, iCloud is still somewhat expensive for storage improvements you might get from the competition. I maxed out my free iCloud allotment in one afternoon shooting a camera review. I’m currently using a combo of Google Photos/GDrive and Microsoft OneDrive for backups.
And while a File Manager is nice, transferring content through iTunes feels horrifically old fashioned. If I record high quality audio on my Sennheiser Clip Mic, I don’t want to AirDrop a HUGE .wav file. Dragging and dropping through my computer’s file explorer would be preferred over using the iTunes App interface.
What we can’t fault is this phone’s performance. Increasingly powerful hardware with a reasonable screen resolution, and well optimized software. The 8 Plus is a savage, packing way more horsepower than users will need to cover the basics.
We’re seeing incredible performance for gaming, and new graphics intense features like photo manipulation and Augmented Reality, which we’ll cover more later in this review.
Interactions with the phone are fluid and responsive. Multi-tasking is excellent considering this phone uses half the RAM of the Note 8. Samsung’s hardware can brute force keep more apps running at any given time, but the iPhone won’t lose a mult-tasking fight until numerous apps are running in the background. It’s highly unlikely that even Note 8 users are walking around with six games and Google Earth all running simultaneously, just because they can.
We’re not supposed to overly rely on synthetic benchmarks, but the 8 Plus currently holds the top scores for any phone we’ve reviewed this year, and by a wide margin. There’s plenty of untapped potential here, and we hope that means this phone will age well after two years of OS updates.
Photography shows subtle changes, but it’s not an area we’re seeing significant improvements over last year’s 7 Plus. Looking at finished jpegs, the 8 Plus exposes warmer and adds a bit more saturation than on iPhones we’ve reviewed in the past. Examining the RAW files, we do see improved image clarity, but so subtle that by the time the phone has processed the RAW file and compressed it, users aren’t likely to see any improvements.
Though color profile and processing has changed, the iPhone still represents one of the more consistent performers of the year, and is neck and neck with phones like the Pixel for HDR processing.
The major benefits are in areas that don’t directly affect image quality. iOS11, and the A11 chipset, now support HEVC video compression. A high quality 4K video shot on the iPhone now takes up about the same amount of storage space as a 1080p video on most Android phones. That compression also allows the 8 Plus to step up 1080p slow motion video to 240fps, and 4K video can be captured at 60fps. This is exceptional performance for a phone, and a whole generation ahead of what Android phones are currently capable.
Still, for this excellent performance, the iPhone camera could still be improved. The app is consistent, remaining largely unchanged for years now, but it still focuses on older ideas of photo sharing. There’s a separate mode for a square crop, but what about widescreen? Even Instagram will support a wide photo now.
The phone hardware supports RAW capture, but Apple’s camera app has no setting supporting that. Video quality is amazing compared to the file size saved, but Apple still refuses to acknowledge that most humans have two ears and enjoy stereo audio with their high quality video. The 8 Plus has fairly nice stereo speakers, but can’t record stereo audio?
Software and processing are increasingly more important to the content creation conversation. Apple’s portrait mode has been improved, with better edge detection around your subject, but the hot new feature is Portrait Lighting. Taking depth information of your face, the 8 Plus can augment lighting and highlights to further separate your subject from the background, or to create a more dramatic filtered effect. Portrait Lighting is still in BETA, but early impressions are very positive. I don’t love the idea of tons of monochrome stage lit profile photos, but the effect is generally better than most “dumb” filters we get in phone photo editing apps.
This year shows both Apple and Google pushing aggressively for AR support and services. Apple is taking a significant lead with the iPhone 8 and iPhone X. Developers will have a larger base to engage with, on premium, mainstream devices. Apple didn’t pawn off AR development to some “special” version of the iPhone. There is no iPhone 8 AR, or iPad Mini AR. The 8 Plus has this support baked in.
Augmented Reality works as an overlay, using the camera to scan the world around you, and applying info or graphics on top of that scene. Apple’s implementation of AR is refreshing, as there’s nothing “geeky” about the new iPhone. No strange sensors or additional cameras mar the rear surface. It’s simply a normal iPhone that can also track its own location in space and apply sophisticated world tracking to normal apps and services.
Early examples of this are a bit frivolous. Ikea will let you shop for furniture by placing it in your living room. You can raise a Tamagotchi-style Dragon critter. There’s even a fun running app, timing users on different course and shuttle patterns painted in space in front of you.
AR is not a technology unto itself, nor is it “finished” on this one specific phone. These are early days, but it’s easy to see the immense potential of AR. Once this technology has migrated to a heads up display or smart glasses, that potential will be better realized. It’s just impossible to get consumers to invest in a “face computer” right now with no understanding of what AR is and no apps to get people excited.
Apple of course wasn’t the first to show off reality augmenting solutions, but they quickly became the most important voice in this space. They’ll have the largest user base for developers. Microsoft and Google will be playing catch up.
The audio situation also hasn’t changed much from last year. Apple bragged on improved speaker performance, and the 8 Plus does produce a little more bass to our ears, but only in a way noticeable when you play the exact same track from an iPhone 7 Plus and an 8 Plus side by side at max volume. The advantage comes from two speakers, and the iPhone demonstrates a nice improvement over phones that only have a single mono speaker.
The headphone game is exactly the same. The iPhone is no longer responsible for headphone quality. That hardware has been moved to the dongle, and the dongle that comes with the 8 Plus is exactly the same as last year’s dongle.
In practical terms, the 8 Plus performs similarly to the Note 8, and has a slightly louder amp. The bummer is the iPhone dongle still represents a downgrade from the headphone jack built into phones like the iPhone 6S and SE.
Nearly everything about the phone is an improvement over last year’s phone, but Apple still has a small problem with power and battery life. As the iPhone has started using more cores, and each core has gotten more powerful, battery life suffers. This is exacerbated by the oddly smaller battery than what was found in the 7 Plus. The 8 Plus is still an efficient performer, likely to last you the day, but it takes a harder hit in our benchmarking.
Recharging the phone has gotten more convenient. We’re really happy to see Apple support an accepted standard with Qi coils in the phone. It was a joy placing a new 8 Plus on my original first-generation Nokia charger and seeing the phone start topping off.
The new iPhone also support fast charging, but a fast charger is not included in the price of the phone. The phone is painfully slow to recharge with the included plug and cable. Fine if you only need to top off over night, but not particularly helpful when you only have a couple minutes and need some extra juice.
Unfortunately, it hasn’t been smooth sailing for our review iPhone 8 Plus. While shooting samples for our AR video, crouching for a low shot with the Lenovo, the 8 Plus slid out of my pocket and fell from a height of about one foot into some mud over a patch of concrete.
That was enough of an impact to lightly chip the top glass and mar the metal frame. Not altogether inspiring drop performance for such a minor impact, but one we wouldn’t expect competing phones to survive much better. As mobile tech embraces larger screens, more glass, and minimal bezels, many phones released this year would likely have been similarly damaged.
As we’ve remarked in previous articles and videos, the naked smartphone increasingly feels like an incomplete experience. Cases and screen protectors are now mandatory accessory purchases for folks who want to better insure their phones will last.
The iPhone 8 Plus is an interesting beast. It’s the safety phone. Hopefully representing the last of its kind, because Apple is obviously ready to move on. Apple is also a victim of their own success though. The transition to the iPhone X will take a little time. Progress on software and services cannot wait for the all-screen iPhone to be the norm.
This is a rough transition for Apple. A company normally better at “hiding the seams”, the iPhone landscape has never looked as busy as it does today. Choice is normally celebrated, but Apple’s current offerings feel scattered. Consumers can shop the iPhone SE, 6S, 7, 8, and 10. There are six variations of a single phone design, delineated by specs. This is not ideal considering this company used to pride itself on a streamlined, simple, easy to understand consumer conversation.
We’re rapidly approaching the post-smartphone era. During the Pixel announcement, Google proudly boasted that services and experience trump hardware. The iPhone 8 shows us that Apple is also investing heavily in future services. The 8 Plus might not be the most exciting presentation of that idea, but it delivers the horsepower required to move the platform into the next generation of apps.