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. They're also easier to charge, so you’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.
And yet it'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 don't cost $1,000. And for now, that's great news.
In iPhone years, 2017 should've been an "S" year, when Apple upgrades the phone without redesigning or rethinking it. But the iPhone 8 isn't a 7S. Besides the standard spec bumps, Apple changed a couple of bigger things, starting with the design. The iPhone 8's a vision in glass. Aluminum (or al-yoo-min-y-yum if you're Jony Ive) keeps the body rigid; glass on the back and front keeps it pretty. It may make the iPhone 8 more fragile—Apple says it won't, my history with glass phones says it will—but it definitely makes it classier.
Otherwise, the design looks just like last year's iPhone 7 and 7 Plus. Home button: still there. Headphone jack: still gone. There’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 Apple's entire lineup. It already feels outdated, especially on the 8 Plus—a humongous phone without a particularly humongous screen.
You won't notice most of the other changes except in some undefinable, everything-just-works kind of way. The screen, enhanced with Apple's True Tone tech, adapts its white balance to whatever room you'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 that'll make you throw your old, outdated iPhone 7 into the garbage.
If you do buy an 8, it'll be for one of two very important, very noticeable upgrades. The first is wireless charging, a decade-old tech that’s finally made its way into the iPhone. Apple doesn't make a wireless charger yet—the AirPower mat comes next year—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 it'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 that’s always ready to go. Pick it up when you need it, put it down when you don't; whenever you're not using your phone, it'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 you'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 8'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 Apple'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 camera—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 there's only a spotlight on your subject, or tweak the light to bring out your subject's features even more. When it works, it’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 that’s where the camera and processor upgrades really start to shine. I've only had a chance to try a few AR apps so far, but all work remarkably well. I've inspected an oversized beating heart in the middle of a hotel room, and redecorated my living room with some help from Ikea's new app. Playing The Machines, an augmented-reality table game in which you have to actually move around to make sure your armies aren't being attacked, was the most gaming fun I've had recently. It's also exhausting.
Sure, you’re going to look insane walking around in circles and squinting at your phone, but it's great. Apple'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 you're still looking through a phone. And without all the remarkable front-facing camera tech in the iPhone X, you can't put yourself in AR nearly as well.
That's the thing about the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus. These are very good and very impressive phones, and yet, they're not even Apple's best handsets. The iPhone X represents Apple's vision of the future, and also Samsung's and Essential's and Huawei's and everyone else's. It'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, Apple'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. I'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 year'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 what's really coming next.
iPhone, You Phone
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