iPhone 8 Plus review: Apple’s stunning new phone deserves to take some attention from the iPhone X
The new handset is the already spectacular iPhone 7, dressed up and ready to party
With the arrival of the iPhone 8 and iPhone 8 Plus, Apple has introduced a striking update to the design of the iPhone. It’s true that from the front these new phones look very like the current iPhone 7 and 7 Plus – so if you are cladding it in a case you may feel the need to point out that you have the latest model, thank you very much.
And these are not the iPhone X, the one-more-thing iPhone with its bezel-less screen, facial recognition and other spiffy features.
But the iPhone 8 and iPhone 8 Plus are the upgrade most people are likely to plump for: they’re on sale sooner (from this Friday), are more affordable and will be more readily available, if rumours of iPhone X scarcity are to be believed.
So let’s be clear, these are great phones. Incidentally, there’s a new phone set-up procedure which I strongly recommend. Both old and new iPhones need to be using iOS 11, the new operating software which has just become available, so it’s definitely worth upgrading your old phone to this if it’s compatible (ie any iPhone from the 5s onwards).
Here’s what you do: put the old and new phones near each other. And that’s more or less it. The phones recognise each other as if by magic (in fact, it’s Bluetooth) and you’re invited to hold one in front of the other so the new phone can see a freckly animated circle that appears on the old one. Enter the PIN code on the new phone and you’re done. Leave the phones to get to know each other and it’ll all be sorted before you know it. Utterly, utterly brilliant.
Anyway, let’s start with the design, even if it’s only easily evident when not hidden in a protective shroud.
Actually, even then you can still see glimpses of the new colours, peeping out at the base if it’s an official Apple case.
Previously, there were two gold iPhone colours, gold and rose gold (or pink as some people called it). These are still around in the iPhone 6s, 7 and SE models which remain on sale.
The iPhone 8 and 8 Plus come in three colours: space grey, silver and gold. All look good but the gold is the standout for me: a buttery sunrise that looks snazzy on the edge of the phone but especially attractive on the back where it makes the phone almost glow.
Not least, that’s because these are the first iPhones since the iPhone 4s to have glass backs, facilitating wireless charging, of which more later.
This has led to a change in the design of the antenna band. On the iPhone 6 this was a highly noticeable pair of lines, one straight, one curved. On the 7 it was reduced to a band around the top edge – still pretty visible and in design terms not a patch, for example, on the subtly crafted Nokia 5.
All that changes this time around. The antenna band is virtually gone – there are tiny glimpses on the edges, towards the top and bottom of each side but that’s it because the greater radio transparency offered by glass compared to aluminium means the rest of the antenna can sit hidden behind the phone’s back.
The switch to glass from aluminium also feels great and is less slippy in the hand, which is a bonus. Apple says it’s the most durable glass it has ever put in one of its phones, though you’ll understand that I haven’t put this to the test by dropping it or anything. Apple says durable, not shatterproof.
Button, switch and camera placement on the iPhone 8 Plus and iPhone 8 are identical to the iPhone 7 models. If you liked the iPhone 7 design, this is a refinement with more features and a slicker look.
The bezels on the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus are the same as before, then, which bucks the trend towards super-slim screen edges found on many phones, including the upcoming iPhone X.
Is this an issue? Not really, or at least not yet. In a year or two’s time it’s possible that so many phones will be bezel-free that this will look old-fashioned.
Like other recent models, this phone is water- and dust-resistant.
The display on the new iPhones is new – same resolution as last year but now with True Tone. That’s the subtly transformative tech which uses four-channel ambient light sensors to measure light colours and has previously only been seen on the iPad Pro. It then adjusts the colour output so that everything looks exactly as it’s meant to, compensating precisely whether you’re outside in bright sunshine or a dimly lit room. I’ve tried it in different situations and the effect ranges from subtle to garish. In every case, though, turning True Tone off revealed that it looks more natural with it turned on again. True Tone is quiet, but revelatory, and is a welcome addition to the iPhone screen.
The iPhone has one of these sensors where the iPad Pro had two. In both cases, they are almost impossible to find, they’re so tiny and well-hidden.
This display also has wide colour gamut to make everything look vivid and realistic.
All these claims would just be worthless statistics were it not for the fact that the screen on the iPhone 8 looks fantastic, bright, rich and very lively.
Both the new iPhones have larger photographic sensors in the rear cameras; each is still 12-megapixel resolution.
Apple says the new camera sensors have deeper pixels. This means, as I understand it, addressing the challenge all smartphone cameras face: how to maximise the effect of the limited number of photons that can come through the lens.
Previously, Apple has talked about how it created what it called a deep trench on its sensors to get the photons to excite only the pixel they’re meant to and not crosstalk into the next pixel. When you do that, you get a crisper shot with greater colour accuracy. The larger sensor means a larger hit area for the photons and the fact that there’s more space between them means they’re better isolated, for a higher signal-to-noise ratio.
Look, without geeking out completely on the technology, essentially greater pixel depth is generally associated with better dynamic range.
More importantly, how are the photos?
Well, pretty darn good, it turns out. The real camera virtuoso is the Plus, as it was last year when the iPhone 7 Plus dual camera set-up changed everything.
The great benefit of two cameras is you can cleverly get around the issue of a smartphone’s lack of optical zoom. When you’re composing your shot onscreen, a circle marked 2x snaps you to the other lens, effectively delivering a 2x optical zoom. This works brilliantly and makes photography much more versatile. Digital zoom, up to 10x is still available, too.
The iPhone 7 Plus also introduced the excellent Portrait Mode which used both cameras at the same time and enabled an effect, achieved through software, of artfully blurring the background. This depth-of-field or bokeh effect was strikingly done and now Apple has aimed to improve things further by what it calls Portrait Lighting. Like the original Portrait Mode, this one starts its life in beta. Unlike Portrait Mode, this is close enough to ready to be included from day one.
The extra options use the powerful processor on board the iPhone 8 Plus (the processor is jauntily called the A11 Bionic, though there’s as yet no actual evidence that human flesh is involved as it was in The Six Million Dollar Man). The same processor is found in the iPhone 8 and the upcoming iPhone X.
The system creates what Apple calls a depth map and separates the subject from the background. Apple says it uses machine learning to create facial landmarks and then changes the lighting and shadows of the contours over your face. This happens as you frame your shot and the software can then change the effect you end up with.
This real-time analysis of the light on your subject’s face, as Apple describes it, means dramatically different results. There’s Natural Light, which speaks for itself and mimics the portrait lighting the Portrait Mode has always used. Then there’s Studio Light which brightens the face noticeably, and Contour Light which is great for accentuating shadows and emphasising the difference between highlights and darker areas.
Finally, there’s Stage Light and Stage Light Mono which are the most arresting of the lot. They turn the background into blackness and create a high-contrast portrait as though you’re there under a spotlight, ready for your close-up, Mr DeMille. Stage Light Mono does the same but in black and white.
These are great effects and though they take a little time to get used to, are very fun to use. What’s more, you can change the effect you want after the event by using the Photos app. Portrait Lighting on its own is enough to put Apple back at the front of the line when it comes to smartphone photography, even though it is only beta for now.
Slow sync flash
There’s also an improvement to flash photography in a feature called slow sync flash and this is available on both the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus. Both handsets have a True Tone flash with four LEDs, which Apple claims delivers a more uniform illumination. It ensures the foreground is brighter, the background more detailed because of the way it lowers the shutter speed and pulses the flash.
Effectively this means you can expose the scene and add proper light to your subject, thus avoiding the hell of dark scenes flattened by a bright whiter overlay of flash.
When you’re shooting video, the new iPhones promise better video stabilisation and faster video frame rates which the bigger sensor makes possible and better video compression. I found video very strong on the iPhone before but it seems to have the edge here, it’s true.
The glass back on the iPhone now means you don’t have to plug the Lightning cable in to recharge. You just place it down on a wireless charging pad – it uses the popular Qi standard, pronounced Chee.
This is not as fast as regular wired charging but it has other benefits. It may not sound like it’s significantly more convenient, but it grows on you.
Imagine you’ve plugged your phone in at your desk and an email pings in so you unplug it to read that, then plug it in again to charge, unplug it to change the music track you’re playing, plug it back in again to charge, then… well you get the idea.
It’s a different world if all you do is plonk it on the charging pad each time.
Plus, with wireless charging you can now listen to music through wired headphones and charge your phone at the same time. This is something that was only possible on the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus (which, like these phones, lack headphone jacks), if you used an adaptor.
Note that there’s no wireless charging pad included with the iPhone 8 or 8 Plus.
If you want to charge faster, you can do that, too if you use a more powerful charger. For instance, if you have a recent MacBook, connecting the MacBook charger to the iPhone 8 or 8 Plus, will juice it up more quickly. For this you’ll need a USB-C to Lightning cable to achieve this. And a MacBook, I suppose, though separate USB-C chargers are also available.
I’ve written about ARKit elsewhere and it remains an extraordinary feature which will grow in importance. The ability to overlay the phone’s view of the real world with digital information is nothing new, but Apple has done it in a way that is astonishingly good, so that the animated overlays are locked in place so effectively they add a layer of realism not seen before. It will work on some earlier iPhones, too, but that A11 Bionic means it looks at its best here.
Apple doesn’t state battery life, on the basis that bare stats can be confusing. This is a case in point: the battery in the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus are not bigger than in last year’s phones, in fact they may actually be smaller. But improved software and the A11 Bionic chip work together to mean that battery life is as good as on last year’s phones. The chip includes a performance controller (the second-generation model) which is terrifically efficient. As a result, this is an extremely speedy phone that uses less energy than the previous phone. As ever, nightly charges are recommended.
Okay, so they’re not the all-singing, all-dancing iPhone X, but these phones are both worth moving up to, especially if you are coming from an iPhone 6s or older handset. However, I’d say there’s enough upgrade here to make it worthwhile from an iPhone 7, too.
Wireless charging is a genuine bonus, changing the way we think about how to charge and making a boost of even a few minutes worth doing now you don’t have to dive under the desk each time to rescue the Lightning cable that’s plugged in there. It is a system which very quickly becomes second nature and is especially handy if you listen to music while you’re charging.
The super-charged processor is enough to make a big difference, too, not just because the phone races along but because as more demanding apps such as augmented reality titles become more commonplace, you’ll be wanting that extra power.
The display is noticeably better thanks to the addition of True Tone for more faithful colours in any lighting condition and the camera is improved on both sizes of phone.
But on the iPhone 8 Plus, it’s especially spectacular, offering images which can sometimes match the richness and detail of a DSLR camera, but from a device which still fits in your pocket.
All in a gadget which looks like an excited iPhone 7, refreshed in its best party get-up.