iPhone 8 review: The upgrade many people will be looking for

iPhone 8
iPhone 8 (Image credit: iMore)

April 11, 2018: (PRODUCT)RED iPhone 8 and iPhone 8 Plus now available in stores and for immediate delivery.

Just like last year, Apple has released a new iPhone color for the spring — and it's (PRODUCT)RED. iPhone 8 and iPhone 8 Plus begin shipping in Product RED on Friday, April 13, in Australia, Canada, China, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Japan, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea, the UK and US on Friday, April 13. Brazil, Denmark, Ireland, Italy, Malaysia, Mexico, Netherlands, Norway, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, Thailand, UAE. Other regions to follow.

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Greg Joswiak, Apple's vice president of Product Marketing:

This special edition (PRODUCT)RED iPhone features a stunning red and black color combination and also offers customers the opportunity to make an impact in fighting the spread of HIV and AIDS. iPhone 8 and iPhone 8 Plus improve on everything we love about iPhone, including Retina HD displays that are more beautiful than ever, the most powerful and smartest chip ever in a smartphone with the A11 Bionic and more advanced cameras for unbelievable photos and videos. We are proud to support (RED) with this bold new iPhone and hope customers think it is as special as we do.

Deborah Dugan, (RED)'s CEO:

Today's announcement is further evidence of Apple's leadership in and commitment to the AIDS fight since the beginning of (RED) in 2006. The more than $160 million Apple has donated in the last 11 years today equates to more than 800 million days of lifesaving ARV medication that prevents the transmission of HIV from mothers to their babies. We're honored that Apple has dedicated its resources to our purpose, and can't wait to see customers bring our mission to life through the purchase of iPhone 8 and iPhone 8 Plus (PRODUCT)RED Special Edition.

The most notable difference this year is the inclusion of a black rather than white front plate. Not only will that appeal to those who prefer the red on black look, but it differentiates this year's (PRODUCT)RED iPhone from last year's, which is important.

People are both easily bored and hate change. We want something familiar but different. And just how familiar and how different varies from person to person and situation to situation.

Do you prefer The Force Awakens because it's the next iteration of what you know and love, or do you prefer Rogue One, because it mixes some of those elements up in interesting new ways?

This year, Apple is asking the same question. Would you prefer iPhone 8, a better version of what you're already familiar with, starting at $699. Or are you ready for iPhone X, a more radical departure, starting at $999.

Both phones have many of the same core feature enhancements, including camera sensors, processors, and inductive charging. It's how you can tell Apple is offering both as legitimate options. It makes choosing between — and reviewing — them a challenge.

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iPhone 8: In brief

For people who want:

  • 4.7 and 5.5-inch options
  • The most powerful phone/pocket computer on the market
  • Significantly improved cameras
  • Wireless charging
  • Fingerprint biometrics
  • Gold color option

Not for people who want:

  • Deleted bezels
  • Deleted Home button
  • OIS on both wide and telephoto cameras
  • New design
  • Face ID biometrics
  • Low pricing

If you want an all-new iPhone experience, iPhone X will be here in a month or so. If you love everything about your existing iPhone, including the Home button and Touch ID, and you just want it to be faster, with better cameras, and convenience features like inductive charging, iPhone 8 is here for you right now.

iPhone 8: Second opinion

I review iPhones from the point-of-view of an iPhone owner and someone immersed in the Apple ecosystem. Increasingly, though, iPhones are being bought by people switching from Android.

In order to provide a second opinion, and from a perspective very different from mine, we collaborated with ace YouTube reviewer Michael Fisher to get his take and an early look at how iPhone 8 compares to the competition.

iPhone 8 Unboxing

Included in the iPhone 8 box is the phone itself, information pamphlets and Apple stickers, Lightning EarPods, 3.5mm to Lightning adapter, a Lightning to USB cable, and an AC adapter.

Given that Apple has sold MacBooks and MacBooks Pro with only USB-C ports going on three years now, the lack of a USB-C cable with USB-A adapter is beyond ridiculous.

Likewise, in an era of fast charging, the lack of an AC adapter that can charge fast is disheartening.

iPhone 8: Name and design

About the laziest way I could start this review is with some crack about how Apple should have gone with "iPhone 7s" for the name. (Almost as lazy and predictable as saying Apple should have gone with "iPhone 6sss".)

I think Apple originally went with the "number" / "number + s" convention to try and market around the generations where the more substantive changes were internal rather than external.

We tend to be superficial and so the excitement over new optics, silicon, or other enhancements can pale by comparison to new visual design. iPhone 3GS and iPhone 4s were seen as more acceptable, especially in a market where most people upgraded only every two years or so. (It also kept Apple from running out of single-digit numbers in 2015...)

Then, Apple learned to hack our superficiality by adding color variations to the s-years. Turns out, we'll grouse about the look staying the same but we'll leap at the chance to get it in gold.

Now, the market has matured. I think we've matured as well. We've realized that both "number" and "number + s" generations can introduce significant improvements, including virtual assistants, display sizes, biometric identity scanners, pressure sensors, fusion camera systems, and more.

iPhone 7 exemplified that. Apple's industrial design team could have made it triangular or donut-shaped if they'd really wanted to stick with the old naming pattern. Instead, they iterated on materials while leaving the shape almost the same.

Same with iPhone 8. Instead of sticking to pattern for pattern's sake, Apple seems to believe the all-new industrial design combined with the new internals are enough to warrant a full number increase for the name. (And they're willing to use up one of the precious few single-digit versions left — or intent on burning through them as fast as possible.)

What all-new industrial design, since iPhone 8 looks so much like iPhones 6 through 7?

The all-new industrial design that rebuilt iPhone 8 down to an atomic level. That Apple once again made iPhone 8 fit into exactly the same shape as the last few iPhones before it shows, like last year, just how dedicated the team is to that shape. Like switching from vanilla to chocolate cake but using the same mold.

It's as if Apple's industrial designers resolutely believe they've achieved the Platonic ideal for a device of this size with a Home button and Touch ID sensor — Form iPhone — and they're not going to change it just to be trendy or simply for change's sake.

It might be admirable. It might just be stubborn. It might keep them customers adverse to change and cost them customers who find it boring. Either way, it's clear that Apple's hardware team took the new glass and new aluminum and went out of their way to fit it all into precisely the same shape, even knowing the just-as-same-old "bored now" comments that would follow. (Perhaps because this year, they knew they'd have an answer for those people with iPhone X.)

The new glass in iPhone 8 is the result of a close partnership and collaboration between Apple and Corning. One that goes down to the engineering level. It allowed both companies to collaborate on an ion-exchange process that goes 50% deeper than before, and support it with an internal, laser-welded, steel and copper substructure.

Thanks to Apple and Corning's partnership, iPhone 8 (and iPhone X) also has exclusive access to this ultra-durable glass. At least for now.

It's still glass, though — once again on both sides, like iPhone 4 and iPhone 4s before it. (Though now, serenely, absolutely free of FCC indicia.) And glass breaks, just like ceramics shatter and metal bends. (Physics, it turns out, is a jerk.) But at a materials level, it feels like Apple is doing everything possible to make its new glass the most resilient possible, and to mitigate against the smaller scratches and fractures that can lead to cracks and breaks over time.

And that's good, because glass is slippery. iPhone 8 isn't as bad as Nexus 4, which if you put it in the middle of a flat table would eventually find its way to the floor, but it's slipperier than any iPhone since iPhone 4s. So, if you typically put your iPhone on armrests, sofas, or other non-flat surfaces, stop doing that or get a case with a higher coefficient of friction. At least until Apple figures out how to make its new glass less slippery.

Over the course of the last week, I've seen both iPhone 8 and iPhone 8 Plus survive some pretty nasty falls, and I've seen one hit stone tile and crack across the Home button. (The internet is full of drop tests already as well, because internet.)

I'm sure I could keep dropping iPhone 8 until I shatter them on both sides, just like I could keep crossing the street until I got hit by a car. I'm not terribly interested in discovering either of those failure points right now. I do have a history of dropped phones, which is why I have Apple Care and recommend it to anyone who asks. It's a relatively small investment, and an excellent value for a device that has literally become the cyborg extension to my life.

The glass — and iPhone 8 — comes in three new finishes marketed under three not-so-new names: space gray, silver, and gold.

Apple says there's a seven-layer color process behind the finishes that allows for both opacity and depth. It reminds me of how Jony Ive and team got so much depth in the original iPod finishes. The silver and space gray end up looking pearlescent white and slate, the gold, opalescent taupe. And because they're glass, the antenna lines are all gone.

The new aluminum is 7000 series and "aerospace" grade. It's silver, gray, and coppery/rose-ish gold on the three finishes respectively. To prevent attenuation between the different antenna systems, there are still breaks in the bands. Those are color-matched to the glass.

They're also microscopically sealed to protect against liquid and particle ingress. That means, like iPhone 7, iPhone 8 is IP67 water and dust resistant under IEC standard 60529. In my quick splash and immersion tests, they can take the same kind of dipping and keep on ticking. (Sorry.)

That's despite having a speaker system that Apple says is 25% louder and with deeper bass than last year's. In my testing it's absolutely lounder and hass more bass, but I'm not sure it's clearer. I don't have golden ears, nor am I a fan of booming systems, so I'll hit up some of my more musical colleagues to get a better sense of the speaker quality. Calls sound fine, not too Mickey, not too Vader.

Practically speaking, I wasn't sure how the loss of the previous aluminum chassis would affect the rigidity needed for 3D Touch, especially on iPhone 8 Plus. Thanks to the combination of new glass and new aluminum, though, I haven't had any problems. The best compliment I can give is that I haven't even noticed the difference, and that's a pretty impressive feat of engineering.

Put that in your iPhone 7s bubble pipe and pop it.

iPhone 8 True Tone Display

Last year, Apple brought DCI-P3 wide color gamut to iPhone with its richer reds, deeper magentas, and more vibrant greens. The results were dazzling and there's simply no going back. The next best step would be HDR (high dynamic range), which allows for even more detail in highlights and shadows.

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LCD, which is the technology Apple has used for all iPhones to date, has many great characteristics, but the brightness and contrast ratio needed to really showcase HDR isn't one of them. We still have the building blocks in iPhone 8, including hardware-level support for 10-bit HEVC and a brightness level that goes up to 625 nits. So, like the latest iPads Pro, iPhone 8 will do the best it can with HDR. But, it's really the upcoming iPhone X, with a 1:1,000,000 contrast ratio OLED display, that will put real, end-to-end HDR in our hands and pockets for the first time.

What we are getting this year is True Tone. It debuted on the 9.7-inch iPad Pro over a year ago but this marks the first time it's been available on iPhone. The technology is cool: A four-channel ambient light sensor measures the color temperature of your environment and then adjusts the display so that white looks white. Not warm, yellow, incandescent white. Not cool, blue, fluorescent white. White. Paperwhite.

It's different from Night Mode, which subtly shifts the display towards the warmer, more yellow temperature as the day wears down in an effort to mitigate against the sleep-damaging effects of staring at screens all evening.

True Tone works 24/7 to make sure when you read an eBook, look at a photo, browse the web, watch a movie, or do anything at all on iPhone 8, the color is accurate. And not just accurate to how Apple individually calibrates it down to the sub-pixel level at the factory. Accurate to how you're looking at it every moment, from sunlight to candlelight, halogen to Hue. Carrying your iPhone around becomes like carrying a tiny, printed book or magazine around. It just looks right.

Like DCI-P3 and HDR, once you see, you want it everywhere and it's incredibly hard to go back. Like whiplash of the eyes hard.

iPhone 8 Wireless Charging

Once upon a time, Apple said it was unclear how much convenience wireless charging actually added. Same with NFC payments. Steve Jobs, famously, said no one wanted to watch video on an iPod. Now we have the TV app in our Home screens, Apple Pay in our hands and, with iPhone8, Qi standard inductive charging from any nearby pad.

Wireless Charging on iPhone

Wireless Charging on iPhone (Image credit: iMore)

I'm not a huge fan of inductive charging. I've had it on phones since my Palm Pre in 2009 and on one Android phone or another over the years.

It does offer convenience. Rather than having to reach for and find the end of a Lightning cable, and fumble with getting it into the Lightning port, you can simply drop your iPhone 8 down on the pad and it'll start charging. Mostly.

My experience is that every once and awhile, it'll miss the sweet spot or get jostled off of it at some point and simply not charge. The same is true for iPhone 8.

It's also not as fast or as efficient as wired charging. The current Qi implementation feels about as fast as using the tiny square brick that comes with iPhone 8. Meanwhile, wired charging with an iPad brick is significantly faster and, and getting faster still with an iPad USB-C brick — up to 50% in 30 minutes.

Still, setting up a Qi pad on the table next to your bed or the desk where you work is nice. When you're tired or busy — as long as you make sure the connection takes — it's super nice.

Two things have to happen for it to go beyond super nice, though. At least for me.

  • The presence of Qi pads in restaurants, coffee shops, hotels, and vehicles has to rapidly increase.
  • Contact charging needs to give way to short distance charging.

Apple pushing Qi could and should help with the first one. There's nothing like flooding a market with tens and eventually hundreds of millions of implementations to get supporting industries to take notice. When every Starbucks, McDonald's, Aloft, and Uber has one, the value will be astronomically higher.

Apple super-setting Qi, the way the company is already doing with it's AirPower pad, coming next year, could and hopefully will result in the technology improving faster. As long as the pad/pod is on the table or desk, I should be able to drop my iPhone anywhere within a few inches and have it just charge, sweet spot be damned.

AirPower will charge either an iPhone, Apple Watch Series 3, and AirPods (with an upcoming and sold-separately new charging case), or up to two iPhones and a Watch or AirPods. It's already an example of Apple super-setting Q, and hopefully just the first.

iPhone 8 Camera System

As petty as the "iPhone 7s" naming quibbles are, a real argument could be made for calling this device iCamera 8. Neither name accurately reflects the full range of capabilities we now have in our hands and pockets but its clear the camera is one of the things Apple puts extreme effort into year after year, and one of the primary reasons people upgrade their iPhones year after year.

The quality of call you place to your loved ones is certainly important. But the photos and videos you take of them — the memories in time and space you capture — are absolutely priceless.

Having the "world's most popular camera" comes with enormous responsibility. And having the "best camera you have with you" comes with enormous pressure to make it the best camera you have period.

With iPhone 8, Apple takes another step in that direction. The rear-mounted camera system remains single lens (wide-angle) on iPhone 8 and dual lens (wide-angle + "telephoto") on iPhone 8 Plus, and 12 megapixels. The wide angle likewise remains f/1.8 and the tele, f/2.8.

What's new is the sensor. The pixels are "deeper", which further reduces cross-talk and improves accuracy. It's also larger and faster. That means it will pull in more light and let you capture more immediately, so you get the moment you want, not some moment close-ish thereafter.

There's also a new color filter, which is a rarity these days in the camera world. Apple isn't saying much about it yet, but the company is promising it provides better, truer colors across a wider dynamic range, and with less noise.

Like iPhone 7, the wide angle lens has optical image stabilization (OIS). Also like iPhone 7 Plus, the telephoto lens does not. That means low-light won't be as tack-sharp as absolutely possible under some circumstances. If you want OIS on both, you'll have to wait for iPhone X.