It’s not very often that two new iPhone models are upstaged at their own launch, but that’s exactly what happened at Apple’s September event this year. The iPhone X was the star of the show, the cool new kid everyone wanted to hang out with, while the iPhone 8 and iPhone 8 Plus were relegated to the role of the designated driver – boring, reliable, the one you know will be there once you are done partying with your new friends.

That was certainly the case at the hands-on area post the launch event at the Steve Jobs Theatre, where everyone stood in line just to spend some time with the iPhone X, while most iPhone 8 and iPhone 8 Plus units waited for an audience. But as quickly as it came, the cool new thing was gone, not to be seen again until November. Having seen the one with the X-factor, it seems not everyone is excited at that prospect of getting reunited with their ‘boring’ old friends.

From the front, the iPhone 8 and iPhone 8 Plus are practically indistinguishable from their predecessors. Virtually everyone we showed our review units to opened with “Oh, it looks just like the [iPhone] 7” before we asked them to turn them around and look at the all-glass backs. That’s right, the iPhone 8 and iPhone 8 Plus are all-glass on the front and the back, a throwback to the design last seen in the iPhone 4S. Apple says it has used “the most durable glass ever in a smartphone”, a claim that millions will no doubt put to the test in everyday life in the days to come.

At 148 grams, the iPhone 8 is the heaviest non-Plus iPhone to date, while the iPhone 8 Plus crosses the 200g mark. The extra weight would be noticeable if you used an iPhone 7 or iPhone 7 Plus without a case, but if you are someone who changes your case quite often, you are probably used to the overall weight fluctuating slightly and are unlikely to notice these differences. Still, it’s interesting to see a company obsessed with ‘thin and light’ move in the opposite direction with two of its marquee products.

If showing the world you have the latest and greatest iPhone (we told you to forget about the iPhone X, remember?) is important to you, hiding your iPhone 8 or iPhone 8 Plus in a non-transparent case would not be the best idea. As we said earlier, the front is virtually identical to that of the previous generation iPhone models, so the only visible difference is in the back. From five (not counting the Product Red) colour options in the previous generation – Rose Gold, Gold, Silver, Black, and Jet Black – we are down to three – Gold, Silver, and Space Grey.

The nearly-all-glass body means that all iPhone models offer excellent grip, and are unlikely to slip out of your hands. In the two weeks that we spent with the iPhone 8 and iPhone 8 Plus, we didn’t see any scratches or scuff marks resulting from being put into and taken out of pockets, or being stored with other objects in our bag.

In the box you get Lightning EarPods, a Lightning to 3.5mm adapter, a USB Type-A to Lightning cable, and a 5W charger, apart from the phone itself, and some literature. There’s no Type-C to Lightning cable, which means you cannot directly connect Apple’s flagship phone to its flagship laptops without buying additional cables or dongles from Apple or third parties.

There’s no change in the size of the displays on the iPhone 8 or the iPhone 8 Plus compared to their predecessors, and, indeed, the screens have the same resolution, brightness, and contrast ratios as well. OLED and HDR support are reserved for the iPhone X, so the only improvement here is the addition of True Tone functionality.

In terms of real-world experience, perhaps the most significant word in the previous paragraph is “subtly”. The presence of True Tone – a setting that is turned on by default, but can be switched off if you really care about colour accuracy – is unlikely to be noticed by most users. The effect is nowhere as dramatic as turning on Night Shift, which alters the tone of the display and cuts blue light emission to reduce eye strain in a very visible way, and was introduced in iOS 9.3. Most users probably even won’t notice (which, as Apple will tell you, is a good thing) True Tone’s impact until they see their phone side by side with one that doesn’t have the setting enabled.

 

The Apple A10 Fusion inside the previous-generation iPhone models was a quad-core chip with two high-performance cores and two energy-efficient ones, but only one pair could be active at a time. The A11 Bionic, on the other hand, has six cores – four efficient cores that are up to 70 percent faster than ones on the A10, and two performance cores that are up to 25 percent faster – making it Apple’s first hexa-core chip. More importantly, the A11 is capable of running all six at the same time.

This means the Apple A11 Bionic absolutely smokes the opposition, especially when it comes to multi-threaded tasks that can scale to multiple cores.

All this power means that the iPhone 8 and iPhone 8 Plus can handle everything you throw at them with ease. Everyday tasks are smooth, and everything feels really snappy, especially on the smaller iPhone. 

The glass back of the iPhone 8 and iPhone 8 Plus is not just a design element, it enables an important feature: wireless charging. Apple has adopted the Qi industry standard of wireless charging, which means that though the new iPhone models don’t ship with a wireless charger, you can pick up one of the many third-party Qi-compatible ones out there. The likes of Samsung have supported this standard for a while, so we finally live in a world where the same charger can top up both your iPhone 8 and Galaxy Note 8.

If you are new to the world of wireless charging, you need to remember a couple of points: first, it’s not really ‘wireless’. Most wireless charging mechanisms involve a plate of some sort where you can just place your phone and have it begin charging without plugging in any wires, but the plate itself needs to be connected to an outlet via a wire or an adapter. Second, though there have been improvements in the technology recently, wireless charging is still painfully slow.

Apple gave us a 7.5W Belkin wireless charger to test this feature on the new iPhone models with, and it took 24 minutes to move the battery on the iPhone 8 Plus from 20 percent to 30 percent. Apple’s bundled 5W wired adapter charged the same phone from 20 percent to 36 percent in the same time. iPhone models have supported faster charging – using an iPad’s 10W charger, for example – for a while, so it’s baffling why Apple continues to ship such a low-power charger in the box.

Camera performance is an area where smartphones have made arguably the biggest improvements in the decade since the original iPhone was launched. From tiny, grainy images in which we could barely recognise ourselves to ones that can be printed on a billboard, and movies that see a theatrical release, the phone camera has come a long way in a relatively short period of time.

While the camera specifications remain the same in terms of megapixel counts and aperture sizes, Apple says the 12-megapixel primary camera has a larger and faster sensor, a new colour filter, and deeper pixels. As noted earlier, the A11 Bionic chip includes a brand new Apple-designed image signal processor, which, among other things, aims to provide faster autofocus in low light and better HDR photos.

All this is backed by enhancements at the OS level. The iPhone 8 and iPhone 8 Plus support the new High Efficiency Image File Format (HEIF) and High Efficiency Video Coding (HEVC) container for storing photos and videos respectively, which, Apple says, reduce the amount of space taken by your media by up to 50 percent. This, obviously, means you can save more photos and videos on your device and in the cloud. HEVC also enables new capabilities like shooting 4K video at 60fps and 1080p at 240fps.

Though many have argued that the iPhone 8 and iPhone 8 Plus feel like ’S’ upgrades, our experience shows that in many ways they offer more improvements than the jump from the iPhone 6s to iPhone 7 cycle. The camera enhancements are significant, bringing Apple back at the same level as the best in the business in some scenarios, while maintaining, or even extending, its lead in others.

In a world where you can buy a smartphone that’s pretty good on all counts for about a quarter of these prices, we believe flagship smartphones continue to offer an experience that’s unmatched, though the number of people who really need this kind of refinement needs to be examined.

If you already have an iPhone and money is no object, you could upgrade to the iPhone 8 or iPhone 8 Plus and be extremely happy, but you’d probably want to wait for the iPhone X for even greater bragging rights. Sadly, we don’t know a lot of people for whom money is not a factor when making buying decisions.

If you already have an iPhone 7 or iPhone 7 Plus, you can probably skip the iPhone 8 line (unless having the latest and greatest camera is really important to you), and wait to see what Apple does with its lineup next year: maybe the X design language and features will become available at a more accessible price? We’d give the same advice to iPhone 6s line owners who are happy with their phone – if it ain’t broke, don’t go broke buying an upgrade just for the sake of it. But if you have a previous-generation iPhone that’s starting to feel long in the tooth, you will experience significant gains in all departments by upgrading to the new iPhone models.

So who are the iPhone 8 and iPhone 8 Plus for, especially in the real world where the prospect of the iPhone X looms large? If you have absolutely no interest in the iPhone X’s design, if you can’t get your head around the idea of the ‘notch’, or can’t afford the phone’s crazy price tag, then you can safely consider its siblings without thinking that you are ‘settling’ for an inferior phone. Yes, you will miss out on what looks like a gorgeous OLED display and other additions like optical image stabilisation on the telephoto lens, but there are plenty of question marks around the iPhone X right now – is Face ID good enough to replace Touch ID? How will the ‘notch’ be incorporated into your favourite applications?

We won’t have answers to these questions until we get the chance to test the iPhone X closer to its release in November. The iPhone 8 and iPhone 8 Plus might seem ‘boring’ in comparison, but with their improved cameras, A11 Bionic chip, wireless charging, and a whole lot more, either one of them could happily be your designated driver for the next couple of years – or until your head is turned by the new ‘X’ in town.

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