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iPhone 8 Plus Review: The Last, Greatest ‘Classic’ iPhone

iPhone 8 Plus Review: The Last, Greatest ‘Classic’ iPhone

Back in 2007, the Apple iPhone was a triumph of futuristic UI over actual functionality, but year on year the iPhone has caught up and largely surpassed the competition.

In the early days, Symbian-based Nokias, latterly Android-based flagships from a dozen manufacturers. And the iPhone 8 Plus, in terms of imaging, internals, and fit and finish, knocks just about everything into a cocked hat, at least until the iPhone X is available in a month or two. 

Which is not to say that there aren’t a number of caveats, which I’ll come to below. But the existing iPhone 7 Plus was already one of the most feature packed bits of consumer hardware ever made – and the 8 Plus improves on it in every area, for only a small price hike.

DESIGN

Writing for other sites about other platforms than iOS, the most striking thing about the iPhone ‘Plus’ designs is their size – the bezels, both top and bottom, are larger than is trendy now. This is late 2017 and most other smartphone flagships have had minimal bezels for at least a year, giving more screen real estate without making the phone itself larger. This is, of course, where the iPhone X comes in (love or hate the ‘notch’), while the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus are stuck with a design from, arguably, 2012.

iPhone 8 Plus Touch ID button

In fact, you could argue that the design hails back to 2010 and the launch of the classic iPhone 4, with its glass back, since for the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus Apple has dropped the iPhone’s scratchable aluminium back and gone back to Gorilla Glass, in theory less prone to scratches but – obviously – at the risk of shattering if dropped onto the pavement. The 8 Plus is also heavier as a result, but reassuringly so and the feel in the hand is terrific – again recalling the feel of that old iPhone 4 range.

iPhone 8 Plus Rear view

Unlike on the old ‘4’ though, the sides are curved aluminum rather than flat stainless steel, meaning that the 8 Plus is vastly more slippery in the hand (though slightly gripper than last year’s aluminium backed design). I had my review unit in a Spigen TPU case within an hour of starting to use this day to day – and you’ll do something similar.

iPhone 8 Plus showing logo and camera island

CHARGING, PORTS

The biggest benefit of the glass back is that Apple can get cracking with the final part of its ‘no ports’ master plan. Having eliminated the 3.5mm headphone jack in the ‘7’ range (controversially), it does seem that the future iPhones might not have a charging port either. Which will help with waterproofing and structural integrity. Charging will instead be wireless and the iPhone 8 range kicks this new era off with a Qi-compatible coil underneath the glass. Credit to Apple for sticking with the industry standard here (Qi has been around in some other phones since 2011) rather than inventing their own ‘magical’ version. I tested the iPhone 8 Plus with some standard charging pads and it worked just fine.

Qi charging

Of course, Qi wireless charging isn’t as fast as wired charging over the Lightning cable, but the use case is very different. Every single time you put your phone down there’s no reason why it can’t go on top of a Qi pad, meaning that, in theory, your phone will spend a lot of its life at or near 100%, solving the ‘battery problem’ once and for all and without any of those pesky wires or connectors. In theory, anyway, once users have multiple Qi pads around their home and office, and once pads are in travel hubs and coffee shops, etc.

The Lightning port is still around on the iPhone 8 range anyway, ditto the iPhone X, but I’ll bet that it’s history for the iPhone 11 in Autumn 2018. Meaning also that all headphone output will also be wireless, since the current Lightning headphones (supplied here in the box, along with a Lightning to 3.5mm adapter, for hooking up legacy headphones) will also be outdated. Ultra-scary tech changes or Apple shaping a better, totally wireless future? You decide!

CHIP, DISPLAY

Never mind the materials and charging system though, the most impressive spec bump for the iPhone 8 Plus is the proprietary A11 ‘Bionic’ chipset – with the power to handle all the FaceID stuff on the imminent iPhone X, the A11 here is able to flex its six-core muscle (two high power, four low power, but all six can be used at once if needed) in terms of speeding the UI and applications, between 25% and 75% faster than in the iPhone 7 Plus, depending on what you’re doing and how many ‘cores’ are needed. Plus, of course, imaging – which is stellar and I’ll come to that below.

 

What the user sees on the surface is very familiar though – a 5.5” 1080p 16:9 LCD display that’s as crisp and impressive as ever. In fact, it’s better than on the 7 Plus because there’s now True Tone colour adjustment, with ambient light sensors tweaking the colour balance in various lighting conditions so as to always give ‘accurate’ and pleasant colours. With the Night Shift feature turned on as well, there’s a lot of auto-correction going on through a 24 hour period, giving perfect ‘whites’ during the day and then soothing warmer shades at night, to ease you into sleep and fit in with your circadian rhythms. Which all sounds like marketing hogwash, but it works well in practice. Just set and forget. And relax.

The display is claimed to be both Dolby Vision and HDR10 compliant (the two ‘HDR’ standards for video content), again managed capably by the A11 chipset in terms of pixel level calculations in the billions of operations per second. Actual content is limited in 2017, though I’ve watched the demos. They’re not quite as jaw dropping here on a backlit IPS display as when the tech is on an AMOLED screen, but that’s to be expected (and also why Apple went for AMOLED on the ‘X’).

STILL TOUCH ID

The Home ‘button’ is the now familiar pressure-sensitive Touch ID sensor with adjustable ‘Taptic’ feedback to (amazingly realistically) simulate the feel of a physical button. As anyone who’s been through the older iPhone and into the new age will attest, the move from clunky mechanical switches to solid state takes all of a day to get used to and massively improves long term reliability of the phone – no more trips to the Apple Store to get a button/switch replaced.

Touch ID works so well, in fact, that it still beggars belief that Apple is abandoning it for the iPhone X, but I’ll reserve judgement on Face ID until I’ve tried it. Maybe this really will be just one ‘innovative’ step too far? In the meantime, if you want the power of the A11 chip and the improved imaging, yet keeping the Touch ID fingerprint recognition for (e.g. Apple Pay) then the iPhone 8 range is the one to go for… and probably stick at.

AMAZING SPEAKERS

Down at the bottom of the iPhone 8 Plus is the usual main speaker, under the right hand grille, and paired with a lesser speaker component under the earpiece grille at the top of the phone. It’s an asymmetrical setup, partly because one is facing to the side and one facing towards the user, but it absolutely works and the stereo balance for the user is perfect. Just as on the iPhone 7 Plus, but Apple is claiming “25% louder” and I believe them.

iPhone 8 Plus bottom

I was also amazed at some of the bass rumblings coming from the phone, the 8 Plus was reproducing bass notes in my music videos that I’ve only previously heard on the speaker-specialist Marshall London from two years ago. Astonishing. I’ve seen the tear downs and I can’t see anything special in terms of component size, so there’s clearly some Apple resonant magic happening here. Maybe even tuning the internal space of the phone to help with bass reflex? You can certainly feel bass frequencies through the back of the phone, so I think I’m on the right lines! (And if I am then expect the standard sized iPhone 8 speakers to have slightly less bass, since there’s less physical room inside the phone.)

IMAGING

 

With a glass back, of course, there’s no need to use unsightly ‘antenna bands’ for cellular and Wifi radios, so everything can be hidden away. Leaving the back of the phone for the Apple logo (centre) and, most importantly, the camera hardware.

8 Plus camera hardware

Although the essential specifications of the iPhone 8 Plus camera haven’t changed from the 7 Plus (so a f/1.8 unit with OIS and a f/2.8 2x non-stabilised telephoto lens), we’re assured that the sensor is new and has ‘deeper pixels’, i.e. there should be less crosstalk between each sensor pixel and thus less noise.

But the big improvements come in terms of image processing. There’s ‘hardware multi-band noise reduction’, in theory using the power of the A11 chipset to reduce noise in real time for photos and video capture, though I have to say that I was still seeing a lot of noise in low light shots, as you’ll see below. There’s auto-HDR in that every photo you take benefits from this, with the software effectively deciding on what will give best results, i.e. you don’t have to think about this or live with (by default) pairs of HDR/non-HDR shots anymore. In fact, one of the coolest parts of flicking through your Photos is that each image is first shown without HDR and then the HDR blend kicks in after a second, so everything suddenly becomes ‘better’. Given that the A11 chip has the power to present the blend instantaneously, I can only think that Apple deliberately left a delay in to keep that ‘wow’ moment as the sky becomes bluer and the shadows suddenly show detail.

In fact, it’s not just HDR bracketed exposures, thanks to the horsepower available, the Camera application is continuously grabbing photos into RAM and with varying parameters as long as the viewfinder is active, meaning that when you tap the shutter to take a photo there’s, quite literally, zero shutter lag, since the photo you wanted will actually have been taken a fraction of a second before your finger tap was registered on the screen. Which means that those ‘Whoa!’ action moments are far more likely to be snapped properly and you don’t have to think about predicting a subject’s movement to time things properly. Very impressive, all thanks to the horsepower available under the hood.

The upshot of all this is much better photos in all light conditions, Sunny snaps have better dynamic range, zoomed shots are clearer, and so on. Apple has always done a great job of letting novices take great photos and this is even more true now.

See the samples here, each with comments and a 1:1 crop below, for your inspection.

Sample photo from 8 Plus

1:1 crop from the photo above

1:1 crop from the photo above – down at the pixel level there’s lots of processing going on, but it’s rarely overdone and the colour handling is top notch.Sample photo from 8 Plus

1:1 crop from the photo above

1:1 crop from the photo above – the same here, plenty of sharpening, but the effect when looking at the photo as a whole is breathtaking. So finely tuned overall!Sample photo from 8 Plus

1:1 crop from the photo above

1:1 crop from the photo above – here looking at detail in a 2x zoomed shot – only optical zoom (as here) can give such a clean result at the pixel level when zoomed.Sample photo from 8 Plus

1:1 crop from the photo above

1:1 crop from the photo above – the iPhone has always been great at pet macros and it doesn’t disappoint here. Plenty of detail here.Sample photo from 8 Plus

1:1 crop from the photo above

1:1 crop from the photo above – tricky artificial lighting didn’t phase the 8 Plus camera, with incredible detail here in very low light, thanks to OIS and those ‘deeper pixels’.Sample photo from 8 Plus

1:1 crop from the photo above

1:1 crop from the photo above – this is my party mock-up shot, deliberately not trying to stay still during a flash photo. The 8 Plus contains ‘Slow Sync’ algorithms to get superb detail from the scene, though moving details, i.e. on the human subject here, are fuzzier than I’d like. The idea is sound, i.e. take crisp detail from the flash on the main subject and then use a slower exposure for the rest of the frame (Microsoft Lumia flagships have been doing this for years, with success), but updates are needed to Apple’s algorithms at present.Sample photo from 8 Plus

1:1 crop from the photo above

1:1 crop from the photo above – at dead of night, you can start to see artefacts creeping in. The result’s not horrendous, even down here at the pixel level, but there’s still improvement than might come in future updates, I think.

 

Also made possible by the power of the A11 chipset and new for the iPhone 8 Plus is the ‘Portrait lighting’ mode. We’ve got used to the dual cameras on iPhones allowing for a computed ‘faux bokeh’ effect on subjects a metre or two away – and this works quite superbly if you follow the guidelines – but the new mode goes further, working on the exact same portrait shots, even after the fact. It uses the calculated ‘depth’ map along with face detection to effectively strip out everything except your subject and then apply effects based on professional studio lighting conditions. If you thought that portrait shots looked a little artificial then these are even more so, but they’re well done within the constraints of, you know, not actually having a photo studio and £1000 of lights!

Sample photo from 8 Plus

The standard Portrait effect – Apple has pretty much nailed this one…Portrait Lighting example

A typical Portrait Lighting example, results are currently a bit variable, but a) it’ll get better with updates, and b) a more photogenic subject would have helped!!

Video capture is still at 4K, but now at up to 60fps – it’s staggering how capable phone cameras have now become. More usefully, there’s now a genuinely jaw-dropping 240fps mode at the standard 1080p, letting you do full quality, full frame 4x slow-motion capture of (for example) wild life.

The front camera is unchanged from the iPhone 7 range, at 7MP and f/2.2, perfectly good enough for selfies and, again, there’s input from the A11 chip to enhance images automatically.

STORAGE, BATTERY

4K and 240fps videos eat up disk space, or course, which is why Apple has made the ‘base’ model for the iPhone 8 range 64GB and this should be fine for most casual users. Anyone wanting to carry around their music collection will want to pay extra for the 256GB model, but I’d envisage casual owners being fine with 64GB and streaming much of their music as needed. The absence of 128GB models is curious, but then Apple already has far too many models, colours and variants of everything on sale at the moment, so I’m all for keeping choices simple.

Slightly oddly, Apple has reduced the battery capacities for the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus (compared to the 7 range), with the 8 Plus here having a 2675mAh cell. In fairness, this still seems to get through the day, thanks to A11 chip efficiencies, plus the Qi wireless charging means that battery life simply won’t be an issue if users invest just a little more in some charging pads (and note that you don’t [for once] have to pay Apple prices for these – generic cheap and cheerful third party pads will be fine).

iOS 11

The iPhone 8 Plus comes, out of the box, with iOS 11, of course, which has been covered in other stories on iPhoneHacks, principally here.

Home screen and widgets

Home screen and widgets – the classic iPhone icon grid hasn’t changed much over the years – to fair criticism – but there’s probably also a big element of ‘if it’s not broke don’t fix it’. A note here that the ‘Plus’ models, as usual, also allow use in landscape mode, though not with the fancy new iPad dock system, sadly. On the right, your suggestions and widgets are still here, now a swipe over from your cover sheet/lockscreen.

The biggest UI change on the phone (the iPad gets its own iOS 11 revamp) is that the classic notification centre doesn’t exist anymore. Swiping down from the top of the screen shows the ‘cover sheet’, with notifications, and then all your widgets and shortcuts are off to the left. The system seems odd at first but having ‘lock screen’ and ‘notifications’ now the same (and renamed) does simplify things at the OS level.

There’s a bit of a facelift throughout iOS 11, with bold header text in core applications – showing some similarities in places (for this reviewer, at least) to ideas in Windows Phone in the past.

Control Center

Control Center, now revamped (and with more via 3D Touch); (right) dipping into Photos to fiddle with some of my Portrait shots, even after the fact.

Control Center is still accessed with a swipe up (at least until the ‘X’ arrives, eh?!) but has been heavily revamped into something that wouldn’t seem out of place on the bridge of the Enterprise in Star Trek The Next Generation. What was once a simple panel of options has evolved into a cluster of customisable controls that also offers a toggle for True Tone display (via a 3D Touch on the brightness slider). Several other controls can be force pressed, and no doubt more will be added here in updates.

The App Store has also been massively overhauled for iOS 11 here, with a ‘Today’ view, a bigger focus on video in app listings, plus ‘app of the day’ and ‘game of the day’, each mini-articles on what’s good about the items.

The App Store's refresh

The App Store’s refresh, showing a new ‘Today’ view, with curated mini-reviews of apps and games.

The addition of Files is welcome, though don’t get too excited, it’s just a way to browse and copy and paste items from cloud drives (iCloud, OneDrive, Dropbox, etc.) Oh well, it’s a start.

Curiously, one of the core ‘emergency’ button combinations has been changed, and worth noting. Holding down the volume down key and power button doesn’t do a soft reset anymore – it now brings up a new version of the shutdown screen with an ‘Emergency SOS’ option that also forces you to use your passcode/PIN to unlock the phone. Useful if you’re being pressured by the authorities into unlocking your phone against your will? (There’s also an optional setting to add a call to 911 or similar at the same time.) Actually soft resetting your iPhone 8 or 8 Plus now involves hitting the volume up and down keys in quick succession, then hold the power button down for 10 seconds.

SOS functions

The familiar two button long press now brings up an SOS option, either to force PIN entry or to call the emergency services.

VERDICT

It has been curious to see the relative lack of interest in the Apple world in the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus. Stores even had stock on launch day around the world for people walking in on-spec. Much of this is down to the iPhone X, arriving in a couple of months, the latest, greatest ‘shiny thing’. And this is unfair to the iPhone 8 Plus’s position in the marketplace.

Not least because the iPhone X’s display is smaller in terms of area than the iPhone 8 Plus’s and because the ‘X’ lacks the phenomenally reliable and useful Touch ID. The ‘X’ is exciting because of the different form factor, ‘notch’ and all, for the even better rear camera array, for the front camera array and effects – I get all this. But that shouldn’t take away from the existence of the iPhone 8 Plus.

I disagree with those saying it should have been called the ‘7s Plus’ – the 8 Plus here is a major upgrade. Sure, the improvements are incremental, but they’re consistent across the board, from materials used to the True Tone display, from the blazing fast A11 chipset to the improved camera and effects, from the standard wireless charging the (to me) amazing speaker tweaks. Most of all, it’s possibly the last ever iPhone to have Touch ID and I can imagine a number of Apple iPhone fans planning to stall their ownership on the ‘8’ range, at least for a couple of years.

So, while there’s not that much need for existing iPhone 7 Plus owners to consider selling and then buying the 8 Plus, I’d bet that a number of them will do so, in time, if they prize Touch ID. In exactly the same way as some iPhone owners have chosen to stay on the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus in order to keep the 3.5mm headphone jack as long as possible.

Taking the iPhone 8 Plus on its own merit though, Apple’s typical launch claim that ‘this is the best iPhone we’ve ever made’ is absolutely true, even though it’s going to be indistinguishable from last year’s Plus model to all but keen-eyed observers.

 

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