You really should think of the iPhone 8 as the iPhone 7s. Apple's most affordable new phone (it starts at $699) brings some new features and a glass rear panel to Apple's lineup, but it isn't a radical reinvention the way the iPhone X is. The iPhone 8's wild card will be its powerful A11 processor, but I fear the phone will be left behind in Apple's rush toward augmented reality.
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A Familiar Design
The iPhone 8 looks a lot like the iPhone 7, except that the metal back has been switched out for shimmering glass. At 5.45 by 2.65 by 0.29 inches and 5.22 ounces, it's almost exactly the same size as the iPhone 7, but heavier. There's still a camera bump on the back, a Lightning port on the bottom, and no headphone jack. The 1,334-by-750, 4.7-inch LCD is the same size and pixel density as the iPhone 7's, but it's been enhanced with Apple's True Tone technology, which gives better white balance in a range of different light.
Below the screen, there's the traditional home button, with Touch ID. The iPhone 8 lacks the cool new Face ID technology in the iPhone X, keeping the fingerprint scanner alive for at least one more year. Dual speakers, at the top and bottom of the phone, promise louder sound than the iPhone 7 line. The phone is also water-resistant, like the iPhone 7 generation.
Faster Than Ever
The new six-core A11 Bionic processor has two "high performance" and four "efficiency" cores. That's more than the four-core A10 and the two-core A9, but the whole core thing is a red herring; it's possible to design a fast processor with few cores, or many cores.
What makes it Bionic? Well, bionics is the science of combining biological and electronic parts and methods, so I think it's referring to the new Neural Engine. The Neural Engine is a custom block of the A11 dedicated to machine learning. On the iPhone 8, it doesn't do much yet, although it's involved in scene recognition in the camera app. But iOS 11 includes an API called CoreML that helps third-party developers integrate machine learning into their own apps—recognizing types of food or clothing when they train the camera, for instance.
The iPhone 8 and the 8 Plus have the same processor, although the 8 has 2GB of RAM and the 8 Plus has 3GB. That results in very similar benchmarks for the two phones. They're both the fastest phones we've ever tested and in the same class as the new 10.5-inch iPad Pro.
On the iPhone 8, we managed 207k on the Antutu benchmark, 4257 on Geekbench single-core, and 10,277 on Geekbench multi-core. The iPhone 7 got 165k, 3,500, and 6,024, respectively. The Samsung Galaxy Note 8 pulled 175k, 1,870, and 6,500.
For graphics, the iPhone 8's 64,758 score on the 3DMark Ice Storm Unlimited benchmark is nearly double that of the iPhone 7's 37,825. But wait! This is one area where Apple's steadfast refusal to improve its screen resolution does it no good. Last year's iPhones hit the 60 frame-per-second sync limit on the GFXBench graphics benchmarks, and this one does too. This iPhone's GPU is powerful enough to drive Apple's ProMotion 120Hz tablet screen; I just wish the phone had one.
For a real-world application, we recorded a 2-minute, 4K video, applied a filter in iMovie and exported it to 720p. The iPhone 8 managed the export in 24 seconds as compared to the iPhone 7's 31 seconds. That's a noticeable difference, but we couldn't find other apps where the difference between 7 and 8 performance was easily visible; iOS apps are just too well architected for a range of phones. The IKEA AR furniture-placement app, for instance, runs perfectly smoothly on the 7.
All of these benchmarks create headroom. The iPhone 7 is already very fast in current applications, including the simple early ARKit apps. The open question is whether all of this neural and graphics power will make the iPhone 8 more effective in future AR experiences.
Apple uses the same dual-modem strategy for the iPhone 8 as the iPhone 7. There are two versions available in the US: one that works on all four US networks, and one that lacks CDMA and so works only on AT&T and T-Mobile. We're pretty sure the first one uses a Qualcomm modem, while the second one uses Intel. Both max out, we're told, at 600Mbps, falling short of the gigabit LTE we've seen on competing Samsung and LG phones.
The iPhone still falls short of the Galaxy S8 when it comes to recovering from dead zones, a notorious iPhone problem. We took an iPhone 8 and Galaxy S8 on the New York subway, where they dropped in and out of T-Mobile coverage. The Galaxy S8 recovered faster in 8 out of 11 tests, and where it did, it was an average of 16 seconds faster than the iPhone at regaining LTE signal; when the iPhone won, it did so by 5 seconds on average.
We're going to do some more testing and figure this all out.
The iPhone 8 brings two new power technologies to the table: Qi-compatible wireless charging and fast charging. The more wattage you bring to your charger, the faster the phone will charge, Apple tells me, all the way up to using a MacBook charger to get to 50 percent in 30 minutes.
We tried Qi with both the new Mophie wireless charging pad designed for iPhones, and with a Samsung wireless charging pad. It worked with both. Lie-flat wireless charging solves the "charge and listen" problem with iPhones; now, you can charge the phone while using Lightning headphones. Or, of course, just use wireless headphones.
Wireless charging is slow, as it is on other phones. With the phone starting at about 30 percent battery, we managed a 24 percent increase in an hour. Compare that with 36 percent increase with the standard iPhone charger, or a 67-70 percent increase with an iPad charger. A firmware update will enable faster wireless charging in the future, Apple tells me.
Earlier iPhones don't receive any additional benefit out of higher-wattage chargers, but if you're upgrading to the iPhone 8, we really suggest investing in an iPad charger. You can grab one for $19 and dramatically speed up your charging time.
Apple says the iPhone 8 will have roughly the same battery life as the iPhone 7. In our initial test, we saw 6 hours, 25 minutes of video streaming time, noticeably better than the iPhone 7's 5 hours, 45 minutes.
One Camera Doesn't Rule Them All
The iPhone 8 has a single 12-megapixel, f/1.8 main camera, as well as a 7-megapixel, f/2.2 front camera. The main camera is optically stabilized, while the front one is not. Apple says the main camera will deliver better photos than the current iPhone 7's main camera does.
That's all fine, for photography. We're confident that the iPhone will still be one of the best camera phones available. But Apple's moving aggressively into augmented reality, and a single-camera phone is at a major disadvantage when it comes to mapping the depth of spaces. Using two cameras, like the iPhone 8 Plus—or even better, the iPhone X's front-facing IR dot projector—makes it notably easier to do high-quality augmented reality.
We saw this when we were demoing ARKit with Apple a few weeks ago. In its current state, ARKit can only map horizontal surfaces. It can't figure out a whole room, including the walls and ceiling, the way Microsoft's HoloLens can. That may be a limitation of a single-camera device.
Two new features have come aboard for video: the phone can now record 4K video at 60 frames per second, and slow-motion 1080p video at 240 fps.
Pricing and Conclusions
The iPhone 8 costs $699 for a 64GB version, or $849 for 256GB. It comes in gold, silver, or space gray. That's $100 less than the iPhone 8 Plus, and $300 less than the iPhone X. It's still an expensive phone, just a little under the $720 average price of Samsung's flagships.
On initial glance, we're not seeing the compelling reason to upgrade from an iPhone 7 here, or even from an iPhone 6s. We're going to reserve our final judgement until we're done testing.