On Nov. 3, Apple will roll out its seductive sports car of a phone: the all-new, totally redesigned, edgy, giant-screened iPhone X.
In the meantime, the iPhone 8 ($699.00 at Apple) and 8 Plus -- the practical crossover and supersized SUV of the 2017 Apple phone line -- have pulled into the lot. They're here and available, and suddenly your iPhone purchase decision is wildly confusing.
So why buy an iPhone 8 when that sexy iPhone X is just around the corner? The 8 is last year's design with this year's technology. It feels familiar. It's a safe pick. It's a "let's not spend a thousand dollars on an iPhone" iPhone. It's a "Touch ID and a home button matter more to me than a leap of faith into the world of Face ID" iPhone.
Make no mistake: The iPhone 8 is essentially the "iPhone 7S." Apple saved the cool features and radical new design for the iPhone X, which costs 43 percent more -- $999, £999 or AU$1,579 to start. And if you want the truly impressive dual camera, with portrait mode and 2x optical zoom -- both seriously nice step-ups -- you'll need to invest in the much larger iPhone 8 Plus ($799.00 at Apple), or wait for that eventual X. It's a different approach than Samsung, which made its whole line of Galaxy S8 and Note 8 phones look new. With the iPhone, new looks only come at the top end.
That X is tempting indeed, but my only real-world experience with the device is the brief time I spent with it at Apple's Sept. 12 launch event. Until I can eventually get one and put it through its paces, I strongly recommend that you refrain from buying any phone whatsoever.
But if you need a phone right now, or if you have no desire to pay the iPhone X premium, let's talk practical considerations.
2017 iPhone pricing (64GB, 256GB)
|$699, $849||£699, £849||AU$1,079, AU$1,329|
|$799, $949||£799, £949||AU$1,229, AU$1,479|
|$999, $1,149||£999, £1,149||AU$1,579, AU$1,829|
The iPhone 8's best feature is its processor, a fast new six-core A11 Bionic chip, similar to the processor in the iPhone X and 8 Plus. Thanks to an all-new image sensor, photo quality has improved in low light, as has video quality. The iPhone 8 adds an improved iPad-style True Tone screen, and the speakers sound nice and loud. All the new iPhones include wireless charging now, thanks to a glass back.
If you have an iPhone 7, you'll find the faster speed, better screen and better camera on the iPhone 8 "nice to have," but short of "must-buy" territory -- unless you're particularly enamored with the wireless charging Android owners have enjoyed for years.
For anyone with an iPhone 6S ($610.00 at Amazon Marketplace) or previous model, however, the benefits of jumping to an iPhone 8 ramp up dramatically. The speed, screen, audio and camera improvements will feel significant, and you'll get nice upgrades you missed when you skipped the iPhone 7, including water resistance.
So, yeah: That iPhone X may look great in the showroom window. But ultimately, you're driving off the lot with the practical four-door crossover. It's more affordable. It gets perfectly decent gas mileage. But it still has the same nice high-end navigation package, entertainment system and fuel-injected engine as that sweet low-slung coupe. Not too shabby.
That's the iPhone 8. The baseline 2017 iPhone remains a top-tier smartphone -- a seriously good phone. Just don't expect it to turn heads.
Do you wait for the iPhone X? (Yes)
The X is compact -- it's got a 5.8-inch screen in a body that's taller but barely wider than the 8 -- and it feels great. Its dual cameras should be at least as good as those on the excellent iPhone 8 Plus. It has a weird 3D-mapping front camera array housed in a notch above the screen, a design compromise some iPhone purists find maddening. It uses your face to pay for things. And we have yet to see how its Face ID tech compares to Touch ID in real-world testing.
If any of that sounds attractive to you -- or if you're willing to pay a huge premium for "the best iPhone" -- you should wait until November.
If you don't care about that stuff, or if you just can't see yourself paying $1,000 for a phone, the iPhone 8 is fine. Yes, it's basically what we were calling it all year: the "iPhone 7S." But S phones are often the best values, and the iPhone 8 is no exception. It's a better iPhone that looks the same.
Editors' note: In-depth battery testing is still to come, as is durability testing and additional photo comparisons to other phones. Ratings are provisional until we complete those tests.
Wireless charging: Cool, but BYO and slow (for now)
The iPhone 8 comes with a Lightning cable and plug, but it works with the existing Qi wireless charging standard. That means there are already many affordable third-party chargers on the market, and many public places -- like McDonald's, for instance -- already have counters with Qi-compatible chargers built-in.
Apple doesn't have its own wireless charge base at all, at least not yet: AirPower arrives next year, a mat that charges the new iPhones, the Apple Watch Series 3 and AirPods ($179.57 at Amazon Marketplace) with a new charge case. In the meantime, Apple recommends Belkin and Mophie chargers that will charge the iPhone faster when it's updated to allow 7.5W wireless charging via an update later this year. A test unit of Mophie's new charger worked fine for me: It has a circular, rubberized base but has its own specialized charge cord (you can't use Micro-USB, USB-C or Lightning with it).
For now, wireless charging is slow. Half an hour with Mophie's charger delivered about a 15 percent uptick in battery. It's intended for overnight charging, with a Lightning cable still the faster way to charge the iPhone 8. If you want faster still, spring for a separate higher-wattage MacBook charger -- and, of course, the USB-C-to-Lightning cable, sold separately. The new iPhones will charge up to 50 percent in half an hour this way, but not with included chargers. (Stay tuned for more testing.)
Still, now that Apple's on board with an existing standard -- Samsung and others have long supported Qi -- wireless charging looks to finally become a universal convenience. Starbucks has already pledged to make its existing wireless chargers iPhone compatible, and there are plenty of Qi chargers available on Amazon for as little as $20 in the US.
Apple claims that the iPhone 8's battery will last about as long as the iPhone 7's does. In our first days with the device, that has matched up with our anecdotal experience. Keep in mind that the similar-size iPhone X promises up to 2 hours more battery life than the 8 -- similar to the battery life you'll get with the 8 Plus.
Better camera, but not dual cameras
The iPhone 8 doesn't get a dual camera like the 8 Plus and the iPhone X, and that's a shame. But its photos and videos do look improved.
This time around, the front and rear cameras get better mostly via new sensors and a new image signal processor. While low light shots do look nicer, and shutter speed and focus seem a bit faster, I didn't see enough of a change from the iPhone 7 to astonish me, but the photos I took all looked really, really good. The 8's camera still lacks the clever Portrait effects of the 7 Plus ($785.70 at Amazon Marketplace) and 8 Plus, and telephoto lens (2x optical zoom) found on those phones, too.
This phone also now shoots 60fps, 4K video and 240fps, 1080p slow-mo, and those video changes make a difference for serious video work. But if you're buying an iPhone as a camera for professional use, you owe it to yourself to get the iPhone 8 Plus. Or, wait to see how the iPhone X performs -- its front and rear cameras, on paper, are even better than the 8 Plus.
Design: Old-school, but fine
When the iPhone 6 ($348.00 at Amazon.com) debuted, its screen size and design made big waves. But that was 2014. Much like with the MacBook Air or iPads, Apple has locked in the design one more time here, but with a construction facelift. A return to a glass back, the first since the iPhone 4S back in 2011, enables more than just aesthetics: that's what allows the aforementioned wireless charging to work. The phone feels good, though, kind of like last year's Pixel ($599.95 at Amazon.com), with a similar grippiness to the matte black iPhone 7. The glass actually makes it feel less slippery.
Apple says the glass in the new iPhones is 50 percent more durable than last year's iPhone 7 glass, with impact and scratch improvements and steel frame reinforcements (and more durable aluminum). It's hard to tell how impact-proof these phones will be in practice because Apple won't make any specific claims, and we've only had these phones for about a week. Stay tuned for drop tests. We'll find out. In the meantime, my natural inclination is to coddle all-glass phones. The good news is that most iPhone 7 cases will work on the 8, so long as they have a bit of flexibility. (The iPhone 8 is a fraction of a millimeter bigger than the 7 all around.)