Is the iPhone 8 Plus a step ahead, or is Cupertino killing time until the iPhone X?
Another year, another iPhone. Except this year, the 8 and 8 Plus aren’t the stars of the show - they were overshadowed at their own launch event by their bezel-less brother, the iPhone X.
Compared to the X, with its fairly radical redesign, the 8 and 8 Plus run the risk of looking a little dull, a bit been-there-done-that. But is that a fair assessment of Apple’s latest iPhone iteration, or is X-envy masking a solid step forward for Cupertino?
Unlike previous iPhones, even just over a week after launch the iPhone 8 Plus is still pretty easy to get hold of - Apple’s own site promises units will dispatch in 3-5 days for UK buyers, though in the US there’s still a 1-2 week wait.
If you buy SIM-free, the 8 Plus will set you back £799/$799 for a 64GB model, or £949/$949 for an arguably gratuitous 256GB storage - that's £100 more than the smaller iPhone 8, for reference.
Contracts vary, but in the UK you can expect to pay around £50 per month with £100-200 upfront cost - right now the lowest upfront cost from Carphone Warehouse is £39.99, with £64 per month over two years.
The point is, whatever way you look at it, this is an expensive phone. It’s in the same price range as Samsung’s flagships - the Galaxy S8 Plus would officially set you back £779 for 64GB, while the Note 8 is £869 for the same storage - though Samsung’s prices tend to drop faster than Apple’s.
For example, you can grab an S8 Plus for just £629.99/$734.99 from Amazon - or you could get the regular S8 for even less and get a similar-sized display to the 8 Plus in a smaller body.
Other top-spec Android devices typically cost even less - check out our best phones chart and you’ll find plenty of great phones well below the £600/$600 line.
Design is an area where Apple normally enjoys a solid lead over much of its competition, but in recent years Android rivals have slowly refined their design language, while Apple, well, hasn’t.
That’s because the iPhone 8 Plus looks almost exactly the same as the iPhone 7 Plus. And the 6s Plus. And the 6 Plus. You’ve actually got to go all the way back to the iPhone 5s in 2013 (!) to find the last Apple flagship with a substantially different build.
Still, what does that actually mean? You’ve got the same bezelled front, with the iPhone 7 static home button at the bottom. The only available port is Lightning - the 3.5mm headphone jack isn’t coming back, folks - and the dual rear cameras still noticeably protrude from the body. IP67 water-resistance also makes a return.
The colour selection is slightly different though. The 8 and 8 Plus are only available in Gold, Silver, or Space Grey, though the new Gold finish sits somewhere between the previous Gold and Rose Gold in shade.
The back is where we find the only significant design change: the rear of the body is glass rather than metal, a shift made mostly for technical rather than aesthetic reasons: it allows Apple to introduce wireless charging for the first time in an iPhone. More on that later.
Luckily, the glass is a welcome change - it adds to the already premium feel of the design (even four years in, it still holds up), and is somehow less slick and slippy than some other glass-backed phones.
The obvious downsides are that it’s a vicious smudge-magnet, and we’re worried about long-term durability - even the toughest glass can’t hold up as well as a metal casing, and Apple has already confirmed that repair costs will be sky high. We’d recommend you buy a case for this one.
The glass also has a small impact on the phone’s weight and dimensions. At 158.4x78.1x7.5mm it’s fractionally larger than the 7 Plus (though still should fit most 7 Plus cases), though the weight of 202g is a more noticeable jump from last year’s 188g - and makes it feel uncomfortably heavy, especially if you ever try to use it with one hand.
Still, what’s arguably most striking about the glass back is how quickly you forget it’s there, and the 8 Plus just goes back to feeling like another iPhone. In itself, that’s no bad thing - Apple’s got a winning design here - but anyone upgrading from any iPhone since the 6 will find little to get excited about.
Now onto what really matters: what’s underneath that new glass back, and just how the most powerful iPhone yet runs.
Once again, the iPhone 8 Plus is packing a 5.5in LCD display, which is almost identical to the screen included in the 7 Plus, boasting the same 1920x1080 (401 ppi) resolution and 1300:1 contrast ratio.
The major difference is the introduction of support for True Tone, tech that Apple first introduced in the iPad Pro, which automatically adapts the display to the ambient lighting to make sure that colours appear accurate at all times.
For the most part, that means warmer colours - turning True Tone off immediately adds a blue tinge to the display - though at times it over-compensates, making whites appear slightly yellowed.
The new display also includes HDR support for both Dolby Vision and HDR10 - a welcome bit of synergy with Apple’s push for more HDR content in iTunes to support the new Apple TV 4K.
This is where the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus have arguably seen the biggest improvement from the 7 range, thanks to the introduction of the latest Apple processor: the A11 Bionic.
Naturally, Apple has made all sorts of claims about how it’s refined and improved its chip design, but there are only really two things that matter here: how it fares in benchmarks, and how it fares in day-to-day usage.
When it comes to the benchmarks, it’s probably fair to say that the 8 Plus absolutely smashes it. Paired with 3GB of RAM (according to a few teardown reports), the A11 Bionic demolished its closest rivals, with single-core scores that doubled the likes of the Galaxy S8.
The Jetstream browser scores were similarly impressive, though the gap narrows dramatically on the graphical tests. There’s also a marked improvement over the scores of last year’s 7 Plus, showing that the A11 offers a genuine performance boost from last year’s A10.
The bigger question is whether anyone actually needs that extra power. Every phone in our benchmark comparison is extremely fast, and can comfortably handle just about everything you throw at it.
So is the iPhone 8 Plus, but in usage it’s not noticeably faster than any of those phones - most of that processing power simply goes unused. It’s also not immune to performance problems - in just a few days with the phone we’ve seen it slow to a crawl once already, with noticeable input lag just from using Duolingo and listening to music.
So yes, the iPhone 8 Plus is blinding on benchmarks - but that only serves as a reminder that these days phone benchmarks count for less and less, and in usage there’s little to separate Apple’s latest from the competition - or its own predecessor.
Storage is simple at least. The 8 Plus comes in two storage configurations: 64GB or 256GB. For the average user, we’d be hard-pressed to recommend anything above the 64GB model, which should be plenty for all your apps and plenty of music, photos, and videos - especially if you store some in the cloud.
However, it’s worth remembering that there’s no microSD card slot here, so that storage isn’t expandable at all. If you expect to be taking a lot of photos and videos, 256GB might just be worth it - though remember that paying for more cloud storage will definitely come out cheaper.
The 8 Plus packs a 2,691mAh battery, down from the 2,900mAh found in the 7 Plus. That might sound worrying, but a combination of software and hardware optimisations mean you can expect the battery to last roughly the same amount of time - even Apple’s own specs page lists the battery life as “about the same as iPhone 7 Plus.”
So far, that seems to mean a little over 24 hours on a single charge - so you’ll make it through the day comfortably enough if you need to, but realistically you’ll be wanting to charge on a daily basis.
That’s a little worse than what some of the flagship Android devices manage, but realistically you’d have to drop to a mid-spec phone to reliably hit a two or three day battery life, so we can’t complain too much.
The headline battery feature is of course the introduction of wireless charging, but don’t get too excited. Not only is Apple a few years late to the party, but for some reason it’s restricted the iPhone to a measly 5W wireless charging speed - with a software patch to allow 7.5W support down the line - despite the fact that other devices support up to 15W.
That means that right now the wireless charging runs at the same rate as the included Lightning charger, meaning it’ll take 4-5 hours to top up to full. It’s also worth noting that there’s no wireless charger included, so you’ll have to buy it separately - though that’s true of most, if not all, wireless charging phones.
Apple has also touted the new wired fast-charging capabilities, with up to 50% charge in 30 minutes. That sounds great, but unlike just about every fast-charging Android phone, Apple hasn’t included a fast-charger in the box - you’ll have to spend £49/$49 on a charger and £25/$25 on a cable (from Apple’s official store at least - prices will be lower elsewhere) to take advantage of the faster charging.
As we said above, once again the iPhone 8 Plus eschews the traditional headphone port in favour of just using Lightning - though Apple includes a pair of Lightning EarPods and a Lightning-to-3.5mm adapter in the box for good measure.
Otherwise, connectivity here is much as you’d expect - Wi-Fi, NFC, etc. - with one major addition: Bluetooth 5. The latest Bluetooth standard should offer faster, more reliable Bluetooth connections at longer ranges with compatible devices - and is fully backwards-compatible with older Bluetooth gear too.
The cameras are another area that’s seen incremental upgrades rather than substantial change - fair enough really, given that the iPhone 7 Plus already had one of the best smartphone camera setups around.
Once again, there are dual rear cameras, both at 12MP: a wide-angle lens with an f/1.8 aperture; and a telephoto with an f/2.8 aperture. Photos are once again of a high quality - our St. Pancras test shot shows bright, vivid colours, and great detail. The finer points of the brickwork are smudged together a little, but overall these results are hard to criticise too much.
Lowlight shots preserve detail and colour well - all the text on the bottle is legible and the grey and black on the tractor are easy to tell apart - but there’s a slight grain throughout. Still, it's an impressive result, and a reminder that Apple knows its camera hardware.
Portrait Mode returns, which adds a Bokeh effect to photos of people, but this time it’s backed up by Portrait Lighting, an iPhone 8 Plus (and eventually X) exclusive that does its best to artificially recreate a few professional lighting setups.
Studio Light attempts to recreate the light of, well, a studio portrait photo, while Contour Light aims for a similar effect but with deeper shadows and contrast. With a simple background and ideal lighting you can get some attractive results here, but it still tends to be fairly obvious that the effect is artificial.
Stage Light offers similar lighting effects, but creates a black backdrop, while Mono Stage Light does the same but in black-and-white. The latter is more forgiving, but both Stage Light effects are a bit rubbish right now (Portrait Lighting is still in beta, to be fair) with messy cropping that cuts chunks out of people’s faces and hair.
As for the front camera, that’s 7MP with an f/2.2 aperture, and is capable of 1080p video. It’s not the most impressive front-facing camera around, but for selfies, Snapchat, and FaceTime, it should be more than enough for most.
Otherwise, the obvious camera upgrades concern video: the 8 Plus can now shoot 4K video at 60fps (up from 30fps in the 7 Plus) and slow-mo in 1080p at 240fps (up from 120fps). Both welcome changes, but most users probably aren't shooting enough 4K video from their phones to worry about hitting 60fps.
The iPhone 8 and 8 Plus bring with them iOS 11, the latest iteration of Apple’s iconic operating system. Not to sound like a stopped clock or anything, but this isn’t a major update - though iPad users see bigger changes - though it is a welcome evolution from what’s come before.
The biggest changes are probably to the notifications screen and Control Centre. The former has been updated to combine the lock screen and notifications - a small change, but one that makes a lot of sense for usability.
The Control Centre has seen a similar tweak, more efficiently working to fit every setting onto a single screen, while also making use of 3D Touch to expand the functionality and allowing users to customise which settings appear. It’s also all wrapped up in a neat new design that blurs the background to bring the controls to the fore.
There are also myriad smaller additions, such as a new app drawer in Messages, along with the ability to use peer-to-peer Apple Pay over iMessage. Siri has also been tweaked to let you type in queries, along with a translation feature, and some improved learning capabilities.
The App Store interface has also been revamped to improve app discovery, with separate tabs for games and apps, and a ‘Today’ tab that includes daily app recommendations and content including developer interviews and tutorials. And there’s a new Files app, which lets you browse your files. Thrilling stuff.
iOS 11 also brings Apple’s new focus on augmented reality, with an assortment of games and apps to take advantage of the new tech. The ecosystem is still limited, but AR runs smoothly on the 8 Plus, and there are already a few great AR apps available.
You can find out about all the changes to iOS 11 in more detail over at our sister site Macworld, and of course remember that you can get all these changes on any iPhone from the 5s onwards - you don’t need to pick up an 8 or 8 Plus.