More of the same from Apple: a fraction better in most departments, but more than a fraction more expensive.
Remember the good old days when Apple revamped the design of its smartphones every two years, boosting the specifications in between? Recently it has stepped outside that tick-tock development cycle. The Apple iPhone 8 Plus might be the latest, greatest iPhone (not counting the rather over the top iPhone X), but the design template it’s based on is now entering its fourth year.
There are tweaks – it has a new glass back, wireless charging and a dual-camera setup on the rear – but the iPhone 8 Plus looks the same as the iPhone 6 Plus did way back in 2014. The iPhone 8 Plus is, then, pretty easy to summarise. It’s the phone you buy if you’re a dyed-in-the-wool Apple fan but can’t afford the leap to the $1,579 iPhone X.
Vive la difference
As with most of the smartphone industry, Apple has raised its prices in 2017, making the iPhone 8 Plus more expensive than its predecessor. The cheapest iPhone 8 Plus is $1,079, compared to the iPhone 7 Plus’ launch price of $1,269 (it’s now $1,049). At least you get 64GB of storage in the base model versus 32GB for the 7 Plus. If you want the 256GB iPhone 8 Plus, you’ll be paying $1,479.
From the front, it’s impossible to see what you’re paying the extra for. The iPhone 8 Plus is so similar to the 7 Plus that you wouldn’t be able to tell them apart if the two phones were side by side, facing upwards.
The buttons, camera lenses, flash and nano-SIM card tray are in precisely the same locations as before. It’s still dust- and water-resistant to IP67 certification, it still has a Force Touch fingerprint-sensor home button beneath the screen, and there’s still no 3.5mm headphone jack.
Flip the phone over, however, and the differences become obvious. The biggie, of course, is the glass back, which looks and feels lovely. I was sent the iPhone 8 Plus in Gold, which looks a little beige in the flesh – Space Grey and Silver both look more attractive to my eyes.
The glass back is flat across most of its glossy expanse, but does curve up slightly at the edges, so there’s no sharp chamfer to dig into your palm. It’s easy to keep free of fingerprints, too. One wipe on your jeans and, bang, the smudges are gone.
It’s far too early to say how robust, scratch-resistant and shatterproof the glass is; Apple says it’s tough, of course, but there’s no Gorilla Glass branding here to back up that claim. I’d buy a case to protect my purchase, just to be on the safe side.
One of the immediately positive implications of the glass back, however, is that the iPhone 8 Plus is no longer afflicted by those ugly plastic antenna strips. You can see them on the edges at the top and bottom of the phone, but they don’t wrap around like they used to, so they’re far less obtrusive.
Other than this, and the fact that you now get wireless charging to the Qi standard (another benefit of a glass rear), the biggest physical change is that the iPhone Plus is now noticeably heavier. It weighs 205g, which is positively elephantine, even with the current trend towards bigger handsets.
To look at the figures, you’d think Apple hadn’t changed anything about the IPS display at all. With all automatic adaptations disabled, the iPhone 8 Plus turned in a near-identical set of figures to the iPhone 7 Plus in our tests. Peak brightness reached 553cd/m2 with a full white screen in the browser, the contrast ratio is 1,365:1 (the iPhone 7 Plus achieved 520cd/m2 and 1,350:1), and colour accuracy is spot on. It’s as you’d expect from any Apple product, but no better or worse than its predecessor.
It’s certainly no better than the Samsung Galaxy S8 or Note 8 displays, all of which reach much higher peak brightness levels, use AMOLED panels and smash the iPhone 8 Plus out of the park when it comes to contrast.
Instead, the big development here is True Tone, which started out as an iPad-only feature. With True Tone enabled, the phone uses its sensors to gauge the colour temperature of the ambient light, matching the white balance of the colours onscreen.
The idea is that your brain doesn’t have to keep readjusting its perception of colour when you look away from the screen and back again, resulting in more natural-looking images and less eyestrain. It works beautifully and is a feature that’s well worth leaving on. (I’d still rather be looking at a Samsung Galaxy S8, though.)
Plus ça change
There is one area where you can categorically say the iPhone 8 Plus is a huge improvement: speed. In fact, the new hexa-core A11 Bionic chip is so good that it batters not only its predecessor but also the Samsung Galaxy S8 and all of its Android flagship buddies into submission as well. As the graphs opposite show, the iPhone 8 Plus is the fastest phone we’ve ever benchmarked.
In the past, iPhones have typically outperformed their Android counterparts in the single-core Geekbench test but haven’t done so well in the multi-core part. This time around, performance is screamingly quick across the board.
Graphics performance is superb as well. Note, though, that this improved performance won’t get you higher frame rates in games or anywhere else. That’s because performance is capped at the 60Hz refresh rate of the iPhone 8 Plus’ display – and that will remain the case until Apple decides to endow its iPhones with a super-smooth 120Hz screen similar to the ones it’s given to the recent iPad Pro models.
Battery life is decent but not chart-topping. That’s perhaps because Apple has taken advantage of the extra efficiency of the A11 chip to reduce the size of the battery. Surprisingly, the battery inside the Apple iPhone 8 Plus is a 2,675mAh unit, which is smaller by 225mAh than the iPhone 7 Plus’ 2,900mAh unit.
Here, the iPhone 8 Plus’ rivals have a clear upper hand. In our video-rundown battery test, in which we set screen brightness to 170cd/m2 and put the phone in Flight mode, the iPhone 8 Plus lasted 13hrs 54mins before giving up.
That’s a long way behind the Samsung Galaxy S8 Plus and OnePlus 5. Yes, the iPhone 8 Plus can be charged wirelessly via Qi standard chargers – which means you can plonk it down on one of Ikea’s Selje nightstands or the base of one of its Varv lights without having to connect a wire to the base of the phone – but how much more trouble is it to connect a cable? Arguably, it’s more hassle: a cable allows you to charge while you’re still using your phone, something that’s much trickier to do with a wireless charging pad.
For many users, the reason to upgrade isn’t because a phone is faster – most phones we see are more than fast enough – but for the new, fancy, pimped-up camera. But Apple isn’t giving you much to cheer about here. In 2017, the iPhone 8 Plus gets a pair of 12-megapixel shooters: one 28mm, the other a 2x telephoto 56mm lens, with apertures of f/1.8 and f/2.8 respectively, just like last year.
The only major difference in hardware terms is that the telephoto camera is now optically stabilised, so it performs slightly better in low light: you can capture sharper photographs at slower shutter speeds, ensuring lower levels of noise.
That’s the theory at least, and it’s backed up by an improvement in software and processing as well. Most significantly, HDR is now enabled permanently – you can’t disable it – and there’s an enhanced Portrait mode, which allows you to apply lighting effects to those creamy out-of-focus-ish background portrait photos.
The latter works well, giving you the option to change the look of your portraits both before and after the shot. It’s a nice feature, and Portrait mode works as well as ever, but it’s about as revolutionary as Prince William.
How about regular shots? Well, the iPhone 8 Plus has a very good pair of cameras. They take reliably strong photos in good and bad light, but in terms of reliability and quality, they’re little better than last year’s. I’d still rate the camera on last year’s Google Pixel XL as slightly better than the iPhone 8’s. It has retained fractionally more fine detail in all the outdoor and low-light comparison shots I’ve taken so far.
But then, you do have dual cameras here, giving you more overall flexibility. To get a dual-camera setup matching the iPhone 8 Plus, you’d have to pay more for a Samsung Galaxy Note 8.
Video quality is remarkably good. You can capture in 4K at up to 60fps and the stabilisation is just superb; once again it’s a close match for the Pixel’s smooth, Steadicam-esque footage and it works just as well on the telephoto lens as it does the regular one.
Finally, the front-facing camera is a 7-megapixel f/2.2 unit, but this is no different to last year’s. It takes detail-packed selfies and, although there’s still no front-facing flash, the screen can be used to flood your face with light.
The Apple iPhone 8 Plus is a good phone, but is it as good as similarly priced rivals? Is it even as good as those phones costing much less money? Objectively, the answer to both these questions is no. It’s incredibly fast, has great cameras and it’s dust- and water-resistant – but it’s not the best you can buy.
The Samsung Galaxy S8 may not be as quick, but it’s almost there, it’s cheaper and it has a better screen. True, it doesn’t have dual cameras, but its single camera is at least as good as the iPhone 8’s main shooter – plus it has better battery life and microSD card expansion. And, if you care about such things, I think the Samsung Galaxy S8 looks nicer too. If the thought of spending $1,499 doesn’t fill you with horror, there’s the Galaxy Note 8 (see overleaf) as well.
Then there’s the iPhone 7 Plus. This is now $1,049 for the 32GB model, and $1,199 for 128GB, it runs iOS 11 perfectly smoothly, and remains a powerful phone with a decent dual-camera and respectable battery life. If you’re moving up from an iPhone 6 Plus or even 6s Plus, it’s certainly worth considering.
The iPhone 8 Plus is one of the best phones Apple has ever produced, and for Apple diehards, it offers the most bang per buck of the trio announced in September. But if you’re going to spend big on an Apple smartphone, wouldn’t you rather wait for the iPhone X?