The whooping fanfare and block-long queues that usually accompany a new Apple phone were noticeably absent when the iPhone 8 family arrived in stores last week.
Two words explain why – iPhone X.
It’s understandable that people might want to scope out Apple’s flashiest ever handset before committing. Especially when, from the outside, the 8 Plus might look like a handful of small upgrades with wireless charging chucked in.
But as ever with Apple, there’s much more to this phone than its spec sheet. It’s only once you start prodding your way around it that you realise just how much these small changes add up to a much better overall experience.
Even with the iPhone X looming large, the 8 Plus could well be the iPhone to buy this year.
Design: same old, same old
From the front, not a lot seems to have changed on the iPhone 8 Plus. It’s still almost unforgivably big, considering the shapeshifting Android phones we’ve seen over the last 12 months. And that’s not all down to screen ratio trickery either – the Google Pixel has an equally large 5.5in, 16:9 screen and is a good couple of centimetres narrower and shorter than the 8 Plus.
This does mean using the phone one handed can be a little precarious, as you’re often changing your grip in order to cover all areas of the screen. You can, as ever, softly double tap the home button to shrink the top icons down, but that doesn’t help you get to your most used emoji on the far left.
It’s also a little heavier (14g more) than the 7 Plus too. That’s probably not enough for previous Plus owners to worry about too much, but going up from the smaller iPhone 7, I definitely noticed the extra heft. If you balance your phone on your little finger like I do, it can be a bit uncomfortable.
The home button remains present and correct on the 8 Plus, with the same haptic feedback sensation that launched last year. This means it’s not actually a button, but it feels like it is when you click it. This continues to double up as Apple’s Touch ID fingerprint scanner for unlocking your phone and paying via Apple Pay – a tried-and-tested formula that works as smoothly as it always has.
Flip the phone around and that’s when you’ll notice where the design shake up begins. The aluminium back has been replaced by glass, so wireless charging can join the party. Aluminium still runs around the edge of the phone, which creates a slight ridge where glass and metal meet. No biggie, but it’s not quite as smooth in your hand as the aluminium finish of before.
Apple promises the glass – front and back – is the strongest ever used in a smartphone. No, we’re not going to drop it to put this to the test, but yes, you might feel more inclined to get a case for this if you’ve previously gone without.
With the new design comes a new take on the rose gold colour colourway introduced in the iPhone 6s. It’s now simply labelled up as gold, and joins silver and space grey in the line-up. While the other two are uniform in their colour, the gold opts for a creamy, ever-so-slightly-pink finish on the back, with a subtler rose gold colour for the logo and around its edges. It’s a bit retro-looking, but we like it.
Elsewhere, it’s business as usual, with all the buttons and switches as they were in previous phones, and pretty well placed for easy access from your holding position.
Waterproofing returns too, at an IP67 rating. That’s enough for a dunk of up to one metre for 30 minutes – not quite as good as the waterproofing on Samsung phones at IP68, but enough for most mishaps.
Of course, there’s iOS 11 installed out of the box. We’ve done a more in depth piece on iOS 11's best features but suffice to say it looks great. It's bolder and smarter, and just as enjoyable to navigate around, with an improved and customisable control centre that puts the switches you need just a swipe away.
As for the headphone jack? Yeah, that’s still gone. The stereo speakers get a 25% volume boost though, and now go pretty loud indeed.
Display: Toned up
On paper, the iPhone 8 Plus and its 5.5in, 1920x1080 IPS display is like-for-like with the 7 Plus.
In pure pixel terms, that’s nothing on 2960 x 1440 of the Samsung Galaxy S8+, or the forthcoming iPhone X. But Apple screens have always been better than their specs would suggest, and this is no different. It’s bright, crisp and great at fending off reflections.
There is something new here though, and it’s the True-Tone technology, borrowed from the most recent iPad Pro. It adjusts the display based on ambient lighting conditions in your environment, and you’re encouraged to turn it on at set up.
It basically takes out a lot of the blue light that would usually be chucked your way, and warms up the overall colour balance, just a little.
The result is a very natural picture, with a believable colour balance and decent contrast. Skin tones are expertly judged, bold colours have just enough ‘pop’ to them and there’s plenty of detail and sharpness to boot. Blacks don’t get as deep as AMOLED displays, but they come close enough.
After days of having True Tone switched on, looking at the screen with it off now seems very artificial.
Camera: double the fun
Last year’s 7 Plus introduced the dual-lens camera setup that makes a reappearance on the 8 Plus.
On paper, it looks to be another game of iPhone snap with two 12-megapixel cameras – one wide-angle lens with f/1.8 aperture and one telephoto lens with f/2.8 aperture. Only the wide-angle gets optical image stabilisation as well, which sounds the same as last year. Right?
Not quite. This time, Apple has included a larger, faster sensor for better low-light photography and quicker shooting, a new colour filter for more saturated colours and ‘deeper pixels’ for improved dynamic range.
From a software perspective, HDR mode is now always on and the Portrait mode introduced on the iPhone 7 has had some tweaks and additions too.
Cutting to the chase, it’s one of the best smartphone cameras we’ve ever tested. In good light, pictures are detailed and well balanced, with impressive dynamic range. Even in trickier outdoor lighting, exposure is spot on, and HDR is always on hand to save your shots from bleached-out backgrounds.
Granted, good light isn’t exactly a challenge for the best cameras, but the 8 Plus also tackles low light with impressive ability. Murky scenes are noticeably brighter, but also cleaner and sharper, with facial recognition doing a good job to ensure people are particularly well exposed.
There’s a little bit of smoothing on closer inspection, but nothing that can be unexpected in these conditions.
Switching to the zoom on the telephoto camera, and it does a nice job at jumping in closer to a scene without losing any detail, framing the subject nicely in the process. It’s less impressive in low light due to its narrower aperture though, so you’re best sticking with the standard lens for that, or turning on the quad-LED True Tone flash for a very natural splash of light.
Portrait mode now looks more natural with its faux-bokeh background blurring, and it’s a little more accurate to boot. It’s a cool effect that can look really good, but can also still be caught out by subtler outlines and blur edges incorrectly.
The new Portrait Lighting effects are the main talking point here though. When selected, the 8 Plus uses both of its cameras to take a depth map of your face, applying your choice of effect on the parts of your face where light would actually hit you.
There is an option for Natural Light (the default), Studio Light (brighter), Contour Light (ups the contrast), Stage Light (blacks out any background) or Stage Light Mono (does the same but in black and white.
The first three work well enough, but the Stage Light and Stage Light Mono are a bit too dramatic that I’m not sure who would ever use them. It’s also a little aggressive with how it darkens the background, and can lop off bits of hair or clothing so you’re left with an unnatural result.
These effects are still in beta, though, so we could see improvements to them down the line.
Performance and battery life: no complaints
Apple’s own A11 Bionic chip sits at the heart of the iPhone 8 Plus, and runs iOS 11 with nary a hiccup.
As an impatient power user, it blazed through everything I chucked at it, chomping through all manner of multi-tasking - from streaming and browsing to 3D games - without issue. It’ll get a touch warm when really pushed, but not enough to cause any concern.
The battery is big enough to cope with such high demands too. Anyone making the jump from a smaller iPhone, particularly the 6s or earlier, will notice a marked difference in battery life. I found I could easily get a day from it, even with some streaming and gaming thrown in.
Wireless charging is the big addition to the iPhone 8 Plus this year. You don't get a wireless charger in the box, but it uses the Qi wireless charging standard, so there's no proprietary Apple nonsense to tie you into spending top dollar for the necessary kit. You can get one for a decent price from Amazon or similar. For now, Apple recommends and sell chargers from Mophie and Belkin, while it works on producing its own.
At the moment, the 8 Plus will only charge at 5W, but an update coming later in the year is expected boost this to 7.5W. That’ll help speed things up, but is still some way off competitor phones that support up to 15W.
A wall charger is likely still going to be the quickest way to get your phone charged up right now. If you’re really impatient, the iPhone 8 now supports fast charging too, going from 0-50% in 30 minutes. Naturally you’ll need to invest in the required cables to make that happen – namely a USB-C to Lightning cable and a USB-C power adapter, as this tech uses USB-C specific power delivery smarts.
Pricing and the competition: doesn't come cheap
Prepare your shocked faces - the iPhone 8 Plus is pricey. But this year it’s particularly so, partly because of the fact it’s ditched the 32GB model and jumps straight in to 64GB (and because Brexit, naturally).
That means the cheapest you can get the iPhone 8 Plus for is £799, and power users are probably going to want to invest in the beefier 256GB option, for an eye-watering £949 (up from last year’s £919).
That’s almost iPhone X-level pricing. But it’s not hugely out of line for its peers. The excellent Samsung Galaxy S8+ (64GB) costs £779, and equally excellent Note 8 (64GB) is £869 – the difference being that both offer expandable storage, which is a heck of a lot cheaper than the £150 jump between storage options on the iPhone.
On contract, you’re likely to find little difference, though, so it’ll probably come down to whether you prefer iOS or Android as an operating system as to which gets your dosh.
If you’re set on iPhone though, here’s our tips - if you can handle the size of it, the iPhone 8 Plus is the pick of the 8 family due to its better camera, screen and battery life.
If the price is too high, the iPhone 7 Plus or 6s Plus remain on sale and may well be worth a look – but stretch to the 7 Plus if you can. And if you’re one for the latest and greatest tech but aren’t bothered by price, you'll probably want to wait and check out the X. Its edge-to-edge screen and face recognition technology could be a game changer… if you can cope without the home button, of course.
Verdict: the iPhone to buy?
When the Plus model first launched as the chunky sibling to the iPhone 6, it felt like a bit of an also ran – a bigger, bulkier iPhone but with little else to offer. Now it feels like the iPhone in the family to buy.
Yes, the design is still as cumbersome as it was back then, but it now packs some great benefits you’ll only find here too, including one of the best smartphone cameras we’ve ever tested.
The steps forward from last year are subtle, but amount to a greater whole. iPhone 7 Plus owners might not feel the need to upgrade, but users of the 6s and before will see big differences in features and performance.
The looming iPhone X may well have quietened the usual Apple hysteria for the iPhone 8 family, but don’t let that fool you: the iPhone 8 Plus is fully deserving of five-star fanfare.