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Phones

iPhone X vs. 8 Plus vs. 8: Choose the best iPhone for you

Apple's expanding iPhone lineup makes it harder than ever to find a perfect fit. But for most, it comes down to the iPhone X and the 8 Plus.

Sarah Tew/CNET
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Picking an iPhone used to be dead simple: just get the new one. But, in 2017, Apple has three new iPhones: a basic iPhone 8, an upgraded 8 Plus, and a fancy iPhone X.

That's not even counting all the other iPhones Apple still sells, too: the iPhone SE, the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus, and the iPhone 6S and 6S Plus. That's eight models in total -- it's almost too much.

Blow the dust away, and you have three clear iPhone paths to head down: for premium, the iPhone X or iPhone 8 Plus; for mainstream, the iPhone 8; and for a budget choice, the iPhone SE.

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Sometimes (like with some videos), the 8 Plus (top) vs X (bottom) don't seem that different.

Sarah Tew/CNET

iPhone X vs. iPhone 8 Plus: Flashy vs. functional

Know this: you really can't go wrong with either pick. Unlike previous years where Apple had one clear top-end iPhone, these two split the difference between future-forward design and comfortable, traditional feel. The hardware is in many ways identical, from processor to wireless charging to similar (but slightly different) dual rear cameras. But there are some differences that may help make up your mind.

Go with the 8 Plus for an edge on battery life, a familiar home button and interface, a display that's a bit larger for some needs and a lower price. Pick the iPhone X is you're looking for a more compact big-screen phone with a great new design, want to ride the bleeding edge of where Apple's tech is heading next (mainly the front-facing, 3D depth-sensing Face ID camera), and don't mind learning a new gesture language (you'll pick it up).

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The iPhone X has the looks.

Sarah Tew/CNET

iPhone X: Your top-of-the-line sports car breaks boundaries, but has some drawbacks

Advantages:

  • Size: It's the Goldilocks iPhone. The tall, narrow 5.8-inch screen is a perfect middle between the hand-friendly iPhone 8 and larger 8 Plus.
  • Screen: The OLED display pops, and so far it's been one of the best phone displays CNET has ever seen.
  • Rear cameras: The X cameras have all the bells and whistles -- 2x optical zoom, optical image stabilization on both lenses -- offering the most complete iPhone camera package to date.
  • Front camera: Front-facing TrueDepth camera can take Portrait photos, do unique AR tricks and 3D mapping for clever tricks like animojis and the next version of Snapchat. That can feel gimmicky, but it's also weirdly fun.
  • Face ID: Touch ID is gone from the iPhone X, but the Face ID feature generally works well.

Drawbacks:

  • Price: It's $999 (£999 or AU$1,579) to start, and really $1,149 (£1,149 or AU$1,829) for the model with the storage I'd prefer. Actually, I'd prefer 128GB of storage, but Apple is only offering 64GB and 256GB models, and as always, there's no expandable storage.
  • App optimization: Not all apps perfectly fit the new display and its unusual shape and aspect ratio yet, so it means the X's screen size may not always seem that large.
  • Battery life: Longevity is a step down from the iPhone 8 Plus: I found it got me through a day, but narrowly. And recharging with the included charger is slow.
  • Interface changes: Yes, Face ID works. But with no home button, the interface is different, and that takes getting used to. In fact, it might even annoy you -- Control Center's new "swipe down" gesture is a step down in usability from other iPhones.
  • Durability: Our iPhone X drop test shows the nearly all-glass design may be more fragile than the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus. And, unless you're enrolled in protection like AppleCare, fixing it will be expensive.
iPhone 8 Plus

The iPhone 8 Plus: Boring but good, and it works great.

Sarah Tew/CNET

iPhone 8 Plus: Your workhorse pick doesn't rock the boat

Advantages:

  • Battery life: A longer battery life compared to the iPhone X.
  • Rear cameras: You're getting most (though not all) of the iPhone X's camera strengths, including Portrait Mode for photos and 2x optical zoom.
  • Traditional 16x9 screen: While the 5.5-inch screen is technically a bit smaller than that of the 5.8-inch iPhone X, it has the more familiar 16x9 aspect ratio of your HDTV -- the size that's already best optimized for most videos, apps and games.
  • Some iPad-like app features: The 8 Plus includes landscape mode and in-app split-screen for some apps (Mail, Notes and others) that aren't available on the narrower screen on the X.

Drawbacks:

  • OIS only on one rear camera: The 8 Plus lacks optical image stabilization on one of its two rear cameras. In the real world, that means the X has the advantage on low-light photos and some Portrait Mode shots.
  • No fancy front camera tricks: No TrueDepth front camera means no Portrait Mode in selfie photos, and no iPhone X 3D-scanning face app tricks, including animojis.
  • Not as hand-friendly as the X: The Plus just feels a lot less comfortable to hold, especially for anyone who lacks larger hands.
  • Me-too looks: The 8 Plus looks just like every other older iPhone Plus since 2014.
iPhone 8

It's... fine! It's the iPhone 8.

Sarah Tew/CNET

iPhone 8: A fine phone, but one that no longer stands out

The 8 is, all of a sudden, the odd duck in the new iPhone lineup. It's got better speed and cameras than last year's iPhone, and the option to use wireless charging accessories. But it already feels old compared to the iPhone X. True, you're spending $300 to step up to the X, though spreading payments over 24 or 30 months can get that price increase down to as little as $10 per billing cycle. But then, if you don't want to spend that much, consider whether you should wait on getting an iPhone at all, or get a budget alternative?

The iPhone 7 and iPhone 6S (and their larger Plus siblings) are still being sold, now at their lowest price ever. But I wouldn't suggest buying one over the 8: Their older processors are bound to hit update snags for future versions of iOS before the 8 will, so at some point -- iOS 13, iOS 14, whatever -- you may not be able to get the latest operating system update, or take advantage of all its features. But if you already own a 6S or 7, you could just stay put for another year and see where the 2018 version of the iPhone X lands as far as price.

Advantages:

  • Price: The 8 is the least expensive new-for-2017 iPhone.
  • Same basic specs as 8 Plus and X: The 8 has the same fast processor, camera image sensor and wireless charging feature as the 8 Plus and the X.
  • Compact size and feel: The body -- and its 4.7-inch screen -- is nicely pocketable.

Disadvantages:

  • No dual camera tricks: The lack of the dual rear cameras on the 8 Plus and the X means no optical zoom and no Portrait Mode. In other words, you're losing two of the best camera features on modern iPhones.
  • Smallish screen, old-fashioned body: As with the Plus, the iPhone 8 looks basically the same as its predecessors from the past three years. And its 4.7-inch screen is the smallest among 2017 iPhones.
  • Not much different from iPhone 7: since it's lacking the extra bonus camera features of the newer models, the 8 feels closer to a modest upgrade over last year's 7, and more skippable.
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You could get an iPhone SE, Apple Watch and AirPods for less than an iPhone X.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The iPhone SE: Still the best budget option

Finally, I'd point any discount shoppers to the iPhone SE, a phone that debuted in 2016 but still feels good to use, sports a great battery life, and is far more affordable than other iPhones.

Keep in mind it's basically an iPhone 6S jammed into the older body of an iPhone 5S. You're missing out on a bunch of newer iPhone features, including the pressure-sensitive 3D Touch screen. But... it works nicely, is far more compact, and does the job for basic everyday phone things. If it's offered at a good discount, it's still worth buying as a basic iPhone. Apple offers 32GB and 128GB versions right now. The 128GB is a good upgrade if you're planning on taking lots of photos and video.

Advantages:

  • Super-compact size
  • Really good battery life
  • Still takes good photos and video
  • Price is nearly a third of an iPhone X
  • Has a headphone jack

Disadvantages:

  • Isn't water resistant
  • Smaller 4-inch screen is harder to read
  • No wireless charging
  • Older processor bound to age out faster as newer versions of iOS arrive
  • Lacks newer iPhone camera quality upgrades and features

What about Android?

Remember that iPhones aren't the only fish in the smartphone sea. We've seen more and better Android choices in 2017 than ever before. If you're not bound by iOS, check out the competitors from Samsung, LG, OnePlus and Motorola. And remember that we'll probably see the Samsung Galaxy S9 unveiled as soon as March, if the company follows its traditional release schedule.