Apple's seductive sports car of a phone is the totally redesigned, edgy, giant-screened iPhone X.
So what does that make the 8?
The iPhone 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.
Read more: iPhone SE 2020 review
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 , or the iPhone X. It's a different approach than Samsung, which made its whole line of Galaxy S8 and Note 8 phones look new, but not too dissimilar from Google's take on the Pixel 2 phones. With the iPhone, new looks only come at the top end.
2017 iPhone pricing (64GB, 256GB)
|iPhone 8||$699, $849||£699, £849||AU$1,079, AU$1,329|
|iPhone 8 Plus||$799, $949||£799, £949||AU$1,229, AU$1,479|
|iPhone X||$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 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.
Should you get iPhone X instead?
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 are better. Its display is super-bright and packs more display in nearly the same size. But, the X is a lot more expensive, a bit more fragile and doesn't have a home button: You'll have to get used to Face ID, Apple's camera-based tech for using your face to unlock the phone and pay for things. It works, but it can be annoying.
If any of that sounds attractive to you -- or if you're willing to pay a huge premium for "the best iPhone" -- go for the iPhone X.
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 an improved iPhone that looks the same. But, in light of what the 8 Plus and X bring to the table, and camera gains made by Android phones like the Pixel 2, the 8 isn't quite the slam-dunk iPhone the 7 was.
Editors' note, Dec. 22: This review has been updated with battery benchmarks, phone durability drop test results, and comparisons to the iPhone X. The rating has been adjusted from 8.6 (4.5 stars) to 8.4 (4 stars).
Wireless charging: Cool, but BYO
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 with a new charge case. Some Qi-compatible chargers like ones from Belkin and Mophie can charge up a bit faster (7.5W), but they're still not what I'd call quick-charging. But, they are convenient: Lie your iPhone on them, and charge away, provided your phone's in the charge area.
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.
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.
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 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 want the best iPhone camera this year, the iPhone 8 Plus or iPhone X offer extra portrait modes and better rear zooming cameras that definitely make a difference. I use the closer-range 2x telephoto camera constantly.
Design: Old-school, but fine
When the iPhone 6 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 , with a similar grippiness to the matte black iPhone 7. The glass actually makes it feel less slippery.
Color options have shrunk to space gray, silver and gold. I'm testing the silver model, and it's mostly white with silver aluminum touches. Gold looks a creamy blush-pink with gold metal highlights -- more toward the older rose gold than "true gold" end of the scale. Space gray is very close to what was just "black" on the iPhone 7. The good news is that most iPhone 7 cases will work on the 8, so long as they have some flexibility. (The iPhone 8 is a fraction of a millimeter bigger than the 7 all around.)
It's not shatterproof
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.
So CNET bought some iPhone 8 models and submitted them to drop tests. The result? At 3 feet (0.9 meters), it survived. At 5 feet (1.5 meters), it shattered. Bottom line: don't drop these iPhones. Keep them in a case. My natural inclination is to coddle all-glass phones. It is, however, more durable than the iPhone X.
True Tone and better speakers are tiny AV improvements
The iPhone 8 screen isn't OLED, the display technology used on the iPhone X and Samsung Galaxy phones, which is more energy efficient and offers far better contrast and black levels. In fact, the iPhone 8's LCD screen is the same size and resolution as the 6, 6S and 7: 4.7-inch diagonal, with 1,334x750 pixels. It does get True Tone, however, a color warmth-adjusting ambient effect that the iPad Pro added last year. It makes the display seem less harsh in everyday reading, a bit like a more advanced all-day Night Shift.
Meanwhile, the speakers, which were louder with the 7, now get beefier with some bass. It's nice when you're sharing TV, movies or YouTube videos with friends, or even just using the iPhone for music at home. My son said, "It's a lot louder."
I mostly use headphones, though. Which reminds me: Like the 2016 models, none of the new iPhones have a standard headphone jack. Go wireless, or use the Lightning-to-3.5mm dongle or Lightning earbud headphones (both included). It's still annoying.
New processors make the iPhone 8 a speed demon
Apple calls its new iPhone chips "A11 Bionic." It's a six-core processor, versus the four-core last year. Apple's upgraded the rest of the chips, too, including the Apple-made GPU, a W2 wireless chip that's meant to be more Wi-Fi efficient, a motion-tracking chips, a modem chip designed for LTE-Advanced wireless networks and the camera sensors. It's ready to keep up with the next-wave apps that will come. New sensors and processors help photo and video quality, too.
It's a seriously fast set of chips based on benchmarks so far: In fact, the Geekbench 4 numbers we're getting come close to what MacBooks with Core i5 processors can achieve. Multitasking scores double last year's iPhone 7 tests, and it's a step up over even the last iPad Pros from the spring: Geekbench 4 results thus far are 4,188 single-core and 10,213 multicore. On paper, they blow away the Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 chip that's in most competing top-end phones, including those from Samsung, LG and OnePlus.
But, again, those gains are only as good as the software that pushes it. These phones should, however, handle onboard machine learning extremely well. That comes into play with Apple's iPhoto library scanning, which happens on the phone, not in the cloud, for privacy reasons. Third-party apps could also eventually tap into onboard machine learning in iOS 11 without using the cloud at all.
Battery life: 8, 8 Plus or X?
You probably already know the drill with new iPhones and battery life: For the most part, year after year, they don't tend to make massive gains. In fact, the 2017 iPhones (8 Plus, 8) actually have smaller batteries than their 2016 counterparts (7 Plus, 7), albeit the exact same battery life expectations (per Apple) because of the newer models' more efficient chips.
Indeed, Apple never claimed marathon battery life for the iPhone X, either. Its published battery specifications are equal to that of the iPhone 8 on internet use (12 hours) and wireless video playback (13 hours), while the 8 Plus is rated for an hour more on each task. Meanwhile, the X and 8 Plus rank considerably higher than the 8 on talk time and wireless audio playback (21 and 60 hours on the larger iPhones versus 14 and 40 on the iPhone 8, respectively).
In our video playback test, which loops a video while in airplane mode, the iPhone X actually fared the worst. The iPhone 8 Plus is slightly better on battery life compared to the 8, but it's really a subtle bump up. In all cases, the iPhones fared notably lower than other top-tier Android phones on similar tests.
Note that tests by Tom's Guide and the Wall Street Journal found the X battery landed squarely in between the 8 and and the Plus. We're continuing to test battery life on these iPhones as part of a longer analysis of wireless charging, and will update our scores if we see notable changes.
iPhone battery life (video playback test)
|iPhone 8||13.5 hours|
|iPhone 8 Plus||13.75 hours|
|iPhone X||11.45 hours|
In real life, we're not continuously in Airplane Mode watching a nonstop video. Anecdotal everyday use tells a different story. I found the iPhone X battery to be fine for a solid day's use, and at least as good as the iPhone 8. But, I also found I needed to charge it up by midday to be safe. The same is true to some extent even with the 8 and 8 Plus. I still don't feel like iPhones can last me more than a day, or even a full day without a charging top-off. Bottom line: I'd love for future iPhones to fare better.
Read our full take on the battery life of the 2017 iPhones for more information.
More storage (for more money)
A word on price and storage. You may have noticed the baseline iPhone crept up from $649, £599 and AU$1,079 to $699, £699 and AU$1,079. But at that price, you're getting 64GB this year, versus 32 for last year's iPhone 7 and just 16GB if you bought the entry-level model in earlier years. That 64GB should be OK for many people, especially since new photo and video compression formats on the iPhone save space, sometimes by as much as 50 percent. And iOS 11 has some space-management tricks that allow more cloud-storage of unused apps and files.
An extra $150, £150 or AU$250 gets you 256GB, which is best used for those who want to record lots of video, 4K or otherwise.
And, of course, if you buy on a monthly installment plan, all those numbers drop to something far more affordable.
AR: Apple's wild new iPhone trick
The most amazing thing you can do with Apple's new phones is augmented reality. Apple's ARKit works by fusing cameras and motion sensors to track the real world and layer virtual things on top of it, using your phone. Google tried this first with specialized Tango phones, and is now expanding AR to other Android phones like the Galaxy S8 and Pixel. Apple's AR promises immersive experiences without wearing any headsets or glasses. Based on a few test apps I've tried, ARKit can be pretty impressive. In SkyGuide, I aim my phone above the trees of the daytime skyline and a night sky fades in, with superimposed constellations and star names.
I float a transparent man with a glistening, beating heart in Insight Heart by Anime Res. The app is meant to realistically illustrate medical details of heart function. Much like Google Tango phones I've used, I can move around it and it stays in place. I can zoom my phone in to check out details.
A Thomas the Tank Engine AR app involves placing track pieces down on the floor and feeling like there's suddenly a toy track on my office carpet.
ARKit has its limitations: Sometimes the camera and motion-based tracking can't sense certain surfaces, or there's drift. Holding the phone up to see virtual things, as opposed to wearing glasses or goggles, is convenient but can get tiring. It can feel gimmicky, too. Some apps feel like AR is a trick, and maybe an unnecessary one.
But the level of graphic detail in these apps is stunning: It feels richer than VR, even if in a sense it is less immersive.
The possibilities here could extend into a future that involves things well beyond phones. As a first step, this has tons of promise. The new iPhones run these apps, but so can older iPhones going back to the 6S and SE, as long as you're running iOS 11. That's a great perk for those who don't upgrade, but it means that the new iPhones aren't needed for what feels like Apple's wildest new feature.
Who should get this phone?
If you want to decide which of this year's iPhones to get, read my guide on how to pick. But there's also a question of whether you should upgrade at all. Or, to put it another way: Why get the 8 over the 8 Plus or X?
iPhone 7 owners won't see much of a difference here, unless they've been waiting anxiously for wireless charging. I'd say they can skip the 8 -- but they should check out the 8 Plus and the X (see below).
But iPhone 6S owners will get lots of upside from two years of waiting: water resistance, wireless charging, better cameras and a huge leap in performance.
Anyone with an iPhone 6 or older -- especially those with comparatively micro 4-inch screens on the iPhone 5S and earlier -- will find the iPhone 8 to be a quantum leap forward.
Potential switchers from Android will likely find the iPhone 8's 4.7-inch screen to be too small. They'll be better served by the larger screens of the iPhone 8 Plus or iPhone X.
More budget-minded buyers who want power but don't care about new looks: The camera and speed improvements here are the key. Are you OK with the smaller screen and living without the best iPhone camera?
But the 8's advantages over 8 Plus and X are packing the same relative performance into a more affordable body, albeit with a smaller screen. The problem is, with extra camera features lacking, the iPhone 8 isn't the best iPhone to pick anymore. It's still very good... but it also feels like the least exciting upgrade of the bunch.