Apple iPhone 8 review: The status quo upgrade

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.

iPhone 8

8 and 8 Plus: Nearly equally fast.

Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

iPhone 8 Plus

Thomas the Tank Engine, floating on a coffee table.

Sarah Tew/CNET

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 ($227 at eBay) 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.


Sky Guide running on the iPhone 8 Plus: Yes, this is how it looks when you use it.

Screenshot by Scott Stein/CNET

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.

iPhone 8

No dual cameras here.

Sarah Tew/CNET

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 ($580 at Walmart) 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.

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