iPhone 8 Plus brings solid improvements to an already-great device [Review]

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iPhone
There's no denying the iPhone 8 is a great phone, but can it shine through the iPhone X's shadow?
Photo: Ste Smith/Cult of Mac

Compared to the radical redesign of the iPhone X, the iPhone 8 Plus looks quite familiar. With the exception of a glass back and a few superficial changes, it employs the same form factor that Apple’s been using since the iPhone 6 Plus. However, it packs some serious internal upgrades that make a difference in day-to-day use.

I picked up the 8 Plus on launch day and have been using it for just over a week. How does it rate? Get my take in the video and written reviews below. Also, don’t miss our huge iPhone 8 and 8 Plus case giveaway at the bottom of the post.

iPhone 8 Plus review

iPhone 8 camera
The iPhone 8 Plus design looks familiar, but refined.
Photo: Ste Smith/Cult of Mac

iPhone 8 Plus design

Personally, I like the current iPhone design, although it’s feeling outdated (and has for some time). Samsung switches up the design of its flagship phones every year. Apple’s continued reliance on a design that debuted in 2014 seems lazy in comparison.

Keeping a very similar design means Apple should have no problem manufacturing millions of the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus, but saving the new, sexy bezel-less design for the iPhone X means a lot of people will be holding out for the latest, greatest Apple phone.

The big noticeable change in the iPhone 8 Plus (and its smaller sibling, the iPhone 8) is the return of the glass back. We have not seen this since the iPhone 4s in 2011. It identifies the new devices easily as being from the iPhone 8 line, and actually improves the design aesthetically.

In my opinion, it looks and feels more premium. It also adds some extra, much-needed grip. Thankfully, fingerprints aren’t a big deal on the glass back. I’m not wiping the phone on my T-shirt every few minutes, apart from that mirrored Apple logo. (It attracts fingerprints like a magnet).

Qi charging

iPhone 8 Wireless Chargin
Qi charging might not be as quick as wired, but it’s a nice luxury.
Photo: Ste Smith/Cult of Mac

The main reason for the glass back is the presence of wireless charging, a first for an iPhone. Apple is playing catchup here — Android and even Windows handsets have had this feature for years. (Apple is also playing catchup with its AirPower charging pad that will charge the new iPhones, as the accessory won’t be available until next year.)

However, since the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus support wireless charging via third-party accessories using the Qi open wireless standard, you can use dozens of products made by other companies. For example, as this was my first Qi device, I picked up an inexpensive Samsung charger for around $50.

While wireless charging does feel liberating, the one thing you’ll need to keep in mind when using Qi charging is that it can be a fair bit slower than using the good, old-fashioned Lightning connector.

For example, my iPhone 8 Plus goes from 0 percent to 60 percent in about an hour with a Lightning cable. In comparison, an hour of wireless charging only takes it to around 30 percent. So wireless charging at this point is more suited to popping your iPhone on a charging pad when you go to bed, as opposed to hoping to get a quick boost.

Some of my friends who checked out the iPhone 8 Plus while it charged on my desk seemed to struggle to place it back on charge on their first try. The iPhone needs to be placed on the Qi charging dock in the right spot for it to work. With Apple’s larger AirPower charging pad, however, I think this will be less of a hassle.

iPhone 8 Plus speakers rock

The next big change in the iPhone 8 Plus is one you won’t see, but will definitely hear — the device’s new speakers. Apple says they are 25 percent louder than those in the previous generation of phones.

Without measuring it, I’d say Apple is spot on — or even underrating the iPhone 8 Plus’ speakers. They’re surprisingly loud the first time you turn them up to the max, and they’re still super-crisp when on full.

Oh snap: The iPhone 8 Plus camera

flash retina dual lens
The iPhone 8 Plus’ camera gets a bump also.
Photo: Ste Smith/Cult of Mac

Here in 2017, cameras are one of the biggest features that sell smartphones — and the iPhone 8 Plus does not disappoint in that respect. Just as with previous generations, the 8 Plus offers a superior camera to the regular iPhone 8.

On paper, the specs can be a bit deceiving. Both iPhone 8 and 8 Plus house a 12MP camera, just like the iPhone 7. And the 8 Plus still packs the dual-camera system, with wide-angle and telephoto lenses for extra photographic firepower.

However, this year’s models got a major upgrade. Both iPhone 8 and 8 Plus pack a bigger camera sensor. Although Apple hasn’t revealed exactly how much bigger it is, this sensor boasts pixels that are better at isolating incoming light and reducing crosstalk between pixels.

On top of that,  the iPhone 8/8 Plus camera sensor is also smarter, while the powerful new A11 Bionic chip makes the phone better at video stabilization. In addition, you can double the frame rate of 4K capture, which results in far smoother video by reducing motion blur. It’s impressive stuff, and it adds up to one of the best smartphone cameras I’ve ever had the pleasure of using.

Portrait Lighting for studio-style effects

The iPhone 8 Plus also introduces new Portrait Lighting effects to Portrait Mode, the software enhancement that mimics the depth effects created by DSLR cameras. The new Portrait Lighting effects attempt to match lighting setups used in professional photo shoots, using the iPhone 8 Plus’ depth-mapping technology to increase shadows while brightening other areas. It’s perfect for your Kardashian-style selfies.

The Stage Lighting preset, for instance, mimics a dark backdrop. Results can be mixed using this preset, however. Sometimes it perfectly cuts out a foreground subject from the background; other times it just ends up looking like a bad Photoshop job. Keep in mind that these new lighting features are still in beta, so they should improve over time.

The 8 Plus (and the new iPhone 8) also raise the bar on shooting video. They shoot 240fps slow motion at 1080p resolution, which means you can get awesome slow-motion shots that owners of some professional cameras would be jealous. Many pro devices lack a frame rate that high (even some that cost three or four times the price of the iPhone). I could do my best to describe how incredible the shots look in slow motion, but if you check out my video above, the shots speak for themselves.

A11 Bionic chip: Power at iPhone 8 Plus’ core

iPhone 8 Plus
Augmented reality on the iPhone 8 Plus is a dream.
Photo: Ste Smith/Cult of Mac

Inside the iPhone 8 Plus (and iPhone 8), you get Apple’s new A11 Bionic chip, with a CPU up to 70 percent faster than the iPhone 7’s A10 Fusion, and a three-core GPU that’s up to 30 percent faster. In tests, I definitely noticed switching apps was faster.

The A11 Bionic really comes into its own with augmented reality apps. Machines, a game that Apple demoed during the iPhone X keynote, is full of vast landscapes, particle effects, and animations. And it runs almost flawlessly, all while tracking my dining table or whatever flat surface I’m mapping the games onto.

The displays on these new iPhones are almost identical to the previous generation, which isn’t a bad thing. No, you don’t get the iPhone X’s Super Retina OLED display. But the addition of True Tone — Apple’s white balance compensation system that gets the display to look different under different lights — makes a huge difference. As a result, the iPhone 8 line definitely retains its status as the best LCD display available.

iPhone 8 Plus vs. iPhone X: The verdict

iPhone 8 Plus review
iPhone 8 Plus or iPhone X?
Photo: Ste Smith/Cult of Mac

So, is it worth buying the 8 Plus? Personally, I’d go for the Plus-size model over the iPhone 8, since its dual-lens camera makes light work of making any photograph look amazing. For most people, deciding between the two models will probably come down to the devices’ footprints. Just as in previous years, you’ll need to weigh whether you prefer the one-handed ease of the iPhone 8 or the giant screen and longer battery life of the iPhone 8 Plus.

Obviously, I’ll need to try out the iPhone X to make an in-depth comparison of Apple’s full 2017 iPhone lineup.

From what we know about all three devices, you’re definitely better off waiting for the iPhone X if you want to have the latest features. The iPhone 8 and 8 Plus don’t offer the larger Super Retina display. There’s no Face ID and no depth-sensing camera. That means fans of Animojis — Apple’s new animated emojis, which were shown off so wonderfully by Apple’s Craig Federighi during the iPhone X keynote — will be disappointed.

Depends on what you’re packing

If you’ve already got an iPhone 7 or 7 Plus and don’t want to upgrade to the iPhone X, I’d say there’s nothing that should compel you to upgrade to the iPhone 8 or 8 Plus. Heck, if Qi wireless charging is so important to you, you can buy a case that supports it and will work on your existing device.

If you have a phone that’s more than a couple of years old, however, and you don’t need the latest features, I’d definitely recommend the iPhone 8 Plus. You won’t be disappointed by what adds up to a solid improvement to an already-great device. Just be warned that you could find yourself facing buyer’s remorse once you start seeing the iPhone X out and about.

iPhone 8 price: $699 for 64GB of storage; $849 for 256GB

iPhone 8 Plus price: $799 for 64GB of storage; $949 for 256GB

Buy from: Apple

iPhone 8/8 Plus case giveaway

Fancy a free iPhone 8 or iPhone 8 Plus case to protect your shiny new device? Thanks to our friends at YesGo, we’ve got 100 cases to give away to our readers and YouTube subscribers. To enter see below.

Cult of Mac x YesGo iPhone 8/8+ Case Giveaway!

Cult of Mac purchased a review unit for this article. See Cult of Mac’sreviews policy and check out more stuff we recommend in our Best List reviews.