Thursday 16 August 2018

Great 8: new iPhone offers best camera yet

The latest Apple offering is perfect for business users, says technology editor Adrian Weckler who put it through its paces

Technology editor Adrian Weckler gets to grips with the new iPhone 8. Photo: Tony Gavin
Technology editor Adrian Weckler gets to grips with the new iPhone 8. Photo: Tony Gavin
The new phone can charged wirelessly
iPhone 8
The new iPhone 8 (L) and iPhone 8 Plus. Photo: REUTERS/Stephen Lam
An attendee at the Steve Jobs Theatre in Cupertino, California, takes a picture of the new Apple iPhone X, the tech giant’s first major redesign since 2014. Photo: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg
The iPhone 8 is launched
The iPhone 8

There's nothing quite like a new iPhone to get people's tech cogs moving. This is especially true for work users, as the iPhone is now the dominant business handset in Ireland: it stepped in when BlackBerry and Nokia collapsed.

So is it time to upgrade?

This year, the choice is slightly more complex. Apple is launching two new separate iPhone systems. The top model, the iPhone X, has a new screen design and facial recognition technology. But it won't be available until November and costs well over €1,000.

That leaves the iPhone 8 and iPhone 8 Plus, two less radical - but very solid - upgrades launched this week.

Having played with both the iPhone 8 and the iPhone 8 Plus for the guts of a week, we can safely offer a few reasonable views on whether or not each is worth getting.

Here's the verdict:

1/ The cameras are the real upgrade

This is where a lot of the value in the new iPhone is. Apple knows that people will pay more for a phone with a top camera and it has invested quite a bit into its new lenses and sensors. It works. This is easily the best cameraphone on the market to date and, more than ever, a reliable, competent (if limited) replacement for a standalone camera.

iPhone 8
iPhone 8

The detail, tones, micro-contrast and overall hue of the photos from this genuinely beat any other phone I've ever used.

I completed two series of tests. One was against the older iPhone 7, the other was against a brand new DSLR (Canon's semi-professional 6D Mark ii, which retails for over €2,000 before you buy a lens for it).

Against the iPhone 7, the iPhone 8 clearly had better image files. There was more intricate detail, more texture, better colour and far better performance in low light. This is a serious jump in quality.

Against the DSLR, the results were more varied. But when looked at straight out of the camera, the iPhone 8 largely held its own against the Canon's professional lenses at similar focal lengths (28mm and 56mm) in reasonable lighting conditions. Sure, post-photo editing software widened the gap between the two systems in favour of the DSLR, but this is something that not a lot of people ever do.

The new phone can charged wirelessly
The new phone can charged wirelessly

It's important to say that the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus retain the camera divisions of the iPhone 7 range, namely that the iPhone 8 has one 12-megapixel (f1.8) rear camera while the iPhone 8 Plus has two 12-megapixel (f1.8 wide and f2.8 telephoto) rear cameras.

The biggest improvement is in how the phone records low-light photos. Apple has made the camera sensor of the principle (28mm) wide angle lens in both phones bigger. This is a big deal. It lets the devices gather more light, thus noticeably improving low-light performance. There's no question about the results: I ran multiple tests comparing dimly lit photo shoots in the iPhone 8 and iPhone 7. The new model is the out-and-out better camera with warmer, sharper, more vivid, more colourful photos. Aside from the sensor, there's a whole load of tech under the hood that makes this the case. But take my word for it: this camera is the best you can get on any phone right now. I scarcely have to say what an advantage this is to anyone interested in using their phone as a camera: the long Irish winter means that many of our photos are taken in poor, artificial light. You're arming yourself with a hell of a weapon here.

Apple prefers to describe the iPhone 8's low light improvements as a result of it having "deeper" pixels than previous iPhones, but a larger sensor almost always means better performance in low light.

Both wide angle cameras on the iPhone 8 and iPhone 8 are optically stabilised, which is also critical for low light, non-blurred results. (Neither of the 7-megapixel (f2.2) selfie Facetime cameras are optically stabilised, nor is the telephoto lens on the iPhone 8 Plus.)

Much of the camera's accomplishment is down to help from the new A11 Bionic chip under the hood. This allows the camera to perform some pretty amazing feats, such as 4K video at 60 frames per second, slow-motion at 240 frames per second (at an incredibly sharp 1080p) or the inclusion of crisp high dynamic range (HDR) in each photo. It also feeds into to some nice new effects in 'live' photos, such as looping and long exposure.

(One advantage accruing from iOS 11 is that new codecs make file sizes for the likes of 4K videos are half the size of those taken in iOS 10.) As with the iPhone 7, the iPhone 8 Plus retains its photographic edge over the smaller iPhone 8 because of its second rear lens. As well providing the extra choice of an optical zoom, this also facilitates an improved portrait mode, which separates the person you're photographing from the background by creating a shallow depth of field. Here, Apple has added 'portrait lighting' which is supposed to use facial landmarking and depth maps to get portraits with shadows and spotlight effects. So you get new effects such as contour light, studio light and stage light (colour or mono).

While sometimes impressive, this is the one iPhone camera feature I found not to be completely flawless. Using the stage light, in particular, sometimes results in slightly butchered results with the separation resembling crude photoshop cut-outs rather than impressively smooth graduated filters. Other times it works really well and impresses the person being photographed. Lighting conditions play a big part here: some human photographic judgement is still a big advantage if you want to make this mode really work to its potential.

2/ Wireless charging and all-glass design

Other than different colours, the only real design difference that's immediately apparent is that the rear casing of the iPhone 8 is now made of glass (compared to the aluminium on the iPhone 7).

While this is aesthetically pleasing in itself, it also serves the higher purpose of wireless charging. Just plonk the iPhone 8 down on any wireless charger that uses the open Qi standard (including chargers from Belkin and Mophie, cars from Toyota or even some furniture from Ikea) and it starts powering up.

I found that charging it wirelessly was around the same as using a Lightning cable.

It's important to point out that the iPhone 8's wireless charging feature is an additive rather than a replacement feature: the Lightning charger cables still work as before.

3/ This time, the new chip is worth talking about

It's hard to get excited about a processor, but the A11 Bionic - which is also in the upcoming iPhone X - opens up a hell of a lot of features, both present and planned. While Apple says it's around 25pc faster than the A10 chip in the iPhone 7, some industry benchmark tests are already suggesting that it's faster than around 85pc of the laptops out there (including a couple of last year's MacBooks). Technically, this has six cores, two of which help elongate battery life and four of which contribute to the heavy lifting. The upshot is that the more advanced computer duties, such as augmented reality apps coming on stream will depend on this for smooth performance.

4/ Battery life is fine

For some people, this is a big deal. The bigger the screens, the more advanced our phones get and the more we use them for evermore complex, lengthy purposes.

The iPhone's battery is probably not physically bigger than the iPhone 7's battery (the company never comments on its actual size). However, I have found that it slightly outlasts the battery of the iPhone 7 based on the same activities performed every day (social media, video, camera, email, Google and a handful of other apps). Don't expect this to match some rival devices, such as Samsung's S8 Plus, which has a monster battery life. But it's not a letdown - I was pleasantly surprised.

5/ Other features

(i) Improved screen: Despite being largely made up of the same technical specifications, the new iPhone's screen is a little better than that on the iPhone 7 because of its 'true tone' light sensor that adjusts the screen's white balance based on your immediate environment. This is especially noticeable at night time in lamp lit conditions - the phone has a much nicer, mellow glow instead of a harsh white one. The colour accuracy is also excellent on iPhone 8's screen, without the over-saturation you sometimes see on some rival devices.

(ii) Louder speakers: The iPhone 8's speakers are slightly beefier, with Apple claiming a 25pc jump in audio output. This is increasingly a big deal with people choosing to watch a video or take a call on loudspeaker.

(iii) It's water and dust resistant: I didn't put the iPhone 8 through the same trials I put the iPhone 7 through last year (dunking it in a pint of Guinness, after which it worked perfectly, to prove it could survive an Irish 'accident'). But the phone is rainproof and splashproof. Don't bring it swimming with you, though - salt water plays havoc with it.

PS, for the rest of us, iOS 11 brings some new upgrades

Even if you're not planning on upgrading, older iPhone owners will benefit from the latest iOS update to rollout this week. iOS 11 is one of the bigger redesigns of the iPhone operating system that we've seen in years. It includes ambitious new features for Messages. The most important of these is the ability to transfer sums of money to others in Messages using Apple Pay Cash. In Messages, you select the Apple Pay icon in the new Messages app drawer. Your Apple Pay account is debited while the sendee's Apple Pay account is credited. At a stroke, peer-to-peer payments will likely rocket past all other services combined.

Apple has also extended its 'Do Not Disturb' feature for use in cars. As soon as your iPhone is connected to your car's Bluetooth system, 'Do Not Disturb' is activated. This means that your phone will be silent for calls and messages, giving you ability to pre-programme a message saying that you're driving and will call whoever's calling back.

There's also a new App Store design. But my favourite element so far is the new screenshot feature, which lets you automatically adjust or edit a screenshot you've taken. You can scribble on it, put a digital signature on it or crop it. It's a new PDF system for the smartphone age.

After all is said and done, should you buy the iPhone 8? For most, this will be a good, solid upgrade. It has a much better camera, handy new wireless charging functionality, a better screen and a best-in-class chip. It also has better speakers and, in my experience with it over the last week, slightly superior battery performance. All in all, it's about the best phone you can buy right now.

Despite this, it's almost identical in physical shape and design to the iPhone 7, which might make some feel like holding out for the more radically different iPhone X, due out in November. After all, it is the iPhone X, not the iPhone 8, which has the facial recognition and all-screen design that everyone is currently talking about.

But at €300 less than the iPhone X and fewer availability roadblocks, many will look to the iPhone 8 or the iPhone 8 Plus as their next upgrade right now.

While they may lust after the all-screen iPhone X, they won't be disappointed with the performance of the iPhone 8, which is a stellar smartphone.

The bottom line: should you buy one?

After all is said and done, should you buy the iPhone 8? For most, this will be a good, solid upgrade. It has a much better camera, handy new wireless charging functionality, a better screen and a best-in-class chip. It also has better speakers and, in my experience with it over the last week, slightly superior battery performance. All in all, it’s about the best phone you can buy right now.

Despite this, it’s almost identical in physical shape and design to the iPhone 7, which might make some feel like holding out for the more radically different iPhone X, due out in November. After all, it is the iPhone X, not the iPhone 8, which has the facial recognition and all-screen design that everyone is currently talking about.

But at €300 less than the iPhone X and fewer availability roadblocks, many will look to the iPhone 8 or the iPhone 8 Plus as their next upgrade right now.

While they may lust after the all-screen iPhone X, they won’t be disappointed with the performance of the iPhone 8, which is a stellar smartphone.

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