Thursday 22 February 2018

Seven reasons why the iPhone 8 is the smartphone to beat (under €1000 price tag)

iPhone 8
iPhone 8
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

Let’s cut to the chase -- the iPhone 8 has a brilliant camera, a handy wireless charging system and a few other improvements (including a mega-powerful chip). It is genuinely a very solid update to the iPhone 7.

Yes, it looks exactly like the iPhone 7 (with the exception of its new glass rear casing). But based on what I’ve experienced over the time I’ve had using it, it’s still going to be the one to beat in the sub-€1,000 smartphone category (or everything except the upcoming iPhone X).

Here are seven reasons why.

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.

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.

Read more: Forget the iPhone X - Apple's best iPhone is now its least expensive

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.

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.)

Read more: Apple's new 4G Watch can't be used with EU roaming

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 a little quicker than an iPhone 7 with a Lightning cable. However, I also found that you had to place the phone dead centre, something that took a few attempts when stumbling into bed at night.

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 they did before. It’s also worth adding that Apple is coming to the wireless charging party late, with many Android phones already using this capability for some time.

 

3. The biggest chip in the market

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 surprisingly good

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.

Read more: Buy it, or don't buy it - but spare us moaning about cost of iPhone X

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 most definitely rain and splash proof. Don’t bring it swimming with you, though – saltwater really doesn’t do it any favours.

 

6. IOS 11 looks great

We’ll cover this in a separate piece, but it’s worth mentioning here as the iPhone 8 ships with iOS 11. There are a few really nice new effects. My favourite one is the screenshot feature, which lets you automatically adjust or edit a screenshot -- including the ability to scribble a note on it -- as soon as the screenshot is taken. The ‘Do Not Disturb’ feature gets an upgrade for cars (it can now be set to automatically activate itself when connected to your car’s Bluetooth). There are also some nice new Messages effects and the new App Store design looks really nice. The feature I’m most looking forward to using is Apple Pay Cash within Messages. This will let anyone set up with Apple Pay to send cash to someone else (who uses Apple Pay) simply by selecting the icon in the new Messages app drawer. At a stroke, peer-to-peer payments will likely rocket past all other services combined.

 

7. Conclusion

The iPhone 8 is a very solid upgrade to the iPhone 7. 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 actually be disappointed with the performance of the iPhone 8, which is a stellar smartphone.

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