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iPhone 8 and 8 Plus hands-on: The Qi flows through this one

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Enlarge / A new mode allows you to change lighting scenarios for photos on the fly.

To those familiar with past Apple upgrade conventions, the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus might as well have been called the iPhone 7S and 7S Plus. They improve incrementally on two already good phones. But when we spent time with them at Apple’s Cupertino event, they felt a bit anemic compared not only to other phones in their category but to their own big brother, the iPhone X.

The phones felt the same in our hands as the 7 and 7 Plus. The main difference is in texture—the back is made of glass now—meaning that fingerprint smudges were common, just like with the iPhone 4 some years ago. In fact, the Apple rep showing the phones carried a cloth with her to wipe the smudges off between demos. She wasn’t being persnickety; it was needed.

We checked the bottom of the phone: no headphone jack, and there’s still a Lightning port. Given that the new Macs use Thunderbolt 3 and USB-C, it would have been nice to see Thunderbolt 3 instead, but we weren’t expecting that.

So if all this is the same, what’s different?

What’s new over the iPhone 7

Apple says the iPhone 8 has an improved Retina Display featuring improved color gamut and better viewing angles over the iPhone 7. These were subtle but welcome.

There’s also True Tone, a technology that automatically adjusts the white balance of the image based on your surroundings. It was impossible to test this at the event, as the lighting and surroundings weren’t changing.

In a market where top-tier phones from LG, Samsung, and others have better displays, and now the iPhone X does as well, getting excited about the screens on the 8 and 8 Plus is difficult. For the most part, we couldn’t tell the difference between these and the one in the iPhone 7 we brought with us—granted, the viewing environment was neither dynamic nor ideal.

The biggest internal improvements apart from speed are in the video camera. We’ve gone from 4K recording at 30fps in the iPhone 7 to 4K at 24, 30, or 60fps in the iPhone 8. 1080p slow-motion capture gets a bump to 240fps from 120fps. We tried all of the above and were pleased with the results.

The iPhone 8 is very, very fast

Early benchmarks are showing that the A11 Bionic chip (also used in the iPhone X) is very fast. Improvements over the iPhone 7 should be noticeable. It’s harder to compare across architectures, but suffice it to say that speed is not these phones’ shortcoming.

That’s the most exciting thing about the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus, but we won’t see the full effects of that until games and other apps take advantage of it in the coming months.

The iPhone 8 was able to show 3D elements in the AR Warhammer 40,000 game superimposed over live video of what was in front of the phone. The result appeared to be native resolution and 60fps.

The chip also apparently makes Portrait Mode possible, which impressed us greatly in the iPhone X. We want to get more time to test it and compare it to the X’s implementation before passing judgment on it, though.

Wireless charging

The most notable feature in the 8 and 8 Plus, then, is wireless charging. We saw the pads, and we saw the phones charging on them, but we’ll have to wait until we have review units to test charging speed and other factors.

It’s a good thing Apple went with the Qi standard. The company is known for adopting proprietary standards, but that would have been a nonstarter for the iPhone 8, as Qi charging pads are already the standard in many airports and coffee shops. Not being able to charge in these places would have defeated the purpose of wireless charging.

Other than that, we were more excited by the iOS 11 software than the hardware, at least in the situations available to us at the event. If you like the iPhone 6, 6S, 7, and their Plus-sized siblings, you’ll like the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus. But the purchasing decision comes down to how much you value the speed of the internals and wireless charging—unless you shoot a lot more slow-motion video than the average individual, anyway.

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