This post has been updated.
Apple has three new phones coming this fall. While most of the attention has been focused on the iPhone X, the iPhone 8 and iPhone 8 Plus will hit stores first — and at a lower price than the iPhone X's $1,000 price tag. They go on sale Friday starting at $699 and $799, respectively.
How much of an upgrade are we getting with these two phones? Apple provided me with some to try out for a few days. Below are my main takeaways.
The basics: These both are solid updates to the iPhone line. They're very familiar, as Apple hasn't strayed too far from the template that's made the iPhone a blockbuster. The iPhone 8 and iPhone 8 Plus are, this year, the phones for people who prize function over fancy features.
Differences: The iPhone 8 and iPhone 8 Plus aren't identical, of course. The iPhone 8 Plus is larger, at 5.5 inches to the iPhone 8's 4.7 inches. In terms of the way they operate, the most noticeable difference between the iPhone 8 and the iPhone 8 Plus is in the camera. The iPhone 8 Plus has a dual camera, which allows it to provide a greater sense of depth in your pictures and helps the camera distinguish between foreground and background.
That sensor intelligence enables several portrait shooting modes that take artistically lit shots of people. Apple has examples of each mode in its promotional materials.
Practically speaking, my own portraits weren't as glamorous but were noticeably nicer than the shots I took with my older iPhones, and without the special mode. If you change your mind, you can remove portrait mode after the fact, or swap which effect you want to apply.
There are also some usability differences, which mirror closely what we've seen from other iPhone/iPhone Plus lines. The iPhone 8 Plus is more like a tablet, and those who watch a lot of video will appreciate its larger screen and may also like returning features such as a landscape layout for apps such as mail. And, perhaps most importantly for the productivity focused, there is also a battery life difference.
Battery: I used each of these phones as my primary phone, to get a “normal” day test out of them. The iPhone 8 Plus definitely has better battery life than its smaller sibling, even when being used heavily. On a day where I had to use it for navigation, video streaming and plenty of email, it made it through the day and probably could have made it through the next morning without being in dire need of a top-up. The iPhone 8, when I used it, got down pretty low by the end of the day, at which point I switched to low power mode. In other words, it got me through a day, but not much further.
A new feature that's come to both of these phones is wireless charging, thanks to new glass backs. You can use any charging pad that uses the Qi standard — the most common wireless charging technology. In addition to using the Mophie charger that Apple provided for me, I also was able to use a Samsung wireless charger, among others. You may have to strip your phones of their cases to have them charge.
(Update: Apple confirmed that wireless charging will work through some cases, including its own silicon and leather cases. Thinner cases, in general, are more likely to allow you to charge your phone wirelessly without removing them.)
Charging didn't seem super-fast on the wireless charger — and can be derailed by a bump to your nightstand or a misbehaving pet, for example. But it felt like the phones filled up at about the same pace as they would on the cord.
Augmented reality: This is the iPhone 8 and iPhone 8 Plus's most gee-whiz feature, if you're looking for a little excitement. The augmented reality features overlay digital objects onto the real world through the camera. These made it feel like these phone are pushing the iPhone forward — even if they are set to be immediately outshone by the iPhone X on the innovation front.
That said, even the AR apps I tried and liked didn't feel like must-have apps. A number of developers let me access their AR apps as part of the review, including the makers of IKEA Place and Sky Guide, two of the apps Apple showed off at its debut event. I also got to play around with a game, “The Machines: AR” in its beta, which let me conduct a high-tech battle on my living room floor.
The apps were all fun and well-executed. Some, such as the IKEA app, would be useful in a very specific scenario. (Redecorating, in this case.) But this is a feature that shows more promise than practicality right now. That doesn't mean it's not exciting, it just means that you may not find something that clicks with you right away.
Recommendations: Both phones have features that make them worth upgrading for, especially from the iPhone 6s line. If you're a fan of wireless charging, it may even be worth an upgrade from the iPhone 7.
If you don't mind the size and the price bump, I'd say that the iPhone 8 Plus is more appealing between the two phones. The camera features are worth paying for — as is the extra battery life — even if it does feel a little cumbersome at times if you're not accustomed to the size.
Not that interested in the camera features, but want a new iPhone? Stick with the iPhone 8, which has received a very nice upgrade even if it's not going to blow you away.
Of course, if you want the most innovative iPhone of all, you may want to wait until we get more time with the iPhone X, which is due for preorder in late October. If you know already, however, that you don't want to spend at least $1,000 on a new smartphone, consider one of these less glamorous but still improved models.