The launch of new iPhones is always a special event. So you can imagine our surprise when Phil Schiller actually rushed through the launches of the iPhone 8 and its elder brother, the 8 Plus, as he proceeded to what in the eyes of many was the real star of the show, the iPhone X. In some ways, this seemed almost like a passing of the torch – the Plus edition of the iPhone, ever since its debut in 2014 (the iPhone 6 Plus, remember?) had the honour of being the real Apple flagship, as it always had better specs than its smaller sibling, even though the software was always the same. It was the first iPhone to get a full HD display, the first to get REAL all-day battery life, and also the first to get dual cameras (the 7 Plus). So when it was suddenly grouped along with the 8 and seemingly quickly passed over, many felt that the mantle of iPhone flagship had well and truly passed. In fact, many (including a few of us at TechPP) wondered why on earth anyone would even consider investing in the already expensive iPhone 8 Plus when by spending about twenty percent more (which is actually not as much of a deal in the premium segment, where audiences generally have deeper pockets, than at the budget end), they could get the ‘more innovative’ and visually distinct iPhone X.
Playing second fiddle to the X?
After spending a considerable amount of time with the iPhone 8 Plus, we think we have the answer. And honestly, those who were dismissing the 8 Plus as the bridesmaid to the iPhone X seriously underestimated the device.
For, notwithstanding its largely familiar appearance (the new colors and glass back notwithstanding), the 8 Plus is a significant improvement over its predecessor and might actually have its own points of appeal. Yes, the frame is as large as ever, making it one of the largest 5.5-inch display phones we have seen and now it has even grown a tad heavier too (check our first cut here), but beneath that bulky exterior there lies some significantly improved hardware. And it is not just “on paper” stuff. It all actually just works, to use a phrase that the Cupertino company is rather fond of.
The more things seem the same…
There have numerous complaints that Apple has been making “sneaking” rather than significant upgrades to its phones over the past three years. And well, on the surface, this seems to hold true for the 8 Plus as well. Consider the evidence: the display size and resolution are the same as its predecessor, so is the megapixel count on the rear cameras (dual 12 on the rear, and with the same f/1.8 aperture, and 7 in front), and even the battery life is largely similar to that of its predecessor – although that glass back allows wireless charging to come to iPhoneland finally. Water and dust resistance too remains in place. Oh, and of course, there are new processors, the main A11 Bionic processor, and a three core GPU. But then, with new iPhones come new processors.
So, that does not SOUND like a massive upgrade, does it?
Well, truth be told, we did not think so either initially. Oh, how wrong we were. For take it from us, in performance terms, the 8 Plus is almost as big a step forward from the 7 Plus as that worthy was from the 6S Plus (the 7 Plus brought in stereo speakers, dual cameras and water and dust resistance, remember?). Not that is apparent straight away, for whatever the charges leveled against the iPhone 7 Plus, lack of speed or smoothness were not among them.
…the more they change!
No, the first sign that the iPhone 8 Plus is a very different being from its predecessor comes from its most visible feature. The True Tone display actually alters subtly depending on light conditions, and this is not evident immediately – it is only when you go right back to an iPhone 7 or 7 Plus that you realize the difference. There had been some concern that this changing of white balance as per lighting would affect the iPhone’s reputation for rendering “reality” rather than oversaturated or washed out versions of it, but we did not notice that. The display of the 8 Plus is a clear level above that of the 7 Plus and in terms of brightness as well, and remains one of the best around.
Then there is the performance itself. Loading times in games were shorter, image editing was noticeably more snappy, and switching between apps seemed slightly faster than on the 7 Plus. And that is saying something, because the 7 Plus is still no slowpoke. Then there is the matter of those dual cameras – if ever evidence were needed of the fact that figures should never be believed at face value, the twin snappers on the back of the iPhone 8 Plus deliver it. In spades. Although in terms of megapixel, telephoto zoom and aperture count, they were the same as on the 7 Plus, Apple had claimed that the cameras had “larger and faster” sensors and “deeper pixels” (whatever that means). Well, whatever it is, it certainly works.
The cameras on the iPhone 8 Plus are exceptional. The selfie camera is marginally better than the one on the 7 Plus, but it is at the back of the phone that the real photographic action lies. Yes, Portrait Mode has improved and Apple has now added Portrait Lighting to the mix that changes the level of lighting in the background (even blacking it out totally if you opt for Stage Lighting), but more importantly, Apple has upped the ante in the department which makes the iPhone cameras special – realism and consistency. No, you are unlikely to get the sort of eye-popping snaps that you get on the Pixel 2 XL (the current Android champ in our book as far as photography goes), but what you will get time and again, without any lags or lapses, are very realistic colours and detail that is a step ahead of what we saw in the 7 Plus (which was no mean camera in itself). Honestly, we are not massive fans of the Portrait Mode, which seems a little hit and miss, especially on the edges, but seen from an overall perspective, the difference between the cameras of the 8 Plus and the Pixel 2 XL can be summed up thus:
When we KNEW we had a great shot, we went with the Pixel 2 XL. When we just wanted to take a snap and wanted the best we could get, we went with the iPhone 8 Plus.
And then there is the sound. The dual speakers on the iPhone 8 Plus almost remind us of those on the first iPad Pro in terms of output and clarity. And that makes the device a very good option for anyone who wants a great multimedia device. And yes, the absence of the 3.5 mm audio jack is no longer as jarring as it once was. One area where we actually felt a little letdown, however, was battery life. Yes, like its predecessor, the 7 Plus too saw off a day of use quite easily. But we honestly expected a step up in this regard, especially during our early days with the device when we did go a little overboard with those cameras and those speakers.
There is a thorn in this digital rose though, and ironically, it comes in an area that is a traditional iPhone strength – the software. iOS 11 is definitely a huge step forward from iOS 10, but it has so far been erratic, and if that sounds difficult to believe, the number of updates Apple has issued since the launch of the device is evidence. We have had cases of apps crashing, camera going black, and sometimes the display going jet black except for a revolving cursor. Yes, those issues are being resolved by software updates, but this bugginess is more reminiscent of OnePlus than Apple.
Worth THAT price?
The iPhone 8 Plus starts at Rs 73,000 for the 64 GB model and goes up to Rs 86,000 for the 256 GB model. No, there is no way in which these can be labeled super duper affordable and before anyone points it out, we will concede that one can get a OnePlus 5T and a Mi Mix 2 for less than the price of the base iPhone 8 Plus. But then, when one purchases an iPhone, the specs are not really what drives one’s decision. It is the experience and the perception. And the 8 Plus does no harm to either – it is a super smooth performer and for all its “predictable” design, still stands out from the crowd. As far as we are concerned, it is definitely a worthy upgrade from the iPhone 7 Plus. The big question is: who would go for it when for another Rs 13,000, they could get into iPhone X land? Well, the answer is: anyone who likes a big phone (and yes, there are those who do like that variety) and simply wants to stay in the comfort of familiar iPhonePlusland – there is the good old fingerprint scanner rather than Face ID, terrific cameras, decent battery life and generally smooth performance. Yes, there are bezels around that display, and the phone seems obscenely big by modern standards, but know something? There is something oddly comforting about that too. Just as the Pixel 2 XL showed that you do not need to have dual cameras to take great pictures, the iPhone 8 Plus shows that pouring new wine into a relatively old bottle is not without its charm. It has bezels, it does not have the (in)famous notch, it has a familiar design, but it also actually costs about as much or actually lesser at launch than its predecessor did (Rs 72,000 for 32 GB, remember?).
The iPhone 8 Plus is a great device for those who love the phablet side of the iPhone. And there are many of those out there. It is many things, but a bridesmaid to the iPhone X it is not. Would we recommend it to those with a 7 Plus? Definitely. Would we recommend it over the Pixel 2 XL? We would, notwithstanding the Google phone’s photographic muscle (much discussed in our review at http://techpp.com/2017/12/01/google-pixel-2-xl-review/). The Galaxy Note 8 offers much tougher competition thanks to its S-Pen stylus. What of the iPhone X itself? That will be revealed in our review in the coming days. But the very fact that it can hold its own against those two Android superphones in spite of a design that looks more 2014 than 2017 makes one thing clear:
The iPhone 8 Plus is many things, but it ain’t a humble bridesmaid to the iPhone X.