iPhone 8 review: An excellent phone forced to the shadows by iPhone X

The iPhone 8 and iPhone 8 Plus are excellent phones. They’re just not X.

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USA TODAY’s Personal Tech Columnist Ed Baig has the lowdown on whether the iPhone8 is worth the buy or if you should wait for iPhone 10’s release.
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The new iPhone 8, iPhone X and iPhone 8S are displayed during an Apple special event at the Steve Jobs Theatre on the Apple Park campus on September 12, 2017 in Cupertino, Calif.(Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

I get the same question every year: ‘should I buy the latest iPhone?’  But how do you respond when the latest iPhone won’t, well, be the latest iPhone for very long?

You know by now that Apple introduced the iPhone 8 and iPhone 8 Plus smartphones last week at its new Cupertino, Calif. headquarters, and that these successor models to the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus hit stores Friday. These are excellent new phones that I’ve been testing for several days and under normal circumstances I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend either, at least if you are upgrading from an iPhone that’s more than a year old.

The reason to hesitate now is that Apple also unveiled the iPhone X last week, and frankly, that is going to be the model that many of you will want. It is the one I am eyeing, too. 

Only the X won’t be available until Nov. 3, and heck, given much speculated on supply shortages it may be weeks beyond that date before you can get it.

The should-I-buy dilemma is further complicated by pricing, with the 8 and 8 Plus sandwiched between the new X and cheaper choices. The iPhone 8 costs $699 or $849, depending on whether you select 64GB or 256GB of storage; the 8 Plus costs $799 or $949. The X, meanwhile, is at $999, or—yikes–$1149 for the max capacity. That’s a reasonably wide gulf, even if monthly installment pricing and trade-ins might ease the financial burden for some.

Meanwhile, last year’s still perfectly capable 7 and 7 Plus devices now start at $549 and $669, respectively, making these attractive, and more affordable, alternatives. And with the 6S, 6S Plus or (smaller display) SE remaining in the lineup too, there are even less expensive options.

More: iOS 11 is coming. Here’s how to download it and what to expect

More: How to switch from Android to iPhone, and what you lose if you do

More: Should you upgrade to the new iPhone 8 or iPhone X?

More: IPhone 8 and 8 Plus: Cellphone carriers buff up their trade-in deals

The new iPhone 8 Plus is displayed in the showroom after the new product announcement at the Steve Jobs Theater in Cupertino, Calif. The iPhone X might make your friends envious, but the iPhone 8 is the model for the masses…similar to flying coach rather than first class. (Photo: AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez,)

While the all-screen X represents Apple’s most radical iPhone design change in years—with Face ID facial recognition and gestures, replacing much of the functionality of the home button—the 8 and 8 Plus can be easily mistaken for a 7 and 7 Plus.

The form factors are similar. Ditto for battery life. And the same goes for the 4.7 or 5.5-inch Retina displays, though the 8 and 8 Plus do include a so-called True Tone technology that that is supposed to match the color “temperature” of the light around you.

And yes, the phones retain the familiar home button and Touch ID fingerprint sensor—who knows maybe these will be the last new iPhones that can make that claim?

Though Apple would object, you could easily have made the case that the 8 and 8 Plus under other circumstances might be called the 7S or 7S Plus, referring to the lighter feature upgrades that in the past come every other year.

Ask Ed Baig: Tune in to USA TODAY’s Facebook pages at noon ET to see the new iPhone and ask questions of the reviewer. 

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The 8 and 8 Plus sport all-glass premium designs that have a nice look and feel to them, though I ended up covering the devices most of the time with cases Apple supplied. The external speaker is loud and pure. And with the new A11 Bionic chip—the same chip going into the X—the phones are plenty powerful, and primed to handle the many forthcoming third party augmented reality apps, which are made possible via the overall excellent iOS 11 mobile operating system software, which the new phones will run from the get-go. The new SkyGuide app from Fifth Star Labs that I tried, for example, enables you to identify constellations and planets overlaid against the actual sky that’s visible through the phone’s camera. 

More: Don’t want an iPhone 8 or iPhone X? There are plenty of alternatives

More: Skip iPhone X and 8. If you need an iPhone, this is the better deal.

These are also the first iPhones with wireless charging—the X will have the feature too—though you’ll have to spring for an optional wireless charging pad, such as the $60 pad from Belkin that I’ve been using in my tests. Apple embraces the Qi wireless charging standard used by Samsung and others.

Apple is late to the wireless charging game. And wireless charging itself is something of a misnomer, since the pad you plunk the phone down on must itself be plugged in. Convenient, yes, but not exactly liberating.

Phil Schiller, Apple’s senior vice president of worldwide marketing, announces features of the new iPhone 8 at the Steve Jobs Theater on the new Apple campus on Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2017, in Cupertino, Calif. (Photo: Mario Jose Sanchez/AP, Mario Jose Sanchez/AP)

What’s more, in my experience the charging rate with the Belkin pad was slow, though that will change. Apple says the phones will support faster wireless charging through a software update coming later.

I was able to charge the 8 and 8 Plus wirelessly even when both had accessory cases supplied by Apple, as well as using older third-party cases from Otterbox and Speck. (The size of the 8 and 8 Plus are roughly the same as their immediate predecessors). But some third-party cases I tried that have slots for credit cards failed to charge wirelessly when credit cards occupied those slots.

The camera, upper left, of an iPhone 8 Plus. (Photo: AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

The other main point of comparison between the 8 and 8 Plus versus the 7 and 7 Plus concerns the cameras. The rear cameras on the 8 and 8 Plus Apple boast optical image stabilization and a faster sensor with an improved flash system as well. But while these are first-rate cameras, the same could be said for the cameras on the 7 and 7 Plus. The differences in image quality on most of the shots I took side by side with a 7 Plus and 8 Plus, if you could detect them at all, were subtle.

The 8 Plus, which has the required dual cameras and the A11 Bionic chip, does have one favorite new feature of mine. It is called Portrait Lighting and while still in beta, it lets you apply effects before and after taking pictures with the rear camera, that among other choices, lets you focus a spotlight on a subject in a photo that otherwise has a darkened background. (On the X, Portrait Lighting will work on both the front and rear cameras).

This picture of Samuel Baig was taken with the Portrait Lighting “Stage Light” setting on the iPhone 8 Plus. (Photo: Edward C. Baig)

For many potential buyers, especially those with an older iPhone looking to upgrade, the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus represents a solid purchase option. But I’m holding out for the next “latest” iPhone, the looming iPhone X. 

Email: ebaig@usatoday.com; Follow USA TODAY Personal Tech Columnist @edbaig on Twitter

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