Most of the time, product reviews follow an entirely predictable pattern. If the reviewer likes the device, they recommend it. If they don’t like the device, they don’t. Apple’s iPhone 8 is bucking that trend, with plenty of reviews singing its praises, and precious few strong “Buy” recommendations following up.
The Verge’s review headline refers to the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus as “The default option,” and notes “If you know what an iPhone is and you want one, then the iPhone 8 is exactly that, one tick farther down the line. It’s an iPhone.” Wired calls it “Review: Apple iPhone 8 and 8 Plus.” CNET leads with “The best iPhone you can buy — until Nov. 3.”
Compare that with how each of these publications met the iPhone 7.
The Verge: iPhone 7 Review: The Future in Disguise.
Wired: iPhone 7 Review: Faster, Better, and Oooh That Camera
CNET: Apple iPhone 7 review: Everything you need in a phone, except the headphone jack
There’s been a bit of a tone shift, in other words, between this year and the last — and the culprit is the iPhone X. On the one hand, of course, this makes sense. Apple’s highest-end $1,000 phone is the benchmark for the new product family. But on the other hand, it’s supposedly supply-limited, won’t ship for well over a month, and ultimately isn’t positioned as a mass market product.
The funny thing is, everyone pretty much agrees the iPhone 8 is a great phone. Wired calls it “the last, best version of what your phone looks like now.” Of course, Wired also says that the iPhone 8 “already feels outdated, especially on the 8 Plus—a humongous phone without a particularly humongous screen.”
CNET strikes a similar tone, writing, “Yes, the iPhone 8 Plus is still an excellent phone, and if you love the size and the home button, this is the best Plus-size iPhone to date. But I’d wait to see what the X can do, and how it feels.” The Verge isn’t thrilled with the iPhone 8’s overall design, despite the use of a glass back, noting:
[W]hile competitors like Samsung and LG have pushed phone hardware design far forward, the iPhone has basically stood still for four years. The iPhone 8 might be the most polished iteration of this basic design Apple’s ever made, but compared to the Galaxy S8 and other Android flagships like the LG V30, it’s just extremely dated.
Nobody actually thinks the iPhone 8 is bad. The Verge praises its speakers and the addition of Bluetooth 5, and Wired emphasized the wireless charging capability and the camera (in fact, everyone had nice things to say about these two features). Its AR capabilities also got some praise, though most everyone wanted more time to evaluate this feature, and more information on whether AR would be A Thing before really stressing it as a must-have purchase option.
Opinions on the glass construction are mixed; Apple claims it’s robust enough to stand up to a beating, but none of the reviews put a lot of faith in that promise. The Verge notes that the glass back has already scratched on their test device. While scratching and breakage aren’t the same thing (a surface can be easy to scratch but hard to break, or vice-versa), the smart thing to do is to keep your device in a case, especially since Apple has raised the price of screen replacements.
Despite not thinking the iPhone 8 is bad, The Verge writes: “After spending a week with the 8, I can’t think of a single compelling reason to upgrade from an iPhone 7.” Wired declares, “The iPhones 8 check every box a phone has ever checked before, but they feels like the last of something right as Apple and others prepare the first of something else.” CNET states: “While the 8 Plus is great, I can’t tell you if it’s the best phone — or even the best iPhone — of 2017. Even if you hate to wait, I suggest that you should wait. In a few more weeks, we’ll have a much more definitive answer.”
When I write these roundups, I take some pains to separate my own opinions from those of the reviewers. What follows is my own opinion on the various reviews I’ve read: I think Apple made a bit of a mistake here. There’s an effect in computing known as the Osborne Effect. It refers to the negative impact of announcing a new, future version of a product before the old one is ready to be retired. Ironically, there’s reason to doubt whether the Osborne Effect actually killed the Osborne Computer Corporation, but the name has stuck.
There are two problems here. One is straightforward: If consumers believe that the iPhone X represents the future of iPhones and order more of them than Apple can build, it could see a sharp decline in iPhone sales as a result. There’s no serious risk to Apple; the company has enough cash on hand to weather years of sales declines, but it would be an embarrassing event. The other is that Apple owners may simply skip an upgrade cycle this time around, preferring to wait a year until the features Apple debuted in the iPhone X make their way into lower-cost devices. Pretty much everyone expects this to happen, which means you can save a few hundred dollars by holding on to the iPhone you’ve got for another year. Owners who are still using an iPhone 5s or 6 may be persuaded to upgrade anyway, but owners with newer devices could easily skip this cycle, preferring to wait for the iPhone 9 or 11 that packs all these new capabilities into a more affordable package.
It’s going to be very interesting to see how the iPhone X hits Apple’s bottom line. If early reviews are any indication, the iPhone 8 simply doesn’t capture interest the way previous devices did. It’s not bad, and if you’ve been happy with previous iPhones, you’ll be happy with this one. But it’s not seen as moving the bar the way the iPhone X does.