It’s unprecedented. For four generations Apple has retained the design it first introduced with the iPhone 6 in 2014. From a design perspective that’s remarkable in an industry as fast moving as technology, but look closer and there are significant improvements in every model. This guide will explain the important differences between the iPhone 6 (2014), iPhone 6S (2015), iPhone 7 (2016) and iPhone 8 (2017) – and discuss whether you should upgrade.
Here’s everything you need to know…
Design – Fluctuations In Weight And Durability
The curious thing about all these identikit iPhones is their designs have actually changed a lot. In fact it is really only the Lighting port and chunky top and bottom bezels which remain the same. And there are signs of what’s to come when you look at their weight fluctuations:
- iPhone 6 – 138.1 x 67 x 6.9 mm (5.44 x 2.64 x 0.27 in) and 129g (4.55 oz)
- iPhone 6S – 138.3 x 67.1 x 7.1 mm (5.44 x 2.64 x 0.28 in) and 143g (5.04 oz)
- iPhone 7 – 138.3 x 67.1 x 7.1 mm (5.44 x 2.64 x 0.28 in) and 138g (4.87 oz)
- iPhone 8 – 138.4 x 67.3 x 7.3 mm (5.45 x 2.65 x 0.29 in) and 148g (5.22 oz)
Yes, surprisingly the iPhone 8 is the largest and heaviest of them all. In fact it’s nearly 15% heavier than the original iPhone 6 – that’s not how technology usually works!
But there is good reason for it. The first weight gain came from the iPhone 6S moving to Series 7000 aluminium for a tougher and more rigid chassis after Bendgate as well as moving to a fixed haptic home button with the introduction of 3D Touch (which added its own additional hardware motor).
The iPhone 7 managed to trim this slightly by controversially removing the headphone jack while also adding IP67 dust and water resistance. The iPhone 8 kept these changes, though it piled the pounds back on by moving to a heavier and more fragile glass back to enable wireless charging (it’s a trade-off).
Aside from this the iPhone 7 brought stereo speakers to the range for the first time by amplifying the earpiece and the iPhone 8 boosted that by 25%. For me the iPhone 6S was the best design (durable, unofficially IP67 ready, plus the headphone jack) but the polarising glass design of the iPhone 8 also has some fans on its side.
Displays – Old Tech, New Tricks
The expensive iPhone X (never drop it) may have moved to OLED, but Apple has done a fine job of continually reinvigorating the LCD panels in the iPhone 6, iPhone 6S, iPhone 7 and iPhone 8 – especially as they all carry the same core specs:
- 4.7-inch LED-backlit IPS LCD, 1334 x 750 pixels (326 ppi), 65.6% screen-to-body ratio
Starting with the iPhone 6S, Apple advanced from the iPhone 6 with the addition of 3D Touch. This pressure-sensitivity technology allows users to ‘peek’ and ‘pop’ to preview emails, jump to app shortcuts and more. It hasn’t evolved as much as it should thanks to Apple’s bizarre refusal/inability to add 3D Touch to the iPad range (it would be particularly useful on iPad Pro models), but those who do use it love it.
Next the iPhone 7 bumped peak brightness from the 500 nits of both the iPhone 6S and iPhone 6 to an impressive 625 nits. Finally the iPhone 8 added support for ‘True Tone’ technology (first seen in the iPad Pro) which reacts to environmental light and to ensure a correct colour balance at all times.
Less impressive is the contrast ratio (1400:1) which has remained unchanged since the iPhone 6 and the inexplicably low native resolution in an era of circa 2K displays. How Apple has managed to get away with not bumping these 750p displays even to 1080p is beyond me.
Performance – Class Leaders
Ever since Apple debuted its own custom chipsets with the ‘A4’ in 2010’s iPhone 4, the company has blazed a trail which left rivals in its wake. Here are the core specs of the iPhone 6 onwards:
- iPhone 6 – Apple A8 – CPU: Dual-core Cyclone; GPU: PowerVR GX6450, 1GB RAM
- iPhone 6S – Apple A9 – CPU: Dual-core Twister; GPU: PowerVR GT7600, 2GB RAM
- iPhone 7 – Apple A10 – CPU: Quad-core Fusion; GPU: PowerVR Series7XT Plus, 2GB RAM
- iPhone 8 – Apple A11 – CPU Six-core Bionic; GPU: Apple Triple-Core, 2GB RAM
What’s far more interesting, however, are the real world multiples. The iPhone 6S delivered a 70% faster CPU and 90% faster GPU than the iPhone 6. The iPhone 7 boosted its CPU 40% and GPU 50% over the iPhone 6S and the iPhone 8 offers a 25% faster CPU and 30% faster CPU than the iPhone 7.
As you can see the proportional improvements are decreasing, but that’s because Apple has evolved the architecture alongside changing usage patterns. So, for example, the real performance wins for the iPhone 8 are 70% performance improvements over the iPhone 7 when idle and when multitasking – two crucial parts of everyday smartphone use.
Elsewhere, the iPhone 6S introduced a second generation Touch ID which is twice as fast as the original (which was introduced in 2013’s iPhone 5S). Touch ID has not been subsequently improved with the iPhone 7 or iPhone 8, but neither has it really needed to – Apple nailed this technology a long time ago.
Bluetooth has also moved on from Bluetooth 4.0 (iPhone 6) to Bluetooth 4.2 (iPhone 6S, iPhone 7) and Bluetooth 5.0 (iPhone 8) while peak 4G speeds have increased from 150Mbit (iPhone 6) to 300Mbit (iPhone 6S), 450Mbit (iPhone 7) and 600Mbit (iPhone 8). The last of these lags behind the 1Gbit speeds many rivals installed over the last year, but you’re highly unlikely to need the extra headroom in real world scenarios.
Cameras – A Slow Progression
When the iPhone 6 was released it was king of the hill, but since then Apple has let its lead slip – first it was overhauled by Samsung’s Galaxy smartphones and now Google’s Pixel and Pixel 2 ranges are way out in front. So what happened?
A necessary jump in megapixels from the iPhone 6 (8MP main, shambolic 1.2MP front) happened with the iPhone 6S (12MP main, 5MP front) but its apertures remained slow at just f/2.2 and pixel size actually reduced from 1.5µm 1.22µm which affects how much light can be taken in and impacted the advancement of low light performance. 4K video on the main camera (up from 1080p) and 1080p front video (up from 720p) were the main improvements, but overall it slipped behind Samsung’s (otherwise troubled) Galaxy S6.
The iPhone 7 then made modest steps forward from the iPhone 6S retaining the 12MP main camera but finally increasing the aperture to f/1.8 and pixel size to 1.3µm while the front camera was bumped to 7MP but retained the same disappointing f/2.2 aperture while video was unchanged. Low light performance improved slightly, but it didn’t adopt the dual cameras of the iPhone 7 Plus and remained behind Samsung’s Galaxy S7 before being blown away by Google’s first generation Pixel.
The iPhone 8 on paper appeared to change nothing from the iPhone 7 with the same resolutions and apertures (the front facing camera is now well off the pace), but Apple introduced a new lens and made significant advancements to its image processing. The end result was the biggest step forward since the iPhone 6, but again it missed out on the dual cameras of the iPhone 8 Plus and iPhone X.
As it stands, iPhone photography remains impressive in isolation but it is no longer among the top cameras. From my tests HTC has joined Samsung in leapfrogging Apple while Google’s Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL smartphones have opened up a huge lead on the competition. (Sample gallery: Pixel 2 XL Vs iPhone X).
Battery Life And Charging – Stamina Stagnation But Charging Improves
Another area where Apple has not progressed as much as hoped since the iPhone 6 is battery life. Aside from the battery scandal surrounding Apple at present, the hard facts are there has been minimal improvement in actual usage times for several generations. This isn’t surprising looking at the flip flop in battery capacities:
- iPhone 6 – 1810 mAh
- iPhone 6S – 1715 mAh
- iPhone 7 – 1960 mAh
- iPhone 8 – 1,821 mAh
In fact even Apple’s own comparison page states the iPhone 8 “Lasts about the same as iPhone 7”. Losing the headphone jack should’ve seen Apple fit significantly larger batteries. After all the Galaxy S7 had the form factor of the iPhone 7, a headphone jack, 5.2-inch display and a 3000mAh battery – it can be done.
The happier news is with the iPhone 8 Apple finally added fast wired charging and wireless charging like many of its rivals have had for years. But both come with caveats.
Performance of fast wired charging is good – you’ll get about 50% charge in 30 minutes, as good as most rivals – but unlike any rival it is an optional extra for which you’ll need to spend a minimum of $74 (29W Apple charger – $49; fast charging cable – $25 1m, $35 2m). Secondly Apple made its wireless charging Qi compatible (the dominant wireless charging standard) but only up to 7.5W when Qi supports 15W. It’s expected Apple will reserve 15W charging for its own proprietary ‘AirPower’ standard later in 2018.
Tip: the iPhone 6, iPhone 6S, iPhone 7 and iPhone 8 are all eligible for Apple’s $29 discounted battery replacement service which lasts until the end of the year. I’d suggest iPhone 6, iPhone 6S owners take advantage of this now (it will also restore lost performance), iPhone 7 and iPhone 8 owners can afford to wait but be sure to take it before the deal expires. Here’s how.
Storage And Price – Up and Up
Like battery life, there’s good and bad news about iPhone costs over the last four generations. Here is the current pricing:
- iPhone 8 – 64GB ($699), 256GB ($849)
- iPhone 7 – 32GB ($549), 128GB ($649)
- iPhone 6S – 32GB ($449), 128GB ($549)
- iPhone 6 – 16GB, 64GB, 128GB (no longer available)
As you’ll see, Apple likes to keep older generations of iPhone available at discounted prices for several generations. The pattern is Apple takes $100 off the price with each new generation (the iPhone 6S and iPhone 7 both started at $649 originally) and align storage options: the iPhone 6S lost 64GB in 2017 but gained 128GB at the same price point, while the iPhone 7 lost its 256GB option).
Meanwhile the iPhone 8 increased its starting price $50 compared to previous generations, but it provides twice the entry level storage (64GB Vs 32GB) and there was a reduction from three storage options at $100 intervals (32GB, 128GB, 256GB) to two with a single $150 increase. There was pros and cons to this approach, though some will miss the 128GB option which was a sweet spot.
While the iPhone 6, iPhone 6S, iPhone 7 and iPhone 8 all look very similar at first glance, they have changed dramatically – both inside and out – on closer inspection.
Unfortunately, performance aside, the more incremental improvements to their design, cameras and battery life have not really kept pace with the competition. Whereas at launch the iPhone 6 was an industry leader, the iPhone 8 is not. In fact it’s only Apple’s third best smartphone.
The flipside is these 4.7-inch models remain the best compact smartphones on the market. This may be due to a lack of competition (even Apple looks set to end this form factor in 2018), but nevertheless if you want a highly competent and pocket-friendly premium smartphone then these remain the models to beat. For me the iPhone 6S was the best of the bunch, but technology waits for no-one.
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