The Last iPhone

Is my tone bull­shit on?”

True Tone” is so for­get­table, every­body had to men­tion it first. Quite sim­ply, it uses an ambi­ent light sen­sor to fid­dle with white bal­ance, warm­ing the col­ors of the dis­play as an imme­di­ate­ly-obvi­ous whole, yes, but an inter­est­ing con­trast to show off is no longer inher­ent­ly jus­ti­fied in being called a “fea­ture” in Apple prod­ucts, any­more. Essen­tial­ly, no mat­ter who you ask (aside from Jon Ret­tinger,) you should not buy an iPhone 8, though I did last Fall, not only because I had to sud­den­ly decide on a hand­set in less than 24 hours, but – if any­thing – to say good­bye to the form, the oper­at­ing sys­tem, and the tech com­pa­ny which I have depend­ed upon and car­ried with me vir­tu­al­ly every day for my entire adult life. I’d orig­i­nal­ly decid­ed to aban­don this review due to a vari­ety of unex­pect­ed cir­cum­stances, but Apple and its iPhone have main­tained their place in the news with their bat­tery scan­dal, and a third of a year with the 8 Plus has includ­ed some expe­ri­ences which war­rant a send-off before iOS 12 is released, mak­ing it (and myself) total­ly irrel­e­vant for­ev­er.

As the long­stand­ing bench­mark of the smart­phone industry’s state at any giv­en time, the iPhone can be easy to reflect upon as a prod­uct once occu­py­ing a state of uni­ver­sal exemp­tion from crit­i­cism, but it has, in fact, nev­er been so. As Nilay Patel not­ed, one might regard the 8 as the last com­pro­mise of “basi­cal­ly four years” of the same design. Since launch, it’s unsur­pris­ing­ly stayed a wee bit too far behind on the spread­sheets for most Android-type folks – not that I’ve ever believed them truth­ful­ly inca­pable of com­pre­hend­ing what it means to pack­age a prod­uct, giv­en where their greasy star­tups all even­tu­al­ly end­ed up. (You can­not doubt me – I once took a year-long sab­bat­i­cal from iOS with a Sony Xpe­ria Play, and my author­i­ty is absolute.) The rest are try­ing to decide whether or not to pay $200 more for “the phone of the future,” which knows when you’re watch­ing it, and is only good for play­ing half an hour of stu­pid video games before it needs a charge.

So far, I have main­tained that my first gen­er­a­tion iPhone was the best hand­set of all time — one hell of an Email Machine that last­ed me close to five years — through­out the last two with actu­al moth­er­board exposed to the ele­ments in the cor­ner of its cracked screen. That said, who knows how it’d feel to be coerced into using “iPhone OS 2” as it was called, then, for an entire work­day in 2018? Two years pri­or to bring­ing home an 8 Plus, I vowedthat my 6S Plus would be my last ever Apple device, but this one actu­al­ly feels like a last hur­rah. Though the abil­i­ty to Tweet direct­ly from the swipe-down noti­fi­ca­tion menu is still nowhere to be found (it’s been gone for 5 releas­es, now, and would seem to have been for­got­ten by lit­er­al­ly every­one but myself,) one gets the sense that Apple’s efforts to add to the iPhone 8 and iOS 11 were to make amends with us by set­tling a few debts.

In part, they did. Native apps got a major over­haul – includ­ing Mail, which was star­tling, con­sid­er­ing that I’d been look­ing at what was near as makes no dif­fer­ence the same UI my eldest phone shipped with. As a result, it alone con­sti­tutes my bench­mark for an email ser­vice, and I have been left with­out a clue as to what a good one looks like. (Appar­ent­ly it was real­ly bad?) Since time began, there has always been at least one alter­na­tive email app of the moment that tech journos refer to as the must-have, end-all replace­ment. Edi­son Mail is cur­rent­ly the smoother, faster, most mod­u­lar option – at least for anoth­er few min­utes – but I’ll nev­er know it as I know Mail, and I’ll nev­er want to. Play­ing around with exper­i­men­tal email apps is too scary. What if I decide once again to kill that mas­sive num­ber in the red badge and need to imme­di­ate­ly mark 40,000 emails as read? It took all of my iPhone 4’s 1.0Ghz CPU and pro­pri­etary soft­ware over 18 hours – how am I sup­posed to trust a shab­by lit­tle 6-month-old start­up with such an impor­tant task? Any­body with a hun­dred bucks can make an app, you know.

One might inter­pret the App Store’s redesign as an attempt by Apple to con­trol this con­ver­sa­tion — of both the trend­ing new thing and the old “essen­tials” that you’ve prob­a­bly had tucked away in an untouched fold­er for years. Tech­ni­cal­ly, who­ev­er the hell is writ­ing those gor­geous­ly-pre­sent­ed dai­ly bits has made them a pub­lish­ing com­pa­ny, though I’m not so sure I’m not the last remain­ing user who’s con­tin­ued semi-reg­u­lar­ly vis­it­ing their “Today” sec­tion. If I did want to actu­al­ly read about apps (I don’t — who does?) it wouldn’t make much sense to seek crit­i­cal reviews from the face­less boffins behind the plat­form itself, regard­less of how much bet­ter it may look than all of the tech news sites, pay­wall or no.

Native screen record­ing could con­ceiv­ably come in handy once or twice, but I see no rea­son why the red bar must remain at the top of the ren­der, but it has, which could explain the total lack of any such video in the wild. Front-fac­ing 4K, 60fps cap­ture is impres­sive, but use­less — vlog­gers all have GoPros or DSLRs, these days, and shar­ing through Snapchat and Insta­gram will always be ultra-com­pressed. (Here are two slop­py test clips — at the zoo, and fish­ing.)

Per­haps some have fig­ured out the new Files “app,” but it’s sat on my home­screen for months, untapped, and it will like­ly remain there for all time as a sort of sooth­ing tro­phy — a thanks for my lega­cy iPhone loy­al­ty. My reward for half a life­time of sync­ing, scrolling, and tolling? I can now view some of the files on my Mobile Com­put­ing Device, and even scan doc­u­ments in, which is most­ly nov­el (though it is fun to dig­i­tize excerpts from phys­i­cal text.) At some point, I must’ve mis­checked a per­ma­nent option because all file types now open only in an app that does not rec­og­nize them. God bless.

Some­how, I’ve man­aged to fill my social cir­cle with pre­cise­ly zero iOS-using folks. All of my friends and col­leagues use Android devices (includ­ing Tim’s super­cool Nextbit Robin,) which pro­vide a few handy dat­a­points (like the cam­era in my fiance’s Galaxy S8,) but deprive me of any sig­nif­i­cant expe­ri­ence with the osten­si­bly intox­i­cat­ing cult of iMes­sage. I’m con­stant­ly lis­ten­ing to and read­ing tech writ­ers claim that it’s one of the only rea­sons they’re still using iPhones, but my own food-OS lov­ing bio­me has forced me to find oth­ers, and frankly, I can’t imag­ine look­ing at the glut­to­nouspalate of avail­able mobile, cross-plat­form mes­sag­ing ser­vices (Telegram, now Telegram X, What­sApp, Sig­nal, Snapchat, Face­book, Insta­gram, Twit­ter, Dis­cord, Slack, Tin­der?, Google Hang­outs, Google Allo, Google Chat, Viber, Skype, Line, Wire, etc.) and think­ing… well, none of this will do!

Hon­est­ly — even if I’d actu­al­ly been at all informed in my haste, the pho­to­graph­ic capa­bil­i­ties of the 8 Plus, alone would’ve sold it. It’s not the new fil­ters, gif func­tion­al­i­ty, or even “3D Pho­tos” — it’s those myth­i­cal dual 12MPsensors (which it shares with some­thing called the iPhone X.) They’re no less than infal­li­ble. After four months of aston­ish­ing cap­tures in all man­ner of con­di­tions, I don’t even care how exact­ly they do it any­more — it’s bet­ter to be left mar­veling. This first exam­ple was tak­en at Key­stone, Col­orado in the mid­dle of a dark, cloudy Fall night -the amount of light they were able to find — “up to 80% more,” accord­ing to Apple — is just impos­si­ble.

Kansan Whirly Boys

Here is an unques­tion­ably sen­si­ble pro­gres­sion from which iPhone has nev­er wavered far since its fourth gen­er­a­tion set the stan­dard, but it’s one of an unfor­tu­nate few. Siri is still use­less and sil­ly apart from its “dis­able all alarms” fea­ture and its abil­i­ty to sound itself off in response when you’re hys­ter­i­cal­ly scream­ing and dig­ging for it through the vast plush of a forty-year-old Lin­coln. The cus­tomiz­able Con­trol Cen­ter makes tog­gling low pow­er mode, ori­en­ta­tion lock, wifi, and blue­tooth less frus­trat­ing (note the last two aren’t quite hard switch­es,) though it should’ve come years ago. Noti­fi­ca­tions are slight­ly more sen­si­ble — cer­tain­ly bet­ter than they were on Android Gin­ger­bread, but I’ve heard things’ve changed quite a bit since then.

have been tripped up by the lack of a 3.5mm audio jack a few times, but it just wouldn’t make sense from a hard­ware per­spec­tive, and the new exter­nal stereo capa­bil­i­ty should refute those who can’t or won’t under­stand. Yes, it would be nice if Apple hadn’t led the indus­try to quite such a com­pro­mis­ing obses­sion with thin­ness — we’d all trade a lot of sub­stance for expo­nen­tial­ly greater bat­tery life, stor­age capac­i­ty, water resis­tance, etc. — but I don’t see much sense in expend­ing your ener­gy hold­ing up signs in Sil­i­con Val­ley.

I’ll be here long after you’ve died, and you know why?
Because I took the time to sync my apps.

Two years ago, a new gen­er­a­tion of social apps and the pre­pos­ter­ous notion of a quad-core CPU in my iPhone 6SPlus seemed like the har­bin­ger of a world I no longer under­stood. Now, most of those ser­vices have expand­ed to the far bound­aries of my reach, and I’ve stopped count­ing chips. Refine­ment of the hard­ware design is rev­er­ent to the extreme. It’s pre­ten­tious, but Apple’s deci­sion to pause on the 8 to con­sid­er details like stuff­ing the legal text in the soft­ware and adding a lit­tle bit of weight back in for ergonom­ics’ sake leads one to regard it as a mon­u­ment to all the devices along the devel­op­ment time­line that have led to this… last tri­umph. Or, it would have per­haps, had they not sold so many.

One could argue that good exe­cu­tion of con­sumer elec­tron­ic design means min­i­miz­ing as much as pos­si­ble the obstruc­tions in the way of the user com­plet­ing any giv­en task, and the iPhone 8 Plus has sur­passed the vast major­i­ty of these for myself — and I am, sure­ly, a “pow­er user.” iOS has changed a lot in the decade I’ve employed it — in far too many ways for the worse — but this pair of hand­set and soft­ware have reached my imagination’s lim­it for what I could pos­si­bly want to do. Aug­ment­ed real­i­ty and wire­less charg­ing won’t ever have a place in my future, for bet­ter or worse. Face ID is much too pecu­liar. Sure­ly, this iPhone is the ulti­mate expres­sion of the first and fourth generation’s foun­da­tion.

If the 6S Plus was indeed the key to my immor­tal­i­ty, I’m afraid the 8 Plus her­alds my immi­nent demise. Whether or not it’s an ear­ly one is for you to decide. This real­ly is my last iPhone.