Apple’s latest smartphone has proven somewhat disappointing. The iPhone 8 and 8 Plus, set for release on Friday, occupy a difficult place in the company’s refreshed product line. It’s not the all-singing, all-dancing iPhone X — that’s going to launch November 3 — but it offers a number of welcome upgrades while retaining a design that’s been in use since the iPhone 6 launched in 2014. In other words, as reviews published on Tuesday claim, it feels rather old at this stage.

“After spending a week with the 8, I can’t think of a single compelling reason to upgrade from an iPhone 7,” opined The Verge. “The 7 is still extremely fast, offers virtually the same design in a lighter package with a bigger battery, and will get almost every feature of the 8 with iOS 11.”

iOS 11, a free software upgrade available to existing iPhones starting Tuesday, brings a number of new features. There’s a redesigned Control Center, a new notifications system, camera improvements, a new Files app and more.

One of the most interesting additions with iOS 11 is ARKit, a new set of developer tools that makes building augmented reality apps easier. Although this update is available for older iPhones, the 8 has an “A11 Bionic” processor specifically designed to handle these apps. It’s early days, but the combination of hardware and software could lead to some unique experiences further down the line.

iOS 11's ARKit in action.
iOS 11's ARKit in action.

“The Thomas & Friends Minis app is something I wish I had when my kids were younger,” said Tom’s Guide. “You can build your own train tracks right on the table in front of you. I felt like a kid again when the train jumped in the air off one of the ramps and flipped right in front of me. You can even walk around the virtual track to take in different views. It’s pretty amazing.”

The processor is 35 percent faster than the iPhone 7’s chip in high-performance tasks, and the high-efficiency cores for less intensive tasks are now 70 percent faster than its predecessor. But considering the 7 did not feel like a slow phone to begin with, these upgrades seem more like future potential.

The A11 Bionic chip can power new games.

“How much better are the new iPhones at AR than older iPhones? I can’t tell,” said CNet. “And, considering that AR is a novelty to begin with, you might not either. AR alone is not a reason to upgrade from an iPhone 7. But the possibilities in a chip this fast are really great.”

The other major boost to the iPhone 8’s capabilities are in the camera. Portrait Mode, which debuted on the iPhone 7 Plus, used the dual camera system to gather depth data around a subject and blur the background. Along with refinements to this system, the 8 Plus now offers Portrait Lighting, which uses that same information to put studio-lighting effects around a subject’s face.

Apple SVP Phil Schiller introducing Portrait Lighting.
Apple SVP Phil Schiller introducing Portrait Lighting.

“It’s very much still in beta,” said Engadget. “That becomes almost painfully obvious after a few minutes playing with it. Natural Light offers the standard portrait photos I’ve described. Studio Light does a good job brightening up the subject’s face. The next three modes can be more problematic. Contour Light is meant to make faces pop with more dramatic lighting, but it typically just made me — a brown-skinned man — look even darker and more ominous than before.”

Portrait Lighting mode.
Portrait Lighting mode.

Both the 8 and 8 Plus feature a 12-megapixel camera with an f/1.8 aperture, along with refinements like a permanent high-dynamic range mode that takes the decision out of the user’s hands. This led to what Engadget described as colors that were more “true to life.” The 8 lacks the second camera of the 8 Plus, a 12-megapixel f/2.8 telephoto shooter, but it still makes a number of improvements.

Sample photos taken with the iPhone 8.
Sample photos taken with the iPhone 8.

“The iPhone has been the world’s most popular camera for a while now, and it has become a huge reason, perhaps the primary reason, that iPhone users upgrade,” said TechCrunch. “Each year, improvements in silicon or design have also contributed to improvements in the iPhone as a camera. This year, Apple has done something really incredible with the Portrait Lighting mode, which is why if you’re in the market for a new iPhone, I recommend the 8 Plus.”

One minor addition is the use of wireless charging, which charges the device immediately after resting on a supported pad. The phone works with chargers from the likes of Belkin and Mophie via the Qi standard, the same used on Android for years. Next year, Apple plans to release the AirPower pad that will charge up to three devices at once through an extension of the standard.

An iPhone 8 charging wirelessly.
An iPhone 8 charging wirelessly.

“Apple is not doing anything revolutionary here — a number of Samsung devices already support the Qi standard,” said CNN. “But it feels like a real improvement over the wired charging, especially if you plop your phone down in the same spot every night before bed.”

Design-wise, the phone looks practically the same as the previous three iPhone flagship models. This drew criticism from reviewers, with The Verge going as far as to call the design “extremely dated” compared to the Android-based competition. The iPhone X, on the other hand, brings something new to the table:

The iPhone 8, X and 8 Plus.
The iPhone 8, X and 8 Plus.

But the iPhone X, which is set to feature a 5.8-inch screen in a phone the same size as the 4.7-inch iPhone 8, is priced from $999. The iPhone 8, on the other hand, starts from $699, while the 8 Plus starts from $799. The X might have the futuristic face recognition system, the new design and the OLED screen, but it’s going to cost a pretty penny.

“The virtues I see in the iPhone 8 are niche: I’m glad you don’t have to spend $1,000 to get an improved camera and processor and even wireless charging, if that matters to you,” said the Wall Street Journal. “But Apple’s confusing iPhone family now includes three pairs of practically identical phones: the regular and Plus versions of the iPhone 8, 7 and 6s. Don’t buy the spendiest one.”

So ultimately, not the world’s most impressive upgrade, but one that offers something to those that are in the market for a new iPhone anyway.

Photos via Apple, Getty Images / Justin Sullivan