IPHONE X REVIEW: FACE THE FUTURE
After months of hype, endless speculation, and a wave of last-minute rumors about production delays, the iPhone X is finally here. Apple says it’s a complete reimagining of what the iPhone should be, 10 years after the original revolutionized the world. That means some fundamental aspects of the iPhone are totally different here — most notably, the home button and fingerprint sensor are gone, replaced by a new system of navigation gestures and Apple’s new Face ID unlocking system. These are major changes.
New iPhones and major changes usually command a ton of hype, and Apple’s pushing the hype level around the iPhone X even higher than usual, especially given the new thousand-dollar starting price point. For the last few years, we’ve said some variation of “it’s a new iPhone” when we’ve reviewed these devices. But Apple wants this to be the beginning of the next 10 years. It wants the iPhone 10 to be more than just the new iPhone. It wants it to be the beginning of a new generation of iPhones. That’s a lot to live up to.
This review is going to be a little different, at least initially: Apple gave most reviewers less than 24 hours with the iPhone X before allowing us to talk about it. So consider this a working draft. These are my opening thoughts after a long, intense day of testing the phone, but I’ll be updating everything in a few days after we’re able to test performance and battery life, do an in-depth camera comparison, and generally live with the iPhone X in a more realistic way. Most importantly: please ask questions in the comments! I’ll try to answer as many of them as I can in the final, updated review.
But for now — here it goes.
At a glance, the iPhone X looks so good one of our video editors kept saying it looked fake. It’s polished and tight and clean. My new favorite Apple thing is that the company managed to move all the regulatory text to software, leaving just the word “iPhone” on the back. The screen is bright and colorful and appears to be laminated tighter than previous iPhones, so it looks like the pixels are right on top. Honestly, it does kind of look like a live 3D render instead of an actual working phone.
THE IPHONE X BASICALLY LOOKS LIKE A LIVING 3D RENDER
But it is a real phone, and it’s clear it was just as challenging to actually build as all the rumors suggested. It’s gorgeous, but it’s not flawless. There’s a tiny sharp ridge between the glass back and the chrome frame that I feel every time I pick up the phone. That chrome frame seems destined to get scratched and dinged, as every chrome Apple product tends to do. The camera bump on the back is huge; a larger housing than the iPhone 8 Plus fitted onto a much smaller body and designed to draw attention to itself, especially on my white review unit. There are definitely going to be people who think it’s ugly, but it’s growing on me.
There’s no headphone jack, which continues to suck on every phone that omits it, but that’s the price you pay for a bezel-less screen with a notch at the top. Around the sides, you’ll find the volume buttons, the mute switch, and the sleep / wake button. The removal of the home button means there are a few new button combinations to remember: pressing the top volume button and the sleep / wake button together takes a screenshot; holding the sleep button opens Siri; and you turn the phone off by holding either of the volume buttons and the sleep button for several seconds and then sliding to power down.
And, of course, there’s the notch in the display — what Apple calls the “sensor housing.” It’s ugly, but it tends to fade away after a while in portrait mode. It’s definitely intrusive in landscape, though. It makes landscape in general pretty messy. Less ignorable are the bezels around the sides and bottom of the screen, which are actually quite large. Getting rid of almost everything tends to draw attention to what remains, and what remains here is basically a thick black border all the way around the screen, with that notch set into the top.
I personally think the iPhone 4 is the most beautiful phone of all time, and I’d say the iPhone X is in third place in the iPhone rankings after that phone and the original model. It’s a huge step up from the surfboard design we’ve been living with since the iPhone 6, but it definitely lacks the character of Apple’s finest work. And… it has that notch.
The iPhone X is Apple’s first phone to use an OLED display, after years of Apple LCDs setting the standard for the industry. OLED displays allow for thinner phones, but getting them to be accurate is a challenge: Samsung phones tend to be oversaturated to the point of neon, Google’s Pixel 2 XL has a raft of issues with viewing angles and muted colors, and the new LG V30 has problems with uneven backlighting.
Apple’s using a Samsung-manufactured OLED panel with a PenTile pixel layout on the iPhone X, but it’s insistent that it was custom-engineered and designed in-house. Whatever the case, the results are excellent: the iPhone X OLED is bright, sharp, vibrant without verging into parody, and generally a constant pleasure to look at. Apple’s True Tone system automatically adjusts color temperature to ambient light, photos are displayed in a wider color gamut, and there’s even Dolby Vision HDR support, so iTunes movies mastered in HDR play with higher brightness and dynamic range.
IT’S JUST A TERRIFIC DISPLAY
I did notice some slight color shifting off-axis, but never so much that it bothered me; I generally had to go looking for it. And compared to the iPhone 8 Plus LCD, it seems like a slightly cooler display over all, but only when I held the two side by side. Overall, it’s just a terrific display.
Unfortunately, the top of the display is marred by that notch, and until a lot of developers do a lot of work to design around it, it’s going to be hard to get the most out of this screen. I mean that literally: a lot of apps don’t use most of the screen right now.
Apps that haven’t been updated for the iPhone X run in what you might call “software bezel” mode: huge black borders at the top and bottom that basically mimic the iPhone 8. And a lot of apps aren’t updated yet: Google Maps and Calendar, Slack, the Delta app, Spotify, and more all run with software bezels. Games like CSR Racing and Sonic the Hedgehog looked particularly silly. It’s fine, but it’s ugly, especially since the home bar at the bottom of the screen glows white in this mode.
SOME APPS ALMOST LOOK RIGHT, BUT THEN YOU REALIZE THEY’RE ACTUALLY JUST BROKEN
Apps that haven’t been specifically updated for the iPhone X, but use Apple’s iOS autolayout system will fill the screen, but wacky things happen: Dark Sky blocks out half the status bar with a hardcoded black bar of its own, Uber puts your account icon over the battery indicator, and the settings in the Halide camera app get obscured by the notch and partially tucked into the display’s bunny ears. It almost looks right, but then you realize it’s actually just broken.
Apps that have been updated for the iPhone X all have different ways of dealing with the notch that sometimes lead to strange results, especially in apps that play video. Instagram Stories don’t fill the screen; they have large gray borders on the top and bottom. YouTube only has two full-screen zoom options, so playing the Last Jedi trailer resulted in either a small video window surrounded by letter- and pillar-boxing or a full-screen view with the notch obscuring the left side of the video. Netflix is slightly better, but you’re still stuck choosing between giant black borders around your video or the notch.
Landscape mode on the iPhone X is generally pretty messy: the notch goes from being a somewhat forgettable element in the top status bar to a giant interruption on the side of the screen, and I haven’t seen any apps really solve for it yet. And the home bar at the bottom of the screen often sits over the top of content, forever reminding you that you can swipe to go home and exit the chaos of landscape mode forever.
I’m sure all of this will get solved over time, but recent history suggests it might take longer than Apple or anyone would like; I still encounter apps that aren’t updated for the larger iPhone 6 screen sizes. 3D Touch has been around for years, but I can’t think of any app that makes particularly good use of it. Apple’s rolled out a lot of screen design changes over the years, and they take a while to settle in. We’ll just have to see how it goes with the iPhone X.
I haven’t had a lot of time to play with the cameras on the iPhone X, but the short answer is that they look almost exactly like the cameras on the iPhone 8. Both the telephoto and wide angle lenses have optical image stabilization (compared to just the wide angle on the 8 Plus), and the TrueDepth system on the front means the front camera can take portrait mode selfies. It’s nice.
iPhone X rear camera (left) / Pixel 2 XL rear camera (right)
Of course, the main thing the front camera can do is take Animoji, which are Apple’s animated emoji characters. It’s basically built-in machinima, and probably the single best feature on the iPhone X. Most importantly, they just work, and they work incredibly well, tracking your eyes and expressions and capturing your voice in perfect sync with the animation. Apple’s rolled out a lot of weird additions to iMessage over the years, but Animoji feel much stickier than sending a note with lasers or adding stickers or whatever other gimmicks have been layered on. And while iMessage remains a golden palace of platform lock-in, Animoji are notably cross-platform: they work in iMessage, can be sent as videos over MMS, or exported as MOV files. Nice.
FACE ID: IT WORKS, MOSTLY
The single most important feature of the iPhone X is Face ID, the system that unlocks the phone by recognizing your face. Even that’s an understatement: the entire design and user experience of the iPhone X is built around Face ID. Face ID is what let Apple ditch the home button and Touch ID fingerprint sensor. The Face ID sensor system is housed in the notch. The Apple Pay user flow has been reworked around Face ID. Apple’s Animoji animated emoji work using the Face ID sensors.
If Face ID doesn’t work, the entire promise of the iPhone X falls apart.
The good news is that Face ID mostly works great. The bad news is that sometimes it doesn’t, and you will definitely have to adjust the way you think about using your phone to get it to a place where it mostly works great.
Face ID is cutting-edge tech, but the fundamental concept is pretty simple: it’s basically a tiny Xbox Kinect. An infrared projector flashes out thousands of tiny dots that cover your face, and the front camera clicks on, captures that image, and turns it into a depth map. That map — not an actual image of your face — is stored locally on the iPhone X’s Secure Enclave, which is the same place Apple stored Touch ID fingerprint data.
Setting up Face ID is ridiculously simple — much simpler than setting up Touch ID on previous iPhones. The phone displays a circular border around your face, and you simply move until a series of lines around that circle turn green. (Apple suggests you move your nose around in a circle, which is adorable.) Do that twice, and you’re done: Face ID will theoretically get better and better at recognizing you over time, and track slow changes like growing a beard so you don’t have to re-enroll. Drastic changes, like shaving that beard off, might require you to enter your passcode, however.
Face ID should also work through most sunglasses that pass infrared light, although some don’t. And you can definitely make it fail if you put on disguises, but I’d rather have it fail than let someone else through.
In my early tests, Face ID worked well indoors: sitting at my desk, standing in our video studio, and waiting in line to get coffee. You have to look at it head-on, though: if it’s sitting on your desk you have to pick up the phone and look at it, which is a little annoying if you’re used to just putting your finger on the Touch ID sensor to check a notification.
You also can’t be too casual about it: I had a lot of problems pulling the iPhone X out of my pocket and having it fail to unlock until Apple clarified that Face ID works best at a distance of 25 to 50 centimeters away from your face, or about 10 to 20 inches. That’s closer than I usually hold my phone when I pull it out of my pocket to check something, which means I had to actively think about holding the iPhone X closer to my face than every other phone I’ve ever used. “You’re holding it wrong” is a joke until it isn’t, and you can definitely hold the iPhone X wrong.
YOU CAN DEFINITELY HOLD THE IPHONE X WRONG
That’s a small problem, though, and I think it’ll be easy to get used to. The other problem is actually much more interesting: almost all of the early questions about Face ID centered around how it would work in the dark, but it turns out that was exactly backwards. Face ID works great in the dark, because the IR projector is basically a flashlight, and flashlights are easy to see in the dark. But go outside in bright sunlight, which contains a lot of infrared light, or under crappy florescent lights, which interfere with IR, and Face ID starts to get a little inconsistent.
I took a walk outside our NYC office in bright sunlight, and Face ID definitely had issues recognizing my face consistently while I was moving until I went into shade or brought the phone much closer to my face than usual. I also went to the deli across the street, which has a wide variety of lights inside, including a bunch of overhead florescent strips, and Face ID also got significantly more inconsistent.
I’ve asked Apple about this, and I’ll update this review with their answers along with more detailed test results, but for now I’d say Face ID definitely works well enough to replace Touch ID, but not so well that you won’t run into the occasional need to try again.
Recent Apple products have tended to demand people adapt to them instead of being adapted to people, and it was hard not to think about that as I stood in the sunlight, waving a thousand-dollar phone ever closer to my face.
There’s a lot of new hardware in the iPhone X, but it’s still running iOS 11 — albeit with some tweaks to navigation to accommodate the lack of a home button. You swipe up from the bottom to go home, swipe down from the right to bring up (down?) Control Center, and swipe down from the left to open the Notifications pane. That pane also has buttons for the flashlight and camera; in a twist, they require 3D Touch to work, so they feel like real buttons. It’s neat, but also breaks the 3D Touch paradigm. It’s the only place the entire system where 3D Touch acts like a left click instead of a right click. It’s emblematic of how generally fuzzy iOS has become with basic interface concepts, I think.
Switching apps is fun and simple: you can either swipe up and hold to bring up all your apps in a card-like deck, or just quickly swipe left and right on the home bar to bounce through them one at a time.
And… those are basically the changes to iOS 11 on the iPhone X, apart from the various notch-related kerfuffles. If you’ve been using iOS for a while and iOS 11 for the past month, nothing here will surprise you. Apple might have completely rethought how you unlock the iPhone X, but it’s still not giving up on that grid of app icons or making notifications more powerful or even allowing the weather app icon to display a live temperature. Siri is still Siri. If you’re buying an iPhone X expecting a radical change to your iPhone experience, well, you probably won’t get it. Unless you really hate unlocking your phone.
The iPhone X is clearly the best iPhone ever made. It’s thin, it’s powerful, it has ambitious ideas about what cameras on phones can be used for, and it pushes the design language of phones into a strange new place. It is a huge step forward in terms of phone hardware, and it has the notch to show for it. If you’re one of the many people who preordered this thing, I think you’ll be happy, although you’ll be going on the journey of figuring out when and how Face ID works best with everyone else.
IT’S A NEW IPHONE
But if you didn’t preorder, I suspect you might not feel that left out for a while. The iPhone X might be a huge step forward in terms of hardware, but it runs iOS 11 just the same as other recent iPhones, and you won’t really be missing out on anything except Animoji. Face ID seems like it’s off to a good start, but it’s definitely inconsistent in certain lighting conditions. And until your favorite apps are updated, you won’t be able to make use of that entire beautiful display.
All that adds up to the thing you already know: the iPhone X is a very expensive iPhone. For a lot of people, it’ll be worth it. For a lot of people, it’ll seem ridiculous. But fundamentally, it’s a new iPhone, and that means you probably already know if you want to spend a thousand dollars on one.
Because this review isn’t final, we’re not scoring the iPhone X yet. Leave your questions and comments below, and we’ll try to address as many of them in our final review as we can. We’ll add the score at that time as well.