The iPhone X is a weird and wonderful device. Apple’s new phone looks and behaves so differently to the iPhones we’re used to, but it takes just a day or two to become familiar with it. Apple has been subtly training us for life without a home button over the past few iterations of iOS by emphasising swipe gestures, and the iPhone X benefits from this established muscle memory.
I’ve only had a few days to play with the iPhone X, so I can’t reliably comment on things such as battery life, but here are my first impressions of Apple’s tenth anniversary flagship phone.
The first questions everyone has are around Face ID. Is it reliable? How fast is it? Do you miss Touch ID?
For the first day of use, Face ID certainly does not feel as fast as second-generation Touch ID, found in iPhone 6s and above, but that doesn’t mean Face ID feels like a step backward, either.
It’s still plenty fast, closer to the original Touch ID, especially if you begin the swipe up motion as you’re lifting the phone up. On the first day, opening the phone seemed to take as long as a blink. But after a day or two, I didn’t even notice a pause – I’d just swipe the screen and my phone would be unlocked, ready to use. Whether Face ID has become better at recognising me in all lighting conditions or I’ve just become more used to the phone I’m not sure.
The times it took longer than a blink were when my face changed. The first time I unlocked the phone without glasses after using it all day with, the phone took a split second longer to let me in. You could almost hear it say “wait a second …”
And perhaps it’s the angle or the movement, but when walking down the street and wanting to glance at the screen, I found I had to stop walking and deliberately look at the phone for it to unlock. This is the one time you miss Touch ID; I’m so used to unlocking the phone before it’s even out of my pocket that the slight pause is noticeable. Apple has assured me Face ID will continually improve as it gets to know me in all lighting conditions and I’d hope that’ll make these moments disappear.
Either way, it’s easily the best facial recognition of its kind. Face ID is faster, more secure, and more reliable than the combination of Iris scanner and facial recognition found in Samsung’s Note8 and Galaxy S8 flagships. It’s somehow way faster than the Windows Hello scanner in the Surface Pro 4, remarkable considering the amount of extra hardware and processing power you’d assume a laptop casing should be able to hold. But then again, the A11 bionic chip inside the iPhone X can best the power of many laptops.
Unlike both the Samsung and Surface sensors, Face ID really does work with my glasses on or off, through sunglasses, in nearly pitch black rooms, or in bright sunlight. And compared to the bezel-less Android phones that moved the scanner to the back of the device, I prefer the look-to-unlock, even with a slight pause, over fumbling around the back for the fingerprint reader.
Where Face ID actually feels faster is when using it to verify yourself throughout the OS. Face ID pops up to autofill passwords saved in your iCloud Keychain, or to open apps previously locked by Touch ID, like password managers or banking apps, and when purchasing in the App store.
The vast array of cameras and sensors powering Face ID are also used to power Portrait Mode selfies, and of course, the ridiculous but fun Animoji.
The screen is the best on any mobile phone I’ve used. Only Samsung’s beautiful Galaxy S8 and Note8 come close, and that’s no surprise, considering Apple’s arch-rival manufactured the panel for the iPhone X, to Apple’s specifications. But the iPhone X screen has, for my eyes, a better colour balance and the added benefit of Apple’s True Tone technology, which adjusts the hues of the screen to the ambient lighting of your surroundings.
On Samsung’s phones, I normally have to adjust the settings down from the vibrant K-Pop default to a more muted colour balance; here, no adjustments were necessary. iOS 11’s bright, colourful palette still popped off the screen, but scrolling through mainly white background applications wasn’t a blinding experience.
Photos look simply stunning on this display, and video playback supports both HDR10 and Dolby Vision. Mindhunter, Netflix’s dark serial killer drama, was the perfect test for the screen. The show looked incredible, as the HDR brought out details even in the shadows.
And the iPhone X screen is incredibly bright. It’s the easiest iPhone to use in direct sunlight, and in tricky situations — on the dash of a car, for turn by turn directions, at sunset — when the screen is picking up reflections from every angle.
If you’re worried about the notch, that little cut out tray of sensors at the top of the iPhone X’s screen, the good news is you’ll have some time to get used to it. A lot of apps aren’t ready yet for the new phone dimensions, so the notch is hidden by black bars at the top and bottom of the screen.
Of the apps that are updated, I mainly forgot the notch existed, until I didn’t. Once I was in an app, my eyes would be drawn to the content and the notch disappeared, but every time I entered or switched apps — iOS 11’s bright colours and heavy use of white menus really draws attention to the black bar — there it was again, staring at me.
I’m still not convinced about Apple’s decision to “embrace the notch”. It reminds me of the old screenwriting tradition of “hanging a lantern” on something; that is, when there’s a moment that feels incongruous in a screenplay, rather than ignore it, you draw attention to it. The theory is by drawing attention, you’re telling the audience: this is not a mistake, this is here by design.
By drawing attention to the notch, is Apple wanting us to think about the technology up there in that sensor? Do they feel it’s a more honest design to draw attention rather that to mask the notch? Or do they just want a new, easy to recognise icon that means “iPhone”, now that “rectangle with small circle at the bottom” no longer works?
A lot of people have asked about the “notch” in landscape mode. The notch is normally hidden in apps that display images or video, thanks to black bars on either side. It does show up in some apps, like Chrome, as a noticeable bite taken out of the left side. But then I have my phone locked to Portrait at all times, so I can’t really comment.
I really love the new gestures to navigate iOS. Swiping to open immediately feels natural, while the swipe and pause to get to multitasking takes a day or two to become second nature. Flicking apps up to close them feels so much faster than exiting with a home button, and swiping between apps from the bottom of the screen is a much faster, more pleasant way of quickly jumping between apps. I’ve already found myself trying to use these new gestures on my current iPhone, and wishing I had them there, too.
I’ve always hated control centre on the bottom of the screen, so often i’d pull up the keyboard when I wanted it, so I’m glad to see it moved to the top right of the display. You can also now wake the screen with a touch, which is nice.
Of all the new tweaks to the interface, my favourite new feature is notifications on the lock screen. By default, notifications appear on the screen collapsed, with details hidden. Glance at your screen, and the notifications open up to reveal the text of a message or the summary of an email, so you can quickly respond to them without having to open your phone.
In The Hand
The iPhone X is just a smidge bigger than the iPhone 8, despite the much larger screen. This makes it easy to hold and use one handed, even in my tiny hands. It’s a little thicker than the iPhone 8, and many of the other flagships out there. It’s thicker and heavier than the S8 and Pixel XL 2, for instance. It doesn’t feel bulky at all, it’s a satisfying size, something that feels well balanced and well weighted, not at all fragile. Like John Davidson at The Financial Review, I felt the Pixel 2 actually felt a little too light, proving nothing more than technology reviewers are annoyingly picky people.
The stainless steel sides look fantastic, like iPods of old, and the glass backed white or grey of the iPhone is simply beautiful. It’s all very grippy, which makes me want to use the phone without a case, but I just can’t bring myself to do that.
I haven’t had too much time to play with the iPhone X camera, but I’ve been impressed by the performance of the new Portrait Mode. I was able to capture Portrait shots in a dark restaurant, without issues. Like the Note8, both the telephoto and wideangle lens of the iPhone X now have optical image stabilisation, making Portrait Mode available in less forgiving circumstances, and making standard shots more stable in shaky hands.
The one thing holding most iPhone fans back will be the cost of the iPhone X. Starting at $1579, this is the most expensive iPhone Apple has shipped, and it’s a good $130 more expensive than Samsung’s Note8. There’s a hell of a lot of impressive technology here from that OLED screen, to Face ID, to the dual camera you’d normally have to buy a Plus sized phone to get, but it’s not going to be worth it for everyone. The one thing that does annoy me is there is no USB-C fast charger in the box. A premium product like this, capable of fast charging only with USB-C, should include that USB-C charger and not the standard slow one. It’d also make the phone more compatible with Apple’s USB-C MacBook laptop line.
If you’re a long time iPhone user and you’re worried about Face ID or the lack of a home button, don’t be. You’ll adjust in no time at all.