Holding the iPhone X in my hand triggers a distinct memory of the moment I first cradled the original iPhone. The sensation lingers as I caress the surgical steel band that wraps around the phone and I feel the cool glass back against my palm. Waking the phone snaps me back to the present. I’m suddenly unmoored as my eyes dart across the nearly unblemished Super Retina OLED screen, searching desperately for the home button.
There is no home button, just a stunning 5.8-inch screen that hugs the edge, reaching for the silver band that’s just millimeters away. All of it is so beautiful, save for that peninsula of darkness at the top — the notch that intrudes on the otherwise perfect industrial design of the iPhone X, but also proves critical to its operation and serves as yet another signal that this is not just another iPhone.
Apple’s iPhone X is the beginning of something new. Even if you don’t want an iPhone X, I encourage you to pay attention. Everything the iPhone X is serves as a roadmap for future iPhones.
HELLO AGAIN, IPHONE
Early adopters (and lucky reviewers like me) are like the scouts sent out ahead to tell if the road is clear, safe, and ultimately worth traveling. My postcard from the edge of Apple iPhone innovation reads: This is a trip you’ll want to take.
From a size and weight perspective, the Apple iPhone X sits neatly between the 4.7-inch display of the iPhone 8 and the 5.5-inch iPhone 8 Plus. But Apple’s smartphone line no longer represents a continuum. To squeeze the iPhone X between these two devices, which were also unveiled in September, is to assume that your iPhone choices follow some sort of rote path. There is no path here. Yes, there are similarities between the iPhone X and, especially, the iPhone 8 Plus, but the way the iPhone X looks, feels and, most importantly, works, puts it on a different plane.
The back of the iPhone X is protected by ultra-hard glass (the same Corning custom blend that backs the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus) with a smudge-resistant oleophobic coating on the outside and color — gray or white — on the inside. Touching the smooth glass exterior and looking at the steel-and-copper-plate frame underneath, the iPhone X feels like a beautiful contradiction.
Measured diagonally, the iPhone X screen is the largest on any iPhone ever made, yet the device fits comfortably in my hand. Though obviously smaller than the iPhone 8 Plus, the iPhone X, with a depth of 7.7mm (0.3 inch), is 0.2mm (0.008 inch) thicker. It weighs 174 grams (6.17 ounces), which is almost 30 grams more than the iPhone 8, but 28 grams lighter than the iPhone 8 Plus.
Apple has been slowly, but consistently increasing the thickness and weight of its flagship devices. If you’re upgrading from the iPhone 7, which measures 7.1 mm thick and weighs 138 grams, you’ll really feel it.
I showed the iPhone X to a few people. Most who held the phone commented that it felt a little thicker and heavier, which I think is directly attributable to many of them owning iPhones that are two or more generations old.
Their overall impression of the look and feel of the device, though, was almost universally positive. The typical response was to make a sound that’s probably similar to what they’d utter if they spotted a delicious-looking piece of cake. I could hear the desire in their voices.
Aside from the gorgeous surgical steel that would be at home on the iPhone 1, the other major visual queue that this is not your average iPhone is the camera. Like the iPhone 8, the iPhone X has a dual-camera system (one wide-angle lens and one 2x telephoto), but the camera module, which on the iPhone X encompasses the camera, flash, and microphone, is turned 90 degrees to align with the 5.65-inch-long edge of the device. It’s so noticeable that more than one person spotted me out in the wild with the phone and started asking questions. My response was usually to shake my head and quickly slide the camera back into my pocket.
THE SCREEN, THE NOTCH, AND THE WARDROBE
If the camera is a hint that this is not your average iPhone, the screen is a dead giveaway.
In addition to being Apple’s first OLED display on a phone — a custom Apple screen made by Samsung — the 5.8-inch screen is the highest-resolution smartphone display Apple has ever made. The 2,436 x 1,125 resolution screen has a whopping 458 pixels per inch (ppi). That blows away the iPhone 8’s 326 ppi, thought it falls short of the 571 ppi SuperAMOLED display on the Samsung Galaxy S8. The iPhone X display also supports HDR (High Dynamic Range), which means you see a greater contrast range and more colors than on non-HDR screens.
Specs aside, this is the best iPhone display I have ever seen.
You have never seen such bright, touchable colors or inky blacks on an iPhone handset, nor have you ever seen an iPhone screen hug the virtually bezel-less edge and corners of a device the way the iPhone X does. Those corners of the screen are all curves — a first in iPhone history. Do not let Apple iPhone 8 owners hold their screen next to the iPhone X’s, unless you want to see grown-ups cry.
Of course, it’s not just the screen; Apple’s iPhone X introduces and entirely new form of iPhone life.
To start, the iPhone X launches with the most significant feature deletion in iPhone history: bigger than dropping the 30-pin connector in favor of a Lightning port and even more disruptive than canning the headphone jack(which is still gone on the iPhone X).
There. Is. No. Home Button.
Apple has always been about making devices where the technology gets “out of the way.” Whether you knew it or not, that meant, to make the iPhone of the future — what this button-less wonder claims to be a vanguard of — Apple needed to drop the home button (and the Touch ID fingerprint reader along with it) from the iPhone at some point. Now it’s finally happening with the iPhone X.
The removal of that bit of hardware, which stopped being a true button with the iPhone 7 (haptics give the sensation of movement where there is none), meant Apple could drop the “chin” — that dead space below the screen. Apple did the same thing with most of the mostly blank space (the “head”) at the top of the iPhone X as well, but they did leave something behind.
There is no other way to describe the black area at the top center of Apple’s otherwise perfect screen than “the notch.” It cuts a near quarter-inch space out of the OLED display and grants the land-holding rights to, incredibly, eight different components, including the earpiece speaker (this is still a phone), a microphone, the front camera, a proximity sensor (hey, your face is close to me!), an ambient light sensor, and a collection of sensors devoted to detecting your face and gaze. Collected together, most of the sensors and camera are collectively known as Apple’s latest imaging innovation, the TrueDepth camera.
I’d be lying if I said I never noticed the notch. It cuts into full-screen apps, movies, and photos, but, after a little while, I stopped fixating on it. I guarantee that some people will hate the notch and rail against it, and it’s fun to imagine how the stoic Jony Ive, Apple’s Chief Design Officer, might’ve lost his cool when he first saw the notch. The complaints will, I suspect, mostly be from people who do not own or use an iPhone X.
The notch also paves the way for another one of Apple’s big iPhone X innovations and, thank goodness, an above average answer to, “How the hell am I going to unlock my iPhone without a home button and Touch ID?”
A GESTURE OF TRUST
We’ve been tapping, pinching, swiping, and gesturing on our iPhones for over a decade now. Apple could fairly be credited with creating an entire “style” of interactions for handheld devices. The iPhone X takes that strategy to its logical conclusion, relying on a combination of facial-recognition technology and gestures to engage with the iPhone in ways no one ever has before.
Before I could engage with the iPhone X, I had to accept that I would not be pressing a home button to open it. This reality hit me hard.
During my first 24 hours of using the iPhone X, I helplessly pressed the space where a button should be. It’s a kind of Phantom Home Button Syndrome that I expect all iPhone X owners will experience in the early days.
It fades, though, and rather quickly, thanks to a smartly designed gesture interface and something Apple calls Face ID.
Remember, without the fancy TrueDepth camera system, there is no Face ID, which might improve your tolerance of the notch. Apple could have gone the Samsung Galaxy S8 route, and shrunk the entire “forehead” of the screen by a quarter inch, to accommodate the TrueDepth camera, but I also think that would have made the iPhone X a more ordinary device.
GIVE ME YOUR FACE
Face ID is integrated into the iPhone X setup and I highly recommend you use it. The setup is easy, but you might want to do it when no one is looking at you.
After using my iPhone 7 to blaze through the initial iPhone X setup (when setting up an iPhone running running iOS 11, Apple allows you to transfer settings and apps from another iPhone via iCloud), the phone guided me through Face ID.
On screen, the Face ID setup showed the front camera view of my face inside a circle. It then guided me to rotate my head in a circle as, on screen, a green dial follows and fills in the circumference of the Face ID circle. Behind the scenes, the TrueDepth camera’s dot projector is covering my face in dots only visible to the infrared camera, rapidly building a 3D map of my face.
Feeding my facial geometry into the iPhone , required me to make that slightly awkward head rotation move twice (it’s like drawing a circle with your nose), but then I was done. It’s a faster authentication setup than I’ve ever experienced with Touch ID.
The result: A highly effective iPhone X unlocking routine.
Here’s how I unlock my iPhone 8. I pick up the phone, and the screen wakes on lift automatically. I press the home button, keep my finger resting on it for a fraction of a second, and the iPhone unlocks.
Here’s how I do with the iPhone X. I pick up the phone and swipe my finger up from the bottom edge of the screen. In the time it takes to do that, the iPhone X’s Face ID system has already read my face and approved it as the one registered with the phone. Is it faster than unlocking the iPhone 8? Close, but, if so, only by milliseconds. However, unlike pressing and holding the home button, accessing my iPhone X feels like a single gesture. You can, of course, still use a PIN code, which you’ll need when you turn on the phone, since Face ID won’t work after a power-down.
I did try to fool Face ID. I took a photo of my face with the iPhone 8 and presented it to the iPhone X TrueDepth Camera. It didn’t respond. I also tried using a short video. Again, nothing. To see how well Face ID could recognize me, I tried with and without a hat, only defeating it when I pulled the brim down do far that I obscured half my face. Since this was around Halloween, I tried unlocking my phone while wearing a dark wig. Face ID knew it was me every time.
There is one way to fool Face ID, though, and Apple has already acknowledged this: identical twins. I tried it, so I know. It’s one reminder that, while facial recognition is super convenient, it’s not perfect.
Using that swipe to unlock the iPhone X is, though, the first step in a relatively painless journey of interface reorganization and gesture discovery.
One important limitation of FaceID: It only lets you register one face. That may strike many as unnecessarily limiting since Touch ID lets users register up to 10 fingerprints, but Apple says it found the number of people who register more than one person’s fingerprints is miniscule. There’s also the simple and obvious fact that humans have 10 fingers, but just one face.
HEY, WHERE’S MY STUFF?
You don’t realize just how many features rely on the home button until it’s gone. For as much as I love the iPhone X, using it in those early days was like interacting with an iPhone via funhouse mirror. I’d been schooled on where things moved, but had a nasty habit of bumping into mirrors as I forcibly retrained my digits and mind.
To get “home” one the iPhone X, I use the same gesture as I did to unlock it. A sweep up from the bottom of the screen at any time minimizes the open app and lands you on the home screen. There’s an omnipresent gesture bar near the base of the screen. It acts like the thin handle on a window shade, giving you a spot to put your thumb when you want to start your sweep gesture. It disappears after a few seconds and reappears if you tap the screen or start swiping up on the bottom of the screen (in portrait or landscape mode).
With the home button gone, there’s another new gesture you need to learn for accessing the app switcher. At least it’s just a continuation of the core gesture: You gesture up from the bottom of the screen, but pause before you move your thumb off the screen. This reveals a familiar-looking app switcher interface, and then you can let go.
To kill apps, you hold your finger down on one and red minus signs appears on all open apps. You can tap any negative sign to close one.
Besides the app switcher, there’s another, new way of switching between apps. You just place you finger near the bottom edge of the phone and swipe from the left to page through open apps.
I got so used to the home screen gesture that I kept trying to use it on my iPhone 8, which only resulted in revealing the Control Center.
Speaking of which, the Control Center migrated all the way to the top of the screen. It lives in the space on the right side of the notch, hidden behind the icons for connectivity and battery life (on the opposite side of the of the notch is the time and location icon).
To access Control Center, I sweep down from the top right side of the screen. I have big hands so this 5.65-inch journey from the bottom to the top of the iPhone X screen does not bother me. Those with smaller hands may feel otherwise. They can still use the iPhone’s Reachability mode, which you have to activate in settings.
Once Reachability is turned on, you can drop the whole screen halfway down (including access to Control Center) by swiping down slightly on the gesture bar. In my experience, though, even with Reachability, which is difficult to activate, this is an imperfect solution. There’s no visual cue for the location of the Control Center when the interface is halfway down the screen. If you have small hands and Reachability isn’t your thing, you might want to look into a PopSocket.
Swiping down from the top of the screen anywhere but on the right side will reveals Notification Center.
Apple Pay and Siri now live under the now substantially longer side (or sleep/lock) button. It takes a double press to access Apple Pay, which also activates Face ID to complete payment.
Before paying at Starbucks, I double-checked that it accepts tap-to-pay. The barista laughed and said, “Of course! It’s 2017, man.” I pressed the side button twice, saw the Face ID icon on screen as the iPhone X captured my face and followed the instructions to place my phone near the card reader. Piece of cake (actually I got a cup of coffee and a bagel).
Pressing and holding down the side button activates Siri. I pressed the button and said to Siri, “Let’s take a selfie.” My front-facing camera opened immediately. Overall, I’m fine with moving Siri, though I do think pressing a side button is little less intuitive than using a home button.
Slightly more concerning: I now must press two buttons at once — the side button and either volume button — to fully turn off the phone, which reveals a slightly redesigned shutdown screen (it now includes Emergency SOS). I doubt many iPhone fans will appreciate this change, but it might also be worth asking yourself: when was the last time you turned off your iPhone? As I was writing this, I realized I hadn’t turned off the iPhone X in three days. You can still turn on the iPhone X by pressing just the side button.
GOING WAY BEYOND SELFIES
If the TrueDepth camera had just this single purpose– unlocking your iPhone X — it might be a disappointment, but the ability to see faces in three dimensions unlocks some fascinating and often entertaining opportunities.
The 7-megapixel camera that we all use for selfies is now a Selfie Portrait Mode camera. What’s really interesting is that the iPhone X can take Portrait Mode photos from both cameras, but by using two completely different sets of technologies. Portrait mode on the back of the camera relies on both wide and telephoto cameras and some powerful image algorithms to create that pro-looking bokeh effect.
On the front of the iPhone X, the phone creates portrait mode selfies by combining imagery from the 7MP camera with the 3D depth-sensing information collected by the TrueDepth module.
Given the right light, the results are impressive. I took selfies indoors and out, with low light and lots of light. Many of the shots look amazing, but there are some where the TrueDepth system struggled with my lack of a hairline and created a halo out of the background and the crown of my bald head. The camera even worked for more than one subject, as long as they were on the same plane. If one person was slightly behind or in front of me, the camera threw them into soft focus as well.
The TrueDepth camera is also responsible for animojis, those adorable animated heads that can move in sync with your mouth, head and facial expressions. Apple told me it tracks roughly 50 different facial movements and I believe it. Animojis tracked virtually every head turn, nod, wink, smile, eyebrow raise, and furrowed brow. I sent my wife a dozen wacky talking heads (that also happens to be the number of animoji options) over iMessage. She thought I’d lost my mind, but did grant that what she saw (and heard) was amazing.
In addition to more entertaining iMessages, the TrueDepth camera will take third-party apps to new places. Snap provided me with a test version of Snapchat so I could try out the new 3D skins that take advantage of the TrueDepth camera. There were four total: a luchador mask, full face paint, feather glasses, and flowers.
In each case, the face mapping is simply next-level. The app uses the 3D face-mapping information gathered by the TrueDepth camera to map my face, expression and even the lighting to an extraordinary level. I did notice a tiny bit of judder on the mask, and just a hair of a flicker that made it clear my face wasn’t really painted.
The two rear 12MP cameras on the iPhone X are like the ones on the iPhone 8 Plus, but they’re not entirely the same. In addition to the new configuration and orientation, the 12MP 2x telephoto lens now has a f/2.4 aperture (the iPhone 8 telephoto lens is f/2.8). A lower number means it can collect more light, especially useful for a telephoto lens. In addition, the telephoto lens now has optical image stabilization (the wide-angle camera on the iPhone 8 Plus already had it).
On the lock screen, Apple put the extra screen space to work and added a pair of useful quick-access 3D-Touch software buttons: The flashlight on the left and the camera on the right. A firm press on the screen activates either one. For the flashlight, another firm press turns it off. And you can also still access the rear camera by swiping left on the lock screen.
Is this the golden age of smartphone photography? Not only are the lenses and image sensors better than ever, but the algorithms backing them are taking mobile photography to new heights. Portrait Mode photography and the still-in-beta Portrait Lighting are perfect examples of this incredible mix. Even without defocused backgrounds, the images coming out of the iPhone X are comparable to what decent prosumer cameras can produce.
Galaxy Note 8
The photos I collected with the iPhone X were just as good and in some cases better than I could achieve with the iPhone 8 Plus. When compared to images captured with the Samsung Galaxy Note 8 and the Google Pixel, it was more of a tossup. I contend that Apple still does a better job of capturing natural colors, but some said my images were too cool and preferred the color saturation of the Note 8. To my eyes, the iPhone X produces colors that are closest to real life.
The optical image stabilization kept video smooth, especially when I digitally zoomed in up to 6x, though image quality at that level of digital zoom is degraded. The Note 8 can digitally zoom to 10x, but the results look like garbage.
Galaxy Note 8
Low-light photography with the iPhone X is at least on par with what you can get from the Note 8. In general, the Note 8 produces images with slightly more contrast in these situations.
Galaxy Note 8
The iPhone X rear dual camera is the best camera I’ve used on a smartphone. It takes excellent wide and 2x optical zoom photos in a wide variety of conditions. However, increasingly, the playing field is leveling out as Samsung lowers the color saturation to a more real-world vibe, Portrait Mode become more common, and upstarts like Google prove they can learn from everyone else and start off strong. No one will be disappointed with the iPhone X’s photographic capabilities, but be prepared to get in more than one argument about which smartphone has the best camera. I still prefer Apple’s, though.