- The iPhone X is the best smartphone you can buy.
- New features like Face ID work well but force you to learn new habits.
The big new screen is the best feature, but apps still need to adapt to the new form factor.
The other day, my colleague brought an original iPhone into Business Insider’s video studio to shoot a comparison video with the new iPhone X.
It didn’t hit me until then how much the iPhone had evolved over the past 10 years. The tiny screen. The fuzzy pixels. The camera that couldn’t even shoot video. A measly 8 gigabytes of memory. It didn’t even seem as if it came from the same company as the iPhone X.
The iPhone X feels like the perfect device to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Apple’s iPhone, a representation of how far tech can go in a decade. I’ve had the iPhone X, which went on sale last Friday, for a week. It’s the best smartphone I’ve ever used, and it represents a new direction in how Apple views the iPhone.
And yeah, it costs $1579.
The perfect form factor
Apple had fallen behind.
Over the past few years, competitors like Samsung have found ways to outdesign Apple by cramming more screen onto their phones, keeping the form factor slim and manageable while giving users plenty of display to work with. The iPhone started looking chunky and dated by comparison, especially as the most recent design entered its third year with 2016’s iPhone 7.
That finally changes with the iPhone X, which is the first major new iPhone design in over three years. It has a slightly bigger screen (5.8 inches) than the one on the iPhone 8 Plus, but the phone’s overall size is closer to that of the standard iPhone 8. It’s the perfect form factor. The X fits in my pocket much better than the plus-size iPhones ever did, and I still get the benefit of the larger screen, which covers almost the entire front of the phone with the exception of that controversial notch that houses the front-facing camera and other sensors.
The screen got a huge upgrade too. Apple used an OLED panel for the first time on an iPhone; the technology produces better colours and manages power better than the LCD panels every other iPhone uses. It’s the best display I’ve seen on an iPhone, and it’s so crisp it looks as if it were painted on the surface. The experts at DisplayMate recently named it the best smartphone display available, beating Samsung for the first time I can remember.
Overall, the design is nearly perfect. Apple went back to a glass-and-metal design this year, and the X has a steel band around the edges, which makes it feel more robust and premium. My only complaint with the design is the enormous camera bulge on the back. It looks out of place.
But the biggest change to the design is the lack of a home button. Unlike many Android phones that use digital home buttons, the iPhone X has what I’ve been calling the home bar, a software indicator at the bottom of the screen that shows you where to swipe up from to get back to the home screen. It works great. I’ve been mashing a home button on an iPhone for 10 years now, and it took me only a few minutes to get used to swiping up to go back home. You don’t have to worry about going home-button-free.
The lack of a home button comes with some quirks, though. You now access the Control Center by swiping down from the right side of the notch. You get to notifications by swiping down from the left side. Siri is a long-press of the power button, and you take a screenshot by pressing volume-up and power at the same time. There are other tricks, and tips, so it will probably take some time to learn them all.
Face ID works — but takes some getting used to
Face ID is probably the most controversial and misunderstood new feature on the iPhone X. So I’m going to break this down with as much detail as I can and hopefully answer all the questions you may have.
First, let’s go over how Face ID works.
There’s a new front-facing camera system on the X that Apple calls the TrueDepth camera system. In addition to the standard camera lens, there are a bunch of other sensors embedded in the notch above the screen like an infrared camera and a flood illuminator. Those sensors are able to map the distinct features of your face by blasting thousands of invisible dots on it and translating the data into a mathematical representation.
That “face data” lives on a secure chip inside the phone, just as your fingerprint data is securely stored in other iPhones with the Touch ID fingerprint sensor. Whenever you want to unlock your phone, the TrueDepth camera compares your face to the data stored on the phone. If it matches, you’re in. Face ID also works wherever Touch ID worked on older iPhones, such as with Apple Pay and when logging into certain apps.
Setting up Face ID is much faster than setting up Touch ID. You stare into the camera and move your head around in a circle as the TrueDepth camera scans you. Two scans and you’re good to go. It also gets more accurate and smarter as you use Face ID over time thanks to machine learning done on the device, so it can keep up with you as you grow a beard, cut your hair, put on makeup, wear glasses, or make any other common changes to your face.
So, is it any good?
I had a high standard in mind for Face ID before testing it. Since it was replacing Touch ID, Face ID would have to be just as good or better than using a fingerprint.
It passed my test. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t trick Face ID. It worked when I wore accessories like a hat, sunglasses, or a scarf. It worked in bright sunlight, a pitch-black closet, and every lighting scenario in between.
Face ID even passed the identical-twin test when we had a set visit the Business Insider office last week. (But it failed when others tried it. Identical twins out there: You may want to use a passcode instead of Face ID.) It was quick and reliable and almost never failed. It’s also fast. In most cases, the phone was unlocked by the time I swiped up to go the home screen.
The TrueDepth camera system also enables other cool stuff, like facial tracking for those Animojis and improved augmented-reality effects like Snapchat lenses. You can also use the selfie camera to take a portrait-style photo, which usually requires dual-lens cameras on iPhones.
Now for the caveats.
Face ID requires your “attention” to work. That means you need to be looking at the phone and holding it no more than about a foot from your face. It won’t work at odd angles or if your phone is lying flat on the table. This is where things differ from Touch ID, which lets you unlock your phone as long as it is in reach. I’ve seen a variety of opinions on this. Some people hate that they have to change their habits to adapt to Face ID. Others think it’s brilliant.
I don’t think it matters. Apple is going all-in with Face ID, and it will eventually replace Touch ID on all models. Might as well start training yourself now. In a lot of ways, it’s better than the old way, and the trade-offs are worth it.
I also noticed Face ID was slower in some cases, especially in bright light. This is probably because bright light contains infrared light that could slow down the facial-recognition process. It’s not painfully slow, but I definitely noticed the extra beat it took to unlock in some cases. That’s the first thing I’d like to see improved in future versions of Face ID. It has proved to be reliable and accurate. Now it needs to get faster.
The rest of it
Now for all that other standard stuff.
The dual-lens cameras on the iPhone X are slightly improved over the iPhone 8 Plus cameras. Both lenses have optical image stabilisation, which means low-light photos look better. I took a bunch of photos and video with the iPhone X and liked what I saw. Still, it wasn’t a huge improvement over the iPhone 8 Plus cameras I tested back in September.
Battery life seemed fine too. Apple says the iPhone X can last two hours longer than the 8, which seemed about right to me. But battery life on the 8 Plus is still the best. Plan on charging a bit in the middle of the day if you’re a heavy user like me.
And it runs iOS 11, just as your older iPhones and iPads can. Even though the iPhone X looks a lot different, it still feels very familiar.
The app problem
A new screen size and shape mean apps on the iPhone need to be adjusted again. And so far, most haven’t been updated. And many that did update for the X have a bunch of funky design quirks. It’s my biggest issue with the iPhone X. It’s not a deal breaker, but it may bother people who plan to buy the iPhone X in the first few weeks.
If an app hasn’t been updated, it appears letterboxed, with thick borders on the top and the bottom to mimic the screen size of the iPhone 8. It wastes a ton of that gorgeous new screen space. Other apps that have updated to the new screen size just scooched the bottom navigation bars up a bit to make room for the home bar, so a lot of negative space is floating at the bottom. It’s even worse on the keyboard, which has a giant empty area at the bottom just begging to be put to use.
Still, over the past week, and especially since the X’s launch last Friday, more and more apps have updated for the new screen. And there are already some great examples of apps that look great on the new screen, like Amazon and Lyft. I have a feeling it will take a few months before others catch up.
The $US1,000 question
At $1,579 or $1,829 for the 256GB model, the iPhone X is the most expensive iPhone ever made. You can buy a decent 4K TV for less than that.
So, should you be spending that much on a phone?
I think the X is worth it. The screen and overall form factor and design are enough to sell me. Plus it’s your first chance to experience the device that will set the tone for smartphones for several more years. If the cost is still too much to swallow, the iPhone 8 offers the same performance and operating system, just in an older design. And you can get the 7 or the SE for hundreds less. Don’t buy something you can’t afford.
But if you want the best smartphone, you should buy the iPhone X.
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