The iPhone X is not the phone of the future. It could be, someday, if Apple’s right about augmented reality and the power of a great camera. But for now, the iPhone X represents Apple’s most ambitious attempt ever at making a phone absolutely seamless. A phone that never forces you to think about the object itself, but disappears quietly while you pay attention to whatever you’re doing.
Face ID, Apple’s new facial-recognition system, illustrates the point perfectly. Apple’s explained with uncharacteristic clarity that Face ID was not the result of a design decision, and getting rid of the fingerprint reader was not some late-breaking development in the process. Apple ditched your fingerprint because it believes facial recognition works better. And when it does work, you instantly understand what Apple sees in the technology.
When I first got the iPhone X, Face ID felt like an annoying extra step. You have to turn on the phone, wait for the lock icon to swing to the unlocked position, then swipe up from the bottom of the screen. But that’s me trying to re-learn a bad habit. If, instead, I pick up the phone and the screen automatically turns on as I lift it, all I have to do is swipe up from the bottom of the screen. Face ID has likely already recognized me, and just like that I’m in. I don’t have to turn my phone on, or do anything to unlock it. I just have to tell the iPhone X I’m finished with notifications and want to go to the homescreen, and I’m there.
When Face ID works, it’s like not having a passcode. Tap on a notification on the lockscreen, and you just go straight there; open a sensitive app, and you’ll only be stopped if you’re not allowed to be there. Think about all the time you’ve spent over the years entering your password, and imagine never having to do it again. That’s what Face ID promises.
Gorgeous design. Face ID is a great idea, mostly well executed. Lots of cameras, all of them excellent. It’s faster and smoother than whatever phone you’re using now.
A grand is a lot to spend on a phone. Apple’s love of simplicity sometimes makes everything more complicated. Goodbye, stealthy phone-checking.
Here’s the hard part, though: the tech’s not quite there yet. I’ve been using the iPhone X for a week, and found Face ID a study in compromise. For every tap it removes, the X makes your life harder by forcing you to lean in a little just to unlock it. For every feeling of focus that comes with the big, bezel-less screen, there’s a shock back to reality from a hideously unoptimized app.
When everything works right, though, the whole iPhone X experience is brilliant. Even though the camera’s not meaningfully better than the 8 Plus or even 7 Plus, the processor’s no faster, and the software’s no different, I still enjoy the X more than any iPhone ever. Do I like it enough to tell you to fork over $1,000 for the privilege? That’s a bit harder.
iPhone X is a gorgeous gadget, worth appreciating on aesthetic value alone. It’s smooth and slick all over, with nothing to catch your finger or distract your attention. The display seems laminated even closer to the glass than before, to ward off all glare. Even its colors, silver and space gray, seem to have been chosen for their lack of gaud—no blingy gold model here. And the 5.8-inch screen, which now stretches across almost the entire front face of the phone, just tries to lure you in. The OLED panel appears crisper and more vivid than any iPhone screen before it. Apple’s always said its vision was to make a phone that’s all screen and nothing else, and I completely understand why: when there’s nothing but screen, it makes everything on that screen even better and more immersive.
The size of the iPhone X is probably my favorite feature. The normal-sized iPhone always felt too small, without enough screen to type quickly or game intensively. (Also, small battery.) The Plus, on the other hand, is very much a two-handed device. Since it has such a small bezel and a long, narrow aspect ratio, the X splits the difference perfectly. It’s big enough to type on, small enough to fit in my pocket. Big enough to credibly watch The Good Place, small enough to talk on without blotting out the sun.
But the iPhone X has a few little quirks. Honestly, I mostly don’t mind the notch at the top of the screen—the small indent where the camera and earpiece go—but you can’t tell me this phone is “all screen” and have a notch like this. Or the bezel around the screen, which the iPhone X most certainly still has. Or so many apps that don’t yet understand how to accommodate the notch, and thus operate with huge black spaces on either side. I’m fully on board for the all-screen future, but this ain’t it.
In service of the all-screen mindset, the iPhone X has no home button. Now, to go home, you swipe up from the very bottom of the screen, as if you’re tossing the app back into its icon. To switch between apps, you swipe up, and hold for some indeterminate amount of time until the app thumbnails pop up. The first day I used the phone, I hated the whole thing. Now I’m used to it. It still frustrates me when an app freezes (normally I’d just hammer the home button until something good happened) but now I either just have to wait or force the phone to restart.
When you start looking for Apple’s attempts to simplify things, shorten tasks, make everything cleaner and easier, you see examples everywhere. Sure, the ridiculously fast A11 Bionic processor enables cool augmented reality features and makes games look great, but it also makes my email open faster, and keeps the iPhone’s complex animations running smoothly. Yes, the front-facing camera’s wild infrared sensors make Animoji possible, but they also let me into my phone faster, and keep my Snapchat lenses stuck on my face.
When Less is Less
Apple always walks a fine line between obsessively polishing an experience and overthinking it to the point of actually making it more complicated. Not having a home button has made me remember that “Hey Siri” is a thing that exists, and works quite well. Not having a headphone jack forced me to invest in wireless headphones, which was a hassle at first but now feels just right. Learning the new ways of doing things can be tough, but many times the new way is genuinely better.
On the flip side, Apple decided to hide the battery-percentage indicator from the status bar, probably for space reasons but also because I think Apple doesn’t want you stressing out about your battery. It’s fine, they say! It lasts all day, they say! Well, I always stress about my battery, and you can’t stop me, and now I have to open up Control Center every time I need to know if that half-filled battery icon means I’m at 41 percent or 59. Also, I need to stress about the battery, because I’m not always getting a full day out of it. With what you might call “semi intense use,” I can keep it off the charger from about 7 am to 9 pm before it dies. That’s an all-day battery, I guess, but only just.
Apple moved the Bluetooth connection indicator to the Control Center too, again partly for space but also because I think Apple doesn’t want you to worry. Your AirPods are always connected, and your Watch too! Yay W1 chips! But anyone who’s ever used Bluetooth headphones knows it doesn’t work that way, and it stinks not being able to check.
There’s always been a debate in the smartphone world over how customizable a phone should be. Some people want to change every icon, re-order every list, and optimize things for their particular needs. Those people use Android. Apple’s always gone the other way, trying to make a phone you never had to think about setting up or tweaking or organizing. It just did things, and you understood how to do them. The X takes that approach farther than ever, and I like the idea—but not always the execution.
In The Frame
At this point, the iPhone’s not really a “phone” anymore. It’s a camera that makes phone calls. That’ll only be more true as we get deeper into the world of augmented reality, video communication, and whatever Animoji turns into in a few years.
The two cameras on the back, despite being vertically arranged rather than horizontally like on other iPhones, matches the iPhone 8 Plus almost exactly. That’s a good thing. It takes terrific pictures and video, in everything from super-slow-motion to 4K at 60 frames per second. The X does have two upgrades over other iPhones, both of which help but don’t change the game. Both lenses are now optically stabilized, which makes video look a little steadier and helps when you’re zooming way in for photos. And the telephoto lens has a slightly larger aperture, so your aforementioned super-zoomed photos will be a little brighter. Pitted against the Google Pixel 2 XL, the other best smartphone shooter on the market, I wind up picking the iPhone’s shot about half the time.
The front-facing camera is where the interesting stuff is happening. I suspect developers and users will be able to do all kinds of stuff with the sensors in the TrueDepth camera. The way ubiquitous GPS enabled Uber, or smartphone cameras led to Instagram, there will surely be apps that capture a detailed and real-time read of your face to do amazing and terrifying things. Right now, you can take soft-background selfies with all the same depth mapping and Portrait Mode features of the iPhone’s rear cameras. And, of course, you can be a poop.
One more note on Face ID: Once you get used to the way it works, it works really well. It has its limits, sure. You can’t unlock your phone without looking at it, so say goodbye to stealthily texting under the table. It fails, occasionally, but not more than TouchID misses your fingerprint. It worked when I wore a hat, covered part of my face, or tried it in complete darkness. It didn’t work through my Ray-Bans, when I had my eyes covered or closed, or in particularly bright sunlight. It’s good for unlocking my iPhone, but incredible for when it’s already unlocked—–if you protect certain apps, or try to pay for things, having Face ID on makes the process both secure and simple.
At the end of a week with the iPhone X, I’m still torn about whether or not to recommend it. It’s a great phone, of course, definitely the best iPhone you can buy. I love the size, love the screen, love the camera. It does feel like the iPhone Apple’s been talking about all this time. But Apple gets in its own way sometimes, making things harder as it tries to make them easier. It’s been a long time since I had this hard a time getting used to a new iPhone.
More importantly, the iPhone X costs $1,000. In the scheme of things, that’s not so much more expensive than other iPhones, especially if you’re paying in monthly installments. But it’s still a lot to spend on a smartphone! In most functional ways, the iPhone X isn’t life-changingly better than the 8 or 8 Plus. I think the TrueDepth camera could be the start of something special, but you can buy the next model, once there’s more to see on that front.
Way back when, the very first iPhone was a status symbol. I’d approach anyone I knew who used one, and ask them what they thought about it. Now everyone, everywhere, carries the same phone around. The iPhone X is the first iPhone since that one that feels genuinely new and different. Do you need it? No. At least not yet. But it’s seriously cool.