By Jason Snell
October 31, 2017 3:00 AM PT
iPhone X: Tomorrow’s iPhone today
This year, ten years and change after the introduction of the original iPhone, Apple decided to release two separate iPhone models. The iPhone 8 is the latest iteration on the original, offering improvements while maintaining the conventions that have been part of the iPhone since its conception.
But the iPhone X isn’t just another iteration. It’s the biggest change to the fundamentals of the iPhone in years, possibly ever. It’s got a display unlike anything Apple’s shipped in any iPhone or iPad, with high resolution and OLED quality, spanning more of the phone’s front surface than ever before. It’s got advanced sensors for an entirely new form of biometric authentication. And perhaps most fundamentally, it’s got no home button.
Since the very first iPhone, the home button has been a major part of the iPhone’s identity. Yes, it was the ultimate get-out-of-jail-free card for an audience unused to dealing with multi-touch devices. But it was also part of the identity of the iPhone—a circle that hearkened back to the iPod click wheel. How do you draw an iPhone? A rounded rectangle with a tall rectangle inside, and a small circular button below the tall rectangle. Over a decade of evolving technology and design language, that basic set of shapes has unmistakably represented the iPhone.
iPhone X throws that out the window. It’s all for a good cause: The iPhone X is as close as Apple has come yet to the ultimate form of a smartphone: a glass slab made entirely of touchscreen. We’re also ten years into the smartphone revolution, and Apple’s betting that we no longer need that physical get-out-of-jail button to navigate around on our phones. But for everyone who has ever used an iPhone, and especially if you’ve been using one for several hours a day, every day, for ten years, the iPhone X will be an adjustment.
Almost all screen, but shiny at the edges
But before we get to the new language the iPhone X demands that your fingers speak, let’s consider the hardware itself. The nearly featureless front of the phone is dominated by a 2436-by-1125 OLED “super Retina” display with a resolution of 458ppi. The screen has the highest pixel density of any Apple display to date, making every single interface element impossibly smooth and clear. The OLED display offers black levels that other iPhones, with their backlit LCD screens, can’t match.
I watched ten minutes of “Wonder Woman” on both the iPhone X and the iPhone 8, and the differences were stark. On the iPhone X, black elements are truly black, not a backlit gray. Bright elements still shine. And yet the colors on the display appear to my (somewhat color-deficient) eyes to be accurate, not cranked up like a screen you’d find in a TV showroom. I didn’t notice any color-shifting effects when viewing the phone from off-axis angles.
The quality of the screen is half the story, but the fact that it fills (most of) the face of the phone is the other half. When I pick up the phone, as a longtime iPhone user, I am taken aback by how there is screen extending all the way to the top and bottom of the device, as well as perilously close to the sides. The curves at the edge of the screen that match the phone’s curves—yes, the screen edges are rounded, so it’s not a perfect rectangle—heighten the effect.
Of course, there’s one large area on the face of the screen that’s not part of the display. It’s packed with cameras and infrared sensors in order to enable Face ID and selfie photography, and it has the net result of carving out a little curved notch at the top of the screen. Apple is leaning into the notch shape, using it (instead of that home button) in its simplified drawings of the iPhone X. I haven’t found the notch to be a blight on the phone, by any means—in some ways, having those Batman ears poke out of the top of the screen around the notch sends the signal that the screen simply can’t be contained, that Apple would rather cover every possible area with screen. (The status bar, once a single unit, is now split across both sides of the notch, in greatly truncated form.)
I have no doubt that Apple would prefer the notch to be utterly invisible, and maybe one day it will be. So far it doesn’t particularly bother me, though it will cause pain for third-party app developers who have to figure out how to adapt their interfaces around the notch (and the curved edges) of this screen.
A style change in the design of the iPhone X is the abandonment of the white front bezel. Past iPhone models offered either white or black bezels, depending on the color of the rest of the phone. (For example, the silver iPhone 8 has a white back and white bezel.) On the iPhone X, the front bezel (such as it is) is always black, and this is the right decision. The black bezel blends in perfectly with the screen when the display is off, creating a nearly featureless glass slab.
While I ordered a Space Gray model for myself, I have to admit that the silver iPhone X looks much better than I expected. The stainless steel frame is extremely shiny, and the white rear glass panel almost sparkles with its glossy coating. The steel frame on the black model1 is specially treated to match the glossiness of the back panel, so that the device appears uniformly shiny and black on all sides.
In my hand, the iPhone X feels very much like the iPhone 8—the glass makes it much easier to grip than the iPhone 6 or 7. This phone is a little bit wider than the 8 (3.5 mm, or .14 inch), and after a day I can already tell that I’m going to need to retrain some muscle memory and readjust my grip. Still, as someone who found the iPhone Plus design simply too wide for my hands (the Plus is 7.2 mm wider than the iPhone X), this phone feels comfortable.
If there’s an ergonomic issue I’m going to have with the iPhone X, it’s the height of the device, not its width. Holding my iPhone 8 in one hand, I can barely reach my thumb up to the top of the screen. But not only is the iPhone X 5mm taller, but the screen extends almost all the way to the top. I can’t keep the bottom of the iPhone X braced with my pinky and use my thumb to tap items high up in the interface. I suppose over time I will either change how I hold the phone in my hand, get used to shimmying my hand up the phone to reach the top, or get used to not one-handing my iPhone as often as I currently do.
Apple obviously realizes that reaching the top of the large screen might be an issue, so it has rethought its Reachability feature—which scrolls the entire phone interface downward so that the hard-to-reach stuff at the top comes into touch range—for the iPhone X. When Reachability is turned on (it’s in the Accessibility submenu of the Settings app), you can swipe down at the very bottom of the screen to bring the interface closer to you. I never ended up using Reachability on my previous iPhones and I’m skeptical if I will find it an acceptable workaround this time, but I’ve turned it on for now.
A new language to learn
With the home button gone, Apple has had to revisit numerous gestural conventions that had been built up over the last decade. The home button let you verify your identity biometrically (via Touch ID), go to the home screen (via a single button press), kick off multitasking (two button presses), open Apple Pay (two button presses at the lock screen), take a screen shot (home button plus lock button), and activate Siri (hold the button down). On the iPhone X, all of those tasks have been relocated, causing a cascade of new gestures on the screen and new clicks on the three remaining buttons (volume up and down and sleep/wake).
The most important of them all is the gesture for taking you to the home screen (or exiting the lock screen, if your phone was locked). On the iPhone X, it’s a swipe up from the very bottom of the screen. Since there’s no longer a button for people to push, Apple has chosen to place a bright bar at the bottom center of the screen, indicating that this is the place you swipe up to go to the home screen. (The bar is there most of the time, though it disappears during movie playback and fades down in opacity in some apps, including games.)
Everyone is different, but swiping up from the bottom of the screen strikes me as being pretty much as natural a move as pushing the home button. The target for both gestures is in more or less the same location on the device, and if I’m unlocking my device, the swipe requires a lot less precision because I don’t need to provide my thumbprint to Touch ID. Less than a day in and I’m already used to it.
The beat goes on. With that gesture taken, the gesture to display Control Center has been relocated to the top right corner of the screen. It’s a more out-of-the-way place, and I can’t reach it with my thumb, which is unfortunate. Adding the flashlight and camera icons back to the lock screen (you activate them with a 3D Touch) is nice, but I use Control Center a lot, and it’s now in a less convenient space. (The top left and top center are still the home for Notification Center.)
Multitasking gestures have been updated, too. To bring up the app switcher, swipe up and hold your finger on the center of the screen for a few seconds. To switch quickly between apps, swipe left or right across the very bottom of the screen, where the bright bar lives.
There’s more. Siri is still a press-and-hold action, but it’s now on the side (sleep/wake) button. Likewise, Apple Pay’s double-tap gesture still applies, but you now do it to the side button. Taking a screen shot now requires that you press the volume up button and the side button simultaneously. To force the phone to shut down, you press and hold the side button and either one of the volume buttons. To force a reboot of a hopelessly stuck phone, you now need to do the iPhone X version of control-alt-delete — pressing the volume up button, followed by the volume down button, followed by a press-and-hold on the side button.
The existence of the swiping area at the bottom of the screen takes some getting used to, and will require app developers to adjust. Apps need to leave that area free, because the system-wide swiping gestures take priority.
Among the interface elements that’s avoiding that area is the software keyboard. It’s positioned quite a ways up from the bottom of the screen. If I had to guess, Apple did some ergonomic tests and discovered that you can’t hold a phone and thumb type on a keyboard that’s all the way at the bottom of that device. (It would certainly be awkward, but all that empty screen space below the keyboard also feels weird.) At least Apple uses some of the empty space below for dedicated buttons to switch keyboards and trigger voice dictation. With those items moved out of the software keyboard proper, other keys get to take up a little more space.
I’m going to miss the home button. It was comfortable and friendly and, in 2007, quite necessary. But in 2017, I think it’s time to move on. When we already swipe endlessly on our devices, why should button mashing be necessary for certain tasks?
Face ID blends into the background
Touch ID, what can I say? You and my fingerprints had a good run. Four solid years. But the iPhone X kicks Touch ID to the curb for the new Face ID system, which uses an infrared camera, two infrared projectors, and a whole lot of image processing and machine learning to scan your face and unlock your phone.
The premise here is pretty awesome: Imagine picking up your phone, looking at the screen while you flick up with your thumb, and… your phone just unlocks. A natural set of gestures that doesn’t require you to scan a fingerprint. If your phone recognizes you, it opens, and it’s as simple as that.
I’ve only unlocked the iPhone X a couple of dozen times so far, but I can report that it seems to work just as advertised. If my phone is laying flat on a table starting up at the ceiling, it won’t unlock unless I lean over it. But in my hand? I guess I have to invoke that phrase: It just works. You don’t even need to wait to see the phone unlock before swiping up—if you swipe up and Face ID isn’t done processing, it will pause until the unlock is complete and then honor your swipe.
The sensor is fast. I lift my phone, swipe my thumb, and wait somewhere between zero and a fraction of a second for the phone to open. It works in the dark (thanks to that infrared illuminator). I haven’t had a failure yet, which gives me hope that this will be a more reliable unlocking method than Touch ID, which frequently failed if my fingers had been in contact with water recently. I unlocked my phone while wearing two different sets of glasses and with no glasses at all. Apple says that certain sunglasses may defeat Face ID—it all depends on if they have a coating that blocks infrared light in the 940 nanometer range, so you’ll need to test your sunglasses2 to be sure that they work.
A feature called “attention awareness” is a part of Face ID by default. The premise behind this feature is that someone shouldn’t be able to unlock your phone by waving it in your general direction without you looking directly at the phone. When this feature is on, the phone won’t unlock when it sees you—it needs to see you looking at it. The moment your eyes shift, the phone unlocks. It’s uncanny. (Some people, in particular those with certain disabilities, may need to disable this feature, which Apple does allow you to do.)
I also found training Face ID to be easier than training Touch ID. To train Face ID, you center your face in a circular target3 and are prompted to pivot your head in a circular motion as the circular target fills in with color and the iPhone plays a sound effect just to make it seem cooler. After two of these pivot sessions, Face ID has enough data to recognize you.
I’m sure that in the coming days we’ll learn a lot more about Face ID, once it’s been unleashed on a wider universe of faces. We’ll hear wacky stories of friends and relatives who can unlock one another’s phones. We may find out about particular brands of sunglasses that are Face ID unfriendly. There may be weird cases where the feature breaks down. I am just a single person with a single face, but I can report that this is a feature that works as advertised for me—so smoothly that I can basically forget about it and just open my phone with the confidence that it will unlock automatically because I’m looking at it.
What does the fox emoji say?
It’s a little bit silly to review a $1000 phone and spend a lot of time on animated emojis. And yet I have to give Apple credit for taking its investment in all that face-detection hardware and software and spinning it into a frivolous, fun feature that will get people talking and make people who don’t have an iPhone X envious.
Animoji is an app inside Messages that lets you record video messages where your facial expressions are applied, in real time, to an animated creature based on an emoji symbol. There are 12 emoji characters supported, and yes, that includes the smiling-pile-of-poo emoji. You can record video messages as an Animoji character and send them to your friends, or drag out stickers based on an Animoji pose.
This sort of thing isn’t new—when I showed this feature to my son, he mentioned that there are video games that will use your computer’s webcam to mirror the player’s expression. I have no doubt that Apple’s face-detection pipeline is more technically impressive than some random PC game. The iPhone X really does provide the power to turn anyone into a motion-capture actor, an Andy Serkis of emoji. It’s novel and funny. If it’s anything, it’s a triumph of whoever animated these characters. The animations are varied and some of them are surprisingly expressive. Mapping human facial movements to the movements of, say, the ears of the fox emoji—that’s not easy stuff, and it’s incredibly well done.
Like the iPhone 8, except when it’s not
Since this is an unusual year in which Apple’s releasing two different families of iPhone models, it’s worth going over where the iPhone X is the same as the iPhone 8, and where it’s different. Both phones are driven by the same A11 Bionic processor running at the same speeds, though the iPhone X takes more advantage of the Neural Engine subprocessor because of all the facial-recognition calculations going on with Face ID and Animoji. Both the iPhone 8 Plus and iPhone X have two rear cameras that can shoot images with portrait effects, including the new Portrait Lighting feature.
The iPhone X camera is slightly more advanced than the one on the iPhone 8 Plus, most specifically its telephoto camera module: It’s got a wider aperture (ƒ/2.4 versus ƒ/2.8 on the iPhone 8 Plus), and it’s got built-in optical image stabilization, which is only available on the wide-angle camera on the iPhone 8 Plus. And of course, the iPhone X can also shoot portrait images via its front-facing selfie camera, thanks to all the same depth-sensing technology that lets it run Face ID.
As I mentioned above, I’ve resisted the siren song of the iPhone Plus models for years because they’re just too big to fit in my hand. The iPhone X brings the power of those cameras to those of us who prefer the smaller phone size for the very first time, and I’m excited by the prospect of having a dual-camera phone in my pocket every day.
It’s worth noting that the iPhone X is not what it was once assumed by some to be: this is not an iPhone 8 Plus crammed into the body of an iPhone 8. The iPhone Plus can fit more data on its screen, and more apps (including the home screen) will optionally display in landscape mode on the iPhone Plus. It’s better to think of the iPhone X as having a slightly wider and quite a bit longer display. iPhone Plus users won’t lose their cameras if they make the move to the iPhone X, but they’ll probably feel a little bit cramped.
One other interesting note: This is the first iPhone to support magnetic cases. Apple is, of course, selling a $100 folio case of its own that takes advantage of the built-in sensor to put the phone to sleep when the folio’s cover is closed, and wake it up when the cover is opened. I suspect there will be many alternatives, too. I’ve never wanted a folio case for my iPhone, but I know some people who swear by them, and this will make them happy.
As you might expect with a device that’s full of new technology, some aspects of the iPhone X are still works in progress. Most importantly, app developers need to adjust their apps to take advantage of the iPhone X screen. (If an app isn’t updated for iPhone X, it will appear with black bars at the top and bottom of the screen. It’s not a great look.) The existence of the notch at the top and the gesture area at the bottom (not to mention the rounded edges!) complicates matters, doubly so if the app also runs in landscape mode. There will be a period of adjustment while app developers figure out how to adapt to a very different display than they’ve had on an iOS device before.
I’m also curious to see what new apps will be built to take advantage of the depth-sensing features of the front-facing camera on the iPhone X. At Apple’s September media event, Apple previewed a version of Snapchat that used the ARKit framework to dynamically place masks and other objects on someone’s face in real time, complete with lighting sources.
Tomorrow’s iPhone today
The iPhone X is loaded with new technology. Face ID doesn’t make the act of unlocking your phone easier so much as it makes it irrelevant—it just happens in the natural motion of picking up your phone and swiping. The display offers high resolution and high dynamic range never before seen in an iPhone. The cameras are the best yet on any iPhone, and yes, one of them will let you send animated movies of your voice accompanied by a perfectly synced cartoon character.
Starting at $999, the iPhone X is at the very high end of the smartphone world. It is most definitely a cutting-edge phone, packed with cutting-edge technology, available to those who want to taste the future and are willing to pay for the privilege. A decade in, this product reveals Apple’s redefinition of what the iPhone (and iOS) should be. It’s not hard to imagine that in the next few years, Face ID and OLED displays and more advanced machine-learning-based features will spread their way across all of Apple’s products. This is where it all starts.
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