iPhone X Review: Futuristic, Super Premium And… Cheekily Quirky


You can see why Apple went for the ‘X’ name for the flagship 2017 iPhone – it represents a whole new generation of hardware design and is completely worthy of the ‘X’ (or ‘Ten’) moniker, released for the iPhone’s 10th anniversary. This isn’t just rhetoric, either. Having used the iPhone X full time for a number of days, it’s a genuinely jaw-dropping piece of high tech – there’s almost nothing it can’t do and it’s stunningly beautiful as well. With only a couple of caveats along the way, here’s why you might want to dip so deeply into your wallet after all.

Apple iPhone X

Price

The price is arguably the most controversial aspect of the iPhone X, of course. The first mainstream smartphone to be £1000 (here in the UK – in fact, it’s £1150 for the 256GB version!), and so on, topping out a trend of phones getting more and more expensive. Mind you, if a phone is good enough and perfect enough then cost is arguably irrelevant – just make sure you budget for a good case for when you’re out and about, plus insurance in case the worst happens, since the iPhone X is especially expensive to repair.

But then iPhones have always been expensive – you’re paying for all that research and development, you’re paying for the world network of Apple Stores, you’re paying for the simultaneous OS update rollouts, and so on. Plus – usually – the slickest and densest phone hardware designs on the planet. None of that has ever come cheap.

Apple iPhone X

Stunning hardware, ‘full’ display

The iPhone X’s hardware is sleek but ubiquitous until you power the screen on – glass front and back, all corners gently rounded in three dimensions, steel edges, with all buttons and switches where you left them on all previous iPhones. To that extent, this follows the usual formula. But raise the ‘X’ from your desk (or even just tap the screen) and a Samsung-made 5.8″ 1125p AMOLED panel bursts to life. But it’s not the use of AMOLED on an iPhone that surprises, but how the display fills every (curved) corner of the front of the phone. This is the very first smartphone in the world that’s ‘all screen’. It’s immersive, it’s stunning and you get used to it in seconds, consigning everything that went before it as old-fashioned and clunky.

Which again sounds like I’ve become trapped in Apple’s reality distortion field, but it’s absolutely tree. Like others who have tried the iPhone ‘X’, the mix of form factor and high frontal screen real estate felt right from moment one. In this sense, Apple has absolutely nailed the iPhone X size and design.

The fly in the ointment, as it were, is that it’s not all screen – there’s the infamous ‘notch’ up top (or ‘horns’ either side, if you prefer), housing the sophisticated laser face tracking system that replaces the traditional Touch ID fingerprint sensor/button. When the ‘X’ was launched, the notched design was seen as ridiculous and alienating, but… it’s really not. In practice, you get used to the notch and the way status information gets pushed into the horns in minutes. Personally, I’d still have liked Apple to have gone with an enforced black top status bar, effectively hiding the (also black) notch, and maybe this will appear as an option in the future. In the meantime, we have content of all sorts using the ‘horns’ (e.g. in Photos, as you zoom in, parts of your image surround the notch) and the result is quirky but not unpleasant. You have to credit Jony Ive and Apple for trying both approaches (white or black status bar) and then making an informed decision, so let’s run with it for now.

Apple iPhone X

In the short term there are issues (‘Notchgate’ would be putting it too strongly!) while application developers adapt their apps to use the display ‘horns’ properly, but given the zeal in the iOS development community this won’t take very long at all. Games are a bigger issue and over half the titles I tried on the review ‘X’ ended up with massive black bars on all four sides of their central content – ugly and impractical. Yet revisit this topic in a month and I’d bet that well over half of the troublesome games would also now fit in properly on the oddly configured ‘X’. (The figure will never be 100% since the problematic games are several years old and probably not actively developed anymore.)

Real Racing 3
Real Racing 3, one of the biggest games on any platform and…. still not updated for the ‘X’, so black bars either side and the ‘home bar’ on its own down at the bottom. Sigh.
Control Center and a game
Control Center in its new drop-down format and (right) one of the best behaved new games, full using the iPhone X screen – though note that the ‘notch’ doesn’t appear in screenshots. Obviously!

The bigger issue with the lack of traditional ‘home’ button turns out to be some of the UI affectations and I’ll come back to these below.

New for this year’s iPhones is a ‘True Tone’ colour balancing for the displays and this works as well here as on the iPhone 8 range – whatever situation you’ll find yourself in, the colour balance is adjusted in software to make white seem the ‘right’ white – never too harsh, never too warm. I loved this and left everything on full ‘auto’, though I know that real display purists turn this off in the Control Center (shown above, hint: 3D touch the brightness slider). There’s the usual ‘Night Shift’ as well, of course – a lot of cleverness built into something as ‘simple’ as a screen.

With the shift to AMOLED technology, the iPhone now has the same high contrast possibilities that the Samsung Galaxy phones have had for years – so genuinely deep blacks and gorgeous lit colours. The iPhone X display is specified as compliant with both HDR10 and Dolby Vision, the two High Dynamic Range standards in the video world. So, in theory, HDR content from YouTube, Netflix and others can be shown as the video makers intended, though whether your eyes can tell the difference on a phone-sized screen for most content is a moot point.

Apple iPhone X bottom

Down at the bottom of the ‘X’s frame is the usual Lightning charging and syncing connector, though you can see a time coming where Apple will forego this too and only charge wirelessly – maybe the ‘iPhone 11′ or ’12’ will, quite literally be all-glass, all-display? The iPhone X is already IP67 water and dust proof, so less ports would mean greater and greater durability in this regard, though the sheer fragility of all the glass is unavoidable in the case of impacts.

Biometrics

It’s here that things get a little crazy – as mentioned, the iPhone X has, famously, ditched the Touch ID fingerprint sensor, relying on a new laser projection system to identify your face in all light conditions. Each iPhone X can recognise one – and only one – face, unlike the fingerprint system on previous iPhones, where you could have prints from other family member, for example. Though this is mitigated by letting someone else in if they know the passcode (for example a tech-savvy person sorting out an issue on their partner’s phone).

The crazy thing is that Face ID works really, really, REALLY well. Apart from in one particular use case – and the most embarrassing. So you’re showing your partner or a friend the new iPhone X and Face ID. They gather round beside you to see. “Look”, you say, “I just power up the display and bang, I’m in…. oh hang on, it didn’t work. I’ll try again… That’s odd. I’ll put the pass code in!” The issue, as you might guess, is that Face ID works perfectly when there’s only one face to scan – if you’re next to someone (as in demoing it working) then Face ID gets confused and specifically doesn’t work. I’d suggest that Apple puts in a “more than one face detected” message in this use case.

Calibrating Face ID for my face...

But most of the time Face ID is faultless. You pick up the iPhone X and the display powers on automatically (‘Raise to wake’), then it sees your face a split second later and it’s unlocked. Done. You’ll see time, date and notifications and, unlike on Android phones, you’ve still got to swipe upwards before you get to see the phone’s main UI and applications. So it all works well, but I do wonder whether there should be a setting to auto-swipe and unlock straight into whatever you were doing or the main home screen.

There is a setting to ‘Require attention’ – forcing the iPhone X to not unlock until it sees your open eyes as well. I guess the idea here is that if someone’s grabbed your phone and trying to wave it in your face to unlock it then you can stop this by closing your eyes. It’s a moot point because if you’re being accosted (or arrested) then the chances are that you have self-preservation problems other than your phone. But every little helps.

iPhone X camera

iPhone X Camera

On the back, the vertically-mounted dual cameras are prominent, mounted in an island a couple of millimetres proud of the back glass of the phone. They’re covered in a sapphire glass mix and protected by a metal frame – and the island has to be here because of the physics of the large sensor in the main camera and the 2x optics of the zoom camera – in each case, more space is needed than the 8mm thickness of the body of the phone. Personally, I’m a fan of camera islands – they show that functionality has won out over form considerations.

Although the camera hardware isn’t quite the highest specified we’ve ever seen in the phone world, it’s not far off, with a f/1.8 main lens and a f/2.4 2x zoom lens, both with OIS.

Here are some photo samples, see below the web resolution thumbnails for 1:1 crops and detailed comments:

Sample photo
1:1 crop
1:1 crop from an easy sunny photo – good colour balance and detail.
Sample photo
1:1 crop
1:1 crop from a 2x zoomed photo of the same screen – you really can’t beat optical zoom and there’s excellent detail here, shot from a good 50m away!
Sample photo
1:1 crop
1:1 crop from an indoor photo, you can start to see sharpening and other enhancements creeping in, but still good detail.
Sample photo
1:1 crop
1:1 crop in challenging lighting – a dark chapel with light through the window – the iPhone X camera gets blown out here and generally confused by the dynamic range needed. You’d have to manually tap on the window or the other detail and decide which you wanted, I think. Disappointing – I thought the auto-HDR was supposed to handle this sort of scene?
Sample photo
1:1 crop
1:1 crop in wind and rain at night – incredible stabilised detail, all hand-held, of course. An amazing photo in terms of what it has resolved.
Sample photo
1:1 crop
1:1 crop in low light from a zoomed shot – this looks noisy and full of artefacts because the current software still uses the general lens and not the zoomed one when light is very low. Oddly – surely this will be changed in an update. Mind you, this was shot from over 150 metres away and you can still make out the ‘West Cornwall Pasty’ company name on the sign. So the digital zoom isn’t doing too badly.

Away from stills, video is shot at up to 4K/60fps and with high quality (though still mono, sadly) audio. OIS works on both camera lenses for video capture, plus digital stabilisation applied on top – you only see the latter after the video has been saved, but the results are smooth and excellent. Shooting at, say, 1080p, even gives extra zoom possibilities, a genuine 4x when using the 2x lens, and completely stabilised, which is great at events when you can’t get close enough to what you want to film.

Audio

Like the iPhone 8 Plus, the iPhone X has a pair of stereo speakers, almost certainly the same components, though they don’t sound quite as deep and rich because of the smaller form factor, with less bass reflex space inside the phone and with smaller stereo separation. In the wider phone world, of course, they’re still way better than the average, with most phones still settling for a single back or bottom mounted mono effort.

With the full-form display of the ‘X’, the experience watching video media is excellent. By default, applications like YouTube and Netflix use side bars to frame 16:9 content, but a single multi-touch gesture and the video frame is expanded on the ‘X’ cropping off the very top and bottom. And part of the side, since the ‘notch’ is then in the way, but it’s not really an issue – you’re just enjoying your video content larger than before and with the stereo sound complementing the pictures.

iPhone X watching media
iPhone X watching media. 16:9 content is presented with appropriate side black bars
iPhone X watching media
… but with a multi-touch ‘splay’ gesture, all of a sudden it’s filling the screen, notch-aside.

‘Headphone’ audio is just as on everything from the iPhone 7 onwards, with Lightning headphones in the box (outer ear, which I hate – it’s a personal thing), plus a Lightning to 3.5mm dongle if you want to plug in your own favourite traditional headphones. Together with the current impressive range of iPhone-compatible Bluetooth headphones (not least the Air Pods), even I have to lay aside my usual crusade for 3.5mm jacks in all phones and grudgingly admit that there are enough options now for almost everyone. Charging at night and listening with a wired headset remains the use case that I struggle with. What about you?

Interface and OS

99% of the iPhone X’s interface will be familiar to you, of course, this being a… well, an iPhone. But the headline differences are high-profile and forced by the switch from a home button to ‘no buttons at all’ – the iPhone X has extra (and some reassigned) gestures. Swipe up to go back home, swipe up and hold to get the multitasking list, and so on. Interestingly, you can no longer immediately swipe up on app thumbnails to close them – you have to long press (or 3D press) the carousel first. Mind you, as seasoned iOS users will know, only novices swipe away applications – best let the OS manage everything.

Multitasking carousel

Notifications and Control Center swipe down from top left and right corners respectively – which seems intuitive enough, and you’ll be amazed how fast you get used to it.

My biggest issue with the UI changes for the X is that the move to a swipe based system is potentially confusing when the phone is being used in landscape, such as when watching media, web browsing, playing games. In these cases, a lit-up ‘home’ bar is usually used to tell users which edge of the screen is currently ‘bottom’ and where to swipe up from.  It seems a bit of a waste of space in both orientations – you’re typically losing 5% of your screen real estate in each case. Given that users will get the hang of the swipe system in minutes, surely there’s a way to turn this visual cue off, have it implied and regain the space? Ho hum.

Home
My home set-up on the iPhone X. Note, on the right, in Safari, as an example, how the ‘home bar’ at the bottom takes up a good 5% of the vertical real estate. It just seems a bit wasteful…

Slightly mitigating this is that there’s a clever swipe gesture on this home bar to switch between applications, toggling backwards and forwards. But I’d argue that it’s not enough to justify the bar’s existence. Again, Apple, make this a setting, please – if you’re going to make a phone whose front face is all screen then let use it all (notch excepted!)

In addition to the evolution in iOS to version 11, covered in other articles here, the headline addition is ‘animoji’ in iMessage. Effectively this takes predefined cartoon head shapes and maps your real time face movements (scanned by the Face ID projector) onto the character. So you can deliver a voice message to a friend with the animated face of, say, a chicken. Or similar. It’s supposed to be a viral sensation, but like many of the other iMessage content types, will settle down into its own comfortable niche. I’m certainly not the target demographic and if you cringed when you saw Craig Federighi neighing like a horse from the iPhone X launch keynote stage then you’re probably not the target market either!

Processor, Battery, and Charging

Famously, the ‘X’ comes with the same A11 chipset as the 8 and 8 Plus, with 3GB RAM and a M11 co-processor, all adding up to a terrific amount of computing power. We’re talking more raw power than most laptops. In your phone. Explaining why all the headline 3D real-time rendered games work so well.

The ‘X’ has a 2716mAh battery and this seems ample in my tests so far. Teardowns have revealed that the battery is actually two cells in parallel, which should result in better battery longevity since there’s not now just one point of failure in this department.

iPhone X back

The iPhone X ships with Apple’s standard 1A charger plug, which is either Apple penny-pinching or playing ultra-safe in terms of charging speeds and with the recent Galaxy Note 7 debacle in mind. You can use a standard (e.g. iPad) 2A charging lead/plug though, and you can even procure a USB Type C to Lightning adapter cable and then use a 3A ‘Power Delivery’ charger, such as comes with a number of Android smartphones these days.

It’s really up to you, but hopefully you won’t need to do fast emergency charges since the iPhone X, like the 8 and 8 Plus, also supports Qi wireless charging, so there’s no reason why it can’t be topped up a number of times during the day by simply putting it down in the right place.

Verdict

The iPhone X is an incredible – and beautiful – piece of technology. So much engineering expertise in something so relatively small and dense. Super camera, super clear screen, decent speakers, super-fast processor, lightning quick face scanning, and so on. Money no object, this is the iPhone to buy, obviously.

Now, the iPhone X has to sell into a market of iPhone and iOS fans that’s already completely saturated with iPhone 6’s, 7’s and 8’s, along with Plus models, along with the terrific little iPhone SE. When their existing iPhone does ostensibly the same job, running the same apps, do they really need to sell their first born for an ‘X’? You’d have thought the answer would be ‘No’, but once an existing iPhone user has seen and held an iPhone X then techno-lust will creep in, I promise – it really is a fresh, space-efficient take on the smartphone and a step improvement from the last nine years of iPhone in most areas.

iPhone X front
Like this post? Share it!