iPhone X

Proper implementation trumps mindless use of technology.

It has been close to two weeks since I have had my new silver iPhone X with me. Although I had placed an order on launch day it arrived a fortnight later and at a particularly interesting time: I was attending a three-day conference so I decided to really test the X out using it to take notes down, leaving my MacBook back in my car. It worked pretty well[^ I did end up taking down longer notes with my MacBook simply because of the ease of typing and not because of any shortcoming of iPhone X.] and a week later I have almost nothing bad to say about this device. In one word, this is a marvellous piece of technology.

Let us get one little thing out of the way: ‘X’ is a great name. I’m almost certain Samsung will release a phone that they will call the Galaxy X next year–of course this will be complete coincidence[^ I think it is a rather cheap thing to call your device the same name as your competitor’s, even if it is not strictly illegal.]. Also a coincidence is the mysterious reason why everyone skips version 9. Perhaps there will be an iPhone 9 next year to continue (and end) the 6, 7, 8 (and their S versions) hardware design?

Initial impressions

Android fans will argue that nothing on iPhone X is new and they are right. But Apple has never been about constantly inventing things. Of course they will, once in a while, come up with something new, but what drives Apple—and what makes me and so many others fond of Apple products—is that when they do implement something into their devices they almost always do it flawlessly. And that is what iPhone X is all about; not all-new technology, but technology done right, technology implemented with human users in mind, not technology for the sake of it.

iPhone X in silver with 64GB storage

The attention to detail is characteristic of Apple: the silver iPhone X comes in a different box compared to the space grey; the stainless steel bezels are of a different colour on the two models; the buttons match the bezel as do the screws and even the tiny grille inside the speakers are coloured differently for the two different models. The packaging was also typically Apple, a wholesome experience all by itself. Apple made an interesting choice this time round that made me the silver my choice rather than my usual space grey/black. I have always held that white tech is futuristic but a black bezel was more important. Until iPhone X all white iPhone models had white bezels but with iPhone X the company built a phone with a black front but a white back. Couple this with the glass and stainless steel and the phone looks and feels both premium and futuristic—more so than I ever expected.

Little things count

I was a little apprehensive about Face ID at first but took a leap of faith. Now that it is in my hand, and now that I have used it, I prefer it to Touch ID. While Touch ID is undoubtedly about 0.5s faster, Face ID is better in every other way. When I bought my first Apple device—a 2012 MacBook Air—I described my experience as one with ‘thoughtfully’ designed technology; I think it is no small feat that, five years later, Apple has managed to keep that tag for itself: iPhone X is designed thoughtfully and has a human interface that puts user experience and human interactions first and rightly uses technology to drive things in the background. Once again, this is technology implemented right, not technology for the sake of technology.

Update It has been a month now and Face ID has steadily improved to a point where I have had zero failures or delays over the last two weeks and my iPhone scans my face (including attention) from really oblique angles and in complete darkness too.

With Face ID you reduce certain interactions with your phone. At first this can seem like a small thing but it is not: the fact that you never touch your phone to unlock it[^ Unlock to view notifications as opposed to going to the home screen.] (besides holding it, of course), and that you never touch your phone to approve purchases or password entries, means whenever you do touch your phone there is an intention to it. Intentional interaction with technology is important and Face ID is a great step towards enabling it.

Face ID also does subtle things that might not look like much on paper but which make a huge impact in everyday use. Look at your phone when a call comes in, for example, and the ringtone softens; notifications on your lock screen are now for your eyes only, so they only show when you are looking at your phone, not when someone else is; and attention detection means your phone stays on so long as you are looking at it (say, reading something without actually touching the screen) even if it has stayed awake longer than your preset screen-on time[^ My old Galaxy Note 3 had similar features that Samsung called ‘Smart stay’ and ‘Smart scroll’, neither of which worked reliably.].

Bigger things count too

The battery life on iPhone X is great. It lasts a regular day with fair use consuming less than 50% of my battery. On a rougher day, such as during the conference I used it for, with note-taking[^ I used the excellent Bear app rather than Apple Notes for one reason only: Bear has a full screen writing mode on OS X and Notes does not.], photography etc. I had about 40% by nightfall.

The glass back means the phone is a lot less slippery than the 6/7/8 but it also means the X is considerably more expensive to rectify if the back cracks so a fall is unaffordable. So, for the first time ever, I ended up buying a case for my phone. I still use it without a case at home but usually slap my black Apple leather case on the X when I plan to go out. I have not yet tried wireless charging and I am not all that eager to because I sometimes use my phone while it is charging and wireless charging is pointless for that.

The speakers are markedly louder than those on my old iPhone 7, the power button is larger too—a good thing—because it does a lot of the work the home button used to, like calling Siri, approving Apple pay and so on. A lot of the design changes in iOS 11 too make more sense on iPhone X than on older models.

My first iPhone was a 6 Plus, coming from the Note 3, whose size was my primary reason to give iOS a try. I had said as much in my review a few years ago. Of course I ended up liking iOS and the Apple ecosystem enough to move to an iPhone 6S the following year, ironically stepping down in size because the Plus models—with they bezels and all—felt too clunky. Back then I had commented that perfection would be a phone with a screen the size of that on a 6 Plus but in the body of a 6S. And that is precisely what iPhone X is, a phone that is as handy as the 6/7/8 but welding a screen larger than their Plus counterparts.

Update #2 I think it speaks a lot about the capabilities of the X that the new podcast we started over at Physics Capsule was recorded entirely with it. I decided to crank things up so composed music for the second episode, edited the entire episode and did everything required, from recording till finalising, on my iPhone X and it sailed smoothly.

Frequently asked questions

The notch at the top of the screen does not bother me at all in real world use; in fact the notch gives iPhone X its characteristic look and I will be sorry to see it go when it is removed—and that day will come. Going back to my iPhone 7 now feels like I am peeking through a window, though. I will say nothing of the speed, fluidity and so on because all new iPhones have that—they would not even be on the market if they were not better than their predecessors by such metrics. As for animoji, I never thought I would use them but I must admit they are fun once in a while—if I remember they exist—but they were likely meant as a key example, if anything, of what face recognition on iPhone can potentially do.

The other big change with iPhone X is on the software side: gestures. As a fan of gestures rather than clicks—the latter feels unnatural while the former feels more like an extension of humans—there are no complaints on my part. The only gesture that takes time to get used to is the swipe down to open control centre. Thanks to muscle memory I sometimes close apps instead because the old pull up gesture for control centre now closes and throws apps back to the home screen.

Ludwig Gladstone/iPhone X Portrait mode

This is my first phone with two lenses (iPhone 7 has just one) and with optical image stabilisation on both. Portrait mode is great when it works; it is a clever use of parallax from two lenses and seeing as a lot can be done on the software side, including perhaps better depth analysis, I hope Apple opens it up to third-party apps[^ Has this been done already?]. Halide comes with depth measurements although I am not completely sure what it can do with it after the fact. I would especially like to be able to tweak depth maps to achieve better bokeh because the X misses intricate details like fur on animals.

iPhone X is supposed to be the future of Apple’s smartphone plans and it does give some broad indications as to where Apple is headed: minimal interaction, gestures, and smart learning and automation built into the neural engine on the phone. Privacy consciousness is what makes Apple so appealing; that and functionality and reliability. With iPhone X comes the same guarantee that comes with all Apple devices for me: when I want something I can get it done and when I need something there is peace of mind that iPhone X will not let you down. Technology built with purpose rather than for show; and tech you do not mind waiting an extra year for because you know when it is implemented it will be done right and it will do right by you. This indeed is how the future of technology must be.