Apple’s iPhone X is chock-full of new technologies and features, and it has a modern, elegant design that I feel will stand the test of time. But it is also more expensive than any other mainstream smartphone. And it has a few bad design choices that may limit its appeal.
The iPhone X design is controversial but no less iconic than that of the design that first debuted with the iPhone 4. It has an ageless quality and is as much a work of art as it is a carefully-crafted tool.
You can see this instantly when you view the iPhone X next to its dated-looking siblings, the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus. There is no comparison. The very existence of the iPhone X makes older iPhone designs look pedestrian and old-fashioned. You see the future in this design.
Granted, other smartphone makers delivered what is now correctly viewed as the standard for modern flagships—tall, 18:9-ish displays with tiny bezels—well before Apple did with the iPhone X.
And some smartphones even offer more technically impressive designs. Samsung’s flagships offer displays that gracefully curve around the edges of the device, creating a truly bezel-less effect. And few phones stick an ungainly notch into the top of the display, ruining the infinity pool effect.
The notch is a problem. We must discuss the notch.
The notch is the wrong decision, and it’s one that Apple, and iPhone users, will now need to deal with for years. And it is the wrong decision on a number of levels.
From a looks perspective, the notch is an unnecessary, jarring interruption of an otherwise beautiful looking visual design. There is an elegance to the curves of the display and the surrounding frame, which match each other perfectly … except for that notch. It’s an affront. An intrusion. And despite assurances from some others I know who own the iPhone X—opinions differ on this one, apparently—you never really do get used to it. It’s like a mote in your eye, always in the way.
Apple should have done what Samsung did with its 2017 flagships, what OnePlus did with the 5T, and what virtually all other smartphone makers will do when they adopt this more design in other devices: Just put a bit of bezel at the top of the device. There is no need to intrude into the display.
But design is about more than just looks. Design also encompasses how a thing works. And notch or not, Apple needed some space at the top of the device to house the optical elements that were required for the iPhone X’s terrible Face ID technology.
And Face ID is terrible by any meaningful metric. I’ll get into this more in the Security section of this review. But the short version is that this design is an unnecessary compromise and inconvenience. A rear-mounted fingerprint reader would have been hugely preferable. This is the iPhone X’s version of the missing headphone jack: A mistake disguised as courage.
The other design elements are generally well-considered, though the all-glass build—the rear of the device is glass, too—should trigger durability concerns. (Not to mention the cost of replacement: iPhone X repairs are very expensive.) And even among iPhones, which have always been as slippery as a wet bar of soap, the iPhone X is notably slippery. But the combination of materials—that glass, plus steel for the curved side bands and buttons—is at least elegant.
Put simply, the iPhone X is beautiful but flawed, a problem common to many Apple products. Some will choose it for its looks, and that is a decision I understand completely. The build quality and materials are both beyond reproach. It’s a lust-worthy device, and one that its owners will cradle and appreciate over time. It’s a shame that it needs to be protected with a case. Which it does, given its slippery and non-durable all-glass design.
Navigation and gestures
Thanks to the unique new design of the iPhone X—it’s the first iPhone to not include a physical Home button—Apple has had to rethink some basic navigation functionality. Its solution is surprisingly well-done, and the iPhone X utilizes several easy-to-learn gestures for navigating around the user interface.
Indeed, assuming you’ve ever used a modern, touch-based smartphone—which is likely, since it’s 2017—these new gestures are almost intuitive.
Here’s a quick rundown.
First, you swipe up from the bottom of the screen to go home. This makes sense: The iPhone Home button was always located below the screen, so one’s thumb naturally moves to that position anyway. And Apple neatly highlights the possibility of something happening there by drawing a virtual home “line,” for lack of a better term, at the bottom of all non-Home screen displays (like, in apps).
You can also swipe down on the bottom of the screen. That may seem odd at first, but it makes sense: You do so to access iOS’s Reachability feature, which slides the on-screen display down so that you can access home icons or other on-screen elements that are normally on the top half of the screen more easily with one hand. Smart.
Accessing and using the App Switcher is, perhaps, the only non-discoverable set of new gestures, based on the confusion I’ve seen from everyone who has tried my iPhone X. (They have routinely asked, “so… how do I close apps? or similar.) To display the App Switcher, you swipe up from the bottom of the screen and hold. Then, you swipe left and right, as expected, to find the app you want. But how you close an app is unclear: As it turns out, you have to press and hold on an app tile in this view; when you do, little red “close” buttons appear on each app.
To access Control Center, you now swipe down from the top right of the screen. This is, of course, different from all other iOS-based devices, where you swipe up from the bottom of the screen to access this interface. But it’s easily learned.
To access notifications, you swipe down from the top left of the screen. And in most screens, you can swipe in from the left of the screen to go back. This is handier than reaching for the “back to the previous” link that often appears in the top left of the screen, but it also works inside of apps, too, so it’s nearly universal. (From the left-most home screen, you reach the Today view and its widgets when you swipe left, as before.)
In addition to these gestures, the iPhone X supports a wide variety of shortcuts that are based on button presses or even button combinations. These are generally less obvious than the gestures, though some carry forward from previous iOS versions. Whatever: They are good to know about.
You can press and hold on the Power button to invoke Siri, double-press the Power button to invoke Apple Pay, and even triple-press (!) this button to trigger some kind of Accessibility shortcut. (I never did get that to work, and the difficulty of doing so is kind of alarming given its purpose.)
The screenshot shortcut has changed because there’s no Home button: Now you press Power + Volume Up instead. There’s also an “SOS” shortcut: Press and hold the Power button and either Volume button; when you do, the Emergency SOS screen appears so you can call 911 or the local equivalent.
The iPhone X is the first iPhone to utilize an OLED display, a superior display technology that is common in the Android world. (That said, Apple got unusually solid performance out of standard LED displays for longer than should have been possible.) And it does not disappoint: As with other OLED displays, it provides inky-deep blacks, wide viewing angles, and bright, gorgeous colors. It’s basically perfect, which is what I’ve come to expect from Apple displays.
It also works well outside: Unlike my Pixel 2 XL, whose substandard OLED display fades so badly as to be almost unusable in the sunlight, the iPhone X display holds up quite well.
Helping matters, the iPhone X display is also the first in an iPhone to truly warrant the term “Retina,” though Apple marketing calls the 2436 x 1125 resolution display “Super Retina HD” in a burst of hyperbole. But it’s not just the resolution: The iPhone X display features HDR capabilities plus Apple’s excellent True Tone technologies, which subtly and dynamically color the display to match the light in your surroundings. This is the best implementation of this kind of thing I’ve ever seen—it debuted on the iPad Pro—and it makes reading, especially, delightful no matter where you are at the time.
The iPhone X display is listed as 5.8 inches on the diagonal, which makes it seem “bigger” than that of the iPhone 8 Plus, which sports a 5.5-inch display, on paper. But that’s an illusion: Thanks to its tall aspect ratio, the iPhone X display, like the iPhone X itself, is, in fact, smaller overall than that of the Plus-sized iPhones. In fact, this device is closer in size to that of the non-Plus iPhone 8. The difference is that the face of the device is mostly (not “all,” as Apple claims) occupied by the display.
Regarding the size, the iPhone X will be a nice step up for normal iPhone users, I think. But it is a bit small, overall, if you are used to the iPhone Plus or other phablet-sized phones, as I am. I feel that the elegance of the design and the superiority of the display somewhat makes up for this, however.
Speaking of which, while tall aspect ratio smartphones feature curved display corners, none are as elegant as those on the iPhone X. I previously noted that the corners of the OnePlus 5T display look more elegant than those on the Google Pixel 2 XL that I normally use. But the iPhone X display, which is, in effect, a rounded rectangle of perfect dimensions, outdoes them both. The way that the display corners map exactly to the curved corners of the device itself is a miracle of engineering and art. Everything looks perfect.
Even the curve of the notch that intrudes into the top of the display is well done though, again, I find it distracting. But the ultimate effect here is that the display you see is the entirety of the display; with the Pixel 2 XL, it seems like Google has basically covered the sharp-cornered display that you know is there with curved tape to make it look curved. Where the Pixel 2 XL is crude and artificial, the iPhone X is not.
Hardware and specs
With only a few exceptions, the iPhone X features the same innards as the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus: A 64-bit Apple A11 “Bionic” chipset, which includes embedded M11 motion and neural (on-device AI) coprocessors, 64 GB or 256 GB of non-expandable storage, dual 12 MP rear cameras (one wide-angle, one telephoto) with 2x optical zoom, and a single 7 MP selfie camera. (I examine the cameras in the next section.)
Like the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus, the iPhone X also supports wireless charging. (This is one reason for the all-glass design.) But Apple doesn’t yet sell its own wireless charger for some reason, and I long ago dumped all my Lumia wireless gear. So I’ve not yet tested this functionality or, for that matter, fast charging, which requires a crazy-expensive combination of Apple peripherals (a USB-C charger and a USB-C-to-Lightning cable; total cost is $75-ish).
Maybe I should consider doing so, given the battery life. The iPhone X includes a small-ish 2716 mAh battery, meaning that is more on par with the non-Plus iPhone 8 (which is 2691 mAh) than with a typical phablet, like the Google Pixel 2 XL (3520 mAh). Apple claims that this device will last up to 2 hours longer than the iPhone 7 (which is a curious measurement). But since I wasn’t able to test this formally, I turned to the experts at Tom’s Guide, who were not impressed with what they found.
According to that publication, iPhone X battery life (10:49) falls between that of the iPhone 8 Plus (11:16) and iPhone 8 (9:54). But it falls well short of my Pixel 2 XL, which delivers 12:09 of battery life. Samsung’s flagships also outperform the iPhone X. Keep a portable charger handy.
Performance has been excellent—flawless, really—in all cases, with the exception of Face ID, which bogs down what should be a quick sign-in each time you want to use the device. (More on that below.) The iPhone X, like all iOS devices, should not succumb to the performance rot that is common with Android phones, though recent reports about Apple slowing devices over time to account for battery capacity loss are a bit troubling.
Cameras and photography
Before diving into the cameras, it is worth understanding the subtle differences between their implementation in the iPhone X and the iPhone 8/8 Plus. After all, camera capabilities are a main selling point for flagship smartphones, and for iPhones in particular. And Apple always holds aside the best camera features for its most expensive iPhone.
It has does so again this year: The iPhone X rear camera system sports dual optical image stabilization, where the iPhone 8 Plus only offers OIS on the wide-angle lens. That’s important, and while I don’t have an iPhone 8 Plus to test against, that difference alone would be enough for me to upgrade to iPhone X. The front selfie cameras are identical, with a 7 MP sensor, but the iPhone X also features TrueDepth capabilities for Face ID sign-ins and a new feature called Portrait Lighting that I discuss below.
Apple’s use of facial recognition is inarguably the most controversial aspect of the iPhone X. It is also, I think, the iPhone X’s Achilles Heel.
Yes, Face ID works as good, if not better than, any facial recognition system I’ve used. But it’s not particularly fast or convenient when you factor in the time and effort it takes to actually sign-in: You also need to swipe up on the screen in order to actually access the home screen or whatever app you were previously using. It’s tedious.
Worse, it’s time-consuming: Face ID is not nearly as fast as using the Touch ID fingerprint sensor that Apple placed on previous iPhones. And in denying users that option—it could have, and should have, simply put Touch ID on the back of the iPhone X—it has created an all or nothing dilemma for customers. Face ID is easily the worst thing about the iPhone X. Easily.
And you will need to use Face ID. To sign-in to your device, over and over again. To use Apple Pay. To approve purchases in the Store. Until of course, you can’t: For reasons I can’t quite explain, I’ve had to type in my Apple ID password—my freaking password, in 2017—more on the iPhone X than I have in years. (And sometimes my PIN.) It’s inscrutable.
God, I miss Touch ID. Apple had created the industry’s best fingerprint reader and then just removed it from its best-ever iPhone instead of making it available as an option. As always, Apple knows best. And its users suffer as a result.
I’ve seen a lot of complaining about iOS 11, but I’ve always found it to work reliably and with great performance. And, as noted, the new iPhone X gestures in iOS 11 are easily learned. Overall, I appreciate the clean, crap-free system.
That said, I have long-standing issues with the iOS user experience, which is far less configurable and less easily personalized than that of Android. You cannot place icons anywhere you want on the home screen, for example; instead, they must fill in from the top left. Always. Because Apple.
And iOS lacks an All Apps interface, meaning that the icon for every single app you have installed on the device must appear somewhere, on some home screen. Apple’s only concession to this lack of scalability was to add folders to the home screen a few versions back. But this system is broken. It has been for a long time.
As bad, iOS app icons cannot provide rich or dynamic notifications about new content. Most icons display nothing at all, but some might display a tiny number in a red circle. That’s it. The whole thing is as sophisticated as the Windows Program Manager, circa 1990.
Granted, we use an iPhone because of the apps. And here, iOS shines: This system provides the very best app and content stores on earth. Even individual apps seem to look and work better on iOS than they do on Android, almost to a one. Everything just seems more refined. (Well, except Siri. The less said about Siri, the better.)
The only niggling issue, and this should be temporary, is that many apps have not yet been updated for the new aspect ratio of the iPhone X. And it’s sometimes odd which apps have been updated and which haven’t: Google Calendar and Google Play Music have, but Google Inbox and Google News have not, for example. Those apps that are not updated float in the middle of the display with black bars on the top and bottom.