After months of hype, endless speculation, and a wave of last-minute rumors about production delays, the iPhone X is finally here. Apple says it’s a complete reimagining of what the iPhone should be, 10 years after the original revolutionized the world. That means some fundamental aspects of the iPhone are totally different here — most notably, the home button and fingerprint sensor are gone, replaced by a new system of navigation gestures and Apple’s new Face ID unlocking system. These are major changes.
New iPhones and major changes usually command a ton of hype, and Apple’s pushing the hype level around the iPhone X even higher than usual, especially given the new thousand-dollar starting price point. For the last few years, we’ve said some variation of “it’s a new iPhone” when we’ve reviewed these devices. But Apple wants this to be the beginning of the next 10 years. It wants the iPhone X to be more than just the new iPhone. It wants it to be the beginning of a new generation of iPhones. That’s a lot to live up to.
I got a lot of questions about the iPhone X as I wrote this review, and I did my best to answer as many of them as I could. Apple’s asking users to change a decade’s worth of habits, which is a big change. And with big changes come big risks.
At a glance, the iPhone X looks so good one of our video editors kept saying it looked fake. It’s polished and tight and clean — my new favorite Apple thing is that the company managed to move all the regulatory text to software, leaving just the word “iPhone” on the back. The screen is bright and colorful and appears to be laminated tighter than previous iPhones, so it looks like the pixels are right on top. Honestly, it does kind of look like a 3D model instead of an actual working phone.
But it is a real phone, and it’s clear it was just as challenging to actually build as all the rumors suggested. It’s gorgeous, but it’s not flawless. There’s a tiny sharp ridge between the glass back and the chrome frame that I feel every time I pick up the phone. That chrome frame seems destined to get scratched and dinged, as every chrome Apple product tends to do. The camera bump on the back is huge; a larger housing than the iPhone 8 Plus fitted onto a much smaller body and designed to draw attention to itself, especially on my silver review unit. There are definitely going to be people who think it’s ugly. But it’s growing on me.
There’s no headphone jack, which continues to suck on every phone that omits it, but that’s the price you pay for a bezel-less screen with a notch at the top. Around the sides, you’ll find the volume buttons, the mute switch, and the sleep / wake button. The removal of the home button means there are a few new button combinations to remember: pressing the top volume button and the sleep / wake button together takes a screenshot. Holding the sleep button opens Siri. And you turn the phone off by holding either of the volume buttons and the sleep button for several seconds.
Apple gave us the white and silver model to review, and although Apple says the band on the outside is better than surgical-grade stainless steel, mine already has scratches and dings. So I wouldn’t expect it to remain flawless if you don’t have a case.
And, of course, there’s the notch in the display — what Apple calls the “sensor housing.” It’s ugly, but it tends to fade away after a while in portrait mode. It’s definitely intrusive in landscape, though — it makes landscape in general pretty messy. Less ignorable are the bezels around the sides and bottom of the screen, which are actually quite large. A lot of people I showed the phone to hated them, but I think they make the bright colors of the display pop. It’s a very different design decision than curving the screen to eliminate the bezel entirely, like Samsung does. Instead, Apple’s highlighting what little bezel remains. That amounts to a thick black border all the way around the screen, with that notch set into the top.
I personally think the iPhone 4 is the most beautiful phone of all time, and I’d say the iPhone X is in third place in the iPhone rankings after that phone and the original model. It’s a huge step up from the surfboard design we’ve been living with since the iPhone 6, but it definitely lacks the character of Apple’s finest work. And… it has that notch.
The iPhone X is Apple’s first phone to use an OLED display, after years of Apple LCDs setting the standard for the industry. OLED displays allow for thinner phones, but getting them to be accurate is a challenge: Samsung phones tend to be oversaturated to the point of neon, Google’s Pixel XL 2 has a raft of issues with viewing angles and muted colors, and LG’s new V30 has problems with uneven backlighting.
Apple’s using a 5.8-inch Samsung-manufactured OLED display, which it says it custom designed for the iPhone X. It’s a bigger number than the iPhone 8 Plus’ 5.5-inch display, but it’s a taller, thinner aspect ratio, so it’s actually not as big. Overall, the iPhone X is definitely more of a slightly bigger iPhone 8 than a smaller 8 Plus, and that’s what it feels like in your hand. It’s like when Apple moved from the iPhone 4 to the 5 — the display grew a bit taller. In fact, when you run apps that aren’t optimized for the X, they run with huge software bezels and the whole thing looks exactly like an iPhone 8.
The display uses a diamond PenTile pixel layout, which means every pixel on the screen shares red, green, and blue subpixels with the pixels around it — unlike previous iPhone LCD screens which have dedicated RGB subpixels in a stripe for every pixel on the screen. A lot of people don’t like PenTile screens and I haven’t liked them in the past either, but you really can’t tell the iPhone X is PenTile with the naked eye. Apple says it’s doing a bunch of custom antialiasing and subpixel rendering to make this display work better than other Samsung PenTile OLEDs, and I think the effort shows.
In any event, the screen is excellent. The iPhone X OLED is bright, sharp, vibrant without verging into parody, and generally a constant pleasure to look at. Side by side with the iPhone 8, the X is noticeably cooler, and a bit softer — which I think makes it slightly easier to look at for long periods. The iPhone X has Apple’s True Tone system to automatically adjust color temperature to the ambient light, but strangely the X was a very different color than the iPhone 8 with True Tone on. I asked Apple about this, and they suggested that the iPhone X’s 10-channel light sensor was more precisely reading the ambient light than the 4-channel unit in the 8. Whatever the case, they were very different.
The screen isn’t perfect, though: every OLED screen shifts colors off-axis, and the iPhone X is no exception. It definitely gets bluer if you tilt the phone back and forth along either axis, but it’s nothing like, say, the Pixel 2 XL, which tints blue if you just shift the phone in your hand. It’s one of those things that doesn’t leap out at you, but you’ll notice it if you’re looking for it.
A lot of you asked us about burn-in, and I haven’t seen any yet. But it’s early, so I asked Apple about it, and they told me that they’ve also done a ton of work with the screen and in the OS to limit burn-in. Every OLED screen eventually suffers some burn-in though, so we’ll just have to wait and see if the iPhone X really is better than the competition.
Unfortunately, the top of the display is marred by that notch, and until a lot of developers do a lot of work to design around it, it’s going to be hard to get the most out of this screen. I mean that literally: a lot of apps don’t use most of the screen right now.
Apps that haven’t been updated for the iPhone X run in what you might call “software bezel” mode: huge black borders at the top and bottom that make the phone look just like an iPhone 8. And a lot of apps aren’t updated yet: Google Maps and Calendar, HBO Go, the Delta app, Spotify, and more all run with software bezels. Games like CSR Racing and Sonic The Hedgehog looked particularly silly. It’s fine, but it’s ugly, especially since the home bar at the bottom of the screen glows white in this mode.
Apps that haven’t been specifically updated for the iPhone X but use Apple’s iOS autolayout system will fill the screen, but wacky things happen: Dark Sky blocks out half the status bar with a hardcoded black bar of its own, Uber puts your account icon over the battery indicator, and Instagram’s volume bar disappears behind the notch entirely. It almost looks right, but then you realize it’s actually just broken.
Apps that have been updated for the iPhone X all have different ways of dealing with the notch that sometimes lead to strange results, especially in apps that play video. YouTube only has two fullscreen zoom options, so playing the Last Jedi trailer resulted in either a small video window surrounded by both letter- and pillar-boxing or a fullscreen view with the notch obscuring the left side of the video. Netflix is slightly better because it mostly plays 16:9 video but you’re still stuck choosing between giant black borders around your video or the notch.
I’m sure all of this will get solved over time, but recent history suggests it might take longer than Apple or anyone would like; I still encounter apps that aren’t updated for the larger iPhone 6 screen sizes. 3D Touch has been around for years, but I can’t think of any app that makes particularly good use of it. Apple told me that it’s holding workshops for developers and that the auto layout tools in iOS should make things go much faster than the transition to the iPhone 6 size, but we’ll just have to see how it goes.
Now that we have an iPhone X and the Google Pixel 2, we’re going to do a super in-depth camera comparison, but here’s what I can tell you right now: the iPhone X has basically the same cameras as the iPhone 8, and the photos look almost exactly the same. And at the end of the day, I tend to prefer the photos from the Pixel 2 XL.
The back of the iPhone X has two optically stabilized 12-megapixel cameras, one with a f/1.8 wide angle lens and the other with an f/2.4 telephoto. That’s an upgrade from the 8 Plus, which has an f/2.8 non-stabilized telephoto lens. That stabilized tele lens is great; these are probably the best zoom photos I’ve ever taken on a phone, and it’s amazing to shoot 6x zoom video in 4K and have it be sharp and usable. We got a question about slow sync flash, and it’s here, but I don’t think it does very much. Don’t take flash photos if you can help it.
The two rear cameras allow for Portrait Mode, which works as well as Portrait Mode on the 8 Plus and also support Portrait Lighting. In another difference from the 8 Plus, the front camera also supports Portrait Mode and Portrait Lighting.
Regular photos from the iPhone X are fine — some of them are even great. But I think the Pixel 2 XL takes more evocative photos, with more contrast and better HDR. The iPhone’s dual rear cameras definitely produce better portrait mode photos than the Pixel, and the Pixel definitely produces better portrait photos from the front camera. And I don’t think the Samsung Galaxy Note 8 holds a candle to either of the iPhone X or the Pixel 2: Samsung’s aggressive smoothing makes low-light shots appear better at first, but the iPhone retains more detail.
All in all, these are both excellent cameras, and it really comes down to personal preference and how much you value that zoom lens. I think I prefer the Pixel 2’s cameras, which just seem to produce absolute winners more often. But like I said, we’ll be doing a deep dive video with these cameras soon.
Of course, the main thing the front camera can do is take Animoji, which are Apple’s animated emoji characters. It’s basically built-in machinima, and probably the single best feature on the iPhone X. Most importantly, they just work, and they work incredibly well, tracking your eyes and expressions and capturing your voice in perfect sync with the animation. Animoji work by lighting up the TrueDepth IR camera and dot projector, but it’s not nearly as hardcore as Face ID. There’s no depth map or security stuff; it’s just motion tracking of the muscles on whatever face it see. The only time it doesn’t work great is when you try to wink; Apple told me they know about this and suggested it might get better over time.
Apple’s rolled out a lot of weird additions to iMessage over the years, but Animoji feel much stickier than sending a note with lasers or adding stickers or whatever other gimmicks have been layered on. And while iMessage remains a prime example of platform lock-in, Animoji are notably cross-platform: they work in iMessage, send as videos over MMS, and can be exported as MOV files. Nice. I love them.
FACE ID: IT WORKS, MOSTLY
The most important feature change on the iPhone X is Face ID, the system that unlocks the phone by recognizing your face. Even that’s an understatement: the entire design and user experience of the iPhone X is built around Face ID. Face ID is what let Apple ditch the home button and Touch ID fingerprint sensor. The Face ID sensor system is housed in the notch — it’s the whole reason the notch exists. The Apple Pay user flow has been reworked around Face ID. Apple’s Animoji animated emojis work using the Face ID sensors.
If Face ID doesn’t work, the entire promise of the iPhone X falls apart.
The good news is that Face ID generally works great. The bad news is that sometimes it doesn’t, and you’ll have to actively move the phone closer to your face to compensate.
You can point a cheap camcorder with night vision at Face ID to see how it works, which I highly recommended doing, because it’s really cool. The iPhone X has a IR light, a dot projector, and an IR camera, all tucked into the notch at the top of screen. (It’s basically a tiny Xbox Kinect.) When you wake up the phone, the IR light goes off, and if the IR camera sees a face, the dot projector flashes a pattern of 30,000 dots. The camera then takes a 2D photo, which gets turned into mathematical depth model, sent to the secure authentication chip, and matched against the stored value. If it matches, you’re in.
Setting up Face ID is ridiculously simple — much simpler than setting up Touch ID on previous iPhones. The phone displays a circular border around your face, and you simply move around until a series of lines around that circle turn green. (Apple suggests you move your nose around in a circle, which is adorable.) Do that twice, and you’re done: Face ID will theoretically get better and better at recognizing you over time, and track slow changes like growing a beard so you don’t have to re-enroll. Drastic changes, like shaving that beard off, might require you to enter your passcode, however.
Face ID should also work through most sunglasses that pass infrared light, although some don’t. And you can definitely make it fail if you put on disguises, but I’d rather have it fail than let someone else through.
In my early tests, Face ID worked well indoors: sitting at my desk, standing in our video studio, and waiting to get coffee. You have to look at it head-on, though: if it’s sitting on your desk you have to pick up the phone and look at it, which is a little annoying if you’re used to just putting your finger on the Touch ID sensor to check a notification.
You also can’t be too casual about it: I had a lot of problems pulling the iPhone X out of my pocket and having it fail to unlock until Apple clarified that Face ID works best at a distance of 25 to 50 centimeters away from your face, or about 10 to 20 inches. That’s closer than I usually hold my phone when I pull it out of my pocket to check something, which means I had to actively think about holding the iPhone X closer to my face than every other phone I’ve ever used. I also apparently hold the phone pretty close to my face when I wake up in the morning — closer than the recommended 10-inch minimum — and don’t have my glasses on, so I had to adjust that muscle memory as well. “You’re holding it wrong” is a joke until it isn’t, and you can definitely hold the iPhone X wrong.
That’s a small problem, though, and I think it’ll be easy to get used to. The other problem is actually much more interesting: almost all of the early questions about Face ID centered around how it would work in the dark, but it turns out that was exactly backwards. Face ID works great in the dark, because that IR projector is basically a flashlight, and flashlights make it easy to see in the dark. But go outside in bright sunlight, which contains a lot of infrared light, or under crappy florescent lights, which interfere with IR, and Face ID starts to get a little inconsistent.
I took a walk outside our NYC office in bright sunlight, and Face ID definitely had issues recognizing my face consistently while I was moving until I went into shade or brought the phone much closer to my face than usual. I also went to the deli across the street, which has a wide variety of lights inside, including a bunch of overhead florescent strips, and Face ID also got significantly more inconsistent.
I asked Apple about this, and it seems like you’ll just have to hold the iPhone X closer to your face in certain lighting conditions. It never just totally failed for me — it just didn’t work as well from farther away when I was walking around outside or in sunlight. And you can’t unlock it in landscape mode or if your face is upside down; you’ll just have to enter your passcode. You also have to look at it pretty directly, which means unlocking while the phone is sitting on a table is out unless you look over the phone. And if you’re the sort of person who discreetly checks their notifications while talking to people, well, get used to making it very obvious that you’re looking at your phone, because notifications don’t fully display until the phone unlocks
A lot of people asked me about Face ID privacy issues, but I don’t think there’s much to be worried about. Face ID never really takes or stores a photo of your face — the regular front camera is only used during setup so you can see yourself. The IR photo is just used to generate the depth map that’s compared to the stored value. And nothing ever gets sent to Apple — it’s just a bunch of numbers stored in the secure part of the processor. Obviously every system can be hacked, but you shouldn’t worry about a bunch of photos of your face being sent to iCloud or whatever. It’s just not how the thing is designed. If you weren’t worried about Touch ID, you probably shouldn’t worry about Face ID.
As for speed, well, it varies. Most of the time, in normal lighting conditions, it’s so fast that it’s almost like not having a passcode on your phone. You pick it up, swipe up, and you’re in — just like the old swipe to unlock days. But other times, it takes a second. Again, I think that’s mostly under strange lighting conditions.
It’s basically the same amount of irritation as a fingerprint scanner: sometimes your fingers are wet and you have enter the passcode, and sometimes the light’s weird and you have to move the phone closer to your face and wait a second.
You also use Face ID for Apple Pay, and it’s pretty easy: you double click the side button, authenticate, and then hold the phone to the reader. It actually makes a little more sense to me than Touch ID, because you’re actively turning Apple Pay on, instead of just waving your phone at the card reader and hoping it works. It’s nice.
All in all, Face ID is a fine replacement for Touch ID. It’s not perfect, but it’s perfectly workable. But you will definitely run into situations where you have to adjust where you’re holding the phone or try it again a few times. Recent Apple products have tended to demand people adapt to them instead of being adapted to people, and it was hard not to think about that as I stood in the sunlight, waving a thousand-dollar phone ever closer to my face.
There’s a lot of new hardware in the iPhone X, but it’s still running iOS 11 — albeit with some tweaks to navigation to accommodate the lack of a home button. Apple told me they didn’t want to make any drastic changes to the main iOS experience because they thought the removal of the home button was enough — you have to learn a whole bunch of new gestures to navigate this phone.
You swipe up from the bottom to go home, swipe down from the right to open Control Center, and swipe down from the left to open the notifications pane. That pane also has buttons for the flashlight and camera; in a twist, they require 3D Touch to work, so they feel like real buttons. It’s neat, but also breaks the 3D Touch paradigm — it’s the only place the entire system where 3D Touch acts like a left click instead of a right click. It’s emblematic of how generally fuzzy iOS has become with basic interface concepts.
If you want to switch apps, you either swipe along the bottom of the screen or swipe up and hold — you’ll get a little haptic bump and the app switcher will show up. It took a minute to figure out how to do that move consistently. It took me a little longer to figure out how to consistently use Reachability.
Actually, lots of people asked about Reachability, which is the iOS feature that brings the top of the screen down to make one handed usage easier. I use it all the time on my Plus, and it’s still here -— only now you swipe down about halfway up the icon dock from the home indicator. I couldn’t get this work at all until something clicked and I figured it out, but I’m still not perfect at it. Once you’ve brought the UI down, you can swipe on either top corner to open Notification Center or the Control Center. You’ll be pulling down Control Center a lot, since it’s the only way to see battery percentage and Bluetooth status on the iPhone X — the notch means there’s not enough room to put that info in the menu bar full time. I check battery percentage all the time, so this felt like a step back.
I asked Apple why Notification Center is a sheet and Control Center is an overlay, and the company told me that it’s “philosophical” — Control Center is supposed to be an always-there widget, and Notification Center is supposed to be another screen that slides down. Whatever it is, I think it looks really messy to have two different interface patterns for the same action at the top of the screen.
And… those are basically the changes to iOS 11 on the iPhone X, apart from the various notch-related kerfuffles. If you’ve been using iOS for a while and iOS 11 for the past month, nothing here will surprise you. If you spend a lot of time in unoptimized apps for work like Google Docs and Trello like I do, it’s a lot like using an iPhone 8. I really want Apple to make notifications more powerful. I would love to see some more customizability on the home screen, and I would love to be able to set new default apps for mail and web browsing. Siri is still Siri. I’d also love for the overall design to be more fun — years after iOS 7, everything still feels pretty stark and brutal, compared to the increasingly whimsical version of Android Google’s shipping on the Pixel.
If you’re buying an iPhone X expecting a radical change to your iPhone experience, well, you probably won’t get it. Unless you really hate unlocking your phone.
Apple says the iPhone X should get two hours more battery life than the iPhone 7, and while it’s been pretty hard to test this week while we’ve been running the screen and cameras full tilt for this review, I’ve been pretty impressed. OLED screen generally draw less power than LCDs, and I got great battery life with the iPhone 8, which shares most of the same components as the X. So I would expect to go close to full days with the X.
The iPhone X is clearly the best iPhone ever made. It’s thin, it’s powerful, it has ambitious ideas about what cameras on phones can be used for, and it pushes the design language of phones into a strange new place. It is a huge step forward in terms of phone hardware, and it has the notch to show for it. If you’re one of the many people who preordered this thing, I think you’ll be happy, although you’ll be going on the journey of figuring out when and how Face ID works best with everyone else.
But if you didn’t preorder, I suspect you might not feel that left out for a while. The iPhone X might be a huge step forward in terms of hardware, but iOS 11 runs the same on lots of other iPhones, and you won’t be missing out on anything except Animoji. Face ID works extremely well, although you should expect to have to move the phone closer to your face from time to time. And until your favorite apps are updated, you won’t be able to make use of that entire beautiful display.
All that adds up to the thing you already know: the iPhone X is a very expensive iPhone. For a lot of people, it’ll be worth it. For a lot of people, it’ll seem ridiculous. But fundamentally, it’s a new iPhone, and that means you probably already know if you want to spend a thousand dollars on one. If you’re a huge iPhone fan and you have the money, you’ll love it. It’s a really nice phone. But if you have any doubts at all, stick with an iPhone 8 or 8 Plus. You’ll get most of the same features, and you’ll wait out app developers figuring out how to use this new screen. Eventually every iPhone will look like the iPhone X, after all. The rest of us will just be using Animoji in the meantime.