A Landmark Device, With a Few Growing Pains

iPhone X Review: A Notch Between Great and Perfect


Tech : Electronics By Photo by Hunter Kelley
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f you’re an iPhone fan, especially of the standard-sized version, then you’re going to love the iPhone X. Other flagship Android devices have offered many of the X’s advanced features for years, but they’re still welcome additions to the iOS universe. The X’s cutting-edge True Depth camera system is a different story. Yes, it’s the reason why the flagship device has a higher learning curve than any other iPhone since the original. Surprisingly, though, the loss of the home button isn’t a big deal in practice. That’s because the iPhone X’s new gesture controls and advanced face-scanning technology offer a better user experience than Touch ID, for the most part. Using the True Depth camera system in some situations even feels like you’re gaining a sneak peek at the future. But the X also comes with some frustrating compromises that prevent it from being a must-upgrade for those who use the iPhone 7 or the latest iPhone 8 Plus.

The Good: Hardware-wise, the X’s design is a game-changer for owners of older or smaller iPhones because it offers many of the advantages of an iPhone Plus, like a large display and an excellent dual camera system complete with Portrait mode features, in a body size that’s only slightly larger than the standard iPhone.

Watch Out For: The iPhone X’s narrower and taller screen takes some getting used to when transitioning from the iPhone Plus. The missing home button also requires you to learn several new gestures for interacting with the phone. Finally, at over $1,000, the iPhone X is a sizeable investment for a smartphone that can be tough to justify when compared to other flagship smartphones.

iPhone X Full Review

Size was the main reason why I preordered the iPhone X. As an iPhone Plus user for years, I was sick of using a phone that sported a screen-to-body ratio on par with a CRT TV.

But I still had reservations with Apple’s design choices. Ditching the Touch ID fingerprint sensor in favor of face scanning felt like a substitution, not an improvement. The notch at the top of the screen was also concerning, not because it looked bad, but because it reduced the a the X’s screen real estate, especially in landscape mode.

After using the X for several days now though, it’s clear that some of my gripes were misguided. I’ve also walked away with several realizations I didn’t expect.

Bold Choices Make For Bold Design

As a physical object, the iPhone X is exceptionally built and pleasing to behold. I have to stop short though of calling it the finest piece of mobile hardware ever made, though it’s definitely up there. That’s because much of what makes the X stand out, like the nearly edge-to-edge display, isn’t really new for smartphones these days.

I am a fan, however, of Apple’s decision to make the screen’s bezels a consistent width around the edge of the display, which then blends into the notch at the top. The bezels are definitely noticeable, and bigger than I thought based on renderings, but the unified black border functions in many ways like a frame for the OLED display, drawing your eyes deeper into the screen and enhancing the sense that you’re peering directly into a software portal.

The rear camera bump is a far less elegant design choice. It’s massive, and the vertical orientation makes it stand out more than other dual-lens systems. Using an iPhone X Case definitely helps to downplay the bump, but it’s still not Apple’s finest work. The same goes for the notch at the top of the screen, which I’ll discuss in more detail later.

Face ID Works Great, But Still Needs Tweaking

Craig Federighi, Apple’s well-coiffed SVP of Software Engineering, was right. Face ID is a superior technology to Touch ID, and it works incredibly well on the iPhone X. I found it to be fast and reliable in a variety of lighting situations, both indoors and outside. It failed just about as often as Touch ID has failed for me in the past, or roughly 5 percent of the time.

My only real issue with the technology involves the extra swipe up that’s required after Face ID unlocks your phone. It feels like an additional step compared to just pressing a button before with my thumb. I wish Apple offered the option to immediately skip past the notification screen after unlocking. Eventually, though, I learned to make the action more fluid by simultaneously swiping up on the screen while holding the X up to my face. Often Face ID works fast enough to operate in this cadence, which does make the unlocking process feel more seamless.

I also found that enabling the raise-to-wake option, under the X’s display and brightness settings, is a huge improvement in terms of user experience. It eliminates the need to press a button to wake up your phone before Face ID initiates.

The iPhone X’s Cameras are Excellent, But Not On Another Plane (True Depth Excluded)


The iPhone X takes excellent photos, even in tough lighting situations, but I haven’t found that it’s a vast improvement over Apple’s other flagship, the iPhone 8 Plus. I’m also not sure it’s better than the simplified camera setup found on Google’s Pixel 2. But we’ve got a more formal shootout coming to suss out that comparison.

The iPhone X’s f/2.4 telephoto lens with optical stabilization is better than the 8’s and does produce superior zoom and low light shots. The upgraded hardware tweaks are also a big advantage for capturing video. I just don’t shoot often enough in these scenarios to consider the X’s photography advantages as a must-have. Those who do should justifiably see these changes as a bigger deal.

The other big change with the X’s camera system is the ability to use the background-blurring effect of Portrait Mode on the front-facing camera. It works well enough in many situations, but this is another feature I personally won’t use often. And if you really want a portrait shot to look its best, I’d still recommend using the X’s bigger rear cameras.

Animojis Going to Be a Big Thing, At Least for the Next Few Months


Apple’s face-tracking animations are the first thing I’ve shown to people asking, “So what does it do?” That’s mainly because it’s a great example of the power of the X’s new True Depth camera system. The reaction to Animojis has been universally positive, evoking words like “wow” on just about every occasion. Showing someone the process of creating an animoji is also guaranteed to generate laughs. Their novelty factor will wear off as people get more exposure to them, but I still think some will upgrade to the X just to use this feature (much to the chagrin of their data plans and owners of older iPhones). I’m sure third-party developers will also create similar experiences that take this concept to new levels very soon.

The Pros and Cons of Ditching the Home Button

I expected to spend weeks reaching for a button that no longer existed on the iPhone X, but I wound up learning the iPhone X’s new gesture controls within a half hour. That said, I did read up on the new actions before I received my phone, so I’d recommend you study a little too before picking up an iPhone X to avoid early frustrations.

Many of the phone’s new gesture combinations, like swiping to go home and sliding a finger across the bottom of the screen to hop between open apps, feel natural and quick. The latter gesture, in particular, makes much more sense to me than double-clicking a home button and then swiping left or right.

Reserving the swipe up from the bottom as a go-home replacement, though, means you can no longer access Control Center in the same way. Apple’s new solution is to have users swipe down from the X’s right “ear.” It works, and it’s now ironically in line with Android’s UI, but I found this process was a slightly bigger hassle than just swiping up from the bottom.

Things are worse when it comes to seeing all of the apps you have open running in the background. The gesture that replaces the double tap of the home button is easily the most annoying to master; it requires swiping up from the bottom of the screen and then pausing. Luckily, I’ve found that swiping up from the bottom at a 45-degree angle towards the right side of the screen accomplishes the same thing for now. Force quitting open apps in this same view is also more arduous. Instead of just swiping up on an app card to quit it, you must hold down on an open app card using force touch. This will then trigger a red minus sign to appear on the corner of each card. You can then either tap on the red minus sign to force quit the app or just swipe up on the card. This approach feels a lot like how Apple used to handle app quitting in older versions of iOS. It’s a minor nuisance overall, but it’s also one of the several quirks on the X that make it feel like a downgrade compared to other iPhones.

A Fantastic Screen For Portrait Viewing; Landscape, Not So Much

The OLED on the iPhone X is best in class. Colors are slightly more saturated compared to the LCDs found on other iPhones. The result is a less natural appearance, though it’s still a joy to look at. Like many OLEDs, the display does look blue when viewed from extreme angles, but it’s nowhere near as extreme as it is on the Pixel XL 2.

The real issues I have with the screen all relate to the notch, or what Apple officially calls the “sensor housing”. In portrait orientation, the notch creates two “ears” on the left and right corners of the screen. The left position is reserved for showing the time, while the right ear is used for displaying cell signal strength, your wi-fi connection and the battery meter. This layout makes sense in some ways because if the notch was just a straight bezel across the top of the screen instead, this information would limit vertical screen real estate even further in apps.

Unfortunately, the ears that are on the screen don’t feature enough room to show your actual battery percentage, which I’ve always found to be much more helpful than the small battery icon. Now, rather than being able to view your battery at a glance, you’re forced to swipe down on the right ear to view your percentage on the Control Center screen, or swipe left to see the same information via the battery widget, if you prefer. Like the process for force closing apps, this is a minor quibble, but still annoying. Hopefully Apple solves this in a future software update by allowing users to pick between seeing the battery icon or the percentage.

The notch is a much bigger issue in landscape mode. Its sticks out intrusively while using many apps, including Safari. I don’t tend to use apps in this orientation often, but for fans of mobile gaming, the presence of the notch could ruin your experience, at least until developers figure out how to work around it. The notch also forces full-screen videos to have black bars on all four sides, essentially making the OLED screen behave like a smaller screen. Alternatively, you can zoom in, which will crop out some video content and also result in the notch protruding into the frame. Neither situation is great.

But are these issues deal-breakers? No. Because most people spend most of their time using their phone in portrait mode. However, if you do use your phone to catch up on Netflix or for gaming while commuting, the iPhone 8 Plus might be the smarter upgrade.

Battery Life

Hardware teardowns have revealed that the iPhone X actually has more battery power than the iPhone 8 Plus. In daily use, I’ve found though that the X drains faster than my year-old iPhone 7 Plus. Other sites have done more formal battery tests and reached similar conclusions. It’s not a huge difference, and the X is more than capable of lasting through a solid day of use. Still, there have been plenty of times where a final 5–10 percent of power has made all the difference for me, and I’m definitely more conscious of charging with the X.

Apps

Using the X in these early days has been similar to the launch of the original iPhone Plus. Plenty of popular apps just aren’t optimized yet for the X’s unique screen dimensions. As such, they appear and behave somewhere on a scale between ugly and unusable. I won’t waste more words on this because things are bound to improve over time. Just be prepared to deal with some growing pains as the app ecosystem adjusts to a world where iPhone displays have notches and rounded corners.

The Verdict

If you’ve reached this point in the review, now might be the time to stop reading. That’s because my overall conclusions on the iPhone X are tinted with frustrations that the average Apple customer could care less about. Quirks with quitting apps and watching videos in landscape mode and not seeing the battery percentage are small potatoes in the grand scheme of smartphone usage. But as someone who was hoping that “the future of smartphones” would be better than previous devices in every considerable way, I’m still stuck on how a few design decisions prevent the X from achieving perfection. For the grand price of $999, I wanted Apple to do what no other smartphone maker has to date: build a smartphone that didn’t leave me wishing for features found on other devices.

The majority of reasonable X buyers, though, will love the phone’s combination of screen and size. They’ll giggle hysterically while creating animojis and marvel at the creative photo options that are available using portrait lighting. After just hours of use, they’ll gain confidence knowing they own the pinnacle of smartphones, and for the most part, they’ll be right.

The X does offer the best combination of modern aesthetics and bleeding-edge technology of any smartphone on the market right now and that’s the reason I’ll be keeping mine around. I just can’t wait to see what the next version looks like.

What Other Experts Think of the iPhone X:
iPhone X Review: Face the Future — Nilay Patel, The Verge
The iPhone X is Cool. That Doesn’t Mean You Are Ready for It — Brian X. Chen, The New York Times
The 10th Anniversary iPhone goes to Disneyland — Mathew Panzarino, TechCrunch
iPhone X Review: Yes, There Are Reasons to Pay Apple $1,000 — Joanna Stern, WSJ
I Tried the iPhone X — And the Killer Feature Is Its Size — Nicole Nguyen, BuzzFeed