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The iPhone X: Hands-On Answers To 10 Burning Questions

The newest new iPhone in a long time is a departure in many ways–and a great phone as long as you’re willing to leave familiar features behind.

The iPhone X: Hands-On Answers To 10 Burning Questions
[Photo: courtesy of Apple]

Since time immemorial, nearly every new iteration of an existing Apple product has faced a chorus of skeptics voicing a reflexive gripe: This isn’t new enough. The iPhone X, which went on sale last Friday, seems specifically designed to be impervious to such criticism. From its shape and size to its screen technology, it departs from iPhones of the past. Possibly the iPhone’s single most iconic element, the home button, is gone. So is one its most useful features, the nearly foolproof Touch ID, replaced by an unproven security measure called Face ID.

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Judged on traditional checklist items such as screen resolution and camera capabilities, the iPhone X, which starts at $999 for the version with 64GB of storage, is Apple’s top-of-the-line phone. More than that, though, it’s Apple’s most different phone–the one for folks who get giddy at the prospect of trading familiarity for innovation. It’s free to boldly go where no iPhone has in part because Apple’s other two new iPhones, the iPhone 8 and iPhone 8 Plus, are unapologetically evolutionary.

The bottom-line question about the iPhone X is straightforward: Is it worth the starting price of a thousand bucks, an imposing figure even if you pay it chopped into monthly chunks? The answer is yes, if you were already planning to spend at least $699 (the baseline for the iPhone 8), can reasonably swing the additional cost, and aren’t fazed by leaving some old habits behind and dealing with early-adopter glitches as third-party developers tweak their apps for the X’s new screen. In most ways that matter, it really does feel like the two-generations-ahead smartphone that its name suggests.

Still, having used all three new iPhones, I’m also more convinced than ever that the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus’s classic-iPhone feel will be a selling point for many people. If you choose one of them–especially as an upgrade for an iPhone that’s at least a couple of years old–it won’t be an embarrassing act of smartphone Luddism.

Whatever your preference, there’s a lot to say about the iPhone X. As I write, I’ve spent almost a week with a review unit provided by Apple. That’s been enough to answer some of the questions that have been nagging at me since Apple unveiled the phone on September 12.

1. What Does The iPhone X Feel Like In The Hand?

Remember the days when Apple helpfully explained that nobody wanted a big phone, before it bowed to the undeniable reality that many people do? The iPhone X feels like a return to the period when the company prized one-handed comfort over raw screen acreage. Though its display’s diagonal measurement of 5.8 inches may make it sound like a phone for big-screen lovers, it’s the 8 Plus’s wider 5.5-inch screen that feels most sprawling.

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People who think of their phone as a tiny tablet may prefer the iPhone 8 Plus. Those who look at the iPhone 8 Plus as an unwieldy behemoth, however, should find the X to be just right. By squeezing out almost all the front bezel, it offers a screen that’s substantially roomier than the 4.7-inch one on the iPhone 8, in a case that’s only a skosh larger. Though the taller screen requires some readjustment, I was able to cradle the phone in one hand and thumb my way around without resorting to two-fisted use, something that’s tough with the iPhone 8 Plus and other conventional jumbophones.

Like the iPhones 8 and 8 Plus, the X has a smudge-resistant back made of an exclusive-to-Apple glass from Corning that Apple says is the most durable ever used for a smartphone. (Which is good, because repairs not covered by AppleCare+ will cost you.) It’s lustrous, pleasant to the touch, and grippy enough to possibly help prevent accidental tumbles. The metal band around the phone’s edge is made of shiny stainless steel rather than the 8 and 8 Plus’s more subdued aluminum—and as with the Apple Watch, I think that aluminum holds its own aesthetically even though it’s on the cheaper versions of each device.

[Photo: courtesy of Apple]

2. What’s The Screen Like?

Well, the most obvious thing about it is that it reaches nearly to the phone’s curved edges, with the exception of the notch at the top, which makes room for the new depth-sensing camera and the earpiece. Though I’ve been wary of the trend toward front-filling screens—all of which have led to usability compromises, such as Samsung relocating its fingerprint sensor way too close to the rear camera—the iPhone X’s edge-to-edge screen has grown on me as I’ve spent time with it.

The more I used it, the less it felt like the primary goal was cramming additional screen real estate into a relatively small phone. (Apple hasn’t fixated on maximizing the available space: The keyboard sits well above the bottom border, suggesting that the company found typing along the edge of the screen too cumbersome.) Instead, it’s the sheer immersiveness that changes the experience. Less bezel and no home button makes for a device that’s even more about whatever app you happen to be using.

Then there’s the fact that this is Apple’s first phone with an OLED display. Years ago, the LCD screens favored by Apple and the OLED ones used by companies such as Samsung were worlds apart in pros and cons. As LCDs have gotten brighter and OLEDs have come to render colors more naturally, the differences between the two technologies have shrunk. So the transition from the LCDs used in all previous iPhones to the iPhone X’s Samsung-manufactured “Super Retina” OLED display is not the radical departure it would once have been.

That’s not to say it isn’t a noticeable and welcome advance. I plopped the iPhone X next to an iPhone 8 Plus, and the X was the easy winner for display quality, with blacker blacks and more vivid colors. (I was pleasantly dazzled by the snapshot I used as lock-screen wallpaper every time I powered on the phone.) Unlike the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus, the screen is also capable of displaying movies with the souped-up brightness and contrast of HDR; when I sampled War for the Planet of the Apes, even the opening 20th Century Fox logo looked more intense than usual.

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3. How About That Notch?

Within a day of using the iPhone X, I stopped fixating on the oddity of a smartphone screen having a dip at its top, and certainly would not consider it an argument against the iPhone X’s design. (It does mean that there’s no room to display the percentage of remaining battery life as a number—a change that at least a couple of my Twitter pals claim is a dealbreaker—though you can still see that percentage by swiping down to reveal the Control Center.) But many third-party apps will need to be rewritten to avoid colliding with the notch; more on that in a bit.

The fact that the screen has a bite taken out of it presents some theoretical issues with full-screen apps such as video players and games. But the ones I tried all defaulted to a full-screen mode that doesn’t reach all the way to the notch, which skirts around the problem without being glaringly obvious as a workaround.

4. Does Face ID Work?

Short answer: yes, with a handful of exceptions, in my experience. The nightmare scenarios conjured up by pundits who hadn’t actually tried the feature will not come to pass.

Training Face ID is a lot like training Touch ID, except that you wiggle your face for the new TrueDepth front-facing camera rather than tapping your finger on the home button. Once you do, the feature replaces Touch ID for unlocking your phone, using Apple Pay, and providing an extra measure of security in apps such as password managers and banking apps.

When you wake up the iPhone X—which you can do by tapping the screen or pressing the side button—Face ID kicks in, assuming that you have it turned on. Once it’s determined that you’re you, a padlock icon unlocks and you can swipe upward to get to the home screen. I quickly learned that the best way to deal with the technology was to ignore it. I just swiped upward, without checking the lock icon or worrying too much about positioning my face in front of the camera. By the time I was done swiping, I was in.

A few days with Face ID are not enough to stress-test the technology, which Apple says can deal with hats, beards, and other elements that change a person’s appearance, as well as some sunglasses. But I did my best. I tried it with the iPhone X off to my side at waist level; I tried it with my glasses propped on my forehead or my chin resting on my hand; I tried it while wearing Ray-Bans; I tried it in rooms that would have been pitch-black if it weren’t for the illumination of the X’s own screen. It almost always worked, as long as I looked in the general direction of the phone and my eyes, nose, and mouth were visible. (Don’t eat an ice-cream cone while trying to unlock your phone, as I did.)

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In three instances, however, Face ID has failed to identify me, even though I was aiming the phone directly at my face. In each case, turning the screen off and then back on again resolved the issue. (If Face ID fails to quickly identify you, don’t stare at it in hopes that it will eventually come to its senses—just start over.) The overall experience reminds me of the first-generation Touch ID that arrived on the iPhone 5s in 2013; not flawless, but a major advance over earlier technologies such as the facial recognition and iris scanning offered by Samsung phones.

Apple says that the odds of Face ID thinking it’s recognized an iPhone X’s owner when someone else is looking at the phone are one in a million, at least for those of us who don’t have an identical twin or other doppelganger. Unlike the Wall Street Journal’s Joanna Stern, I didn’t go to any extremes to test its security, but I did ask my wife to try to break into the phone by brandishing it in my general direction. She couldn’t make it unlock.

[Photo: courtesy of Apple]

5. What About The Apple Pay Experience And Touch ID Within Apps And Elsewhere?

Unexpectedly, it’s more reminiscent of the Apple Watch than of Touch ID-enabled iPhones. As with the watch, you press the side button twice and then hold your device up to the payment terminal. Assuming that you’re looking in the general direction of the screen, Face ID should kick in and authenticate the transaction. Done.

In my first three acts of commerce with the iPhone X—at McDonald’s, Trader Joe’s, and Walgreens—the new Apple Pay regimen was unfamiliar enough to me that I futzed slightly more than I did with Touch ID. But it worked. And now I have the knack for doing it without thinking about it.

Apps that call on Touch ID for security should support Face ID automatically, though they may caution you that they haven’t been updated for Face ID the first time you tried them. 1Password and Ally Mobile both worked perfectly with Face ID, providing a hands-free experience that’s even slicker than Touch ID.

One other thing: Face ID is a boon when it comes to dealing with notifications on a locked iPhone. You can just tap one to go to the corresponding app, and Face ID will perform hands-free authentication along the way. Much nicer than having to touch the home button as on Touch ID-equipped iPhones.

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6. Face ID Aside, Will I Miss The Home Button?

If you do at first, it’s understandable: It’s among the most intuitive pieces of user-interface design ever invented. But I quickly took to swiping up from the bottom to get back to the home screen. Siri and Apple Pay access have been relocated to the power button—now dubbed the “side button” and a tad elongated—and that’s fine. The one new substitute for home-button functionality that I had any trouble acclimating myself to was the gesture for pulling up the app switcher: You swipe up from the bottom and then pause midscreen. It turns out that it works most predictably if you arc your finger gracefully to the right as you swipe.

A horizontal line sits at the bottom of the screen as a reminder of the swipe-upwards gesture. I found it a superfluous distraction and hope that Apple will eliminate it once it grows confident that the average iPhone user knows how to live without a home button.

7. Will Apps Need To Be Rewritten To Be iPhone X-friendly?

In many instances, definitely. Most of Apple’s own wares look great on the phone, stretching to make use of the additional screen headroom without colliding with the notched screen top. Some of the third-party offerings I tried, including Twitter, Instagram, and Lyft, were iPhone X-friendly from the first time I tried them.

Other apps–including Flipboard, Netflix, 1Password, and Spark–were initially glitchy in various ways on the X, usually involving their interfaces colliding with either the notch on the top or the swipe-up reminder bar on the bottom. But in the few days I used the phone, those four apps and others released updates that accommodate the new display. The big remaining problem is that many apps, such as Amazon Prime Video, Amazon Kindle, Outlook, and Texture–and even Apple’s own iMovie–don’t yet take advantage of the extra screen height available on the iPhone X. They display with padding in the form of black bars at the top and bottom.

Flipboard and Spark both initially had trouble dealing with the iPhone X notch; both apps have released X-friendly updates since I took these photos. [Photo: Harry McCracken]
Apple has been through this before, such as with 2012’s iPhone 5, which similarly introduced additional vertical display height that required apps to be rejiggered. Developers have a pretty good track record of doing the necessary work. And hey, if you can’t get your hands on an iPhone X for a few weeks, some of the required updates may show up in the App Store before your phone arrives.

[Photo: courtesy of Apple]

8. How Are The Cameras?

This is Apple’s best phone yet from a photography standpoint, though its advantages over the iPhone 8 Plus are not dramatic. The iPhone X’s wide-angle rear camera is the same one as on the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus, which means that it’s excellent, and a peer of those on Samsung’s current Galaxy phones and Google’s new Pixel phones. The X’s telephoto rear camera lets in more light and has optical stabilization than that of the iPhone 8 Plus, which helped me get better shots of farther-away, poorly lit subjects without having to hold my hand perfectly still. The further you go past 2X, however—all the way to the maximum 10X digital zoom—the fuzzier your photos will be.

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I did notice one apparent bug: The camera’s occasional tendency to fire off photos continuously, as if my finger was on the shutter button when it wasn’t–which I imagine Apple will fix in a software update.

The front-facing camera now lets you apply Apple’s Portrait Mode and new Portrait Lighting effects, formerly limited to rear shooting with the iPhone 7 Plus and 8 Plus. That lets you apply a professional sheen to selfies, although the camera app occasionally instructed me to move farther away from my subject—which was curious given that my subject was me and I’m not Plastic Man.

9. What’s The Deal With Animoji?

Aside from unlocking your phone with your face, the one thing that an iPhone X can do and the 8 and 8 Plus cannot is create Animoji: floating animated heads (including animals, a robot, an alien, and, most notoriously, a pile of poop) that mimic your expressions, head motion, and mouth movements with uncanny accuracy. The motion-capture is done via the new TrueDepth camera, and the attention to detail is gobsmacking, like the way the cute little bunny’s ears flap as you wiggle your head.

You can record 10-second Animoji clips and send them to friends (including those with other iPhones) via the iMessage service. Or you can fool around with the feature in more time-consuming ways, as I did.

Some people think that Animoji are creepy or likely to be soon forgotten. To me, they’re significant as Apple’s most impressive demo of a new technology in a long time. Like Animoji, third-party apps have access to the 3D data captured by the TrueDepth camera, and can incorporate their own features using it, as Snapchat is doing. If nothing else, Animoji show that some startling things can be achieved through that capability.

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10. Anything Else Worth Mentioning?

A few stray notes:

  • Unlike many other phones with OLED screens, the iPhone X doesn’t take advantage of the technology’s ability to show a dash of always-on information—such as a handy clock—even when the screen is otherwise turned off, without decimating battery life. Here’s hoping that Apple comes back to this idea.
  • I’ve never met a smartphone that makes it as simple to whip the device out of my pocket and instantly launch the camera as I’d like. But the iPhone X uses 3D Touch to let you open the camera from the lock screen by pressing the camera icon firmly—which my fingers find much easier to do in a hurry than swiping to the left, as you must do on other iPhones.
  • I’m still not sold on the immediate benefit of the wireless charging offered by all three new iPhones. However, compared to the Belkin charging base I tried with the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus, the Mophie base that Apple supplied with my iPhone X review unit makes it easier to charge a phone without gingerly positioning it in the pad’s sweet spot and verifying that it’s working.

Right now, the iPhone X is defined by its sheer newness. Odds are, however, that its key distinguishing characteristics—from the OLED screen technology to Face ID to, yes, the notch—will come to all iPhones. Maybe not in 2018, but eventually.

When they do, the novelties the iPhone X introduces may become as reassuringly comfy as the home button has been. And if Apple releases another new iPhone that is not afraid to tamper with iconic success, it will show that this phone has had a lasting impact on how the company transitions from one iPhone era to the next.

About the author

Harry McCracken is the technology editor for Fast Company, based in San Francisco. In past lives, he was editor at large for Time magazine, founder and editor of Technologizer, and editor of PC World.

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