iPhone X Review: Gorgeous, pricey, and worth it

David Pogue
Tech Critic

If you have any interest in Apple’s (AAPL) hotly anticipated, $1,000, 10th-anniversary iPhone X (pronounced “ten”), then there are four dates to keep in mind:

  • September 12, 2017, when Apple first unveiled it to the public.
  • Tuesday, October 31, when most of the professional reviews appear.
  • November 3, when the phone is supposed to be available to buy.
  • The day when you can actually get one. These phones are difficult to manufacture and massively back-ordered, so if you order now, you might get one before the end of the year.

The price, the delays, and the popularity all tell you one thing, loud and clear: There’s an unbelievable amount of advanced technology in this thing.

The iPhone X is gorgeous, powerful, and expensive.

The Headline: Big Screen, Small Body

Everybody talks about the iPhone X price ($1,000 for 64 gigs of storage, $1,150 for 256 gigs). Or they talk about its face-recognition feature. But the best thing about the iPhone X is its size.

It’s a standard-size phone, only a hair bigger than an iPhone 7 or 8, and therefore easy to wrap your fingers around without growing extra knuckles. Yet the X has the screen size of the iPhone Plus models! By lopping off all the blank margins that usually surround an iPhone’s screen, Apple has found a much sweeter spot on the screen/body tradeoff spectrum. It’s all screen, making it look a lot like recent Samsung smartphones.

The iPhone X has about the same screen size as an iPhone Plus—in the body about the same size as a standard iPhone.

And what a screen it is. It’s Apple’s first OLED screen, meaning it’s got much darker darks and brighter brights than what’s come before—a million-to-one contrast ratio, Apple says. Unfortunately, there’s no way to see it except in person, because whatever screen you’re now reading on can’t display the X’s stunning range of color. But you see it right away, and it’s glorious to look at, no matter what app you’re running.

The phone is also very fast. Apple says that its processor is “the most powerful and smartest chip ever in a smartphone,” and that it has “four efficiency cores”—clearly, that’s better than three efficiency cores, right?

In practice, all of this means that opening apps, saving files, and playing games are faster and smoother than on, for example, the iPhone 7 or 6. (The iPhone 8 and iPhone X use the same processor.)

Yet somehow, Apple maintains that the iPhone X gets two hours more life per battery charge than the iPhone 7 and 8. Bizarrely, Apple gave most reviewers only 24 hours with the iPhone X before posting their reviews (not a week or two, as in the past 10 years), so nobody can really say what battery life is like in real-world scenarios. I’ll update this review once I’ve had a chance to live with it.

Facial Recognition

OK, so Apple made this phone all screen. In that case, where’s the Home button?

It’s gone. On the iPhone X, there is no Home button.

Wait, what? Every smartphone has a Home button!

On the iPhone, we use it to open the Home screen, trigger Siri, switch apps, pay with Apple Pay, take screenshots, turn on the screen magnifier, force quit an app, force-restart the whole phone when it gets locked up, and so on. Without a Home button, what happens to all of that?

You have to re-learn new techniques, which will take you a couple of days. Apple has come up with replacement gestures for all of them.

To return to the Home screen, you swipe up from the bottom of the screen. This can be a tiny swipe, even a quarter of an inch upward; it quickly becomes quick and instinctive. (Until, that is, you try to do it on someone’s iPad or older iPhone and feel like an idiot.)

To open the app switcher, you make the same swipe up, but then stop with your finger in the center. The app “cards” now appear.

(Infuriatingly, Apple has changed the way you quit programs from the app switcher. You can’t just swipe them up off the top of the screen anymore. Instead, you have to hold your finger on one of the app “cards,” wait until a red Delete button appears on each card, and then swipe up. Apple says that it was trying to prevent people from quitting apps accidentally during upward swipes that were intended to mean, “go back to the Home screen.”)

You trigger Siri using the Sleep switch on the right side, which Apple now calls the Side switch.

Here’s a complete list of the old Home-button functions—and how Apple’s rethought them on the iPhone X.

OK, fine. But what about the fingerprint reader?

It’s gone, too. Instead, Apple says it’s come up with something better: Face ID.

Face ID

When you get your phone, you train it to recognize your face in Settings. It’s a very cool process (you can see it in my video above): you roll your head around as though doing a relaxation exercise for your neck. Twice.

You train Face ID by letting it scan your head twice.

Now the iPhone knows the exact contours of your face. After that, just looking at the phone unlocks it—so fast, you may not even realize what’s happened. There are only two clues that the phone is unlocked: a tiny padlock icon opens, and any notification banners (“Message from: Robin”) expand to reveal their potentially embarrassing contents (“Hey! I picked up that cream for your armpit rash”).

Unlocking the phone doesn’t take you all the way to the Home screen, which would be cool. You still have to do a little up-swipe after unlocking. (Pro tip: Don’t wait for the padlock icon to open; that’s the last thing that happens during a face-unlock. Instead, the instant the Lock screen wakes up, do your up-swipe. In the time it takes your thumb to leave the glass, Face ID will have done its thing.)

In any case, you can’t fool Face ID with a photo, or a mask, or even a 3-D model of your head; I tried. (And what about that Bloomberg article that said that Apple substituted a less accurate camera to make manufacturing easier? “Completely false,” Apple said in a statement. “The quality and accuracy of Face ID haven’t changed. It continues to be 1 in a million probability of a random person unlocking your iPhone with Face ID.”)

You’ll use Face ID wherever you used to use your fingerprint: Triggering Apple Pay, for example, or logging into apps. Any app that was ever unlocked by your fingerprint automatically works with Face ID, without needing to be rewritten.

True Depth

So how does the front-facing camera recognize your face? Using a mass of sensors Apple calls True Depth.

When you lift the phone to wake it, an infrared lamp blasts invisible light forward to see if a face is in range. If so, a tiny projector blasts 30,000 pinpoints of infrared light onto your face, and a camera reads the distortion of their spacing and shape to find the contours of your face.

The True Depth camera is an array of sensors.

(Samsung’s Galaxy phones, of course, had face unlocking first. But Apple’s depth camera system is far more reliable.)

I tried to fool the True Depth camera by putting on wigs, a fake mustache, a fake unibrow, and glasses. I even invited a Yahoo Studios makeup artist to turn me into a zombie, with full face makeup. None of it fooled Face ID.

I tried to fool the Face ID in various ways. Only the beard freaked it out.

I finally got it to fail by applying a full beard that covered half my face. At that point, it didn’t recognize me and didn’t unlock.

Of course, very few people sprout that much hair overnight. Ordinarily, Face ID continues to fine-tune its mathematical model of your face every time you use it, so things like slow hair growth (and wrinkle growth) won’t fool it. If you do do something radical, like shaving off your beard, you just re-train.

Anything new freaks people out, so here are some FAQs about Face ID:

  • What if I want to unlock the phone at night? Since it uses infrared light, Face ID even works in the dark.
  • What if I’m in a car accident? As long as your eyes, nose, and mouth are essentially unchanged, it’ll work. If not, you can always use your password, which is required even if you turn on Face ID. (Your password is also needed after any restart, or after someone’s tried five times to unlock the phone with his face.)
  • What if I’m wearing a scarf or a hat? As long as your eyes, nose, and mouth are uncovered, it’ll work.
  • Can two different people register their faces? For now, it’s one person at a time.
  • What about sunglasses? Face ID works through sunglasses if infrared signals can penetrate them. Some do, some don’t.
  • What if a cop forces me to look at my phone? You can quickly disable Face ID by squeezing the buttons on both sides of the phone, or by pressing the Side switch five times.
  • What if I have plastic surgery? You can retrain Face ID to recognize the New You.
  • What about identical twins? They can fool Face ID. If you’re worried, use the password instead.
  • What if someone tries to unlock my phone by pointing it at my face while I’m asleep? No good. Face ID doesn’t work unless your eyes are open and looking at the phone.
  • What if I don’t have eyeballs? You can turn off that requirement.
  • What if somebody decapitates me and then tries to use my severed head to unlock my phone? Now you’re just being silly.

Beyond Face ID

The depth camera does more than just recognize your face. Because it can tell the difference between the foreground and the background, the iPhone X can, for the first time, take front-facing Portrait-mode photos, which means beautifully blurry backgrounds. (On recent iPhone Plus models, two lenses on the back can tell the difference between the subject and the background—and to softly blur the background, as in professional photos. See my story here.)

The iPhone X can create artificially (but convincingly) blurred backgrounds, now with either the back OR front camera.

The iPhone X can also create what Apple calls Animoji—a choice of 12 animated cartoon faces whose expressions follow and mimic your expressions in real time, by tracking the motion of 50 different muscles in your face. Happy, sad, wink, frown, laugh, mouth open, eyebrows up, whatever—your little cartoon-animal avatar does the same. You can record yourself saying something and then send the resulting animation via the Messages app. Suddenly, you’re Warner Brothers.

Software companies can write apps that exploit the depth camera, too. Already, Snapchat is testing a version whose fun superimposed-face filters (masks, glasses, and so on) use real-time lighting information for realistic reflections and shadows. And Apple has built a new Scenes feature into its free Clips video-recording app that replaces your background, greenscreen style, in real time. You can shoot yourself with a new background of your choosing, like an artsy linescape, on the bridge of the “Star Wars” Millennium Falcon, and so on.

The upcoming version of Apple’s Clips app creates real-time, live greenscreen effects, transporting you into other worlds.

Apple hasn’t said much about the Settings option called Attention Aware Features, but it’s also very cool. The True Depth camera will prevent the screen from turning off while you’re looking at it—and it will make your morning alarm sound quieter if you’re looking at it.

The Notch

Apple packs all of those depth-sensing components into an inch-wide area at the top of the screen that people are calling the Notch. It’s causing some consternation, because it creates a gap in the status bar. It’s there in most of your apps, looking like a clunky missing chunk—or worse. In some apps that haven’t been updated for the iPhone X, the Notch covers up the regularly scheduled status bar.

Fortunately, the notch does not intrude upon photos or videos unless you manually zoom into them.

The notch (the black gap) appears in many apps–and in photos or videos you’ve zoomed into.

It doesn’t take long to get used to the Notch. But it is a kind of weird design decision. It winds up dividing the menu bar into two “ears” and leaving no room for your cell carrier’s name or battery percentage.

The rest of the package

Like the iPhone 8, the iPhone X is waterproof—it can tolerate 30 minutes 3 feet underwater. The glass front and back are, Apple says, 50% stronger. The speakers are louder. Call quality is excellent, especially when you’re calling another iPhoner; at that point, Apple’s hi-fi sound kicks in, sounding more like FM radio than cellphone.

There’s still no headphone jack. As always, a two-inch adapter for existing headphones comes in the box, along with a set of Apple earbuds that plugs into the charging jack. But really, wireless earbuds are the way to go.

The cameras are even better, especially in low light. The flash now has four LEDs in two different colors, for better flesh tones. Like recent Plus models, the back has two lenses—standard, and 2X zoom—but for the first time, the zoom lens is optically stabilized, too. It makes a huge difference in video stability.

You can charge the iPhone X on a special charging pad. We can thank Apple for adopting the same charging-pad standard that Samsung and other companies use, called Qi (pronounced “chee”). In other words, you don’t have to buy Apple’s charging pad; you can use any company’s. They cost about $12 on Amazon.

You can charge the iPhone X either with its traditional Lightning cable or on a Qi charging pad.

Next year, Apple will sell its own charging pad, called AirPower, capable of charging three Apple devices at once. Meantime, Apple intends to throw its weight behind the Qi charging standard. It’s talking to hotels, airports, and car makers, in hopes of both making charging surfaces available everywhere you want to be.

And the iPhone X runs iOS 11, of course—with a few special tweaks just for Xers. For example, the Flashlight on/off switch is now right there on the Lock screen, not even hiding on the Control Center anymore. And you can now move among open apps just by dragging your finger along the bottom edge of the screen, without even opening the app switcher first. It’s pretty great.

There are, as usual, a few bugs here and there. I wasn’t able to restore the iPhone X from my iCloud backup, for example. (Apple says that’s unusual, and is looking into it.)

The Lock screen now has a flashlight button at lower left. (Also: See that horizontal line at the bottom? It appears in most apps. It’s meant to remind you: “Swipe up here to go Home.”)

A new realm

Apple intends for the iPhone X to strike you as a masterpiece, as a vision of the future. It probably doesn’t intend for the iPhone X to remind you of recent Samsung phones, which also have features like all-screen designs, wireless charging, and prices around $1,000.

In the Apple ecosystem, though, the iPhone X represents a far more exciting leap than the incremental upgrades we’ve seen in recent iPhone models. The X’s cameras are fantastic, the screen is the best you’ve ever seen, the Face ID really works, and the depth camera will unlock a whole new realm of apps.

Above all, you’re carrying around a Plus-size screen in a normal-size body. There may be some unbelievably sophisticated technology in this phone—but maybe the most winning feature of all is how little space it takes up in your hand.

More from David Pogue:

Inside the Amazon company that’s even bigger than Amazon

The $50 Google Home Mini vs. the $50 Amazon Echo Dot — who wins?

The Fitbit Ionic doesn’t quite deserve the term ‘smartwatch’

Augmented reality? Pogue checks out 7 of the first iPhone AR apps 

How Apple’s iPhone has improved since its 2007 debut

Gulliver’s Gate is a $40 million world of miniatures in Times Square

Samsung’s Bixby voice assistant is ambitious, powerful, and half-baked

Is through-the-air charging a hoax?

 

David Pogue, tech columnist for Yahoo Finance, is the author of “iPhone: The Missing Manual.”  He welcomes nontoxic comments in the comments section below. On the web, he’s davidpogue.com. On Twitter, he’s @pogue. On email, he’s poguester@yahoo.com. You can find all of his articles and videos here (and sign up to get them by email).

 

 

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