Apple lifted the review embargo today on those with early access to the iPhone X (while the rest of the world has been asked to queue up outside their nearest Apple Store so Tim Cook and his team can get some pictures of the ‘demand’), but it’s been a day where the process has been slightly different. While some reviewers have had over a week with the device (including Forbes’ David Phelan), many other sites have had less than a day with “the future” before having to report on the handset or miss out on the traffic spike.
I wonder why Apple has restricted the time reviewers have with the handset before peer pressure forces them to publish their conclusions, conclusions that will set the tone of coverage of the Phone X for the next few months?
Let’s start looking at what the reviewers did find out about the iPhone X with a shout out to Jim Dalrymple who acknowledges that, like many, his review unit has only been with him for less than twenty-four hours.
I think what surprised me the most about the iPhone X when I took it out of the box is that I thought the physical design would be bigger. I guess I didn’t spend much time comparing it with the iPhone 8 Plus during the launch event.
However, when you turn it on, the iPhone X is all screen. It doesn’t have the big top and bottom of the iPhone Plus models—it’s just screen. It’s beautiful. The iPhone 8 has a 4.7-inch screen; the iPhone 8 Plus a 5.5-inch screen and the iPhone X a 5.8-inch screen.
For all of Apple’s new designs and advances in chip technology, for all the new tricks in iOS and all of the extra speed and performance, there’s two closely linked areas that everyone wants to know about. The design in general and the OLED screen in particular, and the accuracy of FaceID.
Having spent a month since the launch of the handset reminding everyone that the screen was ‘all-screen’ and how Apple had managed to remove the bezels, there’s a juxtaposition with the reality. The percentage of surface area occupied by the screen is less than that of the Galaxy Note 8, and the screen’s brightness is lower than that of Samsung’s competing handset.
But when your yardstick is not the competition but previous iPhones (which all had LCD screens), the OLED option is a clear winner. James Titcomb for The Telegraph:
The iPhone X has what’s called a “Super Retina” screen, which is Apple talk for the first iPhone display using OLED technology. This means colours pop out better, blacks are darker, and everything just looks brighter.
And there’s no denying it: it really does look fantastic. Up there with the best screens I’ve seen on a phone and a definite step up from previous iPhones, which start to look just a little drab in comparison. I definitely feel like I would be comfortable watching a full film on it, although there’s one hiccup there…
What is clear with the screen is that the inclusion of the forward facing sensors has robbed Apple of a genuine ‘all screen’ forward display. The notch is an obvious iconic element, but one that serves Apple’s marketing first and users second. Most reviewers have suggested that it becomes ‘invisible’ after use, but it is going to remain an awkward reminder that this silhouette is an Apple smartphone’s silhouette. Nilay Patel at The Verge looks at the notch and how it is badly handled in third-party software:
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 the settings in the Halide camera app get obscured by the notch and partially tucked into the display’s bunny ears. 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. Instagram Stories don’t fill the screen; they have large gray borders on the top and bottom. YouTube only has two fullscreen zoom options, so playing the Last Jedi trailer resulted in either a small video window surrounded by letter- and pillar-boxing or a fullscreen view with the notch obscuring the left side of the video. Netflix is slightly better but you’re still stuck choosing between giant black borders around your video or the notch.
No doubt popular apps will be updated over time, but first impressions count and out of the box the screen design and the notch are immature slices of technology.
The design also drops the home button, and the software features normally associated with the iconic button have been replaced with swipes and gestures – a common approach on other platforms but a first for Apple’s iPhone. Forbes’ David Phelan takes a closer look at the new controls in his review:
There have been big changes to the iPhone’s user experience. The biggest changes for years, or possibly for ever. To open the iPhone X from the lock screen, you swipe up from the bottom of the display (after three seconds, a bar and the words ‘Swipe up to open’ helpfully appear to remind you).
When you’re in an app, it’s the same swipe that takes you back to the home screen, complete with an animation that sees the app shrink back into its shortcut icon, in just the right place. All well and good, but this took me literally two days to stop me from trying to press the missing Home Button. Muscle memory is a powerful thing after years of iPhone use. And there’s more. Losing the Home Button means no double-press to launch multi-tasking. Now, you swipe up and pause, and the open apps appear as before.
Was it all worth it? Apple dropped the home button and TouchID from the iPhone X, as well as forcing the notch onto the screen, just so it could implement facial recognition. In the hands of the tech-savvy reviewers FaceID is getting a tentative thumbs up – its great indoors and in dark environments but put it in sunlight or under fluorescent lights and the accuracy drops. You also need to have the sensors in a ‘sweet spot’ close to your face.
Matthew Panzarino’s experience is similar to that of a number of reviewers. It works under most circumstances but there are edge cases that are causing issues:
It works so quickly and seamlessly that after a while, you forget it’s unlocking the device — you just raise and swipe. Every once in a while you’ll catch the Face ID animation as it unlocks. Most of the time, though, it just goes. This, coupled with the new “all swipe” interface, makes using the phone and apps feel smooth and interconnected.
…When Face ID did fail for me, it was almost always a function of one of two things: I wasn’t looking at the phone when it made the attempt (I have attention detection toggled on) or it was at too steep an angle and couldn’t see my whole face. If it was pointed at me and I was looking, it opened. There were definitely a couple of failed tries, but no more than I’ve seen with a Touch ID finger placement not being good enough. A second swipe/try typically opened it.
Away from the new technology is the camera. Apple has prided itself on a strong and user-friendly imaging system, and the iPhone X continues that tradition, although with no significant improvement in the quality the camera from Cupertino is still going to be narrowly beaten by the Galaxy handsets for the ‘ultimate smartphone camera’ trophy. The head to head comparisons with the new iOS 11 software all be fun, but for the moment Todd Haselton for CNBC covers the basics:
The front-facing camera is a bump up from the iPhone 8 and iPhone 8 Plus with a new “portrait” camera mode. Portrait lets you take professional-looking pictures with “bokeh” or the fun blurred effect that you see from high-end cameras. Until now, portrait mode was only reserved for the cameras on the back of the iPhone 7 Plus and iPhone 8 Plus.
It works surprisingly well but isn’t perfect. Sometimes the camera tries to blur parts of the picture in the foreground a little too much, which means some of the corners of your hair or face might appear foggy. That’s only if you put portrait mode on, however, and you can otherwise expect a first-class camera experience from both the front and back cameras on the iPhone X.
It’s very early days in the review cycle, but Apple has the headlines it wants to reassure the public before the handset goes on general sale this Friday. The iPhone X will become the new norm for Apple. Whether that translates to the wider smartphone market remains to be seen, but the faithful geekerati will be happy with this update to the iPhone. Lance Ulanoff finishes up with the highlights:
The iPhone X changes the iPhone experience, but for the most part those changes are for the better. I’m positive that those fearing the loss of the home button will forget about its absence 48 hours — tops — after buying the phone. Face ID and gestures are better, more convenient ways unlock and do basic tasks on the phone. That’s progress. Even if you say, “No thanks,” to the iPhone X, this is the future, so just get ready for it.