Otherwise, there are plenty of cheaper smartphones with excellent features. And the iPhone X isn’t perfect. Losing the home button will make it awkward to use for a while.
And although the face scanner for unlocking the device is impressive and creepily accurate, in many situations, it didn’t work as quickly as a fingerprint scanner. It also failed to unlock the phone when I wore a pair of Persol sunglasses.
The iPhone X feels ahead of its time, perfect for a target audience of technology enthusiasts and obsessive photographers. Everyone else may want to wait awhile to buy.
An iPhone X overview
First, the basics: The iPhone X has a 5.8-inch screen that is larger than the 5.5-inch display on the iPhone 8 Plus and the 4.7-inch screen on the iPhone 8. Yet the iPhone X’s overall body is smaller than that of the iPhone 8 Plus (though a little bit larger than that of the iPhone 8).
Apple managed to squeeze a larger screen onto a smaller body by eliminating the iPhone’s bezel, which is the border surrounding the display. The screen takes up the entire face of the device, with the exception of a notch at the top containing the infrared face scanner.
In the process of removing the bezel, Apple also eliminated the home button. As a result, controlling the iPhone X mostly involves using touch gestures. When inside an app or unlocking the phone, swiping up from the bottom brings you to the home screen. That’s simple, but other functions are trickier. To open the app switcher, a popular feature, you swipe up from the bottom and hold your finger for a second. Many times, I lifted my thumb too soon before opening this shortcut. (On past iPhones, you would just press the home button twice to open the app switcher.)
Apple has included a shortcut on the phone called Reachability, which lowers the top of the screen to make it easier for one-handed users to reach for buttons or apps on the top row with their thumb. To engage it, swipe downward from the bottom of the screen. Yet it often took me multiple attempts to swipe the sweet spot before successfully opening it. It is much easier to use Reachability with other iPhones: you just tap the home button twice.
I struggled with the new iPhone controls when I ran into a bug. One morning, the Amazon app was loaded on the screen — then it froze.
I tried swiping up to leave the app, then holding two physical side buttons down to shut down the phone, but to no avail.
I fumbled around for at least 10 minutes before I read a guide that revealed that pressing three physical buttons in a sequence would force a restart.
These are troubling signs for how less technologically inclined people may respond to the iPhone X. For the last decade, the iPhone has been a computer that anyone can use without reading an instruction manual. With the iPhone X, that is no longer the case.
Testing Face ID
Apple’s Face ID, the official name for its face scanner technology, works by spraying an object with infrared dots and stitching the patterns into a detailed 3D image of your face to determine whether you are the owner of the smartphone before unlocking it.
Face ID continues to update this map of your face with more information every time you unlock your smartphone — whether you are wearing a scarf or a hat or growing facial hair. In addition, Face ID can authorize mobile payments, log in to apps and create animated emojis that mimic your face movements.
I put Face ID through dozens of tests and it recognized my face in most situations, including when I wore a beanie, Ray-Ban sunglasses or goggles for my Halloween costume or draped a dog toy over my head. It worked in pitch dark at night and outside on a sunny day.
But Face ID worked inconsistently — or not at all — when I lay the iPhone X flat on a table or my night stand, wore a gas mask for my Halloween costume, walked around in bright sunlight at a park or wore Persol sunglasses. (According to Apple, these particular sunglasses probably blocked the part of the infrared spectrum used by Face ID.) It also didn’t work when I tried using the face scanner while slurping a bowl of noodles.
Ultimately, it was faster to unlock the iPhone 8 with Touch ID, the fingerprint sensor, than it was to unlock the iPhone X with Face ID in most situations. Unlocking with a fingerprint sensor is one rapid gesture: You hold your fingerprint over the sensor, and the phone unlocks in less than a second. With Face ID, you have to wait for the camera to scan your face, which sometimes takes more than a second; you can swipe up to unlock the phone before or after the scan completes.
To be fair, Touch ID sometimes failed to scan my fingerprint on previous iPhones, like when my hands were sweaty, damp or dirty. Over the long term, Face ID is likely to save more time than using Touch ID because Face ID only failed in rare circumstances.
The wow factors
Before reviewing the iPhone X, I used an iPhone 8 Plus for two weeks for comparison. Both devices have a similar rear camera system with two lenses. The two cameras work together to show the picture’s main subject in sharp focus while gently blurring the background. Apple calls this Portrait mode, also known as the bokeh effect.
The dual-lens camera is extremely compelling, with Portrait mode making photos of even the most mundane things — like a bowl of ramen — look artistic and stunning. But the drawback was that the iPhone 8 Plus was so bulky that it was miserable to carry around and using the device with one hand felt impossible.
That means the iPhone X’s dual-lens camera and phone size may be a major draw for people. The iPhone X’s camera is slightly better than the camera on the iPhone 8 Plus because one lens has a higher aperture to let in more light. As a result, Portrait mode photos looked better (subjects were even clearer in the foreground), and so did photos taken in low light.
Another must mention: the screen. It uses OLED technology, a type of display with better color accuracy and contrast than its predecessor, LCD. That made the screen on the iPhone X look more vibrant than the ones on the iPhone 8 Plus and iPhone 8, which still use LCD. I also preferred the colors on the screen to those on the Samsung Galaxy Note 8, the $950 phablet that earned top ratings for its display. The Samsung device’s display colors looked bluer and less natural than those on the iPhone X.
In terms of features, the iPhone X is the most impressive smartphone ever made. It’s worth the $999 — but that doesn’t mean you should buy it. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend the iPhone X to my tech-crazed friends in Silicon Valley, but the iPhone 8 is just as fast while being simpler and more familiar to use.
Then again, if you are willing to get up early to line up for a $999 phone, you are probably the target demographic for the iPhone X anyway. Make sure you wear something comfortable.
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