We just got a quick chance to play with the iPhone X, Apple’s new flagship phone arriving later this year.
The thing that a lot of people want to talk about with the iPhone X is its $999 starting price, but when you have the phone in your hand, it feels… worth it. The X is an extremely beautiful device, with a stainless steel band and glass back curving into a 5.8-inch OLED display that stretches all the way across the front of the phone. It’s a bigger display than the 5.5-inch Plus-size iPhones, but a much, much smaller body. Those bezels — turns out they’re huge. Happily, the X is also a little thicker and less slippery than the iPhone 7, which was basically suicidal in its ability to fly out of my hands. If anything, the X evokes the original iPhone more than anything, with that stainless steel band and black front. Compared to what Samsung is doing with curved OLED displays on Galaxy devices, it’s very different: there’s still a black border around the display. The phone feels small, but in a different way than, say, the S8.
Apple’s calling this a “Super Retina Display” with 1125 x 2436 pixels of resolution, making it the highest-density screen on any iPhone. It’s super sharp to look at and punchy and vibrant as you’d expect from an OLED screen. It has all of Apple’s signature tech, too, including 3D Touch and TrueTone automatic calibration. I’ve generally preferred LCDs to OLEDs, but the X OLED display doesn’t seem to share any of the extreme oversaturation or pixel matrix weirdness of other OLEDs I’ve seen.
The screen is the star of the show, and FaceID actually works
The screen dictates everything about the iPhone X’s design, including its lack of a home button. This will probably be one of the most controversial things about the phone among iPhone users, but Apple has done a lot of work to make iOS feel natural without a home button. I couldn’t test out the new FaceID authentication myself without setting it up, but it was configured for one of Apple’s demo assistants, and it worked every time he showed it off, even under the frenetic conditions and bright lights of the demo area.
FaceID works because of the TrueDepth camera system that’s tucked into the display notch at the top of the phone — there’s a lot of sensors packed in there, including a IR depth camera and a projector that throws 30,000 infrared dots on your face. The systems reads the map, matches it against the stored image on the phone using a neural network processor built into the phone, and unlocks the phone. Apple says it won’t work if you’re not paying attention, and sure enough, the phone wouldn’t unlock when the demo assistant had his eyes closed. When he opened his eyes, the phone quickly unlocked. It was pretty impressive.
Apple says the system learns your face, even if you’re wearing glasses, a hat, or change your hairstyle. And importantly, it says the system can’t be fooled by a photograph of you. Overall it’s all much better than the face-unlock systems we’ve seen on other smartphones, but we’ll have to really test it out in harsher conditions. And try to fool it, of course.
The lack of a home button does lead to some new interface patterns you’ll have to learn, though. You wake up the screen with just a tap — or better, by picking it up, which turns on the screen automatically. That makes sense, but my muscle memory got in the way of the new vertical gestures several times: where swiping up used to open Control Center, it’s now how you multitask: you swipe up to go home, and swipe up and hold to enter the app switcher. Control Center is now a swipe down from the right top edge, and the notifications shade is a swipe down from the top left.
Apple Pay is now different as well: instead of pointing your phone at the card reader and using TouchID, you first double-click the (larger) side button, authenticate with your face, and point the phone at the reader. It’s a little less smooth than just grabbing your phone and pointing it to pay, but it’s not terrible either.
All these new gestures definitely feel a little messy — especially that swipe-and-hold move, which took me a few tries to get right. But I suspect it’ll be a quick adjustment once we have the phone for real.
The front camera is more important than the rear one
That front camera system powers a whole bunch of stuff, including new animated emoji that react to your face and some extremely impressive new filters in Snapchat. Portrait Mode is now also available on the front camera, as is Apple’s new Portrait Lighting effect. We’ve reached the point where the front camera on the iPhone is now more important and interesting than the rear one.
The rear camera on the iPhone X hasn’t been ignored, though, and it’s largely the same as the new dual-camera iPhone 8 Plus. It’s dual lens, but with a brighter f/2.4 telephoto lens that has OIS just like the f/1.8 wide-angle camera.
The back of the phone is less unique than the front. It’s the same glass and metal sandwich as the iPhone 8, with dust and water resistance and wireless charging based on the Qi standard. Apple’s selling Mophie and Belkin Qi charging pads in its stores, but next year it’s putting out a new charging pad called the AirPower that can charge an iPhone, AirPods, and an Apple Watch all at once, with power information sent to the iPhone display. (Apple also says its working with Qi to make all of that part of the standard, but we’ll see how that goes.)
Apple says the iPhone X lasts two hours longer than the iPhone 7 between charges, and of course claims its A11 Bionic chip with two high-performance cores and four high-efficiency cores is faster than ever. But we’ll have to wait until we’re able to review it to put those claims to the test.
Oh, and there’s no headphone jack, which is uniformly annoying on every new phone that omits it. But Apple’s all about wireless now, so make sure you save up for AirPods or Beats X or some other wireless headphones as well.
The iPhone X doesn’t arrive until November, and based on what we’ve seen in our brief impressions, it’s going to be quite popular when it does. Even if it does start at a thousand dollars.