Apple iPhone X In-Depth Review by Nate Lanxon: A Tech's Message Special
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Apple iPhone X review
By Nate Lanxon
The iPhone X’s launch ushered in a huge number of simultaneous debates — it’s too expensive, why did Apple kill fingerprint sensors already, how will we learn all these new gestures! — and of course it brought use of the word “notch” back to a popularity not seen since Minecraft’s creator Notch was in the public eye following Minecraft’s sale to Microsoft.
I’ve been using the iPhone X for a number of weeks now and while it’s easy to wax lyrical about how wonderful it is — and indeed, many reviewers have almost resorted to poetry to describe it — it’s not without its drawbacks. It’s the first model released in a new era of Apple’s industrial design theory and as such there are teething issues. Despite them, I believe Apple has delivered something special and its many pros outweigh the small number of cons, and that epic £1,000 price tag.
I’ve focussed this review on things that can’t be garnered from YouTube videos or looking at the product in a shop. We all know it looks lovely, you can go and see how it feels like, you can watch YouTube videos of how games run on it. So I’m going to look at the things that aren’t immediately obvious from watching videos or playing with it in a shop.
The headline feature of the iPhone X is Face ID, the security system that replaces previous fingerprint sensors in favour of letting the iPhone X have an all-screen display. I can’t comment on its reliability compared to fingerprint sensors, or its spoofability using 3D-printed masks, but I can attest to it working very well for me. Initial setup is faster than it was with TouchID — a few rotations of the head in front of the front-facing camera and you’re all set. I’d say it’s about as fast to unlock the iPhone as Touch ID, but its real convenience comes into play when the device autocompletes passwords or authenticates Apple Pay transactions.
In the past, in order to unlock the iPhone’s internal password management system, the phone would throw up an on-screen prompt when an app or website requested access to stored credentials or credit card numbers. You’d see the prompt, place your finger on the sensor, and a few moments later the passwords would be unlocked. With Face ID, this verification happens automatically. No sooner does an app request verification to unlock passwords does Face ID fire up, check its you, and grant access. Arguably this is the best demonstration of the technology, as it’s the one use case in my testing that I would genuinely miss when going back to using a fingerprint sensor.
It works in the dark, too, and functions well despite my beard growing or being cut, and whether or not I’m wearing my glasses, or a fetching hat. It works when I’m looking at the bottom of the iPhone’s screen, so I’m not forced to stare into the camera lens.
One situation in which it often doesn’t work is when I have the phone docked next to my bed at night and I turn to unlock it with my head partially obscured by a pillow. Touch ID had no problem here as my hand was reaching for the phone anyway, but Face ID tends to ask me for a PIN during these moments. It also doesn’t seem to respond unless the phone is in portrait orientation relative to your face. These are limitations I’d like to see addressed in a future version.
Screen and Interface
The iPhone X features Apple's first OLED in a phone. Previous models have all used older LCDs, for their displays, and this upgrade delivers a number of benefits, such as richer colours and better contrast - particularly noticeable when watching high-dynamic range videos from the iTunes Store, such as Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. As a side-note, it's not the company's first foray into using an OLED; the Apple Watch has used this technology since its inception. (That’s a little Christopher Nolan joke for you, film fans.)
With many OLEDs, namely Samsung's, colours are highly saturated. It's a look a lot of people like, but Apple prefers to go for accuracy and realism over vivid richness. For this reason, the iPhone X's screen is more comparable to the iPhone 8 Plus's LCD than the Samsung Galaxy S8’s AMOLED than I was expecting.
There are a few differences though. Firstly, the blacks. This is something of a cliche to write when it comes to OLED (and indeed plasma TV screens back in the day), but the black levels really are better on the iPhone X than the iPhone 8 Plus. It's rarely noticeable within apps or on the homescreen, but if you ramp up the brightness of both screens and play a video or look at a high-contrast photo, you can see a depth to them on the iPhone X that isn't quite as apparent on the iPhone 8 Plus.
A lot of attention has been given by other reviewers and the public to “the notch” — the cut-out at the top of the iPhone X’s screen. While most of the phone’s display is covered with OLED pixels, the notch contains the front-facing camera and FaceID sensors. It creates something of a partial eclipse at the top of the phone, either side of which a finger nail’s width of OLED is allowed to remain in order to give the impression of an all-screen display.
How annoying or useful this is depends on personal preference I expect. In most cases, I’ve stopped noticing it. For apps that have been updated to take advantage of the bigger screen (and they do have to be updated) the result is generally elegant. In the top left “corner” on most apps, the time is displayed; in the right, network strength and battery life is indicated. This remains constant through most apps I’ve tested that have updated their interfaces (Reeder, Instagram, PocketCasts, TweetBot, Audible, nPlayer and more). Other apps, such as community chat tool Discord, mask the notch by essentially including a black strip at the top of their design so it appears the app itself just starts below the notch.
In these examples the notch is no interference at all. Apps get to function as a standard rectangle, just with a couple of horns at the top given over to a clock and battery icon. No big deal. But — and of course there’s a but — there are times the notch is distracting. By default, viewing videos full-screen in Apple’s Movies app shrinks the image just slightly so that the picture begins next to the notch. You can zoom in to have the video fill the entire screen — as you can with photos — and then the notch cuts into the image. The closest comparison I can make is sitting in a cinema with a large person sitting in front of you but about three seats to the left. Problematic to enjoying a film? No; but a little annoying they couldn’t sit one seat further to the left so your view is unobstructed? Yes.
It’s no reason alone not to buy the phone, as a person sitting in front of you is no reason not to go and see a movie, and I’d take this drawback over going back to a handset with bigger bezels and unused display space. In fact, using the iPhone 8 Plus after using the iPhone X makes it feel bulky despite its screen actually being smaller than the iPhone X's. But the notch feels distinctly un-Apple, which often means it’s a generational problem that will eventually be innovated out of the way somehow.
We’ve seen it before: Apple needed to shrink the chassis of the MacBook, so it incrementally got rid of floppy drives, then CD drives, then full-size USB ports; it wanted to fill an iPod with a big screen, so it killed the iconic clickwheel; and of course it wanted thinner iPhones, so it waved goodbye to the headphone socket. Each time this happens, Apple tends to suck up the ire of temporarily angry fans in favour of a long-term step forward. I think the notch will eventually be crafted away, just as the notch itself effectively innovated TouchID away.
For apps that haven’t been updated for the iPhone X’s display, the device letterboxes them (or pillarboxes them, depending on your perspective). The deep blacks offered by the OLED makes this letterboxing less noticeable than I'd have expected. It also has the knock-on effect of making apps that have been updated feel really spacious and elegant.
Some apps have taken advantage of this really well. Games, for example, like Futurama Worlds of Tomorrow, make full use of the entire iPhone X's display, which helps this city-building simulation feel less cluttered and fiddly. Other games, such as The Elder Scrolls: Legends, look visibly outdated thanks to the density with which visual assets are crammed into the previous iPhone iteration’s aspect ratio, while blank space to either side sit unused. As ever, some developers will rush while others see little point hastily updating their products for incremental benefit.
Touching on Gestures
When Apple brought fingerprint sensors to the iPhone, I found myself frustrated for a long time when using my iPad. I’d get so used to the phone unlocking when I pressed the home button that when the non-touch-enabled iPad home button didn’t unlock the screen for me, I cursed my internal force of habit. I expected the same with the iPhone X pushing me from unlocking the device with my finger to using my face. I was wrong.
From day one I’ve been surprised at how familiar the process feels on this device. iPhones already wake their screens up when you lift them to face you, and on the iPhone X this triggers the FaceID system to fire up and identify you, which it does in about a second. I then use my thumb to swipe up on the display to get to the home screen. It’s no slower than TouchID, with the exception that there’s no option to go straight to the home screen once unlocked as there was with TouchID. You must always unlock and then swipe up.
Apple says this is because the improved lock screen layout and notifications may be the reason you’re looking at the phone, and to automatically move them out of the way every time would be annoying. Me, I prefer that to be my choice. The default setting is also for notifications, such as recent messages, to be concealed on the lock screen to prevent strangers being able to read them. When the phone recognises you, the content of the messages appears automatically. This feature was very annoying in my experience. It slows you down. There’s that weird feeling of frustration you can experience when waiting to buy a train ticket in a queue when your train is about to depart, but the person in front of you is putting their change away still at the counter rather than moving to one side to let you speak to the salesperson. I turned this feature off within a day.
With the removal of the home button comes the need to learn some new gestures. Instead of pressing the button to close an app, you swipe up from the bottom of the screen; instead of swiping up from the bottom of the screen to bring up the control centre, you swipe down from the top-right corner of the display; to close currently open apps, you swipe up from the bottom of the screen but only a short distance (too far and the device thinks you’re quitting the app), then press and hold the front-most app to reveal a “close” button in the corner. Then press it.
It’s a lot of new muscle memory to develop. I keep wanting to access the control centre to pause music by swiping up from the bottom of the screen as before, but end up accidentally quitting out to the home screen. Other times, I want the app switcher interface but swiping up the screen further than required also returns you to the homescreen. It’s a balancing act, like finding the biting point on a car’s clutch. I think some work needs to be done here. Maybe more could be done with the 3D touch sensors. Could force-pressing with two fingers not bring up the app switcher to force an app to quit? Or could swiping up with one finger close an app, but with two fingers brings up control centre? I think Apple is probably making the best of a difficult situation, but it’s taking some getting used to and I particularly dislike this aspect of the iPhone X and after using it for many weeks I’m still not used to it.
Inside the iPhone X things are strikingly similar to the iPhone 8 Plus, albeit in a physical layout on the logic board that could pass as an artform. A look at iFixit’s teardown is highly recommended.
At its heart is the custom-designed A11 Bionic CPU. Apple’s been designing its own mobile phone processors for seven years now, and these chips are tremendous examples of mobile efficiency, both in terms of horsepower and energy consumption.
The iPhone X’s implementation is no exception. The phone screams with speed and nothing that was realistically thrown at it apps-wise could slow it down. Amongst the more power-intensive usages is augmented reality. Apple was correct in promising a fantastic AR experience, but it comes at the cost of heat and battery life. I tested a game Apple demonstrated on stage at a keynote — The Machines — which creates a sort-of tower defence game virtually superimposed on a kitchen table (in my case) in real time. Being able to walk around a virtual game board was a lot of fun. Moving physically closer to the virtual characters in order to zoom in brought back memories of a famous line from the TV sitcom Red Dwarf. To zoom, “simply move your head closer to the object.”
It works wonderfully well, but the device gets really, really hot. Not to scalding levels, but enough to make it uncomfortable to play for more than 15 minutes or so. It’s a huge drain on the battery too, so playing with the phone plugged into the mains is advised. For many applications, such as IKEA’s augmented reality furniture arrangement app, this isn’t a big deal. You’re likely only spending a few minutes with the AR feature in use. But while Apple delivers well on performance, and far above anything else I’ve seen on a mobile device, the next logical step should be reducing power consumption and increasing overall efficiency. It will open the door to more apps and games being viably played away from battery packs or plug sockets.
Powering all of this is Apple’s custom silicon within the six-core A11 Bionic chip. It runs at 2.39GHz — exactly the same as the iPhone 8 Plus. Both are backed up by 3GB of RAM. It may be interesting to note that while I was benchmarking both devices using Geekbench 4, the iPhone X was being reported as having 2.7GB of RAM compared to the iPhone 8 Plus’s 2.9GB. But don’t worry, fellow geeks — both devices have 3GB installed, and the discrepancy is in relation to the fact that benchmarking apps report how much memory is available to them, not how much is installed. Some memory is reserved for the operating system and other core processes.
There was a small discrepancy, however, between the CPU performance of the iPhone 8 Plus and iPhone X, in which the iPhone 8 Plus appears to offer slightly greater processing power overall. Geekbench 4 gave the iPhone X a score of 10,094, while the iPhone 8 Plus scored 10,252. All you need to know is that the higher the number, the better. In this case it’s less than a two percent difference. But it surprised me that Apple’s flagship might be fractionally less powerful than its sibling, so I ran another set of tests on the phone, this time using the Antutu benchmarking app. The iPhone 8 Plus again came out with a slightly higher score, this time by eight percent.
In real-world use, this difference is negligible to all but the most die-hard bean counters. I defy anyone to show me that they can see the difference between the iPhone 8 Plus’s performance and that of the iPhone X. They’re so close as to be identical. However, in case you’re the person who bought the iPhone 8 Plus and you’re fed up with your mate in the bar waving his iPhone X around claiming his is the better device — know that although he’s mostly correct, your phone is technically, on paper, marginally more powerful for some reason. And those reasons may have as much to do with power management or the fact that the iPhone X has more pixels to drive on its larger screen as anything else. But hey, if you’re stuck in a drunken willy-waving competition, at least iPhone 8 Plus owners have one tiny advantage in the argument.
And both devices far outstrip the iPhone 7 Plus. The iPhone X showed a roughly 70 percent increase in processing power over the iPhone 7 using Geekbench’s tool, and about a 25 percent increase using the Antutu benchmark. The methodology behind both apps’ calculations varies wildly, but the result remains that the iPhone X is significantly faster than Apple’s 2016 flagship no matter whose app you trust. The Geekbench tool reported the iPhone X as being about 60 percent more powerful overall than Google’s Pixel 2 XL, for the record. Although it should be taken with a pinch of salt, as almost everything — the operating system, processor, app efficiency, regulation of background processing tasks etc — is different between Google’s phone and Apple’s device. But for the willy-wavers out there, your iPhone X beats its closest competition.
Cameras and Photography
Apple's phones produce some of the best photography on the market, up there with Google's Pixel range and Samsung's Galaxy products. The iPhone X is no exception to this rule, but it's one notable area where you may not get any more for your money over and above the iPhone 8 Plus.
The iPhone X features two camera lenses, arranged this time around in vertical orientation rather than horizontally as in previous models. Apple told me this is simply to make room for the front-facing camera and its related components, which required the space towards the centre of the device.
The main wide-angle lens is identical to the one in the iPhone 8. It produces superb images, but no more superb than its slightly less costly sibling. In good light the camera can reproduce exceptional colours, and up close to an object (in my example, some flowers) the macro functionality produces beautiful background blurring. It's more effective to just look at the pictures and judge the results for yourself.
The one difference between the iPhone 8 Plus and the iPhone X is that the telephoto lens has been given optical image stabilisation and a slightly wider aperture on the newer model, meaning it can let a little more light in during darker times. Specifically, the rear telephoto lens can open to an aperture of f2.4 compared to the iPhone 8 Plus's f2.8.
In practice I actually found the wider aperture produced very little noticeable benefit to low-light performance compared to the iPhone 8 Plus. Try as I could, using Apple's stock camera app and automatic settings, I can't spot much difference between the two. The wider aperture does allow for slightly better close-up shots though, and the image stabilisation helps if you're using the telephoto lens for video on the move. There’s a definite benefit there.
Over all though, while the advantages of the iPhone X's rear camera system are small over the iPhone 8 Plus's, it's still without question one of the best cameras on the market, if not the best based on subjective evidence.
To me, ‘wireless charging’ has always been an oxymoronic promise of the battery industry. Apple’s iPhone X, and indeed the iPhone 8, does little to improve things in this regard. In order to take advantage of wireless charging, all you need is a wire to connect to a desktop charging pad, which dictates where your phone specifically must remain in order to recharge.
But Apple has, like Samsung with its Galaxy S8 (and LG with the U.S. version of the G6), opted to at least integrate the wireless charging technology inside its phones. This skirts around the problem I once got into an argument with a Powermat executive about some years ago. I argued that a wireless charging solution that simply requires you wire a charging pad into a power outlet and keep the phone in a special, often ugly case, was less a solution and more of a wilful ignorance of the word “wireless”. I probably chose the wrong time to express this viewpoint, as the argument took place at one of the company’s launch events in London.
I’m still not sold on wireless charging, but I can’t deny I’ve at least enjoyed having a wireless charging mat on my office desk for the last few weeks. I drop the iPhone X onto it when I sit down and pick it up when I want to leave. It’s always charging and although slower to charge compared to a cabled connection, it’s enjoyably convenient. It works as advertised and isn’t too fussy about precise positioning of the phone on the mat. That said, I wouldn’t buy one of these mats for myself until it charges faster. It can take hours.
When office desks and coffee shops have wireless conductivity embedded into their entire footprint — and inroads are being bade there — I’ll be far more invested in this convenient invention. I can see a future in which wireless charging points are listed in mapping apps, much like public Wi-Fi hotspots are identified in numerous travel tools and by Wi-Fi providers.
At least Apple has adopted a standard — Qi — rather than inventing its own again to control the third-party market better (see: Lightning cables, 30-pin connectors and FairPlay DRM). This will make the inevitable future — in which Apple gets rid of the Lightning charging point — a little less inconvenient for the user initially. It’s just Apple’s way (Also see: floppy disks, headphone sockets, fingerprint sensors).
I'm very happy to say this is the best iPhone Apple has ever made, but of course it is: it's the latest and also the most expensive. I have no doubt this is the direction all phones will go and, as we've seen time and time again, the design aesthetic Apple will allow to trickle down into its lower-cost devices over the coming years.
As to whether it's worth the money depends on several factors. If you have an iPhone 8 Plus and primarily want the iPhone X for photography, I wouldn't bother. You won't see big advantages in your pictures. If you want it for its processing power, again I'd say consider waiting if you have an iPhone 8 Plus already. The 8 is insanely powerful, and the iPhone X uses the same processor, so you won't get much benefit out of the box.
I also think we will see a version of the iPhone X in time that moves away from the "notch" at the top of the screen. I absolutely don't think the notch is a reason not to buy this model; it's very easy to ignore and many apps are already updated to take advantage of it. But it feels so un-Apple to have a notch that I can't help but think some “iPhone Xs”, or excess, (and let's be honest -- that'd be a cool name) in a year's time will get rid of it.
But here's the thing: we use our phones for everything now. The iPhone X is extremely expensive, but if you think about how much you'd separately spend on a brilliant digital camera, a terrific 4K camcorder, a great in-car GPS, a top-end iPod or MP3 player, a portable device for watching video, and not to mention a phone to call people, you start to realise the iPhone is priced very reasonably when you add up the cost of buying all those now-defunct products separately. And we did use to buy them all separately.
With that in mind, Apple is selling a brilliant digital camera, a terrific 4K camcorder, a great in-car GPS, a top-end iPod, a portable device for watching video, a phone to call people and everything else it does in one package, and it does them all better than anyone else. So why wouldn't you want the best one and enjoy the willy-waving cachet that comes with it for a while?
It's brilliant, I love it, it's bloody expensive and the next version will no doubt make this one seem slow or behind the times in some way. But if there was ever a time to get the best Apple has to offer and stick with it for a few years, this is the one to do it with.