iPhone X review: Apple’s new £1,000 phone almost feels like the future
UK exclusive: The Independent's technology critic David Phelan was one of a handful of journalists worldwide to be given full access to review the new iPhone X
It’s the most anticipated smartphone in years, and its success will be important for Apple. I was one of just a few journalists to be given a chance to spend the last nine days getting to grips with the new iPhone X (written X but pronounced 10). There’s quite a bit to say.
This is one of the key features on the new phone and it’s a winner. I’ve gone into more detail separately here but the essence is that the Home Button found on all previous iPhones, and the fingerprint sensor, Touch ID, have been removed. Now, a sophisticated facial recognition system means that when you look at the phone, if it recognises you, it unlocks.
Other phone manufacturers have included facial recognition but this one is significantly more consistent and reliable. It works in low light, and even in pitch darkness (although, to be fair, the screen lights up when you lift the phone or tap it, so this casts some light on you). It works with glasses on, glasses off, contact lenses, even with some sunglasses, though not mine, it turns out.
Is it 100 per cent reliable? No, but it’s pretty close. The only times it didn’t recognise me were when it was lying flat on the table and I was leaning in too close. It needs to see your eyes, nose and mouth to work.
It feels slightly magical and utterly personal. The frustrating thing when demonstrating the unlock is that it doesn’t work for anyone else, so nobody gets to feel just how intimate it is.
It’s also very advanced: if the phone rings and it sees you’re looking at the screen, the iPhone thoughtfully lowers the ring volume – after all, you’ve spotted the phone’s ringing, right?
New interface gestures
For the first time in a decade, the iPhone works in a noticeably different way. Previously, to wake the phone, to unlock the lock screen, to get to the Home screen from within any app or to zoom back to the first Home screen from any other Home screen, you pressed the Home button.
Now, you swipe up from the bottom of the screen to achieve the same result.
To reach the multitasking screen showing all open apps, or to pre-arm Apple Pay, you double-pressed the Home button. Now, you swipe up and pause until the multiple open apps appear.
It’s a straightforward change but it takes time to acclimatise. It was more than a day before I stopped pressing an imaginary Home button. If I now pick up an iPhone 8, however, I try to swipe up. My muscle memory has been updated.
Swiping to go back to the Home screen became more familiar the more I watched it: the animation which closes an app and tucks it back into its individual place is smoothly done and re-inforces the memory of how to do it.
The simplest change turns out to be the new way to invoke Apple Pay. Now, it’s a matter of pressing twice on the side button (previously called the Sleep/Wake button) while looking at the display. This button is now almost twice its previous size so it’s easier to find.
Pressing this button twice is more activity than resting your thumb on the Touch ID sensor. But if you have had problems making Touch ID work (pressing instead of just touching the sensor is a common issue), this double press is more straightforward and brings it into line with the gesture used on Apple Watch.
There’s another Face ID dividend, too. Apps that worked with Touch ID now all, automatically, work with Face ID instead.
Siri used to be brought to life by the Home button, too, by a long-press on Touch ID. That’s now a long-press on the side button, too. All very well, but the knock-on effect of that change is that powering the iPhone X down is now achieved in a different way.
It’s a small thing but it’s the interface change I like least.
Almost without exception, every gadget in the world is turned off in the same way: pressing a power switch or button. Here, you need to press two buttons, the side button and either volume button. Hold these down and after a while the familiar “Slide to Power Off” message appears.
Now, it’s true, powering a smartphone off is more rarely done these days, but there’s something counter-intuitive to have to press and hold two buttons to switch something off.
There are other changes to adapt to, like the Control Centre which contains icons to toggle airplane mode, Bluetooth and wi-fi on and off. On the iPhone X you swipe down from the top right corner of display instead of swiping up on previous iPhone screens. I found this change simple and quick to remember.
Oh, and there’s one other change, and it’s a real benefit. When you’re in an app, a white bar appears at the base of the display (black if the dominant colour on the screen is lighter). You can now swipe right or left on this bar to move from one app to the next. If you’re, say, copying text from an email to a note, swiping directly from one app to the next without having to return to the Home screen in between is a genuine advantage.
This is the first OLED screen on an iPhone and has the benefits of this technology, that is, high contrast with deep blacks that LCD screens don’t match. Apple says it has worked to ensure colour fidelity and much more – it’s not an off-the-shelf panel.
It looks great: bright, extremely vivid without being over-saturated and punchily pin-sharp. No surprise on the last bit as the screen has a high resolution of 458 pixels per inch.
Apple said there was considerable work on off-axis colour, that is, how the colours look while you’re viewing the screen from an extreme angle. I’d say there is a bluish cast evident as you angle the phone away from you, though this is a characteristic of OLED.
It’s probably made more noticeable because of True Tone, the Apple technology which measures the colour of ambient light and compensates to create a truer colour. From head-on, the iPhone X’s colour accuracy is highly impressive.
This display is a different screen ratio than previous iPhones. The iPhone 8 and 8 Plus displays have a 16:9 screen ratio while the iPhone X screen, measured to each corner, has a ratio of 19.488:9 or a little over 2:1.
Many phones have this longer, narrower screen format now, such as the LG V30 and Samsung Galaxy Note8. The longer shape is fine, but it takes a little while for it to look quite normal.
It also has High Dynamic Range (HDR) capabilities, so you can watch compatible content in both HDR10 and Dolby Vision formats.
The iPhone X design is very different from previous iPhones but still instantly recognisable as an Apple device.
The visible screen doesn’t have a square corner on it. The top and bottom corners follow the curves of the iPhone’s edges perfectly.
This is achieved using a flexible display which can be folded down, with individual pixels controlled to make a perfectly round edge. The corners around the TrueDepth camera system also have rounded areas where right angles might be expected.
And if you’re using an app which hasn’t been updated to the new display shape, the letterboxed image you see has subtly curved corners as well. The only time you do see sharp corners is if you’re watching video or viewing photos, that kind of thing.
There is definitely a frame around the display and it’s not quite as narrow as some had expected, though it’s clearly a design choice rather than a technical restriction, I’d say. But the point is that the chin and forehead have gone now.
And the look of the phone from the front is highly pleasing.
The edge of the phone is stainless steel, a little like the antenna band of the iPhone 4 but this is a gleaming, shiny-shiny version. The antenna band peeps through on both sides near the top and bottom.
The rear is made of glass so, like the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus, this phone can handle wireless charging. The phone comes in two colours, space grey and silver. To help the TrueDepth camera system blend in better, the screen is framed in black glass on both colour options.
Apple has taken the detail of the design seriously. The glass on the rear is coloured with a seven-layer ink process and the stainless steel band on the space grey version is darkened to match the glass. Whatever, the result is opulent and classy, looking and feeling great. The pillowed edge to the glass front and back makes for a smooth, hand-friendly feel. A glass-backed phone will trouble some, but in the last nine days I’ve used it without a case – and without a scratch.
The rear cameras stand proud, as they do on every recent iPhone. This time, the twin cameras sit one below the other rather than side by side – because the camera and sensors on the front of the phone prevented them being placed any other way.
The screen-heavy front, highly polished antenna band and glossy glass back work together to make this the most luxurious-looking iPhone yet.
TrueDepth Camera system
This is what powers Face ID, and takes up a wide, if shallow, swathe at the top of the display. It’s referred to by some as “the notch”. There’s a lot of technology crammed into this area: a regular camera, infra-red camera, dot projector, flood illuminator, proximity sensor, ambient light sensor, speaker and microphone.
But it’s a design which has been divisive because it’s a bite out of the display.
At first, it’s something that really dominates what you see. It takes a chunk out of the Home screen, for instance, which has consequences for the information revealed in the top line of the display, of which more in a moment.
Your eye is really drawn to it when you’re viewing a photo on the screen and you zoom in. Or when you’re using an app like 1Password, the excellent password saver that I literally could not manage without, which has been optimised for the new display shape. Or watching video, which you can choose to view letterboxed or full-screen, but for one notch.
And then, you suddenly realise after a few days’ use, you barely notice it, in fact viewing a photo at maximum magnification again emphasises how the display dominates the phone as the photo sneaks into the top corners.
If, like me, you’re one of the iPhone users who liked to display the battery strength percentage on the Home screen, you’ll see it’s no longer possible. The TrueDepth camera system means there’s now only room to show the time to the left of the notch, and phone signal strength plus wi-fi or cellular data and the battery icon to the right. You can’t configure this differently.
I miss the percentage, but at least it’s not far away. Swipe down from the top right corner to invoke Control Centre and the percentage is there, alongside carrier name and some other info.
These are all changes that come about because the camera system is where it is. But the benefits it brings are worth having. Most obviously for Face ID and Apple Pay, but also the capacity to shoot photos from the front-facing camera with the Portrait Lighting capabilities only found on the rear cameras on the iPhone 8 Plus.
It’s also the source of Animoji, the cute, remarkable animated animal, robot and alien faces that move in concert with your facial expressions – it analyses 50 muscle movements. Apple says that in fact Animoji were the kind of experience that TrueDepth camera was designed for, long before using it for authentication was even thought about.
Whatever, they’re spectacularly good fun and will be something that iPhone X owners will enjoy making and sharing. It’s fun just to see the fox, rabbit, dog, cat and all the others responding to the faces you pull, whether that’s frowning, winking or raising one eyebrow Roger Moore-style.
But you can also record messages of up to 10 seconds. These are outlandishly good fun and can be sent to non-iPhone users, too.
Animoji are a gimmick, of course, but one that is so appealing, it would be churlish not to applaud it. For the record, I think Animoji are going to be huge.
Like the iPhone 8, the rear cameras on the iPhone X are a pair of 12-megapixel sensors. One is a wide-angle camera with an f/1.8 aperture, as on the iPhone 8 Plus. The telephoto lens is different from on the 8 Plus. It has an f/2.4 aperture and is designed so it offers an effective 2x optical zoom by switching to it from the wide-angle.
Both sensors have optical image stabilisation (OIS), allowing for sharper images in low light. Previously, the telephoto lens on the Plus iPhones lacked OIS which meant that sometimes a better image could be achieved using digital zoom on the wide-angle sensor, and the iPhone would shoot that automatically. Now, the telephoto can shoot in lower light better thanks to its OIS, controlled by seven magnets, apparently.
And as with the 8 Plus, you can invoke Portrait mode which shoots both sensors simultaneously and uses software to create a persuasive depth-of-field effect.
The leap forward in image quality between the iPhone 7 Plus and the iPhone 8 Plus was dramatic and impressive. Here, there’s another step up, though it’s not as huge. But this is a fast, accurate and effective camera that delivers tremendous results.
Portrait Lighting, a system which is still in beta, is found both on the rear cameras here and on the iPhone 8 Plus. It creates effects called Studio Light which adds brightness to faces and Stage Light which turns the background black to put you firmly in the spotlight. There are other effects, too.
But perhaps the most remarkable thing is that these effects are also available on the iPhone X’s front camera which is a single-lens affair. These selfies have the same pin-sharp subject, blurred background as the rear cameras manage.
Video playback, whether from Netflix or onboard content, looked and sounded great. The speakers on this phone, like the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus, have been improved to offer greater loudness, and voices were still clear and stood out.
The video is smooth and detailed, even though this is not a 4K-resolution display. But the contrast levels and the superb colour management make for a tremendous viewing experience.
The main logic board in the iPhone X is double-sided, so space is freed up for a bigger battery. And each day the iPhone X got me through to nighttime ready for its nightly recharge. It’s not that it was breakthrough battery life compared to, say, the iPhone 8 Plus, mind.
That’s because there are so many more pixels on the X’s screen, and so many things to keep you using the phone. I’d say I spent quite a bit of time each day unlocking the iPhone with Face ID just because I was fascinated by it.
Even at the end of my busiest day, it still had 10 per cent of juice left by bedtime.
Apple has said that its aim with the very first iPhone was to make the hardware virtually disappear. With this handset, we’re getting close. Though there definitely is a visible bezel around the phone’s display, this feels like a design choice rather than a technical limitation and it looks good. And when you’re not looking at the screen, you see the gleaming stainless steel frame or the glamorous shiny back.
The notch that I thought would trouble me just didn’t, not after the first day or two, at least.
And the absence of the Home button, perhaps the biggest change to how you use an iPhone, is also something I adapted to reasonably quickly. I love the iPhone’s Home button but I’d say this new interface is that bit more intuitive.
All backed up by Face ID which recognises me almost every time, with a level of reliability which puts similar systems on other phones in the shade.
The OLED screen is exceptionally good, bright and immersive, with pin-sharp resolution and super-smooth video playback. The camera is about the best there’s been on an iPhone, perhaps on any smartphone. And Animoji are grin-inducing, brilliant fun.
The iPhone X is fast, responsive and highly effective. Mostly, new phones are iterative upgrades to last year’s model. But this? This feels like the future.