Review: iPhone X

Arguably one of the biggest phone launches this year has two debates raging – paying £1000 for a phone and ‘the notch’. So, the question is, should you spend a lot of hard-earned cash on the iPhone X?

In September 2017 Apple announced the iPhone 8 as expected, but followed the announcement with the iPhone X, with the X representing ten years of the iPhone. In addition to a front and rear glass design it includes several differences to the 8 and 8 Plus models. The most obvious is the omission of the home button, which requires you to learn new gestures and does away with TouchID fingerprint recognition. Instead, the iPhone X includes FaceID, which uses the TrueDepth front-facing camera to plot 30,000 dots onto the user’s face to create a map algorithm, which is then stored on the handset. Apple claims that it is much more secure than TouchID, but does concede that if you have an ‘evil’ twin they could unlock your phone. Other inclusions are wireless charging (included in the 8/8 Plus) a virtually bezel-less OLED screen that is higher resolution than the 8/8 Plus, and an improved camera.

iphone x select 2017Design

As mentioned above, the X differs visually from the 8 as there is no home button. The edge of the phone is now adorned with ‘medical grade’ stainless steel, but the side buttons and volume switch remain as before. The front and rear glass panels are rounded to blend seamlessly into the steel rim and do give an overview impression of extremely high quality. Having glass on the rear instead of aluminium allows for wireless charging.

Dimensions-wise, the X is only marginally larger (at 143.6mm x 70.9mm x 7.7mm) than the standard 8 models (138.4mm x 67.3mm x 7.3mm). So, we’re talking 5.2mm taller, 3.6mm wider and just 0.4mm thicker, minus the camera bulge). Amazingly, it crams in a screen that is larger than the 8 Plus, at 5.8 inches, although this does have a notch out of the top to facilitate the front-facing camera, FaceID and other sensors – more on that shortly.

The only issue I have with the X over the non-Plus size models is its weight. At 174g it’s a full 26g heavier than the 8, and 36g more than the 7 (which doesn’t have the weighty rear glass of the 8). Add on a case and you are going to notice this in your pocket, whereas with my previous iPhone 6 I would often have to check that it was there.

Display

When Apple announced an OLED screen I was not overly-excited by this, as the size of the screen was of more interest. However, it is a substantial improvement over the previous screens. OLED allows each individual pixel to be switched on or off, meaning that there’s a much higher contrast and blacks are much richer. In fact, when you boot up the phone and the screen is black it’s difficult to see where the screen ends and the bezel starts. Apple state that it delivers 1,000,000 to 1 contrast ratio, and it shows.

iphone x review 0

Talking of the screen, it’s a slightly different aspect ratio to the 8, which was 16:9. The new Super Retina Display runs at 19.5:9 and a resolution of 2436x1125 at 458 PPI, which dwarfs the 8’s 1080p screen. This means that you’ll have vertical borders left and right of the display if you’re watching a movie, but given the aforementioned contrast you won’t even notice it’s there. Some apps such as YouTube do allow you to expand video to fill the screen, but of course it won’t be a true rectangle, with a notch-shaped bite out of one side.

I must admit that the display is nothing short of astounding. I have a relatively dark background, and text looks extremely crisp and pops out of it. Colours look warm and sharp, even in daylight. Apps that have been updated for the iPhone X will utilise all of the screen, making the notch more prominent, whereas apps that have not been optimised for the new model will simply be rectangular, conforming to the old aspect ratio and leaving black borders top and bottom. This is not a big deal, but you quickly notice when you load an older app. I suspect the notch was an intentional decision by Apple to make the X more recognisable – you can look at a phone from a distance and instantly recognise it as an iPhone X, just because of the notch. It’s likely that over the next 2-3 product cycles the entire range of iPhones will sport this style.

faceid

FaceID

A slightly controversial feature when initially announced, FaceID is the new way to unlock your phone. It works by projecting 30,000 dots onto your face, lit up by a ‘flood illuminator’, which are then read using the TrueDepth camera. Setup is quicker than TouchID, which required several scans of each finger that you wanted to use to unlock the phone. With FaceID you simply follow the instructions on-screen, rotating your face a couple of times. It’s fast too – when you pick up the phone the ‘raise to wake’ feature will generally switch on the screen, and invariably before you can ‘swipe up to open’ you will see the padlock change from closed to open – this means that FaceID has worked. Over the course of several days I only had one instance where FaceID did not unlock the phone first time, and this could have been due to the angle that the phone was at. It works in any lighting conditions, and will also work if you wear glasses, a hat or even grow a beard! It’s constantly updating the data stored within the phone’s secure ‘enclave’, to ensure that as you age or make any other changes these are updated within its ability to recognise you. Unlike TouchID, which allowed five fingers to unlock the device you can only store one face. Of course, you can still unlock the phone with a passcode, and this is required every 48 hours for security.

Another neat feature is that you can hide the details of notification unless FaceID recognises you. So, if you receive a text it’ll only state that a message is waiting, but when you look at your phone the message will then be displayed within the notification area – useful for the paranoid or unfaithful!

The only down-side I've found when comparing it to TouchID is when the phone is mounted in my phone cradle in the car. I'll often use Siri to open Waze (my go-to satnav app) - previously the phone would prompt me to unlock with TouchID, which I can do without taking my eyes off the road. However, FaceID only appears to work up to around 45-degree rotation, so when the phone is clamped horizontally in the cradle my only options are to remove it and use FaceID, enter the pin manually (which is a no-no) or ensure that I have the app running before I set off. I don't think that this could be fixed with a simple software update either, as various online sources suggest that the FaceID camera is angled to point downward, in line with how we usually look at our phones. 

iphone screen close up

Navigation

As you now have no home button you must alter your usual habits when working with the X. Whereas on previous models you press the home button to activate TouchID, to close an app, activate Siri or multi-task these tasks are now split. FaceID takes care of unlocking the device, and a new horizontal bar at the bottom of the screen is used to close apps. Swiping up towards the centre and right in an arc will bring up the multi-tasking capability – do it quickly and you can slide back to the previous app, and pressing and holding on an app screen brings up an X to close it. You can also swipe up (with one or more apps) to close them. Note that Apple stated several years ago that there isn’t actually a need to close apps and that it does not necessarily improve performance, but I think it’s still good practice to close them down once in a while.

Siri is now activated by pressing and holding the power button. To take a screenshot press volume up and power.

Reachability – the feature that brings the screen halfway down in order to access it single-handedly – is still there, but you have to go into the accessibility settings to enable it now. It works by swiping down on the horizontal bar at the bottom of the screen.

The notch is also used to good effect to separate access to the control centre and notification. Swipe down from the top right of the screen for control centre and from the top left for your notifications.

All-in-all the new gestures quickly become natural – so much so that when I had occasion to use my iPhone 6 again using the home button felt ‘old-fashioned’. We use gestures for everything else now, so this is a natural progression. Farewell home button, but I shall not miss you.

Camera

This was my main reason for upgrading, as with each iteration of iPhone the camera gets better. The iPhone X rocks the best camera of the current crop of Apple handsets, with dual lenses (f1/1.8 and f/2.4) on the rear that provide 2x optical telephoto lens (and therefore no loss of quality in comparison to digital zoom) and can capture at 12 megapixels. It can also record video at 4K in 60FPS, or 120FPS slow-mo at 1080p. Both lenses also have image stabilisation, which should reduce or remove camera shake. The front-facing camera has a 7-megapixel TrueDepth camera, which is also used for Animojis (see below), which allow your face to be mapped onto animated character. Digital zoom is included – up to 10x for photos and 6x for videos, but at the expense of quality.

With the 8 and X Apple introduced a new lighting feature to accompany Portrait mode, which was introduced with the 7. Several post-shot lighting effects can be applied to portrait (only) images, such as natural, studio, contour, stage and stage mono. There are other camera apps that have included these features for a while, but, as ever, Apple’s implementation is slick and works extremely well, so it’s a nice inclusion to have. As the front-facing camera also includes TrueDepth you can also use Portrait mode and apply these effects to your selfies.

Click on the images below to open the original photos in a new window.

iphone x plant portrait small
iPhone X - Portrait mode. 1.51MB

ds3300 plant macro small
Nikon DS3300 - macro. 8.86MB

The above images show the difference between the iPhone X and a mid-range DSLR camera (Nikon DS3300). As you can see the file size is wildly different for these. While the iPhone X image is more vivid by default there's much less detail. The flower on the right in the iPhone image has some distortion, which suggests that the X struggled to work out the correct depth. No such issue, of course with the DSLR.

Animojis

This is one of those features that I feel is a little ‘gimmicky’. Using the TrueDepth camera you can record a ten-second clip with your faced mapped onto an animated character, such as a fox, robot, pig or poo! Samsung have included several such features on their phones over the years, and I was surprised that Apple included such a frivolous feature. Having said that, the same was said way back when SMS was first introduced (and Twitter for that matter). I can’t deny it’s fun to record a short, silly clip for family or friends, and I’ve already seen people overlaying animojis over famous movie clips. I guess a part of my position on this is down to my age – no doubt those a couple of decades younger will use this as their primary form of communication going forward. Nevertheless, the feature works very well and demonstrates the power of both the new camera and the A11 Bionic processor which is installed in both the 8 and the X models.

Performance

Both the 8 series and X sport Apple’s new A11 Bionic 6-core processor, which is reportedly faster than the Intel processors inside the 2017 MacBook Pro series and capable of up to 600 billion operations per second. Two of the cores are lower power, and handle background tasks (this was introduced with the 7) when the phone is not being used, which significantly reduces background battery consumption. Certainly, in day-to-day tasks the X is no slouch. The camera opens near instantly

Battery

Apple states that the X should last two hours longer than the 7, which itself had improvements over previous models due to the low-power cores mentioned above. Although my previous phone was three years old I had replaced the battery about 10 months ago, so was not entirely comparing old with new. The iPhone X lasts significantly longer than my 6, only losing around 10-15% overnight. The OLED screen will add towards battery life, as darker screens require less power, however this is probably cancelled out by the X’s higher resolution, which in turn will need more CPU grunt and therefore power. So, in terms of overall battery life I’m seeing around 30% extension over my 6. Hint: If you want to maximise your battery life consider having a dark or completely black wallpaper. Using some of the iPhone’s accessibility to have a greyscale/high contrast display can also help.

Other features

There are other features that will be considered as minor to some but mandatory to others, such as water resistance to IP67 (since iPhone 7) and 3D touch (since iPhone 6S, essentially ‘right-click for your finger – press hard on an icon to see quick-link icons). Since the 7 there is no longer a 3.5mm jack, but a lightning to 3.5mm adaptor is included, alongside a set of Lightning connector earpods. The downside is that you can no longer listen to music using wired headphones and charge your phone at the same time – you have the option to go wireless with either the headphones or the charging, of course, or purchase one of various splitters that will allow for both.

iOS 11

Although iOS11 shipped in September and runs on all devices from the 5S and above it is still a factor to consider when comparing any iPhone to Android devices. iOS used to be seen as much simpler than Android, but I think much of that was because Android allowed you more control over the OS and installed apps. As new functionality has been added to iOS the list of options under Settings has grown significantly, so I would say that they are now on a par for complexity as far as a novice might be concerned. Standard tasks such as making a call, adding a contact or taking a picture are similar regardless of OS, so it’s only when you start doing more complex tasks that you might favour one over the other. Having said that, iOS is now a mature OS, and the addition of features such as Files in iOS 11 ensure that it is easy to share files within apps and access files stored in cloud systems such as iCloud, OneDrive or DropBox.

Storage

The iPhone X is available in just two configurations – 64GB for £999 or 256GB for a rather painful £1149. When deciding which to go for do note that iOS 11 allows you to easily offload infrequently used apps to save space and also uses the new HEIF (High Efficiency Image File Format) and HEVC (High Efficiency Video Codec) for saving images and videos. If you don’t want to pay Apple for additional iCloud space, you can also download the Google Photos app which will give you free unlimited storage for all of your images up to 16 megapixels (which is more than the iPhone X). Plus, once installed, the app will automatically back up your photos and give you a one-click option to delete them from your camera roll, ensuring that you always have plenty of space.

Another alternative is the excellent PNY Duo-Link 3.0, which gives you up to 128GB of storage on a USB-stick sized device that comprises of a Lightning socket at one end and standard USB at the other. The accompanying app makes it simple to shuttle data both to and from your device, and conveniently includes a capable media player, so you can easily watch most format files without having to copy files across using iTunes, etc.

Summary

The burning question is: Should you buy the iPhone X. For a third of the price you can buy a decent Android phone such as the Samsung Galaxy A3 that will have a more-than-average camera, fingerprint recognition and a decent screen. If you’re thinking of going for the iPhone X, the chances are that you’ve made the decision before reading this review. I was coming from an iPhone 6, so benefited from the features included in the 6s and 7, as well as those announced for the X. The camera was the stand-out reason for me to upgrade, but the screen is now my favourite feature - I did not expect to be as impressed with it as I was. Improved battery life, what I would regard as an improvement in navigation by removing the home button and the FaceID all go towards increasing the desire to twist the arm and crack open the wallet to hand over an inordinate amount of money. I tend to keep my phones for three years, which brings the cost down to less than £1 a day. Looking at it that way makes the cost at least appear palatable. This is definitely a purchase that will be based on ‘want’ rather than ‘need’, but if you do make the leap you won’t be disappointed. Yes, it’s expensive, but then again so is a Jaguar versus a Ford, and they’ll both get you from A to B. It’s a premium phone with cutting edge features, and further demonstrates how Apple can penetrate markets and then lead them.