iPhone X | Review

When you first give a glance at the box of the iPhone X you sense that there’s something different, that screen has no bezels, has rounded corners and there’s a little black space in the top middle between two “ears”. But it is only when you turn the screen on that you experience that WOW effect we are so addicted to.UNBOXING AND DESIGN

Let’s take a step back, the box has the image of the phone with the wallpaper that it was presented with and it contains the usual trio (lightning cable, charger and the EarPods lighting with an adapter for the 3,5 mm audio jack). I don’t understand why the connector is still usb-a and not the usb-c to connect directly to the MacBook 12″ retina and MacBook Pro. When you pull the top you don’t see the phone first, there are the papers in the way before. I still prefer the old configuration with the iPhone first. Apparently Apple decided to remove the tray that used to hold the iPhone to reduce the environmental impact and incorporate everything into one single tray that holds the accessories and phone too.

The front of the device is the usual “infinite pool” and the absence of the home button isn’t so evident when it’s off. The bezels are chromed with a dark grey that matches the new space grey back which is gorgeous with its glossy finish. I never use a cover so there are some fingerprints but they can easily be removed with a microfiber cloth. The weight has increased due to the glass but, as always, it is sturdy, precise and well balanced.

As you can see the X is just a little wider and taller than the 7, i was a bit concerned with the thickness because after the 6 we’ve seen a constant increase. Gone are the ” thinnest (insert new product) ever” times but you can notice it more with your eyes than with your fingers, it doesn’t worsen the usability. Apple managed to move the regulatory text to software, leaving just the word “iPhone” and a couple of other logos on the back and this is a good news for the cleanliness of the design.

The rear dual camera has a new vertical disposition, we’ll get used to it and I don’t feel there’s a compelling reason for the vertical or horizontal choice. I still think the protrusion is lousy but it’s a physical necessity for the optics. The solution adopted for the edges is very nice: there’s a glass ring that runs around so the surfaces develop with 90° angles that merges with the rounded corners.

The team wanted to keep a continuity with the design of the iPhone 6 that has proven so effective and successful. The integration between hardware and software requires the swipe to start in the metal bezel and continue in the actual screen, a seamless integration is achieved trough rounded metal corners and a 2.5D curved glass, the result is the perception of continuity. This time the plastic edge that separates the glass from the steel is more pronounced than before and creates a little crest. This was very evident with the iPhone 4 and got better over time especially with the 6-6s-7.

Jony Ive declared that they’ve always wanted to make a full screen iPhone and finally they (almost) made it. The real mystery of this design is the so called “notch” which houses the numerous sensors and the rounded corners. Why wasn’t the screen cut with square corners? I think the answer is to be found in the function of the two extremities of the iPhone. The “ears” are used to display the time on the left and the cellular, wifi and battery indicators on the right. The bottom part of the screen is now occupied by an horizontal bar which replaces the home button. Swiping up unlocks the device and bring you home. New gestures are welcome too: swiping from left to right switches between the apps like the three finger gesture on the Mac. And, with the option enabled in settings, swiping down activates the reachability mode for one hand use. With these uses of the two extremities there’s no embarrassment in displaying the contents like videos and photos who are always created with square corners. Also, the screen follows the shape of the frame: another way to create a continuum between hardware and software.

THE SCREEN 

With it’s 5,8″ the diagonal is larger than the iPhone 8 Plus one. To be precise, the real estate is less than the one of the 8 Plus because the diagonal doesn’t consider the notch in the middle top and the contents will still be displayed bigger on the Plus. The display also has a new form factor with a taller height to width Aspect Ratio of 19.5 : 9. I was happy with this as the one hand usability is influenced more by the width than by the height. The bezels around the sides and bottom of the screen, are actually quite large, very similar to the lateral ones of the 7. I’ve never understood the race to the total absence of bezels that got as far as displaying contents on the rounded edges with bizarre results.

Apple is using an OLED panel for the first time in the iPhone but it is not completely new for the company as it can be found in the Apple Watch and the touchbar of the new MacBook Pros. It was custom-engineered and designed in-house. The results are excellent: the iPhone X OLED is bright, sharp, vibrant. It’s not easy to fine tune an OLED display whitout ending in the oversaturated Samsung ones or in issues with view angles or color saturation. OLEDs are much thinner, much lighter, without needing a bezel, providing a rimless edge-to-edge design. They can be made flexible and into curved screens, plus they have a very fast response time, better viewing angles, and an always-on display mode. Many of the OLED performance advantages result from the fact that every single sub-pixel in an OLED display is independently directly electrically powered to emit light, so only the active image sub-pixels draw power based on their individual brightness levels. OLEDs can also provide better color accuracy, image contrast accuracy, and screen uniformity because of variations in the Backlights of LCDs. The black level of this screen is impressive, the corrispondent pixel are actually turned off and when the software makes the top appear as a bar it’s very difficult to tell where the screen ends and the notch starts. True experts like Display Mate guys defined it “The Best Smartphone Display. The iPhone X is the most innovative and high performance Smartphone display that we have ever tested”.

Another new feature is Apple’s True Tone system. It doesn’t automatically adjusts the color temperature to ambient light, as you may think; it modifies the white balance so that the background of your text will match the ambient. And this is a good news for your eyes. Until this year it was possible to enable night shifts but you had to manually adjust the color temperature in the different ambients you were in so you just end up with one setting which fits most.

However, there’s a big cloud over this celebration. Typically I’m able to scroll past text and easily pick out words but I can’t really do that with this phone because things are a bit blurry. The ghosting effect/lag while scrolling on the iPhone X is a strong obstacle to a smooth experience. I may be more sensitive than average but there are already topics on Reddit and Macrumors, just to cite a couple, about this issue.

UNLOCKING WITH FACE ID

There’s some discomfort at first, where is the home button? How do I get home? With this iteration, the unlocking system has drastically changed, what’s more natural than a touch? A look. Now you just have to look at the phone to unlock it and then swipe up.

It’s not a fairytale though and actually it turns into a nightmare sometimes.

This is not a simple sensor that takes a photo of your face. In addition to the usual front camera, proximity sensor, ambient light sensor and earpiece, the notch also plays home to a flood illuminator, a dot projector and an infrared camera, collectively known as the TrueDepth camera system. For additional security, Face ID is attention aware (the option can be disabled), thus it unlocks your iPhone X only when you look toward the device with your eyes open. That means it can also reveal notifications and messages, keep the screen lit when you’re reading, or lower the volume of an alarm or ringer. There’s no chance you will unlock your phone with eyes closed, when you are sleeping or you are looking elsewhere.

There’s a familiarity in this gesture that reminds me of when you look at your close ones and know what to do without speaking.

How does this marvel work? The technology that enables Face ID is some of the most advanced hardware and software Apple has ever created. The TrueDepth camera captures accurate face data by projecting and analyzing over 30,000 invisible dots to create a depth map of your face and also captures an infrared image of your face. A portion of the A11 Bionic chip’s neural engine — protected within the Secure Enclave — transforms the depth map and infrared image into a mathematical representation and compares that representation to the enrolled facial datas. Again, Apple was not the first but Samsung facial recognition was tricked by a simple photo shown to the phone, sorry I can’t help but laughing at this amateurish results.

After the first boot the most interesting thing is the Face ID configuration, look at the camera rotating your head will do the trick. Apple clarified that Face ID works best at a distance of 25 to 50 centimeters away from your face. This is a problem when I use the phone in bed much closer than 25 cm, more like 10-15 cm. When I pull it out of my pocket, instead , it can be more far than 50 cm so i will have to get it closer to my face and this is a bummer because the fingers used to  be on your phone all the time, and your face doesn’t. Another example is the phone on the desk, the camera is looking at the ceiling, no chance it will work.

The other main concern of the public was whether it would work at night. You should worry about the opposite situation. The infrared camera makes a great job of seeing your face in the darkness but the system may sometimes have hiccups when the the sun glares in your face, not a big deal but it can happen.

I must admit I opened the closet and try all the scarves, glasses and caps I have and guess what? The Face ID didn’t fail. I’ve heard you have to configure it again if you switch from a Chewbecca beard to a baby face but apart from this drastic changes it will work just fine.

In conclusion this is probably the most advanced technology I have ever used, but it comes with strong limitations.

With Touch ID you can press the home button with any angle to be immediately recognized (action 1) and detach the thumb from the button to operate the screen (action 2).

With Face ID the situation is a bit more complex. You have to raise to wake, tap the screen or press the power button (action 1), be sure the phone is in the 25-50 cm range (action 2), when your face is recognized swipe up from the home bar (action 3) and finally put the finger back on the screen to use the phone (action 4). Action 2 and 3 are simultaneous in ideal situations as the validation process is so fast you can already start to swipe without waiting but it doesn’t feel natural at first. I feel there’s at least one extra step and it was pretty much impossible to use it without dialing the code in many situations. I ended up disabling Face ID and the screen auto lock with subsequent security problems.

Given my problematic relationship with Face ID and the refusal of typing the code often I’ve set the”request code” option to the maximum available: four hours.

USAGE

We know iOS 11 very well so I will only highlight some peculiar features.

I’ve been surprised how smoothly everything runs, performance-wise there isn’t a sensible speed boost from one year to the other. For example I didn’t notice anything from the 6s to the 7 but this generation is already blazing fast and it’s not a case it destroyed the competition in the Geekbench scores.

The system has been adapted to the new hardware configuration.

To go home you have to swipe up from the home bar, if you swipe to the middle of the screen and release you activate the multitasking. Swiping left and right from the home bar will switch app, “super easy”, right Craig? Therefore the 3d touch in the left part of the screen to access multitasking has been removed.

The notifications center is activated trough a swipe down from the left ear. It’s interesting to note that the contents of the notifications are hidden until you watch the phone and Face ID recognizes you. Very smart feature.

The new control center, activated trough a swipe down from the right ear, is much more complete than in the past and works with additional layers activated trough 3d touch. For example if you 3d touch the brightness icon you access a submenu with true tone and night shift switchers. There’s a bit of clutter but it is highly customizable this time. It is not possible to turn off the wifi and the Bluetooth from the corrispondent toogle. Neither the airplane mode has any effect on them. This has caused many complaints in the community and Apple said it is intended to assure that services like AirPlay, airdrop and the connection to accessories like AirPods keep working.

The new screen needs the developer to adjust the apps and, like it happened before with the 4,5 and 6, Apple came up with a way to display outdated versions. The apps are visualized in the center of the screen with black bands on the top and the bottom. There are some surprises among the bad group like Google Maps or Amazon Kindle. This is not a big loss of space because the extremities are used for the indicators and home bar anyway but the full screen apps have a beautiful visual impact.

Overall iOS 11 is a good upgrade from the 6s on but has caused some battery and performance issue so I’d suggest to configure the X as new and avoid backups, especially the iTunes ones.

THE CAMERA

The back of the iPhone X has two optically-stabilized 12 megapixel cameras, one with a f1.8 wide angle lens and the other with an f2.4 telephoto. That stabilized tele lens is great, these are probably the best zoom photos I’ve ever taken on a phone, and the 4k videos are accurate even with the 2x optical zoom.

The two rear cameras allow for Portrait Mode, which is awesome. The portrait mode allows you to change the light of the scene thanks to a complex algorithm elaborated by the new A11 bionic chip. It’s like having a photographic studio in your hand. Sometimes the contour of the face is not perfectly recognized but this software is still in beta. The camera also optimizes the scene before it is even taken and I can notice this smart improvements in dynamic scenes like sports photos.

The front camera has the new Animoji features and also supports Portrait Mode and Portrait Lighting. The Animoji are animated emojis based on the analysis of 50 facial muscles. It is a nice tool but I have to admit I got sick when i saw Jony Ive animating the “shoot” animoji in the official video. Honestly I still don’t believe my eyes. It’s one of those moments you feel your heart crashing on the ground. How could he engage in a fecal stunt…in the official presentation video…?!

Now it’s also possible to shoot bokeh-filled selfies. Again, the software needs some refinement here as the edges of the face are sometimes blurry as the background. And the situation gets worse if you try to involve other people in the scene.

Users coming from an iPhone 7 Plus will immediately notice the improvements in pretty much every aspect of the cameras compartment, and they come unexpected as refinements from year to year are subtle. X captures more vivid colors, and the way images are processed makes little details more noticeable.

CONCLUSION

My experience with the iPhone X has been bittersweet.

I love the new design with the full screen display, “ears” and the notch; the new color and the glass back; the super performance of the A11 chip and the stunning pictures of the dual camera.

But I hate the ghosting effect when I scroll a page and the various situations where the Face ID is useless. The first issue is not a deal breaker and I will get more used to it with time. But having to dial the code so many times a day like I’m back to 2012 doesn’t leave me a choice. Disabling Face ID and reducing the frequency of code requests can’t be a long lasting solution.

They could have placed the fingerprint sensor again but the phone would have been more asymmetrical than now, they could have placed it in the back like some Android phones but that solution is just lousy. The dream was to implement it under the screen but it’s science fiction for now even though many rumors went in this direction. Therefore I can totally understand Apple solution: they had to leave the notch anyway to house the usual sensors, camera and speaker so they added some more to create a new unlocking method. The result is an incredibly beautiful phone which doesn’t work as incredibly as it looks.

I think this technology won’t beat the Touch ID unless a wide angle True Depth camera will be implemented in vertical to work in all the common situations that are not covered now. With the huge investment Apple made to create it, this will not happen next year. Hopefully the system will be improved after two years like it was with the second gen Touch ID.

For now iPhone X is a brilliant, bold, still immature, glimpse into the future.

UPDATE: in a recent interview with Wallpaper.com Jony Ive said that the product will receive important updates in the next 12 months. I think he’s referring especially to iOS 12, which will probably give the X a more differentiated experience from the rest of the lineup. I suggest to read also for the beautiful photos taken inside the new Apple Campus.


What do you think about the iPhone X? Leave a comment below!

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