Two Weeks with iPhone X

Whenever a new technology or big redesign comes along, reactions tend to split between two types of people:

  1. Those who like things just the way they are.
  2. Those who embrace change.

Those in the first group, Apple introduced the iPhone 8. It's for those who like the familiarity and comfort of the same hardware design since 2014. It's for those who want the same iPhone, but better.

The iPhone X is for iPhone customers in the second group. Those who are happy in the Apple ecosystem but are eager for something new.

After using the iPhone X for two weeks, I'd like to share some of my experiences for those who are considering it and highlight some details you probably missed.

A Tall Phone, Not a Small Phablet

First and foremost, the iPhone X should be thought of as a regular-sized iPhone with a taller screen, not a Plus-sized iPhone that's easier to hold.

You get all the major features of the Plus (more on that later), but if you prefer the screen size of a Plus, having the screen width of the regular-sized iPhone means a few things:

  • You lose landscape mode on the home screen.
  • The keyboard is no longer Plus-sized, which will impact your typing.
  • Browsing websites in landscape mode looks weird.
  • Safari in landscape mode doesn't have tabs anymore.
  • You'll still see the same amount of text on the screen as a Plus, but less words are visible per line when reading a lot of text.
  • Photos on apps like Facebook and Instagram will look relatively smaller.
  • Typing on the keyboard will feel relatively cramped.

This may or may not be a deal-breaker for all you iPhone Plus lovers out there.

If you're cool with the screen width — or you're willing to "settle" for the X until the rumored iPhone X Plus comes out next year — there are still plenty of reasons to love the iPhone X.

The Best Smartphone Display of 2017

The new OLED screen is absolutely gorgeous. Blacks are truly black. Colors are glorious and vibrant. The edge-to-edge design just makes apps, photos, and video feel so immersive. It's everything a smartphone OLED screen should be in 2017.

Yes, the competition’s had OLED for years. Yes, this display is manufactured by Samsung. But let's make this clear:

This is not just an off-the-shelf OLED display that Apple bought from Samsung. "Super Retina" is not just a marketing term invented by Apple to "fool" consumers.

DisplayMate, famous for their extensive lab testing of displays on all flagships, analyzed the iPhone X display and concluded the following:

  • Highest Absolute Color Accuracy for any Display (0.9JNCD) which is Visually Indistinguishable From Perfect.
  • Highest Full Screen Brightness for OLED Smartphones (634 nits).
  • Highest Full Screen Contrast Rating in Ambient Light (141).
  • Highest Contrast Ratio (Infinite).
  • Lowest Screen Reflectance (4.5 percent).
  • Smallest Brightness Variation with Viewing Angle (22 percent).

To sum it up:

Based on our extensive lab tests and measurements the iPhone X becomes the Best Performing Smartphone Display that we have ever tested, earning DisplayMate’s highest ever A+ grade. The iPhone X is an impressive display with close to Text Book Perfect Calibration and Performance!!

To put it another way:

This is measurably the best smartphone display on the market and the best smartphone display Samsung has ever manufactured, thanks to Apple's color & screen technology. Adding more pixels per inch provides no additional visual benefits to the human eye, which is why Apple focuses on other aspects, like true-to-life color gamut, color saturation, and image contrast under varying ambient light conditions.

What took so long? Up until recently, no manufacturer in the world – not even Samsung – was able to produce enough OLED displays, at Apple's standards, in iPhone volume. Apple typically sells about 146 million of the latest iPhones every year1. For the iPhone X, Samsung is only able to produce 70-95 million OLED displays at Apple's standards.

The iPhone lacking OLED for the past couple years was a supply-constraint problem outside of Apple's control, not a lack-of-innovation problem within Apple.

Goodbye, Home Button

The removal of the Home button is actually one of my favorite features; the more gesture-based UI feels like the future of iOS. All the interactions are done directly on the screen. Really, you only need the side button for taking screenshots, confirming Apply Pay purchases, and putting the phone to sleep.

The new animations for multi-tasking feel smooth like butter. I'm not just making that up; the screen senses your touch at 120hz instead of the standard 60hz, which means the UI reacts to your interactions faster. Swiping gestures noticeably feel fluid, responsive, and delightful.

A couple things worth noting though:

There’s a learning curve to switching apps quickly. For example, you can switch between two apps by side-swiping along the bottom part of the screen. That's easy. The tricky part is the order of the last two apps changes. There is sound logic to it though,2 and once you get the hang of it, you can really fly between apps.

It's harder to force-quit apps...but for good reason. Many people still obsessively force-quit apps thinking it's better for battery & performance. This has never been true for iOS. You can still force-quit apps if you really need to,3 but unlike desktop operating systems, iOS was built from the ground up to manage memory & power intelligently so you don't have to.

This is exactly why 1-2 year old iPhones are consistently able to beat the latest Android flagships in head-to-head speed tests.

One other thing:

Control Center sucks now. Apple moved it way up to the top-right corner. I hate it. It's impractical in everyday usage and it drives me nuts. Even after prototyping a much more intuitive design back in August, Apple chose to ship this instead…

…But after two weeks of usage, I've adjusted. For me, my biggest reason for using Control Center was to control music & podcasts. Surprisingly, I've found that with the new multi-tasking gestures, I'm able switch apps, play/pause, and switch back in the same amount of taps & swipes, just as easily, with just one hand.

Like I said earlier: once you get the hang of it, you can really fly with the new multi-tasking gestures.

Face ID: The New Gold Standard

Security has always been one of the toughest problems for consumers; there's a constant struggle between balancing security with convenience. Re-using the same password on every site is super convenient, but incredibly insecure. At the other end of the spectrum, having a unique password for every site is ideal, but impractical.

In 2013, Apple solved this with Touch ID, which was a brilliant balance of both convenience and security.

Today, Android competitors solve this with a combination of options, but each have weaknesses:

  • Backside Fingerprint Scanners are a poor compromise to accommodate bezel-less screens, especially when they're placed right next to the camera lens.

  • Android Pattern Unlocking can be easily spotted by casual observers from afar. In a recent study, researchers found "six-point Android unlock patterns can be recreated by about two out of three observers who see it performed from five or six feet away after a single viewing."

  • Android Facial Recognition can be spoofed with photos. A disclaimer on Samsung's own website confirms, "Face recognition is less secure than pattern, PIN, or password."

  • Samsung's Iris Scanner is relatively unforgiving in everyday usage. The phone needs to be held up at a specific distance & angle so your eyes match up perfectly with the two circles on the screen. It works and it's secure, but it's unnatural compared to how people actually hold their phones.

With the iPhone X, Apple introduced Face ID, the controversial and unproven successor to Touch ID.

Well, after a couple weeks of usage — and seeing positive reviews everywhere else — I'm convinced Face ID is the new gold standard. Your face can't be duplicated by a casual bystander. It can't be spoofed by a photo. And you don't have to awkwardly angle your phone at a certain distance for it to recognize you.

The best word to describe Face ID is "effortless". Any time iOS needs to authenticate you, the friendly little Face ID logo pops up for half a second, and you're in.

It's like that feeling you get when someone holds the elevator door open for you, or your waiter keeps refilling your glass before you ask for it, or your significant other hand-feeds you french fries while you're driving on the road.

Face ID replaces Touch ID & passcodes in everyday usage in a lot of ways, like:

  • Logging into banking apps with zero taps.
  • Logging into a password manager with zero taps.
  • Logging into any website with one tap.
  • Buying apps from the App Store with a double-tap of the side button.
  • Doing secure things, like "Hey Siri, open the garage."

And my personal favorite, because I always leave my phone out on the conference table:

  • Push notifications, by default, have preview snippets hidden on the lock screen.4 Once Face ID recognizes you, notification snippets expand right before your eyes.

The brilliant part is Face ID gets smarter over time:

...if Face ID fails to recognize you, but the match quality is higher than a certain threshold and you immediately follow the failure by entering your passcode, Face ID takes another capture and augments its enrolled Face ID data with the newly calculated mathematical representation.

Early on, Face ID would fail when I was lying in bed because my blanket or pillow was partially blocking my face. As days went on, Face ID got better at recognizing me under the same conditions. Any time Face ID rejected me, I'd enter my PIN, and it'd incrementally learn the subtle differences of how my face changes throughout the day.

There are, however, some nuances to be aware of:

Face ID will struggle with sunglasses that block infrared. It’s equivalent to Touch ID struggling because you’re wearing gloves. If this happens, you can disable "Require Attention" as a workaround.

Face ID may struggle with kids under the age of 13. Younger kids haven't fully developed distinct facial features yet, so Face ID’s accuracy will likely be impacted.

If you have a sibling who looks very similar to you, don't give them your PIN code! Every time they enter your PIN, Face ID will start thinking you two are the same face.

(If you're giving out your PIN to other people anyway, you're giving out the master key for them to do anything, including disabling Face ID, changing your PIN, and erasing your phone.)

Overall, Face ID is fast, consistent, and noticeably gets better over time. It's the closest thing to "it just knows you." Face ID works like magic and I don't say that lightly. The software could use some fine-tuning to be stricter on family members and more gracefully handle false negatives, but those issues can be addressed in software updates.

For a first-generation technology, Apple really knock this one out of the park. It’s clearly the future and competitors are reacting.

The Notch

This is the first thing everyone notices from the product shots. But in actual usage, it's 100% a non-issue, at least in portrait. When you're talking to your friend, you're looking them in the eye and focusing on their words, not their unibrow, right? Okay, worst example ever… With the screen being so tall & immersive, the notch just disappears into a blind spot while you focus on the content on the screen.

As for landscape, the notch is only an issue if you watch movies in 21:9 aspect ratio or you prefer to watch with zoom-to-fit enabled. Otherwise, 16:9 videos are pillarboxed and look exactly like they would on an iPhone 8.

Embracing the notch is meant to make the screen feel bigger, the same way mirrors, white walls, big windows, and natural lighting can make a small room feel bigger. (I watch a lot of HGTV, okay?)

Now don't get me wrong: I'd prefer if there was no notch at all. But everything that it enables — Face ID, Portrait Mode selfies, True Tone light balancing, and front-facing speakers — the positives far outweigh the negative.

It also makes the iPhone stand out in a sea of Android devices that are moving to the same general edge-to-edge design.

Other Upgrades

  • Better Night Photography is possible with the addition of the new Slow Sync Flash and optical image stabilization on the zoom lens.

  • Portrait Mode Selfies! Because you're beautiful and you were born to change the world, one selfie at a time.

  • Animojis are so fucking fun. I don’t know how long people will keep using them, but it feels more personal to send a lively Animoji as opposed to sending a static stock emoji.

  • +2 Hours Battery Life over the iPhone 7! (Same as the iPhone 7 Plus)

  • 4K video at 60 FPS — One of the first smartphones in the industry to be able to pull this off.

  • Louder Front-Facing Speakers — I still think this is the most underrated feature since the 7 because it makes casually watching YouTube videos in bed so much better.

  • True Tone adjusts the screen brightness and white-balance to match the lighting of your environment so everything is easier on the eyes. It's so good, it makes me hate every other screen in my life that isn't True Tone, lol.

  • Tap-to-Wake, in combination with Face ID and Raise-to-Wake, effectively kills the need for the physical side button. This works so great when you want to wake your phone while it's on the table.

  • "Wireless" Charging — I personally never cared for this because it still requires a wire and you can't use your phone while it charges, but it's good to see Apple finally adopt it.

"Android's had that for years!"

Geeks are always looking for bragging rights, like being first to market, having the beefiest specs, or having most impressive benchmarks. But in the big picture, geeks like me are the minority.

Mainstream consumers only care about one thing — "If I buy this product, will I be happy with it?"

Yes, Android's had varying combinations of the iPhone features across their devices for years. And none of the new features of the X will give a happy Android user a compelling reason to switch.

The features that truly separate the iPhone from Android have been the same for years:

  • iMessage.
  • Smart & simple options instead of more & more options.
  • Face-to-face customer support at Apple Stores.
  • Tighter integration with Macs and popular third-party hardware.
  • Tighter security compared to Android.
  • Faster bug fixes & software updates compared to Android.
  • Technology that won't track you to sell your data to advertisers.

These are all things you'll never see on side-by-side feature lists or tech spec comparisons on Android blogs. But these are all things that consistently make iPhone customers like me happy to stick with Apple.

"Is the iPhone X for me?"

If you prefer the size of the regular iPhone, you will LOVE the X for its tall screen, +2 hours battery life, and the dual camera capabilities of the Plus. All the other features are a bonus.

If you prefer the screen size of the iPhone Plus, the iPhone X’s narrower screen will leave you wanting more. You’ll still see the same amount of text on the screen as a Plus, but reading long-form text and scrolling through pictures on Facebook/Instagram may feel like a downgrade.

Still, the way it looks with the immersive OLED screen, the way it sounds with the front-facing stereo speakers, the way the gesture animations feel fluid to the touch, and the way the glass feels premium in your hand…there's just so much to love about this phone.

Looking Forward

Jony Ive has said for years, his philosophy is for the hardware to disappear so the entire experience is focused solely on the software. His vision for the iPhone is "to appear like a single piece of glass."

The iPhone is clearly moving in that direction. The evolution of Siri into "Hey Siri", the letting go of legacy ports like the headphone jack, the removal of the iconic Home button, the adoption of "wireless" charging, the shift to edge-to-edge screens, the doubling-down on touchscreen gestures…

Jony's vision for "a single piece of glass" means removing bezels, buttons, ports, and wires. That means phasing out keyboards & passwords in favor of voice recognition, facial recognition, artificial intelligence, and 3D sensors.

Transitions are never perfect. People don't like change. And old habits die hard. Just like everything else in life, moving forward also means letting go.

The iPhone X is exactly that.

It's expensive. It's controversial. It's not perfect. But it's clearly the future.

  1. Apple typically sells around 200 million iPhones/year. Analyst Neil Cybart estimates about 73% of iPhones this year were iPhone 7 or 7 Plus. 

  2. The multi-tasker always puts the most recently active app at the top of the list. An app is considered active when A) you've been viewing it for at least 5 seconds or B) you've tapped on an element in the app. 

  3. To force-quit apps, swipe up half-way from the bottom of the screen, wait for multi-tasking mode to kick in, tap & hold on an app until the red "close" icon appears and you can flick it up. 

  4. Notification Details are hidden by default, but if you prefer to see your notifications in full on the lock screen, change Settings > Notifications > Show Previews to Always or Never.